June 03, 2013

Consider the Source: Why Bodhidharma was a rebel, not a myth

Andy Ferguson

Revered as the father of Zen Buddhism, some scholars have still denied or raised doubts as to whether Bodhidharma actually existed.

He did. In fact, new evidence from Chinese scholarship suggests that he was a critically important historical figure, one far more fascinating than previously imagined. But if this is true, why doesn’t he appear in any official imperial records that were created while he lived?

The earliest and most reliable account we have concerning Bodhidharma’s life, written by the great monk-historian Dao Xuan around the year 650 AD, clearly suggests that Bodhidharma did not like emperors and made a point to avoid them. The famous story of Bodhidharma meeting and rejecting the “Bodhisattva Emperor Wu” of the Liang Dynasty is only the most famous bit of information that supports this thesis.

BodhidharmaDao Xuan wrote of Bodhidharma that his “followers were like a city,” and “everywhere he traveled people were enlightened.” But he also says that “Those [emperors and elites] who wanted him to come to them could not draw him near,” and he “avoided places of imperial sway.” This appears to explain why Bodhidharma does not appear in any official imperial records—he simply stayed away from emperors. Dao Xuan, however, a Buddhist historian who likely had direct contact with disciples of Bodhidharma’s main disciple Huike, does provide various accounts of Bodhidharma’s life and the lives of his two principal followers.  This textual evidence, along with early stone monument records in China and various local records, argue conclusively that Bodhidharma was a real person, not someone made up later.

Bodhidharma wasn’t the only early Chinese Zen master who was a political rebel—his disciple Huike and others down through the lineage were as well. Indeed, anti-imperial sentiment is so prominent in old Chinese Zen texts that I’ve come to regard this as a defining aspect of early Zen. In the struggle between it and Imperial Buddhism, the emperors eventually gained the upper hand, making Zen a handmaiden of imperial power within a few hundred years of Bodhidharma’s life. But Zen didn’t go down without a fight!

Bodhidharma’s disciples Huike and Sengfu continued his rebellious ways, both actively avoiding emperors. Sengfu lived within walking distance of Emperor Wu’s court for decades, but never responded to entreaties to come teach there. Other evidence indicates that Huike riled the religious establishment of his day by preaching Bodhidharma’s Zen to commoners, undermining the imperially sanctioned Buddhist schools. The traditional story says authorities executed Huike when the Imperial Buddhist religious establishment could no longer tolerate his defiance of their teachings and authority. While the texts that tell this tale are not as reliable as Dao Xuan’s stories, they concur with other evidence that remains.

—Andy Ferguson


This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson's new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

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Rob_'s picture

You made this statement at the beginning of this long thread.

"If there are no moral and ethical commandments then all there is in Buddhism are suggestions for "skillful" behavior. An awakened Buddhist need not follow any moral path and so "...conspiring with violent and criminal authorities..." is indeed within acceptable Buddhist behavior."

So the crux of this seems to be because there are no "commandments", immoral behavior is acceptable. I showed you moral principles, principles quite like the commandments. You really think somehow because something is a commandment it holds that much more weight? Have you read history? Are you aware of Christian atrocities in history? No commandments held them back.

If you really want to get hung up on semantics and really think labeling something a commandment gives it that much more influence or force, you're just not paying attention to the real world.

I already touched on this subject in another thread here. If you want to offer a reason for immoral behavior because of this simple notion that there is lack of authority because there are only "suggestions" in Buddhism, you're over-simplifying more complex situations. And it also seems quite bold for you to offer these naive conclusions for a religion you appear to know little about.

celticpassage's picture

Well. It seems you did understand my question then.

You will note that I did not say that, "because there are no commandments in Buddhism, immoral behavior is acceptable", you did.

I said, "If there are no moral and ethical commandments ... An awakened Buddhist NEED not follow any moral path..." (emphasis not in the original)

I don't think these two statements mean the same thing.

No, I'm not hung up on semantics or labels. And no, I was not offering a 'reason' for 'immoral behavior', I have no interest in doing so since I'm not in any way interested in judging another person's behavior as immoral because there is no such thing.

Rob_'s picture

No, I didn't understand your original question .. or at least I interpreted commandment in a more general fashion as an ethical principle. That's why I posted the precepts. So all your accusations about being "afraid" to address the issue, and some nonsense about peer pressure are ridiculous. Remember, accusations and projections?

It's been a blast.

celticpassage's picture

If you really do not understand the meaning of commandment (or are willfully blind to it) then I don't think there is anything anyone can do for you.

The obvious definition of commandment which I gave is quite general and a commandment is already an ethical principle (the ethical form of command), so I fail to see how you can come up with some definition that is "in a more general fashion as an ethical principle.", which would be so significantly different as to completely blind you as to my meaning of it.
It has been clear to me from the beginning that your feigned lack of understanding was merely a defense.

More to the point is your continual lack of engagement right up until now with any ideas of significance and instead I think you have wasted people's time with your continued and failed attempts at misdirection.

Rob_'s picture

Cool, more accusations. Here's some advice. Stop trying to be a soothsayer by acting like you know people's intentions. Because than you start levelling all sorts of ad hominems, which only go to muddy the original discussion with b.s.

I explicitly told you my approach, but you obstinately refuse to believe me.

"It has been clear to me from the beginning that your feigned lack of understanding was merely a defense."

Umm, a defense against what? It's known only to you, But at least such an empty accusation sounds like something to you.

safwan's picture

If I may get in between this heated discussion, the least to describe,
and convey a message that dilaogue is about exploring views (not accusation of blindness). Not all Buddhists accept the Lotus Sutra as a reference, nevertheless, it is worthwhile to view the principles it sets for a Buddhist dialogue:

The Lotus Sutra sets 3 conditions for dialogue: /1/ start from a compassionate heart (not from willingness to 'win') /2/ see the interconnectedness (and sunyatta - in the discussed subject, because without opposing views there is hardly a discussion!) and /3/ be impartial (towards angery comments etc...).

Of course, the poetic language of the Sutra sets these rules for Buddhist dialogue in a poetic way (having the Robe of Compassion and the Crown of Wisdom and the Armour of Forebearance).

celticpassage's picture

Wouldn't those 'principles' be your interpretation of poetic language?

marginal person's picture

too lazy for sutras and delusions
i let the writers opine
fine weather and a free afternoon
soft breeze sways the new grass
I stretch my legs and smile

marginal person's picture

You mean the story about the elephant and the blind men?
I shouldn't be silly, cp, but if you really think that arguing about whether some hypothetical "buddhist" has to follow "commandments" or not means anything, it would be funny if it wasn't so sad.
I say sincerely may you be free from suffering.

celticpassage's picture

It does mean something. Perhaps you just can't see it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Ch'an and Zen may not even be the same teaching. Brian Victoria writes "In the Edo period (1600-1867) Zen priests such as Shidō Bunan, Hakuin, and Torei attempted to promote the unity of zen and Shinto by emphasizing Shinto's Zen-like features. While this resulted in the further assimilation of Zen into Japan, it occurred at the same time as the establishment of the power of the emperor system. Ultimately this meant that Zen lost almost all of its independence."
By the time of WWII, Zen had itself become an imperial religion, a handmaiden of Japan's militaristic regime.

Rob_'s picture

Zen lost it's independence of what? Both Ch'an and Zen were dependent on the whims of the political establishment in both China and Japan respectively for centuries. And this wasn't simply for "Zen", it was the same for Buddhism regardless of sect.

And it wasn't just Zen that supported Japan's militaristic ventures. It was all of Buddhism, and of course Shinto. It's not like Japan had this notion of separation of church and state. For centuries religion had a supportive role towards the state. One simple example was the requirement for families to register with a temple.

From some of what I've read of Brian Victoria, I think some of his angle is to focus on what he believes to be some changing of doctrine in Japan that could of led to the tragedy of imperialistic Japan. It may have some merit, but I think there are so many other complex influences. Bushido, Confucianism, and Feudal Japan's past are some examples. A much more complex affair I think than changes in Buddhist doctrine.

We have numberless examples in history of people rationalizing their way to violence, regardless of their supposed ideals. Some of it can be attributed to humans propensity to "tribalism". The view that your group is the more civilized, those "barbarians" are a threat. That was some of the mentality for Japan that fueled their imperialistic ventures. And of course, we see the same mentality with the U.S. "war on terrorism".

Dominic Gomez's picture

Apparently zen lost cred as a path free of worldly attachments, which it seems to tout as one of its features.

Rob_'s picture

Here we are again using the broad umbrella term Zen without context. Zen, like any religious path has it's praxis. If you want to judge the merits of a praxis on past or current sins of some of it's institutions, you'll quickly run out of options. Better to be a nihilist I suppose. Good luck!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Per its own description zen has dispensed with context (i.e. the sutras).

Rob_'s picture

References to sutra passages in koans. Numerous sutra commentaries written by Zen teachers throughout the centuries. I think you misunderstand "beyond words and phrases".

Dominic Gomez's picture

As a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words" zen contradicts itself with "numerous commentaries written by its teachers throughout the centuries".

Rob_'s picture

Whatever you say.

marginal person's picture

Hey Rob, a sense of humor helps put things in perspective.
Here's a story that might be relevant to the situation.
"Catching Monkeys"
There's a basket staked to the ground, containing a banana. The opening in the basket is only large enough for the monkey's empty hand.to reach inside. When it grabs the banana it can't get its hand out. Unless the monkey releases it's prize, it's stuck. Empty handed, his hand will slip out easily but he just can't let go of that banana.
I comment to clarify my own thoughts and occasionally engage with those who seem curious and open minded, otherwise it's a waste of time and energy.

marginal person's picture

Thank you Rob. I appreciate your intelligent, well reasoned comments. Well stated, useful and thoughtful. I think it's difficult for people to understand the limits of generalizations. Thanks

safwan's picture

Zen is another name for contradictions.
Zen parctice is based on silent meditation, or is it?
Here is what one of the most devoute masters who introduced Zen to the West, had to say about meditation: (Dr. D.T. Suzuki, viewed meditation as unnatural to human beings):

“To meditate, one has to fix his thought on something; for instance, on the oneness of God, or his infinite love, or on the impermanence of things. But this is the very thing Zen desires to avoid. Meditation is something artificially put on; it does not belong to the native activity of the mind…Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations of his life-activity by such meditations… “ (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.41)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Bruce Lee would say before he knew kung fu, a kick was just a kick. When he was learning kung fu, a kick became more than just a kick. When he mastered kung fu a kick became, once again, just a kick. But man, what a kick! Same for life. Before Buddhist practice, daily life is just daily life. While learning Buddhism, life becomes more than just daily life. When Buddhism is mastered, one's life is once again just one's life. But man, what a life!!!

safwan's picture

Wonderful insight, Dominic!

celticpassage's picture

But this argues against the usefulness of being awakened. The awakened state is supposed to mean that you cannot be manipulated, coerced, or used against your will. And yet if what you say were true, the Zen masters of that day were either not awake or that the characteristics of being awakened are no more useful than being asleep

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point. "Awakened" has become so overused as to have little meaning today. Besides, as the saying goes, "It's not what you've got (an awakening, an epiphany, an 'aha' moment)) it's what you do with it."