Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 23)

Let us now turn to some figures from Buddhism who are said to have appeared after their deaths.

Bodhidharma is the Buddhist monk credited with bringing Chan Buddhism to China, some time around the 5th century AD. Here is Wikipedia's summary of the legend surrounding his death:
Three years after Bodhidharma's death, Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei is said to have seen him walking while holding a shoe at the Pamir Heights. Sòngyún asked Bodhidharma where he was going, to which Bodhidharma replied "I am going home". When asked why he was holding his shoe, Bodhidharma answered "You will know when you reach Shaolin monastery. Don't mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster". After arriving at the palace, Sòngyún told the emperor that he met Bodhidharma on the way. The emperor said Bodhidharma was already dead and buried and had Sòngyún arrested for lying. At Shaolin Monastery, the monks informed them that Bodhidharma was dead and had been buried in a hill behind the temple. The grave was exhumed and was found to contain a single shoe. The monks then said "Master has gone back home" and prostrated three times: "For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him; Carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony."
So, that's something. We not only have the usual "group of people who believe" that Bodhidharma rose from the dead, but also a named figure, one "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei", who at least sound like a historical person. So, how should we evaluate this story?

As before, we first ask where this story comes from. It turns out that the source for this story is the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, which was compiled in 952 - about 400 years after Bodhidharma is supposed to have died. Again, this is far outside a human lifetime, and that makes it impossible to find the kind of personal testimonies of historical individuals that we're looking for.

As for "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei" - well, it turns out that he really was a historical person - a Buddhist monk who was sent into India to acquire some Buddhist texts, some time around 520. But this does not really help the case for Bodhidharma's "resurrection", because none of the texts that mention Song Yun or his journey mentions this "resurrection". The event therefore seems to be a later, legendary addition.

The other sources on Bodhidharma, many of which are earlier than the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, also force us to draw the same conclusion. None of them mention this story of Bodhidharma "going home". It is clearly a later, legendary addition, and Wikipedia has no qualms about labeling it as such.

Let's now assign a numerical value to the level of evidence in this story. There's the usual "some people say this happened" dimension to the story, which again gets counted for 1/10th of the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 - that is, as 1/10th of 1/6th of the evidence for Jesus's resurrection. As for "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei", having a named, real, historical witness would count as a full 1/6th of the evidence, except that this witness is named 400 years after the fact. This would still count as some non-negligible fraction of that 1/6th, and we'd have to add that in.

But nearly all of this gets wiped out by the strong evidence against the story from the lack of mention in the earlier sources, indicating that this whole story is a later, legendary addition. In the end, the level of evidence for Bodhidharma's "resurrection" can't amount to more than the "some people say" level - the usual 1/60th of the amount of evidence for Christ's resurrection.

Next week we'll examine another Buddhist monk.

You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Questions from seekers - short answers to common questions (Part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents


  1. Woaw! You've really thoroughly covered this topic. It looks like I have some catching up to do but this is some interesting stuff. Thanks for posting buddy.

    1. Thank you! I do like how this series is shaping up - I hope you stick around until the end!