Bodhidharma (also known as Pu Tai Ta Mo in Sanskrit and Daruma Daishi in Japanese) was an Enlightened Buddhist Master who is credited with reviving Buddhism in China and founding martial arts.
Bodhidharma began his life as a royal prince in Southern India in the Sardilli family in 482 A.D. In the midst of his education and training to continue in his father’s footsteps as king, Bodhidharma encountered the Buddha’s teachings. He immediately saw the truth in Lord Buddha’s words and decided to give up his esteemed position and inheritance to study with the famous Buddhist teacher Prajnatara. Bodhidharma rapidly progressed in his Buddhist studies, and in time, Prajnatara sent Bodhidharma to China, where Buddhism had begun to die out, to introduce the Sarvastivada sect Buddhist teachings to the Chinese. Bodhidharma arrived in China after a brutal trek over Tibet’s Himalayan Mountains surviving both the extreme elements and treacherous bandits.
Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Ti, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma. During their initial meeting, Wu Ti asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds. Bodhidharma informed him that he had accrued none whatsoever. Bodhidharma was subsequently unable to convince Wu Ti of the value of the teachings he had brought from India. Bodhidharma then set out for Loyang, crossed the Tse River on a leaf, and climbed Bear’s Ear Mountain in the Sung Mountain range where the Shaolin Temple was located. He meditated there in a small cave for nine years.
Bodhidharma, in true Mahayana spirit, was moved to pity when he saw the terrible physical condition of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. The monks had practiced long-term meditation retreats, which made them spiritually strong but physically weak. He also noted that this meditation method caused sleepiness among the monks. Likening them to the young Shakyamuni, who almost died from practicing asceticism, he informed the monks that he would teach their bodies and their minds the Buddha’s dharma through a two-part program of meditation and physical training.
Bodhidharma created an exercise program for the monks which involved physical techniques that were efficient, strengthened the body, and eventually, could be used practically in self-defense. When Bodhidharma instituted these practices, his primary concern was to make the monks physically strong enough to withstand both their isolated lifestyle and the deceptively demanding training that meditation requires. It turned out that the techniques served a dual purpose as a very efficient fighting system, which evolved into a marital arts style called Gung Fu. Martial arts training helped the monks to defend themselves against invading warlords and bandits. Bodhidharma taught that martial arts should be used for self-defense, and never to hurt or injure needlessly. In fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that “one who engages in combat has already lost the battle.”
Bodhidharma, a member of the Indian Kshatriya warrior class and a master of staff fighting, developed a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises. These movements found their way into print in 550 A.D. as the Yi Gin Ching, or Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic. We know this system today as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements, the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts.
Some historians dispute the date, but legend states that Bodhidharma settled in the Shaolin Temple of Songshan in Hunan Province in 526 A.D. We do know the first Shaolin Temple of Songshan was built in 377 A.D. for Pan Jaco, “The First Buddha”, by the order of Emperor Wei on the Shao Shik Peak of Sonn Mountain in Teng Fon Hsien, Hunan Province. The Temple was for religious training and meditation only. Martial arts training did not begin until the arrival of Bodhidharma in 526 A.D. Bodhidharma died in 539 A.D. at the Shaolin Temple at age 57.
Bodhidharma was an extraordinary being who remains an example and an inspiration to practitioners today. He is the source of many miraculous stories of ferocity and dedication to the Way. One such legend states that Bodhidharma became frustrated once while meditating because he had fallen asleep. He was so upset that he cut off his eyelids to prevent this interruption in meditation from ever happening again. Yet another legend states that Bodhidharma meditated for so long that his arms and legs eventually fell off. This is a reminder of the true dedication and devotion necessary in meditation practice. The Bodhidharma doll was developed as a symbol of this dedication. In Japan and other parts of the world, when someone has a task they wish to complete, they purchase a red Bodhidharma doll that comes without pupils painted on the eyes. At the outset of the task one pupil is colored in, and upon completion, the other pupil is painted. The dolls and the evolution of martial arts and meditation, are a continuous reminder of Bodhidharma’s impact on Buddhism and martial arts.