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Buddhabhadra – The First Shaolin Abbot

Before Bodhidharma arrived in China, the dhyāna master Buddhabhadra (Traditional Chinese: 佛陀跋陀罗; Fótuóbátuóluó), simply called Batuo (Traditional Chinese: 吠陀; pinyin: Bátuó) by the Chinese, was the first abbot of Shaolin Temple.

A collection of short sayings for twelve figures at an imaginary memorial gathering for Hung-jen (601-674 AD) (Traditional Chinese: 弘忍), the fifth patriarch of China’s Zen (Ch’an) school, refer to Buddhabhadra. The sayings, entitled Former Worthies Gather at the Mount Shuang-feng Stūpa and Each Talks of the Dark Principle, contain the following quote: "Dhyana Master Buddha says: 'The extreme principle is wordless. The sagely mind is unimpeded.'"

According to the Deng Feng County Recording, a formal historical record in Deng Feng County, Henan, where the Songshan Mountain Shaolin Temple (the first Shaolin Temple) is located, Buddabhadra came to China in 464 AD and preached an early form of Buddhism for thirty years. He came from either India or Greco-Buddhist Central Asia and was well received and respected. Thirty-one years later, in 495 AD, the Shaolin Temple was built by the order of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557 AD) to provide Buddhabhadra with a tranquil place for his teachings. Shaolin Temple literally means "temple in the thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain", which is one of the seven peaks of the Song mountains. Mount Songshan is hailed as the Central Sacred Mountain among the Five Sacred Mountains of China.

Buddabhadra dedicated himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and promoting Xiao Sheng (Traditional Chinese: 小騎; "Small Vehicle"), Hīnayāna or Nikaya, Buddhism. It is also called Theravāda (Thera = elders; Vada = teaching, "School of the Elders"). Xiao Sheng Buddhism promoted the more modest goal of becoming an arhat rather than a Buddha. In Buddhism, an arhat is one who is liberated from rebirth and suffering and has attained Nirvana (serenity). A Buddha is one who has attained Bodhi (wisdom), an ideal state of intellectual and ethical Enlightenment.

Yijing (Traditional Chinese: 義淨), a Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) Chinese Buddhist monk, who traveled to India in the 7th century AD, differentiated the Dasheng (Traditional Chinese: 大乘 ; "Great Vehicle") Mahāyāna Buddhism of Bodhidharma from Hīnayāna as follows:

"Both adopt one and the same Vinaya, and they have in common the prohibitions of the five offenses, and also the practice of the Four Noble Truths. Those who venerate (regard with great respect) the bodhisattvas and read the Mahāyāna sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists."

Buddhabhadra's Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures included: the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra and the Dasabhumika Sutra. His principal disciples were Sengchou (Traditional Chinese: 僧稠) and Huiguang (Traditional Chinese: 慧光). Both were martial arts masters, possibly military men, before entering monastic life and beginning their religious studies with Buddhabhadra. Huiguang founded the Southern Dilun Buddhist sect. Sengchou succeeded Buddhabhadra as the abbot of the Shaolin Temple.

Buddhabhadra and other Indian Buddhist missionaries built a foundation that Bodhidharma expanded upon. The Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple continues this tradition in its martial arts classes.


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