Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor, conveyed the dharma from India to China. His practice was “wall-gazing,” or zazen. According to legend, he sat facing a wall for nine years and cut off his eyelids to stay awake.

Zen lineages all begin with Bodhidharma, the mythic first ancestor of Zen, who came to China from India, and who, by inaugurating Zen, also transmitted the true teaching beyond words that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha. For years I felt irritated by Bodhidharma; he glares out of innumerable portraits with a thick odor of machismo clinging to his robes. Image after image offers up a pair of round, bulging eyes popping out between beetling eyebrows and a bulbous nose, the face framed by immense pendulous ears and an untrimmed beard. He is a solid, bull-necked figure, muscular running to fat—a dharma linebacker. His robe is usually loosely draped, baring his substantial chest enough to give us a glimpse of his hairy torso, and when his legs are revealed by a breeze blowing his skirts, they complete the hirsute look. Although he usually sports at least one earring, he always seemed to me the personification of Mr. Tough Zen. Here was the first ancestor, and to me he was wholly Other.

While no longer written off by scholars as completely fictional, Bodhidharma remains elusive. Very little is known about him, including who his teachers were. He journeyed to China around 470 C.E., one of a few meditation masters at that time who came to a country that had already known a first small flowering of Buddhism; he encountered some resistance to his teaching, had few disciples, and died around 532 C.E. A few teachings in editions from a thousand years later bear his name, but a lot of historicity can leak out over a millennium. Eventually, versions from the seventh and eighth centuries were found among the great scriptural treasures that have emerged from the caves of the Silk Route town of Dunhuang, on China’s western frontiers. And with that, the record begins to be fleshed out, bringing the mythic Bodhidharma to life as well.

Daruma (Bodhidharma) on a Rush Leaf by Fugai Ekun, Japan, seventeenth century, sumi on paper. Dorothy and David Harman Collection.
Daruma (Bodhidharma) on a Rush Leaf by Fugai Ekun, Japan, seventeenth century, sumi on paper. Dorothy and David Harman Collection.

It was only after I read these few essays that I looked again at the paintings and realized these weren’t portraits of supreme masculinity, they were just caricatures of The Westerner, The Foreigner. A South Indian monk wandering in China, he’s an East Asian fantasy of the forever gaijin. Round-eyed, hairy, stocky, perhaps looming over his audience, he is of my tribe.

Bodhidharma eventually became a well-known figure not only in Zen circles but in popular and literary culture as well. In his earliest images, from about the eleventh century, he is a fairly normal looking monk, Chinese in features and dress, with perhaps a little stubble on his chin. A few stock portraits came to dominate his image. In Japanese zenga, the Zen painting that has roots in Chinese styles, his appearance grew more forbidding and distinctive as his popularity grew—mythic figures make better copy that way—exaggerated, alien.

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