Movements can be Zen: Why Shaolin Monks Aren’t Fighters

Most people tend to assume that if one practices deadly martial arts movements day after day, one is then obligated to use those skill-sets once in a while simply for the sake of having them. But that is not the case with Shaolin monks, which is why they are usually absent on the scene of MMA, Muay-Thai, and Kick-boxing stages. Many young fighters come to train at Shaolin and then go back to fight in their respectively leagues, but they end up missing out on a major part of Shaolin’s culture.

The spiritual or zen culture of martial arts is unique to Shaolin,  created by turbulent history. Around 483 A.D, Dharma first came to Shaolin from India to spread the thinking of Buddhism (it is rumored he meditated in a cave up in the Song Mountains for 9 yrs, a steep climb that we do every morning for conditioning). Back then, the monks in Shaolin were all fragile and saggy from sitting around all day, and doing nothing but meditating and reading texture, kinda like the really spiritual version of Asian video-game fanatics today. Dharma saw this and was like WTF, how can you reach Enlighten when your body is so weak and you are bedridden every other wk. So he started teaching the monks there what would later become the father of all martial arts, 13 simple breathing techniques that he derived from Yoga movements in India, they stressed the combination of movements with breathing and help to improve circulation of blood and chi throughout the body. These movements not only help to improve the physical and spiritual well-being of the monks dramatically, but also introduced a new way to reach Enlightenment, through quiet personal meditation and the practice of certain breathing directed movements.

During the centuries to come, the Shaolin temple would suffer countless raids from nearby bandits. Fueled by survival instincts, these breathing movements meant to direct chi and improve circulation through the body became deadly attacks meant to fend out enemies. Over time, more forms would be created based on the blueprint of its forefathers, some from observing the ideologies behind different animals’ way of attacking its prey, some from simple ingenuity of the monks, but their purpose remained the same. Shaolin monks still practiced martial arts in order to reach a personal peace that allows the mind to clear out all distractions, a prerequisite on the route to Enlightenment. But as the world is changing, and as Western ideologies of  capitalism and democracy becomes the norm, more and more Shaolin monks are learning to adapt to reality as they began to teach for money, practice for performances that have nothing to do with Zen or Buddhism, and slowly shying away from the spiritual wealth of martial arts and leaning on the monetary benefits of having those “certain sets of skills”.

Martial Arts is kinda like Writing

Two of my favorite pastimes, other than to sleep and eat, would be martial arts and writing. I might not be that great at either, but I really do enjoy both and in return they provide me with a chance for growth.

Though apparently unrelated, they are actually quite similar. There are hundreds of different forms of martial arts (JKD, TKD, Wushu, Muay-Thai, K-boxing, etc.) just like how there are many ways to write, some more flashy than others, some more narrative based, some more report-like, and others more journal-esque. But no matter which form you chose, they can all get the job done. Whether it is avoiding conflict with technique or communicating your ideas with writing.

Just like how there isn’t a “best form of writing”, there also isn’t a “best form of martial arts”. It depends very much on the practitioner/writer himself. It is the person that makes the form, not the form that makes the person. Depending on the situation and the parties involved, some forms can be more effective than others. If you are writing to an individual of humor and culture, a more flowery form of writing with satire and content would serve much better than a simple, bland, straight to the business one. If you are fighting a very long individual whose reach is greater than your own, than a form that involves close contact (which eliminate  long-range attacks) such as judo, grappling, and wrestling would be better served than per-say TKD.

Even the actual process of learning are very similar. In martial arts, you start with basic skills of flexibility, stances, and punches just like how one starts with vocabulary, grammar,  and intellectual thought in writing. Then one moves on to  “structural forms”  such as long fist with combines the kicks and stances together,  like how we first learned the Jane Shaffer format and “1CD and 2CM” or the later “Thesis-3  body paragraphs-Conclusion” format of Eng Comp. This second stage of structural writing and practicing of martial arts can be quite long depending on individual understanding and talent. Most students in college or even working college grads still use very “formulated” or “structured” ways to write (not that there is anything wrong with that), just like how numerous excellent martial arts practitioner are still stuck on doing techniques in predetermined order and style.

The most difficult step would be to “Make it your own”, to make your writing style “yours”, or to make your martial arts form “second nature”. It takes decades of practice and daily repetition with thought, even then most aren’t able to achieve this level. Which is why not everyone who writes for 30 yrs is a published author and not every Wing-Chun practitioner of 30 yrs should open gyms and teach class (though most of them do, sadly) . But if you don’t practice day after day, then I am sure you won’t make any form “your own”, whether it is in regards to writing or martial arts.