Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Ajaṇṭā Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India.

According to the Wikipedia article entitled “Bodhidharma,” the saint Bodhidharma  was born in Kanchipuram in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Living around the fifth or sixth century, during the time of the Pallava Kings, he is credited with the remarkable feat of carrying Buddhism throughout the far east—to southeast Asia, to China, and then to Japan.

His teachings, drawn originally from a form of yogic meditation called Dyana, became the basis of Chan Buddhism—and in Japan, were called Zen Buddhism.

The Pallava kings, who ruled during the time that he lived, were one of the great dynasties of southern India; among their accomplishments was their amazing architecture, including countless buildings and temples still standing today, among which are the beautiful sculptures of Mahabalipuram on the coast of the Bay of Bengal near Madras.

Legend has it that it was Bodhidharma who introduced martial arts to the monks of the Shaolin Monastary in China, a system of self-defense that later on became Kung Fu, then Karate, which branched out to form a number of other eastern martial art traditions.

According to some accounts, Bodhidharma followed the Silk Road to arrive in China.  Existing for at least three thousand years, the network of routes known as the Silk Road went overland from China to India, and then through Iran and Afghanistan extending on to Venice in Europe.  Marco Polo followed these routes while traveling to the east on his medieval adventures.

Sculptures in the Longmen grottoes

Most modern scholars believe that the Tamil monk, Bodhidharma, arrived in North China in the early fifth century AD, but accounts differ.  He may have arrived during the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) whose founder, the Emperor Wu, rose from obscurity to consolidate power over much of China.  Other accounts state that Boddidharma did not arrive until the Liang Dynasty (502-557), which left some extraordinary sculptures, notable examples are those of a turtle and a winged lion that can be seen at the tomb of Xiao Hui.

A turtle at the tomb of Xiao Xiu

Boddidharma spent most of his time in northern China in the country of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). This period in Chinese history has left a treasure trove of both Taoist and Buddhist art work, especially among cave sites.  In what are known as the Longman Grottoes, in Henan Province, in the central part of the country, can be found over 100,000 pieces of art work.  Despite the ravages of western trophy hunters during the early twentieth century and the later destruction of Maoist cultural revolutionaries, much of this art work has survived.

Apparently, in some Chinese texts, Bodhidharma is described as having a thick beard, blue eyes, and possibly a rather bad temper.  Since the Chinese have hardly any beards, the “thick beard” part of the description makes sense. Why, as a Tamil from southern India, he would have had blue eyes is not at all clear, and a “bad temper” is a subjective concept. In any case, what is clear is that he must have made a very strong impression wherever he traveled, and as he converted most of Asia to Buddhism; he must have been a determined and visionary individual.

The Buddhism he taught was of the Mahayana path—meaning “Great Vehicle,” the most widespread form of Buddhism today. The other main stream of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, has been the major tradition in Sri Lanka and certain other southeast Asian countries.

Emperor Wu worshipping the Buddha, at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang

For most of us, the greater part of our lives have been lived during a time when Chinese culture may have seemed to be both materialistic and somewhat pedestrian.  Certainly, Mao’s Cultural Revolution seemed to have obliterated a lot of culture.

Opening the door to a deeper vision of the China of the past allows a rare glimpse of the spiritual and artistic depths of the lesser known aspects of Chinese civilization—as well as the remarkable journey of a Tamil monk who walked across the continent of Asia, enlightening those with whom he came in contact. There is much more to China that is seen through a narrow lens of just the last few decades.

 

Top photo: Wikimedia Commons / This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Ajaṇṭā Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India.

 

Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / released into the public domain by the copyright holder, Alex Kwok, sculptures in the Longmen grottoes

 

Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / published by Vmenkov under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License / a stone turtle at the tomb of Xiao Xiu

 

Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. / Emperor Wu worshipping the Buddha, at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang