There is no record of Indian patriarchs or Bodhidharma in India, and there is very little record of Bodhidharma and the first few Chinese patriarchs in China. Bodhidharma is portrayed in Chinese and Japanese art as a bushy-bearded, hoop earring-wearing, dark-skinned foreigner from a far off land, the mysterious West where Buddhism comes from. In Tibet, he is considered a great arhat, a sage who left the community and sought his own personal way. Bodhidharma’s legend is well known, but there is little information outside the legend. Today, the story of Bodhidharma is considered a device that links the Buddha to Huineng, Mazu and Linji. There is only a single text which scholars consider to be an authentic record of Bodhidharma’s teaching, the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, which states that Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk from India who came to China to bring them the essence of Mahayana teachings.
In the Transmission of the Lamp (1004), the first of the great Song dynasty koan records, the twenty-seventh Indian patriarch Prajnatara was given a priceless diamond by a southern Indian king, which he held before the king’s three sons, asking if there is anything that surpasses it in clarity. The first two sons say that nothing surpasses it and that only Prajnatara is worthy of it. The youngest son Bodhitara says that the diamond has worldly light but the light of the mind is supreme, that the diamond cannot be a diamond or a priceless treasure without the mind, and that Prajnatara has the way to reveal the true treasure, just as he holds up the diamond (much as Buddha held up a flower). Prajnatara asks what the highest of things is, and Bodhitara says the self. Prajnatara asks what the greatest of all things is, and Bodhitara says buddha-nature. It seems that buddha-nature is as high as we hold ourselves, but far wider. Prajnatara realizes that Prince Bodhitara is his dharma-heir, the one who will continue the silent teaching, and so he renames him Bodhidharma, makes him a monk and tells him to go to China.
Bodhidharma crossed into southern China and went straight to the palace of Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhist scholastic and devotional schools such as Tiantai. The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied many books, and supported many monasteries of monks and nuns. What merit have I gained?” Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever. These things are shadows. Real merit is wisdom.” The emperor, taken aback, asked, “What is the principle of the sacred Dharma?” Bodhidharma replied, “Everything is empty. Nothing is holy.” The emperor, enraged, asked, “Who is this who stands before me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know,” and left the palace.
Bodhidharma is said to have practiced wall-sitting, sitting in a cave and staring at a wall while meditating. Long after the legend developed that Bodhidharma lived and taught in the Shaolin monastery where he started kung fu or “Shaolin boxing” as a physical exercise and martial art for the Buddhist monks there. The Shaolin temple was originally a Daoist temple to a god that became a temple to a Buddhist goddess, and it could be that kung fu is derived from earlier Daoist tai chi exercises, which may have been influenced by earlier Indian yogic postures and martial arts. Some favor the theory of an Indian origin, others the Daoist origin, and still others, particularly Shaolin themselves, the Bodhidharma origin story.