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The Shao-lin Relationship to Ch'an

As most people now know, Shao-lin Kung Fu was founded in the Shao-lin Temple in China. Of course the martial arts did not originate in the Shao-lin Temple, but were merely cultivated and formalized there. The fighting skills actually came from the country side where the numerous styles and systems were developed by the common people. The monks of Shao-lin evaluated these styles, categorized them and and bound them into formats that became part of the vast Shao-lin method of styles and systems.

grandmaster But, we must always remember that the Shao-lin Temple is primarily a Buddhist Temple for cultivation of the mind, and a martial arts center second. The monks use the techniques of martial arts to refine the mind and body, as well as for self-defense, but the taking of lives is against Buddhist doctrines.

For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.

The country people had other reasons for learning the martial arts. Their purposes were purely for defense, and, if a life was lost in the heat of combat, well so be it. China was a dangerous place in those days and the people needed something to help them survive the turbulent times. Until the advent of gunpowder, being skilled in the martial arts was the only way to assure your safety.

Even today people study martial arts for a variety of reasons. In America many study for personal self defense, but not necessarily to take lives (we do have law enforcement agencies today who protect the public welfare). And there are those who study to help cultivate the mind and develop self- discipline.

The Two Forces

There are two forces of life and their many changing forms of existence, which we must come to know . The force with which we were born into the world is known as original chi. This chi is nurtured by the interplay of yin and yang. The mysterious essence of chi is cultivated by the natural transfiguration of yin energies and yang energies.

If this is true, how then can a practitioner of Shao-lin Ch'uan neglect the study of Ch'an, which only tends to elucidate this interplay? The practice of Ch'an is a method of finding balance of the forces of yin and yang. The middle path spoken by Buddha is nothing but a perfect balance of these two forces. Shao-lin is nothing more then an outgrowth of this principle.

The forces of yin and yang regulate the world as we know it.

In one way Shao-lin has nothing to do with Ch'an and in another way it has everything to do with it. It all depends on your purpose of study. If you have studied Asian philosophy for any length of time you will have encountered the concept of yin and yang. These two forces regulate the world as we know it. Everything that you see, hear or do is influenced by these forces. If you don't understand as yet, it is best at this point to study for a while, otherwise what I have to say will seem strange or debatable. But once you come to understand the relationship of these two forces, you will quickly see the point I am trying to make.

In the writings of Ch'ang Nai-chou he states, "Training the physical form is nothing more than yin and yang." If we fail to comprehend yin and yang, how would we know where to begin our training? Sitting meditation is yin, and yin is softness, quietness, repose, passive, yet completely aware. The external martial arts are yang, and yang is strength, force, hardness and power that is controlled, yet explosive.

Everything is two, that is until you become aware that the two arose from one source. Once you reach the state of oneness you will understand Ch'an. But unless that happens, you will always defend one or the other: yin or yang; yes or no; this or that. The interplay of yin and yang causes change and, as stated in the Source Book of Chinese Philosophy,:

"Change has neither thought nor action, because it is in the state of absolute quiet and inactivity, and when acted on, it immediately penetrates all things. If it were not the most spirit-like thing in the world, how can it take part on this universal transformation? The system of Change is that by which the sage reaches the utmost of things and examines their subtle emergence (chi, subtle activating force). Only through depth can the will of all men be penetrated; only through subtle activation can all undertakings in the world be brought to completion; only through spirit is there speed without hurry and destination reached without travel."

The Power of Illusion

Most of us have the intelligence to separate truth from illusion, but few have the insight and discipline to break free from these commanding forces. A discipline and a method are needed. This is where the study of martial arts comes in. Without full awareness on the illusory nature of life, we become drawn into it, minute by minute, day by day,year by year, until all our time has been used up. We are born into illusion and we often die in illusion. Few of us are capable of freeing ourselves from the pull of the forces that surround us and influence our every thought and action.

We like to think we are free to make our own decisions, but in fact we are all slaves to illusion. We have not been taught that these illusions exist, and so we are totally under their influence. There is never a free moment. Even when the illusions cease, we are unable to see things as they really are.

We like to think we are free to make our own decisions, but in fact we are all slaves to illusion.

No words or actions are strong enough to wake us up. Nothing in the universe can save you, except yourself. You are the only hope for release from the great dream. No one has the power to help you but you. This is where a strong self-discipline comes in, a martial arts discipline.

The monks at the Shao-lin Temple know the draw of the great dream. They are well aware of the powerful forces that distort human consciousness. In ancient times it was said that the Shao-lin monks were weak from constant Ch'an practice. The yin was dominant and the yang was minimal. Through the influence of Ta Mo they came to realize that the human body can quickly deteriorate if the forces of yin and yang were not balanced. Through the teaching of Ta Mo they came to understand the forces of yin and yang.

So, rather than practicing only the yin aspects of meditation, they added the yang aspects of the martial arts to develop both the body and mind, to be strong enough to deal with both forces. Now, instead of weak monks, you had monks who were both healthy and strong, with the self-discipline to continue training under the most arduous conditions.

More Than Just Fighting

It is the same with the martial arts. If you center only on the body it becomes just a physical art form. It may be strong, but it will lack clear mind, and without the balance of the mind and body there is an inconsistency that will cause an unbalance. Plus, anything physical will eventually fade away. It becomes a meaningless effort that is only based on self-gratification and ego enhancement. In fact, it is more likely to fade away precisely because it is a physical art form that holds no intrinsic values.

If you are determined to learn only a defensive art, then learn firearms.

Training only for physical reasons while ignoring the mind soon becomes hollow and superficial. One of my teachers once said to me," what good is your Shao-lin without the mind and spirit? When you die what will be left of your skills?

If you are determined to learn only a defensive art, then learn firearms. Why waste your time learning the physical combat when all you need to learn is to pull a trigger? It's quick to learn and you can easily overcome the best of martial artist. It would seem more logical to learn how to use a gun instead of punishing yourself with years of arduous training only to learn a second-rate defense. Why pick second best when it's much simpler to buy a 9mm pistol?

The reason is because some of us realize that Shao-lin is more than fighting. It is the ultimate non-fighting. Of course, we enjoy learning all the physical skills that Shao-lin offers. It is great exercise and can be very useful in our defense.

Needless to say, Shao-lin fighting techniques are both strong and effective, but we must always keep clear in our minds the reality of what we do and why we do it. There are those who train because they follow and believe in the philosophy that our art proclaims. The more you look into the Shao-lin arts the more you discover that the training is really focused on self-attainment. When this happens defense is the furthest thing from your mind, since,in reality, there is nothing to defend against but yourself. A verse in the Hsi Hsin Ming states:

Literature and art
Are but busy gnats in the air;
Technique and ability
A solitary lamp in the sun.

In the scheme of things all things come to pass with the exception of our spirit.

In a traditional Shao-lin martial arts school you will find two things: A picture of the sage Kwang Kung and a family tree. The Kwang Kung represents two aspects of our art, the martial aspects and the spiritual aspects. The family tree represents those who have attained some level of understanding and are continuing to train earnestly to achieve perfection of self.

Physical skill is never the sole determining factor, for if it were, our art would be degraded to nothing but a physical art form, subject to decay. Rather, it is the combination of body, mind and spirit training that makes our art worth our fullest attention. Simply put, if the spiritual is not valued, then our art is degraded to the physical levels, and this level fades as life fades.

Followers of Shao-lin believe that we are more than the physical body. They realize that there are far greater matters to attend to other than physical prowess. In this respect Shao-lin martial arts and Ch'an compliment each other totally. Practicing one without the other will only lessen something which is great. To separate the outer from the inner will only weaken, not strengthen.

Practicing Ch'an

The Shao-lin Temple did more than unify our arts. It integrated the yin and yang of Shao-lin martial arts and drew attention to the real value of them by incorporating them into the practice of Ch'an. In the book of Chinese philosophy by Wing-Tsit-chan he writes,

"The yin-yang doctrine is very simple. Its influence has been extensive. No aspect of Chinese civilization - metaphysical, medicine, government or art - has escaped its imprint. In simple terms, the doctrine teaches that all things and events are products of the two elements, forces, or principles: yin which is negative, passive, weak, and destructive, and yang, which is positive, active, strong, and constructive."

The theory is associated with the Five agents or Elements (wu-hsing Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth) which may be taken as an elaboration of the yin/yang idea but actually adds the important concept of rotation, i.e. all things succeed one another as the Five Agents take their turn. In doing this, it strengthened our art so that it is now being spread around the world. No physical art alone, devoid of an underlying philosophy, could have accomplished this. It is this very philosophy that makes Shao-lin what it is. How could any of our arts, Tai Chi Ch'uan, Hsing-I Ch'uan etc., exist without it?

Now ask yourself honestly, how often do you inquire into the Tao with the intent to follow it?

In the noted book by Chen Pan Ling, "Chen Pan Ling's Original Tai Chi Ch'uan Textbook," he states that the purpose of the martial arts is not to prove how mighty you are, but rather to learn the methods of combining the yin and yang into a harmonious balance. He further indicates that training in the arts, even with slightest effort, also has the potential for self-enlightenment.

Although his statement was true, what he failed to mention is that most will neglect the inner aspects, which are necessary to attain this union of yin and yang. It is fair to ask why so few will attain the highest perfection. The answer is that attaining anything requires full attention to the matters at hand. It also requires inner looking, and this inner looking is Ch'an.

Now ask yourself honestly, how often do you sit down and practice Ch'an? Then ask yourself, how often do you inquire into the Tao (Way) with the intent to follow it?

This is what it takes break through the illusion and to discover how to harmonize the universal energies. Just reading won't help, just writing won't help, just espousing the great works won't help. You must practice, study, practice more, study more, and so forth. It never ends. Until your last breath there is a chance to make that breakthrough. The reward is to come to know the self: who you are and where are you going.

Some say the term "martial arts" is a bad way to express what we do. The word 'martial' implies fighting, but the arts are more than fighting. However, if you stop to think about it, I think "Martial Arts" is not a such a bad term, simply because there is a fight going on, and it is the greatest battle you will ever have: it is the fight with one's self.

This is the fight that most of us lose. But, it is the only fight the counts, for if we lose, we lose everything. We lose the chance to know, we lose the chance to change, we lose the chance to become. We will remain in the grip of the great forces and will continue to be blown around like leaves in the wind, from lifetime to lifetime.

The combination of internal and external Shao-lin has the potential to harness the forces so that you can regain control. The trick of life is to stop fighting it, stop being pulled by it, stop deluding yourself as to its true meaning. To do this you need a powerful tool, a tool that balances the forces.

Lao Tzu said, "When the ground is level, water does not flow; when weights are equal, a balance does not tilt." When we have balanced the forces then we will attain the correct level. But, to find this balance is not as easy as we think. We need all the help we can get to discipline ourselves to a point where we will not lessen our efforts to make the breakthrough to enlightenment. In simple words, we need to work hard and relentlessly or we will fail.

Don't Give Up

There is a story told by one of my Chinese teachers concerning work: There was a farmer who owned a large farm, and he worked very hard to maintain it. One day, on his way to the fields, he saw a rabbit standing by a large rock. The rabbit saw him and made a dash to escape. But in doing so, the rabbit hit his head on the rock and died. The farmer picked up the rabbit and said, "Look, a free meal." So he went home, cooked the rabbit and feasted. The next day the farmer came back to the rock again looking for the rabbit. He looked and looked, day after day, year after year, but no rabbit ever came. And because he spent his time looking for the rabbit, his field died and there was nothing left. End of story.

It should be clear that this story tries to exemplify the need to work, and not just hope for a free ride. You can not simply hope you will achieve enlightenment, you must work and work hard. So if a Chinese friend says to you, "Shway Ju dai Tu" don't feel complimented. It means, "Stop looking for the rabbit." In other words, do some work in your life instead of looking for the easy way out.

Shao-lin teaches students this very attitude: never give up, never stop giving your fullest efforts to achieve the perfect balance of yin/yang. My teachers always said the same thing - practice hard in the day so you may rest easy at night, knowing that you have done your best.

Never give up, never stop giving your fullest efforts to achieve the perfect balance of yin/yang.

Shao-lin is indeed hard work. It requires steadfast dedication to overcome the weakness of the body and mind. This existence which we call life is a battleground of emotions, and obstacles which constantly stand in our way. There is never peace as long as we exist in this world.

No one is immune from the influences of life, but we can learn to deal with these forces through the discipline of Shao-lin. It has the potential to show us how to stand fast in all adversity. Ch'an and Shao-lin are but two ends of the same pole. In all the years I have studied Shao-lin and Ch'an I can honestly tell you that those who have not looked deeply into their mind have more often than not failed in Shao-lin. Shao-lin alone, without the reinforcement of the Ch'an, cannot stand alone for very long.

Life will overcome you. The dream is far too powerful for anyone to see through it clearly. It is the study and practice of Ch'an that gives us the edge to make any kind of breakthrough. Shao-lin takes on an entirely new perspective when viewed through the clear mind. Shao-lin training and Chan practice form the perfect unity of yin and yang.

Look only at yin and yang becomes clouded and obscure. Look only at yang and yin becomes obscured. Train to balance both your mind and body and the forces of yin and yang will find the perfect balance. The Buddha called that balance "Enlightenment."

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