Bodhidharma (b. 450 CE) is the Indian master who is credited with having brought the form of Buddhism emphasizing meditation to the Far East. He was from Kanchi, renowned as the site of the Great Stupa, in what was then the Pallava kingdom of South India. When his spiritual mentor, Prajnatara, advised him to go to China, he left by ship and arrived in the south of that country in about 475. According to his devotees, he is considered the 28th master in a direct line from Buddha Shakyamuni. Shi Da Yang is one Chinese form of his name. In Japanese, he is called Daruma Taishi.The 15th-century Japanese image by Bokkei [above] is courtesy Buddhanet. Here, as in many other scroll paintings, he is portrayed as a fiercely wild-eyed monk. One traditional explanation for this extraordinary appearance is that he sat in meditation in a cave facing a blank wall for nine years. So as not to succumb to sleep before attaining enlightenment, he cut off his own eyelids. Legend says that tea-plants sprang from the place where his eyelids fell. The site of his 9-year meditation is a cave in China not far from the site of the Shaolin Temple. A few years after his death, which is conservatively given as 528, a Chinese official reported encountering Bodhidharma in the mountains of Central Asia. He was described as walking with a staff from which hung a single sandal, and told the official that he was on his way back to the land of his birth. Legend also says that when this account reached India, the monks opened Bodhidharma's tomb only to find a single sandal. Near the end of The Life of Milarepa, we learn that the great Tibetan yogi had met "Dharma Bodhi, the Indian saint," but that would place his life some 500 years later. Also, some think that Bodhidharma and Padampa Sangye, Machig Labdron's teacher, are one and the same person.
Tao-husan's Further Lives of Exemplary Monks, dating from 645, mentions the collected sermons of Bodhidharma. In the 20th-century, T'ang dynasty manuscript copies were found in China's Tunhuan caves that were in use from the 7th through the 8th centuries. Previously, only 14th-century copies were known.
In the collection known as The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, the master says:
The only reason I've come to China is to transmit the instantaneous teaching of the Mahayana: This mind is the Buddha. I don't talk about precepts, devotions or ascetic practices such as immersing yourself in water and fire, treading a wheel of knives, eating one meal a day, or never lying down. These are fanatical, provisional teachings. Once you recognize your moving, miraculously aware nature, yours is the Mind of all Buddhas.
The two Sutras that formed the basic texts of early Ch'an, the Lankavatara and the Diamond, are shared with Vajrayana Buddhism.During his life he had few disciples, only the names of three are known. Bodhidharma transmitted his line age to Hui-k'o, who reportedly cut off his own arm to show he had got the transmission.
As we have seen, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch'an. It developed in Japan in the Kamakura period when, in 1191, a monk named Eisai brought the Ch'an method to Kyoto. Ch'an or Zen is like Mahamudra [Kagyu method] and Dzogchen [Nyingma method] in that it is direct and immediate. Therefore, Zen has always stressed meditation over study and theory, and has been known as "the transmission that does not depend on teaching" or in Japanese: kyoge betsuden.
A koan (in Korean kong-an) is puzzling proposition or phrase, but it is not merely a paradox designed to shock the mind. It is an integral part of a system honed over centuries to help bring a student to a direct realization of ultimate reality. From the Japanese ko meaning public, and an meaning proposition, koans can be questions, excerpts from sutras, episodes in the life of a master, or just a word from a famous dialogue (Jap.: mondo) or teaching. There are about 1,700 traditional koans in existence.