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Murals of martial arts at the Shaolin Temple depicting a dark-skinned Indian (possibly Bodhidharma).

Indian Influence on Yue Chia

The dhayana master Bodhidharma, who transmitted Ch'an Buddhism to China and was China's first Buddhist patriarch, also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks and nuns. This physical training led to the formation of Shaolin martial arts or Shaolin quan (少林拳; Shàolín quán), including the Northern Shaolin style of Yuejiaquan (岳家拳, literally Yue Family Fist, alternately Yue Ch'uan). This style of Yue Chia developed from the first Shaolin temple founded by Buddhabhadra in Henan province during the 5th century AD, distinct from the style created by Yue Fei, a Song dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng cháo; 960–1279) era general.

Bodhidharma was born the son of a Brahmin (priest class) king and a member of the Kshatriya caste (ruling and military class). The Kshatriya developed an effective form of hand-to-hand combat that incorporated hand strikes, throws, wrestling, and tactics of movement and evasion. Kshatriya warriors also practiced mental techniques for enhancing concentration and unlocking higher states of consciousness. This mind-body practice synchronized a practitioner’s mind, body, and spirit. It was called Vajramukti yoga (Sanskrit: वज्रमुक्ति; Traditional Chinese: 霹靂解放; pinyin: Pīlì Jiěfàng), a title meaning "Clasped Hand of the Thunderbolt" (Traditional Chinese: 清康川; pinyin: Qīngkāng chuān; Ching Kang Chuan) or "Liberating Thunderbolt" (Traditional Chinese: 清康傑; pinyin: Qīngkāng jié; Ching Kang Chieh).

The term Vajramukti has several possible derivations. One origin refers to the use of the hands in a hammer-like manner akin to the use of the vajra maces of traditional Indian warfare. Alternately, the word vajra referred to the thunderbolt, the weapon of the deity Indra and suggested the speed, power, and divine-like origin of the practice.

Vajramukti was practiced through regular physical training sessions that employed sequences of attack and defense called in Sanskrit nata (Chinese: hsing; Japanese: kata) or forms. The Kshatriya practiced both armed and unarmed forms of nata. Over time, the possible and useful combinations of attack and defense were preserved and passed down to the Kshatriya by their acaryas (masters).

All Kshatriya were of royal status, their practice and trainings (Pratipatti and Siksa) of the Vajramukti and its nata practices were called the "Lion's Play, Art, or Skill" (Simhavikridita). The Kshatriya warriors who employed these sequences were called Simhanata, "those who practice the lion's art movements." This was the origin of the sequences introduced into China that developed into the shortened "Lion Dance" of Chinese New Year festivals.

The Kshatriya kept their nata trainings to themselves, but many of their techniques were copied and adapted by the enlisted army. These adaptations led to the development of the "Striking Tiger" School, which mimicked the Kshatriya "Lion."

Tiger striking was practiced by both the Kshatriya and common soldier, though it is likely that it was first developed by Kshatriya doctors for first aid purposes. Like all medicine, though, it could cure or kill depending on how it was used.

The inner teachings of Vajramukti and its nata were kept highly secret and only taught to persons of high moral character (see Facebook and Google Plus) within the upper echelons of Indian Kshatriya society, passed orally from master (acarya) to disciple (sisya) over the generations.

Unlike the Chinese, to whom winning a battle was the prime goal, the Indians interwove life and death with spiritual destinies and maintained a very high degree of ethical conduct. To the ancient Kshatriya monarchs, how the battle was won, and the motives for waging it, were at least as important as winning. Ancient China had no equivalent attitudes. Its oldest book on warfare, "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, is a masterpiece of cunning, trickery, and strategic and tactical exploitation of an enemy.

Bodhidharma taught various Vajramukti health exercises and sequences of the Kshatriya nata to the Shaolin monks. He was moved to pity when he saw the poor physical condition of the monks who suffered and fell asleep during long meditation retreats. He informed them that he would teach their "bodies and minds" the Buddha's dharma.

Bohidharma taught the monks moving exercises designed to promote chi flow and build strength. These activities, modified from Vajramukti, were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (ex: cobra, deer, dragon, leopard, snake, tiger, etc.). It is difficult to determine when the exercises became "Shaolin martial arts." The Shaolin Temple was in an isolated area where bandits would have roamed and wild animals were a periodic menace, so the Temple's martial aspect likely began from self-defense necessity. After a while, these movements were codified into a system of Shaolin quan from which Yue chia developed.


Luo Han practice boxing.

Martial arts existed in China from the beginning of civilization well before the arrival of Bodhidharma. He gave a new dimension to Chinese martial arts by structuring them along Buddhist principles and then teaching the Shaolin monks and nuns on how to use them as a support for their journey of self-awakening and enlightenment. Instead of being a display of aggression and force, the new form of Shaolin martial arts turned into a dynamic method for cultivating a peaceful mind as well as a powerful method of defense. Bodhidharma took the slow moving forms of Chinese Qigong martial arts and gave them a new foundation based on the Buddhist principles and adapted them into the Buddhist practice to help practitioners maintain a healthy body for a deeper meditation.

Bodhidharma taught the monks one complete nata and two pratima (condensed defense sequences) of the Bodhisattva Vajramukti school of Astadasajacan, the "18 Subduings," which were called in China the "18 Arhats" or "18 Luo Han," which means "perfected person," and refers to enlightened disciples of the Buddha.

The "18 Subduings" were the most important of the Indian Kshatriya Vajramutki forms which reflected the doctrine of the "18 Paramitas" (Spiritually Perfecting Practices) and the "18 Voidnesses of Wisdom." They were developed within the context of Chinese Buddhism by the Yogacara School of Vasubandhu, although there were similar groupings of 18 spiritual realities in many earlier traditions. These exercises were a part of various Indian medical traditions, which can be traced back to the Indian Brahmin traditions and possibly to the birth of Indian civilization as depicted in the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of The One Who is Most Dear"). There were numerous mentions of martial and healing arts and spiritual practices, which formed the cornerstone of the basic structure of Indian culture.

Bodhidharma also translated and taught Buddhist Snavasjala nidana vijnapti (respiratory yoga) and Asthimajja Parisuddhi (therapeutic kriya yoga), which means "Bone marrow cleansing and purification," known as Xi Sui Jing (西遂景) in Chinese. In addition, he taught a system of Mahāyāna Buddhist yoga that is known today as the "Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic," or Yi Jin jing (易金晶).

The influence of Vajramukti on Chinese martial methods is evident in statues representing Buddha. With his left hand, Buddha makes the Varada mudra, which symbolizes charity, compassion, and blessing granting. With the right hand, Buddha forms the Abhaya mudra, which symbolizes protection, peace, and the relief of fear. These mudra serve as the foundation of the hand positions and circular defensive movements of Chinese Chuan Fa as well as Japanese Kempo, which was derived from the former.


In the Sanskrit text on Parivrttapala, it is written: "When the mudra (Abhaya) is rotated in a circular motion in front of the body, all and every attack against one's body is harmlessly redirected away from it. These mudra represent the ultimate and an unselfish form of defense. The mudra (Varada) then comes up from below (the) vision of the attacker to strike at the attacker."

Indian influences on Yue Chia have contributed to powerful and dynamic martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple. Those seeking instruction on authentic Shaolin martial arts need look no further.


Luo Han practice boxing (continued).

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