Daruma, Grand Patriarch of Zen

In addition to enso, the most common subject of Zen art are portraits of its First Patriarch, Daruma (Sanskrit: Bodhidharma) the legendary meditation master who traveled from India to China in the sixth century to overturn the top-heavy superstructure of doctrinal Buddhism that had arisen the Middle Kingdom. Here is how Bodhidharma’s interview went with the Chinese Emperor Wu:

Wu: “I have built numerous temples, commissioned many sutras, supported hundreds of monks and nuns. How great is my merit?”

Bodhidharma: No merit!

Wu: “What is the first principle of Buddhism?”

Bodhidharma: “Vast emptiness, nothing holy!”

Wu: “Who are you?”

Bodhidharma: “Don’t know!”

Bodhidharma’s Zen teaching is summarized as being:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not dependent on words nor letters;

Zen points directly to the human heart,

See into your nature, become Buddha.

In Zen art, the master does not paint Daruma as an historical figure but as a symbol of penetrating insight, self-reliance, ceaseless diligence, and the rejection of externals. Thus, a Daruma painting is a spiritual self-portrait, based on the individual experience of each Zen master. When asked, “How long does it take to paint a Daruma?” Hakuin replied, “Ten minutes and eighty years.”