Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Chan teachings to China and he is the First Patriarch of Chinese Chan (Zen) Lineage. He was born on 5th October (Chinese Lunar Calendar) in Southern India, and was the third son of an Indian King; the royal family belonged to the Brahmin caste. Bodhidharma's Buddhist Master, Prajnatara, was the 27th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism, taught Bodhidharma for many years, gave him Mind Transmission, made him the 28th Patriarch, and gave him the name Bodhidharma. Following the instruction of his master to transmit Dharma to China, Bodhidharma traveled east to Southern China in 526 A.D. When he arrived in Kwang Chou, he was ceremoniously welcomed and greatly honored by the local military official named Shao Yang.
On the 1st October, 527, at the invitation of Emperor Liang Wu Di, Bodhidharma went to his capital in Nanjing. Emperor Wu Di was very fond of Buddhism and often wore Buddhist garments, ate vegetarian food and recited Buddhist prayers. However, he was proud of his great support for Buddhism in his kingdom.
Proud of his knowledge in Buddhism and the contributions he had towards the Sangha, he asked the sage, "Since I came to the throne, I have built many temples, published numerous scriptures and supported countless monks and nuns. How great is the merit in all these?"
"No merit to speak of" was the shocking reply of Bodhidharma.
Now, the emperor thought, he had often heard teachings from renowned masters who said, "Do good, and you will receive good; do bad and you will receive bad. The Law of Cause and Effect is unchangeable, effects follow causes as shadows follow figures." But now, this sage declared that he had earned no merit at all. Thus, the emperor was thoroughly perplexed.
The emperor had failed to understand the sage's words which means that one is not really practising the Buddhadharma if one does good with the desire to gain merit for oneself. It will be more like satisfying one's own ego, or promoting one's own welfare, or even for the sake of being recognised and appreciated by the public.
The emperor then asked the next question, "What then, is the essence of Buddhism?"
Bodhidharma's immediated reply was, "Vast emptiness and no essence at all!"
This stunned the emperor as he could not grasp the deep meaning of 'no essence at all' in the Buddha's teachings. Other masters had taken great pains to explain that the essence was contained in the doctrines such as 'The Four Noble Truths', 'The Law of Cause and Effect', 'the Bodhisattva Ideals', etc., but this so-called great patriach of Buddhism had just declared that there was 'no essence at all'.
Then, the emperor put his final question, "Since you said that in Buddhism all things have no essence, who then is speaking before me now?"
Bodhidharma replied, "I do not know."
The emperor was taken aback, for he could not understand what Bodhidharma meant.
The confused emperor then dismissed the sage from the court on 17 October. Thus, China had its first taste of Chan (Zen) teaching. After Bodhidharma's departure, the emperor discussed the incident with his Buddhist teacher, Master Chih. The master asked him, "Does your majesty know who this man is? He is the Mahasattva Avalokiteshvara transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal."
This made the emperor filled with great regret for having sent him out of the court. Years later, upon hearing the death of the sage, he mourned deeply and then wrote an inscription to pay his tribute to the great sage which read:
"Alas! I saw him without seeing him;
I met him without meeting him;
I encountered him without encountering him;
Now as before I regret this deeply!"
On the other hand, Bodhidharma was succeeded by Hui K'o, the Second Partriarch, followed by Tao Hsin, Hung Jen and finally Hui Neng, who became the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth partriarch respectively. It was Hui Neng, the illiterate woodcutter, who eventually made Chan teachings flourish in China as never before.
After the conversation between the emperor and Bodhidharma was mutually unsatisfactory, Bodhidharma left the palace, crossed the Yangtzu River, and continued north until he arrived at the Shao Lin Temple in Ho Nan Province. It was here that Bodhidharma became famous for meditating 9 years facing the rock wall of a cave.
It is in this cave, Hui K'o met Bodhidharma. Hui K'o, the great general, (retired), was troubled in his search for the liberation. Many times he beseeched Bodhidharma to teach him and to pacify his mind. Always, Bodhidharma refused. To show his utter sincerity, Hui K'o stood in a snowstorm all night outside this cave. At dawn Bodhidharma supposedly said to him, "How can you hope for true realization, with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind?" Hui K'o heard this as a merciful admonition, causing him to weep and building his determination, to demonstrate which he cut off his left arm with a sword.
"What do you seek?", asked Bodhidharma.
"Peace of mind", replied Hui K'o.
"Show me this mind of yours", said Bodhidharma, "and I will pacify it".
"But when I seek my mind, I cannot find it", was the reply.
"THERE!" , said Bodhidharma, "I have pacified your mind!"
"YES!", said Hui K'o, and laughed.
Thus, Hui K'o became his disciple and spent eight years with him. "Mystic Devices in the Room" cites that one day Hui K'o climbed Few Houses Peak with Bodhidharma and during that climb Bodhidharma said something that triggered the full realization of his true essence.
It is said when Bodhidharma was near death he called his four chief disciples and asked them to state their original insights. After hearing the first speaker, Bodhidharma told him that he was like Bodhidharma's skin; to the second, that she was like his flesh; to the third, that he was like his bone. To Hui K'o, who spoke last, Bodhidharma said that he was like his marrow, thus conferring the Patriarch's robe, Lankavatara Sutra and his personal bowl upon him.
Bodhidharma went to Chen Sung (One Thousand Saints) Temple to propagate the Dharma. He passed into Nirvana in 536 A.D., was buried in Shon Er Shan (Bear Ear Mountain) in Ho Nan, and a stupa was built for him in Pao Lin Temple. Later, the Tang dynasty Emperor, Dai Dzong, bestowed on Bodhidharma the name "Yuen Che Grand Chan Master", and renamed his stupa as "Kong Kwan" (Empty Visualization). A few years after his death, a Chinese official reported encountering Bodhidharma in the mountains of Central Asia. Bodhidharma was reportedly carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official that he was on his way back to India. When this story reached his home, his fellow monks decided to open Bodhidharma's tomb. Inside there was nothing but a sandal.