In the history of martial arts,
Bodhidharma holds a special place. The third son of an Indian king in the 6th century, he left his homeland and journeyed by boat and then on foot, from South India to China. Eventually arriving near the famous Shaolin temple, it is said he sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. Suitably impressed with his great spiritual power and discipline, the monks at the temple asked him to teach them his methods for gaining enlightenment. He began to teach them the Chan (later Zen) method of seated meditation. The monks at the time, so the legend goes, were learned academicians who spent most of their days translating and commenting upon the ancient texts. Although they had much book knowledge, they had little practical experience with this new form of meditative practice, often falling asleep during protracted sessions of seated meditation considered necessary for gaining enlightenment. To improve the monk’s physical and mental health, Bodhidharma devised and taught them a series of static and moving yoga-like exercises that are now usually called 18 Monks Boxing, the Sinew Change Classic and the Marrow Washing Classic. Although many variations exist, posturally, these ancient exercises show the influence of classical Hatha Yoga and even Kalaripayat (a complex fighting art from ancient India). The monks did indeed eventually grasp Bodhidharma’s transmission of Chan Buddhism and, in time, adapted the postures he had taught them into fighting movements. Thus, this enigmatic and austere monk earned his place in history as not only the 28th Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, but also as the first Patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China and the father of Shaolin Temple Boxing.
Not everyone, of course, accepts these legends. (Debates usually center on when Bodhidharma actually lived, what he actually taught the monks at Shaolin and what historical accounts recounting his life and teachings can be said to be accurate.) Although the historicity of the account given above has been called into question, there is little doubt that the figure of Bodhidharma casts a long shadow in terms of his influence on both Buddhist thought and Shaolin Boxing. Still, less discussed is the monk’s importation and propagation of certain yogic principles and ideas that seem to have been influenced in their character by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the foundational work of Raja Yoga.
Sri Patanjali Maharaj is another figure whose life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Some say he was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu (or Vishnu’s serpent Shesha). Others claim he was the combined progeny of the three principal Vedic deities (Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva). Whatever the instances of his birth may have been or whether he was also the author of a famous treatise on Sanskrit grammar commonly attributed to him, it is clear that Patanjali was a Hindu Vedantist in the Samkhya tradition (Samkhya or Sankhya is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, branch of Indian philosophy with roots stretching back thousands of years). Composed sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras consists of 195 tersely worded aphorisms that describe the workings of the body-mind and lay out a clear, practical and systematic approach to gaining spiritual insight and self-realization. Although Patanjali is often referred to as the “Father of Yoga” it would probably be more accurate to say that he was yoga’s great systemiser, culling many extant treatises and oral transmissions on yoga into a coherent and compelling document that is at once simple in its presentation and profound in its content. It is also clear that Patanjali did far more than collect existing yogic wisdom in his Sutras. He also added his own brilliance and originally as a thinker and a powerful literary stylist to create an enduring poetical work of art that has powerfully influenced succeeding generations of spiritual seekers.
Because yoga, much like Tai Chi Chuan, has been promoted in the West as a health exercise, when most people think of yoga, they think of a series of beneficial physical postures. In fact, the actual word yoga really means “union” and has the connotation in Sanskrit of “yoking together” or “joining.” A “sutra” is literally a thread. Therefore, the “Yoga Sutras” are the sayings or “threads” which lead to union of the individual with the transcendental consciousness. The rishis or ancient Indian sages called this state of union by many names: “God-realization,” “nirvana,” “extinguishing the ego,” “enlightenment,” “realizing the Self,” “transcending the body-mind,” “pure unmediated awareness,” “attaining the non-attainment,” “abandoning doership” and various other expressions. This state involves a profound psychologically transformative alteration of perception (or alteration of the experience of perception) which is beyond words and therefore difficult to describe except through analogy, yet all forms of yoga have this state of consciousness, a profound equanimity of mind, as their ultimate goal.
Patanjali was extremely liberal in his approach accepting all the various yogas (devotion, action, self-inquiry, etc.) as viable paths to self-realization. Yet, the Raja or “Royal Yoga” (so named because it confers self-mastery on its practitioners) so associated with the Patanjalic philosophy has its most compact explanation in the Samadhi Pada (chapter one, verse two):
Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah (The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga.)
Simply put, the goal of yoga is to still the turbulent mind enough for the yogi to experience the tranquility and bliss that is the true nature of being. Having stated the goal, Sri Patanjali then goes on to explain the ashtanga or “Eight-Limbed” path to accomplishing “nirodhah” (restraint or control) of the mind. It consists of the following:
- yama (abstinence)
- niyama (observance)
- asana (posture)
- pranayama (breath control)
- pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- dharana (concentration)
- dhyana (meditation)
- samadhi (super-conscious absorption)
Yama and niyama are concerned with the development and cultivation of moral and ethical precepts; Pranayama with stilling the mind and moving energy or prana through the body via the breath. Pratyahara is a prerequisite for dharana. Samadhi is the state whereby the yogi experiences oneness with their true nature freed from the interference imposed by the body-mind. Yet, what is the relationship between asana (posture) and dhyana (meditation)? And what is its role in what would later be come to be known as kung fu in China?
The Interrelation of the Body Mind
From Plato through Descartes, in the West, we are accustomed to positing a dichotomy between the physical body and the mind. For us, it is common to assume that the mind is a manifestation of the spirit or soul. In fact, for many, the idea of “presence” the mind seems to generate, our self-awareness, is what makes us qualitatively different from other creatures. To the ancient rishis, this was not the case. They seemed to have grasped intuitively through intense contemplation that whatever it was we were, it could not be rooted in either the body or the mind. That the body is mutable and perishable is beyond dispute but, to a master of yoga, especially one of the caliber of Bodhidharma or Patanjali, the contents of mind were equally mutable and changeable. Since the spiritual part of us was considered unchanging and eternal, that part could neither be the body nor the mind. The ancients did however discover that the mind was not only capable of observing the physical body, but was just as capable of observing itself and of bringing its own contents into conscious awareness. By cultivating a “witnessing consciousness” (sakshi in Sanskrit) and increasing identification with this particular aspect of awareness via meditation, a meditator eventually comes to see the contents of the mind-stuff (chitta) as fleeting and transitory. Such things as likes, dislikes, emotions, sensations, etc. are all mutable, impermanent and likely to lead to suffering. Although there were many sects of yoga that stressed rejection of the body, there were just as many that saw the body (properly conditioned and purified) as a vehicle for spiritual attainment. It seems clear that both “The Father of Yoga” and “The Father of Shaolin Boxing” had this point of view in common.
“A Steady, Comfortable Posture”
Among the 195 aphorisms of Patanjali that form the basis of Raja Yoga, only two deal specifically with asana or posture. Patanjali defines asana as “a steady, comfortable posture.” Once the yogi has undertaken the cultivation of virtue contained in the yama-niyama (i.e. non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed, purity, contentment, accepting—but not causing—pain, study of spiritual books and self-surrender) they become fit for undertaking the conditioning of the physical body implied in asana.
Why should the body require physical conditioning merely to sit still? This question is easily answered by a simple experiment. Right now, sit with your back straight in your chair or on the floor, close your eyes and see how long you can remain motionless: no shifting around, no movement of the limbs and no falling asleep. Most people will find this is possible for a few minutes, but soon, most experience pain in the limbs and a numbness and stiffness that comes from lack of proper circulation and flexibility. That is, of course, if they manage to remain awake! This knowledge was well-known in ancient India where Hatha (physical) Yoga and Raja Yoga were seen as complementary disciplines. As Swami Sivananda put it in his treatise on Yoga Asanas, “Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are necessary counterparts of each other. No one can become a perfect yogi without the knowledge and practices of both. Raja Yoga begins where properly practiced Hatha Yoga ends.”Why is this so? Because if the body has been properly disciplined, as Swami Satchidananda maintained, “The moment we sit down for meditation in such a body, we’ll forget it.”Forgetting the body” in this context means that it is healthy, flexible, free from toxins and strong enough to sit for lengthy periods of time without calling attention to itself—an attention which could distract the meditator from his/her success in making the transient contents of thought transparent to a witnessing consciousness.
The Sinew Change and 18 Monks Boxing sets attributed to Bodhidharma confer strength and flexibility on the body. The Marrow Washing set raises levels of internal bodily energy (kundalini shakti) and strengthens and elongates the spine, thereby tonifying the nervous system. Although methods of physical conditioning were also well-known in China prior to the appearance of Bodhidharma, it is in this uniquely yogic approach that Bodhidharma’s contribution to Shaolin Temple Boxing shows itself to be a profound step towards achieving what the old Tai Chi proverb encapsulates also as the goal of Tai Chi Chuan: “the health of a lumberjack, the pliability of a child and the peace of mind of a sage.” Although Shaolin Boxing, Tai Chi and Hatha Yoga are distinct vehicles in and of themselves for achieving higher states of consciousness if practiced with the proper intention, they can also be, as Bodhidharma recognized, invaluable conditioning tools for formal seated meditation.
The Conquering of the Self
Shaolin Boxing then and Pantajali’s Yoga share a common ideational structure. Although kung fu as practiced at Shaolin Temple continued to evolve into the complex and the deadly science of fighting we understand it to be today, this art was and is still profoundly shaped by the ethical precepts codified in the yama-niyama of the Sutras and the on-going re-shaping of perception that is Chan Buddhism, thus giving even further credence to the old Chinese axiom that states: “Kung fu begins with the conquering of the opponent and ends with the conquering of the self.”