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”.