The Shaolin/Sil Lum sect is a branch of the Buddhist school known as
(the equivalent in Japan is Zen; the Shaolin-descended school of
martial arts and philosophy in Japan is "Shorinji Zen"). Unlike
most monotheistic Occidental religions that supplanted each other as
Europe became "civilized," many Asian religions and philosophies
resulted in amalgamations. Hence, over time, the Ch'an sect became a
complex mixture of Buddhist and Taoist concepts. This first section
reviews the Ch'an philosophy-base as it existed from about 1860 until
recently. Below are additional sections about slightly "purer"
forms of root Taoism and Buddhism.
One further note of importance: most Asian belief systems are
represented by both a religious and a non-religious form. Religious
aspects are those that adhere to belief in deities, supernatural
occurrences, and some distinct model for an after-life. In contrast, the
non-religious (we term these "philosophical" for simplicity)
aspects do not concern themselves with deities, magic, or
"unknowable" knowledge. It is the latter aspect of both Buddhism
and Taoism that sets Ch'an apart as a distinct entity.
There are primarily 2 sects of Taoism: the philosophical and religious
sects, similar to the broad divisions seen in Buddhism. They both studied
nature, but for different reasons. The philosophical Taoists, who saw the
teachings of Tao as a guide for life that is essentially
deity-independent, studied nature to look for harmony. The religious
Taoists, who believed strongly in a pantheon of greater and lesser gods,
studied it to look for ways to change the course of nature (alchemy),
including to prolong life. This latter seems particularly difficult to
understand because altering nature is moving against the flow.
The philosophical school of Taoism has its roots in the fifth century
B.C.E. writings ascribed to Lao Tzu, a buraucrat who spurned the world to find
bliss. According to legend, he was recognized as he left the kingdom,
where the border guard requested Lao Tzu write down the essence of his
wisdom. The resulting book is known as the Tao Te Ching, or Book of
the Way - (that of course is legend, and Lau Tsu may never in fact
have existed as such). In essence, the knowable universe is composed of
opposite components, whether physical (hard/soft; dark/light), moral
(good/bad), or biological (male/female), which may be classed as either
YANG (pronounced "yong") or YIN. When combined, existence is
produced, and is manifest as TAO. Neither yin nor yang can exist
independently (ergo the fallacy of "yin" or "yang"
styles). The symbol of Tao is the "fish symbol" within which are
two small dots (yin in the yang section, yang in the yin section), and
around which are a pair of arrows, symbolizing dynamic interaction. The
arrows have often been removed in contemporary motifs, but were
popularized again when used by Bruce Lee in his Jeet Kune Do emblem.
The philosophical Taoists are largely atheistic, looking to nature for
the secrets to harmony and bliss. As a result, Taoist martial artists
mimicked animals in their quest for martial arts techniques, and many
styles, including mantis, snake, and some tiger kung fu, show distinct
patterns of nature mimicry. However, the theistic sects of Taoists
believed that by understanding the harmony of nature, you could alter
nature. In addition to alchemy, theistic Taoists developed complicated
schools of ceremonial magic, and developed the martial arts style of
The Taoists had their own temples and had their own system of martial
arts (Hsing-I, Pakua). Emphasis was on internal styles. T'ai Chi Ch'uan
(="supreme, ultimate fist;" a rather interesting, if redundant,
use of superlatives), often attributed to Taoism, had a slightly different
origin. It was designed to be a martial art for soldiers. It is believed
to be around 1200 years old.
While both Taoists and Buddhists understood and studied the concepts of
duality in nature, the Taoist was more focused on the differences of Yin
and Yang, while the Buddhist was more interested in the state of dynamic
harmony of the two (ironically, Buddhists focused on Tao rather than its
parts). Taoist philosophy is concerned with the intrinsic nature of
Yin-ness and Yang-ness, readily seen when studying Taoist medicine or
magic, for example. It is a Taoist stance to look at "Yin"
versus "Yang" techniques, "Hard" versus
"Soft" styles. (See also Buddhism.)
There are essentially 3 schools of Buddhism:
The low path was the path of the common man, the life of one unaware or
unprepared to develop his spiritual self. The worker who struggles merely
to survive is not seen as low or lowly, but as one not yet awake enough to
see beyond the immediate needs of food, clothing, and shelter.
The high path is the religious sect which combined the Indian pantheon
of gods and goddesses with any existing local pantheon (e.g. the Bon in
Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism). This path tries to incorporate the living
body with a sense of its god-self, to awaken the spiritual or divine from
The middle path is also called Mahayana. It is a belief that we live in
the here and now and should act and think accordingly. Mahayana is
centered on the basic understandings of life as revealed by Gautama, the
first Buddha. These teachings include the Four Noble Truths about life.
The first truth is that there is pain, suffering, old age, and death in
life. These transient factors affect us all, and are part of the reality
that defines life. The second truth states that desire for wealth, health,
love, money, and life all cause suffering. This is because we cannot have
everything we want, and denial is a source of pain. The third truth simply
states that extinction of desire ceases pain and suffering; killing the
ego releases one from wants. The fourth truth says that adherence to the
Eight-Fold Path is the route to the extinction of desire.
The Eight-Fold Path is given here:
1. Right Views: ask yourself "why do I do what I do?" Examine
your motives, your goals. No action should be mindless; a spiritual person
knows why he acts.
2. Right Resolve: are you prepared for the task at hand? What are your
preparations of thought, speech, motivation? Is the task at hand worthy of
your time and effort?
3. Right Speech: words are powerful; do you use them wisely? Careless
words may hurt others, open yourself to attack. The U.S. Navy was not
joking when, in World War II, it placed posters on ships and in bases
proclaiming "loose lips sink ships." Buddhists are aware of the
power of words and the thought-entities they can invoke (more on this in a
4. Right Action: once you decide on a task, is your procedure
well-thought out, or is it hap-hazard? If you wish to become an M.D., you
must gain admittance to a medical school. Each step leading to that must
be precise. One does not enter medical school directly from a manager's
position at True-Value Hardware (but a hardware worker MAY become an M.D.
if he makes the appropriate actions).
5. Right Livelihood: Buddhists believe that work is a manifestation of
spiritual development. Enlightenment is difficult to achieve if you are in
the wrong occupation for you, i.e., a vegetarian may find extreme moral
difficulty working as a butcher. The choice of career is important, and
Buddhists believe that the choice must come from within, not from
"following in the family footsteps" - that is, unless you truly
find fulfillment in that business. To a Buddhist, a large part of your
physical self IS what you do.
6. Right Effort: having embarked on a path, are you giving the journey
the logistical and emotional support it needs to be accomplished. Buddhism
frowns on half-hearted efforts.
7. Right Attention: are you giving enough attention to yourself, to
gauge your moods and relationships to be sure you are still on the right
path for you? If you cannot hear yourself, how well can you hear others?
8. Right Meditation: have you the discipline to fully focus on the task
at hand? (We enjoyed Yoda's comment in "The Empire Strikes Back"
about Luke: "Never his mind on where he is!) You need not be
single-minded; life is, after all, made of many experiences and
relationships. But the task at hand deserves your full mindfulness, or it
is unimportant. Can you tell which?
Above all, the Buddha left his disciples (n.b., many were women) with a
last lesson that underscores all his teachings. When asked by one what was
the TRUE way to enlightenment, the Buddha replied, "Be your own
light, your own refuge. Believe only that which you test for yourself. Do
not accept authority merely because it comes from a great man, or is
written in a sacred book, for truth is different for each man and woman."
In short, Buddhism rejects the blind obedience of the
"faithful," and prefers its practitioners to know life from
experiencing it in all its glory and despair.
Perhaps most glaringly absent in the study of Shaolin has been the
philosophy of this unique sect of non-secular Buddhism. Though Shaolin has
become famous for the kung fu styles and abilities of its monks, the
foundation and spirit of the Order are actually much more centered in the
Buddhist teachings of an Indian teacher named Bodhidharma, or, to the
Chinese, Tamo (440?-528 AD). Like most spiritual masters, Tamo left few
direct writings of his interpretation of the Dharma (or principles) of
Buddhism, but through written and oral history, Shaolin have maintained
his legacy. This is the first lesson in the Shaolin interpretation of its
spiritual roots and principles that we shall present.
A translation of his major teachings has been published (The Zen
Teaching of Bodhidharma) in which the author wonders at why these basic
teachings have not been more widely circulated. We concur with this
question, and suggest the following possible reasons:
First, Tamo's message is simple: The mind is the Buddha. Tamo rephrases
the four noble truths and eightfold path as the core reality to seekers of
enlightenment - simple enough concepts - but places the entirety of becoming
(or rather recognizing the state of being) enlightened on the
individual. In a sweeping gesture he urges self-motivation,
self-awareness, and self-recognition at the expense of hierarchical
"orders" of monks and token ceremonies. Cut the extraneous, he
goads, ignore illusions, and go for the core which is already there.
Certainly such a philosophy is anathema to practices that perpetuate the
illusion that someone else can enlighten you.
Second, Tamo left the disciple considerable latitude in how to live, as
did Shakyamuni himself. He did not require monks to be celibate, to fast,
or perform rites of asceticism, nor was the "priesthood" limited
to males. Quite the contrary, he embraced the human condition as the
starting point from which all "higher" revelations would spring.
Shaolin remains unique in allowing its members this degree of freedom (and
thus being more like Methodist ministers than Catholic priests). In Tamo's
message of simplicity (but not specifically denial), he limits the more
embellished aspects of sectarian religious practice and organization.
Finally, it could be suggested that Tamo's influence has been largely
circumvented by the plethora of Buddhist scriptures, scholars, and sects.
As with most original thinkers, there is more commentary written about
him than by him, and the same can be said of interpretations and
critiques of his teachings.
That said, we now offer an annotated review of Tamo's teachings as
embraced by the Shaolin Order for during its 1500-year history. Tamo's
words are in italics and the editorial notes are in standard text.
Enjoy and be free!
There are many roads that lead to the Way, but these contain but two
common features: recognition and practice. By recognition is meant that
meditation reveals the truth that all living things share a common nature,
a nature concealed by the veils of illusion.
By "many roads," Tamo points out that enlightenment is
reached by different souls in different ways; these may include the
various seated and moving meditations. Such practices are termed yogas,
kung fu, and sudden self-realization. However, all of the possible routes
share the common themes of recognition of self-awareness, and practice of
the Dharma - the Eightfold Path - that allows enlightenment (covered later
in this document). Recognition of the fact that all of life is connected
spiritually is essential to reaching self-awareness.
Those who shun illusion for reality, who meditate on walls and the
loss of self and other, on the unity of mortal and sage, and are
undeterred by written holy words are in accord with the faculty of reason.
Lacking motion and effort, they embrace reason.
Reality and what appears as reality are difficult to separate,
especially if one looks to outside sources (which may themselves be
illusions). Wall meditation is the inward focus of the mind on itself,
done in peaceful surroundings. Such a mind must cut through illusion and
realize that duality is also an illusion. We are mortal and sage; we are
self and all else. Once this reality is seen, we become reason itself.
By practice it is meant the participation and acceptance of the Four
Noble Truths: suffering, adapting, non-attachment, and practicing the
Dharma. First comes suffering. When followers of the Way suffer, they
should recall that in the countless previous incarnations they have been
deterred from the path, sometimes becoming trivial and angry even without
cause. The suffering in this life is a punishment, but also an opportunity
to exercise what I have learned from past lives. Men and gods are equally
unable to see where a seed may bear fruit. I accept this suffering as a
challenge and with an open heart. In recognizing suffering, you enter onto
the path to the Way.
This is a lesson in karma1, that we are ultimately
responsible for our actions (also called the Law of Cause and Effect). If
we can learn from a punishment and attain true rehabilitation, we rejoin
the path and move ahead. Because the First Noble Truth declares
"there is suffering in life," an adept is expected to know
suffering as both a condition of being alive and as a disease that can be
Second, adapt to your conditions. Mortals are ruled by their
surroundings, not by themselves. All we experience depends upon
surroundings. If we reap a reward or great boon, it is the fruit of a seed
we planted long ago. Eventually, it will end. Do not delight in these
boons, for what is the point? In a mind unmoved by reward and setback, the
journey on the path continues.
In essence, Tamo says that we shall all have good days and bad days,
the "goodness" and "badness" depending on
circumstances or viewpoint. Accept what comes, knowing that both good and
bad will pass, and stay focused on the important points of the Dharma.
Third, seek no attachments. Mortals delude themselves. They seek to
possess things, always searching for something. But enlightened ones wake
up and choose reason over habit. They focus on the Way and their bodies
follow them through each season. The world offers only emptiness, with
nothing worth desiring. Disaster and Prosperity constantly trade places.
To live in the three realms is to stay in a house on fire. To have a body
is to experience suffering. Does any body have peace? Those who see past
illusion are detached, and neither imagine nor seek. The sutras2
teach that to seek is to suffer, to seek not is to have bliss. In not
seeking, you follow the path.
Buddhism is notorious for its non-attachment3. Suffering is
the disease that binds us to rebirth, and attachment - especially for
life - is the tether that keeps us suffering. We all experience ups and
down, and these are transitory. To attach to any feeling is to anchor in
the fleeting moment that quickly becomes the past. Accept what comes, even
enjoy (or loathe) it, then let it go. This is how to non-seek.
Fourth, practice the Dharma, the reality teaching all spirits are
pure. All illusion is dropped. Duality does not exist. Subject and object
do not exist. The sacred texts say the Dharma has no being because it is
free from the attachment to being; the Dharma has no self because it is
free from the attachment to self. Those who understand this truth wisely
practice the path. They know that the things that are real do not include
greed and envy, and give themselves with their bodies, minds, and spirits.
They share material things in charity, with gladness, with no vanity or
thought of giver or taker of the gift. In this way they teach others
without becoming attached. This allows them to help others see and enjoy
the path to enlightenment.
This passage contains several important concepts, and it would have
been nice of Tamo to elaborate more fully. The practice of Dharma refers
to following Buddhism's Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. The Path is
central to all sects of Buddhism, though there are varying interpretations
of its meanings. The central elements are: right views, right thought,
right speech, right action, right livelihood, right devotion, right
mindfulness, and right meditation. Volumes have been written about these
concepts, and so we shall not pursue them further here at this time.
Buddhism appears in conflict with many other philosophically based
religions in denying the duality of the universe. For example, many
schools teach the dual nature of reality as positive/negative, hot/cold,
male/female, and so on. Buddhism teaches that duality is an illusion.
Reality may manifest positive/negative/neutral, hot/warm/cool/cold, or
male/female/sexless (as in many microorganisms). Consider the cliché
"fight or flight." The implication is duality, either run or
attack. A third possibility is also readily apparent: freeze and do
nothing. Not all possibilities are dual or triple in nature, so Buddhism
seeks to free us from seeing the world through the blinders of a
The teachings also include room for sharing, mainly in efforts to help
other souls see the possibility of enlightenment. Actions taken to help
such souls are seen as highly important to followers of the path. Indeed,
those who become enlightened and later choose to undergo another rebirth
into this world are seen as "saints," forgoing Nirvana to help
others escape rebirth. Such noble souls are called Bodhisattvas.
©1997-2008, Shaolin Gung Fu Institute
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