Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century CE. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch'an (Sanskrit: Dhyāna, Japanese: Zen) to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.
Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend. There are three principal sources for Bodhidharma's biography: Yáng Xuànzhī's (Yang Hsüan-chih) The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547), Tánlín's preface to the Two Entrances and Four Acts (6th century CE), which is also preserved in Ching-chüeh's Chronicle of the Lankavatar Masters (713-716), and Dàoxuān's (Tao-hsuan) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (7th century CE).
These sources, given in various translations, vary on their account of Bodhidharma being either:
- " monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asian" c.q. "from Persia" (Buddhist monasteries, 547);
- " South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king." (Tanlin, 6th century CE);
- "ho came from South India in the Western Regions, the third son of a great Brahman king" c.q. "the third son of a Brahman king of South India" (Lankavatara Masters, 713-716/ca. 715);
- "f South Indian Brahman stock" c.q. "a Brahman monk from South India" (Further Biographies, 645).
Some traditions specifically describe Bodhidharma to be the third son of a Tamil Pallava king from Kanchipuram.
The accounts also differ on the date of his arrival, with one early account claiming that he arrived during the Liú Sòng Dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liáng Dynasty (502–557). Bodhidharma was primarily active in the lands of the Northern Wèi Dynasty (386–534). Modern scholarship dates him to about the early 5th century.
Several stories about Bodhidharma have become popular legends, which are still being used in the Ch'an and Zen-tradition.
Bodhidharma's teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Lankavatara Sutra.
The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Buddha himself.
Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is referred as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" (碧眼胡) in Chinese Chan texts.