A Man and a Plan: Bodhidharma and the martial arts

Many years ago, when I was a young, I used to hang out in Master Pearson’s office at our full time school (this was way back in the day, for all you old time IME fans out there, when the office was in its second location which later became the lobby between the Yin and Yang floors…you know, where Yoda was…)  He had a massive martial arts library in there and I would sit and peruse it for hours after school and in between classes – I do the same thing now at our Hagsaeng Naebu dojang, in between sets or when I’m not up if we’re round robin”ing” so I guess some things never change.  At any rate, I must have been in 7th or 8th grade when I came across a thin red volume.  Taking it off the shelf, I saw on the cover, a picture of a man with a giant forehead, a head shaped like a gourd, dressed in robes and carrying a walking stick with a shoe tied to the top.  Intriguied I borrowed the book…I think asked for permission although I did take it to school in my backpack and I got gum all over the guy’s face on the cover and then I tried to quietly slip it back onto the shelf but I got caught and that was my first experience with “book probation,” it was a sad few months during which I was not allowed to check anything out from the “Pearson Library” 😦

The Infamous Red Book

Anyway, that man on the cover was Bodhidharma and if you are a martial artist and you don’t recognize that name, then you need to do  bit of research into the history of your art…all of us, no matter what we practice, owe this man our gratitude for without him, we wouldn’t be practicing whatever we’re practicing.  He was essentially the father of Eastern martial arts.

Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century CE. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch’an (AKA Zen) Buddhism to China, and is regarded as the first Chinese patriarch and a very important figure in Zen Buddhist practice.  This guy was bad ass, I mean totally hard core in terms of his meditative practice.  There is a story that he cut off his own eyelids so that he couldn’t fall asleep while meditating!  Hence the famous Buddhist artistic renditions of his person.  Bodhidharma is often depicted as an ill-tempered, profusely bearded, wide-eyed barbarian.

Here’s another picture of Bodhidharma. This one was a chalk rubbing done outside the Shaolin Monastery by an ex-student of Master Pearson’s. I inherited this beautiful piece of art and it now hangs on my wall, as a tribute to this revolutionary man who taught so much.

Important from our perspective, Bodhidharma gets credit for one other major thing.  According to Chinese legend, when Bodhidharma arrived in China he set up camp at the already famous Shaolin monastery.  The story goes that the monks amongst whom he lived were quite out of shape and suffering terribly because they would just sit and meditate all day long, living a truly ascetic lifestyle.  Bodhidharma, so we’re told, invented a series of exercises that the monks could do, perhaps based on his own known background as a kalari (Indian martial art) master.  Thus, Bodhidharma is considered to have begun the very physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of the very famous Shaolin Kung Fu and other arts.  Some of Bodhidharma’s exercises still remain in practice to this day.  In fact, our school requires, as part of our black belt curriculum, a particular set of hand motions that are credited to his creative genius.

As martial artists, we owe Mr. Bodhidharma quite a bit.  Skepitcal scholarship has pointed to the fact that other individuals within Shaolin had already begun teaching various techniques long before Bodhidharma’s arrival.  Whether fact or fiction, it is clear that Bodhidharama contributed much to the growth of martial arts.  He taught us a core belief as well; that both mindandbody are of equal importance and a person must be careful to develop each both independently and in unison.  Thank you Bodhidharma!

requirement fulfilled,


1 comment

  1. In countless ages gone by I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existences, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear it’s fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice.

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