Finding Zen With Martial Arts

Finding Zen With Martial Arts

I’ve always been able to find my Zen with Martial Arts. The movement, training, and having that faith or practice I can meditate on. Lately, with the stresses of life I’ve tried to focus on centering myself mentally and spiritually.

Never really understanding the roots of Zen and where the theory came from. I practice what I’ve been taught and learn from self exploration.

Recently I was searching around online and trying to educate myself better on the subject. I was doing different Google searches and following links on Wikipedia to read article after article.



Wanting to share my experience I wondered how I’d convey my personal Zen with Martial Arts. I decided to center on a historical figure that I felt was important for Martial Artists to know about.

The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment

Like my articles on Mas Oyama and Yasuke I want to write about historical figures in Martial Arts on this blog. To learn more about Total Embodiment Meditation, born of elite Samurai awareness training in Japan, click here.

From what I was learning, the concept of Zen derived from Chan Buddhism.

With his reported early influence on Kung Fu I felt writing about Bodhidharma would be appropriate. Bodhidharma was Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is credited as spreading Chan Buddhism to China and is regarded as its first Chinese patriarch.

According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks at the Shaolin Monastery. This is what  led to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Bodhidharma was bothered by the poor physical shape of the Shaolin Monks when he arrived.

After which, he instructed them in techniques to maintain their physical condition as well as teaching meditation. Bodhidharma taught a series of exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands. Also, a practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic.

After he left the temple, two manuscripts by Bodhidharma were discovered inside. Of the two manuscripts, copies of the Yijin Jing survive to the modern day. Unfortunately, the Xisui Jing has been lost to time.

Although traditionally credited as founder of the martial arts at the Shaolin Temple, martial arts historians have shown this legend stems from a 17th-century qigong manual.

One of the more familiar Shaolin historical accounts is a story that claims that Bodhidharma introduced boxing into the monastery as a form of exercise around a.d. 525. First appearing in the novel, The Travels of Lao T’san in 1907. This story grew rapidly through a popular boxing manual, Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods. It has a vast oral circulation and one of the most “revered” narratives shared within Chinese-derived martial arts.

The belief that this story is a twentieth-century creation is from writings at least 250 years old. It mentions both Bodhidharma and Martial Arts but makes no connection between the two.

Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma has survived.

Subsequent accounts have become encrusted with legend and unreliable details. According to the primary Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions which refers to Central Asia. Also this may include the Indian subcontinent and he was possibly a “Persian Central Asian”. Another claim states he was a “South Indian, the third son of a great Indian king.”

In Buddhist art Bodhidharma is depicted irascible, bearded, and non-Chinese. At times referred to as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian”.

zen with martial arts

Nine years of wall-gazing

After he Failed to make a favorable impression in South China, Bodhidharma travelled to the Shaolin Monastery. After arriving he was not allowed to enter, or was immediately asked to leave. He then decided to live in a nearby cave. There he “faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time”.

Bodhidharma’s teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. Often mentioned as a “Holy Grail” of Zen, you can find Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra translations in novel form online.

Tradition is littered with legendary tales about Bodhidharma’s life and circumstances.

There is one version of the story, that after seven years into his nine years of wall-gazing he fell asleep. Angry with himself over this, he cut off his eyelids to prevent it from ever happening again. As legend states, as his eyelids hit the floor tea plants sprang up. Thereafter tea would be a stimulant to keep students of Chan awake during zazen.

In the most common version he was finally admitted into the Shaolin temple after nine years in the cave. After which, he taught there for some time.

However, other versions claim that he died and was found still seated upright. Also, another states that he disappeared, leaving behind the Yijin Jing. Another claim is that his legs atrophied or wasted away after nine years of sitting. Reportedly the reason why Daruma dolls have no legs.

Where to separate myth from legend when learning of historical figures can be difficult at times. I always assume there is some exaggeration but also assume some truth. Often times I feel the greater the legend the more amazing the true story was .

Perhaps the greatness of the legend is the snowball effect over time. Stemming from the initial impact an individual made on this planet.

Finding My Zen With Martial Arts

I’ll never find a fidelity that would allow me to stare at a wall for seven years or cut my eyelids off in failure. However, I can look at someone like Bodhidharma and realize the conviction and strength of faith that is humanly possible. For me this helps take credibility away from “not finding time” to do the things necessary to center myself.

Punching the bag, running, hitting the weights, or even just stretching and clearing my mind for twenty minutes. I make a conviction that no matter the craziness of  life I find that time for myself to realign and find my Zen with Martial Arts.

We all need to find that hobby or activity that helps ground us. To keep us centered in a fast paced hectic world.


How do you find your Zen and what do you do to center yourself in the chaos of life?



  1. Scott Hinkle

    Thank you for this interesting and informative post!

    I really had no idea as to the rich history behind the whole Zen thing.

    It’s both a shame and a blessing that much of it stems from legend.  I think that leads to a more enhanced background.

    9 years of staring at a wall and not speaking?  Wow!

    I see the benefits of dedication and conviction.  I agree, sitting and staring at a wall for 7+ years and/or cutting off my eyelids is probably a bit far but the concept of it all isn’t lost on me.

    Thanks again,


    1. lgoupil

      Thanks for reading Scott. 

      What I’ve always heard is that when you research historical events or people you need to find multiple accounts. 

      Somewhere in between or in a combination you’ll find the truth.  

  2. John

    We were told about the zen in the yoga classes that i attend but never about some of the concepts that you have put forward here. It is very nice that you can talk about Bodhidharma and all his exploits but he really does seem like he was lonely. LOL but then, if that is what it takes to reach the peak of ones Zen, then that is total fulfilment. Buddism has always fascinated me and that is why I am not surprised that Zen originated from. I was really educated by your post, thanks a bunch!

    1. lgoupil

      My pleasure John. 

      I had never done the research myself either until now. 

      I bought the book I provided the link for in the article.  

      I’ll continue sharing more as I learn  

  3. Mahasin1

    I love the title. Sushi fitness is catchy. I always wanted more discipline and I always look for ways to find a piece of mind. I wouldn’t mind reading the book on the Buddha guy but what I would like more is to hear more of what you have to offer on the topic. I will look for sushi fitness in the future so I hope that you will keep us posted with more great content on how to meditate.

  4. Henderson

    Wow, if this post is not awesome then I do not know what else to call it. I like how you have presented the story of Bodhidharma here and all of his many legends. I think it is a normality that oral history have many versions but there is something to pick out from the story and that should be the main focus here. I do not know martial arts but maybe i should try it out and find that hobby that i will love just like you have said.

  5. DreaJay

    Thanks for sharing this interesting, educative and informative article, it’s actually the first time I’m reading about Bodhidharma, his Life journey and endeavors, he truly has so much lessons In it that I’ve grabbed even though not so visible. Normally, the mind is always filled up with disturbances, finding calmness or means of getting rid of that stress in the mind is always Important. Thanks for this information, it’s really helpful.

  6. Rick

    Fascinating article and the stories and legends, whether completely true or not do cause me to stop and think about my life and what I can do to find true peace.

    One thing I have found is getting away to the mountains for some long hikes and also quiet times by streams or looking over beautiful mountain landscapes really does help me to calm down and see the more important things in life.

    Do you find the physical part of martial arts helps a lot and can something like hiking do the same thing?

    1. lgoupil

      Yes, the physical part definitely helps.  
      I feel it’s good to get your body in alignment with your mental state.  

      I love hiking myself and feel that’s an amazing activity to do to stay in shape and relieve stress. 

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