Bodhidharma: The Legend

By Julian Millane

Bodhidharma: the legend is one of a series of articles on Indian Spiritual Mythology on this website.

“And don’t use the mind to invoke a buddha.
Buddhas don’t recite sutras, buddhas don’t keep precepts, and buddhas don’t break precepts.
Buddhas don’t keep or break anything.
Buddhas don’t do good or evil.
Buddhas don’t practise nonsense.”

Bodhidharma: the legend Bodhidharma was born fourteen centuries ago as a son of a king in the south of India.

There was a big empire, the empire of Pallavas. He was the third son of his father, but seeing, he renounced the kingdom.

He was not against the world, but he was not ready to waste his time in mundane affairs.

Bodhidharma was initiated by a woman who was enlightened. Her name was Pragyatara. She ordered Bodhidharma to go to China.

It is said that when Bodhidharma became enlightened he roared like a lion.

The people of the nearby village became so afraid because they thought that a lion had come.

They gathered around him and asked “What is happening? Have you gone crazy or something?”

He said, “I was crazy before: I used to think that I was just a sheep — and I am a lion!”

Bodhidharma took Zen, which in Sanskrit was ‘Dhyan’, the loose English translation of which is meditation, from India to China.

He is the father of Zen, and therefore also the father of martial arts, which has carried the qualities of Bodhidharma all these centuries.

Bodhidharma was the genius of the absurd. Nobody has ever surpassed him, which is why Zen is the most absurd religion.

Some anecdotes

Once a disciple came to Bodhidharma and said, “Master, you told me to be empty. Now I have become empty. Now what else do you say?”

Bodhidharma hit him hard with his staff on the head, and he said, “Go and throw this emptiness out.”

When Bodhidharma was in China, a man came to him.

He said, “I have followed your teachings: I meditate and then I feel compassion for the whole universe — not only for men, but for animals, for rocks and rivers also.

But there is one problem: I cannot feel compassion for my neighbour.”

Bodhidharma said, “Then forget about meditation, because if compassion excludes anybody then it is no more there.”

Bodhidharma met with the Chinese emperor Wu.

With great respect he welcomed Bodhidharma, and he asked, “I have been asking all the monks and the scholars who have been coming, but nobody has been of any help — I have tried everything.

But how to get rid of this self?”

Bodhidharma looked into his eyes, and he said “Tomorrow morning, at four o’clock exactly, you come and I will finish this self forever.”

Wu was scared, but in the morning he knocked on the temple door, and Bodhidharma said, “Now sit down in the lotus posture, close your eyes, and I am going to sit in front of you.

The moment you find, inside, your self, catch hold of it so I can kill it.

Just catch hold of it tightly and tell me that you have caught it, and I will kill it and it will be finished.”

One hour passed, two hours passed and the sun was rising, and Wu was a different man. In those two hours he looked inside himself, in every nook and corner.

He had to look — that man was sitting there; he could have hit him on his head with his staff.

As the sun was rising Bodhidharma saw Wu’s face. Bodhidharma shook him and told him,

“Open your eyes —it is not there. I don’t have to kill it.

But this self does not exist. Because you never look at it, it goes on existing.

It is in your not looking for it, in your unawareness, that it exists. Now it is gone.”

bodhidharma sitting

For nine years Bodhidharma was sitting in China; he would always sit facing the wall.

People used to ask him, “We have come to listen to you, why do you sit in such a peculiar way?”

Bodhidharma would reply, “I will look only at the person who can listen to me.”

Then came a man; he stood behind Bodhidharma, cut off his right hand, threw it at Bodhidharma and said, “Turn towards this side, otherwise I am going to cut off my head.”

Bodhidharma immediately turned and said, “Right — so you have come. Take this key and relieve me of the work.”

The legend is that Bodhidharma was poisoned by a disciple.

After three years he was found by a government official walking out of China towards the Himalayas with his staff in his hand and one sandal hanging from the staff and barefoot.

The official had known him, and asked, “What is the meaning of this staff, and one sandal hanging from it?”

Bodhidharma said, “Soon you will know. If you meet my people just tell them that I’m going into the Himalayas forever.”

The official reached the monastery where Bodhidharma had been living, and heard that he had been poisoned and had died, and there was the tomb.

He said, “My God, but I have seen him. He was the same man, those same ferocious eyes, the same fiery and wild outlook, and on top of it, he was carrying on his staff one sandal.”

The disciples could not contain their curiosity and opened the tomb. All that they could find there was one sandal.

And then the official understood why he had said, “You will find out the meaning of it; soon you will know.”

He wanted to die in the eternal snows of the Himalayas.

He did not want to leave any footprints behind him to be worshipped. And he disappeared almost in thin air.

Nobody heard anything about him, what happened, where he died.

From ‘Bodhidharma, the Greatest Zen Master’, By Osho

Previously published in the Here & Now magazine, Byron Bay.

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