Bodhidharma – The Legendary Buddhist Monk

This article is about the life of Bodhidharma and some landmark events in his life with some notable teachings or principles.


  1. Introduction
  2. The early life of Bodhidharma
  3. Teachings of Bodhidharma
  4. The first meeting with Emperor Wu
  5. Wall gazing in a cave
  6. How Bodhidharma became the first Zen Master
  7. Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Monks
  8. Conclusion




Bodhidharma was a great Buddhist monk who helped in spreading Chan Buddhism in China. He is known as the first Chinese patriarch to have started Buddhism lineage in China. It is also said that Bodhidharma was the one who started the training of monks of Shaolin Monastery, who are widely known for their kung fu and spirituality.

There have been only legends about Bodhidharma, and the historical papers are not available at that time. The first biography of Bodhidharma was written by some Chinese Daoxuan after the death of Bodhidharma. It is after this work on the life of Bodhidharma that the historical papers can be found who would give some light on the life of Bodhidharma.


The early life of Bodhidharma

There are two accounts that tell us the birthplace of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was either born in South India or Persia. The age of Bodhidharma is also unknown; one of the articles written on him claims that he was 150 years old. Most of the accounts claim that Bodhidharma was a South Indian, the third son of a Brahmin king who left home at an early age to become a Buddhist monk.

It was in the late 5th century that he decided to travel to China so that he can spread the teachings of Buddhism. Around 520, Bodhidharma was given an opportunity to interact with Nan Liang emperor Wudi. It was after this meeting that he embarked on the journey, which will only make him great.


Teachings of Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma has introduced many teachings in China. It is known that Bodhidharma has taught dhyana-practice in China. The different teachings are as follows;

Pointing directly to one’s mind

One of the historical papers on his life has some excerpts, which tells us that Bodhidharma gave a lot of pressure on self-realization. He was the firm believer that introspection can help in knowing the truths of life and attain Buddhahood in the end.


Wall Gazing

Many accounts on the life of Bodhidharma have given a lot of evidence that Bodhidharma used to practice wall gazing. The true meaning of wall gazing remains uncertain, but many historians claim that it was some kind of meditation that Bodhidharma used to practice. Daoxuan (1) has written in the biography that wall gazing was related to the quieting of one’s mind.


The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra

It is one of the most prominent teachings taught by Bodhidharma. It is the Mahayana sutra that is very difficult to read and has told the importance of self-realization. It tells us that if a person knows his true self, then he can attain anything.


The first meeting with Emperor Wu

Bodhidhama Emperor Wu

When Bodhidharma first came to China, he met emperor Wu of Liang (2), who wanted to ask many questions from him as Bodhidharma claimed to be a monk. He asked Bodhidharma, who was the creator of life. This made Bodhidharma laugh very hard, and he told the emperor to ask something else.

He then asked Bodhidharma that the emperor had built many halls and temples to spread Buddhism and if he would get moksha as he has spent his whole life in spreading Buddhism. This time, too, Bodhidharma laughed, and he told the emperor he would never get Mukti like that because if someone keeps track of the works he has done and has done the work to get something in return, then he would never be able to get enlightenment and would never get moksha.

This infuriated Emperor Wu, and he ordered that Bodhidharma should be thrown out of his palace. As Bodhidharma was a monk, this incident of being thrown out didn’t make any impact on his journey.


Wall gazing in a cave 

Wall gazing

After Bodhidharma was thrown out from Emperor Wu’s palace, Bodhidharma went to the mountains to meditate for some time. It is known that he continuously watched a wall for a period of nine years, which was some sort of meditation for him.

There is a legend that while meditating, Bodhidharma accidentally fell asleep in the cave, and it made Bodhidharma feel ashamed and angry with himself. Sleep was considered an enemy of meditation. Bodhidharma took a drastic step and cut off his eyelids so that he would never sleep while meditating again.

It is also said that; where the eyelids of Bodhidharma fell, a tea plant was found there. There are also many accounts that it was how tea was found in China. It is also said that many of his disciples and monks started drinking tea to stay awake while meditating.


How Bodhidharma became the first Zen Master


It is known that it was Bodhidharma who brought Zen to China. It was Gautama Buddha in India who used to teach Dhayan to his disciples. It became very popular in India, and it was Bodhidharma who made it popular throughout the world. After Bodhidharma was banished by emperor Wu, he went to the mountains, where he found his many disciples who also helped him in spreading Bodhidharma’s teachings. 

It first came to be known as Chan in China, but when it became popular in Eastern Asia, Indonesia, and Japan, it then came to be known as Zen. The teachings that Bodhidharma taught about Zen became so popular that a lot of people used to practice meditation and achieve different goals in their lives. This is how Bodhidharma became the true master of Zen.


Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Monks

There have been many legends which connect Bodhidharma with Shaolin monks and Kung Fu. It is said Bodhidharma Shaolin temple was built by a Chinese emperor, and Bodhidharma went there where several monks were living.

It made him sad that all the monks there were very unhealthy and slept a lot even during meditation. Bodhidharma was an advocate of physical fitness because he felt that if you are unwell, how will you get to the path of moksha.

It is already known that Bodhidharma was mentally very strong and that he was very good at meditation, but it is still unknown how he became physically fit and learned kung fu. There have been many accounts that either claim that he learned it when he was a royal prince or he learned it while he lived in the forest as self-defense against animals.

Bodhidharma Cave
Bodhidharma Cave

Bodhidharma developed different sets of techniques to teach the Shaolin monks and make them fit, which he learned after meditating in a cave near Shaolin. The techniques were the combination of external and internal exercises that worked very well on the Shaolin monks.

The Shaolin monks not only became fit and healthy but also made Shaolin a great place to learn kung fu and inspired many to open Zen schools worldwide through teachings of Bodhidharma.



Bodhidharma was a great Buddhist monk who helped in spreading Buddhism, kung fu, and Zen teachings. Since there are very few historical papers on Bodhidharma, many consider him a fictional character, which was only made to spread Buddhism. Still, there are many legends about Bodhidharma, which are followed by many people throughout the world to practice meditation and kung fu with determination and a belief that the teachings of Bodhidharma will help them to fulfill their dream of attaining Mukti. Bodhidharma is still considered the Father of Martial Arts throughout Asia.

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Srishti is a student at the University Of Delhi and has always been an eclectic reader. She developed a passion for writing since childhood and wants that her work can bring a small change in the world.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article have been curated for our audience and does not warrant a 100% accuracy. All the information mentioned in the article is subject to change according to the changing viewpoints. Feel free to reach us at [email protected] for any change or copyright issues.

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Srishti Garg
Srishti Garg
Srishti is a student at the University Of Delhi and has always been an eclectic reader. She developed a passion for writing since childhood and wants that her work can bring a small change in the world.

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