The three basic oriental philosophies
Martial arts are a precious treasure of traditional oriental society. To understand them, we must become familiar with the foundations of this society.
Buddhism was founded by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the fifth century B.C. A young Indian prince in the Sakyamuni tribe, he left the comforts of palace life at age 29 on a spiritual quest. He experienced enlightenment six years later after meditating under the Bodhi tree. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching, until his death at age 80.
The Buddha taught his disciples the concepts of the four noble truths, of Karma (by which man is subject to reincarnation), and of non-self, or the illusion of the self. He developed a methodology and practical exercises to help others access the true fundamentally good nature of a human being, to understand and follow their karma, and to attain enlightenment or nirvana and therefore end the cycle of reincarnation.
With Buddhist philosophy taking flight in China close to a thousand years later, countless temples devoted to Buddhist practice and rituals were constructed. One such temple would later become famous: the Monastery in the Woods, or Shaolin Temple. Buddhist teachings were passed down from generation to generation, and many institutions entrusted with protecting and transmitting this knowledge came and went over time. Buddhism spread throughout Asia and greatly impacted oriental philosophical culture. Even today, the philosophy holds an important place in Shaolin martial arts, due in large part to its concepts of self-mastery and Karma.
Taoist Philosophy evolved around 5,000 years B.C. from writings based on the Yi King (book of transformation) and energetic science. However, it was only around the 5th century B.C. that Lao-Tze condensed the essential philosophical and mystical Taoist beliefs into his Tao Te King (Classic of The Way and Power).
Confucius (551-479 B.C.) established this philosophy to address social problems and create rules to preserve social harmony. He formulated moral principles that formed the basis for social order within a hierarchized society.
Confucius did not live to see his doctrine accepted by powerful kings and warlords, but his teachings were immortalised in The Analects of Confucius. His disciples spread his teachings up until Emperor Wu of Han (149 to 87 B.C.) declared Confucianism the universal doctrine of the Middle Empire. This political system lasted until the 20th century.
Confucian teachings clearly define five relationships: king-subject, husband-wife, father-son, older brother-younger brother and friend-friend. Each of these relationships is based on specific codes of moral conduct, and each social role involves a set of duties and obligations one must fulfill and qualities one must develop. Confucianism greatly impacted oriental culture. Still today, it influences traditional martial arts with its principles of hierarchy, the master-disciple relationship and the notion of the nobleman’sbehaviour ideal.
The three philosophies in a Kung Fu School
Today, philosophy still holds a central place in traditional Kung Fu School curricula. Many rules, regulations, habits and customs, as well as School practices, are based on the principles of the three philosophies of oriental culture. For example, Buddhism guides practitioners along the path to self-improvement, thanks in part to understanding the ego and mastering one’s emotions. Taoism allows practitioners to better understand how the body and spirit work in order to improve one’s Kung Fu and delve into oriental medicine. And the School’s organizational structure, which ensures proper functioning and transmission of knowledge, comes from Confucianism.
The three philosophies therefore form a whole, making up the solid foundation of the Kung Fu School and guiding practitioners along their path.