A Bit of Martial Arts History

It’s been said that all Asian martial arts – Japanese Jujitsu and Aikido; Korean Tang Soo Do and now Tae Kwon Do; Okinawan Karate; and even martial arts of the Philippines and Thailand, etc. – have their roots in Chinese Chuan Fa, known better today as Kung Fu, (literally “time and work”, or “acquired skill.”). More specifically, this origin is believed to be the Shaolin Temple on Wu Tai Shan (Wu Tai Mountain) in Henan Province. And the one believed to have started it all was also the First Patriarch of Zen (Ch’an Buddhism in China) – the Indian monk, Bodhidharma, known to the Chinese as Pu Ti Da Mo, or just simply, Da Mo.

Going Way Back
If we are talking about fighting and warfare, both can be considered as old as human history. Since the first time someone raised a hand, and eventually a weapon (a stone, animal bone, a stick, etc.), against another, the methods and techniques have been developed and improved. China’s recorded history mentions hundreds of wars dating back at least to the Zhou Dynasty (1122 to 255 B.C.) We can be certain there was plenty of fighting long before that.

Fighting skills were developed over many thousands of years. They had to be developed in all cultures out of necessity. The holy books in India contained plenty of references to the fighting methods and techniques used in battle. All Indians of the earliest civilizations were familiar with these methods of war, as were the Chinese.

The myth of the Aryan invasions of India around 1500 B.C. prompted a belief that it was the Aryans who brought their devastating fighting techniques to India, where it combined with the spiritual beliefs of the yogis and eventually made its way to China.

However, more recent archeological discoveries have “changed history” so to speak, and it is now believed that the Aryans actually originated in India and moved gradually west, through Europe, not the other way around.

Early Origins of Martial Arts
The warrior caste known as the Ksatreya was an elite force of usually royal or noble-born warriors. In China, the Ksatreya were believed to have descended from a deity, the “Lord of those who keep things calm.”

The Ksatreya were expected, if necessary, to fight on the front lines of battle, and were known to maintain the principle to right the wrongs or injustices they encountered, regardless of who committed them. Considered noble warriors, their ethics and conduct showed a high degree of morality.

According to Shifu Nagaboshi Tomio, in his worthy effort “The Bodhisattva Warriors,” how the battle was won, and the motives for fighting it, were at least as important as winning.” Whereas, in China, the “oldest book on warfare (the Art of War) is a masterpiece of cunning, trickery, and tactical exploitation of the enemy.”

The Ksatreya also were likely the major influence of the Japanese samarai. Shifu Tomio says, (The samarai) battle practices and techniques are often so close to that of the Ksatreya that we must assume the former came from the latter, perhaps via China. The traditions of sacred Swords, of honorable self-sacrifice, and service to one’s Lord are all found first in India.”

The sacred books of India, known as the Vedas, were spiritual texts that, according to Shifu Tomio, “go beyond mere dualisms such as ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished,’ or ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ to reach conclusions that clearly established the spiritual potential of both war and warriorhood.”

In this context, one can see that the warriors had to be mindful to do only what was necessary and no more. They realized their responsibility to humanity. They were not to act out of anger, vengeance, or even greed, and to recognize, even in the heat of battle, right from wrong. They were protectors, not conquerors.

The Origin of “Forms”
Over time, sequences of the most useful combinations of attack and defense, called nata in Sanskrit, were eventually developed to help preserve and practice the developing system. As combat experience increased over time, this system became more balanced with all-inclusive methods of practice which eventually evolved into predetermined, set patterns of practice movements, each emphasizing different principles and practice.

This system was known in India as, Vajramukti, or “Clasped Hand of the Thunderbolt”, named as such because the training method was considered as powerful as a thunderbolt in its effects on practitioner’s personal and spiritual growth.

Vajramukti developed out of secret mental and physical practices that were designed to lead one to Samadhi, (or enlightenment, self-realization, nirvana, heaven – your choice).

So, although most practitioners think that their traditional martial sequences, kata, or “forms”, are simply to develop self defense, on the contrary, the movements are kinetic “keys” to unlock higher states of consciousness. The goal was to understand the mind by using the body, and this is why they were preserved and passed down by masters for thousands of years.

Moving To China
Through the pilgrimages of missionary monks between India and China these methods made their way from India to China. And in China, these training methods became known as Chuan Fa.

Chuan Fa translates as “Clasped Hand (i.e. “fist”) of the Dharma.” Dharma is translated as the principles and laws of nature.

So the “Clasped Hand”, also meaning “fist”, did not originally refer to using it as a weapon, and, according to Shifu Tomio, “was thought to be appropriate to describe the Vajramukti method, as its mastery was considered an esoteric and difficult lineage practice, taught only by a few masters to even fewer students. By comparison, the ordinary (exoteric) teaching of the Buddha was an ‘open-handed teaching’.” Therefore, Chuan Fa literally means, “the inner teachings to grasp the spirit of natural principles.”

It is no coincidence that Chuan Fa, today known throughout the world as Kung Fu, was originally found practiced by the monks in the monasteries.

From Shifu Tomio, “The real Chuan Fa is an exploration, study and discovery of the body through the medium of the mind. It is an exploration of the mind through the medium of the body. Its teaching draws equally upon the practices of the North Chinese Ch’an Movement Meditation tradition and of the South Chinese Esoteric (Mi Chiao) school-both secret traditions rarely known or revealed to the general public, either East or West.”

Enter Da Mo (Bodhidharma):
Although impossible to verify, the story of Da Mo says that he was the son of a king and a member of the Ksatreya warrior caste. He trained extensively in meditation, yoga, and Vajramukti. He was one of the many missionaries who traveled from India to China.

As the story goes, Da Mo was an enlightened Buddhist master who is credited with reviving Buddhism in China and founding martial arts. His emphasis was Dhyana (meditation), which became Ch’an in Chinese, and then Zen in Japan.

Although considered a myth, Zen practitioners all over the world honor Da Mo as the First Patriarch of Zen, and believe their lineage records have been very well-kept. Similar claims are made by most Asian martial arts. More information continues to be uncovered that support the story of Da Mo.

The accuracy of the story is not as important as what Da Mo represents – the lineage of Vajramukti and the beginning of Chuan Fa in China.

Records indicate that Da Mo arrived in Canton, southern China around 520 A.D. and that he had a meeting with the Emperor Wu Di where he told the emperor that the first principle of Buddhism is emptiness not holiness. He arrived at Shaolin about 527 A.D. and lived in a cave for nine years meditating.

He found the monks in poor physical condition due to their devotion to long term meditation retreats. They were even falling asleep during their meditations. He compared them to young monks he knew of in India who almost died from such practices.

What did Da Mo bring to Shaolin?
Da Mo decided to teach the monks various Vajramukti health exercises and sequences of the Ksatreya nata to strengthen their minds and their bodies.

It is very unlikely that fighting methods were not already practiced by at least some of the monks, for some of these monks were once murderers, rapists, and thieves themselves who had sought refuge at the temple.

Why would monks, who’ve dedicated their lives to peace and compassion, take to these “fighting methods”? Da Mo’s plan was to make the physical activity of martial arts to be a supplement to meditation. He wanted the monks to reach a certain state of mind, a level of clarity where one becomes aware of the “Oneness” of all things. And, he wanted them to be able to maintain this state not only while sitting in meditation, but all of the time – during their chores, during their daily activities, and even if someone was striking against them, even trying to hurt them, without getting emotionally upset.

In the tradition of its origins, they didn’t just practice for the sake of defending themselves or the temple for that matter, they practiced as a discipline to strengthen the body, discipline the mind, and control the breath. And through the consistent physical practice with total awareness of the mind, the body, and the breath, they reached a phenomenal level of skill. But their goal, as is the goal of all monks in every belief system, was to find enlightenment – to become one with God.

In life, we rarely, if ever, get physically attacked, but we do experience emotional and verbal attacks on a daily basis. Our training must show in these instances – that we do not allow external factors to control us. Each of us are responsible for our own growth, and therefore, our behavior, motivations, and actions or reactions.

My teacher, Master Park Bok-Nam, also learned of the Da Mo story from his teacher, Lu Shui Tian. He said that whatever happened at Shaolin, and we cannot know for sure, but it was from Da Mo that these training methods spread to the nine most famous mountains, including Wu Dang, where monasteries were built to house the monks and continue the training. On Wu Dang, many Daoist monasteries existed (and some still do), and is believed to be where Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi) originated about 1300 years ago, and later (about 500 years ago, according to Lu Shui Tian) Ba Gua Zhang originated as well. It is true Chuan Fa, the original practice of martial arts.

Real Martial Arts
Chuan Fa, as discussed, is what I consider to be real martial arts. That is what we are doing here. We are practicing real martial arts as a discipline to conquer the ego and to help break down the barriers created by a lack of self-understanding which all too often generates fear and results in mental suffering that leads to anger and aggression. The results experienced by practitioners is why it was not considered to be a sport, where so much focus is on “winning” and “losing” which does nothing but strengthen the ego, the separateness, and the suffering.

Shifu Tomio says, “Modern forms of the Chuan Fa art – such as karate – have become so fragmented and over-specialized that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that originally their practice was a spiritual, not military philosophy.”

Sure there are many fighting methods out there. There are also many teachers who had little to no interest in the spiritual side of the martial arts. They enjoy only the fighting aspects of the training. They desired to be the best and in many cases set out to test themselves with some form of competition. And they will argue that this “spiritual foundation” to the martial arts is bunk. I disagree.

There is nothing nice about real fighting. There are “gentleman matches” and then there’s real survival. Anyone who has experienced real violence would prefer to avoid it. If not, something is truly wrong with them. It is one thing to do whatever is necessary to thwart an attack, but quite another to instigate violence or to compete for a trophy or a title.

Real fighting and violence requires very few techniques. So why bother training in the complex and sophisticated martial arts systems that exist? If you are only concerned with fighting or self protection, why not save time and just buy a gun? The simple reason that these arts have survived thousands of years is because of the profound personal and spiritual changes that occur in those who practice.

There’s a powerful ending to a talk given by Sifu Robert Brown on the CD, “Transforming a Temple, Creating an Art”: “Martial arts originated in Shaolin by Da Mo. There’s very little resemblance to what we know today as martial arts. Most of the things out there that claim to be martial arts don’t deserve the name. They may be martial sport. They may be martial science. They may be martial kinder-care. But to truly be ‘martial arts’ we have to understand the founder’s true gift. And it was a physical discipline to a spiritual path. You don’t have to be a Buddhist, you don’t have to be a Hindu, you don’t have to practice Daoism. You can practice any belief system you find comfortable.”

“In the west, we practice this idea of martial arts for self defense. In Shaolin, they practiced martial arts until there was no more ‘self’ to defend.


Originally published June, 2004 under the title “A Bit of History”

A Bit of Martial Arts History | Blue Dragon School of MA

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.



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