Martial Arts and Buddhism: A Study of the History of the Shaolin Temple. Alan Fickling September 12, 2008 Monroe Summer Research Report

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1 Martial Arts and Buddhism: A Study of the History of the Shaolin Temple Alan Fickling September 12, 2008 Monroe Summer Research Report

2 In modern society, Shaolin Temple is synonymous with martial arts prowess. Everyone has seen the Kung Fu movies: Jet Li s Shaolin Temple, Chow Yun Fat s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and countless other films have featured the skills of the legendary Shaolin monks. However, at the heart of each of these stories lies a fundamental paradox: how did a group of Buddhist monks, who are supposed to live lives of nonviolence and religious practice, become some of the most renowned martial arts masters the world has ever known? In order to answer this question, I traveled to a branch of the Shaolin Temple located in Houston, Texas and lived in the monastery for two months. There were two compelling reasons why Houston Shaolin Temple could help me understand the dichotomy of Shaolin Kung Fu. First, I would be able to interview Shaolin Monk Shi De Shan, and gain his knowledge of the subject. In addition, I would spend two months training in Shaolin Kung Fu, in the hopes of gaining my own insight into the interaction between Buddhism and martial arts. The history of Shaolin Temple begins with Batuo, the founder and first abbot of Shaolin Temple 1. Located on Song Shan mountain in China s Henan province, the temple was built by Emperor Wei Xiao Wen in 495 A.D. for Batuo, an Indian monk who traveled to China in order to spread Buddhism. However, the most important date in Shaolin Temple s history is not its founding, but the arrival in 540 A.D. of Damo, another Indian monk who wished to spread Buddhism in China 2. Damo was not simply another Buddhist teacher; he brought with him an entirely new school of Buddhism, known as Dhyana in Sanskrit, Chan in Chinese, and Zen in Japanese. When Damo arrived in China, his first stop was to visit Emperor Wu, who was an ardent supporter of Buddhism and had commissioned several projects to aid his subjects in the practice of Buddhism. However, Damo angered the Emperor by saying that the projects 1 Shi De Shan, Personal interview, 20 July Shaolin History, Shaolin Gung Fu Institute, 2008, 23 Aug 2008, <

3 undertaken in his name would bring him no karmic benefit. According to Damo s new brand of Chan Buddhism, the way to Enlightenment is through meditation and realization of one s Buddha nature, and not through the reading of Buddhist scriptures or good works done in one s name. Since the Emperor did not appreciate Damo s teachings, he left the court and traveled to Shaolin Temple 3. The monks initially failed to grasp his teachings, so according to legend, he spent the next nine years meditating in a cave. Ultimately, a monk named Huike wished to become Damo s disciple, and in order to prove his dedication, he cut off his own arm and presented it as an offering to Damo. Thus Huike became the second Chinese Chan Patriarch, and Shaolin Temple became one of the most important temples in Chinese Buddhist history 4. Chan Buddhism was not the only gift Damo brought with him to China. When Damo stayed at Shaolin Temple, he noticed that many of the monks were not physically strong enough to stay awake and upright through the hours of meditation demanded by Chan Buddhism. Therefore he taught the monks a series of exercises probably derived from Indian yoga 5. These exercises became known as Muscle-Tendon Washing and Bone Marrow Cleansing Qi Gong. Some historians see these exercises as the origin of the martial arts at Shaolin. However, according to Shaolin Monk Shi De Shan, the martial arts are actually much older. He states that in ancient China, some prowess in the martial arts was a necessary part of life, to defend oneself from animal attacks and bandits, and to hunt for food. Thus he claims that many of the monks, including Batuo, arrived at Shaolin Temple with some skill in the martial arts. All monks start out their lives as laymen, so it is not unusual that the monks would learn the martial arts before becoming monks. However, when Damo s Qi Gong exercises were combined with the already 3 Shaolin History. 4 Shi De Shan, Personal interview. 5 Shaolin History.

4 extant practice of martial arts, the results were the genesis of the unique martial art of Shaolin Kung Fu. The monks have continued to practice Shaolin Kung Fu since the time of Damo. Through the centuries the martial art has grown more and more complicated, particularly after Shaolin gained a reputation as a center for martial arts, because martial arts masters from all over China would travel to Shaolin to share their teachings and in turn learn from the monks 6. Shaolin Temple has even provided warriors to the Emperor in order to protect China from invasion. Four more Shaolin Temples were founded at strategic locations for the defense of China, although the temple in Henan was always the central temple where the most senior monks resided. Although the temple has been attacked, burned down, and rebuilt many times throughout its history, the monks have always survived, carrying down the teachings of Buddhism and Kung Fu for generations 7. Shi De Shan, the Master of the Houston Shaolin Temple, is a 31 st generation Shaolin monk. Although Shaolin Temple had been destroyed when Shi De Shan started training, he became a disciple of 30 th generation monk Shi Suyun, who was then living in exile. Later, when Shaolin Temple was rebuilt, Shi De Shan trained, taught, and practiced Buddhism there. He became a member of the Shaolin Temple performance troupe, and traveled around the world putting on shows in order to spread awareness of the Shaolin traditional martial arts. In 1998, he was granted permission by Shaolin Temple to remain in Houston, Texas and open up an official branch of the Shaolin Temple there. He currently teaches Shaolin Kung Fu, Qi Gong, Taiji, and Buddhism to students at the Houston temple, as well as teaching seminars throughout the United States. 8 6 Shi De Shan, Personal interview. 7 Shi De Shan, Personal interview. 8 Dasifu Shi De Shan, Houston Songshan Shaolin Temple, 2008, 4 Aug 2008, <

5 In order to study the connection between Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu, I spent two months living with Shi De Shan at his Houston temple. I trained with him extensively in Qi Gong and traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, training for five to six hours every day. Through my total immersion in the Shaolin Temple lifestyle, I discovered countless ways in which Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu interact with one another. The Qi Gong I practiced is known as Hard or Iron Qi Gong, and its purpose is essentially to toughen the body, so that one can take a hit or give a hit without injuring oneself, even with supposed weak points such as the shins, solar plexus, and head. Although at first the practice of slamming my fists into a bag full of stones seemed as far removed from Chan Buddhism as possible, I quickly discovered that the mind goes blank and slips into a meditative trance when performing such actions repetitively. This is definitely much closer than I have ever been to true meditation (the one essential practice of Chan Buddhism), and at least for me it is a much more effective method of meditation than closing my eyes and sitting cross-legged. Although the Iron Qi Gong is a very martial practice, it has its roots in Damo s original Qi Gong exercises, and provides the same benefits of strengthening the body and supplementing the practice of sitting meditation. I experienced true meditation through practicing Qi Gong, but even when I practiced Shaolin Kung Fu, I found traces of Buddhism everywhere. At the beginning of every form (a form is a series of movements designed to teach a particular style of fighting), the martial artist bows and recites the word Amitoufo. Amitoufo is the name of a Buddha associated with compassion, and the act of saying his name at the beginning of the form is equivalent to saying Buddha bless you. In addition, the bow before the form is sometimes done with two palms pressed together in front, and sometimes with one lone palm. The two-handed bow is a traditional Buddhist bow, but the one-handed bow is performed specially by Shaolin monks, as a

6 way of remembering Huike s offering of his own arm to Damo at the beginning of Shaolin s history. There is a whole style of fighting known as Luohan boxing (a Luohan is someone who has attained nirvana), in which the movements are modeled after those of various Luohans in Shaolin history. However, the most important incorporation of Buddhism into the forms of Shaolin is that every form begins with a defensive movement. This is representative of the Shaolin Buddha Way, which uses Kung Fu to avoid conflict. A Shaolin practitioner never starts or provokes a fight, and if someone is determined to fight him, he uses the attacker s own violence against him. Also, the most important tenet of the Shaolin Buddha Way, according to Shi De Shan, is to always help others in any way. Thus the use of Kung Fu to help others is always justified, whether it is used to defend China from invasion, help an innocent victim in need, defend oneself, or simply maintain one s health and strength. Buddhism is inside the heart, and it is a monk s job to transfer that Buddhism to others in any way possible. In living at Houston Shaolin Temple for two months, I discovered just how deeply Buddhism is intertwined into Shaolin Kung Fu. I had practiced Shaolin since I was ten years old, but I had only seen the tip of the iceberg. Even spending an entire summer at Shaolin Temple, I still feel as though I have only scratched the surface of what Shaolin has to offer. This highlights one last connection between Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu. One can practice both of them for a lifetime, but without intense dedication, natural aptitude, and Buddha s blessing, one will still fall short of mastering the art.

7 Works Cited "Dasifu Shi De Shan." Houston Songshan Shaolin Temple < De Shan, Shi. Personal interview. 20 July "Shaolin History." Shaolin Gung Fu Institute <

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