From India to China

Although groups of Buddhist monks were living in the northern parts of China as early as 65 B.C., it still took Buddhism nearly 500 years to make its way over to China. It is widely believed that Bodhidharma is the one to have brought Zen to China, and he is considered the first Zen patriarch of China.

Although Zen practices were known in China before his arrival, Bodhidharma's Zen teachings differed in that his emphasis was on “pointing directly at mind” to reveal one's true nature (also known as one's Buddha-nature).


Bodhidharma was an Indian monk born around the year 440 B.C. His teacher instructed him to go to China and carry the message of Buddhism. When he arrived, Buddhism was already thriving. Many monasteries and monks existed across the country. Eventually, Bodhiharma was invited to visit with the great Emperor Wu, who was known to be a devout student of Buddhism. Emperor Wu had come to power through a lifetime of violence and murder, but he then tried to atone for his past by doing good deeds in the name of Buddhism. He built temples, translated Buddhist texts into Chinese, and considered himself highly educated in the teachings of the Buddha. When he heard that the renowned Buddhist monk Bodhidharma had arrived in China, he quickly requested a meeting. He was pleased with the great works Bodhidharma had done in the service of Buddhism and was eager to ask Bodhidharma what merit the great Wu had accumulated through all his good work in the name of Buddhism.

Emperor Wu was appalled and shocked when Bodhidharma told him he had achieved no merit at all. The emperor had been taught that performing good acts was a way of accumulating great merit; it was a common belief that in Buddhism, good deeds added up like merit points. What was this nonsense Bodhidharma was spouting? Emperor Wu became defensive, and he endeavored to test his visitor.

Bodhidharma is also credited as the founder of the martial arts. He established a program for the monks involving physical techniques that were efficient, strengthened the body, and could be used in self-defense. The technique proved to be an effective fighting system, which evolved into a martial arts style called Gung Fu.

“What is the meaning of enlightenment?” Emperor Wu asked. “Vast emptiness, nothing sacred,” Bodhidharma said.

This too confounded the great emperor. He wondered what the meaning of this could be. “Who is it that faces me so?” he asked Bodhidharma.

And Bodhidharma replied, “I don't know.”

Bodhidharma was actually showing the Emperor all that he knew about Zen and the nature of reality. But he was unable to give Emperor Wu the understanding of his teachings because the emperor could not understand what Bodhidharma was telling him. Bodhidharma was trying to show Wu the nature of emptiness, the lack of distinction between things, the absence of self, and the true reality of everything.

And so Bodhidharma departed, leaving the emperor frustrated. He eventually made his way up the mountains to Shaolin, site of the famous Shaolin monastery. It was here, in a small cave, that he sat facing a wall and meditated for nine years. Legend has it that he became so frustrated with himself for falling asleep that he cut off his eyelids to ensure he would stay awake. It is also said that when Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids, he threw them to the ground and tea leaves sprouted. Thus, tea was first grown in China.


Zen is transmitted from one person to another, from mind to mind. Bodhidharma transmitted Zen to Hui'ko, who became the Second Zen Patriarch of China. Hui'ko was determined to realize the truth. He showed up outside of the cave where Bodhidharma sat for nine years and waited in the snow, hoping to become Bodhidharma's student. In order to show his great sincerity and deepest commitment to realizing the truth, Hui'ko is said to have cut off his arm while standing outside the cave.

Zen legends are full of extreme acts of resolve, such as that of Hui'ko cutting off his arm, and they are a reflection of the culture of the time. It is hard for us in our modern world to dream of cutting off a limb to illustrate religious or any other kind of conviction. These legends are to be understood as a reflection of past culture.

Hui'ko studied at Shaolin with Bodhidharma for many years. Bodhidharma was able to show Hui'ko enlightened mind. Teachers throughout Zen history have used many different means to help their students become enlightened. Enlightenment is understood to be available to each of us in our very still centers, and a teacher can help us find the way back there.

As Zen was passed from mind to mind in China, five different schools of Zen were eventually established in the country. These schools—or Five Houses, as they are called—used different teaching methods. The Five Houses were the following:

  • The Guiyang school

  • The Caodong school

  • The Linji school

  • The Yunmen school

  • The Fayan school

Three of these five houses no longer exist in the world today. However, the Guiyang school is now what is known as the Soto school in Japan, and the Linji school is now called the Rinzai school, also in Japan. These are the two remaining schools of the original Five Houses of Zen.

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