Buddhist Styles of Kung-Fu

Buddhism was an imported religion brought from India to China. The earliest reports of Buddhist worship date from around 120 BC. Buddhism in China syncretised with existing forms of worship, Taoism and Confucianism, to form a new branch, known today as Chan Buddhism. Shaolin history states that in 527 AD a travelling Indian monk named Bodhidarma (Ta Mo in Chinese) came to the Chan Buddhist Shaolin Monastery on Song Shan Mountain in the Henan province of China. Ta Mo was horrified by the physical condition of the monks who sat for hours in silent meditation, while their bodies wasted away. He then undertook the task of teaching them specific exercises, designed to strengthen and revitalise their bodies.

As Ta Mo was of the Brahmin class in India, it is thought that the exercises he taught were derived from Yoga and/ or Kalarippayattu, a South East Indian Martial Art that predates even Kung-Fu. It is said that at Shaolin, Bodhidarma faced a wall for nine years and that when he finally finished, he left behind a chest within which was found two manuscripts sealed in wax – The Marrow Cleansing Classic and the Muscle Changing Classic. The first book was stolen and lost forever. Only the second book survived and became the training manual for the Shaolin Monks thereafter.

Contemporary historians debate the Shaolin version of events, stating that several Shaolin monks were well-versed in Kung-Fu prior to Ta Mo’s visit and that most of the sources date from the 1500s, giving a gap of nearly a thousand years between the events’ supposed occurrence and any official documentation. Regardless of the exact date of origin, Shaolin Martial Arts soon became a force to be reckoned with. Shaolin disciples dedicated (and still dedicate) their lives to a Spartan regime of meditation (designed to build and store Chi) and unbelievably rigorous physical training (designed to expel Chi). The earliest historical proof of Shaolin Fighting Monks is a stone stelae at the temple, dated from 728 AD. Elite warrior monks were conscripted by the ruling classes in battle and their cooperation changed the course of Chinese history on several occasions. By the 1500s, martial arts experts were travelling from all over China to learn at the Shaolin Monastery and thousand of Kung-Fu styles today claim lineage from this centre of excellence.

Song Shan Mountain is located in Henan province, an area which suffered great lawlessness during the Ming Dynasty. Both Shaolin Kung Fu and Chen Style family Tai Chi Chuan are credited as having brought order to the region through their superior martial arts abilities. Tai Chi is just one style of Kung-Fu that claims lineage from Shaolin. Chen village is quite near the monastery. It is the regional influence of the Shaolin style that sees so many notable Kung-Fu styles springing up from the Guangdong area.

The Shaolin style of Kung-Fu is also described as external. The training regime is tough, requiring above all supreme feats of physical ability. Rapid fire punches and kicks, somersaults landing on the back and side of the body, a contortionist level of flexibility and excellence with a variety of weapons are trademarks of the Shaolin monks. While normal people may not have the time to reach such levels of excellence, any Shaolin school places great emphasis on physical training. Chi Kung breathing exercises are performed to harden the body to attack, and monks and Kung-Fu experts alike demonstrate this by smashing objects on their hardened bodies.

The Shaolin style constitutes the single biggest influence on Kung-Fu in general and hundreds of Kung-Fu styles claiming lineage are practised all over the world today. A little-known group of Shaolin monks still practise at the temple. They are disciples of the abbot there and train in the same way as in the centuries before. Travelling Shaolin monks in the shows that tour the world, are not in fact monks but martial arts experts dressed as monks, who may have trained at one of the Shaolin schools near the monastery. Some monk shows have no connection at all with the Shaolin Monastery. Generally, they are experts in the Shaolin style of Kung-Fu but do not dedicate themselves to the teachings of Chan Buddhism and are not ordained.

  • Have a look at this Kung-Fu video to see the Shaolin monks in full, breathtaking effect.

A seemingly limitless number of styles of Kung-Fu claim to be descended from the Shaolin Monastery. The most famous of these include:

  • Drunken Boxing
  • Wing Chun
  • White Crane
  • Monkey
  • Eagle Claw
  • Praying Mantis
  • Tai Chi Chuan