Ta-mo's Fighting Monks

Robert W. Young


From the weapons training mural: a monk uses twin short swords to defend himeslf against an attack with a halberd

IN THE SIXTH CENTURY the Indian monk Bodhidharma took up residence at the Chinese temple of Shao-lin, where he introduced Dhyana Buddhism, the Indian school of meditation that in time gave rise to Chinese Ch'an (Zen). Since then, both the man and the monastery have been subjects of widespread rumor and speculation. Bodhidharma's teachings at Shao-lin are believed to have inspired or created a formidable band of fighting monks who, even after a lapse of some 1,400 years, constitute the best-known and most influential of such groups in the entire history of martial arts.

BORN INTO THE BRAHMIN, or priestly, caste in the town of Kanchipuram, India, Bodhidharma dedicated his life to the propagation of the Buddha's teachings and became the twenty-eighth patriarch of Indian Buddhism. Around 520 C.E., Bodhidharma left India for the Middle Kingdom, where he became known by his Chinese name, P'u-t'i-ta-mo, or Ta-mo for short.

According to the diary of a Chinese military officer from 529, Ta-mo was received in 526 by Wu-ti, an emperor of the Liang dynasty. Continuing to Sung-shan Mountain in Honan province, the 69year-old priest came upon Shao-lin, which had been founded 30 years before by another Indian monk, Bodhiruchi (Chinese, Batuo). Whereas Bodhiruchi had filled the days translating Buddhist scripture into Chinese, Ta-mo spent his first nine years in Shao-lin meditating in a mountaintop cave, acquiring eventually the appellation "the wall-gazing Brahmin."

When Ta-mo finally returned to live in the temple below, he was appalled by the poor physical condition of the monks. He resolved at once to instruct them in the rudiments of breathing and stretching techniques for the cultivation of ch'i, or inner spirit/energy, so that they could remain alert during long and intensive meditation sessions.

Legend tells us that these techniques, together with certain basic forms of Indian martial techniques, were practiced with such zeal that eventually the monks developed into superb fighters. When bandits and highwaymen would swoop down unwittingly upon traveling Shao-lin monks, they were repelled with ease. Stories of such confrontations were told again and again, thus giving rise to the reputation of Shao-lin's fighting monks.

Yet some historians question the very existence of Ta-mo. The absence of any Indian records of his mission to China seems peculiar. And except for the account written in 529 of his visit to Emperor Wu, there is no mention of Ta-mo in Chinese records prior to the eleventh century. Advocates of an historical Ta-mo counter that the missing evidence reflects a secrecy required because the radical innovations of Ch'an Buddhism often led to the persecution of its adherents by other, more orthodox groups. Possibly, official documents were not kept until a period when Ch'an had won greater acceptance. Indeed, it was in the eleventh centUry that a more open and stable society did, in fact accord Ta-mo great praise for founding Ch'an Buddhism and Shao-lin kung fu.

Still others doubt Ta-mo's actual contribution to the development of the Shao-lin martial arts. The maintain that systematized fighting skills were widespread in China long before Shao-lin temples came into existence. According to this view, kung-fu masters migrated to the temple some time after Tamo's arrival there, bringing with them various fighting styles. The Shao-lin system is famous for its diversity, particularly the way it often abandons a hard, offensive character in favor of softer, more fluid movements.

THE MAIN WORK ATTRIBUTED TO TA-MO, a text entitled I-chin Ching, or Muscle Change Sutra, does little to support or contradict the skeptics. It was reportedly discovered in a stupa (memorial mound) near Ta-mo's grave on Hsiungerh Mountain in Honan and then transcribed into Chinese for use by Shao-lin monks. But the I-chin Ching can hardly be considered a martial arts manual. Rather, as its name suggests, it describes a series of yogic breathing and stretching routines intended to strengthen the body's constitution and enhance the flow of ch'i. Not a single kick, punch, or block is mentioned.

On several occasions, most recently in 1928, Shao-lin monastery was razed for political reasons. Although a number of valuable artifacts have survived and remain on the premises, it will never be known how many ancient records, some of which may have shed light on the life of Ta-mo, were lost forever when the buildings housing them were torched.

The main gate of Shao-lin temple was erected early in
the 18th century, after the previous gate was destroyed.

An enduring likeness of Ta-mo was chiseled into stone in 1624 and is now displayed in the quarters of the head monk. In front of this stone piece stands a black wooden statue rendered in obvious imitation: its piercing eyes, droopy earlobes, and bushy beard are identical to those shown on the stone slab. Asked about its origin, a watchful monk explains that the statue was presented in 1980 as a gift from Japan's Shorenji Kempo (Shao-lin Temple Boxing) Society.

SPREAD ACROSS THE WALLS of the Hall of White Robes are two full-color murals detailing the temple's former training regimen. Dated between 1640 and 1800, the works depict an idealized version of the entire monastery complex functioning as a coordinated practice ground. Many of the structures shown in the murals no longer exist at Shao-lin and are presumed to have fallen victim to enemy arsonists.

For a more complete version of the development of the Buddhist martial tradition, one must enter an attached courtyard where some 200 life-sized clay statues of monks are arranged chronologically and mark each significant phase of Shao-lin's history. According to the sequence of sculptures, prior to Ta-mo's appearance monks devoted most of their waking hours to the sedentary study of scripture. In the section of sculptures depicting Ta-mo's period, on the other hand, there is evidence of a program designed to stretch unused muscles, adjust posture, and promote physical balance. Subsequent sections feature martial exercises of increasing difficulty, from basic kicks and punches to advanced solo routines, body-hardening drills, and sparring practice.

Probably Ta-mo did not single-handedly create the Shao-lin martial arts. More likely a few individuals, skilled fighters prior to their donning of monks' robes, followed Ta-mo to Shao-lin and contributed their martial skills to the Indian techniques that he introduced there. As word spread of a Buddhist temple where martial arts were cultivated, masters of numerous styles may well have been attracted to Shao-lin, transforming the monastery over time into a school for the martial arts.

Robert W. Young is a writer and photographer who has traveled widely in Asia. He became interested in Buddhism during his study of the Korean martial arts.

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