Bodhidharma, a Buddhist missionary from India who traveled to China, is an Arhat and an avatarof the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Founder of Chan/Zen Buddhism, he was eventually revered as the virtual equal of the Buddha.

Legend identifies Bodhidharma as an Indian king’s son who achieved enlightenment and went to China, arriving in Canton in the early sixth century. He eventually had words with the emperor, and so Bodhidharma decided to leave town, crossing the Yangtze River on a reed on his way to Northern China, where he settled on the sacred mountain, Song Shan, home of the Shaolin Monastery where Bodhidharma spent some time.

Bodhidharma spent nine years facing a wall in deep meditation. He was poisoned by two rivals. Two previous attempts at killing him had failed, but the third time Bodhidharma transmitted his wisdom to his disciple, then consciously took the poison and left the world. Or did he? After his death, a Chinese man returning from India claimed to have seen Bodhidharma on the Pamir Plateau. His tomb was opened and found empty! People resolved these mysteries by comparing the Buddhist sage to a Taoist Immortal. Bodhidharma is venerated by Buddhists but also by Taoists and Shintoists. According to Japanese legend, Bodhidharma did not return to India after he was poisoned but traveled to Japan, where he became Daruma.

• Bodhidharma is sometimes credited with developing some of the martial arts associated with the Shaolin Monastery.

• Bodhidharma is credited with creating tea. He once fell asleep while meditating. When he awoke, he was so annoyed with himself that to make sure it never happened again, he sliced off his eyelids. He tossed his lids to the ground and the very first tea plant (Camellia sinensis) emerged at that spot.


Arhat; Avalokiteshvara; Bodhisattva; Buddha; Daruma


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.