top of page
The Unification of Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism & Kung fu

The Shaolin Temple in Songs an, China, has "achieved legendary status and fame in Asia as the ancient center where hundreds of different martial arts systems were developed and culminated. It is also a historical birthplace of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism. These Shaolin teachings are a 1,500-year-old legacy that is part of the rich heritage and tradition of China. Shaolin is now also well known in the West through exposure in the media. Today Shaolin martial arts (better known as Shaolin kung fu) are widely practiced by many enthusiasts throughout the world. Shaolin kung fu epitomizes the meditative principles of Ch' an Buddhism wherein the mind, spirit, and body become one.

Since its founding in 495 AD, the Shaolin Temple's mission has been the propagation of Mahayana Buddhism. In China, this school of Buddhism is known as Ch'an Buddhism. These teachings were further developed and disseminated outside of China. In Japan, this sect of Buddhism became known as Zen Buddhism.

Ch'an is characterized by a unique emphasis of mind-to-mind direct transmission of enlightenment. This method deemphasizes achieving enlightenment through intellectual and literary pursuit, but rather seeks to impart this knowledge directly. It is said that once during his teaching, Buddha, when offered a golden flower, held it aloft, without speaking. His disciples gazed at it in silence, unable to grasp its meaning. After awhile, the Venerable Mahakasyapa smiled with realization. Then Buddha said, " I have a special method (Dharma), Nirvana in the heart, both form and formless, not based on words, transcendent of the intellect, a direct way to enlightenment. This I pass on to Mahakasyapa ."

From that fateful smile at the displayed flower came the direct mind-to-mind induction, and thereby the Dhyana/Ch'an/Zen School of Buddhism, with Mahakasyapa as its first patriarch. This is why Ch'an Buddhism has no established scriptures; they are not the vehicle used to propel the believer toward enlightenment.

After many generations, the twenty-eighth patriarch of Buddhism, Bodhidharma traveled east to China after having taught in India for many years. Bodhidharma took up residence in the hills behind Shaolin Temple, where he meditated for nine years in a cave. Bodhidharma' s period of meditation led to a profound impact on Chinese culture as his teachings to the monks at Shaolin Temple developed into Chinese Ch'an Buddhism. Thus, Shaolin Temple also has the exalted Status as the ancestral home of Ch'an. While Bodhidharma's teachings were formed into the philosophy of Ch'an, Shaolin Temple already had a tradition of martial arts practice. It was the combination of Ch'an and martial arts practice that made Shaolin Temple unique throughout both the Buddhist and martial arts world.

The Martial Pathway to Ch'an

Common wisdom would dictate that a Buddhist sanctuary is a place for religious and spiritual training, and so should be a place of peace and tranquility. Therefore the practice of fiery and fierce martial arts at a Buddhist sanctuary might at first seem incongruous. This conundrum has lasted for generations, especially during the Shaolin Temple's earlier days when its practices were not revealed to outsiders. Many theories to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible practices abound. Some attributed martial practice as a means to exercise and strengthen the body for longevity. Some theorized that martial arts were practiced for the defense of the temple or for a travelling monk's self-defense. Still others suggested that it was a way to stretch and exercise the body after long periods of meditation. There exist basis for all of these various theories, but they do not address the basic problems faced by the religious Buddhist.

Based on my own experience in the religious life at Shaolin Temple, I believe that the existence of martial arts at Shaolin Temple is related to its unique social background and geographic location. Shaolin Temple is located at the heart of what was ancient China; the central region of the Chinese civilization, near the ancient capital Luoyang. Throughout history, this central geography has been an indispensable acquisition for the establishment of any empire. As an illustration, in the 80 turbulent years since Shaolin's founding, the Northern Empire saw as many as 20 changes in the emperor. The corrupt ruling class engaged in warfare of conquests, bringing much suffering and unrest to the common people. In such social turmoil, many people of knowledge and learning sought refuge at Shaolin. The presence of these martial monks (seng beng) is one factor in the existence of martial arts at Shaolin Temple. Ch'an Buddhism did not find conflict with martial art practice, but instead made use of martial practice as a unique pathway towards the pursuit of Ch'an. Thus, martial arts became a Shaolin tradition, adding a unique characteristic to Ch'an Buddhism.

I remember my master Abbot Yongxin's words, "Ch'an meditation and martial arts both belong in the domain of Dharma (method). Dharma has no fixed form, and shows its characteristics through practice and use. The Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an once said, 'in Ch'an pursuit, if the mind has righteous intentions, then even evil methods can become righteous methods. If the mind has evil intentions, then even righteous methods can become evil. '"

There is a story in Ch'an, thus: A person asked the Ch'an master, "What is Ch'an?" The master answered, "lt is the name of my mind." The person then asked, "What is the mind?" The master replied, "The embodiment of Ch'an!" In my opinion, although martial arts are useful for combat, as armies of antiquity relied on martial arts to gain victory over the battlefield and establish peace, combat cannot fully represent its essence. Its essence manifests itself in its effect. For example when we recently celebrated the Shaolin Meditation & Martial Arts Center's third anniversary with a martial arts exhibit, one might ask, "What was the nature of martial arts on that day?" Then, its nature could have been said to be celebratory. The martial arts practice/ performance may have brought pleasure, satisfaction, or dissatisfaction. The performers and the audience determined its nature.

Conquest of the Inner World

From the viewpoint of Ch'an pursuit, although martial arts can be used for conquest on the battlefield, it can also be used for conquest of the turmoil in one's inner world. The practice of martial arts can function to regulate the body, to achieve balance between a person's internal and external worlds. For example, each martial arts movement encompasses the balance between internal and external, empty and full, up and down, forward and back, extension and contraction, open and close, etc. At any given moment, we strive to achieve relative balance in all of the above. In this state of focus and mindfulness, dispersions have no chance to creep in, and distractions and attachments can be purged. According to Buddha, all people are inherently endowed with Buddhahood. It is through the ignorance induced by dispersions and attachments that people are separated from Buddha.

I have discussed that both Ch'an and martial arts belong in the realm of method. Method is the application of the mind. Different methods are merely different manifestations of the mind. In our pursuit of Ch'an, we must not let method limit us. It is us who use method, not the other way around.

Friends, Ch'an and martial arts are inherently one. This unity is not an artificial creation, but wisdom from the ancient sages. Thank you very much. Amituofuo,

Guolin Shifu

bottom of page