The Influence of The Shaolin Monastery
on Chinese Martial Arts
The profound impact the Shaolin Monastery had on martial arts is legendary. However, the study of martial arts was not the sole intent of the Shaolin student. The aspiration of a Shaolin student was to become a "lohan" which loosely translates as saint. A genuine lohan lived a simple life, was compassionate, had mastered mind and body, possessed physical skills and strength that seemed to defy logic, knew natural methods of healing, and expounded great wisdom when necessary.
The novice student was asked to learn three things: xue (means learn) ren, yi, jiao dao. The Chinese character ren is often translated as benevolence, charity, humanity, or love. Mathews (the Chinese equivalent of Websters) translates ren as "perfect virtue, free from selfishness...the inner love for man which prompts just deeds". The second teaching, yi, translates as righteousness, right conduct, or duty to one's neighbor. Righteousness is the ability to see what is real or the truth, and comes from being non-judgmental and honest. The third teaching, jiao dao, translates as, learn the teachings of the way (or Dao, also Tao). This can be found in the writing of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and others. The way is in understanding oneself and the harmony that exists between oneself and the universe.
The student purified mind and body through specific exercises, precise breathing techniques and diet. The next step was integrating the five coincidences which are; hand, feet, feeling, mind and eyes. This integration produces a deep feeling of contentment. This feeling is the result of balanced heart qi and is experienced as equanimity or even mindedness.
The Shaolin student then refines the feeling of equanimity in meditation until a profound stillness appears. This stillness is called samadhi and occurs when all the body's energies unify and awareness turns in on itself. Through continued work the stillness returns to motion, one leaves the monastery and shares their knowledge with the world.
What the Shaolin Monastery did was harness a moral code to martial arts training, which when followed could bring the student to a deeper understanding of themselves and life around them. This allowed one to grow through the range of human emotion, from fear to compassion, and from fighter to sage.