What Bodhidharma Taught at Shaolin

The legend that connected Bodhidharma to the martial arts at Shaolin makes its first appearance in the 17th century, more than a thousand years after Bodhidharma lived:

The “Sinews Transformation Classic” is the earliest extant manual that assigns daoyin gymnastics a martial role. It’s likely author, the “Purple Coagulation Man of the Way,” was the first to explicitly associate military, therapeutic, and religious goals in one training routine. As such, the manual holds an important position in the history of Chinese hand combat. From the perspective of Shaolin fighting, however, the “Sinews Transformation Classic” bears another significance. Even though it had been authored outside the monastery, the manual formulated a legend that was eventually adopted by the Shaolin monks themselves, namely that their martial arts were created by the Buddhist saint Bodhidharma.

… The claim that the Indian saint had authored the “Sinews Transformation Classic” is made in an elaborately forged preface, which is signed by the renowned general Li Jing (571–649), who had led the Tang army to numerous victories in China and central Asia. The general explains that the manual has been handed down to him from Bodhidharma through a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes, and that his own military achievements have been due to his reliance on it. The preface serves therefore to enhance the manual’s prestige.

It said:

“…During the period …477–499… the Great Master Bodhidharma traveled from the Kingdom of Liang [in south China] to the Kingdom of Wei [in the north]. He faced the wall [in meditation] at the Shaolin Monastery.

After his nine years of meditation were completed, the master pointed the way to Nirvana. His remains were enshrined on Mt. Xionger [in Western Henan]… Later, the brick wall he faced in meditation was damaged by wind and rain. When the Shaolin monks repaired it, they discovered inside a metal case…. Hidden inside it were two scrolls, one titled Marrow Cleansing Classic (Xisui jing), the other titled Sinews Transformation Classic….”

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts

And also:

Zen as a school and doctrine formed in Song Dynasty China, the 10thto the 13thcentury, long after Bodhidharma’s time. Zen claims Bodhidharma as it’s “First Patriarch” in China.  Zen differs from the Indian Buddhist tradition that Bodhidharma taught. According to scholar Morten Schlütter in “How Zen Became Zen”:

…the entire (Zen/Chan)lineage prior to the Song is best understood as a mythical construct, a sacred history that served to legitimize the Song Chan school and its claim to possess a special transmission. Even in the Song, the Chan lineage was subject to constant manipulation and reinterpretation in order to legitimize the lineages of certain masters and their descendants or to bolster polemical and religious claims…


Bodhidharma, a 5th century Indian Buddhist monk, is regarded as the founding teacher by many current styles of martial arts. For example, the Okinawan “Shorin Ryu” style’s name variants all refer back to “Shaolin style”, associating it with the broad Shaolin Temple transmission stream of Chinese martial arts.  There are many Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Okinawan martial styles that claim some connection to this heritage.

There is a connection. But it is not the one that is usually told in the style-founding and transmission legends.

Some styles claim that Bodhidharma taught martial arts to the monks at the Shaolin Temple in China because they were getting weak and flabby from excessive meditation or because they were being attacked by robbers he taught them to defend themselves.

This is doubtful. It has caused confusion and trouble.

We know a lot about what Bodhidharma taught at Shaolin. The stream of Buddhism that Bodhidharma brought to China was presented in the Lankavatara Sutra. Bodhidharma had it translated into Chinese, and it served as the doctrinal focus of his teaching at Shaolin.

 was a foreign missionary who traveled from his home in India to China in the 500s CE. He was a prince, scholar, practitioner and accomplished teacher.  The knowledge he brought was at the cutting edge of religion and philosophy in his homeland. It was unknown in China. So, he went there, perhaps thinking:

In any place the precious teachings have not reached

Or where they have since declined

May I, moved by great compassion,

Shed light upon these beneficial treasures.


The Lankavatara Sutra is a core text of the Mind Only or Cittamatra school of Indian Buddhism. This Sutra codified the new insights that Bodhidharma introduced to his Taoist-trained disciples at Shaolin.  Chief among these ideas was that understanding ‘emptiness’ is what will lead people to nirvana, to the end of suffering.

Emptiness – as a principle and as the means to liberation – is the unique insight and the core doctrine of Buddhism. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense does not mean “nothing.” It does not mean “nothing is real” or that nothing matters. Quite the opposite.

Buddha (who lived around 500 BCE, a thousand years before Bodhidharma) did not discover that “life is suffering”, or that people are never happy or should all be depressed.  He did recognize that lives are permeated with dissatisfaction, including mental and physical pain, desire, and negative emotion.

His unique discovery was why people suffer, and what people can do to put an end to it.

Understanding emptiness is not all that is required for liberation from suffering, according to him, but it is at the heart of liberative practice.

In Bodhidharma’s view, emptiness, as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra’s “Mind Only” philosophy, is that subject and object and action are one thing. They arise as a unitary gestalt. They entail each other and, in a sense, bring each other into existence. That non-dualism is essential to the understanding of emptiness in the Mind Only school. No ‘thing’ can exist by itself without standing in relation to other things.

To comprehend and use the content of this philosophical system, then as now, might take 10 to 20 years of dedicated study and practice.  Its key method was and is a union of philosophical understanding and practical experience in meditation.

When Bodhidharma arrived in China the monks there were already practicing a Taoist movement-sequence system which they used for body-mind cultivation. (This was the daoyin system referenced by Shahar in the quote above.)

This movement sequence system was redefined as “martial” a thousand years later. Looking back there were other reasons for people to guess that maybe martial instruction was going on in Shaolin at the time of Bodhidharma.

For centuries the primary figure of devotion at Shaolin was “the Buddhist warrior-protector deity Vajrapani”. Vajrapani is central to a stage of esoteric Buddhist meditation practice called “Performance Tantra,” which was disseminating at the time that Bodhidharma taught. Vajrapani has a ferocious expression and a warrior posture.

One of the epithets of Buddha was “Enemy Destroyer” – the Buddha as one who destroys confusion, anger and greed in the minds of people – the real enemies – the destruction of which, according to the Buddhists, is what leads to liberation, to the end of suffering.

To many devotees Vajrapani represents the “Enemy Destroyer” aspect of the Buddha. To others he is a “protector” of the Buddha – although it is not obvious what a Buddha needs protection from, or how that might be provided.

Religious people in many cultures have compared their spiritual quest to warfare and their spiritual training to preparation for battle. Monks training in strict rules of personal conduct, mental cultivation and profound understanding experienced deep transformation that pushed them far beyond the limits of ordinary experience. A warrior metaphor served to strengthen their resolve and focus their purpose. “Fight the good fight” is an example from the Gospels.

The sharp awareness of the present moment experienced in battle and the total commitment to training for victory have been used to encourage monks and other religious practitioners to apply themselves with life or death urgency to their practice and study.

Military people in many cultures have used terms and ideas derived from religion too, to describe their mission and their lives.

The military use of religious ideas – including the quest for personal perfection, salvation, just war, the good fight, selfless commitment to the ultimate good, service for the benefit of others, and the sacrifice of the comforts of this world for a noble purpose – are found in many cultures.

It is easy to adopt the language of one while doing the other. Shaolin was not a military outpost in Bodhidharma’s time. It became a fortified compound centuries after Bodhidharma lived, as the Buddhist institution in China became an instrument of state power, as the Buddhist ecclesia did centuries later in Japan.

Looking back through the mists of time from the 17th century it is understandable that someone might want to weave a legend from these cultural strands. But in a sense he continued a process that was long underway.

Hundreds of years after Bodhidharma had passed from life to legend, it was natural for the young men training to fight at Shaolin, and other militarized temple compounds in China, to link their military training to the religious heritage of their monastic institution and to map their combative training onto the process of seeking religious perfection. Examples of this are easy to find across traditions and cultures – in the west, the middle east, north Africa and in central and east Asia, throughout history, and to the present day.

The degree to which this permits adherents to fulfill the ideals of the religion they purport to follow varies.


Bodhidharma did not reference combatives. But in the warrior religious cultures, especially in Japanese Zen, this is common.

References in literature and in teacher-lectures to ‘becoming your opponent’ or to “becoming one with the target” can sound absurd unless you know this Mind Only School source material, and understand the phenomenological insight the language is intended to convey and to cultivate in the mind of the practitioner.  It can seem like word play, but in doing the work to understand the conditional dependence of the conventional definitions we apply to our experience provides an insight that frees us from mental rigidity and misunderstanding.

The martial example was widely used in teaching the philosophical concept of emptiness to samurai and others in medieval Japan. They found martial example and martial application more persuasive than abstract philosophy. And their Zen teachers found a receptive audience for their views.

For these fighters, familiar with Sun Tzu’s notion of “fluidity” on the battlefield, their frame of reference informed by their daily witness of the transformation in skill and will that come with practice in military training, the philosophical observation that the qualities we assign to the identities of persons, objects and phenomena are not something those things hold on their own, but are contingent on conditions and our relation to them, and are subject to change, was not a stretch.  It proved a useful idea – in training, in combat, in life, and in the practice of liberation.

The premise for the martial exponents who united Mind Only philosophy with martial prowess was that understanding “reality” yields skill-in-means within the conventions of this world, as well as liberation from suffering forever. This is appealing.

Whether, in the context of warrior training it is true, is a different question.

From the Buddha’s simple Eight-Fold Path to Liberation to Bodhidharma’s practical Lankavatara philosophy a thousand years later was a long road walked by serious people. Another thousand years passed to the invention of the Bodhidharma martial legend that has come down to us. It is good to know what it is we are hearing about.

Zen claims Bodhidharma as it’s “First Patriarch” in China.  Zen differs from the Indian Buddhist tradition that Bodhidharma taught.

A key critique of Zen from classical Indian perspective, as preserved in the Tibetan tradition:

the glorious (Indian teachers) Santaraksita and Padmasambhava introduced the practices of the Buddhist system to Tibet during the early dissemination of the teaching. However, the Chinese abbot Ha-shang caused the teaching to decline. He did not understand emptiness correctly and thereby denigrated the factor of method and negated bringing anything to mind, even virtues. The great master Kamalasila, after refuting Ha-shang well, established the Conqueror’s (the Buddha’s) intent; hence, his kindness was most great.

TsongKhaPa. The Great Treatise on The Stages of The Path to Enlightenment, Vol. 1


This critique is vigorously rejected by the Zen tradition.  I cite it here because the practice of “Buddhist” liberation and martial arts as one is presumed by many modern martial artists to be a dependable, clear transmission with a history and continuity of practice that goes back for millennia.

The union of martial and religious training is appealing to people in diverse cultures across the world. It can be of great value in the lives of practitioners. The idea that Bodhidharma taught both is not substantiated.




This article is an excerpt adapted from “The Sharp Edge of History” a chapter of “The Good Fight” by Jeffrey Brooks, available on Amazon

Photo by Navneet Shanu


Post by Jeffrey Brooks © 2019


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