The fighting monks of Shaolin Monastery in the Pagoda Forest on Song Mountain in China are globally adored. They’re real but have been made mythical in countless martial-arts movies and the Wu Tang Clan’s hip-hop.
Now, their ancient arts are allegedly threatened by the new. The Shaolin fighting tradition, specifically tai-chi, just lost big time against mixed martial arts, or MMA, in a brisk showdown in China, a battle that was offensive to the government and others. The quick pummeling violated traditional codes of conduct, and the winner, Xu Xiaodong, has gone into hiding, so grave is the situation.
The loss ostensibly also calls into question the relevance of the ancient art of the loser, Wei Lei, practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi.
Any such claim may be shortsighted–with all due respect to the fast, loose, and furious MMA fighting style. After all, MMA is new. Shaolin’s Zen monks have been practicing for 1,500 years.
Here’s a condensed look at the philosophy behind the fighting:
Classic is as classic does
Kung-fu flicks glorify battles and Shaolin monks are the only clerics in the world with street cred and pop-icon status. They’re unparalleled fighters, who perform amazing bodily feats, acrobatics that seem like magic.
Yet all this action is fueled by a practice obsessed with stillness, Zen Buddhism.
The Shaolin tradition isn’t about throwing punches. It is a way of seeing the world and being in it, cultivating inner and outer strength.
Pointing at the moon
If you think winning is the whole game, you lose. In Zen terms—that would be like mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself (giving yourself the finger, as it were).
This or that, good and bad, gain and loss, all are fine. Illumination is available to anyone in everyday life. It can come as soon as attachment and distinctions are shed, according to Zen tradition.
Shedding can happen spontaneously or be cultivated with practice—or through both, by doing simple things, seeing clearly and operating beyond the limits of the visible world.
That’s what the fighting monks of Shaolin work on from childhood, and what’s so admirable about them. Discipline. More than their fighting skills, it’s their will to excel through sustained effort, as ultimately evidenced by exceptional abilities.
Granddaddy of all masters
Boddhidharma is the Zen patriarch of the Shaolin monks, credited with creating kung fu, the martial art that spans a whole slew of fighting forms known as “wushu.” In his view, all experience is good practice, fertile ground for illumination.
According to legend, Boddhidharma brought his action-oriented, cryptic, rigorous Buddhism to China from India around 500 AD. He emphasized looking at nature for guidance—cranes, tigers, monkeys, bamboo, the moon and stars and weather. Boddhidharma’s Zen style didn’t take off for two centuries, according to scholars. But it remained fresh and lively.
Rather than meditate on a cushion, he advised activity. Kung fu and tai chi are moving meditation practices, and Boddhidharma is revered by martial artists. He’s arguably the most famous monk ever, mythologized in international culture.
Or he’s a fiction. Some scholars say Boddhidharma may not have existed at all.
For all the tea in China
More lore about the master: Boddhidharma is said also to have brought tea to China. He was so dedicated to Zen that he cut off his eyelids to stay awake during meditation and tea bushes grew where his eyelids fell, creating a national craze. So the story goes.
The tale may be a bit creepy but it’s also instructive. It lauds intensity, unyielding steadiness, determination in the face of boring but important things, like sitting. That’s what’s so sexy about Zen.
The Shaolin allure comes from this quiet intensity, which distracted humans can’t help but admire. Who wouldn’t want to move so smoothly as to fly, win a fight moving the wind, having trained on waterfalls?
The recent trouncing of tai chi doesn’t matter. As any Zen student knows, appearances are deceiving. The real skill of the master isn’t fighting or winning. That’s not what Boddhidharma taught. If he taught anything at all, it’s resilience, resolve, reserve.
He wrote a practice guide that lays out two basic paths to mastery of the self. It’s called Outline of Practice, a short four-page primer for Zen students. It begins like this:
The final blow
The fight that has sparked such controversy in China doesn’t reflect the spirit of the ancient Shaolin temple and Boddhidharma, whether he was real or mythical. It isn’t Zen’s death knell by any stretch of the imagination. Zen’s about internal and external awareness, cultivating them until they’re one. That’s a classic skill, always useful, never goes out of style.
Masters practice to practice and fight if they have to. Winning is neither here nor there, and shouldn’t excite or dismay. That is what practice teaches, that admiration and admonition are equally problematic or awesome when we make them so. As a result of regular efforts, a student may sometimes win, and sometimes lose too. But a buddha manages anything.
Winning and losing are illusions. The path is neutral. Mind makes things good or bad until we don’t mind. That’s the Zen treasure, a key to freedom that can’t be lost in a fight.