Most Influential Martial Artists Of All Time: Bodhidharma and Kung Fu

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If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality.


If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.”                                                                                                                  –Bodhidharma

Our second installment at Sushi Fitness in our continuing series on the “Most Influential Martial Artist Of All Time” focuses on Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century.

Traditionally 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 of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Chinese legend tells of Bodhidharma being bothered upon arrival by the poor physical shape of the Shaolin Monks, after which he instructed them in techniques to maintain their physical condition as well as teaching meditation. Click To Tweet

Bodhidharma is said to have taught a series of exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands and a practice called the Sinew Metamorphosis Classic.

After his departure from the temple, two manuscripts by Bodhidharma were said to be discovered inside, the Yi jin Jing and the Xisui Jing.

Copies and translations of the Yijin Jing survive to the modern day, the Xisui Jing unfortunately 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.

The authenticity of the Yi Jin Jing has been discredited by some historians including Tang Hao, Xu Zhen and Ryuchi Matsuda.

One of the more familiar Shaolin historical accounts is a story that claims that Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism, 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 was quickly picked up and spread rapidly through a popular boxing manual, Secrets of Shaolin Boxing Methods.

It has a vast oral circulation and is one of the most “revered” of the narratives shared within Chinese and Chinese-derived martial arts.

The belief that this story is a twentieth-century creation is from writings at least 250 years old, which mention both Bodhidharma and martial arts but make no connection between the two.

Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma has survived, and subsequent accounts became encrusted with legend and unreliable details.

According to the primary Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions, which refers to Central Asia but may also include the Indian subcontinent and was either a “Persian Central Asian” or a “South Indian the third son of a great Indian king.”

Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as an irascible, bearded, non-Chinese person, referred as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian”.

Nine years of wall-gazing

After he Failed to make a favorable impression in South China, Bodhidharma is believed to have travelled to the Shaolin Monastery.

Either being refused entry or possibly being asked to leave after a short time, he went to live in a cave nearby, where 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.

The biographical 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, and thereafter tea would be a stimulant to keep students of Chan awake during zazen.

The most common version recounts that Bodhidharma was admitted into the Shaolin temple after nine years in the cave and taught there for some time.

However, other versions claim that he died and was found still seated upright or also that he disappeared, leaving behind the Yijin Jing.

Another claim is that his legs atrophied or wasted away after nine years of sitting, which is the reason why Daruma dolls have no legs.

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