Main Gate to the Taoist Purple-Summit Temple at Wudang Mountain where Wudang Kungfu developed

Question 1

What can be done for a master who's lost his way? I will not mention his name as it might seem a lack of respect on my part, but he is a Shaolin grandmaster who seems intent on hurting people who love him, with lies and hurtful words, and gathering financial and public reward.

After what I've been through this past year I am ready to give up, but if there is anything I can do, I am willing. I am not putting my city down here because it might help identify him and I don't want him shamed in any way.

— Sky, country withheld


The best thing that can happen to him to help him find back his way is to enable him to realize that Shaolin Kungfu is a means to spiritual cultivation. Not many masters, unfortunately, realize this. I am here using the term “master” to refer to someone who is an expert in his art (as he interprets it), and in this case an expert in using Shaolin Kungfu for fighting. It is of course legitimate to argue that this definition of a master may be invalid, because this “expert” does not have a complete understanding of his art.

It is pertinent to mention that my saying Shaolin Kungfu is a means to spiritual cultivation, is not a matter of opinion. It is a historical fact that when Bodhidharma taught the Eighteen Lohan Hands which later developed into Shaolin Kungfu, his aim was to help the Shaolin monks in their spiritual cultivation.

It is also a historical fact that the greatest Shaolin masters were highly spiritual, and they attained their spirituality not through scripture studies but through kungfu training which includes chi kung and Zen. If one examines the philosophy of Shaolin Kungfu, he will find that the highest aim is spiritual, often concisely expressed in the Chinese phrase “xiu xin yang xing”, which means “cultivating the heart to nourish the Buddha nature”.

If he examines the practice of Shaolin Kungfu, he will find that the highest skill and technique is meditation, which is the essential path to the greatest spiritual atainment. The most typical image of a great Shaolin master is not dipicting him in a gruesome fight but dipicting him in serene meditation.

A practical question is how would you help that master in this direction. Here are some suggestions. Ask him politely, as a student would ask his master, whether it is true that Shaolin Kungfu is a means to spiritual cultivation. If his answer is yes, ask him to elaborate. If his answer is no, tell him my views and ask him to comment. Whatever he says, do not argue with him. Your purpose is not to show him how smart you are, but to tactfully expose him to the spiritual aspect of Shaolin Kungfu.

Another effective way is to give him as a present a book with information on Shaolin spirituality. Without being presumptuous, my book “The Complete Book of Zen” is a good choice. Ask him whether he could explain the spiritual aspect to you.

One should also note that spiritual cultivation can, and should, be attempted at the level approritate to the cultivator's developmental stage. For the master you mentioned, he should forget for the time being such questions as what God or Buddha is, or how to go to heaven, but focus on seeking peace with himself and with others. Finding peace is an intrinsic process; it comes from within. One effective way he can find peace is to remain at standing meditation for a few minutes each time after performing his external kungfu movements.

Question 2

You mentioned on your site that there is no equal to Shaolin arts!

— Michael, USA


Please refer to Why Shaolin Kungfu is the greatest martial art for my justification for the claim. Shaolin Kungfu is not only the most extensive and profound, and has produced the biggest numbers of generals and masters, but also leads to the highest attainment anyone can ever achieve.

Question 3

But what about Taoist temples? Although I am not a Taoist, nor have I studied Taoist systems, but from what I do know, Taoist temples are older than Shaolin itself, and Taoist styles already existed when the first Shaolin temple was created!


Taoism existed long before the Shaolin Monastery was built in 495 CBE. Shaolin Kungfu developed only after the great Bodhidharma taught in the Shaolin Monastery from 527 BCE. The early Taoists masters did not cultivate in temples but wandered about and sometimes taught in schools like Socrates and Plato did.

Organized Taoism, with large number of followers gathering around Taoist temples, florished in the 2nd century CBE. The two earliest schools were Tai Ping Tao and Tian Shi Tao, which means the Eternal Peace School of Taoism and the Heavenly Master School of Taoism. Their followere were trained in martial arts, not for sport but for the serious business of defence, for they formed their own armies claiming autonomy from the then Han government.

Even Taoist masters who were not keen in politics and dedicated themselves to spiritual cultivation were martial art experts. For example, Ke Hong, the famous Taoist master of the Han Dynasty, was well known for both armed and unarmed combat, and Lu Dong Ping, who became a Taoist saint, was a master swordsman.

But Taoist martial arts at this time were not institionalized, i.e. they were not taught as distinctive schools of martial arts. The first time martial art anywhere in the world was institiutionalized was at the Shaolin Monastery. In other words, before Shaolin Kungfu, there were no martial arts anywhere in the world being taught with a distinctive name, such as Praying Mantis Kungfu, Chen Style Taijiquan, Shotkan Karate or Budokan Judo; martial arts were being taught as martial arts with no specific names.

The first time Taoist martial arts were institutionalized was at the Wudang (pronounced as “wu-t'ang”) Mountains, by Zhang San Feng, who is accordingly regarded as the First Patriarch of Taoist martial arts, and who lived in the 15th century CBE, about 1000 years after Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Shaolin Kungfu.

Question 4

You mentioned some Shaolin heroes. What about the great General Huang Ti, who is thought to have created WuSu?


“Huang Ti” means emperor. I reckon you mean Shi Hwang Ti, the great, first emperor who united China for the first time and established the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BCE. Shi Hwang Ti introduced the sports of shoupo and juedi, which were probably the earlest boxing and wrestling matches in the world. Shi Hwang Ti was neither a Taoist nor a Buddhist, and practised neither Shaolin Kungfu nor Wudang Kungfu, which were both non-existent at that time.

By “WuSu” I reckon you mean “wushu”, which is the current official Chinese term for martial arts. Throughout their long history, the Chinese have used more than 40 terms to refer to martial arts. The term “kungfu” is actually colloquial, and is used mainly by Westerners.

Wushu already existed before Shi Hwang Ti. Nobody invented wushu; it is a generic term for any arts of fighting. The Chinese government today, for some good reasons, promotes wushu as a sport. Hence, many people in the West, not knowing the intricacies of Chinese terms, often associate wushu as a demonstrative rather than a combative art.


Why is Shaolin Kungfu the greatest martial art?

Question 5

What is the difference between Taoist and Buddhist philosophy?


It is like asking what is the difference between Christian and Muslim philosophy. Depending on numerous variables, there are many ways to answer your questions, and each way is “correct” in its own right.

One may, for example, say that there is no difference between Taoist and Buddhist philosophy because both explain ultimate reality (and Taoist and Buddhist practices show the way to ultimate reality). Another may say that Taoist and Buddhist philosophy are totally different: one talks about yin-yang and bagua, the other about noble truths and karma.

Nevertheless, in a nutshell, your question may be answered as follows. Taoist philosphy explains how a follower may become a saint in heaven, or at the highest level be united with the cosmos. In seeking the Tao or spiriutal fulfilment, he should realize that reality is manifested in two complimentary yet opposing dimensions, and that the cosmos can be symbolized by eight archetypical categories of characteristics.

On the other hand, Buddhist philosophy explains that the phenomenal world we see is actually a creation of mind, and that ultiamte reality is devoid of appearances. How reality appears to us is influenced by various conditions, and the ultimate aim is to break down these conditions and actualize cosmic reality.

Question 6

You mentioned that Shaolin has spread its styles all over the world. So have the Taoist styles! Look at Wing Chun (a style that was created outside of Shaolin before it joined its ranks among the masters), Wusu, Eagle Claws, among others, which are Taoist styles.


All the styles you have mentioned — Wing Chun, Wuzu and Eagle Claw — are Shaolin styles. Some other examples, amongst many others, are Lohan, Praying Mantis, Black Tiger, White Crane, Choy-Li-Fatt, Hoong Ka, Lau Ka, Mok Ka, Chow Ka, Huaquan, Chaquan, Hongquan, Tai Shein Mun, You Kung Mun and Fan Tzi Mun.

Famous Taoist styles are Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Drunken Style. Xingyiquan, or Hsing Yi Kungfu, which is generally clasified as an internal kungfu style and hence is often mistaken to be a Taoist martial art like Taijiquan and Baguazhang, is derived from Shaolin. Even Taijiquan and Baguazhang, the most typical of the Taoist martial arts, were developed from Shaolin.

Question 7

You are right about Gungfu styles being able to be used for combat. Most styles are combative to begin with! It is just that the teachers don't teach it that way! Especially in the United States!


If an art cannot be used for combat, it cannot be called kungfu. It is not just in the United States; it is everywhere. It is a fact, though many people may not realze it, that real kungfu teachers are very, very rare. If you, for example, can imagine yourself to know a lot about Taoist and Buddhist martial arts by merely reading some literature on them, it is no surprise that “kungfu” has become so debased.


Taijiquan is a famous example of a Taoist art

Question 8

Could you please direct me in the right direction to get to facts on the original Shaolin history with Bodadahrma and the Shaolin monks in the Hau-naun province in the Sau-shaun mountains of Northern China over 3400 years ago?

— Ed, USA


The best place to get the facts is at the Shaolin Monastery itself where its long history has been recorded in its Monastery Histories and kept in the monastery library. However, I am not sure whether these original Monastery Histories were destroyed in the last great fire set by a warlord attacking a rival warlord who took refuge in the monastery during the Kuomintang period about a hundred years ago. This is the northern Shaolin Monastery situated at the Shaosi Range of the Song Mountain in Henan (pronounced like “Her-nan”) Province. The northern Shaolin Monastery was rebuilt by the present Chinese government about 30 years ago.

There was another southern Shaolin Monastery situated at Quanzhow in Fujian Province. This southern Shaolin Monastery was built by a Ming emperor following the tradition of the northern Shaolin Monastery. The southern Shaolin Monastery, which was much smaller than the northern counterpart, was razed to the ground by the Qing army about a hundred and fifty years ago. My great-grandmaster (i.e. the master of my master's master), the Venerable Jiang Nan, was one of the few monks who escaped. He passed the Shaolin arts to Yang Fa Khun, who passed them to Ho Fatt Nam, who in turn passed them to me. The present Chinese government has uncovered the site of this southern Shaolin Monastery, and has expressed the intention of rebuilding it.

The original Shaolin Monastery was built by a great Indian monk called Batuo under the imperial patronage of Emperor Xiao Wen Di at the beginning of the 5th century. This was about 1500 years ago, not 3400 years ago as you mentioned. The Shaolin Monastery was initially a Buddhist temple for the promotion of Hinayana Buddhism. About 150 years later in CE 527 the great Bodhidharma, a prince-turned-monk, came from India to teach Zen at the Shaolin Monastery. Since then the Shaolin Monastery has become the fountainhead of Zen Buddhism, which is a major school of Mahayana Buddhism.

Bodhidharma left behind as a legacy three great sets of exercise, namely Eighteen Lohan Hands, Sinew Metamorphosis and Marrow Cleansing. Eighteen Lohan Hands became the forerunner of Shaolin Kungfu, and Sinew Metamorphosis the forerunner of Shaolin Chi Kung. There has been no record inside and outside of the Shaolin Monastery of how Bone Marrow Cleansing was practised, but from indirect evidence I beleive that it was similar to advanced self-manifested chi movement with exphasis on cleansing the nervous system. “Bone Marrow” in Chinese medical terms is not just the bone marrow in Western terms, but figuratively refers to the nerves. The great Bodhidharma is honoured and worshipped as the First Patriarch of the Shaolin arts, as well as of Zen Buddhism.

Question 9

I am very interested in learning Shaolin Kungfu (particularly Northern Shaolin Kungfu, Hsing I Chuan, and Chi Kung).

— Victore, USA


Hsing I Chuan (or Xingyiquan) is a different school of kungfu from Shaolin Kungfu — in a same way as Canada is a different nation from USA.

While there is much chi kung in genuine Shaolin Kungfu, chi kung and kungfu are different disciplines, in a same way as while there is much running in football, running and football are different sports.

Please refer to my webpages Various Styles of Kungfu and Chi Kung: the Art of Developing Vital Energy.

Question 10

Unfortunately, the nearest kwoon is a two hours' drive away, in Charlotte, NC USA. Being an adult, and consequently working for a living, it is not practical for me to attend classes there.


If you are dedicated enough, you would be very fortunate to find a good kwoon or school two days' drive away. Being an adult and having a paying job are practical means to enable you to attend classes.

If you are not ready to make some sacrifice, you may forget about learning genuine kungfu, and perhaps go for kungfu dance. I am sorry I can't help you much regarding kungfu dance, but you shouldn't have much difficulty finding a kungfu dancing school.

Question 11

Do you know of any multimedia/video instruction courses which would be able to relay a decent foundation in the aforementioned styles. I am interested in the Internal (Chi building) as well as the External sides of the Art. To paraphrase: I feel that practicing one without the other would lead to an imbalanced, incomplete knowledge of Kungfu.


I have mentioned many times in my question-answer series that unless that person is already familiar with kungfu or chi kung, learning from a multimedia or video instruction course will only enable him or her to become a kungfu or chi kung dancer.

Learning the external forms correctly from a multimedia source is difficult enough, yet you are talking about learning the internal essence — which shows clearly that your knowledge of kungfu and chi kung is not only imbalanced and incomplete, but totally mis-informed.

Don't feel bad about my comment; your case is actually typical of many people. Kungfu (especially Taijiquan) and chi kung have been so badly debased that today mistaking their appearances to be the real stuff is the norm.

Question 12

I have read that White Tiger (Snow Tiger) is a “forbidden style”. Is this true? If so, why would this be? I am curious because the article I read did not go into any details whatever.


I am sorry I do not know about White Tiger or Snow Tiger, and hence do not know whether it is a “forbidden style”. I also do not understand what do you mean by “forbidden style”.

But if we take a “forbidden style” to mean a style of kungfu that is taught only to certain selected people, and other people are forbidden to learn it, the obvious reason why this is so is because the practitioners want to keep their kungfu secretive and exclusive, probably due to the deadliness or arcane nature of the style. The practitioners have every right to do so; it is naive to think that just because you want to learn their art, they must teach you.

In a way, all genuine kungfu is “forbidden”; students must prove themselves worthy to learn it. Unlike kungfu dance instructors, genuine kungfu masters are generally not keen to teach students.


January to June 1999

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