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The Legend of Bodhidharma and his Shadow Impressed in the Shaolin Cave


After meditating for nine consecutive years, Bodhidharma left the mark of his shadow inside a cave.

According to legend, Bodhidharma, also known as Da Mo, was a Hindu monk, possibly the son of a king, who renounced his royal inheritance to devote his life to the transmission of the Buddhist doctrine. As in all mythical characters, in Bodhidharma’s legend, fantasy is mixed with history and the myth grows as the miraculous episodes of his life are invented and collected by centuries and men. There is actually very little we know of Da Mo. Known as the 28th patriarch of Zen or Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma’s figure is still enveloped in mystery.

One of the many mythical anecdotes of Da Mo’s spiritual realization makes reference to a cave located to the north of the Shaolin monastery, where they say the Zen monk began his intensive training.  Da Mo used to retire to the small cave above the monastery, where he would spend long periods of meditation, only interrupted by the desire to return to the monastery to exchange opinions with the other monks. One day, however, Da Mo did not descend. His meditative state reached such a depth that time stopped and minutes, hours, and days added up until they became nine years.

He spent nine years in the zazen pose, in the small cave that seemed destined to serve him as a vehicle to illumination. Nine years that ultimately led to the strange immortalization of Da Mo’s shadow which, projected on the rocky back of the cave, seems printed on the mineral as if it were dark graphite; forever reminding those who entered about the Zen master’s timeless presence. During that period, Da Mo learnt truth, and he devoted his life to transmitting it and exemplifying it with his own life.

The shadow’s symbolic power crosses centuries of tradition and Occidental and Oriental art. Tanizaki wrote his famous praise and the foundational myth of Occidental painting, recorded by Plinio, which sets the origin of this art in the tracing of a man’s shadow. What is the meaning of Da Mo’s shadow being impressed on the hard rock? Some still arrive in Songshan to visit the mythical cave and to venerate Bodhidharma. Whether we believe in the fossilized shadow or not, we are intrigued by its hidden meaning and symbolic nature.

As we said before, the shadow has always been present in the history of human culture. But, is it not the myth of the Platonic cavern which brings us closest to the cave of Bodhidharma? In Plato’s cave, beings accustomed to perceiving the shadows projected from outside are resigned to see these as their only reality. Shadows, says Plato, are like the objects we see, mere appearances that we must transcend in order to reach the true reality located in the world of ideas. The shadow appears like the perfect metaphor of the veil we must tear in order to grasp true reality.

This is why the Myth of the Cavern seems to derive in an analogy of Bodhidharma’s shadow: having surpassed the delusion of appearances, having reached a state of supreme truth, Da Mo left behind the useless part of his being (his shadow) to rest forever in the Shaolin cave.

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