THE REVEREND BODHIDHARMA
Bodhidharma had originally been a prince, being the third son of King Syandria of Hindu. He gave up his comfortable palatial life when a mere child and went to the monastery, where Prajnatraluo lived, to become the latter's disciple. Prajnatraluo belonged in the 27th generation of religious descendants of Mahaksaytria, senior disciple of Sakyamuni. One day Bodhidharma approached Prajnatraluo for advice, raising to him the question: "In which direction should I travel to spread your teachings since I have now fully mastered Mahayana tripitaka?" "CATHY (that is China) is exactly where you should go," said Prajnatraluo. Then he added, "Once you're in CATHY, do shun its southern part. For the monarch there is averse to Buddhism because of his audacious ambition."
Thus Bodhidharma embarked on his voyage to China, sailing in a boat across the sea. He had drifted on the rough sea for three years before he landed in Canton which is now called Guangzhou. Prefect of Canton promptly reported Bodhidharma's arrival to the throne in Jinling which is now called Nanjing. At that time Jinling was the imperial capital of the Liang Dynasty. On the throne then was Emperor Wudi who, on receiving the report from the prefect of Canton, promptly dispatched an envoy to Canton in order to take Bodhidharma to the imperial court in Jinling. To pay due respect to his Hindu guest, the emperor granted an immediate audience to Bodhidharma after the latter was taken to the imperial capital. As the emperor was a devout Hinayanistic follower whereas Bodhidharma was a staunch Mahayanistic monk, both the emperor and Bodhidharma were at variance as to their religious outlooks even during the first audience the emperor gave to him. Doctrinal discrepancies drove them into fierce polemics in all later audiences the monarch granted to the monk. Now Bodhidharma was awakened to the fact that in the territory of the Empire of Liang he could hardly expect to spread Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore he decided to leave for the northern part of China and before long bade farewell to the Liang dynastic ruler.
On the day he was to depart, he had to go first out of the city of Jinling to
Yuhuatai on its suburbs. Coincidentally a celebrated Chinese Buddhist monk,
Shengguan by name, happened to be preaching Buddhism at Yuhuatai. A vast crowd
rallied around Shengguan, listening to his religious discourse. Seeing this when
he was passing Yuhuatai, Bodhidharma edged his way through the crowd until he
was standing in the front row and almost directly facing Shengguan who was
talking from the pulpit. Bodhidharma inadvertently nodded the moment he thought
Shengguan was expounding Buddha's teachings properly and shook his head
involuntarily the moment he thought Shengguan was straying from the true tenet
of Buddhism. Before long Shengguan became aware of Bodhidharma's varying facial
expressions of approval and disapproval of different parts of his discourse and
grew irritated by the latter's expression of disapproval. He suddenly stopped
preaching and turned to look at Bodhidharma and demanded,
"Why did you repeatedly shake your head when I was offering my
would have launched into an argument with Shengguan but thought better of it.
Then he started to leave the crowd and walked to the bank of the Yangtse River;
there he waited for the ferry to take him to the northern bank of the river. After
Bodhidharma left, a scholar in the crowd called out to Shengguan, saying,
"Don't you know him? He is the famous Hindu monk, Bodhidharma, an
erudite master of Buddhism."
Being shocked on being acquainted with the identity of the leaving monk
and feeling ashamed of his own rude manners toward him, Shengguan abruptly left
the convention to pursue the latter in order to offer an apology to him. But
Bodhidharma was already a long distance away from where Shengguan was. On
reaching the southern bank of the Yangtse River, Bodhidharma could see that
there was not a soul in sight; nor was there a ferry boat moored to the bank.
Nor a bridge to be seen along the bank. He grew anxious and was casting about
for a way out when, turning about, he suddenly discerned a tree standing not far
away from the bank. In its shade sat an old woman. A sheaf of reeds lay by her.
Bodhidharma wondered if she was also waiting for the incoming ferry boat.
"But," he said to himself; "effete as she looks, how come
she comes here to take the ferry boat all by herself?"
When he was still gazing at her, he suddenly noticed that she was
beckoning him to go to her. Promptly he obeyed and hurried over. Soon he was in
her presence and bowed respectfully to her before he began to talk to her.
"Madam, is there anything I can do for you?" he asked politely.
"Don't you think it is more appropriate," said she, smiling;
"that you ask me to help you with crossing the river?"
"How do you know I want to cross the river, madam?" asked
Bodhidharma in astonishment. While still smiling, she said to him, instead of
giving a direct answer to his question,
"Take a reed out of this sheaf, walk to the bank, lay the reed on
the water, and step on to it. Then it will carry you safely across the river to
the other bank."
Before he reached out to catch a reed and pull it out of the sheaf, she
had already drawn one out for him and passed it to him. He stretched out his
both hands for it and curtseyed to her.
"Now take the reed with you," said she, "and off you go to
He complied readily. Having returned to the bank, he stood himself
nearest to the water and spread the reed on the water. Instantly the stalk of
the reed grew thicker and longer until it looked like a log. Now Bodhidharma,
cheerful and energetic, hopped on to it; and promptly it moved away from the
bank and sped up, plowing the water like a sailboat in the direction of the
opposite bank. In a couple of jiffies he was at the other bank. Having jumped
off the reed, he saw it shrink and change into a dragonfly; then it took off in
the direction of the bank, from whence it had come.
The moment that Bodhidharma hopped on to the reed to dash across the
river, Monk Shengguan had just rushed to the bank. He saw how Bodhidharma
crossed the river by standing on the reed stalk. Immediately he darted to the
old woman sitting under the tree and, being so rash as not even to pause to ask
for her permission, scooped up the sheaf of reeds lying by her. Then he ran
quickly with the sheaf of reeds back to the bank, threw it into the river, and
swiftly stepped on to it, believing that the sheaf of reeds would ferry him
swiftly across the river to the opposite bank exactly in the way that the single
reed had done in ferrying Bodhidharma across the river. But, contrary to his
expectation, rather than keeping itself afloat in the river and carrying him
over to the other bank, the sheaf of reeds sank quickly below the surface of
water after he stepped on to it. With the sinking sheaf, he was pulled down to
the depth of the river. Had he not kept buffeting the rolling water desperately,
he would have drowned. Wild with anger after he had managed to struggle out of
the water and climb up the bank, he stomped up to the old woman and howled,
"Madam, I haven't done anything to offend you, have I? Why did you
play such a nasty trick on me? You gave that monk a magic reed that helped him
cross the river safely. But you left me a sheaf of cursed reeds which almost
took my life. Your trick almost drowned me. Now you must say sorry to me for
Facing his incrimination calmly, she said,
"That monk came to me and very politely asked me to help him cross
the river. So I gave him a magic reed which has worked wonderfully, as you've
just seen. But you did not come for my help, did you?. What you did was robbing
me of that bundle of reeds. You treated me with the least respect. In that case,
how could you expect me to have those reeds endowed with my magic power? You
said I must apologize to you? Why? Have I to offer apology to a Buddhist monk
who has robbed me? Shame on you because you have done things that are against
Buddha's teachings. Buddhist vinaya, as far as I know, never allows a monk to
commit robbery or to be presumptuous." Now
Shengguan felt really ashamed for what he had done and said to the old woman. He
immediately withdrew from her presence and intended to go back to the imperial
capital. He strolled weakly in its direction. After taking a few steps, he
looked sheepishly back where he thought the old woman must have remained. But to
his amazement she was nowhere to be found. She disappeared altogether. It dawned
upon him that she must be a deity incarnated in human form.
After Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River, he traveled on foot all the
way to Henan Province. In 527 AD, he came to Shaolin Buddhist Monastery in Mount
Song. Landscape in Mount Song pleased him. The monastery was very quiet. All the
monks living in it were pious Buddhists. He thought that the monastery itself
was virtually a "Pure Land" or "Sukhavati" most conducive to
realizing his desire of attaining Buddhahood. So he settled down there. After
having successfully formulated the basic tenet of the Chinese Ch'an Sect during
his long course of higher contemplation lasting for over nine years in the
monastery, he emerged from such a meditating practice and began to preach his
Ch'an theology first to the monastic population and then to the general public.
After his nirvana, he was acclaimed as the founder of the aforesaid Buddhist
sect. And the monastery has ever since been recognized as "place of origin
of Ch'an". Engraved on a stone stela now still standing in the monastery is
a representation of Bodhidharma sailing across the Yangtse River by poising
himself on the stalk of a reed.