February 2000 (Part 2)


Shaolin sparring

The ways combatants fight or spar often reveal the arts they practice. In this sparring session between Luis Morgano of Portugal (left) and Louis Sexton of England, their Shaolin characteristics are quite noticeable.

Question 1

If I may, I would like to share my awakening experience with you on this subject. (Please see Question 1, January 2000 Part 2). I was once satisfied with much of the illustrations that are created from that question. Yet, I believe there must be a simple answer that would break through my illusions. Then the answer came to me.

What is the shortest distance between two points? The question doesn't illustrate any two points. Therefore, the question is not specific in nature. The answer is actually another question. What two points? After this has been established, only then can we correctly answer the original question. It is not my intention to be clever. I am merely sharing my personal experience on this matter. All the elements of a journey are important. The beginning. The journey, and the conclusion.

I thank you for refering me to your book on Zen. I look forward to studying it.

— Shafar, USA


Your experience is what I meant when I said you could read any meanings to your question and give any answers. Yours is not an awakening, as I used the term in my Zen book, but a process of reasoning. The crucial difference is that an awakening is intuitive, whereas reasoning is intellectual.

Your realization that “there must be a simple answer that would break through my illusions” or that “the question doesn't illustrate any two points” was the result of your intellectual reasoning, not of your spiritual awakening. In other words, your realization is intellectual, not intuitive.

Herein lies the “secret” of the Zen gong-an (or koan). When a Zen master asked his students a gong-an question, like “What is the sound of clapping with one hand?”, or “What is the shortest distance between two points?”, what the master was looking for, was not their literal answers, but how the students responded with any answers. Two students might give exactly the same answer, but one could be awakened while the other was not.

Actually when you asked me the question in your previous e-mail, I gave you in my answer a very strong hint to help you to be awakened. But you (like most people) were not ripe for an awakening yet, and hence missed the opportunity. Had you been in a traditional Zen monastery in the past, and responded to your master the way you responded to my answer, your master might give you a hard slap or a loud shout. If you thought he was rough, you would have missed another opportunity for an awakening.

Bai Zhang, a great Zen master, received a shout so loud from his teacher Ma Zu that he was deaf for three days. Did Bai Zhang, who was awakened earlier, resent the shout? Not at all. He gratefully knelt down and prosrtated to his teacher, for Ma Zu's shout enabled him to be enlightened. If you, like most people, think this was crazy, that is because you have not understood the sitaution in question.

How did I know you were not awakened? A few instances in your e-mail clearly indicated so. Had you been awakened, you would have understood the futility of intellectualization in a Zen awakening. It was clear you did not know the difference between intellectualization and intuitive experience. If you find this puzzling, another instance would be easier to comprehend. Had you been awakened, you would not have asked me the question — which was more to test me than to seek your own awakening — for you would have known the answer yourself.

Question 2

What is this kungfu style with the following forms: Little Brown Bear; Hidden Tiger, Grasshopper, Praying Mantis, Eagle, Snake, Wasp, Stanze, Kwon, Elephant, Octopus, Catipillar, Dragon, Sun, Bull, Sou, Wind, Eel, Hand and Foot, Knife Do, Monkey, Nunchukus, Chi Gow.

— Mike, USA


I am sorry I did not make myself clear. When I asked you to tell me about your forms, I meant the names of your forms or sets, such as “Tiger-Crane” which would be characteristic of Hung Gar, “Eighteen Search” characteristic of Praying Mantis Kungfu, or “Travelling Dragon Palms” characteristic of Baguazhang.

Nevertheless, from the various animal characteristics you have mentioned above, my initial conclusion is that this style is not any one of the estabished or mainstream styles I know of. I do not, for example, know of any style with Octopus, Catepillar or Wasp as its main forms.

Moreover, the inclusion of nunchaku suggests to me that this style might be influenced by Japanese karate or Bruce Lee's Jeet Kwon Do. Although the nunchaku was introduced to the Japanese from the Chinese, it was discarded in traditional kungfu styles quite some time ago, because — and this may be a big surprise to many people — it was not a useful weapon! In my opinion, only those who treat kungfu as a modern sport use the nunchaku. Those who practise traditional kungfu as a deadly martial art (and there are not many nowadays) prefer such weapons like the broadsword and the spear.

Question 3

There is included in this system, techniques on pressure points for healing, diet, a full range of isometric exercises, techniques for replacing dislocated joints, setting broken bones, meditation, 12 weapon forms and techniques.


Diet and isometric exercises are not traditional kungfu practice; the others are. Some methods of kungfu force training, like the famous “Iron Wire Set” in Hoong Ka Kungfu, may look like isometric exercises, but they are not as they involve energy and mind whereas isometric exercises only work at the physical level.

Taijiquan sparring

Taijiquan characteristics are quite discernable in this sparring session between Javier Galve of Spain (left) and Riccardo Puleo of Italy.

Question 4

The philosophy is centered around the preservation of life, conservation and calculation of energy, harmony, and self preservation. I can give you more details of any of the above, including our grappling locks and holds, the 29 kicking styles, offensive/defensive manouvers, blocking styles, hand strikes, and chi awareness, but the historical background is what I am seeking.


The philosophy is Taoist, but the fighting techniques resemble those of Shaolin, which is Buddhist. Here is, therefore, a contradicition. Generally, but not always, Taoist kungfu styles do not favour a great variety of fighting techniques like what you have suggested above; their preference is on deepening skills.

The lack of historical background, together with other factors mentioned above, suggests to me that this style might be invented by a master drawing from various styles. If nunchaku was in its original repertoire instead of being added later, this invention was quite recent.

Question 5

All I know is that the style is Chinese in origin, probably from the north, and it's origins are said to predate budhism, so it is likely Tao based.


You are right in saying the style is Chinese in origin and probably from the north. But no kungfu or any other martial art styles predated Buddhism. Buddhism spread to China at the beginning of the second century. The Shaolin Monastery, which was Buddhist, was built in the year 377. In 527 Bodhidharma taught the Shaolin monks the Eighteen Lohan Hands, which developed into Shaolin Kungfu. Shaolin Kungfu is the oldest martial art style in the world.

This does not mean that there were no martial arts before Shaolin, but before this time martial arts were practised and taught on an individual basis, like western boxing or wrestling is today. It was at the Shaolin Monastery that martial arts first became institutionalized, and was passed down as a systemmatic style. In other words, before Shaolin there was only martial art, but without any specific names. It was only after Shaolin that there were names like Wuzu martial art, Eagle Claw martial art, Praying Mantis martial art, Taiji martial art, etc.

As Shaolin Kungfu began only after Buddhism had spread to China, there is therefore no martial art style that predated Buddhism. Taoism was practised in China before Buddhism, and many Taoists were great martial artists, but their martial arts were individual in nature, and not of any institionalized styles. The earliest Taoist martial art style extant today is Wudang Kungfu, developed by Zhang San Feng from Shaolin Kungfu in the 13th century.

Some martial art styles like Huashan and Kunlun existed about the time of Shaolin, or they might even be before Shaolin, and they could be Taoist martial art styles. But they are now obsolete and are only mentioned in classical records.

Question 6

Also, can you tell me, is it true the Shaolin people were attacked and killed by a Chinese Emperor who lived at the temple, learmed their secrets, betrayed them, hired the Lamas from Tibet, using a weapon translated as 'bleeding front' (a trap like thrown weapon with a rope) joined forces to destroy the Shaolin? If this is true, how is it that the Lamas, being Buddhist, could take part in such a plot?


Yes, it was true that the southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou was razed to the ground and many of its monks and secular disciples were killed by the Qing (Manchurian) army, helped by hired Lamas from Tibet. This expedition was ordered by the Manchurian emperor, Yong Cheng, who earlier infiltrated into the Shaolin Monastery to learn kungfu. One of the monks who escaped was the Venerable Jiang Nan, from whom my lineage derived.

Religion was never a issue in this razing of the Shaolin Monastery; it was solely political. The Shaolin Monastery had become a revolutionary center to overthrow the Manchurian government, and certainly no Manchurian emperor would tolerate this. The Lama kungfu experts came as mercenaries, not as missionaries.

The Lamas used a deadly flying weapon known as “Huit Tik Tze”, which may be translated literally as “blood drops machine” or figuratively as “bleeding front”. It was, as you have said, a razor-filled trap-like thrown weapon with a rope or chain which effectively decapitated an opponent's head. Exploiting Shaolin kungfu information provided by the emperor, the Lamas had practised with their secret weapons to perfection before their assault.

There was also the burning of another southern Shaolin Monastery. The Venerable Chee Seen, who escaped from the southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou, secretly rebuilded a smaller monastary at Jiulian Mountain. Many southern Shaolin heroes like Hoong Hei Khoon, Fong Sai Yoke and Luk Ah Choy who later spread Shaolin Kungfu to posterity, learned in this southern Shaolin Monastery at Juilian Mountain.

Betrayed by a disciple, Ma Ling Yi, this second southern Shaolin Monastery was also razed to the ground by the Qing army, led by the Taoist Priest Pak Mei, who was a Shaolin grandmaster and senior classmate of Chee Seen, but who sided with the Qing government. The site of this other southern Shaolin Monastery has not yet been found.

Question 7

Venerable Master Wong, in you I have found a wealth of knowledge I am fortunate enough to have you share with me. I have a few simple questions regarding the Shaolin. I possess several good written sources on the Shaolin, and thumbed through twice as many at stores. There are also the internet sources I have access to. All of them possess good information, but the type of information is very common to all of them, namely history, techniques and forms, and a few with the day to day syllabus of the monks.

— David, UK


Good books record the priceless teachings of great masters of the past. There are however three major problems.

One, such books were written in classical Chinese, a very concise language not easy for many people, including many modern Chinese, to understand. To compound this difficulty, the masters who wrote the books did not mean their writing to be understood by the general public; the books were meant for initiated disciples.

Two, kungfu and chi kung knowledge was often recorded in jargons. Take for example, the following explanation of an easy technique at the physical level — something that is common in many classical kungfu books: When an opponent uses “Chop the Hua Mountain”, respond with “Immortal Emerges from Cave”. If a reader does not know the two kungfu patterns, he would not know what the explanation is about.

Three, the books merely point the way; the exponent needs some background information as well as the required skills to travel the way. For example, in the simple application of the Immortal pattern against the Hua Mountain pattern above, even if a reader understands the patterns but if he does not have the required skill, the effect may be totally different. Indeed, many uninitiated persons applying the Immortal pattern against the Hua Mountain pattern are likely to have their own forearms fractured, whereas a skillful application of the pattern is meant to dislocate the opponent's elbow.

I would qualify the kungfu and chi kung information from the internet as well as from other sources. There is some useful information, but much of it — as some readers have aptly commented — is rubbish. Some information is factually wrong and some potentially harmful, such as saying that Shaolin Kungfu was practised for more than 4000 years, or suggesting that advanced arts like the micro-cosmic flow could be easily learnt from a book.

If there is any writing in your classical resources that you are unclear about, you can write to me.

Lifting the Sky

Eugene of USA practicing "Lifting the Sky", the first of the Eighteen Lohan Hands, during an Intensive Chi Kung Course in Malaysia

Question 8

However, one thing I have not found is diet. This is my first question. What do the Shaolin monks eat?


I do not know what modern Shaolin monks eat, but traditional Shaolin monks in the past were strict vegetarians. Not only they could not eat fish (which is considered as meat), they could not eat spicy vegetables like garlics and onions for they stimulate the emotion. Drinking liquor was strictly out, as clearly stated in one of the five fundamental precepts.

It is shallow thinking if one regards the strict monastic rules, which Shaolin as well as other Mahayana Buddhist monks have to follow, as prohibitive. The rules were made by the Buddha to help monks attain the highest spiritual fulfilment. One chose on his own free will to be a monk; if at any time he found himself inadequate to the task, he could leave monkhood.

Question 9

I read about the “Changes of the Sixth Ancestor” in your book, but I'm not entirely sure if that's what they eat today. Are they vegetarians? If not, what do they eat?


I reckon that by the “changes of the Sixth Ancestor” you meant before the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, the Zen patriarchs chose their own successors, but since the Sixth Patrirch this choosing of succeeding patriarchs discontinued as Zen masters allowed their disciples to spread Zen freely.

You may also like to know that the first three Zen patriarchs taught at the Shaolin Monastery, the fourth and fifth patriarchs at Dongshan Temple, and the Sixth Patriarch at Baolin Temple.

There has been no change in the diet of Shaolin monks, or other Zen monks and other Mahayana monks. Their diet has been strictly vegetarian right to today. Any modern Shaolin monks or Mahayana monks who eat hamburgers or drink liqour would be in suspect.

Question 10

My instructor told me he was a vegetarian for about a month, but he went back to eating meat because in teaching martial arts 6 days a week for 9 hours a day the regimen was just too demanding to be done without eating meat. I don't eat meat, but I get a good dose of protein every day, and more on training days.


It is a common misconception among many people that eating meat is necessary for providing the energy needed in vigorous kungfu. In fact the reverse is more probably true. Traditional Shaolin monks were strict vegetarians, and there was no doubt that they were tremendously powerful. Why? Where did they get their tremendous energy? About 80% was from “heaven chi”, i.e. from the cosmos, and 20% from “grain chi”, i.e. their vegetarian diet.

A meat eater might get more energy from his “grain chi”, but as toxic waste from meat is more than that from vegetables, and as toxic waste clogs meridians along which “heaven chi” flows, his net energy gain will be less than that of a vegetarian, if both practise genuine kungfu, which includes chi kung, i.e. the art of energy management.

You may be interested to know that years ago, I purposely did not take solid food for 20 days. During that time, not only my weight remained constant and I did not feel hungry, I was actually more fresh mentally and had more energy. I could comfortably continue vigorous sparring sessions with my kungfu students.

Unlike in most other martial arts and in kungfu dance, where you have less energy at the end of a training session, in genuine kungfu, you have more energy than when you started. This is because energy management is a crucial aspect of genuine kungfu.

For example, you may have read from your classical kungfu literature that when a kungfu exponent executes a strike, he “sinks” his chi to his dan tian. One reason is to implement the principle: “hei tzung dan tien fatt” (in Cantonese), which means “internal force is generated from the abdominal energy field”. Another reason is to store some energy in the abdominal energy field while striking. Hence, while in most other martial arts and in kungfu dance, an exponent uses up his energy, in genuine kungfu he increases his energy!

Question 11

I might still eat meat today if it was only meat. Now they have growth hormones and red dyes and the like in the marketed meats.


While health is often the reason why many Westerners become vegetarian, the main reason why Shaolin and other Mahayana Buddhist monks do not eat meat is to further the Buddha's teaching of non-killing. The Buddha did not specifically ask his followers to be vegetarian. Hence monks of the other two Buddhist traditions, namely Theravada and Vajrayana, may eat meat.



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