The Sharp Edge of History

A guy walks into the dojo and says: “I just want to learn to fight.” He paused for a second. “I really don’t care about all that other stuff.”

He didn’t say what other stuff he meant. We didn’t ask. He wanted to learn to fight.  We teach that. He started that day.

What he did say was that even though his high school wasn’t that dangerous, things happened. And he did not want to have to worry about it. He did some martial arts where he used to live. He knew he could learn it if he practiced. He was ready to start.

There are a lot of origin stories in martial arts. People have worked hard to uncover the hidden roots of their styles: traveling the world, visiting teachers, viewing monuments, examining carvings in ancient temple walls, reading old books, translating private manuscripts, and listening to tales from long ago.

But that kid coming into our dojo that day, who just wanted to learn to fight, has an origins story. It is a story that will matter to him, and it might hold clues to the ancient ones too. He said: “I want to learn to fight.” He did not say: “I want to fight.”

The human impulse to defend effectively coupled with the insight that training will give you more ability than ‘just doing it,’ may be familiar to us, but it was not always so.

Chimpanzees fight. When a band of chimps in the wild notice a chimp from another band snooping around their territory they will attack him. Not just chase him off – they aren’t trying to make him go away. They sneak up. They attack and kill him and jump up and down on the body. No training necessary. Spontaneous violence. No special techniques. The strength they need to climb, carry, throw, gather food, and play is employed to break up the body of their enemy.

The primatologists studying this tried to prove that it was human influence that made the chimps violent. It wasn’t. That’s what chimps do.  They thought this stranger wanted their territory, food or females. Why else would he be snooping around? 

What if one day one of the chimps who was a victor in that massacre had a vivid memory of his moment of exaltation and dominance? What if he thought it would be fun to act out what he did when he smashed and defeated the trespasser, so he repeated the moves with his body and in his imagination, over and over, like an evil exuberant dance? Then, as a result of all that repetition, the next time a trespasser approached their turf he might have been even more devastating. More accustomed to the physical moves, and more habituated to the mindset of attack.

What if he visualized “success,” like an athlete in training does today?

That is primitive and it is violent. But if we are looking for origins of martial training we might start looking way back.

Over millennia of human history there have been innovators in the martial arts: new approaches, inspired visionaries, virtuoso practitioners who made discoveries, groups that refined training, scribes that codified systems so the insights could be passed on. But those are not origins.  When you start looking back, no matter how far you look, it seems there is something further back.

We taught that young man who came into the dojo, the one who just wanted to learn to fight. We taught him on his first day. We introduced him to the basics he would learn in his classes. We showed him the moves the way we learned them, maybe a little bit evolved here or there.

One of the instructors showed him the dojo customs we use in class – how to bow, where to stand, what to say. Maybe that was the ‘other stuff’ the guy was talking about.

Tracing back our lineage helps us to orient within our own style, and locate our style in relation to others. It acknowledges the persistent effort by real people, over many generations, which brought our art to us.

We know that influential Okinawan karate practitioners like Kanbun Uechi and Chojun Miyagi and many others traveled to China to learn martial arts there, so they could deepen their own practice and bring fresh knowledge back home.

We do not know so much about why they thought the arts they learned at home were inadequate.

We know about the trade missions that, for centuries, sailed from the Ryukyus, navigating the seas from Naha to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and beyond, where Okinawan crews learned new combative methods by studying, observing, or fighting.  What they learned and what they did with it, over those 500 years, is barely known.

We know something about Kalayari Pattu from India. Some in India claim that Kalayari Pattu is the original ancient martial art that spread out across the world from there and influenced all the others.  

 It seems no matter how wide you cast your net to capture the influences that formed a style there will be some that remain out of reach.

The idea of dissemination of styles from a single point of origin is appealing. It is simple and clear.

Some make the alternative case – for spontaneous generation of fighting styles all over the world – since people share the same body design and had similar combative challenges, they would find similar solutions.

Was the use of fire discovered in one place, or did it appear in many places? What about the use of tools, wheels, agriculture, navigation, math or metal? Technologies have appeared in many places, disseminated by travelers, invaders and neighbors. They flourish in some places, vanish in others, and don’t catch on for centuries in others. There are multiple points of origin.

Religions and nations use single point of origin narratives.

The “36 families” were a Chinese diplomatic and cultural mission established near Shuri in a village enclave called Kumemura.  They and their associates from Ming China brought martial arts techniques with them, and shared them with their counterparts when they settled on Okinawa.

We have heard stories about shipwrecked sailors who found refuge and hospitality in the islands and shared their novel martial skills with the people there – the people whose descendants became our teachers.

Several of the kata in our Okinawan styles are named for these sailors. Who they were, beyond their names, was not recorded.  The original fighting forms they taught, and which of the modern versions is most similar, is debated. But the influence of those people continues, and it reaches us.

The idea that a stable form of martial arts has been transmitted unchanged from generation to generation over time and distance, even as culture and conditions change, is appealing. Could it be true?

Animals adapt to a changing environment to stay alive. People adapt their way of behaving to accommodate changing conditions. The origin and spread of words, ideas, diseases, childhood games, stories, modes of dress and the borders of social identity all change. How and why can be as hard to track as footsteps on asphalt.

A lot of effort has been made to track exactly what our ancestors taught in martial arts. As thin as the written record is, records are not the main problem.

The barrier is in human habit: when we first learn a kata it is hard to grasp the depth of what we are learning.  We pick up the surface elements, then as we practice, trying to imitate the form precisely as taught, the form may open up to us, revealing new layers of meaning.

If we do not take the time for that process to unfold we will not see what is hidden in the kata. We make improvements. We add and delete based on our assumptions and preferences. Then some of the knowledge that was originally encoded in the kata is lost. Maybe some of the innovations are improvements. We do not know.

Oral traditions are perishable. Centuries of accumulated knowledge can be lost in one generation if war, disaster, economic development and rapid cultural change disrupt the transmission. Okinawa endured all of these as their martial arts were being discovered by outsiders. Generations of teachers died in 1945 and 46. Karate technique and culture changed as it revived.

Some old masters, including Gichin Funakoshi’s teacher Anko Itosu, taught their new students only one kata for the first three years of training. The result was deep conditioning of the body, skill, sharp focus, cultivation of patience and persistence, and deference to the judgment of seniors in matters of training. But another effect was to assure thorough and intact transmission of technique. That approach was disrupted by the modernization of culture. Later in this book, in the Seminar Curriculum Chapter, components of training which were lost – and which are now being restored – are presented.

How far back can we trace the transmission of our martial arts?

Bodhidharma, a 5th century Buddhist monk who traveled from India to China to teach, is the starting point for many styles. I was taught this origin story. It was appealing. It gave martial arts practice a transcendent purpose as well as a practical one.  

I believed what I heard. I explored the tradition as presented. Then, over decades of daily practice, study and travel, and meetings for training and talk with scholars and practitioners in the US and from Japan, Okinawa, China and Tibet, the discrepancies accumulated.  The story lacked coherence.  Now scholars have brought the true story, and its origins, to light.

The honest understanding of what we are doing works much better – in martial practice and in spiritual refinement – than deception, however grand or well-intentioned.

We know a lot about the stream of Buddhism that Bodhidharma taught. We know he brought the Lankavatara Sutra with him from India. He had it translated into Chinese, and it served as the doctrinal focus of his teaching at Shaolin. It presents a rigorous philosophical treatment of the doctrine of one of the great schools of Indian Buddhism. Monks master the ideas and reasoning in it. They investigate and apply what they have learned in meditation. The motives, material and methods are not martial arts.

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. Scholar Meir Shahar says this:

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.

…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… 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.

This discovery does not question the Sinews Transformation Classic technique. It denies Bodhidharma’s connection with it.

Bodhidharma is still regarded as the founding teacher by current styles of martial arts. Some still use the story 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 they were being attacked by robbers so he taught them to defend themselves.

The Okinawan “Shorin Ryu” name variants refer to “Shaolin style,” associating karate with the Shaolin Temple transmission lore derived from 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 conveyed in the origins and transmission legends.

Bodhidharma was a superbly trained scholastic and meditation master who became a foreign missionary. The knowledge he brought was a potent innovation in religion and philosophy in India. It was unknown in China.  A more recent Buddhist missionary from the Indo-Tibetan tradition expressed his motive to teach this way:

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 fresh insights that Bodhidharma introduced to his Taoist-trained disciples at Shaolin.  Chief among these ideas was that understanding ‘emptiness’ will lead to nirvana, to the end of suffering.

Buddha lived around 500 BCE, a thousand years before Bodhidharma. He 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, in the form of mental and physical pain, desire, confusion and negative emotion.

His unique discovery was why people suffer, and what people can do to put an end to it. This is what Bodhidharma went to Shaolin to teach.

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 is depicted with 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 of humanity – 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 living by strict rules of personal conduct, mental cultivation and deepening knowledge pushed themselves beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. A warrior metaphor served to strengthen their resolve and focus their purpose. “Fight the good fight” is an example of this from the New Testament. The text actually says “Fight the good fight in the faith.” It is an exhortation to confront both inner and outer challenges with unwavering commitment. The war metaphor is clear.

Religious doctrine and martial obligation may be viewed by adherents as united, in no need of appropriation of language or motive. Catechism of the Catholic Church says

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”

Jihad, as war for Islam, is an obligation for Muslims under some circumstances.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet, the world’s most prominent Buddhist authority, at the “Educating the Heart Summit” in Portland, Oregon in 2001 was asked by a girl what to do if an “active shooter” aimed his gun at her classmate. He said:

“If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

Whether metaphor or conjunction, the spiritual and the martial often appear together.

Just as 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 to describe their mission and their lives.

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

It is easy to interfuse the language of the martial and the spiritual, and easy to forget that the objects of reference in each usage may be distinct.

Shaolin was not a military outpost in Bodhidharma’s time. The temple became a fortified compound centuries after Bodhidharma lived, as the Buddhist institution in China became an instrument of state power.

Looking back through the mists of time from the 17th century back to the 5th it is understandable that someone might want to weave a legend from the martial and spiritual strands of their culture. They did. But that invention was the outcome of 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. Monks want to be strong as well as be good. Fighters want to do good as well as be strong.

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

From the Buddha’s “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.

Zen, as a school and doctrine, formed in Song Dynasty China, the 10th to the 13th century, 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…

A key critique of Zen from the classical Indian perspective, as preserved in the Tibetan tradition, distinguishes the Chinese Chan/Zen approach from the Indian Buddhist view:

In general, the glorious Santaraksita and Padmasambhava introduced the practices of the Buddhist system to the Land of Snow [Tibet] during the early dissemination of the teaching. However, the Chinese abbot Ha-shang (Hva-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 intent; hence, his kindness was most great.

TsongKhaPa. The Great Treatise on The Stages of The Path to Enlightenment, Vol. 1 Note: Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava are, like Bodhidharma, teachers of Buddhism from India. “The Conqueror” is a name for the Buddha.

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, unambiguous 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 cultures across the world. It can be of great value. The myth was welcomed. It conformed to the values and confirmed the beliefs of the people who embraced it. It elevated the prestige and the purpose of martial arts and martial artists. The story was imaginary. But it was credible and appealing.

Bodhidharma taught Buddhism. His Buddhism is not the same as Zen or as martial arts in its method, content or results.

Could we draw a line from Bodhidharma’s time to now and show a linear sequence of cause and effect – like a row of falling dominoes, one hitting the next in an orderly sequence in time and space – in which a discrete fighting style, with a leader at the head of every generation, and an intact body of knowledge, was transmitted?

Just going back a generation or two we can see the “roots and branches of our style” issue is debated and open to interpretation in many groups. Many connections remain unknown. Nevertheless, the stories are taken on faith and fervently believed:  single point of origin legends help create a distinct group identity. Organizations need them and use them.  

It is hard to track origins and lines of transmission: who taught who, what they taught, why they did it just that way, when it happened, who saw it, who thought to write it down, why they chose what they chose to pass on, who preserved it as taught, who improved it, who misunderstood it, who restored the meaning. It is interesting to investigate. The influences are vast and interconnected.

Even if we do not know names or deeds we know we benefit from the sincere hard work of many, many people who came before us.

It is also worth asking: What matters to us most about our style? Its identity or its utility? The answer is not the same for everyone.

Our era is different from the China of Shaolin, the Japan of Kamakura or the Ryukyu Kingdoms.  But not completely. We know that among the people who came before us, the ones that we admire most worked hard and accepted risk to do what was right. They respected their teachers. They took care of their people. They prepared for life’s challenges in advance.

We know that there came a time in the life of every one of them when they turned their back to the legends, faced their world and did what they needed to do. We follow their tradition.

That high school kid who joined our school “just to learn how to fight” learned how to fight.  Making face to face contact with an authentic tradition, he learned some “other stuff” too. For example: we challenge each other in training. We are all in this together. When one gets stronger, we are all lifted up. There is no benefit in keeping knowledge only for yourself when a friend could use it. There is no good reason to stop exploring or sharing or training. 


Note: Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, University of Hawaii Press. Location ISBN 978–0–8248–3110–3. Used by permission.

Inspired by Pabongka Rinpoche’s Lam Rim Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Wisdom Publications page 196; the prayer of a missionary in a traditional Indo-Buddhist culture.

Lankavatara Sutra references D.T. Suzuki’s translation The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mind Only Text, , Jeffrey Hopkins Emptiness in the Mind Only School, the three volume Tantra in Tibet series, others

Morten Schlütter in “How Zen Became Zen”, University of Hawai’i Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-3255-1

1 Timothy 6:12

Tsong-Kha-Pa. The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment Vol 1 (Kindle Locations 421-423). Snow Lion/Shambhala Publications, 2000, ISBN 1-55939-152-9 Used by permission.


Post adapted from a chapter of “The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts” copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, L.L.C. on Amazon in paperback and Kindle Edition eBook.

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