Philosophy of Shaolin

The Shaolin/Sil Lum sect is a branch of the Buddhist school known as Ch'an (the equivalent in Japan is Zen; the Shaolin-descended school of martial arts and philosophy in Japan is "Shorinji Zen"). Unlike most monotheistic Occidental religions that supplanted each other as Europe became "civilized," many Asian religions and philosophies resulted in amalgamations. Hence, over time, the Ch'an sect became a complex mixture of Buddhist and Taoist concepts. This first section reviews the Ch'an philosophy-base as it existed from about 1860 until recently. Below are additional sections about slightly "purer" forms of root Taoism and Buddhism.

One further note of importance: most Asian belief systems are represented by both a religious and a non-religious form. Religious aspects are those that adhere to belief in deities, supernatural occurrences, and some distinct model for an after-life. In contrast, the non-religious (we term these "philosophical" for simplicity) aspects do not concern themselves with deities, magic, or "unknowable" knowledge. It is the latter aspect of both Buddhism and Taoism that sets Ch'an apart as a distinct entity.


There are primarily 2 sects of Taoism: the philosophical and religious sects, similar to the broad divisions seen in Buddhism. They both studied nature, but for different reasons. The philosophical Taoists, who saw the teachings of Tao as a guide for life that is essentially deity-independent, studied nature to look for harmony. The religious Taoists, who believed strongly in a pantheon of greater and lesser gods, studied it to look for ways to change the course of nature (alchemy), including to prolong life. This latter seems particularly difficult to understand because altering nature is moving against the flow.

The philosophical school of Taoism has its roots in the fifth century B.C.E. writings ascribed to Lao Tzu, a buraucrat who spurned the world to find bliss. According to legend, he was recognized as he left the kingdom, where the border guard requested Lao Tzu write down the essence of his wisdom.  The resulting book is known as the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way -  (that of course is legend, and Lau Tsu may never in fact have existed as such). In essence, the knowable universe is composed of opposite components, whether physical (hard/soft; dark/light), moral (good/bad), or biological (male/female), which may be classed as either YANG (pronounced "yong") or YIN. When combined, existence is produced, and is manifest as TAO. Neither yin nor yang can exist independently (ergo the fallacy of "yin" or "yang" styles). The symbol of Tao is the "fish symbol" within which are two small dots (yin in the yang section, yang in the yin section), and around which are a pair of arrows, symbolizing dynamic interaction. The arrows have often been removed in contemporary motifs, but were popularized again when used by Bruce Lee in his Jeet Kune Do emblem.

The philosophical Taoists are largely atheistic, looking to nature for the secrets to harmony and bliss. As a result, Taoist martial artists mimicked animals in their quest for martial arts techniques, and many styles, including mantis, snake, and some tiger kung fu, show distinct patterns of nature mimicry. However, the theistic sects of Taoists believed that by understanding the harmony of nature, you could alter nature. In addition to alchemy, theistic Taoists developed complicated schools of ceremonial magic, and developed the martial arts style of Pakua.

The Taoists had their own temples and had their own system of martial arts (Hsing-I, Pakua). Emphasis was on internal styles. T'ai Chi Ch'uan (="supreme, ultimate fist;" a rather interesting, if redundant, use of superlatives), often attributed to Taoism, had a slightly different origin. It was designed to be a martial art for soldiers. It is believed to be around 1200 years old.

While both Taoists and Buddhists understood and studied the concepts of duality in nature, the Taoist was more focused on the differences of Yin and Yang, while the Buddhist was more interested in the state of dynamic harmony of the two (ironically, Buddhists focused on Tao rather than its parts). Taoist philosophy is concerned with the intrinsic nature of Yin-ness and Yang-ness, readily seen when studying Taoist medicine or magic, for example. It is a Taoist stance to look at "Yin" versus "Yang" techniques, "Hard" versus "Soft" styles. (See also Buddhism.)



There are essentially 3 schools of Buddhism:

  • Low Path
  • Middle Path
  • High Path

The low path was the path of the common man, the life of one unaware or unprepared to develop his spiritual self. The worker who struggles merely to survive is not seen as low or lowly, but as one not yet awake enough to see beyond the immediate needs of food, clothing, and shelter.

The high path is the religious sect which combined the Indian pantheon of gods and goddesses with any existing local pantheon (e.g. the Bon in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism). This path tries to incorporate the living body with a sense of its god-self, to awaken the spiritual or divine from within.

The middle path is also called Mahayana. It is a belief that we live in the here and now and should act and think accordingly. Mahayana is centered on the basic understandings of life as revealed by Gautama, the first Buddha. These teachings include the Four Noble Truths about life. The first truth is that there is pain, suffering, old age, and death in life. These transient factors affect us all, and are part of the reality that defines life. The second truth states that desire for wealth, health, love, money, and life all cause suffering. This is because we cannot have everything we want, and denial is a source of pain. The third truth simply states that extinction of desire ceases pain and suffering; killing the ego releases one from wants. The fourth truth says that adherence to the Eight-Fold Path is the route to the extinction of desire.

The Eight-Fold Path is given here:

1. Right Views: ask yourself "why do I do what I do?" Examine your motives, your goals. No action should be mindless; a spiritual person knows why he acts.

2. Right Resolve: are you prepared for the task at hand? What are your preparations of thought, speech, motivation? Is the task at hand worthy of your time and effort?

3. Right Speech: words are powerful; do you use them wisely? Careless words may hurt others, open yourself to attack. The U.S. Navy was not joking when, in World War II, it placed posters on ships and in bases proclaiming "loose lips sink ships." Buddhists are aware of the power of words and the thought-entities they can invoke (more on this in a later addition).

4. Right Action: once you decide on a task, is your procedure well-thought out, or is it hap-hazard? If you wish to become an M.D., you must gain admittance to a medical school. Each step leading to that must be precise. One does not enter medical school directly from a manager's position at True-Value Hardware (but a hardware worker MAY become an M.D. if he makes the appropriate actions).

5. Right Livelihood: Buddhists believe that work is a manifestation of spiritual development. Enlightenment is difficult to achieve if you are in the wrong occupation for you, i.e., a vegetarian may find extreme moral difficulty working as a butcher. The choice of career is important, and Buddhists believe that the choice must come from within, not from "following in the family footsteps"--that is, unless you truly find fulfillment in that business. To a Buddhist, a large part of your physical self IS what you do.

6. Right Effort: having embarked on a path, are you giving the journey the logistical and emotional support it needs to be accomplished. Buddhism frowns on half-hearted efforts.

7. Right Attention: are you giving enough attention to yourself, to gauge your moods and relationships to be sure you are still on the right path for you? If you cannot hear yourself, how well can you hear others?

8. Right Meditation: have you the discipline to fully focus on the task at hand? (We enjoyed Yoda's comment in "The Empire Strikes Back" about Luke: "Never his mind on where he is!) You need not be single-minded; life is, after all, made of many experiences and relationships. But the task at hand deserves your full mindfulness, or it is unimportant. Can you tell which?

Above all, the Buddha left his disciples (n.b., many were women) with a last lesson that underscores all his teachings. When asked by one what was the TRUE way to enlightenment, the Buddha replied, "Be your own light, your own refuge. Believe only that which you test for yourself. Do not accept authority merely because it comes from a great man, or is written in a sacred book, for truth is different for each man and woman." In short, Buddhism rejects the blind obedience of the "faithful," and prefers its practitioners to know life from experiencing it in all its glory and despair.


Perhaps most glaringly absent in the study of Shaolin has been the philosophy of this unique sect of non-secular Buddhism. Though Shaolin has become famous for the kung fu styles and abilities of its monks, the foundation and spirit of the Order are actually much more centered in the Buddhist teachings of an Indian teacher named Bodhidharma, or, to the Chinese, Tamo (440?-528 AD). Like most spiritual masters, Tamo left few direct writings of his interpretation of the Dharma (or principles) of Buddhism, but through written and oral history, Shaolin have maintained his legacy. This is the first lesson in the Shaolin interpretation of its spiritual roots and principles that we shall present.

A translation of his major teachings has been published (The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma) in which the author wonders at why these basic teachings have not been more widely circulated. We concur with this question, and suggest the following possible reasons:

First, Tamo's message is simple: The mind is the Buddha. Tamo rephrases the four noble truths and eightfold path as the core reality to seekers of enlightenment--simple enough concepts--but places the entirety of becoming (or rather recognizing the state of being) enlightened on the individual. In a sweeping gesture he urges self-motivation, self-awareness, and self-recognition at the expense of hierarchical "orders" of monks and token ceremonies. Cut the extraneous, he goads, ignore illusions, and go for the core which is already there. Certainly such a philosophy is anathema to practices that perpetuate the illusion that someone else can enlighten you.

Second, Tamo left the disciple considerable latitude in how to live, as did Shakyamuni himself. He did not require monks to be celibate, to fast, or perform rites of asceticism, nor was the "priesthood" limited to males. Quite the contrary, he embraced the human condition as the starting point from which all "higher" revelations would spring. Shaolin remains unique in allowing its members this degree of freedom (and thus being more like Methodist ministers than Catholic priests). In Tamo's message of simplicity (but not specifically denial), he limits the more embellished aspects of sectarian religious practice and organization.

Finally, it could be suggested that Tamo's influence has been largely circumvented by the plethora of Buddhist scriptures, scholars, and sects. As with most original thinkers, there is more commentary written about him than by him, and the same can be said of interpretations and critiques of his teachings.

That said, we now offer an annotated review of Tamo's teachings as embraced by the Shaolin Order for during its 1500-year history. Tamo's words are in italics and the editorial notes are in standard text. Enjoy and be free!

The Outline of Practice

There are many roads that lead to the Way, but these contain but two common features: recognition and practice. By recognition is meant that meditation reveals the truth that all living things share a common nature, a nature concealed by the veils of illusion.

By "many roads," Tamo points out that enlightenment is reached by different souls in different ways; these may include the various seated and moving meditations. Such practices are termed yogas, kung fu, and sudden self-realization. However, all of the possible routes share the common themes of recognition of self-awareness, and practice of the Dharma--the Eightfold Path-- that allows enlightenment (covered later in this document). Recognition of the fact that all of life is connected spiritually is essential to reaching self-awareness.

Those who shun illusion for reality, who meditate on walls and the loss of self and other, on the unity of mortal and sage, and are undeterred by written holy words are in accord with the faculty of reason. Lacking motion and effort, they embrace reason.

Reality and what appears as reality are difficult to separate, especially if one looks to outside sources (which may themselves be illusions). Wall meditation is the inward focus of the mind on itself, done in peaceful surroundings. Such a mind must cut through illusion and realize that duality is also an illusion. We are mortal and sage; we are self and all else. Once this reality is seen, we become reason itself.

By practice it is meant the participation and acceptance of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, adapting, non-attachment, and practicing the Dharma. First comes suffering. When followers of the Way suffer, they should recall that in the countless previous incarnations they have been deterred from the path, sometimes becoming trivial and angry even without cause. The suffering in this life is a punishment, but also an opportunity to exercise what I have learned from past lives. Men and gods are equally unable to see where a seed may bear fruit. I accept this suffering as a challenge and with an open heart. In recognizing suffering, you enter onto the path to the Way.

This is a lesson in karma1, that we are ultimately responsible for our actions (also called the Law of Cause and Effect). If we can learn from a punishment and attain true rehabilitation, we rejoin the path and move ahead. Because the First Noble Truth declares "there is suffering in life," an adept is expected to know suffering as both a condition of being alive and as a disease that can be treated.

Second, adapt to your conditions. Mortals are ruled by their surroundings, not by themselves. All we experience depends upon surroundings. If we reap a reward or great boon, it is the fruit of a seed we planted long ago. Eventually, it will end. Do not delight in these boons, for what is the point? In a mind unmoved by reward and setback, the journey on the path continues.

In essence, Tamo says that we shall all have good days and bad days, the "goodness" and "badness" depending on circumstances or viewpoint. Accept what comes, knowing that both good and bad will pass, and stay focused on the important points of the Dharma.

Third, seek no attachments. Mortals delude themselves. They seek to possess things, always searching for something. But enlightened ones wake up and choose reason over habit. They focus on the Way and their bodies follow them through each season. The world offers only emptiness, with nothing worth desiring. Disaster and Prosperity constantly trade places. To live in the three realms is to stay in a house on fire. To have a body is to experience suffering. Does any body have peace? Those who see past illusion are detached, and neither imagine nor seek. The sutras2 teach that to seek is to suffer, to seek not is to have bliss. In not seeking, you follow the path.

Buddhism is notorious for its non-attachment3. Suffering is the disease that binds us to rebirth, and attachment--especially for life--is the tether that keeps us suffering. We all experience ups and down, and these are transitory. To attach to any feeling is to anchor in the fleeting moment that quickly becomes the past. Accept what comes, even enjoy (or loathe) it, then let it go. This is how to non-seek.

Fourth, practice the Dharma, the reality teaching all spirits are pure. All illusion is dropped. Duality does not exist. Subject and object do not exist. The sacred texts say the Dharma has no being because it is free from the attachment to being; the Dharma has no self because it is free from the attachment to self. Those who understand this truth wisely practice the path. They know that the things that are real do not include greed and envy, and give themselves with their bodies, minds, and spirits. They share material things in charity, with gladness, with no vanity or thought of giver or taker of the gift. In this way they teach others without becoming attached. This allows them to help others see and enjoy the path to enlightenment.

This passage contains several important concepts, and it would have been nice of Tamo to elaborate more fully. The practice of Dharma refers to following Buddhism's Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. The Path is central to all sects of Buddhism, though there are varying interpretations of its meanings. The central elements are: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right devotion, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Volumes have been written about these concepts, and so we shall not pursue them further here at this time.

Buddhism appears in conflict with many other philosophically based religions in denying the duality of the universe. For example, many schools teach the dual nature of reality as positive/negative, hot/cold, male/female, and so on. Buddhism teaches that duality is an illusion. Reality may manifest positive/negative/neutral, hot/warm/cool/cold, or male/female/sexless (as in many microorganisms). Consider the clich? "fight or flight." The implication is duality, either run or attack. A third possibility is also readily apparent: freeze and do nothing. Not all possibilities are dual or triple in nature, so Buddhism seeks to free us from seeing the world through the blinders of a philosophical model.

The teachings also include room for sharing, mainly in efforts to help other souls see the possibility of enlightenment. Actions taken to help such souls are seen as highly important to followers of the path. Indeed, those who become enlightened and later choose to undergo another rebirth into this world are seen as "saints," forgoing Nirvana to help others escape rebirth. Such noble souls are called Bodhisattvas.

1 Karma is a very specific term in Asian thought, and is a measure of debt or accumulation that impedes the advancement of the spirit to a higher level. There is no such thing as "good" karma in Asia; one either acquires karma (not good) or eliminates it (the goal of meditation).
2 Sutra is an Indian word for sacred texts. From the word meaning a string, it became the string of words of holy lessons.
3 There is a logical discordance in Buddhist practice: the seeking to not-seek. More will be said about this in later annotations, but for now consider Tamo's core point as follows: seeking and non-seeking are both desires (and hence causes of suffering). By neither seeking nor not-seeking, one reaches a state of "mindless bliss, or the "one-point."

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