China: the birthplace of Zen

A saffron-robed monk, so light-footed he barely touches the ground, lights incense sticks so lofty they almost tower overhead. Coils of fragrant smoke curl slowly skywards. Heads bowed, worshipers place lotus-shaped candles at Buddha’s shimmering feet. Deep, resonant chants spill from the prayer pavilion and saturate the air with spine-tingling sweetness.

Then, just beyond this hallowed ground, the dusky silence erupts into ferocious exclamations and a scene like something in a Jet Li film. Fit bodies launch themselves into gravity-defying leaps, double backwards summersaults and ceaseless cartwheels. Sheets of glass are smashed with a needle, and blocks of wood are broken over heads. Even from a distance, the power driving the sweeping sideways kicks and poised weapons is palpable.

The sight of fast, furious displays of martial arts alongside temple tranquility startles with its surrealism. However, at China’s famous Shaolin Temple, the pursuit of peacefulness has been interwoven with the fury of kung fu since the early 6th century. China is a land of mystery and contrast, which is what makes it so fascinating a destination.

China has a long, proud history of martial arts — acclaimed as much a means of spiritual development as one of self-defence — and, even as an increasingly futuristic face is turned to the world, kung fu remains a revered element of Chinese culture, believed to foster discipline, character and integrity.

Since ancient times, China’s temples have trained monks in martial arts for the protection of both the temple and homeland. Many styles have evolved throughout China’s turbulent history, each reflecting a particular philosophy. Mindfulness, however, is universally regarded as more important than sheer might, and the level of knowledge a master passes on to pupils depends on appraisal of the novice’s character.

What’s special about the Shaolin kung fu is its espousal of meditation and Buddhist ideas and the extent to which the mind–body connection is nurtured. I found myself awestruck at the antics of accomplished devotees. Having long felt too restless for seated meditations, I’ve journeyed to this sacred region — internationally regarded as the cradle of martial arts — to learn about a practice that melds mental and physical training.


Zen’s birthplace

Legend has it that an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, visited the Shaolin Temple in 539 CE and found the monks unfit and uninspired. On having his attempts to encourage a proud, healthy lifestyle shunned, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years in a nearby cave, where, to keep fit, he mimicked animal movements. Eventually, Bodhidharma was invited back into the temple.

The philosophy of Zen Buddhism, developed in the cave, along with exercises that later evolved into a refined style of kung fu became the Shaolin Temple’s defining feature. Subsequent centuries saw kung fu tactics defend the temple and, in times of tumult, Shaolin warrior monks formed a critical part of Ming–era armies, especially in clashes with foreign pirates.

In Zen Buddhism, meditation is accorded greater importance than scriptures and, accordingly, Shaolin kung fu holds mental self-discipline as its cornerstone, aiming to not just boost the condition of the body but also to enhance the power of the mind.

In many ways, Shaolin Si, as it’s known by the Chinese, is not unlike many of China’s soulful ancient temples, rich with tradition and atmosphere and set amid stunningly scenic mountains. What is distinctive at Shaolin, apart from the famous depressions in the ground, resulting from centuries of stance practice, and vividly detailed frescoes depicting heroic battles, is the lithe, gracefully powerful movements of the monks and their sense of self–containment.

Thanks to Hollywood and the Shaolin monks’ spectacular performances, the temple was catapulted to world fame. But, true to Buddhist precepts, at Shaolin, the kung fu monks mustn’t in any way set themselves apart from other monks. As one monk explained, in keeping with the principles of Zen, kung fu is to be practised without conceit. Humility is upheld as high virtue.

Although the Shaolin monks don’t flaunt their talents for visitors, there’s no shortage of fight displays. Throughout the day, electrifying outbursts of kung fu performed by students from local martial arts schools (many of which welcome overseas students) are staged at the educational complex and in just about every open space surrounding the temple. There are even kung fu high schools where, along with a standard curriculum, students clock up several hours of kung fu daily. During breaks, instead of the usual raucous, random games, pupils practise stances.


Kung fu thinking

According to Shaolin tradition, kindness, mindfulness, compassion and managing one’s emotions are critical tools in the quest to develop strength. In turn, these traits are a measure of one’s strength. Developing strength without nullifying the caring, gentle and generous elements of oneself held great appeal for me, especially as these very elements epitomise strength in its most ideal state. Strength Shaolin-style shuns brutish ruthlessness and abuse of power; rather, it’s about developing inner resilience and preparedness for adversity.

“Shaolin boxing stresses the integration of the internal and the external,” explained Yan Yong Mou, a kung fu master and teacher. “It’s as much concerned with building moral character — helping others, being kind and upholding principles of justice — as it is with developing physical skills. Bullying should never occur and, even when it is necessary to attack, force shouldn’t be excessive.”

Strength, he elaborated, is about doing what is right, not simply overpowering others. After all, kung fu speaks of self-defence, not aggression. “It’s about having strength in oneself as opposed to forcing one’s power over others. Goodness must prevail,” said Yan.

My clumsy attempts to grasp controlled, complicated moves — forms that, when done properly, resemble a deftly choreographed dance — left me frustrated and, as someone who relishes action, agitated. “Conquering monotony is part of the journey,” I was gently chided.

As Yan explained, acquiring kung fu skills takes many years of practice and perseverance, and the patience and discipline this entails underpins the advancement of physical strength and flexibility. Stretching yourself develops physical skills as well as spirit, said Yan, and, because kung fu skills are designed to protect you from being hurt, the ritual of practice leads to clearer and faster thinking.

I started to see how, as with so many obstacles, the solution lay within. “Being strong and flexible involves a clear mind and concentration,” said Yan — a pointed statement indeed to someone whose mind courts distractions. Eventually, I began to feel how the stretching, slow movements could create calmness.

My body, however, continued creaking and groaning. “Your heart is the most important thing,” an advanced student reassured me. And, observing his grounded, unflinching presence, I started to appreciate the saying that kung fu relies on the eyes and spirit as much as the limbs.

Even a basic understanding of kung fu holds many lessons for life, said Yan, naming “being strong, dignified, just and helpful”. My time at Shaolin was way too short to master the dramatic leaps and almost magical applications of energy, but the mindset left a deep imprint.


Cradle of Chinese Buddhism

China’s dynastic attractions stretch far beyond its most famous temple. It is in Shaolin’s home province of Henan that Chinese Buddhism bloomed and, throughout the region, reminders of ancient civilisations bear testament to a glorious past.

Near Luoyang, a walled city that served as the nation’s capital throughout 13 dynasties, is the White Horse Temple, founded in 1st century CE and revered as the first Buddhist temple built in China. When Han court emissaries sought Buddhist scriptures, they encountered two monks in Afghanistan who, astride white horses, brought sutras and statues to Luoyang.

The sprawling temple was built to house the monks and the treasures. These days, the Cyprus-shaded courtyards are enlivened by Chinese pilgrims who, exemplifying the early spirit of curiosity, love making friends with fellow travellers.

An extraordinary testament to the tenacity of China’s early Buddhists can be found at the World Heritage-listed Longmen Caves, also near Luoyang. A veritable sutra in stone, these grottoes, containing more than 100,000 finely chiselled Buddha images, span over a kilometre of limestone cliff.

Even in ancient times, stonemasons were expensive and farmers typically poor, but commissioning a religious figurine or mural represented the peak of aspiration. In hard times, the Medical Prescription Cave, where formulas were etched into stone, soothed worldly woes.

Other moody encounters with China’s ancient lifestyles can be had at picturesque stone rural hamlets such as Guoliangcun and the innumerable temples dotted throughout the province, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit on the day of a Temple Fair.

The most engaging way to soak up Henan’s many layers of history and intrigue is to stroll about Luoyang’s Old Town. Here, after passing through imposing town gates overlooked by ancient walls, the pervasiveness of China’s history leaps to life. To scratch below the surface, local knowledge is invaluable and, happily, my guide, Shirley, has an uncanny knack of discovering the best noodle stops.

Though noodles have been a staple for more than 4000 years, time has failed to dim their appeal. One morning, I puzzled over a rapidly swelling crowd, a mystery Shirley solved thus: “Fresh noodles from the best stall.” Henan’s array of noodle dishes is endless, including delectable treats made from sweet potato and peas. Hand-stretched noodles, the Chinese insist, are the tastiest. Watching earnest men in white hats working dough with artisanal devotion, I couldn’t disagree.

As we passed roadsides markets where vegetables are traded from bike-racks and the kerb is crammed with purveyors of outdoor haircuts, massages and fortune-telling, 21st century vestiges all but vanished. Especially when Shirley pointed out more timelessness, such as mirrors and scissors placed over doorways for spiritual protection, and entire shops selling cloth for dead people and acoutrements for a harmonious afterlife: miniature houses, cars and fat wads of “spirit money”.


Dreamy scenes, subtle stances

China’s magnificent scenery, however, defies interpretation. For me, this is a delight that’s at its most quintessential in the karst wonderland surrounding Yangshuo, in the southern province of Guangxi, with its soaring pinnacles and sheer cliffs, winding rivers, dazzlingly green rice fields dotted with water buffalo, colourful tribal people and rustic, rammed–earth villages. Since I first visited many years ago, I’ve felt compelled to return.

This is a scene so seductive it has inspired countless artists and poets and, although the region today ranks as one of China’s top attractions, finding your own patch of bliss is as easy as hopping on a bike or riverboat or following an enticing trail. Atmospheric accommodation, excellent shopping and endless varieties of food, including Western dishes, make Yangshuo a gorgeous haven for enjoying visions of classic China while quenching sybaritic desires.

Dreamy landscape aside, this region is also home to several excellent academies focusing on tai chi, another of China’s ancient martial arts. Tai chi was founded in the 13th or 14th century by Zhang San Feng, a Shaolin master searching for something “softer”. Zhang’s inspiration, it’s said, came from watching a battle between a huge bird and a snake, the snake’s sinuous movements evading the bird’s attack until, exhausted, it flew away.

Originally practised for self defence, tai chi is based on the Taoist principal that softness can overcome hardness and aims to dispel the opponent’s energy with minimal effort, employing tactics such as not tensing when attacked but rather being fluid in response.

Were I disciplined, increased flexibility, circulation, strength, balance and relaxation might have been mine. But, with each sorbet sunrise, I was drawn to yet another village, another colourful market, another feast, another breathtaking boat trip along the Li River. My resolve, sad to say, has a long way to go.


Travel facts

  • China specialists China Travel Service arranges trips China–wide, including studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple, tailored programs visiting Buddhist and Taoist highlights, and selected martial arts training centres. T: 1300 764 224 W:
  • Other sacred mountain temples well worth a visit include: Wudang Shan, Tai Shan and Emei Shan.
  • China is at its most beautiful in autumn (September–November) and spring (March–May), but both Henan and Guangxi are accessible in the winter.
  • The Lonely Planet China guide provides excellent background information and plenty of suggestions for finding outlying adventure.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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