by Barbara O’Brien

First Patriarch of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism:

Although little is known about the life of Bodhidharma, as the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism his influence permeates the culture of Asia and now the West. The story of his life has been preserved in legend.

Early Life:

Bodhidharma was a monk from India who studied with Prajnadhara. Some time after completing his studies he left India for China.

“I Know Not”:

Bodhidharma was invited to visit the Emperor Wu of Liang, who was a great patron of Buddhism. The Emperor had built many monasteries, and he asked Bodhidharma what merit his generosity had earned. “No merit,” said Bodhidharma. Startled, the Emperor asked Bodhidharma the supreme truth of the Dharma. “Vast emptiness; nothing holy,” replied Bodhidharma. Finally, the Emperor asked, “Who are you?” “I know not,” said Bodhidharma.

To the Shaolin Temple:

Bodhidharma traveled north to the Shaolin Temple. For nine years he sat in meditation in a cave near the temple. According to legend, at one point he was frustrated by his own drowsiness and so ripped off his eyelids.


Hui-k’o, who would be the Second Patriarch of Ch’an, stood in the snow outside the cave. To show Bodhidharma his sincerity to learn the Dharma, Hui-k’o cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. Master, please, put it to rest.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.” Hui-k’o said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma said, “I have completely put it to rest for you.”

No Coming, No Going:

Some legends say Bodhidharma returned to India before his death. Others say he lived to be 150 and was buried in the mountains of Honan, China. Some time later a pilgrim encountered Bodhidharma walking back to India, wearing only one sandal. When his grave was opened it was empty, save for one sandal.