A Monk Knocks at the Temple Gate
By Edward Orem, PhD
Most Buddhist practices are mind-only
cultivation techniques, attributing little importance to the wisdom and memory
of the body vehicle. Even the majority of those in position of leadership
within the Zen sect are either unaware of or purposefully neglect a large body
of integral psycho-physical teachings from the very founder, Bodhidharma.
This is puzzling, as Zen practitioners certainly extol the virtues of maintaining a firm grasp of the obvious. In any event, the evasion and or aversion to these ancient, core practices allows the Zen leadership to neatly avoid an ancient, core dilemma of humanity.
We are living at a time when our identity as beings unified in body and mind is slipping from collective consciousness. This is not a modern problem. The accelerated speed of our degradation is recent, but the dilemma has been with us for many thousands of years: In the face of daily duties, how can we maintain or regain unity of mind and body?
Fortunately, the greater collection of inner research and physical development practices addressing this problem has been preserved in a body of literature and practices which links natural medicine, Buddhist and Taoist methods of self-development, superb health, and high levels of fitness. These doctrines are still vibrating with force and energy throughout the world everyday in the practice of the ancient Chinese martial arts.
Authentic Chinese boxing from the Buddhist Shaolin Temple is a discovery, exploration, and study of the mind through the medium of the body. Conversely, in these same "martial" arts, the body is studied through exploration of consciousness as the principal vehicle.
What Buddhism terms the "Doctrine of Elements" deals directly with fundamentals central to our study of mind and body in Chinese martial arts. The Doctrine is taught to students through the gradual understanding of relationships between constituents of whatever subject being scrutinized. The process of realization incorporates pictures, sound, shapes, and movement. Often the resulting understanding of the Doctrine manifests physically as a mandala or pattern.
In Shaolin Temple Boxing we have several concentration and meditation study methods. One method is to work with pre-arranged patterns of movement, which we refer to as "forms" (Chinese hsing, Japanese kata). Initially the student is content with gross motor coordination between one constituent move and the next in the hsing (a formidable enough task for most, requiring hundreds of hours of concentration and sweat equity). Next the novice starts wondering how each move translates into a self-defense application.
After months and years of focused attention, the real reasons for the preservation of these forms, these patterns of understanding, become evident in the training: Release from the constraints of time and space, triumphs over limitations of the physical body, and dissolution of self become very real and frequent training experiences.
Brick-by-elemental-brick the novice has constructed his mandala: The form has become a kinetic vehicle for understanding the wordless mind and for changing consciousness.
For several millennia these interlocking elemental principles have characterized the marriage of traditional martial studies with esoteric schools of consciousness training. Often the underlying, generating principles are the most ignored. Chinese Temple Boxing is not what the public perceives it to be; it is not what the media "experts" think it is; and it certainly isn't what most students of other martial arts believe of it. Temple Boxing can still hold up its head in a largely uncomprehending and scornful mainstream society precisely because of what is not seen of its nature.
The wandering mendicant from southern India who showed up at the gates of the Shaolin Temple at the base of Songshan Mountain in 527 AD wasn't the first messenger of the Dharma to appear there. But he did remind the resident monks of their responsibility to integrate body and mind practices.
Bodhidharma carried little more than his monk's robe, staff, and begging bowl, but it was his unseen cultural baggage that reflected the enormous wealth of the typically well-endowed member of the Indian Warrior caste. He carried with him a privileged educational background that included many fields of learning, exhaustive knowledge of the Vedas, equally intensive work in the comparatively new "Thunderbolt" (Sanskrit vajra) meditation (Sansk. dhyanna, Chin. channa, Jap. zenna) arts of Mahayana Buddhism, and of course a princely amount of training in the Royal arts of combat, both armed and unarmed.
All of ancient Asia looked west to India for its higher inspirations in every field. At that time, all forms of advanced knowledge (medicine, philosophy, literature, religion) flowed from that great Mother of cultures, India. Tamo was following a well-charted, centuries-old current of thought flowing from Mother India. The date 527 AD may seem ancient to some, but in fact that event nearly 1,500 years ago signifies the latter end of a process of cultural influences that was on-going for the previous 3,000 years.
There is no evidence that Tamo taught martial technique at Shaolin. His contributions were subtler in appearance and more profound in application, outlasting any fighting maneuvers. Tamo's "triple jewel" system of self-development came directly from his spiritual mentors in India. The integral features of the three-pronged study (including 18 Hands of the Arhat, Muscle and Tendon Changing Classic, and Marrow-Washing Classic) managed to challenge the established patterns and practices of many Chinese Buddhist masters teaching "enlightenment." The Classics introduced the Chinese to the idea of doing more than just seated meditation for self-cultivation. The reaction of the priesthood status quo was highly predictable then, just as it is now.
Briefly, the Shi Pa Lo Han Shou (18 Hands of the Arhat) is a three-part series (six movements to each part) designed to raise the over-all health and fitness of the monks debilitated by either asceticism or the lethargy of too much sitting meditation. The Yi Chin Ching (Tendon and Muscle Changing Classic) requires the student to perform 22 isotonic exercises for the purpose of generating and controlling one's internal energy (Chin. chi, Jap. ki, Sansk. prana).
The final "jewel" adds to the reservoir of vast energies and esoteric abilities (Sansk. siddhi), with even more potent techniques emphasizing self-massage to bring about merging of internal energy with spirit (Chin. shen). The goal of Shii Soei Ching (Marrow-Washing Classic) is liberation from desire and other causes of human suffering, using the chi previously stored to literally wash one's bone marrow and brain tissue. The hard lesson here is that one must train both mind and (subtle) body in order to be capable of self-realization, enlightenment, liberation.
Even at that early time of the Sixth Century, historical evidence suggests that Chinese martial arts had been systematized for over 2,000 years. Evidence further leads us to the conclusion that no internal energy work (Chin. chi-kung) was part of Shaolin training before Tamo's arrival.
The merging of the older, esoteric Indian traditions of spiritual cultivation with the Chinese focus on external martial technique marked the beginning of a new era in Chinese martial arts. Thanks to the unorthodox teachings of a radical monk, the Shaolin Temple re-united the mind-body doctrine of Zen in China, the Shaolin Temple became the birthplace of Chinese martial chi-kung studies, and the Temple remained thereafter on the cutting edge of applied research in China to integrate external and internal training methods. But to Bodhidharma, all this was old (Ar-) hat, as we shall see.