Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen

Question 1

I'm writing in search of information on Zen. I've heard quite a lot of “information” about Zen just in passing conversation with people, but it's always unclear how accurate is that information. So, I thought it was time to ask the experts. I am seriously interested in regular practice of Zen, but don't know what I should be doing.

— Richard, United Kingdom


The term “Zen” has a few related meanings, namely

  1. meditation.
  2. a grimpse of cosmic reality.
  3. cosmic reality.

Zen is also often used as a short form for Zen Buddhism, a major school of Mahayana Buddhism. You will find much information on Zen, including advice on how you can practise Zen easily and effectively, if you refer to my webpage What is Zen.

Question 2

In truth, I've been searching for something to help bring my life into some kind of focus. Just a walk down the block, or a simple sunrise makes me ask all these crazy questions about life, my existence, my daily life, my outlook on life, and all kinds of other higher order questions to which I can't ever get the answers. I'm not looking for Zen to give me those answers, but the constant questioning leaves me all confused about just everything I do. The days, and life in general would just feel better if I had some focus.


Practising Zen not only give you focus, but may also give you the answers to all these questions. It will also give you mental freshness and clarity.

With Zen training, a walk down a block may make you be aware of every contact your feet make with the road; a simple sunrise may awaken in you the joy you had as a child playing in the open. If you are ready, a simple incident, such as the feeling of a grain of sand under your shoe or the reflect of the sunlight on a blade of grass, may suddenly give you a glimpse of the cosmos and reveal to you intuitively the answers to all the questions you have been asking.

Of course, here I am talking about real Zen training, not just sitting cross-legged but with thousands of thoughts troubling your mind, or listening to a Zen scholar telling you Zen koans which nobody understands.

Question 3

I'm also interested in Kung Fu. I've begun to realize that I can't just be mentally at peace unless I'm physically at peace too. I mean, if I can focus well enough to do some of the amazing forms of Kung Fu, then simple obstacles in life would be trivial to tackle. Maybe you have books I should read?


You are right. Good kungfu is not just a system of self-defence, but also a programme for cultivating physical and mental peace, including focus to perform better anything you may be doing. The greatest kungfu, like Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan, leads to the highest spiritual attainment. But you must practise real kungfu, not demonstrative gymnastics.

Read my books, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu” and “The Complete Book of Zen”. You can read readers' reviews on these books if you click on them on my home page.

Question 4

I have a 14 year old son who is seeking religion and is keen to find out more about Buddhism. He has asked me to expose him to the Buddhist teachings. I would be most obliged if you could recommend or direct me to any place in KL where my son and I can receive Zen Buddhist teachings in English, if you know of such a place.

— Yoke Kong, Malaysia


I do not know of any places in KL where Zen teaching is given in English. The Buddhist Association in Brickfields gives Theravada Buddhist teaching. Nevertheless, it may be a better idea if you and your son practise, rather than study, the Buddha's teaching. The gist of the Buddha's teaching, given in his own words, are

  1. Avoid all evil.
  2. Do good.
  3. Cultivate the mind.

Mind cultivation can be practised in many ways. One of the best ways, which is highly recommended in Zen Buddhism, is to be aware of the present moment. Another excellent way, which is practised in all schools of Buddhism, is to spend a few minutes a day in meditation.

There are many methods of meditation. A good approach for you and your son is to sit comfortably upright and still and close the eyes for a few minutes every day thinking of nothing. The method appears so simple, but if you, or anybody, do it daily for a year, you and other people will be amazed at the benefits.

Question 5

Honorable Sifu Wong, is it possible for you to heal tinitus, a ringing in both of my ear drums due to overexposure to loud music during my misguided adolescence?

— Richard, USA


It is possible, but it may take quite some time, say, a year. This is because, from the point of health-care, ringing sound in the ears, while a nuisance, is not a thread to life, and the effects you have acquired from your chi kung practice will go towards solving other more urgent problems which you yourself may not be aware of.

Shaolin Kungfu

All great kungfu, like Shaolin and Taijiquan, trains not just the body but also the mind

Question 6

I would like to attend one of your intensive courses, in which I should like to learn chi gung exercises, zen meditation technique, and proper tai chi chuan.

I haven't studied much of the tai chi chuan or any of the other methods listed above, however I believe it is preferable to learn proper technique and ideas in combat before returning to the U.S. to learn an entire style from somebody who is most likely a competent dance instructor.

If you feel that I should learn tai chi form first, I will come only to learn chi gung and meditation, and at a later date return for more instruction.


I have intensive courses for chi kung and tai chi chuan, but not meditation. Nevertheless, meditation is an integral part of both the chi kung and tai chi chuan courses.

It would be better for you to learn the chi kung course first. This course will improve your tai chi chuan even when you learn the forms from a dance instructor. Meditation is included in the chi kung course.

Learn tai chi forms before coming to me for my intensive tai chi chuan course. In this way you need not spend valuable time learning the tai chi forms with me, and instead spend the time for intenal force and combat application.

Question 7

I have interest for a long time in all of the things which you are master of, though I believed that true masters were probably long dead, or that possibly all of these amazing things, such as the potential for enlightenment which one reads about in all sorts of books, were hogwash. I consider myself fortunate to have found somebody who is willing to transmit directly true knowledge to those of us who seek it.


True masters still exists although they are now very rare. What the true masters have written in books, such as the potential for enlightenment, is true.

When you come for my chi kung course, you would have an opportunity to directly experience some of these amazing things, such as tapping energy from the cosmos and channelling the energy to cleanse your body. In fact, if you are not satisfied that you have attained these abilities in my course, you need not pay any fee.

Indeed, we are lucky to learn the genunine Shaolin arts. But what is more important is that after learning the techniques and skills, you have to practise them to be proficient.

Question 8

I was given an assignment for one of my classes to do some research on a topic involving “mind over matter” techniques. Given the art form of chi, zen, and other martial arts, I was wondering if you could shed some light on the subject with focus on the particular technique requirements for mind over the physical skills.

— Zach, USA


All real chi kung, Zen, Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan practice involve mind over not only matter but also energy. In other words, there is no need to search for particular techniques in these disciplines to train the ability of mind over matter, because every technique, if done properly as it has been done by masters, requires mind over energy and matter.

A few examples may make this statement clearer. When a real chi kung practitioner (not a chi kung dancer) practises “Lifting the Sky”, his mind directs vital energy down his body as he uses his arm movement to facilate energy flow.

When a Zen monk (not someone who attends a Zen retreat and hopes to be enlightened in one weekend) walks round his temple square in his walking meditation, his mind is acutely aware of his every movement.

When a Shaolin master (not an instructor of Shaolin gymnastics) executes a palm strike, his mind channels his internal force from his abdominal dan tian (or energy field) to his palm.

When a Taijiquan master (not a player of Taiji choreography) performs any Taijiquan movement, his mind channels energy to his movement. As a result of such practice, the mind of a chi kung, Zen, Shaolin or Taijiquan master is well trained and one-pointed.

Question 9

Forgive my lack of knowledge, but to state it plainly, I'm interested in gaining an understanding of the process by which one trains the mind to, for example, lie on a bed of nails or have cement blocks broken over his body. The research I am involved in has to do with the focus of the mind and the ability to do such feats that are seemingly impossible. Any insight in the process of learning such skills or even a few statements of one's personal training process would help.


The basic requirement of mind training is that the student must be relaxed and free from irrelevant thoughts. Hence, someone who is tensed or easily distracted cannot progress far in chi kung, Zen, Shaolin Kungfu or Taijiquan. One good way to attain this required mental state — known in traditional terminology as “entering silence” — is to gently focus on your breathing or on what you are presently doing.

It is not the technique but the skill that is important in mind training. In other words, it is not what you do, but how you do it. Hence, depending on how you practise, the same outward movement of any technique or a series of techniques, such as the Taijiquan pattern called “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” or any Shaolin kungfu set, can become a mere dance, or a way of mind and energy management. If you wish to learn mind and energy management, it is obvious that you should learn from a master who himself has this ability. Learning from books or videos may bring adversed effects; learning from instructors who themselves cannot manage mind and energy, almost always result in an outward dance.

Lying on a bed of nails and having a cement block smashed over your body is not a manifesttion of mind over matter. It is a stuntman's show. Any able-bodied person, without any special training, can lie without harm on a bed of nails. With some practice, which has nothing to do with genuine chi kung, Zen, Shaolin Kungfu or Taijiquan, a hefty person can use a sledge-hammer to break a cement block without hurting the person who supports the block below. It is analogious to holding a brick in your palm and breaking the brick with a hammer; your palm will not be hurt. If you have the necessary apparatus, you can easily test out what I have said; but as a courtesy to stuntmen, many of whom earn their livlihood from their performance, please do not disclose their tricks indiscriminatingly.

In my own experience, training of mind and energy were among the first things I learned in kungfu. When I first learned Shaolin Kungfu from Uncle Righteousness, he taught me the Horse-Riding Stance, whereby I had to put my mind at my abdomen and remained at the stance as long as I could stand. I did this for a few months. In this way I learned to focus both my mind and my energy. When I learned from Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, he taught me “Lifting the Sky” whereby I had to put my mind into my movement. In this way I attained a one-pointed mind.

Question 10

I have practiced Tae Kwan Do for about five years, this Martial Art easily being one of the most popular for the United States. However, I always thought something was wrong or lacking in the 'sport'.

— Shaun, USA


You are right in saying that something is lacking in Tae Kwan Do. The health and spiritual dimensions that are found in genuine Shaolin Kungfu are not found in Tae Kwan Do. In my opinion, Tae Kwan Do training causes much internal and psychological injury, and there is nothing spiritual about it.

Question 11

Sure, there was definite emphasis on techniques and competitions, but the self-defense techniques always were blocking head-on, with just as much force. I always wondered why the blocks did not deflect the blow or at least redirect the energy. For example, if I was up against another opponent who was twice my size and blocked a kick with a low block (striking his shin with my forearm in a downward motion), my arm would tingle from the blow.


You are right in your observation. Many Taekwondo and Karate exponents, including women, boast that they would meet force with an equal or a greater amount of force, no matter who their opponent is. From the Shaolin perspective, this is both unwise and unnecessary. Especially for women, why waste extra force when just a little force is needed to effectively neutralize or subdue an opponent? If a giant punches at you, for example, and if you only reach his shoulder, don't block the punch. Side step and kick hard at his knee or shin.

Blocking an opponent's kick with your forearm is a technically inferior move. Here you are using your weak point against the opponent's strong point. A better alternative will be just slightly shift your body backward to avoid the full force of the kick instead of blocking it with your forearm, and when his kick is at its full, but without reaching you as you have moved backward, slash down at his calve with your palm chop (or “knife-hand”). In this way you will avoid his full force with your minimum force, and strike his week point with your strong point.

Shaolin and Taijiquan

Even the combat applications of Shaolin and Taijiquan contribute to spiritual development. A Shaolin or a Taijiquan master, for example, would avoid seriosly huring an opponent if he can, he would, like the picture above, just fell an opponent onto the ground or subdue him without serious injury.

Question 12

Anyway, to make a long story short, I have been looking into to other schools and finally decided to research Kung Fu. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no schools close to my location, short of an hour and a half away. I am 16 years old and can't drive, and would not trouble my parents with such a tiresome drive. They are too busy, and the commute would be a pain for them.


Finding schools that teach kungfu gymnastics may be easy, but finding a school that teaches real kungfu is extremely difficult anywhere in the world.

If you find it too troublesome to travel an hour and a half to learn real kungfu, you may forget about learning it, and settle for kungfu dance. Many students fly more than 10,000 miles to learn from me.

Question 13

I purchased your book, and have been practicing the exercises and stances that you stress are important for anyone in Kung Fu. I am confused about some of the moves though. Is the horseriding stance the same as horse stance in Karate? How far apart should my legs be?

I have been practicing this technique daily, and can hold it for 2 and 1/2 minutes now (still far from the goal of 5). I also do not understand 2 of the leg-stretching exercises, the Dancing Crane and Three Levels to Earth.


If you want to learn real kungfu, you must learn it from a master — if you are lucky enough to find one to teach you. The external forms, such as those found in the stances and leg-stretching exercises, are the least important aspects in real kungfu, and are also the easiest to learn.

This does not mean the stances and the leg-stretching exercises themselves are not important; they develop invaluable “force”. If you find difficulty in learning external forms, it will be many times more difficult learning mind and energy, which are the more important aspects of real kungfu.

Question 14

Since it will probably be some years before I can join a school of Kung Fu, I was wondering if you have any advice for me in training while I wait. I am learning Kung Fu as best as I can, so any advice you can offer would be most welcome.


My advice is as follows. Differentiate between real kungfu and kungfu dance or gymnastics. Spend some time searching for a master and learn from him if you really want the benefits of kungfu. But you must be ready to put in a lot of time and effort.

Question 15

I read with interest your statements about Tai Chi Chuan. You are quite correct in stating that in the West, Tai Chi is often not taught in its martial arts application. However I'm not certain why a person would need to study martial arts in order to reap the spiritual benefits of the practice. Could you make this clearer to me?

— Dr Traver, USA


Not only in the West but also in the East, Tai Chi is almost always taught without its martial application.

I am not sure whether you mean why any person would need to study the martial aspects of martial arts to reap the spiritual benefits of the martial arts, or why any person would need to study martial arts to reap any spiritual benefits in general. I shall answer both questions.

Not all martial arts give spiritual benefits; in fact, most don't. Personally, I do not see much spiritual benefit in such martial arts like Taekwondo, Karate, Kickboxing, Western Boxing, Judo, Wing Choon Kungfu and Choy-Li-Futt Kungfu. This is, of course, my personal opinion, and many other people would disagree with me.

Please also do not mis-understand me, thinking that I belittle these arts. In fact, I have great respect for Wing Choon Kungfu and Choy-Li-Futt Kungfu, and I believe they are great martial arts. They do not give much spiritual benefit because their inventors and early masters did not mean to use them for spiritual cultivation.

The two most outstanding martial arts whcih give much spiritual benefit, if they are practised the way their masters practise them, are Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan. If we look at their histories, we shall find that they were originally developed not for fighting, not for health, but for spiritual cultivation. Bodhidharma taught the Eighteen Lohan Hands, whcih later developed into Shaolin Kungfu, to aid Shaolin monks in their spiritual meditation. Zhang San Feng invented Wudang Thirty Two Patterns Long Fist, which later developed into Taijiquan, to help Taoist priests in their quest for immortality.

If you want the spiritual benefits of these arts, you must practise them as they are, ie. martial arts. The logic becomes obvious if we remember that it was precisely for spiritual cultivation that these martial arts became what they are.

If you practise them otherwise, such as practising Shaolin Kungfu as gymnastics or Taijiquan as dance, you will get the physical benefits of gymnastics and dance, like muscular strength and graceful movement. It is in the training of energy and mind, for which Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan as martial arts are famous, that leads to spiritual benefits. What we call "mind" here is referred to in Chinese as “xin” in Shaolin, and as “shen” in Taijiquan. “Xin” and “shen” are what Westerners would refer to as “soul” or “spirit”.

Even the external forms of combat application in Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan lead to spiritual benefits. The Buddhist monks who played a major role in the development of Shaolin Kungfu were noted for their compassion, and compassion is significantly reflected in Shaolin combat application.

A Shaolin master, for example, would not jab his fingers into the opponent's eyes or thrust a kick into the opponent's head, but instead subdue the opponent with techniques like “qin-na” which do not cause irreversible serious injury.

The combat movements of a Taijiquan master flow with those of the opponent, whcih means that the master has to be calm and relaxed in order to use the flowing movements effectively. Brutal intentions or aggressive actions, which are alien to spiritual cultivation but are not uncommon in some other martial arts, will interrupt both the mental rhythm and the physical momentum of the flowing movements.

It is not necessary to practise martial arts to derive spiritual benefits, but practising great martial arts like Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan is excellent for this purpose.

For effective spiritual cultivation, an aspirant must be physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually ready. If a person is frequently in pain, easily angry, dull in his thinking, or depressed in spirit, it is difficult for him to progress spiritually.

Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan are excellent programmes for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development; those well trained in these arts are physically fit, emotionally calm, mentally fresh and cheerful in spirit.


January to June 1999

Courses and Classes