image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The historicity of many aspects of the famous Shaolin Temple* of China can be, and has been, a subject for study and debate.
As with many such debates, particularly those in which deep reverence or personal beliefs are involved, examination of this subject can sometimes become contentious.
Without entering directly into the "deep water" of such disputes or debates, we can at least agree that the tradition of the Shaolin Temple is itself indisputably connected with two very important traditions: Ch'an Buddhism (which is often spelled Chan Buddhism, and which is the direct predecessor of Zen Buddhism in Japan), and the martial arts.
Previous posts have explored the importance of the connection between these two, in that training in the use of force can cause us to fall into the error of "turning a person into a thing" (in the words of Simone Weil in her famous 1940 essay on The Iliad: or the Poem of Force), but meditation upon the spiritual content and value of every being we encounter and cultivation of the attitude of blessing others and wishing to see their spirit elevated has the exact opposite tendency and acts as a counterbalance, with the goal that what could be misused to "lower spiritual awareness in one's self and in others" (as engaging in the use of force in ways that violate the rights of others will inevitably do) is instead transformed into a practice which "elevates spiritual awareness in one's self and in others" (by reducing the practitioner's need to use force inappropriately, while enabling him or her to use force to protect one's self or others if necessary and thus prevent violence).
Through this focus on spirit and blessing, the martial arts are (ideally) transformed into a spiritually uplifting discipline analogous to yoga and other practices designed to elevate spiritual awareness and bless and regenerate the world.
I would argue that the emphasis on the invisible world of spirit is coded into the traditions of Shaolin Temple through references to the celestial realm, used throughout the world to convey deep teachings regarding the spiritual component of human existence and of the universe in which we live, and their dual material and spiritual composition.
For example, precessional numbers such as 72 and 108 are deeply embedded in numerous Chinese martial arts, and in the traditions of the Shaolin Temple. For example, Shi Yan Ming -- who grew up in the Shaolin lineage -- has written about the fact that the Shaolin Temple traditionally contained 72 rooms or chambers. Other traditions assert that in order to graduate as a Shaolin monk, a candidate had to pass through an elaborate hall containing 108 mechanical dummies which would each launch a different unexpected attack upon the candidate at a different point on the journey down the hall.
Some might argue that the incorporation of these numbers, 72 and 108, do not necessarily indicate an esoteric celestial aspect to these traditions. They might argue that, although these same numbers are found in the sacred texts and rituals of India, or in the dimensions of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt and in Egyptian myth, or in the Norse sagas, their presence in China could be attributed to mere coincidence, and that since those ancient cultures are separated by such vast distances, the use of 72 and 108 in China might be referring to something else entirely.
However, I believe there are additional very powerful reasons to believe that the very same celestial codes operating in the myths and traditions of cultures such as ancient Egypt or ancient India (or across the oceans in the dimensions of the monuments in Central and South America) can be shown to be operating in the esoteric traditions of Chan Buddhism as well, and that the conclusion that these numbers are a celestial and hence a spiritual code is well-founded.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The ancient connection between Chan Buddhism and the practice of martial arts as a form of spiritual elevation and blessing can be traced directly back to the texts and traditions surrounding the figure of Bodhidharma, also called Da Mo in China, who according to tradition brought both to China.
Stories of the life of Da Mo can be found in early texts, most notably in the text known as the Ching-te Chuan Teng-lu (ways of spelling this text in English vary), or the "Transmission of the Lamp," which is itself a collection of various earlier traditions regarding Da Mo. The expression "Transmission of the Lamp" refers to the passing down of dharma or the ineffable teachings of Chan, which supposedly originated with Da Mo.
Da Mo is often said to have lived between AD 470 and AD 532 (or 528). The Chuan Teng-lu was collected later, around the year AD 1000. See for some discussion of the compilation of the Chuan Teng-lu page 155 in this text entitled Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts.
In the account of Da Mo given in the text itself (for instance, beginning on page 150 of this translation), we read the famous story of the transmission of the dharma from Da Mo to his first disciple, Shen Guang, in which Da Mo knelt motionless in meditation (in some accounts for nine full years), while Shen Guang stood guard over him in hopes of being noticed:
Staying at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song, there he sat in meditation facing a wall, a whole day in silence. People couldn't understand it so they called him 'the wall-gazing Brahmin'. At that time there was a monk named Shenguang who was deeply learned and had lived for a long time near Luoyang by the Rivers Yi and Luo. A scholar well read in many books, he could discourse eloquently on the Dark Learning. Sighing frequently, he would say, 'The teachings of Confucius and Laozi take rituals as the Practice and customs as the Rule, while in the books of Zhangzi and The Changes the wonderful principle is still inexhaustible. Now I have heard that a great master, Damo (Bodhidharma), is residing at Shaolin. I must pay a visit to this peerless sage living not so far distant.' Then he went, visiting morning and evening for instruction. Master Damo was always sitting in a dignified posture facing a wall and so Guang heard no teachings nor did he receive any encouragement. Then Guang thought to himself, 'Men of old, on searching the Way, broke their bones to extract the marrow, let their blood flow to help the starving, spread hairs on muddy roads [to allow people to pass], or jumped off cliffs to feed a tiger. In days of old it was still like this, now what kind of man am I?' 150.
Finally, after a great snow fell and Shen Guang still stood motionless guarding Da Mo, the master spoke to Shen Guang and asked what he wanted. In some versions of the story, Shen Guang hurls a large block of snow and ice into the cave or chamber in which Da Mo was meditating, in order to get his attention. In any case, Shen Guang finally pulls out his sword and cuts off his own left arm in order to demonstrate his tremendous devotion and desire to learn what Da Mo has to show him (in some versions, Da Mo says he will only teach Shen Guang when red snow begins to fall from the sky, and so Shen Guang waves his own severed arm around his head and Da Mo finally relents and decides to take on this devoted disciple, who afterwards took on the name Hui-k'o).
You can read some of the other aspects of this story, and the other adventures attributed to Da Mo and Shen Guang, in the account here on Shi Yan Ming's website, as well as in other texts in books or on the web, such as the version given in Thomas Hoover's 1980 book The Zen Experience, available on the web here through Project Gutenberg. See pages 28 and following of that online file.
Concerned readers can be comforted by the fact that I personally believe no arms were literally severed and waved around anyone's head in order to pass on the teachings of Chan Buddhism in the time of Da Mo and Shen Guang, but believe that this story -- like so many other sacred spiritual traditions around the globe -- can be convincingly demonstrated to be based squarely upon celestial metaphor, as are many of the other incidents and episodes in the traditional account of Da Mo.
The fact that this story is probably not literal is indicated by some of the other traditions surrounding the kneeling meditation of Da Mo, such as the detail that he remained in the kneeling meditation for nine full years without moving, facing the wall of the cave, until his image was actually transferred to the wall itself. Another aspect of the tradition (cited in Thomas Hoover's book above) states that when his eyelids became heavy and he felt he might be drifting off to sleep, Da Mo ripped off his own eyelids to continue his meditation. And another aspect of the story has him kneeling there so long that his legs actually fall off.
Clearly, these aspects of the story can probably not be taken literally, and I don't believe the severing of Shen Guang's arm should be, either.
In fact, I believe that familiarity with the constellations who take on similar roles in other myths and stories around the world will immediately suggest the probable celestial identities of both Da Mo (who kneels, meditating, endlessly until his very image or shadow is transferred to the cave wall) and Shen Guang (who stands silently guarding Da Mo, until at last in desperation he cuts off his own arm and waves it around to make the snow red and prove his devotion).
The diagram below shows the important constellation of Bootes, whom we have met in numerous other myths (see this index of stars and constellations and blog posts which discuss them). As you can see, the outline of Bootes resembles a kneeling figure -- and in fact the tiny "leg" which is drawn in this outline based on the system suggested by H.A. Rey is very faint, and the stars themselves could alternately be envisioned as a robed, kneeling figure with a bald head, as Da Mo is often drawn in art stretching back centuries.
Above the kneeling figure stands the vigilant figure of Shen Guang, played in this case by the celestial actor of the constellation Hercules, who appears to be brandishing an enormous sword, in his right hand (which is probably why it is his left arm that he cuts off in the story):
As for the bloody arm itself, I believe a good case can be made for the constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair, in the role of the bloody arm. It consists of a vertical line between its two brightest stars, and then a myriad of "droplets" fanning out from one end of the vertical line (this constellation is described on pages 36 and 37 of H. A. Rey's essential book on the stars and constellations, The Stars: A New Way to See Them). In this case, it appears that the bloody arm is being waved right in front of Da Mo, in order to really get his attention.
There are, in fact, many other clues in the traditions of Da Mo which indicate to me that the above interpretation is very likely the correct celestial origin of the Da Mo story. One of the most well-known and oft-depicted episodes in his life is Da Mo's famous crossing of a wide river upon a broken reed, which is given to him in most accounts by an old woman at the near side of the river before he ventures across on the unlikely reed.
As can be seen from the diagram above, the "bloody arm" in this case probably represents the broken reed in that aspect of Da Mo's mission, and the woman who provides the reed to him for this occasion is none other than Virgo, who can be seen with her arm outstretched, giving the reed to Bodhidharma for his crossing.
Another episode from the story of Da Mo and Shen Guang has the impertinent Shen Guang taking his won string of Buddhist beads from around his neck and flicking them at Da Mo, knocking out some of Da Mo's teeth in the process (the imperturbable Da Mo acts as though nothing untoward has happened, and walks away). In between Hercules and Bootes is the necklace-shaped constellation known as the Corona Borealis, or the Northern Crown. We saw that it almost certainly represents the gorgeous necklace of Freya in Norse myth, as well as a necklace in a famous Japanese myth about Amaterasu the sun goddess.
In the star chart above, the Northern Crown is outlined in purple, and marked as a "Sandal (?)." This is because there is yet another tradition about Da Mo, depicting him as carrying a staff over his shoulder with a single sandal hanging from one end of the staff. In The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, we read on page xiv:
In his Transmission of the Lamp, Tao-yuan says that soon after he had transmitted the patriarchship of his lineage to Hui-k'o [that is, Shen Guang], Bodhidharma died in 528 on the fifth day of the tenth month, poisoned by a jealous monk. Tao-hsuan's much earlier biography of Bodhidharma says only that he died on the banks of the Lo River and doesn't mention the date or cause of death. According to Tao-yuah, Bodhidharma's remains were interred near Loyang at Tinglin Temple on Bear Ear Mountain. Tao-yuan adds that three years later an official met Bodhidharma walking in the mountains of Central Asia. He was carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official he was going back to India. Reports of this meeting aroused the curiousity of other monks, who finally agreed to open Bodhidharma's tomb. But inside all they found was a single sandal, and ever since then Bodhidharma has been pictured carrying a staff from which hangs the missing sandal.
If you note from the above diagram that Bootes has a long "pipe" that he seems to be smoking, you can instead imaging this pipe as a staff, and if it continues over his shoulder, then it would be perfectly positioned to imaging that the semi-circular arc of the Northern Crown is the other shoe or sandal hanging from the staff. In fact, the depictions of Bodhidharma's staff often seem to have a "crook" or bent part at the end -- in other words, depicting the staff as shaped somewhat like the pipe of Bootes with its wide end (see here or here or here, for example, and older art depicting him often uses similar symbology).
So, I believe that the purple arc which functions as the Buddhist beads in the episode in which Shen Guang flicks beads at Da Mo may also function as the single shoe or slipper or sandal in the episode of Da Mo walking the hills with one shoe hanging from his staff after he was supposedly dead and buried.
All of this celestial metaphor within the story of Da Mo and the founding of Chan tradition and of the Shaolin Temple, I believe, serves as an esoteric pointer to the realm of the spiritual. The realm of the stars, for reasons discussed in other posts and in the book The Undying Stars, functions in myth around the world (including the stories in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible) as a pointer to the invisible world of spirit (just as this lower world of earth and water, into which the stars plunge as they sink down in the west, represents the realm of matter and incarnation).
I believe that this clear evidence of celestial metaphor also serves to validate the assertion that the celestial numbers 72 and 108 in many Chinese martial arts originally associated with the Shaolin Temple are serving a similar function (just as they do in so many other myths and sacred traditions around the globe).
And, finally, it points to a very important truth, which the ancient keepers of the traditions of both Chan Buddhism and the martial arts wished to impart to us: that while activities such as physical training and discipline and even the effective use of force may be a very important aspect of our time here in this physical realm of incarnation, we must not forget that we and everyone else we meet are also spiritual beings, and that ultimately our actions should serve to elevate the spiritual aspect of ourselves and others, rather than to put it down.
Ultimately, these arts are about recognizing who we are, in a world which often seems to do everything possible to keep us from remembering or recognizing the truth.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
* The characters usually translated "Shaolin" are
and mean "small forest."
In Mandarin this is xiăo lín and in Cantonese it is síu làhm both of which mean "small forest" (in that order).
You can see the characters in the image above (top), on the sign posted over the door, although they are written right to left, such that the symbol for "small" is on the right and "forest" is in the middle.
The symbol for "temple" (on the left as you look at the photo on the page) is: