“Shaolin Kung Fu” is quite a common term in today’s martial arts circles. Unfortunately however, it is nearly always taken to be solely a fighting system and little importance is placed on the spiritual aspect. This may be because so little knowledge has been available on the subject. Many movies have been made and books written on the Shaolin School yet very little, if any, mention is made of the spiritual values inherent in the system. Why is this? Because so few people in Western countries know what they actually are.
The famous monk Da Ma (Bodhidharma) traveled from India to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907A.D.) and took with him the teachings of Buddism along with the fighting skill. Bodhidharma was the son of Maharaj Sugandha, the ruler of several provinces in northern India. At that time in India, the martial skills were only available to the kings and warrior caste (the kashatriyas).
When Bodhidharma arrived in China, he did not reveal the fighting art right away. But after witnessing that some of his students could not endure his long discourses on spiritual matters without becoming inattentive or falling asleep, he began to teach them a system of exercises that are universally accepted today as being the basis for Shaolin Kung Fu. He believed that by becoming physically strong, the monks would gain more control over their bodies, thus enabling them to achieve their spiritual goals more easily. He taught the eighteen styles of fists, called the Eighteen Lohan Fists, in order to improve the physical health of his disciples.
Nowadays many people regard the Shaolin temples solely as training grounds for the fighting arts and see the monks as those who possess great ability and perform wonderful feats. However this is an inaccurate view. In fact, when the system was first established, Da Ma’s intention was to cultivate the monks externally through the eighteen fists and internally through spiritual training. Achieving ability in the fighting art was never intended to be the goal in itself but was meant to serve as an aid to spiritual development. In those times physical development accounted for one third of an individual’s martial development, while the other two thirds were devoted to the study and application of spiritual ideas.
A healthy mind and body go together and serve as a suitable vehicle, which can be used by sincere students to attain perfection in life, namely understanding their real identity, position and function and acting on that knowledge.