The Buddhist Art of War: Chinese Gongfu

When people think of China, two of the most compelling images that come to mind are food and Kung Fu (gongfu or 功夫 in Chinese). Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li are all household names throughout the world, and their movies have become legendary. Yet while there is a deep admiration for the difficulty of the practice, few westerners have much of an understanding of this tradition that extends back thousands of years and grew out of Buddhism. In order to gain an appreciation, I took a journey to China’s most famous wushu, or martial arts, monastery the famed Shaolin Temple in Henan Province.

Today Shaolin Temple is a thriving tourist site, set gorgeously in the rich Song Mountains. Lining the streets nearby are dozens of wushu schools where thousands of young Chinese—and an increasing number of foreigners—come to hone their skills. Only a select few will ever last long enough to work their way through the ranks.

On my first day, reveille boomed through my window at 5:30AM, as it does every morning, waking the students, and to my dismay, me as well. Over the next couple of hours I restlessly tried to block out the noises of these dedicated youngsters marching and singing, but eventually I succumbed and headed into the bright countryside sunshine.

Outside, students who had already completed some morning running were stretching and horsing around with one another. However, soon the real work began. Wushu masters, themselves only in their early twenties, watched carefully as the novices executed and repeated each of their moves over and over: jumps, kicks, tumbles, and sword thrusts. Periodically teachers stopped the practices and singled out individual students for improvement, asking exemplary classmates to demonstrate proper form. To my surprise no one seemed to mind me hanging around taking pictures, save once when a boy of no more than four or five seemed distracted (I dutifully went to a group of older students).

Yet Shaolin Temple is not simply a tourist site or a training ground for wushu hopefuls. It has a rich and fascinating history with its roots in Buddhism, and serves as the bedrock for one of the most popular forms of modern martial arts. Walking around gives only the slightest indication of how long and strong the dedication to the art of war has been in these parts, dating back well over a thousand years.

The Legendary Beginnings

The story of Shaolin’s ties to wushu begins in the 495 when an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra (Dabatuo or 大跋陀 in Chinese) built the temple on Mount Song bringing Buddhism to central China. However it would be another thirty years before the art form began to blend together with Chan Buddhism (commonly known by its Japanese name “Zen”). Yet another Indian, Bodhidharma (Damo or 达摩 in Chinese), came to Shaolin in the early 6th century, but was denied access, and decided to go to the mountains to wait for a change of heart. Unable to exclude him indefinitely, Fang Chang, the current temple leader, eventually allowed him entrance—but only after 9 years of meditation in cave. A slab of stone in the temple today allegedly holds the imprinted shadow of the Indian monk created by blocking out the sun for 9 years in the same seated position.

To the great surprise of Bodhidharma, he discovered the temple’s monks were in poor physical shape, unfit for both fighting and meditating. It soon became his mission to resolve this problem through rigorous exercise and equally regimented meditation. His efforts paid off, and soon both Shaolin Wushu and Chan Buddhism were born. The practices combined the traditional inwardly focused spiritual aspects of the religion with the outward precision of martial arts.

Their skill came not only out of a desire for self-improvement, but also necessity. Shaolin Monastery grew successful, and with that came wealth. Villagers and bandits frequently attacked the compound trying to make off with some of its many riches. Yet over time the monks developed into some of the most proficient fighters in all of China. They overcame numerous attacks through wushu and a formidable physical wall of defense.

They achieved great success, with docile monks transforming into world-class fighters, but it was short-lived. A mere thirty years after Bodhidharma joined the temple it was shut down, as it has been numerous times subsequently. The emperor saw the fighting monks as a threat to his control over the country and decided to take pre-emptive action. As the temple’s disciples grew in fighting prowess they increasingly came to be seen as either a threat or asset—and often both—to the government.

In spite of all of their high-powered fighting, at their core Shaolin Temple’s inhabitants were Buddhist monks, not political soldiers; a fact that is easy to forget. As such, they were pacifists, ostensibly a contradiction in the context of their martial skills. Their goal was to neutralize the threat of invaders, while at the same time avoiding seriously injuring their foes. Warlords ruled the land, and only those who were adept at defending themselves—as the Shaolin monks were—survived.

Much of their training was dedicated to incapacitating opponents without doing any long-term damage. This required the utmost precision, one of the many reasons why wushu requires so much painstaking practice and perfection. The slightest error could cause serious harm either to themselves, or their opponents.

While there are some apparent inconsistencies in pacifists studying the arts of war, there is also a clear internal logical. Hours of daily exercise and a constant push towards perfection align closely with Buddhist ideals about striving for enlightenment. Monks consider gongfu to be the outward manifestation of the inner peace and harmony of Buddhism. Both meditation and martial arts are the pursuit of complete control over oneself.

Shaolin wushu is difficult to classify: it is at once extremely violent and meditatively peaceful. So too did ancient Chinese governments have a hard time trying to figure out what role, if any, the monks should play in society. Not long after the temple was destroyed and the group banned, they rose up again, even gaining strong standing with the empire’s new leadership. This change of perspective was not a random shift, but rather an act of self-interest.

In their most famous feat of heroism, a small group of monks saved child-Emperor Li Shimin from a revolt. In turn he gave the Shaolin Monastery exulted status in China and the practice once again began to flourish. Yet it has always been a delicate balancing act for the temple, and during the Qing dynasty the country’s rulers again viewed them suspiciously. The monks had previously supported the Ming Dynasty rulers, and their loyalty to the new emperors was constantly in doubt. As a result, the Qing destroyed the temple and many of Shaolin’s relics.

More recently, modern rulers quietly accepted Shaolin’s existence, while continuingto view them suspiciously. However, as gong fu increasingly became a symbol of China’s rich and unique history, the leadership embraced the temple both for its metaphoric and monetary value. In 1982 a young Jet Li starred in Shaolin Temple, the first mainland martial arts movie in several decades leading to a barrage of similar films, and international stardom for the actor (Please see Jet Li: Martial Artist and Diplomat).

An Ancient Art in a Modern World

Shaolin monks fill an awkward role in today’s China. On the one hand they have the fame to bring in money and tourists, ensuring their financial sustainability. However, it is difficult to view these gong fu masters as we do their ancestors who meditated all day and fought for survival. In contrast, with a steady stream of visitors to their picturesque home on Song Shan, only those with the most intense capacity to block out the world can find inner peace in such a setting.

Beyond the noise and clamor of tour buses and Chinese guides waving yellow flags, there are more fundamental questions about the traditional Shaolin gongfu. First, the current emphasis for many of the monks is not necessarily the Buddhist spiritual aspects of the art, but rather the physical skills. In some ways it is hard to separate the two since they are both predicated on deep concentration and self awareness. However, there seems to be a clear disconnect for many who tend to start their careers at the private schools in the area. These facilities, of which there are dozens, offer varying quality of martial arts training, but tend to have limited focus on the spiritual aspects Shaolin wushu. In fact, a growing number of the students are girls in mixed gender classes, a feature that does not mesh well with the chaste lifestyle of traditional Buddhist monks.

Second, there is little need for the monks to defend themselves through gong fu, and as a result the practice has become more of a show for curious audiences. This in itself does not contradict the practice of Shaolin gong fu as the practice is supposed to be defensive in nature: picking fights in order to make the skills useful would contradict Buddhism’s pacifist teachings. Nonetheless, one has to wonder whether putting on performances has taken the monks toward the flashier facets of martial arts at the expense of technical expertise.

Third, the impact of commercialism has placed the temple squarely in the courtroom numerous times. As the most famous gong fu temple in the world, Shaolin has more than a little cache and marketers who have no affiliation with the monastery have been eager to cash in. Over the last twenty years the monks have engaged in a type of fight that they are less accustomed to—lawsuits—at an increasing rate. They have succeeded more often than not, but it is an unfortunate requirement for these spiritual practitioners.

Finally, some people have wondered what the real goal of Shaolin Temple is today. Many derisively refer to its leader, Abbot Shi Yongxin, as the sect’s “CEO” on account of his routine trips around the world pushing his brand. On his journeys he has looked for places to open new temples for Shaolin training among other merchandising ventures. Given that the original site makes more than enough money to sustain itself, one has to wonder if the true motives are not sheer capitalistic instinct.

The Future of Wushu

It is hard to predict the future of wushu in general, or the Shaolin style in particular. Clearly with worldwide popularity and a huge tourism business it is not going to disappear anytime soon. On the contrary, training centers are popping up around the world from Australia to North America. The concern is not whether something will manage to endure, but rather if it will live up to its tremendous reputation as the art of dedication embodied by Bodhidarma’s 9-year stint of patience in the mountains.

Wushu has already deviated greatly from Buddhism over the last hundred years. For many people it is easy to separate the sport, which was intended to by a physical extension of the internal spirituality, from the religion. Throughout history activities originally associated with religions have diverged from them. However, rarely have two that were so closely connected become so seemingly independent.

Walking around Shaolin Temple there are reminders of the crucial role that Buddhism traditionally played in gongfu. Hundreds of pagodas stand as tributes to the great monks of past generations. One in particular symbolizes the common members of the temple—those devotees that never rose to institutional prominence, but whose dedication to the art form made the monastery the sign of excellence that it is today. Yet despite all of these artifacts, there is a clear lack of spirituality in the modern experience.

While Shaolin gongfu seems to be separating itself from its religious tradition, one could also argue that the globalization of the practice is in fact spreading Buddhist teachings to a wider audience, whether they realize it or not. During my visit I heard a ‘hello’ shouted at me, hardly an unusual event in China. However, when I turned around to look I saw a young man with a neatly shaved head wearing the same traditional clothing as his shorter, younger companion. As I looked at his face something seemed different.

His skin was slightly darker than mine, similar to many Chinese, but his features looked somewhat different. “I am not Chinese,” he said laughing slightly at my obvious confusion. “I am from Venezuela.” We chatted for a few minutes—his English was good but not great. Few of his classmates could speak as well as he could, and he knew no Chinese, but he had managed to get by for six weeks, making friends and practicing wushu from 5:30 in the morning until sundown. He said he did not consider himself a real Buddhist, and he will surely never become a chaste monk. Yet he was learning the principles that adherents to the religion had developed over hundreds of years in line with their spiritual beliefs.

This Venezuelan is typical of many modern practitioners of wushu: they do not necessarily associate themselves with the Buddhist religion, but nonetheless devote their lives to the principles. They focus on complete awareness and control over their bodies, strict, almost obsessive dedication to perfection in every action, and a respect for their colleagues and opponents. Without ever overtly crossing the line into the realm of religiosity, people from around the world have accepted many of the ideals of Shaolin Buddhism. Perhaps in the end, amid all of the commercialism and watering down of the art form, that will be the real legacy of the modern Shaolin Temple. CE

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