The Origins of Shaolin Kung Fu have arguably been lost in the threads of time. Inside of a country with a war torn history, the current day Shaolin monasteries serve more as a theme park than as sacred Buddhist temples. This paper will explore the creation and foundations of the Shaolin name and culture. And also what it meant to be a practitioner of Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism, and the two distinct martial forms that are accredited to the Shaolin temple, and some of the mainstream styles that are falsely under the name of Shaolin in current day.
The word Shaolin, is often mis-conceptualized as a distinct martial art style, but it is not just a distinct martial art style, it is a way of life and a path to enlightenment. "All stories have a beginning; over time it becomes difficult to remember which version is the truth" (Order 21). The original Shaolin practitioners were first and foremost a part of the school of Ch'an Buddhism. Today this school of Buddhism is most commonly referred to as Zen Buddhism. Ch'an Buddhism is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism. "Mahayana is a term used today to refer to Buddhism's northern traditions present in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan" (Shaolin). This school of Buddhism heavily incorporates Taoist beliefs and ideas. They are self-described as having a Taoist-body and Buddhist-mind. They believe "..through meditative discipline, human beings are capable of intuitively seeing reality in such a way that abolishes human suffering" (Order 11). This sect is very different from other Buddhist sects. Shaolin Ch'an does not require their followers to take a vow of celibacy or maintain a vegetarian diet like many other sects enforce. Ch'an Buddhism also has a very heavy emphasis for meditation, both still and moving meditation; and they are often described as being very pragmatic and leaning back on the basics. They believe it's important to follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. These are their primary guides and interpretations to their way of life.
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The Four Noble Truths are from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is considered to be the Buddha's first lesson after he had reached his awakening or enlightenment. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is also popularly known as the Great Discourse of the Wheel of Dhamma. There are varied versions of this text, but they all revolve around the same four core ideas. The Four Noble Truths as seen and followed by the Shaolin Ch'an are listed below.
There is suffering in the world;
Suffering is caused by desire, including desire for love, wealth, fame, and even life itself;
Suffering can be eliminated in the individual through the elimination of desire; and
The way to eliminate desire is through destruction of the ego, via the eightfold path and eventual enlightenment.
"The Buddha was a realist. Shakyamuni simplifies the four noble truths by saying: if you learn to free yourself from desire you free yourself completely. To a Buddhist, fear of death equates to desire not to lose life. Overcome that desire and fear of death dissipates like smoke in the wind" (Order 58).
To stress the importance of the Shaolin's Buddist practices, the eightfold path is also an essential part to include and understand. The eightfold path is very complex in nature, but at the same time it is simplified in a Taoist sense. However, when has any form of spirituality been an easy topic to understand or eventually explain to another person on the outside? Here is a simplified version of this eightfold path, without explanation.
1. Right views, 2. Right resolve, 3. Right speech, 4. Right action, 5. Right livelihood, 6. Right effort, 7. Right attention, 8. Right meditation.
The eightfold path places strong emphasis on the concept of "right," and a student should wonder what the Buddha meant by that term. After all, "right" can mean good, correct, or appropriate (Order 58-62).
This raises a very important question that is continually sought by our society: What is right and what is wrong? For the Shaolin Buddhist, this was a philosophy of self governing laws. In their constant struggle to destroy their ego, these laws, are ever adapting and are not meant to be set-in-stone. It raises also another question: why is their so much ego in the mainstream of Shaolin today? Keep these questions in mind, as I cannot answer them. They will help in understanding the Shaolin Buddhist's approach to enlightenment.
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However ironic, the Shaolin Ch'an Buddhist' differ from other schools of Buddhism, most popularly, because of their martial practices. Buddhist' are often seen as pacifist yet, the Shaolin Ch'an Buddhist' practice "gung fu" which is a form of martial arts. This term "gung fu" is seen in the Wade Giles system as "kung fu" and in the Pinyin system as "gongfu." (MDGB). This term's original meaning was based on having an expertise in any skill. Essentially anyone could obtain a strong gung fu in any field that they were well practiced in, not just the martial arts. When coupled with Shaolin: Kung Fu then refers to an accumulation of martial arts tied with the Shaolin temple's martial practices. Kuo-shu was another term that was also used in place of these.
"Kuo-shu" was the term used by the National Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek starting in 1928. This was adopted for political reasons, to bring the arts under the direction and influence of the government. With the communist takeover in 1948, the name was changed back to "wu-shu" to sever any connection with the National Republic of China, then situated on Taiwan, and because it was preferred by Mao Tse-tung. (Doyle 2009).
As time pressed forward, the term Kung Fu had become a popular phrase in America. It began to appear in the early 1970's as reference to the Chinese martial arts. This was due to a rising television show labeled "Kung Fu" that depicted a Shaolin monk traveling across the United States to locate his lost brother. This was America's mainstream introduction to the mysterious Shaolin culture, albeit, based on falsehoods. A better term to use when referring to martial arts, in Mandarin Chinese today, is wu-shu. Its direct translation in English is martial art. While the Shaolin Ch'an Buddhist' have incorporated different forms of martial training into their meditative practices, it is absolutely crucial to understand that the Shaolin monks see themselves as Buddhist' first and martial artists last. All the while they still see themselves as pacifists and they promote peace above all. "Weak mind, weak fist, strong mind, no need for fist." (Order 257). This proverb shows a great deal of how the Shaolin's Taoist beliefs or "body", are backed by their Buddhist thoughts or "mind." Much of their lifestyle evolves around keeping a certain harmony and following their way.
The first Shaolin temple was erected around 496 C.E. This temple was built at Song Shan, in Henan province, by Emperor Hsiao-wen of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The purpose of this temple was for the local Buddhist monks to transcribe texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, so that the people could begin practicing the religion. In the northern part of China, this temple was referred to as "Shaolin", when the word is broken apart it, it translates as "shao" (little or young) "lin" (forest). In southern China, it was referred to as "sil lum" in Cantonese. It is rumored that the forest around this temple had been burned, cut down, or destroyed in some way, and the temple was named after the trees that were replanted around it by the Emperor at the time.
Around 520 C.E, a monk traveling from India in order to spread Buddhism had eventually made contact with the Shaolin temple. Now as there are no physical records or documents pertaining to this monk's actual identity it is rumored that he was known by many names, the most popular being Bodhidharma. From cross referencing my sources the most common name for this monk has shown to be "TaMo." This man has many rumors that are associated behind him. One of the rumors being that when he arrived at the temple, he was denied access to their clergy and went to a nearby cave for 8 years. In this cave he meditated until the Shaolin temple had seen him worthy of acceptance. From this point he gained great reverence from his fellow monks, but had few disciples directly under him. The rumors continue on that TaMo had noticed that his disciples were not able to stay awake during their meditation sessions and that they were in poor physical shape. So in order to increase his disciples stamina, for their mediation and daily routines, he began teaching them breathing exercises and postures, as well as light exercise routines. These teachings originated from a curriculum he taught labeled, Eighteen Movements of Lohan (Order 26). These techniques are thought to be the basis of the modern martial arts and the true origin of Shaolin Kung Fu.
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"This marked a watershed in the history of Kung Fu, because it led to a change of course, as Kung Fu became institutionalized. Before this, martial arts were known only in a general sense" (Wong 13). TaMo did not invent Shaolin Kung Fu styles, but he did set a base for them to be built upon. He was also the one to start the Order of Shaolin Ch'an in 528 C.E. On top of all of this he was seen as the patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism in China. He had revitalized their system. It wasn't until around 610 C.E., that the martial training had picked up. The third abbot of the Shaolin temple began additional training in the martial arts because of rising bandits and gangs. While practicing their new art, the monks were influenced by their natural surroundings and began to watch the wildlife. Many of the martial forms that are under the umbrella of Shaolin Kung Fu today, are named after the defensive abilities they saw from the wildlife around them (Order 27). Roughly around this time, the third abbot had also introduced the monks to martial practices with weapons. Many of the monks refused at first to use them, being that the nature of weapons was there to inflict pain. This was completely against their way of life and approach to enlightenment. However, "...the Shaolin abbot stood firm; how, he posed, can a person learn to defend against a weapon if he does not understand that weapon? Weapons training stayed" (Order 28). One thing that is left in the air is; why the staff? Meir Shahar, a professor of East Asian Studies at the Tel Aviv University, continually researches this specific area. One question that is continually brought up by his peers is exactly this; Why members of a nonviolent faith, such as Buddhism, would acquire expertise in martial arts, and more specifically weapons? With no direct answer we are left only to guess and go off the legends that have been passed down through time. It was assumed that the staff was an insignia to their Buddha, and was carried on within the Shaolin's practices.
Today there are virtually over a thousand styles that are associated with Kung Fu. Very few Kung Fu styles are genuinely accredited to the Shaolin themselves. "The Shaolin Order has maintained unbroken study of the styles covered in this text, and none of them have evolved towards the Modern Wushu model" (Order 154). Modern Wushu was put into place in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was attempting to nationalize the Chinese martial arts. Because of this, there were some naming conventions that changed due to government influence. However, the original styles that are accredited to the Shaolin temple are known as the centerline styles and circular styles. Each are comprised of sub-styles and have only changed or been modified when a Shaolin master with a "deep enough knowledge" (Order 154) has seen reason to modify it.
Centerline styles defend a line running through the practitioner's body, and defense and attack techniques tend to be short and linear.
Circular styles are more active and, involve greater mobility and techniques tend to draw strength from circular motions that complement the natural joint motions of the human body.
These styles have been broken apart and meshed with many forms of martial training over the past 1,500 years. New age students choose a style that they are interested in, generally based on current trends. Originally it was not the students choice to decide which style they were to study. The tradition was to examine the students after they had been accepted into the temple. Then a qualified master would study each student specifically and choose a style for them with their "..best interest..." (Order 156). This decision on which style suited the student was based upon "..which style or styles will most complement the body kinesiology and mental abilities..." (Order 155). Many of the original Shaolin styles were named after animals or great masters of certain forms. It's speculated that many of the styles that were named after animals were a result of the temple being situated deep in the mountains. Their practices were mimicking the natural acts of these animals in their habitat. This would lead to two additional sub-styles for the Shaolin styles named after animals. These would be the high styles and the low styles (Order 156).
High styles are founded on mythological creatures, subtle concepts (such as ch'i manipulation), and other subtle approaches. Strikes may be light, but aimed at sensitive vital points; stances are fluid and look flimsy, but allow great mobility and flexibility.
Low styles are so called because they rely on animal movements and defensive principles strictly grounded in mundane concepts. Stances are solid, strikes hard and piercing, and the creatures all common and easily observed. By Low it meant that the styles are earth-bound or near the ground, and are not generally dependent upon ch'i manipulation.
The High styles were: Snake, White Dragon, Black Dragon, Green Dragon, Blue Dragon, Red Dragon, Ruby Dragon, Sapphire Dragon, Emerald Dragon, Silver Dragon, Northern Praying Mantis, Wing Chung, Southern Praying Mantis, and White Eyebrow. The Low styles were: Choy Li Fut, Crane, Cobra, and Tiger (Order 156-157). Only a handful of these styles can be traced back to their founding temples, while many were created at the original Henan temple, such as Black Crane, Cobra, Crab, Leopard, Lohan, Northern Praying Mantis and White Eyebrow. Many others were forged into existence from other temples that also had Shaolin monks living amongst their sects, such as Fukien, Omei, Wutang, and Kwangtung. Not all of these temples were Shaolin at first, but over time they took to the favor of Shaolin Buddhist practices.
The Shaolin system has no governing system that dictates the styles naming, so there is no general way to determine a genuine Shaolin discipline by its name alone. As a result of this, many people have been successful in creating martial arts training centers under the guise of genuine Shaolin styles. Without knowing the masters background and masters lineage, it is near impossible to trace the authenticity of her or his teachings. Further more, Buddhism and Taoism have almost been completely detached from todays Shaolin martial teachings. This raises a question: Is there a pure Shaolin martial art still in practice? In The Shaolin Grandmasters' Text there are four reasons given for Kung Fu experiencing so much diversity.
Some excellent methods have died because of the fetish of secrecy.
Some systems have been diluted by modifications.
Some contemporary types have borrowed the names of earlier types.
Some current methods are gymnastic rather than fighting in function.
An excellent example of this is the Choy Li Fut style, which is listed as a circular, low style, Shaolin standard. This specific style was taught in Shaolin temples, but was used to teach non-Shaolin pupils that came to the temple in search of instruction. Some names that are often mislead to being Shaolin temple standards are Buddha Hand, Choy Li Fut, Drunken Style, Drunken Monkey, Eagle Claw, Eight Drunken Fairies, Eight Immortals, Five Element Fist, Five Southern Family Systems, Fut Gar, Grand Earth, Hsing-I Ch'uan, Jeet Kune Do, Jow Gar, Lau Gar, Liu-Ho Ch'uan, Liu Ho Pa Fa, Long Fist, Lost Track, Monkey, Moving Shadow, Pa Kua Chang, Phoenix-Eye Fist, Poison Hand, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Tao and Tao Gar (Order 158-162). Each of these names have a specific story behind them, but all are falsehoods when claimed to be Shaolin temple taught standards.
Because of these falsehoods it is difficult for anyone today to determine whether or not a martial arts center under any of these names, are truly teaching the genuine methods of Shaolin Kung Fu. What we know now is that we are left with the remnants of a 1, 600 year old way of life, that originated in China. This art form also held a religious faith, Ch'an Buddhism, as its primary guide. The most important aspect of this I would argue is whether or not the teachers of this art form today pass on the knowledge and the way of life, either in lecture or by practice, to their pupils. Otherwise we are left with a mere shadow of Shaolin Kung Fu's meaning. Without the strengthening of the mind, what good is the fist?