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Historically, who was Bodhi Dharma?

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

In legends throughout the world Bodhi Dharma has been defined by his story, his influence, and debates as to who he really was. They say he sailed across the Yangtze river on a twig and that he invented tea by cutting out his eyelids and planting them in the ground. These legends will find their realistic basis in our stories. The most important things he brought to the world was the idea of living in the present, to stare into the face of truth, and meditative movement (martial arts) is a way to connect to the subtle energies of nature. This series focuses on the man, himself.

Martial arts existed in China for centuries, but not like this. The meditative aspect of their practice made the monks seemingly invincible. Their enemies want to know the secret. Insiders know it’s the Chan (Zen) principle of “no mind”. No anger, no thought, just intuitive and creative use of a well practiced artform, that draws it’s principles from nature. Bodhi Dharma establishes martial arts as a tool for “non-injury” – preventing violence in their environment and fulfilling the rules of their faith. But many disagreed with this principle believing Martial Arts is inherently violent and breaks central rules of Buddhism.

An approximate time line of parallel events that relate to this story and other aspects of history. The chart strives but does not guarantee accuracy since many dates are conflicted with alternate sources.

Bodhi Dharma's beginnings, according to the book Xu gao seng Zhuan or the "Biography of Eminent Tang Monks" (645 AD) was a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism. He had written down much of his teachings, but his original texts are lost to this day. We have learned more about his life and teaching second hand, largely from his successor, Huike.

Bodhi Dharma was born in Kanchipuram (or Conjuerveem) not far from Chennai. He was the third son of a King in the early Chola Empire. After his father's death, he studied under the Buddhist master, Prajnathara. This sage's identity is a mystery. While in India, it is believed that Prajnathara was a female meditation master from Kerala, in China Prajnathara was a patriarch.

In future blogs, we'll talk about his journey to South China, his discourse with Emperor Wu and eventual arrival in the north.

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