Buddhist Origins of Shaolin

Emperor Xiào Wén built the Shaolin Temple (Shàolín Sì) during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 c.e.), in 495 c.e. The temple had been constructed for an Indian monk named Bátuó (Buddhabhadra) who traveled to China to spread Buddhism.

The monastery was famous, for the translations of some six-hundred tomes of Buddhist scripture from Sanskrit into Chinese. Many of the monks in the Temple, under Batuo, practiced a form of martial arts (wrestling) called Jiao; which was more sport than a martial art decades before Da Mo arrived at the Temple to teach Chán Buddhism (which Zen later came from; oddly though most westerners are exposed to Japanese Zen; through Karate, and the years following the Imperial Japanese defeat in World War II).

Lohan, which is the Chinese term for Arahat or Arahant, in Buddhism, is an ancient term for someone who has attained the first stages of enlightenment. In the ancient Palinese language, it literally means “destroyer of evil”. The concept of the Lohan pre-dates the later Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva.

As a destroyer of evil, the concept of Lohan is often associated in Chinese Internal Martial Arts, particularly those with a Buddhist heritage. The Indian monk Bodhidharma (called Da Mo by the Chinese, and Daruma by the Japanese), the 28th Zen patriarch was popularly credited for creating the original set of exercises which became the foundation of Shaolin Temple kung fu. In the pantheon of Buddhist saints, Bodhidharma was one of the Eighteen Lohans.

Since Mao had banned Buddhism and Martial Arts in China, most all Lohan was stripped of its internal energy and martial power; and taught in a rudimentary, declawed version that only used basic body bone and muscle linear mechanics. In the West, such as the United States; this castrated version was taught because it did not require a deep background of effective Qigong, so new students could learn it. Additionally most in the West did not have any training or understanding of the Buddhist concepts that Lohan is based on. One can practice Buddhism and Christianity without any contradiction; when understanding their principles that have nothing wrong with them; (Nihl Obstat) rather than official doctrine, Imprimatur).

Buddhist Qigong and Physical Exercise Origins in Shaolin

When Da Mo arrived. he found many of the Shaolin monks weak, so he taught a Buddhist based Qigong with the moves:
Push down with palms, Curl fingers and squeeze, Hold bars at side, Hold bars in front, Hang from the bars, Fists besides ears, Arms out to the side, Pull the bars apart, Fists in front of face, Like a mountain, Fists in front of Dan Tien and Lift the Chi.

In 1732 c.e., Bei Shaolinquan (Northern Shaolin Style) survived the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Qing Army. A Monk named Jué Yuan, saved this style, and fled north from Henan to Hebei Province. He taught some villagers Bei Shaolinquan.

'Tracing back, Shaolin boxing originated from zen master Damo’s Eighteen Techniques (namely, the Eighteen Lohan Techniques). Damo passed it down to his disciples, Tan Zong and the rest, and they assisted the Tang Dynasty in pacifying Wang Shichong. They were thirteen who performed this service, all of them capable with these eighteen techniques, applying them skillfully and adapting endlessly. Later, the first Song Dynasty emperor, Zhao Kuangyin, studied and trained very deeply. Among his skills, he was superb at Thirty-Six Long Boxing, Six-Step Monkey Boxing, Decoy Boxing, and so on. After establishing his new dynasty, he stored his books in the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Later generations transmitted the knowledge of the first emperor’s boxing, and so it is known as the Taizu [“first emperor”] School.

During the Jin and Yuan Dynasties, there was Bai Yufeng, who shaved his head and became a monk, and truly obtained the Shaolin legacy. He taught his disciple, the monk Jue Yuan, who made changes and additions. Eighteen techniques became seventy-two techniques. They evolved into new methods and then were consolidated into standard patterns, their intricacies blending together, until they reached a peak of form and function. Then from seventy-two techniques, again more was added and became one hundred seventy-three techniques, finally branching into five categories of boxing.

The five kinds of boxing are dragon, tiger, leopard, snake, and crane, training spirit, bone, sinew, breath, and power respectively. There was the Han Dynasty physician Hua Tuo’s Five Animal Frolics Boxing, being the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird. Bai transmitted his idea, changing them to dragon, tiger, leopard, snake, and crane. Contemporary with Bai was Old Li, who taught Large and Small Hong Boxing, which has spread all over south-central China [the text specifying Shaanxi, Henan, Sichuan, and Hubei-Hunan] and today there are many traditions of it.'

Wu Zhiqing, writing from the Shanghai “Esteeming the Martial” School, March 1930

Traditional Shaolin Qigong and Buddhist Meditation

Shen is in the Upper Dan Tien (Third Eye) in the forehead. This is located in a type of valley between the two lobes of the brain.

The Shen can resonate with various energies and sense the supernatural. In meditation, the Shen feels like it is living in a deep valley; stretching further than you can see.

Buddhist Imposters in Shaolin

Why is that very few Shaolin based martial art schools and systems; have anything to say about Buddhist meditation or Qigong?

Is this due to lack of foundation, the commercialization of Hong Kong, the commercialization of America, the fundamentalist christian backlash, the co-opting influence of the catholic parochialism, or the inability for outsiders to adopt a new train of thought? Other possibilities are the refusal to recognize ancient Chinese knowledge, such as most people's ignorance of Chinese invention of the compass and gunpowder.

Both Shaolin and Lohan can be taught externally to Wu Shu types and intermediate students that are not committed to serious martial arts study. It used to be required that one stand in the Standing Pole (or Embrace the Moon) Qigong posture for at least an hour, in good form, with correct energy; before learning any of the forms. This is not a money maker; since most students will drop out before accomplishing this. Both the West and China are primarily geared to the money making commercial versions of what used to be Shaolin. In China you will see actors that they call ‘monks’, pose in a mediation sitting posture, outside theaters, temples and other money making events for tourists taking pictures. They will never be accompanied with any real Buddhism, lessons or any sincere meditation; they are a sham.

There are still many BeiShaolin (Northern Shaolin) and so called temple Shaolin schools that have institutionalized external concepts that are ambivalent to internal methods.

These external Bei Shaolin schools tend to follow the static and conservative philosophy of Confucius, emphasizing following the rules, without understanding the underlying concepts. Lao Tsu would use the dynamics of Taoism and Dr. Sun Yat-sen which develops the mind and independent thought.

In 1912 Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was declared the President of the Republic of China, with its capital in Nanjing. In 1914 Japan declared war on Germany and fought in China again. They seized German occupied city of Qingdao (formerly Tsing Tao, known for its China again. They seized German occupied city of Qingdao (formerly Tsing Tao Beer brewed after German influence(Tsing Tao Beer). In 1921, the Chinese communist party initially supported Sun Yat-Sen's. Soon these two factions would split China into a civil war. Warlords ruled China due to foreign occupation and two new, united governments.

In 1922 a regimental commander, Miao Xing, became the acting abbot of Songshan Shaolin who with a large number of monks and layman disciples, eradicated bandit gangs in the local vicinity. Three years later Heng Lin, then acting abbot, gathered a large number of monk warriors for an oath-taking ritual at the temple.

In 1928, Shaolin warlord Shi Yousan set fire to the temple destroying 90% of the buildings and many of Shaolin's most precious relics were looted. Its massive library of Buddhism and kungfu was reduced to ash.

Shaolin Buddhism would not recover from this destruction. All that remained of Shaolin was a few buildings and a lot of burnt foundations.

While Buddhism and Kungfu were still practiced by the monks, most of their energy was spent just trying to survive this dark period.

“Kuo Yun-Shen

Ta Mo developed a teaching to change the sinews and to wash the bone marrow. He believed that this would permit the body to return to its pre-natal state. In the Sung Dynasty [960-1279], Yue Fei added to Ta Mo’s doctrine that of changing the bones. The Five Fowl exercise and Eight Part exercise reflected these teachings. After concerted practice, the dispersed ch’i is concentrated at the navel, and all parts of the body are coordinated. This is called Little Heaven.

The next stage is concealed energy. It is free, relaxed, soft, and natural. However, do not be misled by the word soft. It is not soft like grass; rather, it is elastic. This stage deals with changing ch’i into spirit and concomitantly changing the sinews. It is called Big Heaven.”

Chinese Boxing, Masters and Methods, by Robert W. Smith, page 93, published by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1974, 1990

At nineteen, Sun Lu Tang started to study with Kuo Yun-Shen.


A martial manifestation of the Middle Way, could be when one practices a move/block, not to concentrate on it being a block or an attack.

For example, when one is walking in the snow, the depth that one's step sinks, is not predictable:

Walking in the Snow
a) the step could stay on top of hard packed snow, or ice,
b) one could sink to snow depth, or
c) the step could sink to knee depth or greater.

One should not attach themselves to expecting one depth, or even that the ankle position or bending; will be the same. The angle of the foot after the fall, relative to the supporting plane, could be pointing:
a) uphill/ lifted up
b) level/ prone or
c) downhill/ tilted down.

One should not attach themselves to how to hold the foot, since one's point of contact might optimally be:
a) the heel for leaning backwards to prevent forward slide,
b) the flat of the foot for less sinking or
c) the ball of the foot for sinking deeply into the snow.

Since the step is dynamic, it is better not to concentrate on form, or a pre-set way of walking. Every step is different. One should not just see with their mind or eyes, but with their feet, and center. The move becomes part of the seeing, not just a result of it!

One should use their arms, in a similar manner, not committing to form, or distance.

A other example; is running in the dark, on a dirt trail, or on the forest floor.

If you were to watch and calculate each individual step, the speed would never be greater than a walk.

Letting your foot feel the surface of the ground, and adjusting accordingly, is to run, without a pre-set form.

If one were to think of position, it is ideal to position one's energy and move at half the distance since:

a) blocking at full distance commits one to the move;
b) blocking without full extension gives room for:
c) changing direction,
d) stopping the move,
e) responding to another move, or
f) changing to offense.

A Buddhist meditative concept of practice, would be to not concentrate on the practical application of the move to offense or defense, but to become one with the flow and energy. The move being more than it's use to the practitioner.

A posture that focuses on one's own energy flow, and the feeling of another's Chi through one's center or hand contact, would be more universal and whole. Contrast this to responding, via cause and effect to another's move, which is based on reactions, and have specific limited paths. Better to be there before the move, seeing the Yi and Chi.

In a fighting situation, movements should not be committed to, but should be dynamic and perceptive. Sometimes non-movement is the better than the response. Feints are useless on this level. For the attacker, a feint is not truly dynamic, since it should have the capability to become a full powered blow, depending on the state of the opponent. When gazing at a candle, there are other angles to be seen, than from the position of the viewer. There are also many things that are missed by the eyes limited of what is around the burning part of the wick, the most obvious being the heat above the flame, and the onion effect of the areas around the center of the flame. Similarly, there is more to the candle, than how we use the candle, or how it directly influences us. Modern physics is starting to see the geomagnetic properties of the flame as well.

There is more to the moon than what we see. The classic example is the Dark Side of the Moon, that we never see, yet is part of the whole moon. Perhaps the energy around life, is similar to the halo around a candle, some would say this is the aura. There is more to the whole than the sum of the parts. Doing Push Hands slowly, non-competitively, and blindfolded: will help sensitize one to these energies, as well as meditation and Chi Sao drills.


Jet Li, has an article in the November 2004, issue of Inside Kung Fu, Straight From The Heart, (pages 48, 49 & 72), will shed a light.

"IKF: What brought you to Buddhism?

JL: Buddhism has helped me to find the answers for myself. With Buddhism you look inside yourself for the answer.
Martial arts have external and internal training or physical training or mindtraining. Physical training can help your circulation, or you can meditate or do tai chi and to improve your whole body.
There is no philosophy: it is not until you study Buddhism that you will know there is no philosophy, nothing. Because when you believe something you will then find someone will defend themselves against your beliefs. Once you have a point, then another will have their point and the conflict begins. It is better to have no point. That is what we try to do as Buddhists, have no point. ...

Buddhism tells you about the universe and many other things and then you choose which way to go. "

... A bumble bees wings are fragile yet move at over 100 miles per hour and are beating in a very small wing space pattern; that moves with flight.

We asked how did he do it and the master replied that he did not ‘do it’, he was just there. He did not try; it was not so much being quick, as being one with the timing. One normally cannot do this without meditation.

From Axe Hand; Hsing-i & Internal Strength Workout, pages 91-93, 84.

Some will say this is a Daoist approach also. I do not see that Buddhism and Daoism are mutually exclusive.

Four Noble Truths
#2) the origin of suffering is attachment.

The concept of non-attachment runs through all of the presented topics: as does introspection of ones mind/body relationships; both Buddhism tenets.

Specifically presented on not being set:
  • on how one steps;
  • on one particular application of the move; or
  • defending a particular position.

In the last example; Kenny did not separate himself from the bee or the move; he was one with it. He did not strive; he was there. The silent observation of all that arises and passes away in one’s body and mind in an open spirit of ‘letting go’. The gentle calming and silencing of the mind is encouraged so as to create a space in which to observe the conditions of the body and mind. In particular, meditation on the body is done with a sweeping awareness of all the various sensations that arise throughout the body, for example the pressure of one’s clothes on the body or the subtle vibrations on the hands and feet. This awareness can also be concentrated in a gentle and peaceful way on any particular area of the body for further investigation. The mind, consisting of perceptions (sanna), sensations (vedana), mental formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana), is also observed with a silent awareness.

Mindfulness is the observing mind, but it does not stand outside of the object of observation. It goes right into the object and becomes one with it. Because the nature of the observing mind is mindfulness, the observing mind does not lose itself in the object but transforms it by illuminating it, just as the penetrating light of the sun transforms trees and plants.

To digress somewhat; there are many concepts that are arrived at independently through different methods.

A dynamic and open minded scientist will use light theory as an example. There are experiments where it can be show that light act like a wave; and experiments that will show that light acts like a particle. One learns to use both or either theory(ies); depending on the benefits; not judging which is the best.

Plato used universal, as a concept that runs through all things that have the same essence. What makes a chair a chair; that all chairs have. All chairs have four legs for example; but I would not say a chair is four legs.


Northern Shaolin Buddhist meditation based consciousness of no-thing, no-mind and non attachment that stresses essences that transcend form; and that go between various forms.

You will learn feeling Qi, not visualizing through sensing-seeing with your gut (Lower Dan Tien), hands, feet etc.; in the book
Axe Hand; Hsing-i & Internal Strength Workout
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