Patriarch Bodhidharma (Da Mo Zu Shi) was the most legendary master in Chinese Zen Buddhism history, and he’s been well known in China. When I was young, my grandmother used to tell me the folk tales of Patriarch Bodhidharma. I’ve always wondered what Patriarch Bodhidharma looked like.
One day in International Art Museum of America, I saw a painting of Da Mo Zu Shi, the artist is H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III. It gave me a really deep impression — A majestic black-faced holy monk, seemingly quiet but reflecting unparalleled spiritual power, seems to have traveled through thousands of years of time and space, and suddenly appeared in front of me.
This painting, drawn in the freehand style, was created from only a small number of brush strokes. The point of view of the picture, the thick and imposing character modeling, and the simple and rich color application endow the picture with an ancient and muddy artistic style.
Through the artist’s seasoned brushwork, this painting captures the natural essence of all things. Let’s look at some specific parts of the picture. Bright eyes shine under the dark eyebrows like full autumn moons. The mouth seems to breathe with the grandeur of eternity.
Hair, eyebrows, and beard are painted with brush strokes like scraping iron; the facial contours of the characters are drawn with iron lines, and the brushwork is refined and powerful. At the bottom of the picture is the robe of the patriarch, made by heavy and strong brushwork.
This artistry, devoid of the slightest affectation, shows the natural ease with which the artist wields the brush when creating calligraphy and paintings. It is the essence of Zen, the truth of the universe, naturalness that is free of attachment.
Patriarch Bodhidharma was the twenty-eighth generation descendant of Zen Buddhism. About a thousand years ago, he came to China. He crossed the mountains and deserts on foot, and crossed the rivers with a reed raft.
Upon reaching China, the Patriarch met a monk named Huike. At that time, Master Huike was quite famous but still an ordinary monk, not having reached enlightenment. Due to a series of misunderstandings, Master Huike believed that the Patriarch Bodhidharma was insulting the scriptures of Buddhism, and thus he assumed he must be a devil. So Huike was ready to denounce Patriarch Bodhidharma.
Master Huike had a chain of iron beads hanging around his neck. He took it off and threw it at Patriarch Bodhidharma with all his strength. This act of violence caught his target by surprise, knocking out his two front teeth.
Naturally, the Patriarch’s first reflex was to spit out his broken teeth. But he was an Arhat at the time, which meant that should his teeth touch the ground, there would be a three year drought. To spare the common people from this disaster, he swallowed his broken teeth and left without saying a word. His actions showed great compassion and forbearance.
Humbled by the Bodhidharma’s strength of character, Master Huike followed the patriarch, becoming his disciple, and, eventually, the second generation of Zen master in China.
The portrait of the Patriarch seems to exhale a holy breath, which lightens the lives of all those around it. It expresses the original nature of Zen, eternal and immutable. Those who view it have experienced a great spiritual encounter, which brings about a subtle but powerful change in their lives.