Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Legend of Bodhidharma

The general background of the martial arts as we know them involves a segregation from the run-of-the-mill 'how-we-whack-our-neighbours' fightiing arts. It is unclear how real this division is. The traditional martial tradition in olden times involved feilty or some external person or organization, typically the lord, the land, or the faith. Self-defense as a right and perogitive of the individual is, in terms of tradition, a more recent phenomenon. Many modern forms of the martial arts have a tradition of participation by the individual for the enlightenment of that person. The pursuit of enlightment through or at least in conjunction with the physical discipline of the martial art are seen as progressing hand-in-hand. Some authors take the trouble to stress that a high level of martial skill is possible without the development of any accompanying spirituality, others suggesting that the spirit and body are implicitly developed together.

I will be returning to this theme in a future feature. Today's feature is about the legend of Bodhidharma, the most enduring and pervasive legend of the origin of the traditional martial arts as we know them today. The existence of this man as a real person who left both a written and an oral history seem well founded. The legends surrounding him are many and fascinating, and some mention of him is almost a requirement in the many histories on the net.

This tradition starts fairly specifically in 567 CE. with the arrival of Bodhidharma, Darumi Taishi (in Japanese), Dat Mor (in Cantonese), Da Mo (in Mandarin), Tamo or Daruma. His task was to help the spread/development of Buddhism in China. Here are some of the stories:

He was told by his spiritual instructor, the sage Panyata or Prajnatara, 2, to go to China. He travelled by ship, for 3 years, arriving in Southern China around 475 CE. One legend has him spending 9 years in meditiation, facing a wall near the Shaolin Temple. He had only 3 recorded disciples. He died in 528 CE . A few years after his death, an official reported seeing him walking in the mountains, carrying only a staff from which hung one sandal and telling the official he was returning to India. The monks, on hearing this, examined his tomb and found one sandal and no body.

He real name was Sardili. He was the prince of a small town in Southern India. He arrived in China after a brutal trek over the Himalayan moutains where he survived both bandits and terrible weather conditions. He settled in the Shaolin temple of Songsham in Hunan province in 526 CE. He found the monks lacked sufficient stamina to meditate properly or defend themselves from the roving brigands of the area. He taught them the '18 Lo-Han Hands', 2, 3, a sysem of dynamic tension exercises that was printed in 550 CE as the Yi Gin Chin. The Lo-Han were probably some form of temple guardian of Hindu origin. These formed the basis for Chinese temple boxing and the Shaolin Arts. Ta Mo died in 539 CE at the age of 57.

He was a member of the Kshatrifa class, the 28th patriarch or successor to Buddha, and brought with him two books, the I Chin Ching and the Hseiu Seu Ching, both dealing with self-defense.

He arrived in China after a three year trip from India. Buddhism was well established in China with an extensive written and oral tradition. He came to teach the true meaning of Buddhism to Emperor Wu-ti, who had supported Buddhism and was anxious to hear what Bodhidharma considered to be its central principles. Bodhidharma's short reply of "vast emptiness" apparently upset the emperor who had been expecting something a little more substantial. Daruma then travelled to the Shaolin (Shorin in Japanese) temple on the Wu-tai Mountain in Honan. He was so determined to attain his true self that he sat before a wall (or like a wall) for nine years. Many came to him with questions but he would not disturb his zazen to answer them. Finally Hui-Ko (Eka in Japanese) cut off his left hand and gave it to the master, saying, "I'll cut off my head next unless you teach me!" To Ma agreed, finally having found a person as determined as himself.

After arriving at the Central Mountain, Da Mo settled down at Shaolin and began to teach. To the north of the monastery, half way up Five Breasts Peak, there is a square-mouthed cave, about the size of a small room, which opened out directly towards the sun. Da Mo went to this cave and faced the wall in a state of dyhana, and in the evening he would go back down to the monastery to discuss Buddhist lore with the other monks. After a short time, however, he no longer returned to the monastery, but sat continuously facing the wall of the cave, legs crossed, in silent contemplation, observing his own inner nature. The days and years passed by in an endless stream. When he became tired, Da Mo would get up and exercise lightly. When the stiffness had gone he would again sit down, look inside himself, dispel all evil and disturbing thoughts, and become silent. In the depth of winter, wolves, tigers, and panthers could often be heard around the door of the cave, howling into the night. Once, a young monk climbed the mountain to bring some food, and as he entered the cave he saw a large gray wolf with it's drooling red mouth open wide and it's front paws on Da Mo's shoulders, about to sink it's teeth into his neck. The young monk startled the wolf by loudly shouting and the wolf turned and fled. Da Mo, totally unaware of the intrusion, continued his meditation. During the winter of another year there was no snow or rain and all the mountain grass was dry as tinder. The grass caught fire and in a short time the winds had turned the whole mountain into a giant torch. Several monks battled up the mountain, against the driving wind, to save Da Mo. When they got to the cave and looked inside, they saw him sitting cross-legged, backs straight, facing the wall without even the slightest hint of movement.

Da Mo meditated at the wall for nine years. During his rest periods he created some of the fighting forms which were basis of today's Shaolin "Heart-Mind-Fist". Among these are the classics, the "Sinew Change Classic" and the "Washing Marrow".It is said that after three thousand days facing the wall, Da Mo's shadow became engraved upon the stone. Some say that today, from a distance, you can see the shape of a man sitting cross-legged, his hands pressed together before him in meditation on the rock face.

His main gifts were the Buddist philosophy of non-violence and the development of both mind and body. Here we have the difference between martial tradition or training and a martial art. Although there is some debate the actual existence of Da Mo as a real person, recently discovered ancient manuscripts are claimed to contain his actual sermons.

I'll discuss the branching out of the various national traditions and how these blended into the existing martial/military traditions of the various nation states in future features.


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12:05 PM  

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