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Legend has it that a bearded Indian monk named Bodhidharma appeared at the southern Chinese port city of Canton sometime around the year 520 and from there he traveled to Nanking to honor an invitation from China's most devout Buddhist, Emperor Wu. After a famous interview in which his irreverence left the emperor dismayed, Bodhidharma pressed onward to the Buddhist centers of the north, finally settling in at the Shaolin monastery on Mr. Sung for nine years of meditation staring at a wall. He then transmitted his insights and a copy of the Lankavatara sutra to a successor and passed on—either physically, spiritually, or both. His devotion to meditation and to the aforementioned sutra were his legacies to China. He was later honored as father of the Chinese Dhyana—or "Meditation"—school of Buddhism, called Chan.

Bodhidharma attracted little notice during his years in China, and the first historical account of his life is a brief mention in a chronicle compiled well over a hundred years after the fact, identifying him merely as a practitioner of meditation. However, later stories of his life became increasingly embellished, as he was slowly elevated to the office of First Ancestor of Chinese Chan. His life was made to fulfill admirably the requirements of a legend, as it was slowly enveloped in symbolic anecdotes illustrating the truth more richly than did mere fact.

Although the legend attached to this unshaven Indian Buddhist tells us fully as much about early Chan as it does about the man himself, it is nonetheless the first page in the book of Zen.