Following Bodhidharma’s footsteps


In this new two-part photo essay, Veena reveals intriguing facts and legends about the eminent Six Zen Patriarchs.

Zen Patriarchs Collage
The Six Zen Patriarchs: Bodhidharma, Huike, Sosan, Daoxin, Hongren, Huineng

China has had an extremely turbulent history, resulting in countless historical records being lost or destroyed. This is particularly true of China’s spiritual past, because so often successive emperors or warlords suddenly decided that one particular path, or another, should be wiped out. In fact, this is tragically ongoing and happening at this very moment.

During my extended visits to China over the past 12 years I became fascinated with trying to trace something of the heritage of the Six Zen Patriarchs from the point of view of an Osho disciple, rather than an academic historian. Osho loved Bodhidharma – he called him ‘The Greatest Zen Master’ – and because of this love, I was inspired to go to Song Mountain, in central China, and seek out some of Bodhidharma’s connections there. As well as questioning local people and trying to piece together their fragmented comments, I read many books and did endless searches online. And I of course, examined what Osho had said about the various patriarchs.

There is one point I want to mention. Despite a great deal of information being lost or destroyed, there is still a considerable amount of material available on Bodhidharma and the early patriarchs of Zen. However, rather than writing this as a scholarly treatise, my real goal is to record my personal discoveries and record some small anecdotes and legends told to me by local Chinese. Similarly, most of the photographs are my own or from Chinese friends – very few from books or online sources.


Bodhidharma in his cave

We certainly have to start with this enigmatic enlightened being who has captured the hearts of so many people the world over – not just the Chinese – as well as Osho’s and those of his sannyasins.

Bodhidharma appears to have been sent to China from India by his Master – an enlightened Buddhist woman called Prajñātārā – and arrived in southern China around the end of the 5th Century. After three years in southern China, where he must have learnt Chinese, he ended up on Song Mountain in Henan Province in central China. Here he famously sat in a cave on the top of a mountain called Wuru Peak, from where he descended after nine years of silent meditation and started to teach a new form of Buddhism called Zen. Traditional Buddhism was already prevalent in China, with Indian monks arriving and bringing with them scrolls of Buddhist scriptures as early as 67 CE.

In the evening of September 30, 2008, I arrived in Dengfeng, a small town in the foothills of Song Mountain, in Henan Province. At breakfast the next morning, the young Chinese woman who had helped me and my friend with arrival arrangements suddenly appeared and asked us if we wanted to visit the Shaolin Temple valley and climb one of the paths up the mountain to see the famous, newly-built temple SanHuangZhai. Of course we did! The whole journey was one of mystical magic, but the thing that most struck me was when someone pointed to another mountain peak and said the word ‘Bodhidharma’! My heart leaped. This is what I had come for. The cave in which he had meditated for nine years was there, dimly visible on the opposite peak  from where we were – it was Wuru Peak! It was immediately very clear where I was going next!

Wuru Peak and Bodhidharma’s Cave

Statue of Bodhidharma on Wuru Peak
Steep climb up to Bodhidharma's cave
Veena at the entrance to the Cave
The Cave
Statue of Bodhidharma inside the Cave
View of Song Mountain range
The way down; Chuzu temple in middle distance

Our charming hostess agreed to take us there the next day. It was a very steep climb up the mountainside to the top of the peak, but we finally arrived at Bodhidharma’s small cave, still mercifully free of the horrendous tourist trappings which later materialised. There was just enough space inside for my friend and I to sit alongside a nun from the small Chuzu Temple at the base of the peak. Sitting in meditation there, was like sitting with Osho in discourse – the energy was so strong, so powerful, so magnificent. Bodhidharma’s enlightenment was tangible and omnipresent.

And the views from the cave of the thickly forested, eternally silent Song Mountain range were stupendous.

The Shaolin Temple

Floating back down the steep steps, we finally returned to the valley in which the famous Shaolin Temple is situated. It was still fairly early in the morning, so the place wasn’t yet overrun with tourists and I was able to spend some time gazing at a stone stele, which depicted a strange kind of icon; it apparently represented a symbol of Zen because it was stylistically composed of the figures of Buddha, LaoTzu and Confucius. The theory was that Bodhidharma combined elements of these three spiritual philosophies to create Zen. To me, this was a very simplistic explanation – but I had had the benefit of sitting for years at Osho’s feet and hearing him talk about the mysteries of Zen.

We next saw another stone stele, also encased in protective glass, which depicted a kind of iconic (for the Chinese) image of Bodhidharma, complete with the ferocious expression, the hypnotic bulging eyes, and the earrings. It was difficult to take a photo of the image because so much was reflected in the glass, but on the other hand, the reflections added to the aesthetics of the photograph. Later, I was to find that this image was present just about everywhere in Dengfeng. Years previously, before the image was encased in glass, a kind of resin copy was made of it, from which many copies were printed and then sold as scrolls – a bit like people do ‘brass rubbings’ of carvings in western churches. Now, however, with improved modern printing methods, the image is printed out and can be found in many buildings, often on small altars. Bodhidharma is much-loved and worshipped here on Song Mountain.

Shaolin Temple
Drone view of Shaolin Temple
Symbol of Zen on stone stele
Iconic image
Bodhidharma's image with reflections.
Bodhidharma's image from stele-printed scroll
Bodhidharma Hall
Bodhidharma's statue in Hall
Bodhidharma's shadow on the rock from his cave

The two steles, both older than 300 years that I mention here (there are others) are important historical relics because they survived the disastrous fire of 1928 which destroyed the Shaolin Temple. The library, which contained extensive historical records and reams of information on a huge variety of topics, was burnt to the ground. The Temple was an extremely important seat of learning before this catastrophic fire. It is because of tragedies like this and others – for example, the wholesale persecution of Buddhism from 574 to 578 CE, and the consequent destruction of Buddhist records of all descriptions – that so few historical facts are known about these early spiritual leaders and philosophies in China.

I am rather sceptical about the Shaolin Temple’s apparent devotion to Bodhidharma or Damo, as the Chinese call him. It seems to me that Buddha is more important to them, and the inclusion of Damo is just a useful tourist attraction. Buddhism appears to be more prominent and Damo is relegated to a less significant Hall in the Temple. Probably one of the reasons for Buddhism being so popular in China is that it is easier to ‘grab hold of’ than Zen, because of its many scriptures to study and rituals to practice. In contrast, the essence of Zen is ‘emptiness or nothingness’, which is difficult for most people to understand.

There is also a rather mysterious rock, also encased in glass, which was supposedly cut out of the cave up on Wuru Peak and brought down and enshrined in the Temple because apparently the shadow of the seated meditating Damo is embedded in the stone.

Imagination is needed here!

The Chuzu Temple (a nunnery)

For me, of far more significance in my Damo quest is the small nunnery about 1½ miles from the Shaolin Temple at the base of Wuru Peak. With the chauvinistic mind-set of the Abbots of the Shaolin Temple, this rather shabby little Temple has been side-lined and is now seldom visited by the hordes of tourists flocking to the  Shaolin Valley. But according to Andy Ferguson, who wrote the very detailed Tracking Bodhidharma, it was here that Damo first gave his discourses on Zen. He largely ignored the more popular Shaolin Temple.

Only two years ago I made a very surprising discovery. Somebody had sent me a link to a small blog which showed some photos taken by Japanese tourists in the Shaolin Temple around the turn of the 20th Century, before the disastrous fire. Here I saw an image of Damo that I had never seen before. It was intriguing because Damo looked much more Indian than Chinese. But nowhere in the Temple complex had I seen either a statue or a painting that looked like this photo.

Entrance to the Chuzu Temple
Friend outside the small Hall
Inside the Hall with statues of Bodhidharma, Huike and Sosan
Bodhidharma looking more Indian than Chinese
120-year-old photo of Bodhidharma by a Japanese tourist
Paintings on the wall showing Bodhidharma teaching Zen

However, in 2018, I was again visiting the little Chuzu Temple because I love it (it has a deeply peaceful energy which is drastically missing from the bigger Shaolin Temple) and for the first time in all my visits, the small central Hall was open. Stepping up to the entrance I was stunned to see a statue of Damo which resembled the image in the old Japanese photograph I had seen online a few months before. This was a real discovery. I could also see the faint paintings on the walls which Andy Ferguson had talked about. He said they depicted Damo giving his discourses on Zen to crowds of followers. (Was this why the Shaolin Temple didn’t want people to come here? It gives the lie to their claim that the Shaolin Temple was all about Damo. Not good for tourism!)

Very near the little Hall there was a very vigilant nun who was suspiciously watching my every move and I knew she would strongly object if I took photographs – but I managed to snap a few with my phone. I asked her if I could go inside to have a closer look at the wall paintings but she was quite violent in her refusal!

With these discoveries, it does appear that Damo was associated more with the quiet secluded Chuzu Temple than the more famous, dominant, very noisy and busy Shaolin Temple.

And I remember Osho talking about his time with Bodhidharma in another life, fourteen hundred years ago. The full text can be read here – Osho and Bodhidharma – and one paragraph in particular, hit me.

Talking about the Shaolin Valley and Bodhidharma, Osho said:

I had gone there, but I had not time enough to stay in the temple, because the right time is in the middle of the night – when he had become enlightened. And particularly on a full moon night in a certain month, if you stay in the temple in the middle of the night, there is every possibility that either you will hear the laughter or you will start laughing.

Full Moon rising near Chuzu Temple
The Moon in its glorious fullness
Early the next morning, full moon setting over Wuru Peak

It is my feeling that Osho was talking about the Chuzu Temple. It is situated in a very silent forested area of the Shaolin valley. I did stay there in a little guest house for a few days just to sit silently in the middle of the night in the light of a very bright full moon, and I think I did hear Bodhidharma laughing! Certainly, I started laughing myself at the glorious, astounding wonder of it all.

Damo elsewhere and an unexpected discovery

As I mentioned before, images, both paintings and statues of all descriptions, are everywhere in the Song Mountain area. I found an evocative small statue in a popular tea shop in Dengfeng and two quite stunning statues in the gorgeous FaWang Temple high up on another mountain peak.

But it was a trip to Damo’s tomb between Luoyang and Sanmenxia, on the way to Xi’an, the start of the old Silk Road, that really excited me. Here, Damo’s tomb was rebuilt in 1395 after the original one, built in 538 CE, was destroyed. The original temple that Damo had lived in had also been destroyed, but recently a new temple has been built to protect the tomb and other relics.

I went there with a kungfu master I had met in Dengfeng – Master Wu Nanfang – and his daughter Lijuan and a friend. Although Lijuan speaks basic everyday English, her skills are not enough to explain anything complex, so it was a rather frustrating time for me because I wanted to know so much, but nobody could tell me anything! For example, I was taken to see an ancient-looking stone stele inside a small temple, which everybody got very excited about. I of course, got the word ‘Damo’ but beyond that, I had no idea what I was looking at that justified so much enthusiasm. Everybody indicated that I should take some photos, which I obediently did. But why, I didn’t know!

Earliest rubbing of Bodhidharma likeness
Earliest rubbing of Bodhidharma likeness

The mystery was only solved in the last few weeks. Recently I ordered a book called Zen Baggage by Bill Porter. In a chapter about Damo’s tomb, he reproduced an image: a ‘rubbing’ of a stone stele in the small temple. My little grey cells lit up! Was this the mystery stele I had seen so many years before? I found the photos I had taken, compared them, and eureka it was! Bill Porter explains the significance: the stele shows probably the first image of Damo that exists. It was carved on the stone about the same time as the original tomb was built at the time of Damo’s death around 530 CE. How totally amazing!

Damo has been called the First Zen Patriarch and because of Osho’s love and obviously deep connection with him, much of my own personal focus was on him. But Damo began a lineage which descended through five more great Zen Masters or Patriarchs and I was deeply intrigued to delve into whatever information I could discover about them as well.

Quote by Osho from The New Dawn, Ch 23, Ch 2

To be continued…


Veena is the author of a trilogy of books about her path to and with Osho.

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