The following is a story about the travels of a monk known in India as Bodhidharma and in China as Damo (Chin.: Dámó 达摩). After years of meditation at the Shaolin Monastery, Damo founded the philosophy of Chan Buddhism.
The Beginning of Chan Buddhism
Buddhism was founded over 2,500 years ago in the country of Nepal by a man named Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni Buddha after his enlightenment. This new philosophy developed and 400 years later reached neighboring India. From India, Buddhism spread quickly to China and most of Asia. The first Buddhist temple in China was the White Horse Monastery (Chin.: Báimǎsì 白马寺).
By the year 495 AD, Buddhism was well established in China. At this time a Buddhist monk named Buddhabhadra (Chin.: Fótuóbátuóluó 佛陀跋陀罗), known as Batuo (Chin.: Bátuó 跋陀) in Chinese, entered China teaching a form of Buddhism known as Nikaya Buddhism. Batuo was given land in the Henan province (Chin.: Hénánshěng 河南省) of China to found a temple. This temple was named Shaolin (Chin.: Shàolín 少林), a name taken from its position at the foot of Shaoshi Mountain (Chin.: Shàoshìshān 少室山) and the Chinese term for the surrounding woods, 林 lín.
Early Life of Bodhidharma
Around the time that Batuo was founding the Shaolin Monastery there lived an Indian prince named Bodhidharma (Chin.: Pútídámó 菩提达摩). Bodhidharma was the son of King Sugundha (Chin.: Sūgāndá 苏甘达), ruler of India. Bodhidharma had two older brothers who were jealous of his great intelligence. They feared that their father would pass them over and give the kingship to his favored son, Bodhidharma. The two older brothers would often speak poorly of Bodhidharma when conversing with their father and others, hoping always to poison other minds against him. One of his brothers even attempted to assassinate him. All of these actions failed. The actions of his brothers, however, changed Bodhidharma. Realizing that he did not wish to live a life of politics, he chose to devote himself to Buddha. He studied with a famous master, Prajnatara (Chin.: Bānruòduōluó 般若多罗). After studying with his master for many years, Bodhidharma asked his master what he should do when he passed away. His Master replied that he should go to the East. (China)
Bodhidharma Prepares For the East
When his master passed away, Bodhidharma prepared to leave for China. During his years as a Buddhist, one of Bodhidharma's older brothers had become king and that older brother's son, Bodhidharma's nephew, was now king. Bodhidharma's nephew was very fond of his uncle and wanted to make amends for the actions of his father. He asked Bodhidharma to stay with him in India, where he could protect his uncle. Bodhidharma replied that the life he would have to lead if he stayed would not be the life he was meant to live. Rather, Bodhidharma was meant to spread peace and harmony by the doing of good deeds.
Understanding that his uncle could not stay, the king of India ordered that carrier pigeons be sent to China. These birds carried messages asking the people of China to take care of the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma when he came to China. These messages spread over China and many people heard of Bodhidharma. They wondered what was so important about this Buddhist monk that the king of India should speak on his behalf.
Arrival In China
In 527, 32 years after the founding of Shaolin Monastery, Bodhidharma arrived in Guangdong province (Chin.: Guǎngdōngshěng 广东省), China. In China he was referred to as "Damo" (Chin.: Dámó 达摩).
Upon his arrival, Damo encountered a large crowd of people who had heard of his approach and wanted to hear what this famous monk had traveled so far to say. Instead of speaking, Damo sat down and began meditating. He meditated for many hours. During these hours, members of the crowd asked Damo questions to which he did not reply. After hours of meditation, Damo rose and walked away, saying nothing.
His actions had a profound effect on the crowd. Some people laughed, some cried, some nodded their heads as if in understanding, and some were angry at Damo's silence. Regardless of degree, every member of the crowd had a reaction.
Damo Meets the Emperor
This encounter with the crowd made Damo even more famous. So famous that the Emperor Wu of Liang (Chin.: Liáng Wǔdì 梁武帝), who ruled the Southern kingdom of China, invited him to his palace. They met and the emperor gave an audience to Damo. The emperor spoke of all the money he had donated to Buddhist temples and of all the statues he had erected in the name of Buddha. He asked Damo what good merit he, the emperor, had earned through his generosity. Damo replied "no merit". This surprised the emperor but they continued talking. Eventually, the emperor asked if there was Buddha in this world. Damo replied "no". Startled, the Emperor asked Damo the supreme truth of the Dharma. "Vast emptiness; nothing holy," he replied. Finally, the Emperor asked; "Who are you?" "I know not," said Damo.
Damo's replies were a reflection of the emperor. In boasting of his good deeds, the emperor was not simply acting in the best interests of his people, as was the duty of an emperor. Rather he was seeking the approval of a famous Buddhist monk, and in acting solely in order to earn merit, he had received nothing. Similarly, in asking if there was Buddha in this world, he was demonstrating his lack of faith. To question the existence of Buddha is to fail to truly believe in Buddha.
Of course, these replies infuriated the emperor. Convinced Damo was a lunatic, he ordered him to leave his palace. Damo simply turned and walked out.
Damo Listens to Shenguang’s Lecture
Damo continued his journey North and reached Nanjing city (Chin.: Nánjīng 南京). In Nanjing city there is a famous place called the Rain Flower Terrace (Chin.: yǔhuātái 雨花台). In this place there was gathered a large crowd, seated around a Buddhist monk who was lecturing. This Buddhist monk was named Ji Shenguang, "divine light" (Chin.: Jī Shénguāng 姬神光). Shenguang had at one time been a great general. He had killed many people in battle. One day he realized that all of the people he had killed had friends and family and that one day someone might come and kill him. This thought changed him and he decided to become a Buddhist monk. He became a famous speaker and at this time the crowd was gathered to listen to him.
As Shenguang spoke, Damo approached the crowd and also listened. Sometimes Shenguang would say something and Damo would nod his head in agreement. Sometimes Shenguang would say something and Damo would shake his head in disagreement. As this continued, Shenguang became very irritated. Who was this foreign monk to come and disagree with him in front of this crowd?
Eventually Shenguang became angry and took the Buddhist beads (Chin.: Fózhù 佛珠) from around his neck and flicked them at Damo. The beads struck Damo and knocked out two of his front teeth. Damo began bleeding and Shenguang expected some sort of confrontation. Instead, Damo smiled, turned around and walked away. This reaction amazed Shenguang, who immediately began following after Damo.
Continuing to Shaolin Monastery
Damo continued North and he reached the Yangzi River (Chin.: Chángjiāng 长江), which divided the Northern and Southern kingdoms of China. Seated on the bank of the Yangzi River was an old woman. Next to the old woman was a large bundle of reeds. Damo asked the old woman if he might have one of the reeds. She replied that of course he may. Damo took a single reed and placed it upon the surface of the river. Stepping onto this reed, he was carried across the river by the force of his Qi (Chin.: qì 气).
Shenguang reached the Yangzi in time to see Damo's crossing. Feeling that he could do the same thing, Shenguang ran up to the old woman and, without asking, grabbed a handful of reeds. Throwing these reeds onto the river, Shenguang stepped onto them. The reeds sank beneath his weight and he began drowning. The old woman took pity on his plight and she pulled him from the river. As Shenguang lay on the ground coughing up river water, the old woman spoke to him. She told him that by not asking for her reeds before taking them, he had shown her disrespect. In showing her disrespect, he had failed to respect himself. She also told him that he was searching for a master, someone to teach him. Damo, the man he was following, was that master. As she said this, the reeds which had previously sunk beneath Shenguang resurfaced and he found himself standing on the reeds. He was carried across the river and immediately began following after Damo.
There are many people who believe that the old woman was a Bodhisattva (Chin.: púsà 菩萨) who had been there to help Shenguang.
Arrival at Shaolin Monastery
At this point, Damo was nearing Shaolin Monastery. The Shaolin monks had heard of his approach and had gathered to invite him to the temple.
Behind the Shaolin Monastery there is a mountain peak named Five Breast Peak (Chin.: Wǔrǔfēng 五乳峰). When the Shaolin monks invited Damo to come stay at the temple, he did not reply. Instead, he immediately went to a cave which was located at the top of the mountain. Inside the cave Damo sat down facing a wall and immediately began meditating.
He meditated for nine years. During the years of meditation, Shenguang stayed outside Damo's cave and protected him from any wild animals or other threats. Periodically Shenguang would ask Damo to teach him but Damo would never reply. The Shaolin monks would also periodically visit Damo's cave and invite him to stay in the temple, where he would be much more comfortable. Damo would never reply. After time, Damo's concentration became so intense that his image was engraved into a rock on the cave wall before him. Today, this stone is kept in the Shaolin Monastery as a reminder of Damo's meditation.
Towards the end of Damo's nine year meditation, the Shaolin monks decided to do something more for him. They prepared a special room for him which they called, fittingly, the Damo Pavilion (Chin.: Dámótíng 达摩亭). They then went back to the cave of Damo and invited him to stay in this room, where he would be much more comfortable. He did not reply but he responded by rising and walking down to the room.
Upon entering the room, Damo immediately sat down and began meditating. Shenguang followed Damo to the temple and stood guard outside his room while he meditated for another four years. Periodically, Shenguang would still ask Damo to teach him. Towards the end of the four years, Shenguang had followed Damo for thirteen years but Damo had never spoken a word to him.
After thirteen years of silence from Damo, Shenguang was standing outside of Damo's room in the wintertime. It was extremely cold, snow and ice covered the ground. Becoming enraged at Damo's silence, Shenguang picked up a large block of snow and ice and hurled it into Damo's room. The snow and ice struck the floor and Damo was awakened from his meditation. He looked at Shenguang and in anger and frustration, Shenguang demanded to know when Damo would teach him. Damo finally replied, saying that he would teach him when red snow fell from the sky.
When he heard this, something inside Shenguang changed and he took the sword from around his belt and cut off his left arm. Raising the severed arm above his head, Shenguang whirled the arm around. The blood from the arm froze as it fell in the cold air, like red snow.
Seeing this, Damo agreed to teach Shenguang. He asked him what it was he wanted from him. Shenguang asked Damo to pacify his mind. But when Damo asked Shenguang to hand him his mind so that he might pacify it, Shenguang was unable to find his mind. Damo then told him; "then I've already pacified it."
In homage to Shenguang's perseverance, the name of the Damo Pavilion was changed to "Standing-in-Snow Pavilion" (Chin.: Lìxuětíng 立雪亭)
Heart to Heart, Mind to Mind Transmission
In front of the Shaolin Monastery, at the foot of Shaoshi Mountain, there are five little mountains. The mountains are named the Bell, Drum, Stamp, Sword, and Flag mountains, named thusly because they are shaped like their namesakes. Damo took a monk's spade and went with Shenguang to the Drum Mountain. The Drum Mountain was so named because it was flat on top, like the surface of a drum. In taking Shenguang to the Drum Mountain, Damo was sending an unspoken message that he should flatten his heart in the same way that a drum was flat.
Upon the surface of the Drum Mountain, Damo dug a well for Shenguang. The water of this well was bitter. He left Shenguang on the Drum Mountain for a year and for that year Shenguang used the bitter water of Damo's well to cook, to clean, to bathe and to drink. After using the bitter water for a year, he returned to Damo and asked him again to teach him. Damo took him back to the Drum Mountain and dug a second well for him. The water of this well was spicy. For an entire year, Shenguang used the spicy water for all of his needs. At the end of the second year, he returned to Damo and asked again to be taught. Damo returned with him to the Drum Mountain and dug a third well. The water of this well was sour. For the third year, Shenguang used the sour water for all of his needs. At the end of that year, he returned to Damo and asked again to be taught. Damo again took him to the Drum Mountain and dug a fourth and final well. The water of this well was sweet.
Shenguang realized that the four wells which Damo had dug represented his life. Sometimes his life would be bitter and sometimes spicy, sometimes sour and sometimes sweet. Without speaking to him, Damo had taught Shenguang the most important of lessons through his actions.
Upon realizing this, Shenguang was given the Dharma name Huike (Chin.: Huìkě 慧可) and he became abbot of Shaolin after Damo.
To pay respect to Huike’s sacrifice, Shaolin disciples often greet each other bowing with only their right hand.
Return to the West
When Damo passed away he was burried in a tomb. On the day of his burial a monk who had been out traveling met him heading West, holding up one of his sandals. When the monk returned he recounted the story to his fellow monastics, whereupon they opened the tomb, and found only a single sandal inside.
-少林禅城 Shaolin Chan City
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