Shaolin Culture is Steeped in Ch’an Practice
Original Chinese Language Article: By Fei Hong Huang (飞鸿黄)
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Translator’s Note: This is an English language translation of an original Chinese language text. This is part 3 of a 3 part series in the Chinese language regarding the integration and practice of Shaolin martial and Ch’an culture. This text is significant as it confirms that the Shaolin Temple has historically preferred (and emphasised) the Caodong Sect of Ch’an Buddhism. The Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 CE by the Northern Wei Dynasty emperor – Xiaowen – with the first Abbot being the Indian Buddhist monk Buddhabhadra. He had a number of Chinese students who were martial art practitioners before they entered the temple – and through the mental and physical discipline associated with Ch’an training – their mastery of martial arts was enhanced. Master Chan Tin Sang (1924-1993) of the Ch’an Dao Martial Arts Lineage, and the Great Ch’an Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) both preferred the Caodong transmission – even though in the case of Xu Yun – he had inherited all Five Schools of Ch’an. Within the history of the Hakka Ch’an Dao School, many of the ancestral practitioners as young men, spent time as ordained Buddhist monks within various Ch’an temples, including (it is rumoured) the Shaolin Temple in Fujian province. It is interesting to note that when Ch’an was transmitted to Japan (as Zen), it was the Linji (Rinzai) tradition that became associated with martial practice – with the Caodong (Soto) tradition being relegated to the practice of farmers. This is the inversion of the reality in China – where the Linji (Rinzai) is not associated with the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple – although, of course, all Five Ch’an Schools reveal exactly the same empty mind ground, and many martial arts practitioners practiced Ch’an from any and all of the lineages in China.
A defining characteristic of Shaolin culture is that ‘Ch’an and Martial Practice are One’.
It is well known that the culture of the Shaolin Temple is entirely premised upon the practice of the Chinese Ch'an Buddhist tradition. In fact, the practice of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism is the single most important aspect of the Shaolin tradition. This can be seen even in the movies that feature the Shaolin Temple, as many depict martial mastery as being the natural consequence of Ch'an meditational practice.
Records of the early history of Shaolin suggests that the martial tradition of physical fitness began with the temple’s first abbot – Buddhabhadra – who ‘skilfully combined martial movement with seated meditation’.
Toward the end of the Sui Dynasty, the martial monks of the Shaolin Temple assisted Li Shi Min and (his military forces) sweep to a final victory – in this achievement the Shaolin tradition played a significant role. The physical movements and ‘forms’ of the genuine Shaolin fighting system evolved into a very effective means of self-development and self-defence – and eventually the Caodong lineage of Ch’an became the preferred lineage of Buddhism in the temple. This unique combination ensured that the Shaolin tradition became known as a ‘temple that specialised in martial self-cultivation’ to a very high degree. To this end, the benefits of the Caodong lineage of Ch’an cannot be underestimated as an important component of martial mastery.
After much experimentation and deliberation, the distinctive Shaolin martial culture was established that emphasised that ‘Ch’an and Martial Practice are One’. This careful process of assessment, clarification, and refinement, enabled the correct and true Shaolin path to be established.
Prior to the Qing Dynasty, however, it is understood that the emphasis in the Shaolin Temple at that time was on training monks in advanced martial technique. At one time, General Yu Da You (1503–1579) – who was famous for resisting invasions of China - visited the Shaolin Temple and observed a number of monks practicing stick-fighting. Yu Da You was of the opinion that the techniques were overly elaborate and far too ritualised to be of any use in actual combat. To rectify this problem, the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple sent two monks to accompany Yu Da You to gain practical experience of fighting at the battle-front. In this way these two monks learned what a practical martial art was like when used in battle. Afterwards, these two monks then brought back their knowledge and experience to the Shaolin Temple – which was added to the Shaolin tradition – and became known as the Law of Stick-fighting.
Stick-fighting – and it’s not so obvious use in combat – developed relatively late in Shaolin history, but once developed, it has been generally praised for its sophistication and combat-usefulness. Shaolin martial arts, as they are known today, consolidated during the Qing Dynasty, and although the Shaolin tradition is very old, it is from this time period that the arts known today as ‘Shaolin’ appear to have developed.
Many people view Shaolin Fist as a prime example of traditional Shaolin martial arts, with such well-known techniques as:
a) Fighting with the Fist like an Ox Crouching on the Ground
b) Come and Go in a Single, Unified Movement
c) Like Singing without a Song – Like a Straight-line that is Not Linear – Roll-out and Roll-in
d) Stand-up and Look Tall – Hide the Body whilst Standing – Crouch-down and Looking Small – Exhibit the Body whilst Crouching
Obviously the Shaolin martial tradition is premised on practical combative martial art at its core, that emphasis the unity of offensive and defensive technique, the integration of forward and back movement, and the integration of hard and soft energy production. This reveals a direct and unpretentious theory of developmental understanding, premised upon refinement through dialectical philosophy. The extent of the excellence of this complete Shaolin tradition can be seen in the fact that its martial arts has spread all over the country (and the world).
‘Ch’an and Martial Practice are One’ – this is a profound concept that has become enriched through specialisation. This is how the Shaolin Temple explains the various levels of martial attainment:
1) The practice of ‘forms’.
2) The ‘Spirit and the Fist are One’ – this is the integration of ‘form’ and ‘void’.
3) The ‘Ch’an and Martial Practice are One’ – this is the integration of martial practice and Ch’an – or body with mind – a development that is driven by the generation of profound wisdom produced by a ‘concentrated’ and ‘still’ mind. The highest level of attainment of Shaolin martial culture is nothing less than the highest attainment of ‘prajna wisdom’ through the Ch’an meditative method. This gives a very profound understanding of movement (and stillness) so that the correct way is always perceived and understood.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2015.
Original Chinese Language Source Article