The Shao-lin Relationship to Ch'an
As most people now know, Shao-lin Kung Fu was
founded in the Shao-lin Temple in China. Of course the martial arts did
not originate in the Shao-lin Temple, but were merely cultivated and
formalized there. The fighting skills actually came from the country
side where the numerous styles and systems were developed by the common
people. The monks of Shao-lin evaluated these styles, categorized them
and and bound them into formats that became part of the vast Shao-lin
method of styles and systems.
But, we must always remember that the
Shao-lin Temple is primarily a Buddhist Temple for cultivation of the
mind, and a martial arts center second. The monks use the techniques of
martial arts to refine the mind and body, as well as for self-defense,
but the taking of lives is against Buddhist doctrines.
For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.
The country people had other reasons for learning the martial arts.
Their purposes were purely for defense, and, if a life was lost in the
heat of combat, well so be it. China was a dangerous place in those days
and the people needed something to help them survive the turbulent
times. Until the advent of gunpowder, being skilled in the martial arts
was the only way to assure your safety.
Even today people study martial arts for a variety of reasons. In
America many study for personal self defense, but not necessarily to
take lives (we do have law enforcement agencies today who protect the
public welfare). And there are those who study to help cultivate the mind
and develop self- discipline.
The Two Forces
There are two forces of life and their many changing forms of existence,
which we must come to know . The force with which we were born into the
world is known as original chi. This chi is nurtured by the interplay of
yin and yang. The mysterious essence of chi is cultivated by the natural
transfiguration of yin energies and yang energies.
If this is true, how
then can a practitioner of Shao-lin Ch'uan neglect the study of Ch'an,
which only tends to elucidate this interplay? The practice of Ch'an is a
method of finding balance of the forces of yin and yang. The middle
path spoken by Buddha is nothing but a perfect balance of these two
forces. Shao-lin is nothing more then an outgrowth of this principle.
The forces of yin and yang regulate the world as we know it.
In one way Shao-lin has nothing to do with Ch'an and in another way it
has everything to do with it. It all depends on your purpose of study.
If you have studied Asian philosophy for any length of time you will
have encountered the concept of yin and yang. These two forces regulate
the world as we know it. Everything that you see, hear or do is
influenced by these forces. If you don't understand as yet, it is best
at this point to study for a while, otherwise what I have to say will
seem strange or debatable. But once you come to understand the
relationship of these two forces, you will quickly see the point I am
trying to make.
In the writings of Ch'ang Nai-chou he states, "Training
the physical form is nothing more than yin and yang." If we fail to
comprehend yin and yang, how would we know where to begin our training?
Sitting meditation is yin, and yin is softness, quietness, repose,
passive, yet completely aware. The external martial arts are yang, and
yang is strength, force, hardness and power that is controlled, yet
Everything is two, that is until you become aware that the two arose
from one source. Once you reach the state of oneness you will understand
Ch'an. But unless that happens, you will always defend one or the
other: yin or yang; yes or no; this or that. The interplay of yin and
yang causes change and, as stated in the Source Book of Chinese
"Change has neither thought nor action, because it is in the
state of absolute quiet and inactivity, and when acted on, it
immediately penetrates all things. If it were not the most spirit-like
thing in the world, how can it take part on this universal
transformation? The system of Change is that by which the sage reaches
the utmost of things and examines their subtle emergence (chi, subtle
activating force). Only through depth can the will of all men be
penetrated; only through subtle activation can all undertakings in the
world be brought to completion; only through spirit is there speed
without hurry and destination reached without travel."
The Power of Illusion
Most of us have the intelligence to separate truth from illusion, but
few have the insight and discipline to break free from these commanding
forces. A discipline and a method are needed. This is where the study
of martial arts comes in. Without full awareness on the illusory nature
of life, we become drawn into it, minute by minute, day by day,year by
year, until all our time has been used up. We are born into illusion and
we often die in illusion. Few of us are capable of freeing ourselves
from the pull of the forces that surround us and influence our every
thought and action.
We like to think we are free to make our own decisions, but in fact we
are all slaves to illusion. We have not been taught that these illusions
exist, and so we are totally under their influence. There is never a
free moment. Even when the illusions cease, we are unable to see things
as they really are.
We like to think we are free to make our own decisions, but in fact we
are all slaves to illusion.
No words or actions are strong enough to wake us up.
Nothing in the universe can save you, except yourself. You are the only
hope for release from the great dream. No one has the power to help you
but you. This is where a strong self-discipline comes in, a martial arts
The monks at the Shao-lin Temple know the draw of the great dream. They
are well aware of the powerful forces that distort human consciousness.
In ancient times it was said that the Shao-lin monks were weak from
constant Ch'an practice. The yin was dominant and the yang was minimal.
Through the influence of Ta Mo they came to realize that the human body
can quickly deteriorate if the forces of yin and yang were not balanced.
Through the teaching of Ta Mo they came to understand the forces of yin
So, rather than practicing only the yin aspects of
meditation, they added the yang aspects of the martial arts to develop
both the body and mind, to be strong enough to deal with both forces.
Now, instead of weak monks, you had monks who were both healthy and
strong, with the self-discipline to continue training under the most
More Than Just Fighting
It is the same with the martial arts. If you center only on the body it
becomes just a physical art form. It may be strong, but it will lack
clear mind, and without the balance of the mind and body there is an
inconsistency that will cause an unbalance. Plus, anything physical will
eventually fade away. It becomes a meaningless effort that is only based
on self-gratification and ego enhancement. In fact, it is more likely to
fade away precisely because it is a physical art form that holds no
If you are determined to learn only a defensive art, then learn firearms.
Training only for physical reasons while ignoring the
mind soon becomes hollow and superficial. One of my teachers once said
to me," what good is your Shao-lin without the mind and spirit? When you
die what will be left of your skills?
If you are determined to learn only a defensive art, then learn
firearms. Why waste your time learning the physical combat when all you
need to learn is to pull a trigger? It's quick to learn and you can
easily overcome the best of martial artist. It would seem more logical
to learn how to use a gun instead of punishing yourself with years of
arduous training only to learn a second-rate defense. Why pick second
best when it's much simpler to buy a 9mm pistol?
The reason is because
some of us realize that Shao-lin is more than fighting. It is the
ultimate non-fighting. Of course, we enjoy learning all the physical
skills that Shao-lin offers. It is great exercise and can be very useful
in our defense.
Needless to say, Shao-lin fighting techniques are both strong and
effective, but we must always keep clear in our minds the reality of
what we do and why we do it. There are those who train because they
follow and believe in the philosophy that our art proclaims. The more
you look into the Shao-lin arts the more you discover that the training
is really focused on self-attainment. When this happens defense is the
furthest thing from your mind, since,in reality, there is nothing to
defend against but yourself. A verse in the Hsi Hsin Ming states:
Literature and art
Are but busy gnats in the air;
Technique and ability
A solitary lamp in the sun.
In the scheme of things all things come to pass with the exception of
In a traditional Shao-lin martial arts school you will find two things:
A picture of the sage Kwang Kung and a family tree. The Kwang Kung
represents two aspects of our art, the martial aspects and the spiritual
aspects. The family tree represents those who have attained some level
of understanding and are continuing to train earnestly to achieve
perfection of self.
Physical skill is never the sole determining
factor, for if it were, our art would be degraded to nothing but a
physical art form, subject to decay. Rather, it is the combination of
body, mind and spirit training that makes our art worth our fullest
attention. Simply put, if the spiritual is not valued, then our art is
degraded to the physical levels, and this level fades as life fades.
Followers of Shao-lin believe that we are more than the physical body.
They realize that there are far greater matters to attend to other than
physical prowess. In this respect Shao-lin martial arts and Ch'an
compliment each other totally. Practicing one without the other will
only lessen something which is great. To separate the outer from the
inner will only weaken, not strengthen.
The Shao-lin Temple did more than unify our arts. It integrated the yin
and yang of Shao-lin martial arts and drew attention to the real value
of them by incorporating them into the practice of Ch'an. In the book of
Chinese philosophy by Wing-Tsit-chan he writes,
"The yin-yang doctrine
is very simple. Its influence has been extensive. No aspect of Chinese
civilization - metaphysical, medicine, government or art - has escaped
its imprint. In simple terms, the doctrine teaches that all things and
events are products of the two elements, forces, or principles: yin
which is negative, passive, weak, and destructive, and yang, which is
positive, active, strong, and constructive."
The theory is associated with the Five agents or Elements (wu-hsing
Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth) which may be taken as an elaboration
of the yin/yang idea but actually adds the important concept of
rotation, i.e. all things succeed one another as the Five Agents take
their turn. In doing this, it strengthened our art so that it is now
being spread around the world. No physical art alone, devoid of an
underlying philosophy, could have accomplished this. It is this very
philosophy that makes Shao-lin what it is. How could any of our arts,
Tai Chi Ch'uan, Hsing-I Ch'uan etc., exist without it?
Now ask yourself honestly, how often do you inquire into the Tao with the
intent to follow it?
In the noted book by Chen Pan Ling, "Chen Pan Ling's Original Tai Chi
Ch'uan Textbook," he states that the purpose of the martial arts is not
to prove how mighty you are, but rather to learn the methods of
combining the yin and yang into a harmonious balance.
He further indicates that training in the arts, even with slightest effort, also
has the potential for self-enlightenment.
Although his statement was
true, what he failed to mention is that most will neglect the inner
aspects, which are necessary to attain this union of yin and yang. It is
fair to ask why so few will attain the highest perfection. The answer is
that attaining anything requires full attention to the matters at hand.
It also requires inner looking, and this inner looking is Ch'an.
Now ask yourself honestly, how often do you sit down and practice Ch'an?
Then ask yourself, how often do you inquire into the Tao (Way) with the
intent to follow it?
This is what it takes break through the illusion
and to discover how to harmonize the universal energies. Just reading
won't help, just writing won't help, just espousing the great works
won't help. You must practice, study, practice more, study more, and so
forth. It never ends. Until your last breath there is a chance to make
that breakthrough. The reward is to come to know the self: who you are
and where are you going.
Some say the term "martial arts" is a bad way to express what we do. The
word 'martial' implies fighting, but the arts are more than fighting.
However, if you stop to think about it, I think "Martial Arts" is not a
such a bad term, simply because there is a fight going on, and it is the
greatest battle you will ever have: it is the fight with one's self.
This is the fight that most of us lose. But, it is the only fight the
counts, for if we lose, we lose everything. We lose the chance to know,
we lose the chance to change, we lose the chance to become. We will
remain in the grip of the great forces and will continue to be blown
around like leaves in the wind, from lifetime to lifetime.
The combination of internal and external Shao-lin has the potential to
harness the forces so that you can regain control. The trick of life is
to stop fighting it, stop being pulled by it, stop deluding yourself as
to its true meaning. To do this you need a powerful tool, a tool that
balances the forces.
Lao Tzu said, "When the ground is level, water does
not flow; when weights are equal, a balance does not tilt." When we
have balanced the forces then we will attain the correct level. But, to
find this balance is not as easy as we think. We need all the help we
can get to discipline ourselves to a point where we will not lessen our
efforts to make the breakthrough to enlightenment. In simple words, we
need to work hard and relentlessly or we will fail.
Don't Give Up
There is a story told by one of my Chinese teachers concerning work:
There was a farmer who owned a large farm, and he worked very hard to
maintain it. One day, on his way to the fields, he saw a rabbit standing
by a large rock. The rabbit saw him and made a dash to escape. But in
doing so, the rabbit hit his head on the rock and died. The farmer picked
up the rabbit and said, "Look, a free meal." So he went home, cooked the
rabbit and feasted. The next day the farmer came back to the rock again
looking for the rabbit. He looked and looked, day after day, year after
year, but no rabbit ever came. And because he spent his time looking for
the rabbit, his field died and there was nothing left. End of story.
It should be clear that this story tries to exemplify the need to work, and
not just hope for a free ride. You can not simply hope you will achieve
enlightenment, you must work and work hard. So if a Chinese friend says
to you, "Shway Ju dai Tu" don't feel complimented. It means, "Stop
looking for the rabbit." In other words, do some work in your life
instead of looking for the easy way out.
Shao-lin teaches students this very attitude: never give up, never stop
giving your fullest efforts to achieve the perfect balance of yin/yang.
My teachers always said the same thing - practice hard in the day so you
may rest easy at night, knowing that you have done your best.
Never give up, never stop
giving your fullest efforts to achieve
the perfect balance of yin/yang.
Shao-lin is indeed hard work. It requires steadfast dedication to overcome the
weakness of the body and mind. This existence which we call life is a
battleground of emotions, and obstacles which constantly stand in our
way. There is never peace as long as we exist in this world.
No one is immune from the influences of life, but we can learn to deal
with these forces through the discipline of Shao-lin. It has the
potential to show us how to stand fast in all adversity. Ch'an and
Shao-lin are but two ends of the same pole. In all the years I have
studied Shao-lin and Ch'an I can honestly tell you that those who have
not looked deeply into their mind have more often than not failed in
Shao-lin. Shao-lin alone, without the reinforcement of the Ch'an, cannot
stand alone for very long.
Life will overcome you. The dream is far too powerful for anyone to see
through it clearly. It is the study and practice of Ch'an that gives us
the edge to make any kind of breakthrough. Shao-lin takes on an entirely
new perspective when viewed through the clear mind. Shao-lin training
and Chan practice form the perfect unity of yin and yang.
Look only at yin and yang becomes clouded and obscure. Look only at yang
and yin becomes obscured. Train to balance both your mind and body and
the forces of yin and yang will find the perfect balance. The Buddha
called that balance "Enlightenment."