Perhaps no story related to Chinese martial arts is more famous than that of Bodhidharma, also known as Da Mo (達磨), at the Shaolin monastery. Traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China, there are many, often conflicting, accounts of his life. According to Tánlín (曇林), Bodhidharma was a South Indian prince and the favorite son of the king. However, he was not interested in a life of politics and instead chose to study with the famous Buddhist master Prajnatara and become a Buddhist monk.
In the Chinese martial arts community, it is said that upon his arrival at Shaolin, Bodhidharma was disturbed by the poor physical condition of the monks, and thus instructed them in techniques to maintain their physical condition. He is said to have taught a series of external exercises called the “Eighteen Lo Han” and an internal practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic (“Yi Jin Jing”). According to this legend, this training ultimately led to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu.
As with most such stories in the Chinese martial arts community, the legend of Bodhidharma cannot be taken at face value. Academic martial arts historians have shown the legend stems from a 17th-century qigong manual known as the “Yi Jin Jing” and its authenticity has been discredited by the likes of Tang Hao, Xu Zhen and Matsuda Ryuchi. According to modern historian Lin Boyuan in “Zhong Guo Wu Shu Shi” (中國武術史):
As for the “Yi Jin Jing”, a spurious text attributed to Bodhidharma and included in the legend of his transmitting martial arts at the temple, it was written in the Ming dynasty, in 1624 … and falsely attributed to Bodhidharma. Forged prefaces, attributed to the Tang general Li Jing and the Southern Song general Niu Gao were written … This manuscript is full of errors, absurdities and fantastic claims; it cannot be taken as a legitimate source
The legend of Bodhidharma cannot be accepted as literal history. That does NOT mean it is neither significant nor instructive in many ways. Most stories in the Chinese martial arts are better understood as allegorical; creating single figures to represent larger issues. The legend of Bodhidharma once again presents us with a classic “chicken or the egg” question; in the Chinese martial arts, what is the exact relationship between practical combat training and movement training for awareness, health and fitness? And perhaps even, spiritual practices?
Bodhidharma arrives at Shaolin and finds the monks in poor physical condition, too physically weak to properly engage in their monastic duties such as meditation. He thus instructs them in both “external” and “internal” (two terms, distinctly Chinese, of which of course much more can be said) exercises to improve their health. In the eight path structure of Indian yoga, physical conditioning (Asana) and breathing (Pranayama) are in fact seen as proper preparation for meditation (Dhyana). It is not unreasonable to assume that Bodhidharma, an Indian, brought with him an Indian understanding of the relationship between physical conditioning and meditation and taught it to his Chinese disciples.
So, as the legend instructs us, the conditioning / health / spiritual came first and THEN the martial arts developed later, right? Perhaps not! From the “Shaolin Disciples Union” own website;
Perhaps drawing on the martial arts training he would have received as an Indian aristocrat, Damo devised 49 exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus.
Was the training the Shaolin monks received based upon Indian martial arts (combat) traditions?
Once only whispered about but seldom seen, the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu should raise a lot of questions for students of the Chinese martial arts. In Kalaripayattu, we see elements of both “external” and “internal” yet the tradition maintains no such division. We also see movement which we may have initially identified as “yogic” as not only conditioning for combat, but as actual applicable combat technique. Finally, in attempting to define “yogic” we must be aware that the British actively attempted to suppress Kalaripayattu as it was a martial (combat) art. The art survived in some part by affiliating itself with and passing itself off as Indian health and/or spiritual practices.
In the earliest times known in history, the object of athletic exercise was the destruction of life. The hunter and the warrior were the ideal athletes of those days. But it so happened that these men, in pursing their hardy, outdoor life, now in vigorous exercise, anon in lazy repose, found themselves in the enjoying the same splendid health of body and activity that belongs to the wild animal … While they lasted, the exercises of chivalry produced two effects, physical and mental. Physically, they produced graceful and vigorous bodies; mentally, they tended to courage, generosity, and truth.
These are the words of Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery, a figure largely forgotten but recently resurrected by a republication of his “Self Defense for Gentlemen” by Ben Miller. Monstery clearly understood and actually engaged in the practical use of martial (combat) techniques. He was a master swordsman that had fought under twelve different flags and had engaged in more than fifty duels with a variety of weapons. Yet he also understood and embraced their application for fitness and health. Nor should this come as a surprise considering he was educated at least in part at the Central Institute of Physical Culture, located in Stockholm, Sweden. The institute was founded by Dr. Pehr Henrik Ling. Dr. Ling was not only a master fencer, he pioneered the teaching of physical education in Sweden and was a founding father of Swedish gymnastics.
If we return our attention to China and the Shaolin monastery, we note that upon the founding of the monastery, some thirty years before Bodhidharma arrived, two of the original Chinese monks, Huiguang (慧光) and Sengchou (僧稠), both had exceptional martial skills. For example, Sengchou’s skill with the staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon. We then note that Bodhidarma ‘s own Chinese disciple, Huike (慧可), was also a highly trained martial arts expert. There are clear implications that these three Chinese Shaolin monks, Huiguang, Sengchou, and Huike, had been military men before entering the monastic life. Perhaps this explains not only the presence of martial arts at Shaolin, but suggests that exercises used to condition military men may have been adopted for monastic life.