Call Today 248-688-5473

Shaolintemplemi Logo

Shaolintemplemi Logo


Murals of martial arts at the Shaolin Temple depicting a dark-skinned Indian (possibly Bodhidharma).

Indian Influence on Yuejiaquan

The dhayana master Bodhidharma, who transmitted Ch'an Buddhism to China and was the Chánshī (禅师; lit. "Dhyana Master" or "Zen Master"), China's first Buddhist patriarch, also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks and nuns. This physical training led to the formation of Shaolin martial arts or Shaolin quan (少林拳; Shàolín quán), including the Northern Shaolin style of Yuejiaquan or Yuèjiā quán (岳家拳, literally "Yue Family Fist," alternately Yue Ch'uan). This style of Yuejiaquan was developed from the first Shaolin Temple founded in Henan province during the 5th century AD to honor Buddhabhadra, who was the first Shaolin abbot. The Henan temple system of Yuejiaquan is distinct from the style created by Yue Fei, a Song dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng cháo; 960–1279) era general.

Bodhidharma was born the son of a Brahmin (priest class) king and a member of the Kshatriya caste (ruling and military class). The Kshatriya developed an effective form of hand-to-hand combat that incorporated hand strikes, throws, wrestling, and tactics of movement and evasion. Kshatriya warriors also practiced mental techniques for enhancing concentration and unlocking higher states of consciousness. This mind-body practice synchronized a practitioner's mind, body, and spirit. It was called Vajramukti yoga (Sanskrit: वज्रमुक्ति; Traditional Chinese: 霹靂解放; pinyin: Pīlì Jiěfàng), a title meaning "Clasped Hand of the Thunderbolt" (Traditional Chinese: 清康川; pinyin: Qīngkāng chuān; Ching Kang Chuan) or "Liberating Thunderbolt" (Traditional Chinese: 清康傑; pinyin: Qīngkāng jié; Ching Kang Chieh).

The term Vajramukti has several possible derivations. One origin refers to the use of the hands in a hammer-like manner akin to the use of the vajra maces of traditional Indian warfare. Alternately, the word vajra referred to the thunderbolt, the weapon of the deity Indra and suggested the speed, power, and divine-like origin of the practice.

Vajramukti was practiced through regular physical training sessions that employed sequences of attack and defense called in Sanskrit nata (Hanyu Pinyin romanization: xing; Wade–Giles romanization: hsing; Japanese: kata) or forms. The Kshatriya practiced both armed and unarmed forms of nata. Over time, the possible and useful combinations of attack and defense were preserved and passed down to the Kshatriya by their ācāryas (preceptors or instructors).

All Kshatriya were of royal status, their practice and trainings (Pratipatti and Siksa) of the Vajramukti and its nata practices were called the "Lion's Play, Art, or Skill" (Simhavikridita). The Kshatriya warriors who employed these sequences were called Simhanata, "those who practice the lion's art movements." This was the origin of the sequences introduced into China that developed into the shortened "Lion Dance" of Chinese New Year festivals.

The Kshatriya kept their nata trainings to themselves, but many of their techniques were copied and adapted by the enlisted army. These adaptations led to the development of the "Striking Tiger" School, which mimicked the Kshatriya "Lion."

Tiger striking was practiced by both the Kshatriya and common soldier, though it is likely that it was first developed by Kshatriya doctors for first aid purposes. Like all medicine, though, it could cure or kill depending on how it was used.

The inner teachings of Vajramukti and its nata were kept highly secret and only taught to persons of high moral character within the upper echelons of Indian Kshatriya society, passed orally from master (acarya) to disciple (sisya) over the generations.

Unlike the Chinese, to whom winning a battle was the prime goal, the Indians interwove life and death with spiritual destinies and maintained a very high degree of ethical conduct. To the ancient Kshatriya monarchs, how the battle was won, and the motives for waging it, were at least as important as winning. Ancient China had no equivalent attitudes. Its oldest book on warfare, "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, is a masterpiece of cunning, trickery, and strategic and tactical exploitation of an enemy.

Bodhidharma taught various Vajramukti health exercises and sequences of the Kshatriya nata to the Shaolin monks. He was moved to pity when he saw the poor physical condition of the monks who suffered and fell asleep during long meditation retreats. He informed them that he would teach their "bodies and minds" the Buddha's dharma.

Bohidharma taught the monks moving exercises designed to promote chi flow and build strength. These activities, modified from Vajramukti, were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (ex: cobra, deer, dragon, leopard, snake, tiger, etc.). It is difficult to determine when the exercises became "Shaolin martial arts." The Shaolin Temple was in an isolated area where bandits would have roamed and wild animals were a periodic menace, so the Temple's martial aspect likely began from self-defense necessity. After a while, these movements were codified into the Shaolin Five Animals style (Traditional Chinese: 五形; pinyin: wǔ xíng; literal: "Five Forms") from which Yuejiaquan developed.

The Shaolin Five Animals style was also part of the training of the Shaolin monk Chang San-Feng, who later created Tai chi chuan (Taijiquan), or T'ai chi ch'üan (Traditional Chinese: 太极拳; pinyin: tàijíquán; literal: "Grand Ultimate Fist") during the 14th century. The most popular style of which is practiced today is Yang family-style (Traditional Chinese: 楊氏; pinyin: Yángshì) T'ai Chi Chuan.


Luo Han practice boxing.

Wushu, i.e., martial or military arts, (武術 wǔshù) existed in China from the beginning of civilization well before the arrival of Bodhidharma and other Indian or Central Asian ācāryas (preceptors or instructors), who taught elsewhere in China. At the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma developed what became Shaolin Chuan Fa, or Quan Fa (Traditional Chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: Shàolín Chuān Fǎ; Wade–Giles: Shao Lin Ch'üan Fa; literally: "Shaolin fist technique"). The prefix chuan was the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word mukti (मुक्ति "clasped hand"). The term fa was the Chinese rendering of dharma (धर्मा "teachings of the Buddha"). Chuan Fa was the approximate Chinese translation for the Sanskrit term Dharmamukti (धर्मामुक्ति; "closed hand of the Dharma").

Yuejiaquan is a style of Northern Shaolin Chuan Fa which can also be called a Beiquan (Traditional Chinese: 北拳; pinyin: běiquán; Cantonese Yale: Bak kyuhn; lit. "northern fist") or a Bei Pai (Traditional Chinese: 南派; pinyin: Běi pài; Cantonese Yale: Bak paai; lit. "northern school"). Yuejiaquan is classified as a jiā (Traditional Chinese: 家; Cantonese Yale: gaa; literally "family") style.

Bodhidharma gave a new dimension to Chinese martial arts by structuring them along Buddhist principles and then teaching the Shaolin monks and nuns on how to use them as a support for their journey of self-awakening and enlightenment. Instead of being a display of aggression and force like wushu, the new form of Shaolin Chuan Fa turned into a dynamic method for cultivating a peaceful mind as well as a powerful method of defense. Bodhidharma took the slow moving forms of Chinese Qigong martial arts and gave them a new foundation based on the Buddhist principles and adapted them into the Buddhist practice to help practitioners maintain a healthy body for a deeper meditation. Shaolin Chuan Fa became part of what came to be called Ch'an (Chinese Zen) martial arts (Traditional Chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: Chánzōng wǔshù; Cantonese Yale: Simzung mouseot) which combined Ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple.

Bodhidharma taught the monks one complete nata and two pratima (condensed defense sequences) of the Bodhisattva Vajramukti school of Astadasajacan, the "18 Subduings," which were called in China the "18 Arhats" or "18 Luo Han," which means "perfected person," and refers to enlightened disciples of the Buddha.

The "18 Subduings" were the most important of the Indian Kshatriya Vajramutki forms which reflected the doctrine of the "18 Paramitas" (Spiritually Perfecting Practices) and the "18 Voidnesses of Wisdom." They were developed within the context of Chinese Buddhism by the Yogacara School of Vasubandhu, although there were similar groupings of 18 spiritual realities in many earlier traditions. These exercises were a part of various Indian medical traditions, which can be traced back to the Indian Brahmin traditions and possibly to the birth of Indian civilization as depicted in the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of The One Who is Most Dear"). There were numerous mentions of martial and healing arts and spiritual practices, which formed the cornerstone of the basic structure of Indian culture.

Bodhidharma also translated and taught Buddhist Snavasjala nidana vijnapti (respiratory yoga) and Asthimajja Parisuddhi (therapeutic kriya yoga), which means "Bone marrow cleansing and purification," known as Xi Sui Jing (西遂景) in Chinese. In addition, he taught a system of Mahāyāna Buddhist yoga that is known today as the "Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic," or Yi Jin jing (易金晶).


Luo Han practice boxing (continued).

The influence of Vajramukti on Chinese martial methods is evident in statues representing Buddha. With his left hand, Buddha makes the Varada mudra, which symbolizes charity, compassion, and blessing granting. With the right hand, Buddha forms the Abhaya mudra, which symbolizes protection, peace, and the relief of fear. These mudra serve as the foundation of the hand positions and circular defensive movements of Chinese Chuan Fa as well as Japanese Kempo, which was derived from the former.


In the Sanskrit text on Parivrttapala, it is written: "When the mudra (Abhaya) is rotated in a circular motion in front of the body, all and every attack against one's body is harmlessly redirected away from it. These mudra represent the ultimate and an unselfish form of defense. The mudra (Varada) then comes up from below (the) vision of the attacker to strike at the attacker."

Shaolin Temple Mural 1

Mural #1 of Baiyi Hall in the Shaolin Temple of monks at practice.

The exact date for these two frescos has not been determined, however they were likely done sometime between the late 1700's and the 1800's during the early part of the Qiánlóng Emperor's reign (1735–1796) or possibly earlier during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1661–1722). The two emperors were of the Manchu Qing dynasty (清朝; pinyin: Qīng cháo). It was founded in 1636 and ruled China from 1644 to 1912. The murals suggest two things. The first conclusion is that a significant part of martial art training and practice at Shaolin involved two or more persons sets known as Shuang Yan (雙演; Double Play) Dui Da (對打; Playing) and Dui Lian (對 練; Practice). The second observation is that the Shaolin monks believed that both Ch'an Buddhism and their system of Chuan Fa, or martial arts, came from India and that Bodhidharma was instrumental to both.

The above fresco of Baiyi Hall in the Shaolin Temple shows sixteen pairs of monks practicing Dui Lian of which ten pairs are practicing weapon sets and six pairs involved in barehand sets. There are also three monks in protective positions placed just to the left and right of Buddha in the upper pavilion, who are practicing single sets, two of the monks with weapons (練兵器 ; pinyin: liàn bīngqì; Training Weapon) the other monk practicing a barehand set (練拳套; pinyin: liàn quán tào; Training Gloves). This weapons dominated mural is painted in the style of Qing artists of the early to mid Qing period specializing in large-scale decorative works. They were employed to produce documentary, commemorative, and decorative works for the imperial palaces, which suggests that it may have done with the support of Kangxi Emperor, who was a supporter of Shaolin Temple. These master artists drew upon the representational styles of the Song dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng cháo; 960–1279). In the fresco, Bodhidharma is enshrined at the center in the lower base pavilion. The placement symbolizes Ben (本; root), the qualities of a "sage ruler"; and Men (門; gateway, doorway), the opening to the Tao or "Emptiness." We know that this figure is Bodhidharma because above him are the characters, 本 諦 源祖 (Ben Di Yuan Zu) which means, "The Root of Truth's Origin is Bodhidharma" or alternately "Bodhidharma is the Method's Origin." On the pavilion's right it is written 法力無邊 (Fa Li Wu Bian) which means: "The Power of the Way has no Boundary" and on the pavilion's left it is written, 佛恩廣大 (Fo En Guang Da), which means, "Buddha's Benevolence is Vast." Emerging from the left door of the pavilion is a bearded monk, who may depict Bodhidharma holding a mace. The mace is a weapon for crushing and symbolizes the smashing of the ignorance and emotional defilements created by karma (因果). His position by the side of the center gate symbolizes the "defense of the gate."

Shaolin Temple Mural #2

Mural #2 of Baiyi Hall in the Shaolin Temple of monks at practice.

The second fresco titled "Methods of Martial Arts" in Baiyi Hall is rendered in a more realistic style in imitation of Western naturalism. The mural has less ornamentation, influenced by the Western technique of linear perspective and realistically painted trees. The second mural was likely done more recently during the 1800s. It shows sixteen pairs of monks practicing barehand Dui Lian (對 練.) and conspicuously lacking weapons, which may indicate the political climate of the period in which the Shaolin monks and nuns were banned by the Qing dynasty from wielding weapons. The large non-Chinese dark skinned monk in the center likely depicts Bodhidharma. The composition is intentionally symmetrical and the positioning of the figure marks Bodhidharma's centrality to the Shaolin Temple's belief system. By the 18th century, it was a convention that Bodhidharma be depicted with a beard and it is very likely him as the figure is the only one, who is bearded.

Significant numbers of dark skinned monks and masters, likely representing Indian masters training with and teaching Chinese monks, is not about documentation but the idealization of the belief of the Shaolin monks that the source of martial arts and its reason for being – cultivating Enlightenment and offering protection – was India. During the Ming (大明; pinyin: Dàmíng; 1368–1644) and Qing periods there were very few remaining Buddhist communities in India and the movement of monks between India and China suggested in these Qing dynasty era frescos, occurred much earlier. By the 11th century, Buddhism was in decline in India and at the end of the 12th century when invading Turkish Moghul (Mongol) Muslims had conquered Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in India, and wiped out Buddhism. By then movement of monks between China and India had largely stopped and no records exist of important monks journeying from India to China.

Indian influences on Yuejiaquan have contributed to powerful and dynamic martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple. Those seeking instruction on authentic Shaolin martial arts need look no further.


Stay connected with our Facebook          Blogs  |  Detroit  |  Madison Heights  |  Zen  |  Sitemap




Copyright © 2022 - Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple - All Right Reserved - Web Design by Asian Martial Arts Design