What do Shaolin Qigong, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Zen Meditation have in common?
No, this isn’t the start of some sort of Zen joke. I’m serious!
Not only did these arts all come from the famous Shaolin Temple, but they also came from the same man!
If you practice any of these 3 arts, then like me you belong to the legacy of Bodhidharma.
Today, Bodhidharma is recognized as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism, the 1st Patriarch of Zen, the 1st Patriarch of Shaolin Qigong, and the 1st Patriarch of Shaolin Kung Fu.
Not a bad résumé!
The Indian Prince
Bodhidharma was born into Indian royalty in the 5th Century AD. After renouncing his royal life, he decided to travel to China in order to teach Buddhism. His long journey eventually brought him to the Shaolin Temple in Songshan province.
Long before Bodhidharma arrived, Buddhism was already spreading through China. (Remember that Buddhism was already 1000 years old by this time.)
In 497 AD, the Chinese emperor had the Shaolin Temple built in order to promote Buddhism in his empire. By the time Bodhidharma arrived at the temple in 527 AD, there were already many monks living there.
What Bodhidharma found at the temple was disheartening. The monks were weak and sickly, they were falling asleep during meditation, and they lacked the vitality needed for deep meditation.
This was not Bodhidharma’s vision of spiritual cultivation.
Bodhidharma believed that physical, intellectual, and spiritual cultivation were an indivisible whole. If you are sick or in pain, then how can you hope to achieve enlightenment? If you lack mental clarity, how will you endure the intensity of meditation?
To work successfully towards enlightenment, one needs to also cultivate health, vitality, and mental clarity. This was Bodhidharma’s philosophy.
It’s clear that Bodhidharma was a powerful master, full of health, vitality, mental clarity, and internal force. We know that he learned Buddhist meditation from his teacher, Prajnatara.
But where did he learn Qigong?
We can only speculate, but it is likely that Bodhidharma, a crowned prince, was well trained in elite arts befitting royalty. In addition to various scholarly arts, it’s likely that he learned ancient Indian martial arts, as well as some form of yoga.
The yoga of Bodhidharma’s time was likely to be a powerful energy art.
Bodhidharma knew that, in order to help the Shaolin Monks reach enlightenment, he would need to help them to cultivate health, vitality, and mental clarity.
The Birth of Shaolin Qigong
What Bodhidharma did next changed the course of history.
Rather than teach the monks the various yoga and martial arts exercises that he had learned, it seems that he decided to develop a completely new set of exercises.
For the next 9 years, he lived in a cave near the Shaolin Temple and practiced in seclusion. When he left the cave, he brought three new sets of exercises with him:
These exercises were specifically designed to prepare the monks for the rigors of deep, Zen meditation. And they worked like a charm. The exercises transformed the monks physically, energetically, mentally, and spiritually.
Over time, thanks to the success of these exercises, the Shaolin Temple became one of the most powerful spiritual centers in the history of the world.
Now, 1500 years later, Bodhidharma’s legacy is alive and well in countless schools of Zen, kung fu, and qigong.
The basic philosophy in my school is the same as Bodhidharma’s — health, vitality, and mental clarity are prerequisites for spiritual cultivation.
What about Shaolin Kung Fu?
Actually, Bodhidharma never taught Shaolin Kung Fu. He’s widely recognized as the 1st patriarch of Shaolin Kung Fu because the arts that he taught provided the foundation and the inspiration.
It’s likely that 18 Luohan Hands gradually developed into Luohan Kung Fu. Over the centuries, these arts developed into the many different styles of Shaolin Kung Fu.
There is even a saying in China that “all martial arts come from Shaolin.” Many Japanese Karate schools trace their lineage all the way back to the Shaolin Temple.
It’s difficult to imagine how different history would have been if Bodhidharma had stayed in India instead of traveling to China. Would we even know about the Shaolin Temple, or would it have disappeared into obscurity centuries ago? How many martial arts would be completely different without the influence of Shaolin Kung Fu? And what would the world be like without Zen?
The Man and The Mystery
Little information has been passed down about this incredible man, which only adds to the mystery. Today, it’s difficult to separate fact from legend.
But we know from both Chinese and Indian sources that he did exist, and that he did travel to China to teach at the Shaolin Temple.
As far as we know, Bodhidharma never wrote anything down. But neither did Jesus or Buddha.
One of the fundamental texts attributed to Bodhidharma is a stanza that says:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
Not founded upon words or letters;
Pointing directly to the human mind;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
Reading this, it’s easier to see why he didn’t write anything down. Bodhidharma wanted the monks to practice, not just read scriptures.
And I want you to do the same. You’ve read enough for today. Now go practice some qigong!
If you don’t know any qigong, then click here to learn Lifting The Sky. And don’t forget to feel grateful to Bodhidharma for giving us this wonderful exercise 1500 years ago! Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.