A Little History of the Martial Arts – Part 4

Welcome to part 4 of our history series.

The Chinese Martial arts developed at three places; the Buddhist Shaolin temple, the Taoist Wu Tang monastery, and the village arts of the peasants themselves. According to legend an Indian prince, the son of a Brahman king in southern India, renounced all his riches and titles and adopted the mantle of a wandering monk.

His intention was to master the Buddhist doctrine of Mahayana which involved searching into one’s own being to discover freedom and enlightenment. This is the core teaching of every religion both in the east and the west, when you get past the outer teachings. Meditation was an essential and only ingredient of this search. Originally meditation is used to control the mind and focus its force upon one point.

This Ch’an meditation, as it was called in China, aimed at stripping the mind of all feelings, emotions and passions. In the western tradition this knowledge came via India to ancient Egypt and through Greece, the colour of the emotions is red and this is why the devil or Satan which means deceiver is portrayed in a red costume, therefore it is the emotions and your thoughts that lead you astray in your meditation preventing enlightment.

The monk changed his name to Bodhidharma and began his long quest in search of enlightment. It is said that he sat with his face to a wall for nine years. Meditating, while listening to the ants screaming. After reaching enlightenment Bodhidharma travelled to China to preach his doctrine, as he was saddened at the decline of the orthodox teachings of Buddha in China.

After wandering through much of southern China he ventured north and travelled through the wild mountainous regions, finally arriving in the Honan province. He sought refuge at the temple of Shaolin, which was partly derelict but was still occupied by a few monks. The monastery had been built 150 years previously in honour of the Buddhist master Bhadra but during the Chou dynasty Buddhism was prohibited by order of the emperor Wu, and the monastery forced to close.

It re opened 50 years later, and had since been run with a skeleton staff who taught Buddhist sutras to anyone who would listen.
Bodhidharma entered the monastery to find that the year has taken their toll on both the structure and resident monks. Their failing health was all too apparent, and Bodhidharma quickly initiated a series of health giving exercises based on deep breathing techniques of yoga.

The monk’s haggard features and physical debilitation soon became a thing of the past. This special system of breathing and exercising became known as the 18 hands of Lo Han. These exercise formed the basis of a formalized system of temple boxing, which later evolved into a complete fighting system for self defence.

Input from other types of Kung Fu, usually gleaned from wandering priests seeking refuge or boxing masters from other styles seeking out Shaolin for further knowledge, led to the establishment of the martial tradition of Shaolin. For over a thousand years the monastery flourished and distinct fighting styles emerged, each with its own subtleties. Disciples were taken into the temple confines as apprentices, providing that they could pass certain tests.

These tests were based on loyalty, honesty, endurance, dedication and psychological makeup.
Prospective students, all male were brought by their parents or guardians to the temple walls and left outside to await acceptance. To test their endurance the abbot would sometimes leave the budding disciples waiting for days on end, but he secretly kept a close eye on them to see how they behaved. The children waited patiently and silently to see what transpired. In time, some of the children would play childhood games. These were the failures and would never see beyond the high walls of Shaolin.

The remainder were given a series of menial tasks to test them yet further. They had to learn to tolerate the hardships of servitude for at least three years. During this period the young novices were pushed beyond the limits of normal human endurance. Each day they carried two large cast iron buckets to the bottom of the mountain to fill them up with water from the stream; they had to make the arduous trek back up the mountain without spilling a drop. In the second year the disciplines had to wear solid iron shoes weighing over 20 pounds on their daily trek down the mountain.

As the months passed many budding monks fell by the wayside unable to keep up with the hard tasks and returned home. The few that were finally left were deemed fit to carry on the tradition of Shaolin, and were ordained as priests. The disciples did not realize that the three years hard training, carrying the water up and down the mountain, was really aimed at making their bodies fit and strong enough to undergo the strict martial arts training they would receive once ordained.

When the disciple became a priest his head was shaved bald and his skull was scorched nine times with lighted incense, creating nine scars. Only then could he be termed a shaolin monk and a proper kung fu training schedule could begin. The monks swore a secret oath never to divulge any techniques they were taught. The martial arts training was based on the fighting patterns of five animals; the dragon which represented spirit; the snake for toughening the bones and tendons; the tiger for strength; the leopard for breath and the crane for stamina.

Kung fu was developed not only for self defence but also as an invaluable health giving exercise. Training in one of the many kung fu styles consists of learning and practicing pre arranged movements, called sets or forms, choreographed by the ancient masters to simulate countless combatative situations. These movements constitute a series of toughening up exercises combining speed and reflex training.

The Shaolin monks spent many years at the temple learning not only kung fu but also medicine, including herbalism and acupuncture. Philosophy and translating the Buddhist sutras into Chinese was also part of their daily program. Eventually the novice monk/priest was ready to leave. Tradition dictated that he would have to undergo one final test before going out into the world, known as the ‘wooden dummies’ lane. The ‘wooden dummies’ were in fact skilled practitioners of Shaolin kung fu.

About 30 of them would hide inside the long corridor that led to the main gate. The would be challenger walked in complete darkness down the corridor and was ambushed at intermittent stages by the hidden masters. They attacked him with kicks and punches, palm strikes and finger jabs. The recipient would have to evade them all and retaliate effectively. Very often the departing monk would not even make it halfway before he was stopped by an eye gouging technique. Only the very best made it to the end of the lane and the light (enlightenment).

Those who succeeded were met at the end of the corridor by a huge bronze stove or cauldron which held burning incense. This barred their path to the outside door. To leave the temple the monk would have to move the great pot. On the sides of this cauldron were carved a dragon and a tiger. The monk, in a type of bear hug lift, pressing his forearms against the red hot walls of the stove, pushed the great pot to the side.

In executing this frightening task the monk’s forearms received the imprint of the dragon and tiger. These permanent tattoo like burns were his ‘graduation certificate’ informing the world that he was a master of shaolin kung fu. The front gate of the temple was only ever opened to allow a fully trained fighting priest passage to the outside world. Other than this, all entrances and exits at shaolin were made through a side door.

See you in part 5
“The seeds of our destiny are nourished by the experiences of our past”
Chinese proverb



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