Shaolin - ( Image compiled by Dr. Blog )

People, native or foreign, are easily amazed by Chinese Wugong performed by Jet Li, a film star now active in Hollywood, or that is shown in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Anyone interested in Kongfu, Wugong or simply Chinese Martial Arts has heard of Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si), which is worshipped as the birth place of Wugong. Shaolin Temple, located on the south foot of Songshan Mountain (one of China's five most famous mountains), is 76 kilometres away from Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province. The history of the Shaolin Temples with its fighting monks has been a very long, exciting, and honored tradition with much political intrigue. Through the ages, the Shaolin Temples (north and south) have been built, burned down, and rebuilt many times.

Even so, through all its tribulations, it has never ceased to be a training grounds and holy place for the monks. Out of about 1,500 years, it has been totally closed and deserted only a handful of years (and even then, monks trained there at night secretly). Shaolin is most famous for its deep knowledge and developments in all aspects of the martial arts.

Shaolin’s fighting monks, of which at its peak numbered in the thousands, had a reputation throughout China for being highly honorable, most courageous, and greatly skilled. Shaolin’s fighting monks served as role models for the virtuous and spiritual warrior and sparked a huge interest in martial arts that influenced much of what we know today.

Oddly enough, the Shaolin fighting art’s came from a pacifist beginning: the merger of the spiritual philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism. The first and main Shaolin temple was located in Henan (Honan) province, along the north side of Shao Shih [shaoshi] mountain, and built by the royal decree of Emperor Hsiao Wien [Xiao Wen] during the early Northern Wei dynasty (386 - 534 AD) for an Indian Buddhist monk named Batuo (or Fo Tuo in Chinese). (He is most remembered today by his statue, which depicts a fat and jolly seated monk, the “Laughing Buddha”.) In the newly built temple Indian and Chinese monks would spend their days meditating, praying and copying ancient scriptures. The Buddhist school taught by Ba-Tuo allowed the practice of fighting arts, which was in sharp contrast to many of the stricter schools of thought.

Buddhism in China

According to tradition, the historical Buddha was born around 563 B.C.E. into an eminent family of the Sakya clan located among the foothills of the Himalayas between present-day Nepal and India. His personal name was Siddhartha, but he later became known as Sakyamuni (Sage of the Sakyas). At the age of twenty-nine he rejected the life of luxury in which he had been raised, leaving his home and family to seek understanding of the suffering and mortality inherent in all life. After years of searching, at the age of thirty-five, he found spiritual enlightenment during a night of meditation. Thereafter, he devoted the rest of his life to teaching the insights he had attained.

The essence of the Buddha’s teachings is embodied in “The Four Noble Truths”: First, all life is suffering, second, suffering stems from desire, third, suffering can only end with the elimination of desire, fourth, this is achieved by following the Eightfold Path, focused on meditation, moral training, and discipline. Only by following these teachings can the individual reach enlightenment, or salvation, and, after death, the transcendent state known as nirvana.

During the centuries following Sakyamuni’s death, Buddhism evolved into an institutional religion. Monastic orders were formed and worship of the relics of the Buddha, and indeed the Buddha himself, became popular. Originally, the Buddha was represented only by the lotus or the stupa, but by the first century B.C.E. images of the Buddha began to appear.

Although Buddhism was known in China during the Han dynasty, it was only after fall of the Han that it began to gain widespread popularity. A continuous stream of Buddhist missionaries from India and Central Asia found eager converts at every level of society and powerful patrons among the new nomad rulers of North China. The practice of Buddhism proved a potent stimulant to trade, with a growing demand for precious objects from afar, including incense from Central Asia, jewels and precious metals, coral, pearls, and lapis lazuli, all destined to adorn Buddhist temples, images, and reliquaries.

The form of Buddhism that became dominant in China was Mahayana ("The Greater Vehicle"). Mahayana Buddhism emphasized the potential salvation of all living beings and the concept of compassion. The embodiment of this ideal of universal compassion was the bodhisattva, beings who have attained enlightenment but who defer their entry into nirvana to aid others. A popular Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, taught that making holy images was an act of the highest merit on the road to enlightenment. Mahayana converts became China’s greatest art patrons, supporting the building of cave temples and pagodas, the carving of statues and stelae (stone tablets), and the translation and copying of Buddhist sutras.

The First Buddhist Temple in China

The Baima Temple in Luoyang, Henan Province, was the first Buddhist Temple in China. It is said that one night in the year A. D. 64, Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) dreamed of a golden man 12 feet high, and the light from the man’s head illuminated the hall where he stood.

In the morning, the emperor told his officials what he had seen, and one of them, named Fu Yi, said the emperor had dreamed of the Buddha, a god of the West. Then the emperor sent Cai Yin, Qin Jing, and others to Tianzhu (now India) for Buddhist scriptures.

When Cai, Qin, and their group arrived in what is now Afghanistan, they met Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaranya, two eminent Indian monks, who were preaching Buddhism there. In A. D. 67, they loaded Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit and a portrait on white felt of Sakyamuni, the Buddha, onto a white horse and returned to Luoyang with the two Indian monks. The emperor lodged the monks at the Honglu Temple, which had a guesthouse for foreign emissaries. When living quarters for the monks were built in the temple the following year, the temple was renamed Baima (White Horse) Temple so people could remember the white horse that carried back the Buddhist scriptures and the portrait of Sakyamuni.

Bodhidharma, in China

Bodhidharma was born around 440 A.D. in Kanchi, the capital of the Southern Indian kingdom of Pallava. He was a Brahman by birth, the third child of King Sugandha, was a member of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, and had his childhood in Conjeeveram (also Kanchipuram or Kancheepuram), a Buddhist province south of Madras. He received his religious training from the Dhyana Master Prajnatara, and was considered very wise in the way of Dhyana or Zen practices.

Da Mo is said to also have been proficient in Kalaripayat (an ancient karate-like art that was influenced itself by vajramushti) which while including some weaponry included weaponless forms that were practiced in conjunction with the controlled breathing techniques of pranayama. Pranayama is part of the “Eightfold Path of Discipline” in Astanga yoga.

In most of East Asia, today, Da Mo is revered as the spiritual father of Zen Buddhism, having been the twenty-eighth patriarch after Sakyamuni (the historic Buddha) and the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. He started what eventually became the Ch’an school of Buddhism in China. He is also the founder of a weaponless fighting art that was the precursor of modern-day martial arts.

During the Chinese Southern Liang dynasty [502-557 A.D.] the Emperor Liang Wu invited the Buddhist monk Da Mo to preach Buddhism in China. Da Mo arrived in China around 520 A.D., although accounts have it that he arrived during the Sung dynasty (420-479 A.D.), and eventually met Emperor Wu at Chin-ling (now Nanking).

When Da Mo met Emperor Wu, the Emperor asked, “What is the holy ultimate truth?” Da Mo answered, “It is Emptiness itself and there is nothing holy.” “Who then is the one who at present stands confronting me,” responded the Emperor? “I do not know (fushiki, pu-shih)!” was Da Mo’s response. This now-famous question-and-answer dialogue “I know not,” is considered a reverent allegory for explaining specific Zen tenets.

After the Emperor decided he did not like Da Mo’s Buddhist theory/answer, Da Mo withdrew to a Shaolin Temple, in Honan Province. Entering the temple he saw that the priests in an emaciated condition, were weak and sickly, so he shut himself away to ponder the problem. When he emerged after nine years of seclusion, some say he wrote two classics: Yi Gin Ching or I Chin Ching (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and Shii Soei Ching or Hsi Sui Chin (Marrow Washing Classic).

Others say that he secreted the two works in the walls of the temple, and that they were found only after his demise. Hsi Sui Chin, was said to have been transcribed by Do Mo’s disciple Hui K’o and is said to have been lost to the world. The second work, I Chin Ching, has been translated several times, thereby clouding its actual origination. Regardless, Da Mo’s teachings instructed the Shaolin priests how to gain health and change their physical bodies from weak to strong (muscle/tendon changing), and taught the priests how to use Qi to strengthening the blood and immune system, and to energize the brain and attain enlightenment (marrow washing).

The basis of these works, the physical drills of which are called Shihpa Lohan Shou, or Eighteen Hands of the Lohan (Buddha), were incorporated into the Shaolin Qi Gong and martial arts (what became known as Kung Fu - which is pronounced gung-fu, or, Shaolin Wu Gong in Mandarin and which in Japanese is Shorinji kempo) training of the times. At the present time, Lohan is used to designate all famous disciples of the historic Buddha, but more generally the term refers to those five hundred arhats (Sanskrit term for those who have achieved nirvana) who are supposed to reappear on earth as Buddha.

Several decades after Da Mo’s death a Quan Fa master named Chueh Yan Shang-jen combined and increased Da Mo’s original eighteen hand-and-foot positions to seventy-two. Ch’uen then met with a Shensi Province martial arts master, Li-shao. The two further enlarged Ch’uen’s 72 “strokes” to 170 and gave the best of them names such as the tiger, leopard, dragon, snake and crane.

Most Quan Fa forms practiced today, are the descendants of the 170 (173) hand-foot positions of Ch’ueh Yan and can be traced further, back to the eighteen positions of Da Mo. Also based directly on Da Mo’s Shaolin Quan Fa is Kosho-ryu (or “Old Pine Tree Style") kempo. In essence, the ideals of Zen Buddhism as expounded by Da Mo are fundamental to the physical manifestations of the Kosho-ryu fighting art. The development of restraint, propriety, humbleness and integrity are the cornerstones of Kosho-ryu kempo, with the actual combat techniques merely one of the many modes of reaching these goals.

Da Mo is thought to have died around 534 A.D.

Need for Self Defense Among the Clergy

Over the years, generations of Shaolin monks worked with the exercises attributed to Boddhidharma to increase their external muscular power and their internal Qi power. The increase of power had encouraged the monks to investigate its peculiar properties and characteristics, testing the limits of the body and Qi. Eventually, the various techniques were used in self defense applications that were evasive and non-confrontational, but still efficient and effective.

Temples were always a target of bandits and rebellious soldiers that wished to either rob them or use the places as their own headquarters. Also, since monks, priests, and nuns traveled far from their temples in their preaching and pilgrimages, self defense on the road became a necessity also. Information was exchanged with professional bodyguards and temple guards met with on the road who were well versed in various martial arts. Techniques were absorbed (mostly from Indian Kalaripayit, Mongolian Shuai Chiao, Moslem fighting systems such as Cha Quan and Tan Tui, and others) and combined with those the Shaolin temple had already created to develop Shaolin Quan Fa, known as Lohan Quan by some (which had three original forms: the Eighteen Hands of the Lohan, the Eight Step, and the 300 plus moves of the Wind Devil Staff), of whose techniques can be seen as the mother or seed of many later fighting forms.

The emphasis was on developing fluid self defense techniques that were fast, evasive, strong, non-direct, deceptive, efficient, and effective while still being non-confrontational in nature. The practice of these techniques, by combining them with Qi and breath development, was seen as health giving rather than debilitating and tiring for the practitioner. The original forms of Shaolin Quan were much softer than what they later became, sharing a heavier emphasis on internal development as with the Taoist martial arts (such as Wu Tang Tai Yi and others). Quan Fa soon became synonymous with Ch’an Buddhism. Other temples from different sects soon developed their own great Qi Gong and fighting systems and became well known also.

Thereafter, the Shaolin Temple attracted people from all walks of life as word spread of the mysterious and marvelous fighting abilities of the monks (and nuns and priests). Shaolin, as the interest in Buddhism waned, became instead known as a training ground for people needing to learn the fighting arts. In the year 1522 AD, 40 monks volunteered and stopped Japanese pirates from invading the coastline. From the years 600 to 1600 AD, the fame of Shaolin’s Quan Fa grew to an enormous degree as they developed and researched all aspects of internal/external power, various empty hand and weapons techniques, body massage and manipulation, and herbal medicine.

The exercises originally developed for the training of the body to withstand long hours of sitting meditation had undergone many changes to form a unique martial art, making Shaolin famous for its boxing and staff fighting techniques instead of its holy scripture writing. At Shaolin, first basic fist and feet techniques were taught, then more difficult ones, and then multiple fighting partner sparring and forms.

These techniques can still be seen today in almost every style of martial art that has its roots in the monks of Shaolin Temple.

The Legacy of Shaolin

China again saw a decline in the martial arts, as they were generally discouraged during the post war period. Some martial artists were killed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, which attacked anything old as part of “feudal and superstitious” days. Many left China as best they could and entered into Hong Kong, America, and other parts of the world, spreading ideas that had their roots in Shaolin far and wide. After the 1970s, at Mao’s death, the government eased its views against martial arts and a government sanctioned style of gymnastic, sport oriented “martial art” was instituted, known as Wu Shu. The traditional Chinese martial arts were given great scrutiny and many studies commissioned to catalog its many styles and preserve its history. The original Shaolin Temple was even rebuilt and had it doors opened for tourists to see. Monks were allowed to return and older monks were allowed to resume teaching the surviving Shaolin Martial Arts.

As its practitioners were dispersed, we today were able to enjoy bits and pieces of Shaolin’s surviving teachings outside of China. Much of Shaolin’s history is enshrouded in legend or is still lost waiting to be rediscovered by those interested in preserving its traditions. The practice, and eventual mastery, of the Shaolin Temple’s Quan Fa (Boxing or fighting methods) is a great legacy that has been handed down through the centuries for about 1,500 years. So much so that today Shaolin Quan and other traditional Chinese martial arts are considered a Chinese national treasure. Shaolin is now known as one of the foremost fighting systems in the world. Its methods and ideas have spread all over the world (Okinawa, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Hawaii and the continental US, Europe, Australia, and even Russia) and influenced the development of many other martial arts (karate, kempo, Jujitsu, silat, taekwondo, etc.).

The legacy of Shaolin is both simple and profound, which is that there is more to the martial arts than fighting. Shaolin through its Buddhist and Taoist roots, united two things with the fighting arts: health and virtue. Health is received through the vitality that the breathing and physical exercises bring the body by developing the Qi (and medicinal practices such as herbalism, tui na, acupuncture, etc.). Virtue is received, through the promotion of spiritual pursuits that meditation, philosophy, and the teaching of moral ethics bring the mind by developing the higher powers.

Together, they unite the two (body and mind) as one soul. As one can see, through all of Shaolin’s trials and tribulations, it has always continued to evolve to fit the times and to teach those that have need of its lessons. By practicing and mastering traditional Wu Gong techniques and forms, we are able to receive direct transmissions through time from the original fighting monks of Shaolin. Few are lucky enough to have the opportunity to receive a legacy that has been handed down generation by generation, person by person.