Book Review: The History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch’an

“It’s China, mom. Everybody knows kung fu. – Dre Parker, Karate Kid (2010)

That may or may not be true (my money’s on not), but in the West it can safely be said that barely anybody knows Kung Fu.

When I first started learning Shorinji Kempo, somebody told me that it was based on Shaolin Kung Fu – and in fact that the kanji 少林寺拳法 would be pronounced “Shaolin Kung Fu” by Chinese people. I confess I’ve not asked an actual Chinese person, but according to Google Translate it would be pronounced Shàolínsì quánfǎ, which sounds pretty similar to my untrained ear. Whether the arts are in any way related is a more difficult question, which I’m not going to try to answer right now.

In any case, I found myself interested in finding out more about Shaolin, and I came across this book.

The History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch’an is a good description of what is contained in it. The book was written by Grandmasters of Shaolin who are currently living outside of China, in the West. They aim to cut through some of the misconceptions surrounding this school of Ch’an Buddhism.

Because that’s what it is – Buddhism, not a martial art.

Yes, they have fighting arts, but they consider themselves to be a sect of Buddhism, not a school for teaching fighting. The martial arts are for developing discipline and moving meditation, rather than for subduing enemies. Although I’m sure that in the past when monks were travelling alone around the country it came in handy to be able to fight off bandits.

The book is separated into three sections. The first is history and philosophy, and I found it fascinating.

Did you know, for example, that Shaolin requires all its students to study many disciplines – history, philosophy, science, maths, languages, and so on? Understanding the world and seeing it as it really is is fundamental to achieving enlightenment.

The disciple… asked: “Why is knowing that frogs sing important to a Shaolin? Of what use is such knowledge?”

”Ah,” said the master, smiling, “That is the essence of all knowledge. At what point does a good story replace truth? In what ways might good stories hide or distort truth? Truth builds on itself, like each brick in a house. Each depends on the ones beneath and beside it to provide support. If one brick is bad, how much weaker the structure? How many weak bricks can a house stand before a wall collapses?”

The historical requirements for being admitted as a student, and the rigorous training required once you were one, were far in excess of what you would see in any modern martial arts class. Can you imagine going to a 21st century martial arts class in the UK or America, and your first six months is nothing but standing in horse stance? I can’t imagine that we would retain many students!

The second part of the book was more focused on the martial aspects – the gung fu. It laid out the major styles and differences between them. I think it would be of more interest to someone who was currently studying one of the gung fu styles, where you could compare to what you were learning in class. It did also contain some advice about how to distinguish “real” Shaolin teachers from those who teach only parts of the path (the authors are very clear that other paths are valid and useful, but if you’re actively seeking Shaolin specifically, this is how to find it).

There was a small amount of commentary about relationships to other martial arts.

The proliferation of Okinawan and Japanese Karate systems reflects gung fu systems and styles that were their ancestors. Goju-ryu combines aspects of White Crane, Fu Jow (Tiger) and Choy Li Fut, while Funakoshi Gichin incorporated ch’in na and Choy Li Fut into his Shotokan system. (Miyagi Chojun points out in his Karate-do Gaisetsu that Goju-ryu developed from Chinese arts which came to Okinawa from Fukien Province in 1828.)

The Japanese Shorin style is a direct, though significantly altered, form of Shaolin which places tremendous emphasis on its 600+ two-person drills (”Shorin” is the Japanese pronunciation of “Shaolin” and it, too, is a Buddhist monastic order – usually called “Shorinji Kempo”). There is some controversy as to whether Shorinji Kempo was truly inspired by Shaolin, especially given the clear influence of Japanese arts upon the style. We can neither confirm nor disprove the origins of this style.

After slogging through the second part, the third section of the book was a welcome return to more philosophical topics. This time about the foundations of the Shaolin path, and integrating Shaolin Ch’an principles into your life and martial practices. The Shaolin path is not just about martial prowess – there are five main strands which in traditional schools are given equal weight: Integrity, Scholarship, Gung fu, Meditation, and Detachment. Detachment is perhaps the hardest for Western minds to get their heads around, but I found the description in the book to be the most succinct and helpful I’d come across on the topic: Do not possess that which you love, but allow it to be loved as long as is appropriate.

Overall, I would recommend this book to those who are interested in the history and philosophy of both martial arts and buddhism. And I encourage everyone to be interested in all topics – widen your mind and you might see something new and exciting.

Weak mind, weak fist. Strong mind, no need for fist. (Old Shaolin saying)

Do you have book recommendations? Let me know in the comments.

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. * please note that "ten or more" is still something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: