Vancouver Traditional Martial Arts Academy

Shaolin, Shorinji and the Zen Way of the Fist

The name of a thing is merely a word”. -Shakyamuni Buddha

 

If you were to ask any random person on the street what the word Shorinji meant they’d likely have no idea. The word Shaolin however might get some recognition. Thanks to TV and movies the term Shaolin has gotten some general public attention. And of course there are the modern, traveling, Shaolin Monks that can perform quite amazing feats of physical skills and mental focus. However the performing acrobatics that are called the Shaolin today are not really what the term had come to represent in the history of martial arts in China.

The real history of what is being referred to as the Shaolin is not very well known. However it is one of the most important elements that make Asian Martial Arts so unique. Through the philosophy of the Shaolin Ch’an or Shaolin Way a complete spiritual mind-body way of life was developed. One in which expert self defense abilities became perfectly entwined with the path of self development that in a Zen context would be called enlightenment/Satori, or in a Daoist context the Dao/Tao realization.

Shaolin is a Chinese word and Shorinji is simply the Japanese translation of Shaolin. This is not a coincidence. In terms of purpose, spirit, and focus the Shaolin is one and the same as the Shorinji. Any differences of expression are incidental and misses the point. There’s an old Zen saying refers to this kind of misunderstanding that goes,”As soon as you ask about a difference you’ve already stuck your head into a bowl full of glue.”

If you were to translate the Chinese word Shaolin/Si Lum directly you would find it means something along the lines of a small or young forest. The stories handed down from the past say that in around 496 AD a temple was build in the Honan province of China that was situated in a small forest grove hence why the name Shorinji/Shaolin was chosen. The temple might have been just one more temple build in the very long history of Chinese temples except that it would receive a visitor from India, and he would forever alter Asian Martial Arts and philosophy.

He is often called Bodidharma but also can be written as Tamo. He is said to have traveled alone from India to China and possibly passed through Tibet. Considered by historians to be the first Ch’an or Zen Buddhist teacher in China he is often depicted as swarthy, bearded man with a balding head and wild eyes. There are many legends about his accomplishments and teachings. Some tales are quite fanciful while others more believable. However story one stands out as most relevant to the relationship Tamo had to the history of the Shorinji.

After a poorly received audience with the Emperor of the time (Emperor Wu-ti 502-549 AD) Tamo approached the monks at the Shaolin Temple as a teacher and was refused. The kind of Buddhism Tamo lived and taught was not what was usually practiced by the other Buddhists in China at the time. Undaunted he set about to demonstrate his knowledge and abilities. After some time the monks became convinced that he was an authentic master and began to study under his guidance.

Tamo had brought Zen with him and Zen has never been an exactly easy thing to study. Called Ch’an in Chinese and Dhyana in Sanskrit, Zen is a very distinctly direct and pragmatic form of Buddhism. It’s worthwhile to note that many scholars have speculated that Zen is the nearest existing practice to the one the original (Gautama) Buddha taught, and I am inclined to agree with that.

The words of O’Sensei Richard Kim come to mind as he would often say, “do you see what your eyes see?” This seems to well describe what Zen’s purpose is, seeing things as they truly are. The core of the practice is to essentially maintain a deeply cognizant and highly attuned meditative awareness in every moment. Tamo taught that to achieve this state one had to find balance in the body and the mind. He quickly found the monks at the Temple to be unfit for the meditations he was showing them. So to help them gain the strength and stamina necessary for the study he began teaching them in various exercises.

Tamo was raised in an upper class of the ancient Indian caste society and so would have been instructed in many Yoga’s systems as well as the related Indian Martial Arts systems befitting someone of his birth at that time.Tamo obviously chose a life of meditative study and must have learned many things from many teachers. This along with traveling a long and dangerous path to arrive in China would have given him ample time to develop a thorough sense of health and balance both physically and mentally.

So began the Shaolin as a place where physical exercise became an important part of the meditative studies taught therein. Of course China has another, older, and equally relevant spiritual philosophy that would have been well known to the monks of the Temple called Daoism/Taoism. Daoism has no known beginning dates. It seems to have evolved from earlier ambiguous Shamanistic type beliefs coming out of the late stone age.

The Daoist tradition has always been interested in using the physical body as a vehicle or tool in personal and spiritual development. It has laid much of the foundation for Qi Gong and Chinese medicine. Both of which are as old as anything in China’s history and have many important similarities to Yoga practices. Both seek to find a unity with the flow of energy in the universe, both utilize the idea of the body being the main vehicle for developing insight and ultimately enlightenment itself, and both strive to see the world as it truly is without judgment. There are many more similarities but from those alone it can be easily understood how Zen and Daoism became so deeply entwined in the development of the Martial Arts of the Shaolin/Shorinji.

So from these two great traditions the monks at the Shaolin Temple developed their arts. According to most accounts the exercises taught by Tamo were not specifically martial. They were more like a flowing Yoga or Qi Gong practice. Over time the exercises would take on more and more martial art aspects. It is reasonable to assume that the practical advantages of learning self defense were not hard for the monks to see. It is also worth noting that many Daoist masters throughout history have been noted for being extremely effective at hand to hand combat.

The reason for incorporating more and more martial and self defense movements can be understood best when one imagines the world the monks at the time lived in. At that time in history there was no police force as we have today. A group of monks living in a temple in the forest would have had no choice but to deal with the myriad of dangers that existed by themselves. What might be called outlaws and bandits were commonplace. Rouge soldiers from various armies would often join such groups and they would be quite skilled in military fighting arts.

There was also many wild animals that could have been problematic for any people living in that time. In most of China there was 3 species of Leopard, Tigers, in some area’s poisonous snakes, large constrictor snakes and a dense population of large apes. All of these things would make knowledge of self defense very useful and practical.

So the combining of the Yoga/Daoist meditative health practices with self defense applications would have been a fairly natural one. This idea was brought to it’s zenith as it was seen that the skills a martial artist required served amazingly well as maintaining health physically and mentally. According to my research the third Abbot of the Shaolin Temple after Tamo began the training with weapons in the Temple and made the martial studies a core component of the teachings.

Once the realization that learning self defense was uniquely beneficial to the aims of Zen practice an apotheosis seems to have occurred. Some accounts of a dialogue between the third Abbot of the Temple and other Buddhist sects shows the core perception and misunderstanding that still occurs to this day about how a peaceful and nonviolent art can be so profoundly well versed in deadly techniques.

The answer to the apparent conundrum is in the unavoidable reality of violence in the world. Mankind has always been violent both to itself and the world in which it has existed in. Seeing this as unquestionably true a person who wishes to avoid taking part in violence can only hope to achieve that goal by learning how violence works so as to not get caught up in it’s machinations. Anybody who remains ignorant of the violence of the world will have no option other than victim-hood when they are confronted with a violent situation.

And being a victim of violence is not at all congruent with the teachings of either Zen or Daoism. It means one has lost one of the most important things they have, their ability to chose how they respond to the world. This then is the most important core ethic of Shaolin/Shorinji martial teachings. That in order to remain a compassionate sovereign individual one must be able to deal with anything that may come their way and still remain grounded in compassion and humility. The monks at the Temple achieved this by becoming exceptional martial artists as well as deeply conscious and compassionate individuals.

The monks would take lessons from wherever they could. In this way the core animals styles like dragon, tiger and snake were developed. Watching nature has always been an important method of learning in the Shaolin and such animals proved to know very well how to defend themselves.

Over several centuries the arts at the Temple became as skilled as anything that has existed in mankind’s history. In many ways this marriage of martial skills with Buddhist morality was truly exceptional and is unlike the way martial skills were developed in any other society at any time. Many types of warrior classes have played important roles in almost every culture that has ever existed but it was with the Shaolin that such skills were fundamentally attached to a sense of timeless pacifism. The Temple would actually be put to the torch several times for refusing to take part in the various political struggles but the monks would simply rebuild without nursing any grievances and so their teachings have continued to this day.

The history of the Temple is of course deeply woven into much of Chinese history. The Shaolin became known as Shaolin Ch’an/Way it’s teachings became the root of all martial arts that teach honor and respect are paramount to how many punches one can throw or how high one can kick.

If course in many places in the word the idea of a skilled warrior that upheld the common good was well known but the Shaolin style of balancing compassion with deadly skill took the way of the peaceful warrior to new levels both in and outside of China. Most notably this way of being seems to have taken a firm root in Okinawa.

The Okinawan (Okinawa being a small group of islands south of mainland Japan) people had deep ties to China from as early as the mid 1400’s. The legends of that time state that though there was an indigenous fighting art on the island before then it was only after a trade partnership with China had begun that the Okinawan people started to learn the elements of the Shaolin way.

This way of maintaining both skilled martial abilities with an absolute sense of seeking non violence suited the Okinawan situation very well. This is because Okinawa had accepted a ban on weapons to facilitate it’s trade ties to China. History is vague as to exactly how and when the deeper aspects of the Shaolin teaching penetrated the Islands but a few notable people who obviously learned such skills were Chatan Yara, and Takahara Peichin. These men fostered and developed the concepts of the Shaolin into the needs of the Okinawan people at that time and found a profoundly harmonious match.

At later years other Okinawan practitioners of these arts would use the term Shorinji to describe their art, which became known as Karate. This was not because they practiced exactly the same movements that were studied in the Chinese Shaolin Temples but rather because they studied their Karate in the same spirit as their comrades in mainland China. Of course the core principals of movement can’t change that much from style to style if the main goal of maximum efficiency and effectiveness are sought in the training. However a comparison of old Shaolin techniques with modern day Karate is not the purpose of this essay despite being quite interesting.

So when Karate masters like Bushi Matsummura and O’Sensei Richard Kim called what they taught Shorinji it was to honor the history of the Shaolin Temple system of thought and intent. My teacher, Sensei Douglas Mortley, has often told me that Karate and martial arts in general are simply a way of using physical exercise to achieve enlightenment. And so in this endeavor we can look to the history of the Shaolin Temple as a great source of inspiration.

The Shorinji represents a history that resonates with anyone who seeks to find a sense of peace and passion for living in this world. The history of the Shaolin is far from being described in it’s totality by this essay but the essence of it can be felt in the words of Karate Master Chojun Miyagi when he said, “My conviction is that the way of the fist and Zen are one and the same.” This is the real history of the Shaolin, the balance of self empowerment and compassion as it was cultivated over centuries throughout Asia and other places.

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