The Story Of The South Indian Prince Bodhidharma Who Founded Zen Buddhism And Shaolin Kung Fu

He took Buddhism, martial arts to East.

The Story Of The South Indian Prince Bodhidharma Who Founded
Zen Buddhism And Shaolin Kung Fu

Born a prince in Pallava kingdom in South India to the king of Kanchipuram, Bodhidharma left kingdom at an early age to follow the Mahayana path and became a monk.

The youngest of three brothers, Bodhidharma was trained in breathing exercises as he was born with a breathing disorder. He was also trained in Dravidian warfare and self-defense techniques.

Bodhidharma studied Dhyana Buddhism and became the 28th patriarch of this religion. At the age of 22, Bodhidharma attained enlightenment and was sent to China as a messenger.

It was Gautama Buddha who taught Dhyana or meditation but it was after 100 years that Bodhidharma took meditation to China where it became Chan and spread to other countries like Indonesia, Japan and to the Far East where it became Zen. In Chan texts, Bodhidharma is referred as `The Blue-Eyed Barbarian'. His teachings and practice were based on meditation and Lankavatara Sutra.

Bodhidharma is also regarded as the founder of weaponless fighting art, which gave birth to modern day martial arts. Read on to know more.

Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Temple.

Buddhbhadra or Ba Tuo was an Indian monk who went to China in 495 AD to teach Xiao Sheng Buddhism, a form of Buddhism. Emperor Shao Wen gave the monk some land at the foot of Shaoshi mountain and it was on this land that Ba Tuo founded the Shaolin Temple.


Bodhidharma arrived in China 32 years after Shaolin Temple was founded.

Bodhidharma arrived in China 32 years after Shaolin Temple was founded.

Bodhidharma crossed through Guangdong province and entered China while he was practising Da Sheng (Mahayana) Buddhism and was known as Da Mo. He was greeted by a large crowd who had heard about the famous Buddhist master and wanted to hear him speak. But he sat down to meditate for many hours. After completing his meditation, Bodhidharma rose and walked away without saying a word. This action of his had a profound effect on the crowd and this incident made Bodhidharma even more famous.

Bodhidharma became so famous that Emperor Wu invited him.

Bodhidharma became so famous that Emperor Wu invited him.

Emperor Wu ruled the southern kingdom of China and invited Bodhidharma to his palace.  The emperor talked to Bodhidharma about Buddhism. The emperor was hoping to receive praise from Bodhidharma but his negative response enraged Wu who ordered Bodhidharma to leave and never return.

Bodhidharma smiled and left.

Master Bodhidharma and his follower Shen Guang.

Master Bodhidharma and his follower Shen Guang.

It was in Flower Rain Pavilion in Nanjing city that Shen Guang first saw Bodhidharma. Shen Guang was an army General who had killed several people in battle. He changed after realising that one day someone would kill him. So, he decided to become a Buddhist monk.

While delivering a speech, Shen saw Bodhidharma nodding his head to say yes. At times,  he conveyed no through his head movement. It angered Shen Guang. He removed beads from his neck and flung at Bodhidharma.

The beads knocked out two front teeth of Bodhidharma. Instead of reacting, Bodhidharma smiled and walked away. Shen Guang was astonished at this reaction and started following Bodhidharma.

Shen Guang followed Bodhidharma for 13 years before Bodhidharma agreed to teach him.

A cave

Shaolin monks invited Bodhidharma to stay at the temple but Bodhidharma did not reply and went to a cave on a mountain behind the Shaolin Temple and began meditating facing a wall in the cave. He meditated for nine long years as Shen Guang stayed outside the cave as a guard. Both Shen Guang and Shaolin monks would request Bodhidharma to teach them and stay at the temple but he never responded.

The Bodhidharma Ting at the Shaolin Temple.

The Bodhidharma Ting at the Shaolin Temple.

At the end of nine-year meditation, Shaolin monks made a special room, Bodhidharma Ting, for Bodhidharma and invited him again to stay at the temple. Bodhidharma did not respond but stood up and went to the room and began meditating again. Here too Shen Guang followed Bodhidharma and stood outside the room for another four years.

Bodhidharma agreed to teach Shen Guang only when red snow fell from the sky. 

Red leaves

By the end of the fourth year, Shen Guang had been following Bodhidharma for thirteen years and had become very angry. He picked up a large block of snow and hurled inside Bodhidharma's room breaking his meditation. Shen Guang demanded to know when Bodhidharma would teach him to which the monk replied when red snow will fall from the sky.

Shen Guang cut off his left arm with his own sword and whirled the severed arm around. The blood from the arm froze in the cold and fell like red snow and hence Bodhidharma agreed to teach Shen Guang.

The teachings of Bodhidharma at Drum Mountain.

Drum mountain

The Drum Mountain in front of the Shaolin Temple is flat on top. Each year Bodhidharma would dig a well with a monk's spade on the Drum Mountain and asked Shen Guang to use that water for all his needs. In first year, the water was bitter. In second year, the water was spicy, the third year water was sour and in the fourth year, the water was sweet. It made Shen Guang realise that water represents phases of life.

Without saying anything, Bodhidharma taught Shen Guang important lessons of mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart way of learning. This communication is called the 'action language' and is the foundation of Chan Buddhism that Bodhidharma taught at Shaolin temple.

Shen Guang was the first disciple.

An artiste's impression

Shen Guang was given the name Hui Ke and became the abbot of Shaolin Temple after Bodhidharma. The disciples and monks of the Shaolin Temple still greet each other using their right hand only to pay respect for the sacrifice Hui Ke made.

The Shaolin monks and their exercises.

Shaolin monks

The Shaolin monks translated Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit and Pali to Chinese to allow the common man to practice the religion. Since they bent over the desk to write the scriptures manually, it affected their health. As a cure, Bodhidharma taught them  Hatha and Raja yoga, which were native to India. The exercises were designed to improve internal and external strength and were based on the movement of eighteen animals including the snake, deer, leopard and tiger.

Shaolin Temple imbibed martial techniques taught by Bodhidharma.

Shaolin monks

 Shaolin monks were trained to fight wild animals and bandits in the remote areas where the temple was built. The monks blended fighting techniques with the teachings of Bodhidharma. 

Martial arts at the Shaolin Temple.

Martial arts at the Shaolin Temple.

Bodhidharma introduced boxing in monastery as a form of exercise for Shaolin monks. He initially taught the monks in the ancient Indian style of armless combat which mainly used punching and fist techniques called as Vajramusthi which the prince Bodhidharma had learned in India. This technique is the basis of Shaolin style of fist fighting - Chuan-fa (way of fist).

Kung Fu.

Kung Fu.

The ground rules of martial arts were laid down by Bodhidharma. He said it should never be used to hurt or injure needlessly. Bodhidharma's fighting techniques were formalised into a martial art style known as Lohan (Priest-Scholar) that contained 18 positions and hand movements and was the basis of Shaolin Arts and Chinese Temple Boxing.

The 18 positions were improvised and enhanced to 170 by two Shaolin monks, Ch'ueh Yuan and Li-shao and are the basis of Kung Fu which probably is the best known of all Asian unarmed martial arts.

Bodhidharma brought tea to China.

Tea pot

Legends have it that tea bushes sprang from the ground where Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids while meditating so that they would never close again. It is believed that this is the main reason for tea being so important for meditation as it helps the meditator to stay awake.

From Chan in China to Zen in Japan.


The imaginations of Samurai warriors were stimulated with Bodhidharma's concept of spiritual, intellectual and physical enlightenment. They made Zen their way of life and Daruma (Dharma – name for Bodhidharma) for them was a legend.

Bodhidharma is a popular icon of Japanese culture, folklore, and politics. The Daruma doll with its wide open eyes and lack of legs (Bodhidharma's legs seemingly withered away because of his constant sitting position while meditating) which depicts Bodhidharma seated in meditation is one of the most popular talismans for good luck. The doll when knocked on its side, pops back up to its upright position symbolising perseverance in life (nana korobi ya oki – falling seven times and rising the eight-time).

"I am going home", said Bodhidharma three years after his death.


Ambassador Song Yun of northern Wei is said to have seen Bodhidharma three years after his death, walking with a shoe in his hand at the Pamir Heights. When the ambassador asked where he was going, Bodhidharma replied, "I am going home". And when Song Yun asked why he is holding his shoe, Bodhidharma said, "You will know when you reach the Shaolin monastery. Don't mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster".

After returning to the palace Song Yun told the emperor of the encounter he had with Bodhidharma and was sentenced to prison for lying as the emperor said that Bodhidharma was already dead and buried in a hill behind the Shaolin Temple. After this incident, the grave of Bodhidharma was exhumed and was found to contain only a single shoe. The monks said "Master has gone back home" and prostrated three times: "For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him; carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony".

Ten life lessons from Bodhidharma.


#1 Be utterly present

"Buddha means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either."

#2 When you see mind, you see Buddha

"The Buddha is your real body, your original mind."

#3 Watch your breath

"The mind is always present. You just don't see it."

#4 Detach from all needs

"The essence of the way is detachment."

#5 Put an end to Karma

"To go from mortal to Buddha, you have to put an end to karma, nurture your awareness, and accept what life brings."

#6 Free yourself from words

"Freeing oneself from words is liberation."

#7 Plant good seeds early in your life

"If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it is because of the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past."

#8 Reason and practice

"Many roads lead to the path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice."

#9 Remain calm in all situations, either good or bad

"Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path."

#10 Take charge 

"Buddhas move freely through birth and death, appearing and disappearing at will."

It was the legendary Bodhidharma who first proclaimed, "Directly point to the human mind; see one's nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters."

Isn't Bodhidharma's life inspiring?