Accounts of Bodhidharma’s life are largely apocryphal – as one might expect, given that he was a Buddhist monk who arrived in China from India some 1500 years ago during either the Liu Song dynasty (420-479 AD) or the Liang dynasty (502-557 AD). He is traditionally credited with establishing the Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism by founding the Shaolin Monastery near Zhengzhou in Henan province. Thus Bodhidharma became the first Buddhist patriarch in China, as well as master of the Shaolin monks (he supposedly instituted the physical regime that led to their form of Kung Fu).
In the absence of any facts, stories abound. One, that soon after meeting the Nan emperor Wudi, who had questioned him concerning accrued positive karma by building Buddhist temples, Bodhidharma retired to a monastery in Luoyang where he spent nine years staring at a cave wall in deep concentration. Another states that, in a fit of anger after repeatedly falling asleep while meditating, he cut off his eyelids … upon touching the ground they sprang up as the first tea plants. Still another tells the tale of how Bodhidharma refused to resume teaching until a would-be student Dazu Huike, who had kept vigil in the snows outside the Shaolin Monastery, cut off his own left arm to demonstrate sincerity. No wonder throughout Buddhist art Bodhidharma is depicted as an ill-tempered, wide-eyed, unforgiving sort.
According to folklore, Bodhidharma travelled from China to the Indonesian islands, there spreading his knowledge of the Mahayama doctrine and martial arts before returning to China through Nanyue. Even after his death, he wouldn’t stay still. Three years after Bodhidharma died a Chinese official met him carrying one shoe on a trail in the Pamir Mountains; when Bodhidharma’s grave was exhumed, it contained but a single sandal.