The First Patriarch

Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen to China.  Interestingly enough, the tradition that traces its ancestry back to him did not flourish until nearly two hundred years after his death.  Today, millions of Zen Buddhists consider him the father of Zen Buddhism.


While others viewed Zen practice as a purification of the mind or a stage on the way to perfect enlightenment, Bodhidharma equated Zen with full buddhahood itself.  He believed that it had a place in everyday life and complete enlightenment was beyond ordinary concepts.  It is beyond the depths of even the Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas well worked-out understanding.

Instead of telling his disciples to purify their minds along the long arduous Long Path he pointed out the deeper meaning of the sutras to help them attain enlightenment faster along the Short Path.  Nonetheless, he never said to stop hard work if results weren’t coming along the short path.

The Zen Teaching:

There is a nice short 144 page book that distills the essence of the Zen Path all in one place.  The divisions of the book are four teachings traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma.

  1. Outline of Practice
  2. Bloodstream Sermon
  3. Wake-up Sermon
  4. Breakthrough Sermon

You can click here to order the book:  The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma or you can go to this sutra page to read it for free

The Platform Sutra:

You can download The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma The Platform Sutra With the Commentary of Tripitaka Master Hua.  Or you can click here to order the book to place on your altar or have in your home to read.

When you first read the following story you may have to choke back some tears.  It is truly marvelous how an enlightened being operates in the world.  Here is the story of Bodhidharma:

When angry, Dharma Master Shen Kuang used his heavy iron beads to level opposition.  In response to Bodhidharma’s question, he reddened with anger and raged like a tidal wave smashing a mountain.  As he whipped out his beads, he snapped, “You are slandering the Dharma!” and cracked Bodhidharma across the mouth, knocking loose two teeth.  Bodhidharma neither moved nor spoke.  He hadn’t expected such a vicious reply.

There is a legend about the teeth of holy men.  You must not ask about the principle, however, because it is too inconceivable.  The legend says that if a sage’s teeth fall to the ground, it won’t rain for three years.

Patriarch Bodhidharma thought, “If it doesn’t rain for three years, people will starve!  I have come to China to save living beings, not to kill them!”  So Bodhidharma did not let his teeth fall to the ground.  Instead, he swallowed them and disappeared down the road.

Although he had been beaten and reviled, Bodhidharma could not go to the government and file suit against Dharma Master Shen Kuang.  Those who have left home have to be patient.  How much more so must a patriarch forbear.

Bodhidharma’s Bloodstream Sermon:

His short path explanation is always the same.  He repeats over and over that seeing your nature is the greatest of all meditations.  Why?  Because its fruit yields the highest merits and wisdom of all other practices.  Bodhidharma says:

According to the Sutras, evil deeds result in hardships and good deeds result in blessings.  Angry people go to hell and happy people go to heaven.  But once you know that the nature of anger and joy is empty and you let them go, you free yourself from karma.  If you don’t see your nature, quoting sutras is no help, I could go on, but this brief sermon will have to do.

Bodhidharma’s Wake-up Sermon:

The sutras say, “When you see that all appearances are not appearances, you see the tathagata.”

The myriad doors to the truth all come from the mind.  When appearances of the mind are as transparent as space, they’re gone.  Our endless sufferings are the roots of illness.  When mortals are alive, they worry about death.  When they’re full, they worry about hunger.  Theirs is the Great Uncertainty.

But sages don’t consider the past.  And they don’t worry about the future.  Nor do they cling to the present.  And from moment to moment they follow the Way.  If you haven’t awakened to this great truth, you should practice virtuous deeds as early as possible to make you become at least a human or heavenly being in your next lifetime.  Do not lose both of them [the great truth and the virtuous fruits produced from your virtuous deeds].

Bodhidharma’s Breakthrough Sermon:

Student:  But the Buddha said, “Only after undergoing innumerable hardships for three asankhya kalpas did I achieve enlightenment,”  Why do you now say that simply beholding the mind and over-coming the three poisons is liberation?

Bodhidharma:  The words of the Buddha are true.  But the three-asankhya kalpas refer to the three poisoned states of mind.  What we call asankhya in Sanskrit you call countless.  Within these three poisoned states of mind are countless evil thoughts.  And every thought lasts a kalpa.  Such an infinity is what the Buddha meant by the three asankhya kalpas.

Once the three poisons obscure your real self, how can you be called liberated until you overcome their countless evil thoughts?  People who can transform the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion into the three releases are said to pass through the three-asankhya kalpas.  But people of this final age are the densest of fools.  They don’t understand what the Tathagata really meant by the three-asankhya kalpas.  They say enlightenment is only achieved after endless kalpas and thereby mislead disciples to retreat on the path to Buddhahood.

Averting death:

From the Platform Sutra…

In his great anger, Dharma Master Shen Kuang knocked out two of Bodhidharma’s teeth.  He thought he had won a great victory because the Barbarian put forth no opposition.  But not long after, the Ghost of Impermanence, wearing a high hat, paid a call on Master Shen Kuang:

“Your life ends today,” said the ghost.  “King Yama, the King of the Dead, has sent me to escort you.”  Master Shen Kuang said, “What?  Must I die?  When I speak the Dharma, flowers fall from the heavens and the earth bubbles forth golden lotuses, yet I still have not ended birth and death?  Tell me, is there a person in this world who has ended birth and death?”

“There is,” came the reply.

“Who?” asked Shen Kuang. “Tell me, and I’ll follow him to study the Way.”

“He’s that black-faced Bhikshu whose teeth you just knocked out.  King Yama bows to him every day.”

“Please, Old Ghost, speak to King Yama on my behalf.  I want to follow that Bhikshu.  I am determined to end birth and death.  Can’t you allow me some more time?”

“All right,” said the ghost.  “Since you are sincere, King Yama will wait.”

Bodhidharma’s test:

For nine whole years Dharma Master Sheng knelt next to Bodhidharma waiting to receive transmission to go beyond birth and death.

One day a great snow fell, and it rose in drifts as high as Shen Kuang’s waist, and yet he continued to kneel.  Finally, Patriarch Bodhidharma asked him, “Why are you kneeling here in such deep snow?”

“I want to end birth and death,” replied Shen Kuang.  “When I was lecturing Sutras I was unsuccessful.  Please, Patriarch, transmit this dharma to me.”

“What do you see falling from the sky?” asked Bodhidharma.

“Snow,” said Shen Kuang.

“What color is it?” asked Bodhidharma.

“It’s white, of course.”

“When red snow falls from the sky,” said Bodhidharma, “I will transmit the Dharma to you.  You knocked out two of my teeth, and I have been most compassionate in not taking revenge.  Do you really expect me to give you the Dharma?”

This was the test Patriarch Bodhidharma gave to Master Shen Kuang.

Completing the test:

How did Shen Kuang complete the test?  Cultivators of the Way carry a knife to protect the substance of their precepts.  A true cultivator would rather cut off his head than break a precept.  Shen Kuang drew his precept knife, and with one slice, cut off his arm and thus passed his test.  His blood flowed onto the new fallen snow.  He scooped up a bucket full of crimson snow, dumped it before Bodhidharma, and said, “Patriarch, do you see?  The snow is red!”

Bodhidharma said, “So it is, so it is.”  He had tested Shen Kuang’s sincerity, and now the Patriarch was extremely happy.

“My coming to China has not been in vain.  I have met a person who dares to use a true mind to cultivate the Way, even forsaking his arm in search of the Dharma.”


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