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.

Leaders’ Seminar 2022

Shorinji Kempo classes in Bristol took a short break at the start of October while the instructors and senior students took part in a 6-day training seminar. We’re always seeking to improve so we can teach you better, more exciting things.

Morning training took place in the dojo. Our teachers included Sensei Maeda, a specialist in appo (AKA poking people in the really painful places), kappo (resuscitation), and seiho (restorative massage), who had flown all the way from Japan to teach us.

As well as international teachers, we also got the chance to train with senior students from other countries, including Indonesia and Switzerland.

The morning wasn’t the end of the excitement though. After a leisurely lunch, we made our way to the beach to work on our shakujo (6 foot stick) and nioi (short stick) techniques.

Oh, did I mention that we were in Cyprus?

The start of October is cold and wet. What better thing could you do than escape to a warmer climate… and hit your friends with big sticks?

We all learnt a lot during the week, and spent time strengthening our relationships with those from other clubs around the UK and internationally.

If you’re interested to find out what we learnt, why not sign up to a class and experience it first hand?

Film Review: Kung Pow! Enter the Fist

From the very first moments of this film you know what it is: a spoof of the martial arts genre. Also hilarious.

Master Pain, the extremely obvious villain of the film, is on the hunt for the one person who can defeat him – the chosen one. Alas, he finds him in his cradle. Killing the Chosen One’s family, Master Pain comes for the child.

Who has a surprising amount of martial arts skill for a child less than one year old.

The fight is (mostly) a draw, and so the child becomes a man.

The film gets more ridiculous from there.

The director, Steve Oedekerk, has taken a 1970s Kung Fu film, dubbed in new words, and spliced it with modern actors to create an entirely new experience.

Throughout, the film is scattered with little things to just tweak the senses. In the ancient Chinese village, one of the establishments is briefly Hooters – before the sign disappears so quickly you aren’t sure you even saw it. There is a small floating pyramid in the distance in another scene, and some extremely obvious product placement.

I’m pretty sure that if I watched it again I would see more examples that I missed the first time around.

Killing is wrong. And bad. There should be a new, stronger word for killing. Like badwrong, or badong. Yes, killing is badong. From this moment, I will stand for the opposite of killing: gnodab.

The Chosen One (Kung Pow!)

I thought my favourite scene was going to be the fight with the cow. It features a milk moustache, matrix-style slow-mo action, and more.

But then Mu-Shu-Fasa appeared. I won’t spoil that one for you, you’ll just have to watch the film.

The credits are also entertaining. Watch all the way to the end.

Suffice it to say that I highly recommend watching this film. But perhaps not in the company of anyone who takes martial arts films too seriously.

Book review: The anatomy of martial arts, by Dr Norman Link and Lily Chou

I’ve been attempting recently to understand more about the biology and physiology of why our martial arts moves work the way they do, and this book was part of that quest.

Part 1: Overview

Part 1 of the book is a very brief overview of anatomy (one page!), followed by a discussion of the theory of kinetic chains and the physics behind high-energy strikes.

There are also some warnings about mis-use and long-term damage if you do things wrong, which is an important note.

The whole of part 1 is only 7 or 8 pages, and personally I would have put some of the things in the appendix into part 1 and expanded on them – but more on that later.

Part 2: Techniques

Part 2 is where the bulk of the book is spent.

50 of the most common martial arts techniques are each given their own two-page spread. There is a brief explanation of what is happening and a discussion of the importance of speed vs. power vs. accuracy in this particular technique.

Most of the second page is given over to a diagram of the muscles used. Blue is for key static muscles, the ones that you tense for stability but don’t actually use to create movement. Red is for the dynamic muscles.

Each page also has a selection of exercises to do in order to improve this move. They’re a mixture of muscle strengthening and stretching exercises, plus a few to improve your balance.

Depending on the specifics of your martial art, some thought is needed to interpret some of the techniques. The punches and blocks in particular seemed very “karate” to me, and some of the kicks were more designed for tournament-style taekwondo rather than practical self defence.

However, there are sections not only on punches and kicks, but also throws, groundwork, rolls and falls, and weapons, so there is something for everyone in this book.

I appreciated the detail put into the illustrations. They’ve used a range of different models – all actual martial artists. In some cases they’ve paid attention also to what the effect of the technique is. Observe, for example, the expression on this man’s face:


In the appendices there are lists of muscles and what they do, arranged both alphabetically and by joint. For myself I could have used this section to be a bit more detailed, perhaps with some diagrams so I didn’t have to go looking for the particular muscles in the main section of the book. I think I would also have put it into Part 1, to flesh out the very light detail there.


Overall, I found this book useful. Part 2 is quite repetitive, so it’s more suited to dipping into when you have questions about a specific move rather than reading cover to cover.

You can pick up a copy of The anatomy of martial arts: an illustrated guide to the muscles used in key kicks, strikes and throws, by Dr Norman Link and Lily Chou, on Amazon or in your favourite book retailer. If you’re going to get one, I would recommend paperback rather than kindle, because the layout is much better.

What’s your recommendation for books on anatomy and physiology? Let us know in the comments.

Should you study outside of class?

Probably, yes.

Like anything in life, the more you put in to Shorinji Kempo, the more you will get out of it. Especially if you’re only able to attend one class a week, you will make much more progress if you can put in a little extra time.

In the first few weeks you’ll find this especially helpful because there are so many new words and moves that it can be a little confusing. The faster you get to grips with the new things the more fun you’ll be having.

Even if you’re coming to all our classes – three a week – then a quick review now and again is probably wise.

For many people, life is busy, so this may sound like a big ask. However, I’m not talking about spending two hours every day practicing.

How much should you study?

I’m not going to give a straight answer to this one, I’m afraid. A lot depends on you and your circumstances. Do you have other commitments or lots of free time? How interested are you in progressing fast?

In general though, little and often is what I recommend. A lot of what you can do on your own is memory work and for that, five minutes a day is much better than an hour at the weekend.

Consider replacing five minutes of scrolling through Facebook or TikTok with five minutes of Kempo study.

I really do mean five minutes, though. Sure, you can spend longer if you want to, but if you spend five minutes every day then you’ll make a surprising amount of progress.

But progress at what?

What should you study?

Another “it depends” answer. Sorry!

Are you a complete beginner who has never done any martial arts before? You’ll be better off if you put in some up-front effort to memorise the vocab. Go over what you learnt at your last lesson – how much can you remember? Write down any questions you have so you remember to ask them.

Are you just coming up to your next grading exam? Learn the names of your techniques. Do you know which stance they are from? What the attack is? What the defender should do? You can also practice kata on your own – but if you find you’re not sure about a move, ask your teacher rather than practicing the wrong thing.

Have you been doing Shorinji Kempo for years? Maybe you’re not expecting to grade for a few months or more, you feel like you’re stuck in a rut. Think about finding a partner who is in a similar state and creating an embu together.

📌 Pro tip: if you want to practice during your commute or other public place (and it’s safe to close your eyes!), try visualisation. Really see yourself doing the techniques – try to make yourself do them perfectly in your head. Studies have shown that it helps.

Do you have a copy of the philosophy book? Spend a few minutes reading one of the topics and think about how it is relevant to you.

What if you don’t?

Nobody is going to tell you off. What you do in your free time is your choice. But make it your choice. Whatever you choose is fine, as long as you have deliberately chosen to do it. Don’t just fall into a rut without thinking.

If you do choose to study outside of class, however, you will see yourself learning more, getting better faster, and having more fun.

Your future is in your hands.

Do you study outside of class? What kinds of things do you do? Let us know in the comments.

The path towards is not the path to: why you will never be perfect

We strive to master the art.

Can any of us truly say that we have? I know I can’t.

We are on the path towards perfection. Perfection of technique, perfection of character, perfection of society.

But we are not on the path to perfection. This path is not like the path to your house, or your workplace. You will never get there, never reach the end, never get to your destination.

Photo by Alexander Milo on Unsplash (edited)

You can only move towards it.

However far we go, there is always more that can be done. Some small improvement that can be made.

You will never be perfect.

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

Does that mean our efforts are worthless? What is the point if we will never achieve what we set out to do?

In my opinion, the effort is the point.

Shorinji Kempo is a gyo, a discipline. It is a tool to help us develop ourselves. Yes, the techniques are useful in themselves, at least once you’ve learnt them well enough to be able to do them correctly under pressure, but that’s not the entire point.

The effort involved in learning a technique, in figuring out how and why it works, in practicing it so much that it becomes natural and easy. These are the things that help us.

I’ve learnt so much from this process. Patience and perseverance, determination. The ability to keep calm when things go wrong. Empathy.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to develop those things. There are many paths towards perfection, and each is suited to different people. But this path is my path, and I hope that you will join me on it.

“Never give up!” – Guidelines for effective training

Practice every day. Practice everywhere. Practice until the sun goes down.

BSKF Summer Camp

Last weekend we attended the British Shorinji Kempo Federation‘s annual Summer Camp. Two full days of training with members of other dojos from across the UK, plus socialising.

It was a lot of fun. Don’t just take my word for it, check out these photos!

What I really love about longer seminars is that you get time to do some of the more unusual things that we don’t focus on all of the time. For example the arresting techniques which use a belt to restrain your attacker after you’ve taken them down.

Knife defences are another thing which we covered. All of the basic principles which we use in our empty-hand techniques also apply here, but with an added element of danger to keep us sharp.

Sadly, I was having so much fun that I didn’t take very many photos. I have none of us socialising at all! But keep an eye on our social media – I’ll share any that are posted by the BSKF or other clubs that attended.

Do I need to speak Japanese to learn Kempo?

If you’re new to martial arts, you’re probably worried about understanding what is going on.

Maybe you’ve watched a few YouTube videos, maybe you’ve been to visit the local dojo to see what happens. Maybe you just took the plunge and attended your first class. However you did it, you’ve seen martial arts in action.

There were all these foreign words, and it was confusing.

Do you need to learn Japanese now? (Or Chinese/Korean/etc, depending on your martial art.) Will you be completely lost unless you do?

Thankfully, no.

As for me, I love languages. I like the challenge of picking up the new vocab, the new sentence structures, getting to know a new culture through their unique phraseology. If that also describes you, then great – go ahead and learn some Japanese if you want!

But if the thought of learning a new language fills you with horrific flashbacks to chanting “amo amas amat amamus amatis amant” in school, don’t despair! To learn a martial art you need no grammar, and only a few basic phrases.

Not required to learn a martial art!
Not required to learn a martial art!

Why use Japanese at all?

There are a few reasons we use Japanese in class. Our martial art began in Japan, so that was its original language. Some of the terms don’t translate very well, or to translate them properly you’d need a longer phrase, which would get tedious quickly.

Then there’s the fact that, as part of the International Kempo Association, we regularly travel and train with dojos in other countries. If we all use Japanese then we can all understand what is going on – at least the basic instructions. I did my fourth dan grading at an international seminar in Japan, and the sensei that ran the grading spoke no English. And yet, as if by magic, I still understood what he wanted me to demonstrate.

If I’m honest, it’s also because it sounds way cooler. Which would you rather learn, soto uke zuki or outside block, punch? **

How much Japanese do I need?

Grammar: zero. We very rarely speak in full sentences! Short commands and names of things are the main focus here.

Vocabulary: eventually, maybe a few hundred words. I’ve not counted. By the time you’ve been coming for three months or so you will probably have around 50 that you recognise, and at least ten or so that you can actually pronounce with no thought required.

Most of them are things you’ll encounter multiple times every lesson, like “please” and “thank you”, along with “left”, “right”, “forwards”, “backwards”, “punch”, “kick” and “block”.

Ok, so “pow” and “blap” are not Japanese words, but at first it might seem just as random. Don’t despair. (1966 Batman)
Ok, so “pow” and “blap” are not Japanese words, but at first it might seem just as random. Don’t despair. (1966 Batman)

A few of them will be set phrases which you don’t need to translate directly. Just know that tenchi ken dai ichi is the name of that kata, and that hakusetsu is that pressure point.

How will I learn it?

You’ll pick up all this slowly, over time. Do NOT panic if it all sounds like gibberish to start with. Nobody expects you to be perfect straight away, that’s kind of the point of being a beginner!

Listen to what is going on around you. When the sensei is teaching, they’ll use a lot of words, and they’ll say the same thing in multiple ways and demonstrate at the same time. For example:

Hiraki sagari to hidari chudan gamae, kamae! Ok, we’re left foot forward. Check your stance, are your knees bent? Are your feet a good distance apart? Make sure your fists are pointing forwards, not twisted in towards the middle.

When they got to “kamae!”, everyone around you got into stance. Now you know that “kamae!” means “get into stance”. We’re left foot forward, so I guess one of those words must mean left?

With enough repetition (and remember, we do basics every class, so you’ll get a lot of repetition!) it’ll slowly sink in and before you know it you’ll understand the whole sentence.

Sometimes, the sensei will directly explain the meaning of a word, if it helps with the explanation.

We’re going to learn uchi uke zuki today. Uchi means “inside” and uke means “block”, so this is a block with the inside surface of the arm. Make sure you’re blocking with the arm, not the fingers.

What are the benefits of knowing some Japanese?

You can definitely learn Shorinji Kempo with very minimal Japanese, but there are a few benefits to extending your knowledge a small way beyond the basics.

Some words that sound very similar can have multiple meanings, and understanding the context helps you to know what is going on when you learn a new technique. For example, uchi can be 内 inside or 打ち strike, and knowing which it is will help you to guess what moves will be required.

There are also some great YouTube videos of techniques and demonstrations which are narrated in Japanese. Automatic translation doesn’t always catch the nuances, especially of specialised martial arts vocab, so knowing a little yourself can help to understand where the auto-translate has made errors.

Never give up!

Learning the unique vocab for any new hobby can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. As long as you keep attending classes, you’ll learn new words and practice old ones every week, so you’ll soon know more than you expect.

If you want a head start, why not check out our list of helpful vocab?

How to make the most of your class

Whether you’re a long time student or a new beginner, there’s always lots to learn in a martial arts class. It can be overwhelming sometimes. How can you maximise your learning in each class?

Have goals

If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn, how are you going to know the best way to achieve it? Long term goals are important, but what I’m talking about here is a goal for each class you attend.

If you’re a complete beginner, your goal could be something as simple as “learn how to stand properly”, “learn how a class is structured” or even “learn if this martial art is something I enjoy”!

Once you’ve been to a few classes, you could start with more specific things. Improve your punching technique, get better at a technique on your next grading syllabus, learn the name of a specific thing, and so on. Some of these goals might span a few classes, or you might have a selection of mini-goals which you pick from when you find out what the class will be studying that day. It’s no good having a goal of improving your punches if Sensei is trying to teach kicks!

(On that note, if you do have something very specific you want to improve or ask about, try to catch the Sensei before the class – they might be able to work it into their lesson plan.)

The point is not to be too rigid about it, but to know what you’re trying to achieve.

Today my goal is… learn how to punch better.

Pay attention

It seems obvious, but if you’re not paying attention you’re not going to learn much.

The Japanese have a phrase – ichigo ichie – which is sort of equivalent to “sieze the day”. You have one life, one opportunity. You can never stand in the same river twice, so make sure you pay attention when you do.

By “pay attention” I don’t just mean “listen to the teacher when they talk”, but also “pay attention to your own body, how it feels when it does the moves. Think about the principles you’re applying. Pay attention to your partner’s body and what it does when you do certain things. Which brings us to:

Work with your partner(s)

Everyone has something to teach. Everyone has something to learn. In Shorinji Kempo (and in many martial arts) we aim to work together to improve everyone.

If you’re working with a partner you should be trying to help each other understand. Each of you will know something different. Share that knowledge freely and accept what is shared in return.

And try to work with lots of different partners. Everyone has slightly different viewpoints, different ways of explaining. And different bodies! Try them all out and you’ll find it easier to identify the common principles that make the technique work on everyone.

Try complicated things on multiple people. You’ll learn faster.

Take it seriously

The more effort – both physical and mental – you put in, the more you will learn. There are no shortcuts here, no way to avoid the work.

Treat each class as a study opportunity, and put in some work outside of class too. That thing that your teachers tried to tell you about going over your notes after a class to make sure you understand everything you were taught? That applies here too.

And yes, it’s perfectly ok to ask the Sensei if you can have five minutes to write something down if you’re being taught something complicated!

But not too seriously

If you’re not having fun, something is wrong. The practice of a martial art should be rewarding – mentally and physically stimulating. It should be something that you look forward to doing, the highlight of your week. You should have friends in the dojo, and you should not be afraid to smile or laugh as you talk to them.

If you follow these guidelines you should get a lot out of each and every class. Soon you’ll find yourself making more progress than you imagined was possible.

Have friends in the dojo

Book review: Women in the Martial Arts, ed. Carol A. Wiley

Women in the Martial Arts, edited by Carol A. Wiley, was published in the early 90s. Many of the themes which come up are still relevant today.

The book is a collection of essays written by female martial artists from many different arts, ranging from T’ai Chi Ch’uan to Aikido, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and more. With more than 20 essays included, there are a wide range of viewpoints.

I found parts of the book slightly tedious, as it seemed to confuse “martial arts” with “self defence”. Although they do overlap, and martial arts can be very useful for self defence, they are not the same thing. The title of the book led me to believe it would be about martial arts, and I was hoping for more philosophy.

However, there were some very interesting essays on, for example, doing Aikido from a wheelchair, how the teacher-student relationship changes for various combinations of genders, and the meaning of “power” in the context of martial arts.

Many of the essays comment on the relative paucity of women in the higher grades of martial arts, and I feel this is still the case. Yes, women do train, and women do get promoted to high grades, but there are far more men at those ranks than women.

The low number of female role-models is an ongoing issue in many spheres of life, not just the martial arts. From CEOs (8 in the FTSE 100 as of Oct 20211), politicians (6 out of 23 cabinet members in the UK as of Feb 20222), to aircraft pilots (90% male as of 20213), too many careers lack the visible proof that women are valued.

What can we do about this?

If you are a woman, don’t be afraid to start (or continue!) a martial art. If your first experience isn’t great, try a different style. Train hard, get good, and stand proud. It will take time – most useful endeavours do – but it will be worth it.

And everyone – treat your training partners as people, not as “man” or “woman”. Yes, some techniques may need adapting based on your body shape, but that is true for the difference between a short fat man and a tall thin man as much as it is between a man and a woman.

Do you have experience learning or teaching as a woman in the martial arts? What are the most interesting things you have noticed about it?

Are you a woman who is considering starting? What most worries you, and what are you most looking forward to?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.