Da Mo's Meditation



Legend tells that before he came to China, Da Mo (Boddidharma), the twenty-eighth descendant of the Indian Buddha Moheijiaye, three times went through a period of intense dyhana but was not once filled with the spirit of the Buddha. But despite the ridicule he received from his fellow students and the reprimands of his masters, he was not discouraged.

For those unsure of the meaning of the word, dyhana is a Buddhist term referring to a type of meditation where one "sits in silent contemplation, with a clear heart seeing one's true nature". It is sitting cross-legged facing a blank wall, with one's eyes gazing inward until one's spirit becomes still. One must remove all evil or useless thoughts and allow one's soul to become totally silent. The common people call this a search for truth and the betterment of one's spiritual self. The purpose is to be totally physically relaxed, without thought, a heart free of worry, allow one's spirit to join with Buddha, and so reach enlightenment.

Having not once been successful in his meditations, Da Mo was obviously not a very important character in the eyes of the other monks. One year, when the Buddhist faith in India was undergoing a period of rapid growth, the Supreme Abbot posted a notice at the main gate of the monastery asking for eminent monks to volunteer to go go to China as missionaries to spread the word of the Buddha. A great many monks and apprentices gathered before the gates to read the notice, but none dared to volunteer. Da Mo, however, made his way to the front of the crowd, looked at the notice for a second and then with a swift movement he tore it down, upon which the other monks took him into the scripture hall. As Da Mo was brought before him, the notice in his hand, the Abbot angrily asked, "The weight of this task is greater than a mountain. Are you able to lift it?"

Da Mo replied "I will serve the Buddha with all my heart."

The Abbott continued. "And if you should fail?"

"According to our commandments I will be punished, and have my body smashed to pieces without regret."

After examining him and seeing the ease of his answers and the determination of his spirit the Abbot allowed Da Mo to travel to China with the Buddhist message.

Upon coming to China Da Mo first passed through Guangzhou (Canton) and then went to golden Hill (today's Nanjing), where he stayed for a time. While there he was pleased to discover that the Chinese people were hardworking and brave, simple and honest, and so he decided to go north as soon as possible to find a place to settle down and begin his teaching. On the day he decided to leave Nanjing and cross the Changjiang (Yangtze) river to head north the common people somehow knew ahead of time and in order to test the eminent Indian monk they deliberately sailed every boat away from the wharf. When Da Mo arrived at the river to discover it devoid of boats, but with both banks crowded with people who had come to see him get across, he half guessed what was happening. As he looked around, his eyes fell upon an old woman standing with a single reed in her hands. He walked forward and, pressing his hands together palm to palm, bowed deeply and explained that he wanted to borrow the reed to cross the river. The old woman gave it to him and he walked across and placed it in the waters of the Changjiang. Then, as his eyes began to gaze deep into his own soul and his spirit became quiet, he placed both feet squarely on the reed and began to cross the river, again bowing deeply to the woman as he moved away from the bank. In this way, being gently propelled by the south-east breeze, he finally reached the northern side of that enormous river.

Today, constructed in memory of this event, in front of the Hall of Jeweled Heroes at the Shaolin monastery there is a stone tablet upon which is engraved the figure of a monk. He has long eyebrows, large eyes, high cheekbones, a pointed chin, a full beard and a moustache, large rings in his ears and his bare feet are placed squarely on a single reed.

After arriving at the Central Mountain, Da Mo settled down at Shaolin and began to teach. To the north of the monastery, half way up Five breasts Peak, there is a square-mouthed cave, about the size of a small room, which opens out directly towards the sun. From the start of his life at Shaolin DA Mo used to go to this cave to meditate. To begin with, he would climb the mountain during the day to sit in the cave and face the wall in a state of dyhana, and in the evening he would go back down to the monastery to discuss Buddhist lore with the other monks. After a short time, however, he no longer returned to the monastery, but sat continuously facing the wall of the cave, legs crossed, in silent contemplation, observing his own inner nature. In this way the days and the years passed by in an endless stream. When he became tired Da Mo would stand up, walk around, swing his arms and legs, and when the stiffness had gone from his limbs he would again sit down, look inside himself, dispel all evil and disturbing thoughts, and become silent.

A man can tolerate to sit and meditate during spring and autumn, but in summer, when midges swarm around one's head and mosquitoes and other insects devour one, it becomes unbearable. There were some years that Da Mo's face was bitten so badly that it became covered with nasty sores, but he remained unaware, immersed in his own silence.

Five Breasts Peak is very steep, surrounded by deep valleys, and in the depth of winter wolves, tigers and panthers could often be heard chasing around the door of the cave, howling into the night. Once, a young monk climbed the mountain to give some food to Da Mo, and as he entered the cave he saw a large gray wolf with it's drooling, red mouth open wide and it's front paws on Da Mo's shoulders, about to sink it's teeth into his neck. The young monk yelled suddenly at the top of his voice and , with a howl, the wolf turned and fled. Da Mo, totally unaware, sat with closed eyes and continued to chant quietly to himself.

During the winter of another year the chilly north wind howled around the mountain, but as it brought no rain or snow all of the mountain grass was dry and brittle and all of the leaves had fallen from the trees. No one knows exactly how it happened, but the grass caught fire and in just a short time, with the flames whipped by the wind, the whole mountain was alight. Everyone down at the monastery could see the flames surrounding the mouth of the cave and so several monks battled their way up the mountain, against the blasting wind, to save Da Mo. When they got to the cave and looked inside, however, they saw him sitting cross-legged, back straight, facing the wall without even the slightest hint of movement.

Da Mo meditated at the wall for a total of nine years. During the periods when he exercised to relieve is fatigue he created some fighting forms which were the basis of today's Shaolin "Heart-minded Fist". It is said that after three thousand days facing the wall Da Mo's shadow became engraved upon the stone. From a distance one can see on the rock face the shape of a man sitting cross-legged, his hands pressed together before him in meditation. After Da Mo's nine year meditation the local people named the cave Da Mo's Cave and the wall was named Meditation Wall.


Today the cave can still be found on the side of Five Breasts Peak and, constructed in front of it, there is a single stone archway. On the southern side of this arch are carved the words "Mo Xuan Chu" - "The place of profound silence", composed by Hu Bin, a government official from Haiyang, who lived during the Song dynasty. On the northern side of the arch are carved the words "Dong Lai Zhao Ji" - "The mark of the beginning in the east", written by Jin Xi of Yandu during the Ming dynasty. Outside the cave, on the wall to the west side, is a four-lined poem composed during the Ming dynasty by Su Minwang of Changdan. It reads:

Who can master the great wisdom from the west?

Nine years training on Five Breasts Peak.

If true understanding can be reached in the world of men,

Then it is Da Mo who has achieved that end.

In his later years, Da Mo was very sickly but despite this he once went ot the Qianwang monastery at Luoyang to perform Buddhist ceremony. After he had passed away the other monks in the Shaolin monastery, in order to commemorate him, took chisels and carved the rock out of the wall in front of where he used to sit in meditation. This rock now stands in the grounds of the monastery for all to admire. The famous poet, Xiao Yuanji, composed a memorial poem for the stone which reads:

A stone at Shaolin, all say it is a man.

Clearly it is a man, clearly it is a stone.

What stone? The meditation stone.

What man? the meditating man.

The meditating Buddha, son of a king sat for nine years.

After nine years became the meditation Buddha.

Made of the Buddha, an empty body, the body impressed into the spirit of the stone.

The shape in the rock, forever controlling the destiny of the Shaolin school.


As told by Xing Zhang, an ex-monk, November 1980