Often times a student’s ultimate goal in learning martial arts is obvious, to learn how defend one self. Focusing entirely on this goal however is at the expense of the core intentions of the martial arts, which in the end may offer much greater benefit to the practitioner. Shaolin Kung Fu is just as mental, spiritual, and philosophical as it is physical, and it is with all of these considerations that a student will truly progress to a greater level of both martial skill and self-development.
“The Martial arts are to train and discipline the mind and body, to develop the confidence that comes from physical success and to discover how to defeat the fears and limitations we harbor within our minds”(1).
We can use Kung Fu to achieve this goal, but really any menial task is suitable to achieve mental focus and liberation from one’s ego. Ultimately with this goal we can view reality for what it is, without the veil cast by our own minds that inhibits us from truth.
The Shaolin order adopted Kung Fu as their menial task because of its practicality, as they lived and traveled along areas frequented by dangerous animals and bandits. The physical exercise of Kung Fu also complimented their otherwise exercise free scholarly and religious study.
It is also notable to mention that while early Shaolin temples adhered to Buddhist belief, many of the philosophical concepts of Kung Fu blended well with Taoist belief. Taoism provided blueprint for martial technique and Buddhism for the spiritual and mental direction. Adopted from Taoism were the concepts of Yin and Yang and Chi, two very important aspects of Kung Fu.
It is a Shaolin belief that all effort and action, including the martial arts, should represent a form of meditation. This practice is intended to refute life experiences that may inform us of our divisions and limitations. Meditation aims to center the practitioner’s mentality so that they may view their self and reality as an interdependent whole. Once we do this we can achieve compassion, respect, and integrity enough to build high moral and ethical standards that will check the power that martial skill comes with, or so that was the intention of the Buddhist monks.
One way to accomplish this meditative practice is by becoming one with every activity or action in which you engage. If properly done, the time spent washing dishes for example, becomes the single activity in your universe, it becomes the universe. Ultimately to a Shaolin all time and every task is meditation.
Taken in this light the menial tasks of form work, or arduous practice of the horse stance can be a meditative and transcending experience if the student lets it be so. Like the steady drops of water that eventually weathers the hardest stone, so will training chip away the ego of the student until what remains is an enlightened practitioner who seeks a path of non-violence. In the end this is a complete contradiction of the goal the student may have had in the beginning.
Would you learn to fight only to not use it? I can’t say that I would. This is the check of the martial artist’s ego, it informs us that we need to continue studying martial arts and see what that reveals about ourselves in the eventual hope that we will progress and attain a higher level of personal growth and self-development.
For further information I recommend “The Shaolin Grandmasters’ Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch’an,” it is to this that I also attribute my quote and much information.