Bodhidharma (Tamil: போதிதர்மன்) was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century and is traditionally credited as the leading patriarch and transmitter of Zen (Chinese: Chán, Sanskrit: Dhyāna) to China. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan. However, martial arts historians have shown this legend stems from a 17th century qigong manual known as the Yijin Jing.
Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend, but most accounts agree that he was a Tamil prince from southern India’s Pallava Empire. Scholars have concluded his place of birth to be Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu .
After becoming a Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma traveled to China. The accounts differ on the date of his arrival, with one early account claiming that he arrived during the Liú Sòng Dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liáng Dynasty (502–557). Bodhidharma was primarily active in the lands of the Northern Wèi Dynasty (386–534). Modern scholarship dates him to about the early 5th century.
Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is described as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian” in Chinese texts.
The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Buddha himself. D.T. Suzuki contends that Chán’s growth in popularity during the 7th and 8th centuries attracted criticism that it had “no authorized records of its direct transmission from the founder of Buddhism” and that Chán historians made Bodhidharma the 28th patriarch of Buddhism in response to such attacks.
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