Bodhidharma (440–528), was an Indian Buddhist monk who early in the sixth century brought the essence of meditation, or chan (Zen in Japanese), to China.
Yes, as many before him, it is quite difficult to know the real story. What is told is often covered in legend, but the little we do know can maybe help with puzzling together some sort of version of the real story.
The earliest record tells us that around the year 475, a Buddhist monk in his early thirties, born into privilege as the son of an Indian rajah, crossed the sea from India to China. At a time the overland route between India and China was blocked by the Huns. So, the question comes to mind, why would a man born in privilege undertake such a dangerous journey, why not stay at home and live a life of comfort?
Maybe knowing where he came from would help answer this question. Recent scholarly discoveries, as well as the earliest records, indicate that Bodhidharma was born around the year 440 in the southern Indian kingdom of Palava. He was a member of the warrior class, the third son of the ruler of that kingdom, and at a young age he developed a deep interest in Buddha’s teachings.
This is most probably why his father requested a well known Mahayana Buddhist teacher Prajnatara, to travel from the north-eastern Buddhist heartland of Magadah to come and tutor his son.
Prajnatara’s name means “pearl of wisdom,” and he had received that name from his own teacher because of his deep insight into the nonduality, or Oneness, of all that exists. He had realized that essential reality is One, and that this One is expressed as everything, experienced as everything. We, then, are not separate from One—it is us.
So, he helped the young Bodhidharma to understand that in “just this moment” he is complete—all he has to do is realize this truth.
Now, these are encouraging words for those of us who long to discover who we really are, as they no doubt were for the young prince. We don’t become who we really are. Rather, we awaken to the truth of who we already are, a truth hidden from us by our unaware ego-mind. Such awakening cannot be understood with this ego-mind, it can only be experienced when that mind is still, when all separations drop away and we realize that everything, including our unaware ego-mind, is one essential reality.
Though his history is unclear, one thing seems to stand out: Bodhidharma got this truth and it developed into a burning desire to help others to awaken to this truth. And so, when he turned thirty he left behind all he knew and sailed right into the unknown.
The voyage took three years. With supposed stops at various ports in countries like Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. He arrived in China around the year 475.
Nothing much has been written by scholars about this voyage, primarily because there is very little documentation of it, but we have the freedom to look at the trip creatively and learn a great deal from it for our own journey of self discovery.
Lacking details, it is easy to have the impression that Bodhidharma sailed across effortlessly and without challenge. But did he? What about dangerous seas, pirates, foreign languages and unknown lands? Who was there in China to welcome him? There were no teachers around, no family, and no servants. He was alone, this we know.
What we don’t know, was he scared? Did he feel lost? It is hard to imagine that he did not. Could romantic visions of him bringing Buddhism to China have faded on such a journey? Could he have had doubts about his abilities to bring the essence of the Buddha’s teachings to China, doubts about his capability to carry it out, and perhaps even doubts about the teachings itself?
Surely he must have lost his compass more than once. One is reminded of Andre Gide’s words: “To discover new lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
Bodhidharma surely lost sight of the shore, both literally and figuratively, for a very long time. Do we lose sight on our journeys of self-discovery? Are there not times when we too feel lost, alone, and even scared?
Are our convictions not often assaulted by doubt? Don’t our ideas of enlightenment often become confused? If so, perhaps we can find pointers in Bodhidharma’s journey across the sea.
Perhaps we can find in his journey the courage to go ourselves ever deeper into the dangerous waters of our own unknowns, just as he did.
What we can say for certain is that Bodhidharma did not turn back, even though he did not know what lay ahead. And for us, the sooner we discover the value of moving forward through the unknowns of our own inner journeys—accepting that true awakening is never an easy journey—the sooner turning back will become unthinkable.
Zen is about exploration of the unknown. It is about leaving the safety of one’s cluttered mind-based knowledge and its sense of certainty, and moving ever so slowly into the unknowable, experience of “essential” reality, which is none other than one’s very self.
And yes, exploration of the unknown is never easy, whether it is physical travel to a new land like Bodhidharma, spiritual travel into the complex layers of one’s inner self, or travel into the limitless mystery of oneness. It requires a strong sense of desire to find or realize “something other” than that which is familiar.
Off course, it will require willpower, focus, discipline, and determination. It will require facing fears and going on anyway. It will require conviction.
Such a journey could have no better metaphor than the sea voyage undertaken by the man who brought the essence of what came to be called Zen from India to China.
As Bodhidharma later wrote in a work attributed to him called the Bloodstream Sermon, “to search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible.” In other words, Oneness is not something outside of us—it is us.
This is the wisdom, that Prajnatara allowed to rise up in his young student, letting him proceed slowly until he had grasped the principle of non-duality for himself and awakened to the truth. After this awakening, the young prince requested ordination as a Buddhist monk and received the name Bodhidharma, meaning the “Awakened Teaching”.
“All know the way; few actually walk it.”
“Deluded people don’t realize that their own mind is the Buddha. They keep searching outside.”