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Bodhi Dharma - 2 - Shaolin Martial Arts

By the time Bodhidharma reached Shaolin monastery in China, Buddhism already had a history of at least five hundred years. The Buddhist monks, who severed all worldly bonds, were residing at this place as recluses. The Shaolin monastery is located on the Shaoshi mountain, one of the several peaks of Song - Shan mountain ranges which are located in Zhengzhou, a town in Henan Province of China. The meaning of the word ‘Shaolin’ is ‘new forest’. This mountain is considered as a sacred place of worship not only in Buddhism but also in Taoism, which has been in practice in China for many thousands of years.

The Buddhist monks at Shaolin monastery used to spend most of their time in reading scriptures, reciting Sutras and leading a disciplined life. They did not give importance to body and physical exercise. Thereby, they were weak and could not sit for long hours in Zhan.

In Chinese language, Zhan means ‘sitting in meditation’. Dhyana in Sanskrit has become ‘Zhan’ in the language of Pali. The same has become ‘Chan’ in Chinese. The main practice in Chan Buddhism is ‘silent meditation in solitude’. After observing the monks, Bodhidharma thought that they needed Asana Siddhi which means the ability to sit in the same posture for a minimum of three hours, without any inconveniences such as leg pain and numbness. For this, he taught some exercises to the Chinese Buddhist monks who were weak. The same exercises were called ‘Sinews transforming exercises’ which strengthen the joints and muscles.

There are different opinions as from where Bodhidharma learned these physical exercises. Some historians imagined that he might have learned them in his childhood as part of the martial arts practiced by Royal families, as he was the son of King Pallava. He might have been an expert in martial arts such as Kuthu Varisai, Silambam, Marma Adi which existed in the region of Madurai in Tamilnadu, a southern state in India. People who belong to the branches of Kerala Kalaripayattu martial art, think that he must have mastered this martial art too. However, as he is from Madurai of Tamilnadu, it is logical to think that he was introduced to the martial arts such as Kuthu Varisai, Marma Adi etc. of Tamilnadu rather than Kalaripayattu of Kerala.

After practicing these exercises, the monks became healthy, and could meditate for a longer period. Gradually, these exercises transformed into the world famous Shaolin Kung Fu. We can discuss the history and branches of Shaolin Kung Fu some other time.

Shaolin Kung Fu is being considered as the source of all the existing martial arts in the world. There were many forms of martial arts in our country even prior to this, but owing to our natural negligence, we lost all of them.

However, all the masters of martial arts in South Asian countries pay their first respect to the Shaolin monastery and Bodhidharma. The picture of Bodhidharma or his symbolic picture ‘Damo’ is found to be hung in ancient Dojos. At least in this manner, our ancient arts are being remembered worldwide. As Indians, this is something we can feel happy about.

In this way, through Bodhidharma’s travel to China, the seed of Shaolin Kung Fu was sown. This is a coincidental welfare done by Bodhidharma to the world. When asked to list the top six people who influenced the world’s history of religion, Osho Rajneesh replied, “Bodhidharma must be mentioned in the list”. But, we forgot him, in the current times. No one in India remembers the great master who introduced Zen Buddhism to the world. Nowadays, many people cut a sorry figure, when asked who he is. This is a pitiable state of affairs.

All rights reserved. This article has been translated by Ranganath D, which was originally posted in on May 3, 2009. The content or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher.

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