Bodhidharma continued

Bodhidharma by Sesshu

Bodhidharma by Sesshu

Skin, flesh, bone, marrow

Legend has it that Bodhidharma wished to return to India and called together four of his senior students. He asked them to say something that might demonstrate their understanding. Three of them made eloquent statements about aspects of Buddhist doctrine. Bodhidharma complimented each one in turn: “You have attained my skin…. You have attained my flesh…. You have attained my bones.” The fourth student, Huike, stepped forward, bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight. Bodhidharma said to him: “You have attained my marrow.” [JD version]

Bodhidharma passed on the symbolic robe and bowl of dharma succession to Huike. Some texts claim that he also gave Huike a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. Bodhidharma then either returned to India or died.

Pointing directly

The following four-line stanza is traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma – the first two lines echo the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra’s disdain for words, while the second two lines stress the importance of achieving insight into reality through “self-realization”:

A special transmission outside scriptures and tradition. / Not founded upon words and letters.
Pointing directly to the mind. / Seeing into our true nature and realising Buddhahood.


Bodhidharma is also associated with the development of “wall-gazing” which seems to have been a particular form of meditation giving rise to a “quieting of the mind”:

Those who turn from delusion to reality, who practice wall-gazing meditation, who let go of self and other, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with the nature of things. [JD version]

In the Chan/Zen traditions “wall-gazing” is usually considered to be zazen – sitting meditation (in many schools it is usual to sit facing the walls of the meditation room).

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (no consensus as to when it was compiled, but trans. into Chinese in 443 CE).

Bodhidharma is often associated with the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. Daoxuan describes the Sutra as a key element of the teachings passed down by Bodhidharma: “If you rely on it to practice, you will be able to cross over to the other shore”. This sutra is often considered to be difficult and obscure. Emphasis is placed upon the realisation that there is no duality and no distinction between things. One of its recurrent themes is that words cannot be relied upon to effectively evoke reality:

If, Mahamati, you say that things exist insofar as they can be named and put into words, your talk lacks in sense. Words have little weight in all Buddha-lands; words are an artificial creation. In some Buddha-lands ideas are indicated by looking steadily, in others by gestures, in still others by a frown, by the movement of the eyes, by laughing, by yawning, or by the clearing of the throat, or by recollection, or by trembling.

In contrast to the ineffectiveness of words, the Sutra stresses the importance of “self-realization” – a state in which we have insight into reality as it is. This state of self-realization is beyond categories of discrimination, and therefore beyond verbal description. Reality, the true nature of things, can be pointed to or shown, but it cannot be described or realised in conventional speech. This doesn’t stop many Zen teachers from using unconventional, paradoxical and poetic speech to help their students wake up to reality!

In Transmission of the Lamp (c.11th C), Bodhidharma is reported as saying: “Wherever there is craving, there is pain; cease from craving and you are blessed.” Bodhidharma was quite radical in his teaching, working to restore those aspects of Buddhism which his Chinese contemporaries may have neglected, namely: practice, sitting meditation and self-realisation – aspects which were central to the Buddha’s own teaching.