Why Did Kung fu Training Start at Shaolin Temple?
It is not documented exactly when the first kung fu training started. However it is commonly believed that Dharma, or Bodhi Dharma (illustration right), a Buddhist monk in the 5th or 6th century is the person who transmitted Buddhism to China from India.
It is also believed that along with Buddhism he brought fighting methods with him.
Many people have wondered why a Buddhist, a person of peace, would introduce a “killing” method and then teach it to the monks, who also ascribed to peace at a Shaolin Temple in China. When you think of this, it is a small mystery.
Some people have speculated that the monks, before the introduction of kung fu exercises, were not in good physical and mental shape and would therefore fall asleep during the meditation or the recitation of the holy scripts. Therefore, Dharma taught them how to exercise and therefore this helped to keep them awake during long and arduous meditation sessions. It sounds almost convincing but I do not believe that was the case.
Others have speculated that Dharma needed some fighting skills to protect himself during the long journey from India to China. As you are aware there was no modern day transportation then. I do not believe he was lucky enough to have a horse or a donkey. Thus, he probably had to travel on foot most of the way. You can also easily guess that the security in those days was far from safe, especially when you had travel alone on a deserted path through the wilderness. He probably gave everything he had to the robbers, but I assume he had to fight when his life was in danger.
Ok, he needed the fighting skills, but why did Dharma teach this to the monks? Wasn’t he supposed to teach peace and love?
Well, we must remember that the governing emperors of the ancient kingdom of China often prohibited Buddhism. When the monks refused to discontinue their religion and its activities, the emperor sent soldiers to threat and kill them. In addition, in those days, groups (some were huge) of bandits were very common and they raided the villages. When the villagers escaped to the temple, then the monks would have to fight to protect not only themselves but the villagers as well.
I am pretty confident in this historical background. The fighting methods were necessary and in addition they must have discovered that the physical training brought much health to the monks.
Those two reasons seem to make sense, so we may think that we have found the answers to the small mystery. However, I do not think these two reasons were the only ones to explain why Dharma chose to teach the fighting arts. I think there was a hidden reason. This is my hypothesis. No one has proposed this idea before so I may receive some push back and possibly criticism, but I have a strong feeling my hypothesis is correct.
According to the stories about Dharma that have been handed down to us, he was an enlightened person. If he really was an enlightened person then that means he really knew the meaning of love, or agape, just as Jesus Christ did. If this is the case, I suspect he realized that the ultimate status of martial arts, is the same as that of religion.
Dharma must have believed that training kung fu with right mind would help the monks to reach the ultimate status or enlightened. This may sound like a far-fetched idea, but I do not think it is unheard of. If you have trained or studied Aikido, you are well aware of the founder, Morihei Ueshiba (photo below).
I share two quotes from Ueshiba.
- “All life is a manifestation of the spirit, the manifestation of love.”
- “Aikido is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”
I have also heard that Jesus Christ had owned mystical skills to fight off possible attackers. This fighting skill is, suppose secretly, and transmitted to a small group of the Christian monks in Europe. I am not a scholar or historian of Christianity, and I do not have any documents to substantiate this. Maybe some of the readers who are Christians may have some documents or knowledge about this.
Then, many of the readers would wonder why the reaching of an agape state is the ultimate goal of martial arts. This is a natural question and it is a challenging one. As I have not reached such a state myself, I can only guess why it is so.
Here is my hypothesis.
I must go back to the general concept of Ki, or Chi in Chinese. It is the life force coming from the energy and the vibration of nature including human beings. If the vibration in your mind and body is in harmony, then you are healthy and you feel good. If the harmony of the internal vibration goes off tune or lose the harmony, you will be sick and you do not feel well. I am sure most of the readers will agree to this general concept.
Then, what has this got to do with martial arts? If you train karate, for instance, only for the competition and tournament, your focus and attention will be only with your physical ability and techniques. On the other hand, if you are into budo karate, you will train not only the physical aspect of improvement but also the mental and spiritual aspects.
You will reach the ultimate level of martial arts only when you maximize the improvement in all three aspects; physical, mental and spiritual. In addition, these three aspects must not improve independently, but rather must show the unity and harmonization.
In Buddhism, they try to reach this state through by Zen meditation. Even though they may look like not having the physical aspect as they are simply sitting and meditating, that would be a big mis-understanding. The long hours of meditation require much physical discipline. Think of sitting in a lotus position for many hours without moving. You must have the flexible hip joints and strong seika tanden as well as the back muscles. You also need to have the training in correct breathing.
In Zen meditation they aim for empty mind. In budo karate, we also aim for empting our mind, while at the same time our body must move quickly and continuously as well. When a martial artist reaches this ultimate state, his body will move without thinking. At the same time, he realizes that he has no enemy. He will be filled with love for all mankind. If an ill intended person approaches him to harm him, that person will not be able to move in front of him. This martial art master will emit such a magnificent aura and strong Ki, he will disable any of the attackers.
Ok you may reject this as a silly fiction that can be found only in a cheap martial art novel or a movie. You must remember that only one or two persons in the world with the population of six billion can reach this state. And I am not talking that this state can happen in a year or even in a decade. I am talking about at least one life time. This is like looking for a true miracle, or a real saint.
Bodhi dharma was so dedicated, that more than one thousand five hundred years ago, he traveled alone in the wilderness for thousands of miles to transmit the teachings of Buddhism from India to China. No one would or could do this before him, though a few might have tried. If he could travel in the dangerous journey for many months and maybe years, he had to be enlightened, and had the ultimate level of martial arts. He really was an enlightened man and only one out of the millions who have reached the ultimate level.
So, I will come back to the original question. Why did he teach kung fu to the Shaolin monks? Now I am sure the answer has become very self-evident. Whether you believe or agree with my hypothesis, you cannot deny that the martial art that one Indian Buddhist monk brought to China resulted in, later years, the beginning of unique empty hand martial art in Okinawa islands that was called Te and now Karate.