Did Bodhidharma Meet Emperor Liang Wu Di?
Copyright 2010 by Andrew Ferguson
This paper will examine evidence that explains how the legendary meeting between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu may be a historical fact. It is based on evidence that comes from field observation, classical texts, and most important, from scholarship by Chinese researchers Sun Changwu孙昌武, Yang Xiaotian
杨笑天, Wang Rutong王孺童 and others.
Some ideas in this paper restate ideas advanced by Yang Xiaotian in his important essay entitled On the
life of Bodhidharma and Hui Ke. I offer additional ideas that carry Dr. Yang’s ideas further. A review of
the historical evidence suggests that Bodhidharma could have met Emperor Liang Wu Di, though this position is not widely held by scholars.
Essentially, two conflicting stories exist about Bodhidharma’s life in old Chan records. One story, based
on a biography and other information about Bodhidharma that appears in Continued Biographies of
Eminent Monks [续高僧传], a seventh century text by the monk Dao Xuan, relates that Bodhidharma arrived in South China before the end of the Liu-Song Dynasty, on or before the year 478, and
ieventually lived under the Wei Dynasty [初達宋境南越. 末又北度至魏]. The biography, written
between 645 and 665 CE, also mentions two of Bodhidharma’s disciples, Dao Yu and Hui Ke [有道育慧
可此二沙門]. Dao Yu, also known as Dao Fu [道副], is the same monk as the one identified as Seng Fu
[僧副] whose biography also appears in the Continued Biographies. Bodhidharma’s biography also
indicates that Bodhidharma traveled widely to spread his teaching, but his place of death was unknown [遊化為務不測于終].
An example of a different and popularly accepted version of Bodhidharma’s life is in the mid-thirteenth
century work called Compendium of Five Lamps [五灯会元]. This work relates that Chan’s first ancestor
arrived in South China in the year 527, the seventh year of the Pu Tong era [梁普 通七年], and soon
thereafter traveled to Nanjing to meet Emperor Liang Wu Di. After a brief and unsuccessful meeting with the emperor, Bodhidharma proceeded to Mt. Song, where he practiced meditation in a cave near Shao Lin Temple. Eventually, according to this account, Bodhidharma died at Thousand Saints Temple [千圣寺 +, a place about which no other records are evident. A definite date for Bodhidharma’s death is also not offered in the Wudeng Huiyuan account.
Scholars agree that the former Continued Biographies story of Bodhidharma’s life is more reliable
because it was written far earlier than other accounts, perhaps only 130 years or so after Bodhidharma lived. Also, biographies of other monks in the same work offer evidence that supports Bodhidharma’s
story. Scholars in the East and West regard the Continued Biographies as the most reliable source of
information about Bodhidharma’s life. However, the Continued Biographies account of Bodhidharma
does not offer evidence about him that can be reliably dated after the year 494. Some scholars have suggested, and some later old Chinese texts report, that Bodhidharma died in the year 494 or soon thereafter. However, taking account of the Continued Biographies biography of the Second Chan
Ancestor Hui Ke’s life, it is widely accepted that Bodhidharma died in the geographical area around
Luoyang before the Wei Dynasty split into the Western and Eastern Wei Dynasties in the year 534. The biography of Hui Ke in the Continued Biographies indicates that after Bodhidharma died, Hui Ke, “on the
basis of his teacher’s widespread stature continued *Bodhidharma’s teaching+, and was invited to teach by clergy and laity” *而昔怀嘉誉传檄邦畿。使夫道俗来仪请从师范].
But the exact date of Bodhidharma’s death remains uncertain. Based on the Continued Biographies
some Chan scholars suggest the date of Bodhidharma’s death was around the year 530. Suggestions that he died later than this are based on later historical records, including a memorial stele allegedly created by Emperor Wu that is discussed below.
The Chan tradition places great importance on the legend of Bodhidharma meeting Emperor Wu. The story is a pivotal tale that contrasts Bodhidharma’s Chan with the views and practice of the Buddhist establishment of his time. In the Continued Biographies there are various passages that describe
Bodhidharma’s teaching. One relates that it emphasized the “true perception doctrine” of “forgetting-
iiwords, forgetting-thought, and no attainment” *忘言忘念无得正观为宗]. In contrast, Emperor Wu is
remembered to be devoted to Buddhist sutra and doctrinal studies [义学], the ordination of monks [度
僧] the building of temples and writing of sutras [造寺写经], and the accumulation of merit coming
from these activities. Bodhidharma’s practice, which later was summarized in the phrase “directly pointing at the human mind [直指人心+, is thus favorably compared with Emperor Wu’s wide ranging
embrace of other Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Because Emperor Wu did not gain power and establish the Liang Dynasty until the year 502, the Chan tradition widely accepts the story that relates that Bodhidharma arrived in China after Emperor Wu gained power. This is now the most widely accepted version of Bodhidharma’s life even though the most reliable historical source, the Continued Biographies, contradicts this timeline. If Bodhidharma lived and
presumably died in the Luoyang area in 494 or thereafter, how could he have met Emperor Wu, who gained the throne and ruled as the “Bodhisattva Emperor” in the year 502 at place distant from Luoyang
and Mt. Song?
Bodhidharma’s Early Years in China
While there is no direct evidence of Bodhidharma’s arrival date in China scholars widely accept that he
iiiarrived before 479 CE. The Continued Biographies states that Bodhidharma arrived in Southern China
during the Liu-Song Dynasty (420-479) [初達宋境南越]. I will set aside, for the moment, a discussion of
the widely known story in the Record of the Temples of Luoyang [洛阳伽蓝记] that quotes a certain
monk named Bodhidharma who claimed to be 150 years old when he met Yang Xuanzhi, the text’s author, sometime between 516 and about 528. Instead, I will conjecture that if the date for Bodhidharma’s death was 534, then with a lifespan of 100 years Bodhidharma could have arrived in China at the age of 30 in the year 464. In this scenario Bodhidharma would have had ample time to learn Chinese and travel in South China. If, as some evidence suggests, the date of Bodhidharma’s death was
528, and if he died at age one hundred, an arrival in 464 places his age at thirty six years old. Thus his arrival in China as early as 460 cannot be ruled out. Of course, without certainty about how long
Bodhidharma lived, all these dates are only conjecture. However, they indicate the possibility of his arrival in China by 460.
If Bodhidharma arrived in China around 460, it is possible he met the Indian Buddhist scholar
ivGunabhadra who lived in Nanjing during the Liu-Song Dynasty and who died in 468. This view is partly
supported by Bodhidharma’s use of the Lankavatara Sutra text translated by Gunabhadra as reported in the Continued Biographies [达摩禅师以四卷楞伽授可]. Furthermore, the Record of the Lankavatara
Masters [楞伽师资记] written in the year 708 by the monk Jing Jue [净觉] places Gunabhadra in the
first position in the succession of spiritual ancestors of the “Northern School” of Chinese Chan. Bodhidharma is listed as Gunabhadra’s spiritual heir. [魏朝三藏法师菩提达摩承求那跋陀罗三藏
v后…+. Although the Record of the Lankavatara Masters does not explicitly state that Bodhidharma met Gunabhadra, it indicates that certain early Northern School monks connected these two Indian teachers in the direct succession leading to the East Mountain School, a wellspring of China’s mainstream Chan
tradition. Gunabhadra was not otherwise recognized as the first ancestor of the Chan School, however. The text of a stele marking the death of the East Mountain School monk Fa Ru in the year 681 indicates Bodhidharma as the first of the Chan ancestors. It reads “Bodhidharma entered Wei and transmitted to
*Hui+Ke, Ke transmitted to Can…” *菩提达摩入魏传可(可传粲…].
Why would it matter whether Bodhidharma met Gunabhadra? The Record of Eminent Monks [高僧传]
composed by the monk Hui Jiao in the year 417 (from which the later Continued Biographies of Eminent
Monks termed itself “continued”) records the story of Gunabhadra’s life in China. After arriving there
around the year 435 he enjoyed the favor of the Liu-Song emperors and aristocracy. He translated various sutras and taught at different temples in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and elsewhere. During one ten year period Gunabhadra enjoyed the patronage of the official Jiaowang Yixuan [谯王义宣] who met
Gunabhadra, supported his teaching, and carried on correspondence with him. Later, Jiaowang plotted and rebelled against the Liu-Song emperor Xiao Wu but his rebellion was defeated. The emperor suspected Gunabhadra of involvement in the plot, but upon investigating letters between Gunabhadra and Jiaowang the emperor realized that the former had no involvement in the attempted coup. Gunabhadra’s name was cleared. Thereafter Gunabhadra continued to teach and work until his death in 468. If Bodhidharma arrived in China in 464 or earlier, he would have had ample time to meet Gunabhadra before the latter’s death. In such a case, the political dangers Gunabhadra previously faced may have led him to counsel Bodhidharma to beware of entanglement in China’s ruling circles. This could have shaped Bodhidharma’s later attitude toward his contacts with the ruling houses of the
Northern Wei and Liang Dynasties. Although this is just speculation, it fits nicely as a possible piece of the puzzle concerning why Bodhidharma avoided contact with emperors, feudal kings, or high ranking members of China’s aristocracy.
Dao Xuan (596-667), the author of the Continued Biographies, was a brilliant and famous Buddhist monk
of the seventh century. He drew on different streams of Precepts School teachings and systemized them to create and lead the “South Mountain” Precepts School of Chinese Buddhism. He lived in the
Tang capital Chang An after the year 642. There he assisted the famous monk Xuan Zang in translating Buddhist scriptures that the latter had brought back from India. During around the same period Dao
Xuan authored the Continued Biographies, which categorized and described famous Buddhist teachers
starting from around the year 500 until his own era. Dao Xuan was not a monk of the Chan tradition, and his comments about Chan teachers are therefore often considered by scholars to be more objective than the Chan histories created within the Chan tradition itself.
In his Continued Biographies Dao Xuan wrote about monks of then different schools of Buddhism. After the section on Chan monks he wrote an appendix concerning the Chan School. It summarizes Dao Xuan’s view of the Chan tradition at that point in China’s history. He discusses the Chan’s School’s history in some detail, making some critical comments, but also describing the great popularity of Chan and its well known teachers. Regarding Bodhidharma’s apparently widely known mission in China, he says “*A teacher+ of this type was Bodhidharma, who’s transcendent teaching he proselytized in the Yang-tse and Luoyang [regions]. [属有菩提达摩者。神化居宗阐导江洛]. [His practice of] Sitting gazing
at a wall being the highest meritorious practice of the Mahayana [大乘壁观功业最高]. In society those
who came to study with and honor him, taking refuge in his teachings, were [as numerous as] a city [在
世学流归仰如市]”. In another section of the Continued Biographies Dao Xuan provides a biography for
a monk named Fa Chong which refers to Bodhidharma’s teachings, saying, “Later, Chan Master Bodhidharma spread this teaching to the north and south” *于后达磨禅师传之南北]。 These and
other accounts indicate that Bodhidharma’s influence was not limited to the area around Luoyang but stretched at least to the region of the Yang-tse River. The Chinese scholar Hu Shi proposed that Bodhidharma’s spent only limited time in the south of the country before he traveled north to the
viLuoyang area. He points out that Bodhidharma would have needed time to learn Chinese and thus did not likely carry out widespread teaching until he traveled north. However, if Bodhidharma did not return south after living in Luoyang, Dr. Hu Shi’s conclusion contradicts the aforementioned passages from the Continued Biographies that says he spread his teaching “in the Yang-tse and Luoyang” regions. If
Bodhidharma arrived in China around 460, he would have ample time to meet Gunabhadra, learn to speak Chinese fluently, and begin teaching in the Yang-tse River area before traveling north to Luoyang. However, we have no record that this occurred. Without any clear evidence on Bodhidharma’s actions during this time we can’t draw firm conclusions. We are left with the fact that his disciples joined him around Luoyang, and therefore he likely did not teach extensively before arriving in that area. In his appendix to “Chan Practitioners” in the Continued Biographies, Dao Xuan makes an intriguing
statement. He writes that Bodhidharma “Did not stay in places of imperial sway, and those who loved to see him could not draw him to them.” [帝网之所不拘。爱见莫之能引]. This statement by Dao Xuan
describes an important facet about Bodhidharma’s life. His legendary brief meeting with Emperor Wu
notwithstanding, there is no record to indicate he sought out contact with the imperial, or a lesser, royal court during his years in China. Bodhidharma seems to have regarded the court as dangerous to his religious mission. He was a teacher well known in his own era, an individual who “spread *his teachings+ to the Yang-tse and Luoyang,” yet unlike other foreign priests who came to China, he did not curry favor with China’s emperors. His behavior is in contrast to foreign priests during the Liang Dynasty who
actively sought Emperor Wu’s support, including Samghapala *僧伽婆罗] ( in China circa 495-524), and
Paramartha [波罗末陀 or 真谛] (arrived China in 546 and died 569).
The Luoyang Region 485?-497?
Although the Continued Biographies indicates that Bodhidharma’s teachings were widespread in China,
the text only indicates his location during a period of five to ten years, from approximately 485-495. It was at this time that he we know he taught a few disciples in the area around Luoyang. The Continued
Biographies, in its story of Bodhidharma’s oldest disciple Seng Fu, states that that disciple departed the Luoyang area during the Jian Wu era, (494-7) and made his way to Nanjing. [齊建武年南遊楊輦] Later
in the same biography, Seng Fu is said to have died at Kai Shan Temple [in Nanjing] at the age of sixty-one, in the year 524. *…卒於開善寺春秋六十有一。即普通五年也]. Thus we can deduce that Seng Fu
was about 31 years old when he left Luoyang to travel to Nanjing during the period 494-7. Working backward, this indicates he studied under Bodhidharma when he was in his twenties. The record in the Continued Biographies for Bodhidharma’s more famous disciple, Hui Ke, raises some
questions about his age and whereabouts during different times of his life. Both the Continued