Damo or Daruma

A friend of mine who has been living in a remote village near the mountains and lakes for years, and  has been studying  Buddhism since  young age inspires me to introduce Bodhidarma who was  the founder of Chinese Chan Buddhism, the founder of the Shaolin School (Kung Fu), and also  the father of Japanese Zen Buddhism. This friend also inspires me to do the Chinese ink painting of  Bodhidarma. (To view those images, please visit My Gallery)

In Sanskrit (language of Hinduism), Bodhidarma has  very special meanings. Bodhi means an enlightened mind; Darma (Dharma) is the teachings of the Buddha that lead one out of suffering to liberation and full enlightenment.

Bodhidarma (commonly called Damo in Chinese, and Daruma in Japanese) was an IndianPrince before he became a Buddhist monk.   At the age of 64, he undertook a long journey from India to China to broaden his vision on Buddhism.  Later on, his vision was called “Chan ( Zen).”

One day in 520 A.D. Damo who was bearded with a glittering steely gaze appeared in the Liang Dynasty capital JianKang (Now NanJing).   He had sailed all the way from India to GuangZhou, and then made his way to the capital to see Emperor Wu of Liang Dynasty, having long heard that the Emperor was a devout Buddhist.

Emperor Wu was indeed a devout follower of Buddhism.  To show his respect as a monarch he had toiled as a servant in a Buddhist temple, and had built many temples  throughout his realm.  He was delighted to receive this travelor from afar.

“I have built many temples, made offerings to the Sangha (the Buddhist community), and propagated Buddhism. How much merits have I gained from all these acts?”  the Emperor asked Damo, after briefly inquiring  the rigors of his long journey from India.

“There is no merit involved,” Damo said bluntly, with no regard for the monarch’s pride. (Damo did not mean that there was no merit involved in these actions, but rather, everyone has the Buddha-nature within; it is not necessary to seek for it externally. If you don’t see your nature, and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a Buddha.)

“Why do you say that?” asked the Emperor, taken aback.

“The true path is void,” Damo answered.  “Superficial works like this are all without merit.” Damo spoke serenely, but his every word struck like a dagger into the Emperor’s heart.

“Then what is the highest attainment of the Buddhist path?” the disconcerted Emperor asked urgently.

“Since it’s void, how can there be any highest attainment?”

After this  inharmonious conversation with the Emperor, Damo’s hopes of winning the monarch’s support to set up a ritual temple in the capital dashed, despondently headed north across the YangTze River towards the great Buddhist temple of Shaolin, in the SongShan Mountain in what is now HeNan Province of central China.

Faced with the mighty rolling Yangtze River, Damo simply plucked a reed, threw it into the river, and sprang lightly onto it.  Chanting an incantation to keep his feet stuck firmly to the reed, he applied his “light-bodyKung-Fu technique of “duckweed drifting on the water,” and directing the wind with the palm of his hand, he parted the waters in front of him.

Thus, Damo floated easily across the wide Yangtze River and reached the opposite shore, with only a few drops of water glistening on his monk’s shoes.  This story of “Crossing the Yangtze On a Reed” is the subject of many old paintings.

After Damo arrived at the monastery of Shaolin (built in 495 AD), things did not go as he had wished either. At Shaolin Temple,  many Sanskrit (language of Hinduism) works were translated into Chinese.  The monks worked day and night, in shifts.  They translated over 600 works in their language.

At Damo‘s arrival in the monastery the abbot was afraid of that the religious beliefs of the monastery would be disturbed by the Chantheory of this newcomer, who thought that learning from books was unnecessary.  The abbot requested Damo  to leave the monastery.

Damo chose a cave behind the Shaolin monastery as his shelter.  As a Indian monk he could not speak the Chinese language very well, so he would sit silent for days facing the wall.   He sat cross-legged in complete silence remaining motionless and practiced Zen-style meditation.  The atmosphere he created was of such tranquility that the birds built their nests upon his shoulders.

During the nine years in the cave facing the wall, Damo observed cranes and snakes fighting.  Inspired by their shapes and movements, he created the crane and serpent styles of Kung Fu.  These, together with the dragon, tiger and leopard styles which he later invented, made up what came to be known as the “five styles of Shaolin,” China’s first Kung Fu. During the nine years, the monks of Shaolin monastery  admired the “spiritual eccentric” and  went to the cave to visit Damo frequently.  One of the monks called ZhiRen who was very much moved by Damo‘s inspirations delivered meals to him at the cave daily.

Finally, the abbot could not overlook Damo‘s influence and authority any more, and invited him to enter the Shaolin monastery again as the first patriarch of Chan (ZenBuddhism.  He observed the monks, their meditation and religious practices.  The monks’  health were weak, and  were not in a condition to withstand hard mental exercise.

Soon following his return, Damo introduced his strengthening exercises to the monks.  With the influences from Taoist priests and Indian yoga, Damo developed two series of exercises.  As the monks started exercising and rehearsing daily, they steadily grew stronger and healthier.

The inner strength and  intuitive enjoyment  obtained from the exercises  gave the monks the perseverance and stamina, combined with a sense of improvement and moral clarity.    Contrary to the traditional Buddhist ideas, Damo brought about the essence of the newly-founded Chan (Zen).

After the death of Damo in 536 AD, the exercises became an integral part of monastery life and Zen grew into one of the most important tendencies in Asia.  His successors in Shaolin took care of the Chanteachings and the practice of exercises for monks’ energetic and spiritual perfection.

He left behind two works containing the essence of his teachings on the martial arts:  Hsi Sui Ching (On Cleansing the Marrow) and Yi Chin Ching (On Transforming the Muscles).  Hsi Sui Ching, which he passed to his disciple Hui Ke, was later lost, while Yi Chin Ching remained at Shaolin as the temple’s greatest treasure.  Later on, those exercises  became the bases for all styles of Asian martial arts.

Damo was strongly inspired by Taoist principle that spirit and body are inseparable and should be trained simultaneously.  According to his theory, the highest form of wisdom had nothing to do with the traditional performance of ritual practice.

His doctrine depended on thought transmitted by thought, without the aid of spoken or written words, and without following any rules or commandments, but through simple meditation. Even when Damo remained silent, he actually was delivering teachigns that were as powerful as thunderbolts.   His legendary bulging eyes, bushy eyebrows and uncompromising attitude demand that we wake up.

The object of original Buddhism was the salvation of the soul, but Damo proved that spirit and body are inseparable.  The unity of both must be strengthened in order to be able to reach enlightenment.

Damo represents wisdom and compassion, strong will and determination, mindfulness and perseverance, meditation and mind development, and the unity of spirit and body.   He said, “The pearls and jewels cannot  see their own value.  They have to rely on human wisdom to perceive it.  The Dharma preached by the Buddha is the Truth, which is the wisdom radiating from human enlightenment.  Among all the treasures, the most precious one is the peerless treasure of the Dharma.”

Damo’s meditation at the same spot and facing toward the same wall for nine years inside the cave had resulted in his shadow being imprinted on that particular rock wall which still exists today, and the “Damo’s Shadow” is still visible.  Today, the “Damo’s Shadow” has become one of the most popular sightseeing scenes at the Shaolin Temple.

According to Damo‘s theory, Chan is the perception of one’s own nature.  Everyone possesses the Buddha nature.  This nature is the truth that  can be communicated through “mind to mind” without any spoken words.  The mind is the Buddha.

Every once in a while, the Chan Master would meet with his students, and ask them a question.  The students are then told to think about the question until they know the answer.

A lot of time, the question is unanswerable, but that is not the important thing.  The important thing is that the students are thinking about it.  This allow them to use their minds as much as possible in trying to interprete the question, which is often more like a riddle.

Most highly-cultivated Chan monastics enjoy the quietness and serenity of a secluded life.  Like leisurely clouds and wandering cranes, they might live in deep mountain forests or by the water, removed from the hustle bustle of the world.  With three sets of clothes and a bowl as their possessions, they are free from materials confinement and able to respond to situations freely.  They will not be moved by profit or influenced by power.

One of the famous Chan sayings is: “When the mind is deluded, it is moved by the world.  When the mind is enlightened, it moves the world.”

Today, Bodhidarma  is well known throughout the world as the founder of  Chinese Chan Buddhism, the founder of Shaolin School (Kung Fu) and also the father of Japanese Zen Buddhism. 


The following are my drawings of  the Enlightened Ones (1992-1993):