Born in 484 AC, the third son of brahmin king of the Sardili clan and educated according to the norm of the times, Bodhidharma was well versed in the arts, politics, sutras, and technical combat. At barely 30 years of age he left his princely comfort to devote himself to a religious life to attain enlightenment. He became a reputable monk, travelled to China to preach the the teachings of Bhudda as many of his indian counterparts had done during the Three Kingdom era. Received at the Kuan temple, province of Guandong (canton), around 527 AC, the governor of the region of Guangdzou recommend Bodhidharma, aka Tamo, to the emperor Liang Wu. During his short time in Nankin, legend has it that the emperor did not appreciate Tamo’s discourse. He made his way back to Luoyang, with his pilgrimage ending at the Shaolin monastery, a few kilometres from the capital. Teaching Chan Buddhism (Zen Buddhism in Japan) for many years, Bodhidharma realized the pitiful health of the monks could not elevate them to enlightenment. Their lifestyle emphasized meditation at the detriment of the physical body. Dismayed, he retired in a cave and meditated for many years. Legend has it, the 9 years of isolation resulted in three books that constitute the most ancient proof of a system of structured and complete knowledge in the martial arts domaine, in China.
The three works treated the three aspects of a human being in the conceptual oriental tradition: the physical, energetic and mental. The first book, the Book of tendon muscle transformation (in cantonese Yi Kin King) demonstrated basic exercises allowing to improve the solidity and flexibility, as well as combat techniques. The Book of bone marrow cleansing which touches on energetic exercises. Finally the third collection of works is devoted to spiritual learning. Upon his return, Bodhidharma taught these technics. Under regular and constant training, the monks improved their physical conditioning and health. They could also pursue daily work with more energy and their spiritual work with more conviction. Learning fighting techniques gave them self defence during long voyages and against invasions on the monastery in times of war. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, persecuted by some Emperors and praised by others, subject to the power struggles between taoists, confucianists, and buddhists. All competing for imperial attention, the Shaolin Temple survived centuries of politics. It grew in political, economical and social importance and became famous due to its’ monks, known as powerful fighters, and defenders of the destitute and oppressed. Some monks illustrated themselves in great battles and have marked imperial history with their glorious exploits.
The Shaolin Temple
At the beginning of the Tang dynasty, the monks played a key role in the capture of General Wang Schichong by Li Shimin (circa 626 to 649 AC). As a gesture of gratitude, the Emperor (also known as Tai Tsung) gave a bigger swath of land to the monastery and authorized it to create its own army. The temple’s reputation grew, became prosperous and and a mecca for martial art practitioners under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. At the beginning of the Ching Dynasty, under the reign of Kan Shi (1661 to 1722), the Shaolin temple gained it’s status as a martial arts centre, attracting a large number of students, thanks to an emperor that encouraged the development of all religions. Among the students many were supporters of the fallen Ming dynasty. Trained with the deadliest fighting technics, these rebels quickly became a serious threat to the government. The emperor Kan Shi had to severely reprimand the the Shaolin Temple when it was revealed that it was source of resistance fighters for the Ming Dynasty. His grand child, the emperor Chian Lung (1736 to 1796 AC) organized new punishing expeditions against the temple. Stories of betrayal and an increasing number of secret rebel societies, connected to the monastery, contributed to the total destruction of the temple and the massacre of it monks and nuns. Only five Grand Masters survived the massacre, they were; Jee Shin, Tao Tak, Mieu Hien, Pei Mei, Ng Mui.
The Five Invincibles
These five figures legendary exploits are the basis of most Kung Fu styles known today. They survived an era in which martial arts were in effervescence, where the need to quickly train fighters demanded reforms from traditional methods. Many schools saw the light of day; some pretended to offer hand to hand combat technics as more efficient, others trained students at a faster pace. These schools presented different technics or simply emphasized particular technics. Among the five invincibles, Ng Mui constituted the historical bridge between the Wing Chung School to the Shaolin Temple.