Tracking Bodhidharma

Back in the 1980′s, the scholarly perspective that Bodhidharma was a myth began making the rounds in practice places. Seems like the earliest reports of the old dog that the scholars could find were a couple hundred years after his purported death. I was surprised because … well, I suppose I was surprised mostly because I was young and naive and believed stuff, especially Zen stuff, without much skepticism.

I brought the Bodhidharma matter up with Katagiri Roshi who first hunched a bit, rubbed his bald head, and then said, “Anyway, Bodhidharma’s name is on the lineage papers. Do the scholars say which of the Zen ancestors is a liar? Anyway” (he liked to say “anyway”), “scholars make my head hurt.”

After almost thirty years, some scholarly types are now arguing that Bodhidharma did exist, making the heads of other scholarly types heads’ hurt too.

That’s one of the main themes in Andy Ferguson’s new and wonderful new book – Tracking Bodhidharma: A Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture.

You zennies will recognize Andy as the author of the extraordinarily helpful study resource, Zen’s Chinese Heritage.

This new one, Tracking Bodhidharma, differs from his first book in that you might want to take it along for your summer vacation. Tracking Bodhidharma is part travelogue, part historical detective, part dharma teaching, and part political polemic rolled into one good read.

I refer to Andy above as a “scholarly type” because he isn’t a certified Buddhist scholar as far as I know and that gives him some freedom to speculate – and speculate this dude does. He also presents quite a lot of evidence that Bodhidharma did come to China, maybe when quite young and maybe stayed quite a while.

Andy argues convincingly that the big B and his immediate successors mostly stayed away from the powers-that-were. Andy pumps the “monks don’t bow to emperors” well for some good clear water and shows how old Emperor Wu, who we learn a whole lot about here, championed a version of Imperial Way Buddhism that has had a long succession, including into Japan, Bushido, and WWII.

That gets me wondering what Imperial Way Buddhism is today? How is it that we’re being co-opted by the political and financial powers-that-be and betraying the spirit of the one-leaf-crosser of rivers who was also a nine-year-facing-a-wall guy?

I think it has to do with dharma commodification, the denial of breakthrough because it isn’t convenient, and the rush to change the dharma to fit us.

What do you think?

Zazen: Just Turn the Light Around
Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Harry

    Was reminded of this (from the realm of the arts):

    What thread ties all these memories together? Rosen calls this closing essay “Old Wisdom and Newfangled Theory: Two One-Way Streets to Disaster.” He takes up a theme of urgent importance to him: that you can kill a tradition one way by an unbending adherence to bygone practices (“this approach rests on a belief that works of art or of general culture are fixed objects, forever unalterable, and incapable of development in time”) and another way by modernization without reference to history or to the ideals that brought a work of art into being (“an insistence that we must reshape the past into an image of the modern world, rejecting or discounting whatever we find unsympathetic or alien and difficult to accept”).



    • doshoport

      Nice! Thanks, Harry.

  • Harry

    … would like to read that essay.

    Was just considering the phrase ‘be a lamp unto yourself’ as (in the context of the west) a sort of too convenient blank cheque when taken as an invitation to a form of intellectual ultra liberalism: ‘whatever I think is right, and Buddha says so’.

    It really depends on what ‘self’ we’re relying upon I reckon – the self as realised in practice, or the lonely little consumer voice in the head that is so well promoted and coddled by our dog-eat-everything (sorry, Bodhi!) capitalist societies.

    I think ‘this sort of thing’ is why Buddhism lends itself so well to the lucrative market of avoiding our misery.



    • doshoport

      “The lucrative market of avoiding our misery” – great phrase.
      Seems that we can use anything to support our ignorance … or spark awakening.
      What an incredible species!

  • Nonin Chowaney

    I’m reading this book now, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it!


  • David Clark


    Thanks for another great looking book recommendation. I’ll definitely order a copy. I loved Andy Ferguson’s last book, which you tipped Wild Fox readers off to last year. I’m afraid I’ve scribbled notes all over that book in my enthusiasm, completely killing any resale value it may have had! That’s okay because it is a book I keep going back to and enjoying anew.

    The Lone Oak

  • Dave Laser

    Thank you- definitely a book I will seek out. Your article reminds me of my own disappointment as I gradually (fighting tooth and nail!) came to accept that Zen has its own highly developed mythology- and that Mr. B has a big role, there. But behind the disappointment came a deeper, more fruitful inquiry– looking for the source of that story, and what do I make of the ‘reality’ of it? That also leads to something along the lines of the question you pose, here. What does Imperial Way Buddhism look like, here and now? And, what does Bodhidharma look like, here and now? We can point to the effects of culture on the Dharma; can we point to the effects of Dharma on the culture? Do you see a red-headed barbarian anywhere? Who is the emperor, and where is the wall?

    • doshoport

      Thank you for completing my post!

  • Aaron Caruso

    Dammit! Another Zen book I have to read. I’m so easily hooked. You know, I met Bodhidharma when I was a child. Only his name at the time was Kobun. Like Emperor Wu, I would like to have another visit from the old guy, but just like with Emperor Wu, Kobun won’t come back.

    I noticed your line “rush to change the Dharma to fit us” reminded me of a chapter in your book. Something Katagiri Roshi warned against. Something like trying to fit the Dharma into our faulty wiring, instead of rewiring ourselves to fit the Dharma. I think of this warning sometimes, but I’m not quite sure what you are getting at. Can you help explain what you mean by this?


    • doshoport

      Hi Aaron,
      In traditional terms, it’s about “renunciation” as a central part of the practice, letting go of our self-clinging to “our” way. When dharma centers are too accommodating, they make it more difficult for students to discover the freedom of having few desires. Bodhidharma, in our story, sat facing the wall and the 2nd ancestor came to him and would not be turned away. Bodhidharma didn’t go to the street corner beating the drum, offering whatever was popular to lure people into practice.
      Just that,

      • Aaron Caruso

        Thank you.


  • Koun Franz

    Years ago, as my graduate thesis, I tried to write a novelization of Bodhidharma’s life. This was based on the information available in English back then–after weeding through the completely crazy stuff, I was left with about a half page of reasonable speculation. I was (and am) fascinated by how Zen has embraced this character who is so different from the rest of how Zen presents itself–so rough edged, so menacing, so violent. One of the goals of the book was to try to find ways to portray the more fantastic, bloody parts of his story (cutting off his eyelids, Hui Ko cutting off his arm) in ways that felt real and reasonable. It’s those parts of his mythology that really grab people in the beginning.
    But now I can see that from an institutional perspective, Bodhidharma is considered important not because of all the zazen (though that matters a lot), and not even because of his movement from India to China (also important–monumentally so if true), but because of his encounter with Emperor Wu. That’s the story that gets told over and over again (and is the centerpiece of almost every hossen-shiki I’ve ever attended). Historically, Sotoshu has pandered and scammed and compromised in all sorts of sad and terrible ways, but there’s always been this looming, overpowering figure in the background growling at us to hold to the center, to never tell people what they want to hear. Even in the darkest of times, that has carried a lot of weight. And I think this is a good moment in our history (and specifically our development outside of Japan) to look back at that message and consider whether or not we’re trying to sell something we really should be trying to protect.

    • doshoport

      Right on, bro.

  • Jundo Cohen

    Well, an historical person named “Bodhidharma” may not have had very much connection to the founding of the Chan/Zen Lineage in China either … assuming that there was actually even a flesh and blood “Bodhidharma who came from the West” at all …

    There is passing mention of someone named “Bodhidharma” in one book of the period, and perhaps one text that might arguably be attributed to him (although, even then, the content seems more in the way of a general Mahayana teaching and not particularly “Zen”). Apart from that, the whole “Bodhidharma” story as Zen founder (like Kung fu founder) is seemingly a lovely “paradigm”, a meaningful (and timeless) myth cooked up, polished up and embellished up by later generations …

    No problem, as the stories do express timeless truths, whether the meeting with Emperor Wu, the sitting for 9 years and all the rest, are historical events or not. He is a figure like Moses, also (say the historians) perhaps not a “historical figure”who actually led slaves across the Red Sea in the way told in the legend … yet standing for Liberation nonetheless.

    I appreciate the sentiment of the book and Andy the author, but if you ask me, any “evidence” for who Bodhidharma was, where he went and what he taught, is mostly wishful religious thinking, “could’ve been’s” and “maybe what if’s”.

    However, no problem … for the Truth of Bodhidharma is in one’s heart, and in each moment of Sitting.

    Gassho, Jundo

    • doshoport

      Certainly there’s been embellishment … but read the book. Andy’s got some good stuff there.