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On The Importance of a Philosophical Fighting Art

Shaolin Monks Assembled in front of Temple

The fragrance of flowers … the buzz of bees … the water from springs … all things that fill T’an Tsung’s mind with joy. The elderly monk makes his way to a nearby temple to visit a dear friend. With each step, he becomes increasingly intoxicated by the splendor of the mountain panorama. So much so that he barely notices the three highwaymen who lurk behind bushes along the mountain path.

Suddenly, the scent of human hostility disrupts the monk’s spiritual wonder and streams chills up his spine. T’an Tsung steps to his rear just as one highwayman’s knife thrusts harmlessly into the air. Meanwhile, the other two highwaymen appear, surrounding him and branding their knives.

“We want your valuables, priest!” demands the outlaw leader.

T’an Tsung exhales gently through his nose. He’s not afraid. After all, life and death are both part of nature.

“But, sir, you already have my valuables. Look about you. Can you not fill your lungs of the sweetness of the air, or feast your eyes on the colors of the butterflies, or …”

“Knock it off, priest!” commands the highwayman, raising his knife. “Butterflies do not fill our bellies. We want the gold tribute you are carrying to the temple.”

“I am very sorry, sir, but I am not carrying such tribute on this journey.” T’an Tsung smiles at him compassionately. “But you have gone to such great trouble to greet me and you should not return empty-handed. Please. Take my clothes and staff as a gift. Perhaps you could sell them.”

The outlaw leader shakes his head, “Without valuables, priest, we want only your life!” He lunges at the old monk with the large knife. But T’an Tsung casually reaches out and plucks the knife from his assailant’s hand as easily as he might pick a rose. The motion disturbs the sleeve of his robe, exposing the dragon tattoo of the Shaolin Temple.

The highwaymen freeze. They stare at the dragon tattoo, at each other, then flee back into the forest like the frightened jackals they are.

The First Shaolin Pope

Bodhidharma from “Moon behind Shattered Window” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)
Bodhidharma from “Moon behind Shattered Window” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Without doubt, Buddhism has had a profound influence on kung-fu. Most styles, indeed most Asian martial arts, trace their lineage directly or indirectly to the Shaolin Temple. Further, Chinese folklore is filled with the heroic exploits of Shaolin monks such as T’an Tsung. But the association of a brutal fighting tradition with an altruistic religious order seems, at the very least, an improbable feat of history.

The very existence of a Shaolin warrior priest raises an obvious question: How could that happen?

According to the most popular account, unarmed combat was first brought into China in 520 AD by an Indian missionary named Bodhidharma (Ta Mo in Chinese), meaning “Way of Enlightenment.” At that time in history, the Northern Wei monarchy (386 – 534) was sympathetic to all sects of the Buddhist religion. In fact, a Chief of Monks was appointed to the Imperial Court to regulate all monastic activities in the kingdom. Bodhidharma apparently petitioned the Court for patronage, and was granted permission to found a monastery at the temple on the northern side of Shao-shih Mountain. This temple and monastery became the famous Shaolin Temple of Honan Province.

While at the temple, Bodhidharma supposedly taught that enlightenment (nirvana) could only be achieved by following the example of the historical Buddha at his moment of enlightenment, that is, through meditation. However, he soon realized that his disciples could not stay awake through the long hours of meditation that he demanded.

To remedy the problem, he instituted a regular exercise program. It consisted of the shin pa lo-han sho (Eighteen Movements of the Lo-Han Hands) exercise set as described in Bodhidharma’s I Chin Ching (Muscle Change Classic) and, most importantly, the study of Eighteen-Monk Boxing.

Bodhidharma was allegedly the third son of King Sugandha of Conjeeveram in Southern India, and thus a member of the warrior caste. As a boy, he would certainly have been required to study the unarmed fighting art called vajramushti yudda.Vajramushti yudda was undoubtedly influenced by pankration, the martial art of the invading army of Alexander the Great which occupied parts of India in the fourth century BC.

Owing largely to this legendary account of Bodhidharma, a few research historians have hypothesized a Greek origin for kung-fu. Certainly, during his 1970 trip to India to scout possible locations for the film Circle of Iron, Bruce Lee sought out an East Indian link between pankration and kung-fu only to be disappointed by India’s lack of a sophisticated martial art.

The entire Bodhidharma legend must be evaluated in the context of the times, especially in light of Bruce Lee’s chagrining discovery. The religion of the early Chinese took the form of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship so permeated the society that, in later years, social prestige and respectability were gleaned from being able to trace one’s family back to some mythical hero who performed superhuman deeds.

Eventually the custom arose of attributing a noble origin to all important cultural
phenomena. Even today, many Chinese will try to trace the origin of acupuncture,
or the yin and yang, back 5,000 years to some semi-legendary monarch.

It is no more surprising that Shaolin monks would attribute the origin of kung-fu to Bodhidharma – their equivalent of the first Pope – than it is that the ancient Greeks traced the origin of their boxing to Theseus. But the truth is, aside from the legend, absolutely no historical evidence supports this claim.

Although the legend probably does refer to some real Indian missionary, there is no record of a Bodhidharma in India itself, a fact which casts doubt on his noble birth. Obviously, all source material on the man’s life comes from Chinese writings, and the earliest Chinese reference to him does not appear until more than a century after his
death. The first link between him and the martial arts does not begin until several centuries after that date. Further, there is no trace of Bodhidharma’s book, the I Chin Ching before 1835. The book’s pedigree is likely a hoax, possibly intended to wrest credit from the Taoists for inventing the internal fighting systems (Tai Chi Chuan, Pa-Kua, Hsing-i).

Chinese boxing had already been refined to a most sophisticated art by the time of the Han monarchies (206 BC – 220 AD). The progressive Han emperors were the first to take an active interest in the development of the martial arts as we know them today. Military manuals and historical descriptions from the first century AD prove that, centuries before the time of Bodhidharma, external kung-fu systems were already far advanced beyond any fighting systems known to be indigenous to India in that era.

So while the beginning of kung-fu is a small mystery, the origin of the incongruous Shaolin boxing tradition remains a large mystery. Perhaps part of the answer lies buried in the Ch’an religion itself.

The Ch’an Philosophy

The Shaolin Temple in Hunan Province (Wikimedia Commons)
The Shaolin Temple in Hunan Province (Wikimedia Commons)

Ch’an (literally “meditation”), or Zen in Japanese, is one of the many sects of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana developed in India after the historical Buddha’s death and quickly spread northward into Central Asia and China. It exalted the Buddha
into a supreme godlike spirit, similar to the Christian concept of Jesus, and taught
that his spirit existed in all things, especially living things. Nirvana became a unity
between the individual self and the eternal Buddha. The Buddha’s original doctrine, Theravada (self-induced enlightenment), was dismissed as his introductory teaching, while Mahayana (assisted enlightenment) was regarded as his final teaching.

The Ch’an sect of Mahayana first began to emerge in the fourth and fifth centuries through the teachings of such Buddhist monks as Hui-yuan and Seng-chao. Although historians consider Ch’an to be a specifically Chinese product, formal credit for its founding goes to Bodhidharma. Apparently, early Ch’an masters felt obligated to trace their beliefs to an Indian source.

But it was not until well after Bodhidharma’s death that Hui-neng (638 – 713), the Sixth Patriarch, fused elements of Taoism with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment to create the essence of Ch’an. He taught that since the Buddha-nature is contained in all things, and the world is constantly changing, then the Buddha-nature must be constantly changing and taking new forms as well.

Therefore, Hui-neng declared, the Buddha-nature cannot be understood rationally. All concepts, opinions and logic are illusions. They are static abstractions which distort our awareness of the changing Buddha- nature. We become emotionally attached
to these erroneous abstractions. Whenever they fail us, as they eventually must, we become disillusioned and unhappy.

Meditation, on the other hand, is an important link with reality. Only through meditation can a person transcend words, transcend their own ego, perceive the Buddha-nature for what it is and, like the Buddha, achieve sudden enlightenment. Meditation does not lead to insight, but rather, meditation is insight. Even today, Ch’an and Zen followers spend hours every day pondering koans (gong-an in Chinese, meaning “public record”), philosophical riddles that center on an irrational experience with the changing Buddha-nature of life.

Ch’an monks disdained scholastic efforts of all types. Ch’an, they argued, cannot be conveyed through books, language, or teachers. Ch’an must be experienced through direct personal contact with reality; that is, through the language of physical action. Then enlightenment will occur in sudden, spontaneous flashes … perhaps triggered by something as simple as tripping over a pebble.

The search for sudden flashes of enlightenment led the monks into the simple pursuits of physical labor. They accepted the doctrine of Hua-hai who taught that a monk should be self-sufficient. This doctrine made Ch’an priests the only Buddhist monks who did not beg but rather worked for their own livelihoods.

The Action Method

Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) assigns Daniel (Ralph Macchio) to unrelated chores in The Karate Kid, 1984 (Columbia Pictures)
Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) assigns Daniel (Ralph Macchio) to unrelated chores in The Karate Kid, 1984 (Columbia Pictures)

On rare occasion, a master might manufacture a koan experience for a troubled disciple. By mixing relationship dynamics with the laborious actions of daily routine, he would provoke an epiphany for the student. To illustrate this Action Method of instruction:

According to myth, veteran soldier Shenguang became so emotionally distraught by the bloody carnage of war that he turned to Buddhism. When he heard that the venerated mystic Ta Mo (Bodhidharma) had arrived from India, he bird-dogged the holy man’s trek across China, periodically pleading with him for personal instruction in the true “Way”. Ta Mo ignored Shenguang. Finally, after Ta Mo established his permanent residence with the founding of the Shaolin Temple, the onetime soldier could wait no longer. In a near-suicidal fit of post-traumatic rage, Shenguang threatened to sever his own arm if the charismatic priest would not teach him.

Ta Mo relented, defusing the situation. But he also cautioned, “Learning the Way may take much time.”

Ta Mo began his new disciple’s lessons by hiking with him to a nearby mountaintop. There he instructed Shenguang to sink a well at a specific spot beside a crevice and to ponder about that water well as the Way for one year. Shenguang happily complied. During his daily meditations, he envisioned the well. He mentally designed its well top. During his work periods, he dug the hole until he tapped into an underground spring and then built the above-ground cover. The water from this well, however, was warm and tasted sour from the sulfur in the hot spring. The disciple continued to contemplate the water well and foresaw its many purposes. He used well water to cook, to clean, to bathe, to raise a garden and to offer refreshment to neighborly passersby.

At year’s end, Shenguang returned to Ta Mo who, again, hiked with him to a wooded area atop another mountain. Ta Mo repeated the same instructions. The water from this well tasted zesty from the seepage into the water table of dried leaves, roots, seeds and bark on the forest floor. The next year, Ta Mo took Shenguang to a mountain location where a third well reached into an aquifer. Its mineral water tasted cool and sweet. For the fourth year, Ta Mo directed his disciple to a rocky mountain ledge. The water from this well tasted bitter owing to the manganese contained in the surrounding rocks.

Four years had passed. Shenguang once more confronted Ta Mo with heightened frustration. The disciple failed to see any connection between his hard work with the four wells and the Way.

“But you have learned so much,” affirms the Ch’an master. “Did not each water well separately sustain and enrich your life? Was not each water well part of your same one life?”

Instantly! Shenguang at last understood the Way. Like the four wells, life will be sometimes sour like winter, sometimes zesty like spring, sometimes sweet like summer and sometimes bitter like autumn. Yet each of these life phases will be equally beautiful and important. Each life phase, as with each water well, will provide its own purpose, challenge, community and quest for self-sufficiency.

With sparse words, master Ta Mo had created a visceral experience for his student that produced a spiritual-mental-emotional life lesson. Such action koan experiences became the instructional foundation for Ch’an Buddhism, sometimes in word stories, sometimes through physical deeds. Upon Shenguang’s enlightenment from this life lesson, Ta Mo accorded him the name Hui-ke (487 – 593) and he succeeded Ta Mo as the second abbot of the Shaolin Temple.

This particular action koan also has echoed many times throughout the ages in martial arts training, most famously in the 1984 motion picture The Karate Kid as well as in its 2010 remake. Karate master Miyagi (Pat Morita) teaches martial arts to his student Daniel (Ralph Macchio) by assigning him to unrelated household chores, especially clockwise “wax on” and counterclockwise “wax off” hand motions for polishing the master’s vintage cars. When Daniel protests that he has worked hard but learned nothing about karate, Miyagi reveals that Daniel has in fact internalized a most effective system of defensive parries. Further, the lessons from the master’s house chores may similarly apply to life in general.

The Ch’an in Kung-Fu

The muaythai pre-fight ritual, wai khru (Wikimedia Commons)
The muaythai pre-fight ritual, wai khru (Wikimedia Commons)

The Shaolin boxing tradition apparently arose from the Ch’an sect’s doctrine of self-sufficiency. The Shaolin Temple was located in the rural countryside, far away from any local law enforcement. The monks needed protection from the constant harassment of highwaymen, bandits and outlaws who were commonplace in post-Han China. Kung-fu was the obvious solution.

However, to the humble monks kung-fu meant more than self-defense. They developed the art into moving meditations to keep them in physical contact with reality. Kung-fu practice would then prepare them for enlightenment by teaching them to act naturally and spontaneously with whatever technique they were performing. In that sense, moving meditations were the Ch’an in kung-fu. The same principle spread throughout the Orient to other arts such as calligraphy, poetry, painting, and even the Japanese tea ceremony.

Consequently, Shaolin monks devoted long hours to the practice of kung-fu sets constructed from prescribed shadow boxing routines (kuen for kung-fu, kata for karate, hyeong for taekwondo) so that they could act without thought, spontaneously, whenever the need arose. Shaolin sets were largely weapons-oriented, especially for staff-fighting. Approximately a third featured two-fighter routines. Empty hands developed as a last-resort alternative for whenever a weapon was lost.

Furthermore Shaolin masters taught moving meditation as a technique for calming emotional distress by focusing mental energy on the physical movements and by envisioning favorable outcomes. Even muaythai came to emphasize the wai khru pre-bout ritual as a way to supplant performance jitters with a determined warrior’s heart.

Martial arts instructors still tell students to empty their minds of all thoughts and seek the solution to their self-defense problems in the practice of forms. Some instructors further require students to dissect each movement and to explain the imagined events behind them. Forms thereby provide a catalogue of a fighting art’s technique, yes, but also offer action koans. The student need only to practice them, to ponder each maneuver as with any Ch’an koan, without ego, and all the knowledge of past masters may come to him in sudden flashes of awareness. Overnight, according to the classic masters, a student could become an invincible fighter through the practice of forms.

The Socratic Method

Socrates and His Students by Johann Friedrich Greuter, 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)

But the never-ending controversy in the martial arts over the practical utility of forms, first brought into sharp focus in the modern era by the defiant proclamations of Bruce Lee, underscore the one flaw in the Ch’an philosophy. Although Ch’an does teach followers to loosen the stranglehold of the subconscious ego over their behavior, to appreciate the insignificant things in life, and to cope with the pressures of daily living, Ch’an also teaches that abstraction cannot accurately reflect a changing reality. All abstraction therefore leads to delusion and suffering, and is undesirable.

Fortunately this argument was never embraced by European philosophers in the Middle Ages. They put forth the scientific argument that abstraction is valid only so far as it can be verified by observation and experimentation. This scientific view of life, as derived from the Socratic Method, is directly responsible for the Western renaissance in knowledge, science, and technology.

The Ch’an view of life, on the other hand, combined with a tradition of glamorizing the past, was similarly responsible for the Orient’s relatively late advances in science and technology.

In other words, the Western approach to the martial arts – still found in the sports of fencing, wrestling, and boxing – is to teach the student an abstract principle, such as that a jab will beat a hook to the punch. Thereafter the student’s ability to use the abstract principle will be perfected through countless drills with a partner, and through personal testing in competitive sparring. The limits of each fighting principle will be further defined, refined or revised.

Non-classical instruction: learning the hook (Wikimedia Commons)
Non-classical instruction: learning the hook (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ch’an approach to the martial arts, with its overwhelming emphasis on the perfection of forms, developed in an era when martial skills were put to use only in life-or-death situations. Sparring as we think of it today was largely unknown. Any approach to competitive practice was considered either too dangerous or too limited to serve as a realistic method of instruction. Forms training, at least, taught a student how to transition easily from one technique to another. In that era, they were the best available preparation for actual battle.

Yet, skill in unarmed combat principally comprises the ability of a martial artist to make his own techniques flow spontaneously with his opponent’s movements in ways that use the opponent’s moves against himself. Clearly the Western emphasis on sparring has produced greater fighting skill, faster, than the ancient emphasis on forms. Were the old fighting masters alive today, most would not object to the modern use of sparring partners to develop the flow between a martial arts practitioner and his opponent. Indeed, when Tai Chi Chuan first appeared in China, the art’s immediate reputation for invincibility could be traced to the Tai Chi practitioner’s use of a sparring partner to develop an elevated sense of flow through push-hand drills.

A Philosophical Fighting Art

Classical instruction: one-step kata drills (Wikimedia Commons)
Classical instruction: one-step kata drills (Wikimedia Commons)

The invention of a philosophical fighting art remains the most enduring legacy of the legendary Asian warrior priests. The concept grew out of an in-the-moment demand for self-reliance within a broader quest for spiritual enlightenment. Fighting skill was taught with an emphasis on the perfection of forms that, themselves, embodied a fusion of self-defense with both religious morality and a longer view of life’s travails.

Paradoxically, most mixed martial arts styles – which notably shun forms training – also grew out of philosophic roots, particularly those eclectic arts that emerged after Bruce Lee expounded the precepts for his non-classical Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist). Because these fighting arts took a more immediate view of life’s problems, their Socratic approach to refining fighting skill focused on competitive drills that constantly tested and revised combative principles.

Like yin and yang, the classical and the non-classical approaches to the martial arts each offer unique advantages. The former provides a path to physical and emotional harmony under pressure. The latter more quickly personalizes and hones sophisticated fighting skills. Sadly, except as taught by a few master instructors, both approaches are now largely devoid of emphasis on moral purpose.

When Shaolin master T’an Tsung confronted the highwaymen, he transformed the encounter into an action koan for the outlaws, hoping to inspire them to improved behavior. With philosophical conviction comes a code of chivalry. The ancient warrior priests lived with a spiritual insight into right and wrong, into justifiable attack, and into reasonable restraint. And, ultimately, isn’t a code of chivalry the preeminent importance of a philosophical fighting art?

© 1977-2012 by Paul Maslak, Revised and Reprinted by Permission of the Author