January 2002 (Part 3)



The great Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Shaolin Kungfu, Shaolin Chi Kung and Zen

Question 1

Why was Shaolin Kungfu created?

— Jeffrey, USA


Shaolin Kungfu was not created; it evolved from the needs and conditions of its time and environment. That was also how kungfu in general started, although the needs and conditions were different.

Even before farming and settlement began, the earliest men (and women) had to fight, amongst themselves and against animals. Gradually over many centuries they learned from direct fighting experience how to fight more effectively. This development was slow, as it was incidental and haphazard.

We may have a rough idea of this slow development by comparing it with free sparring practised by most martial artists today. They may spar for many weeks, then incidentally they discover a useful technique against a particular punch or kick. But they have no systematic method to practise this useful technique. They continue free sparring haphazardly. Most of the time they merely punch and kick each other, or bounce away from attacks.

Then, a sparring partner may attack in a way which reminds them of the useful technique they discovered weeks earlier. But they would be unable to respond effectively; the technique merely occurred to them as an idea. They would, as most martial artists would have experienced many times in their sparring career, say to themselves, “Ah! I should have moved in to strike him immediately after he kicked.”

Over months of free sparring practice, after being punched and kicked countless times, they may become more able to apply the useful technique they thought about earlier. For example, after a partner kicks, they may move in to execute a punch. But they would not be able to do so skilfully, because they have never practised methodically to develop the necessary skills. In the first place, they do not even realize the difference between techniques and skills.

Over many years of free sparring, after sustaining much injury and harbouring much aggression, they could have developed some skills as well as learnt some useful techniques. Their development is not only painfully slow, it is also limited in scope and depth by their own personal experience. For example, they may have learnt a Shaolin pattern like “White Crane Spreads Wings” or a Taijiquan pattern like “Wild Horse Spreads Mane”, but their own free sparring experience would be insufficient to enable them to use these techniques skilfully.

The early development of kungfu, or any other system of martial art, was similar, except that it was of a much larger scale and for longer time. Development was also painfully slow. Western boxing, wrestling and free style fighting give us an idea of this stage of development.

But at the Shaolin Temple, the development of kungfu reached a scope and depth unprecedented in the world. Many people, including many Shaolin students, may not know that the Shaolin Temple was the imperial temple for all the emperors of all dynasties in China. Many great generals went to the Shaolin Temple for retirement. Needless to say, the martial art attainment of modern practitioners is nothing compared to that of great Chinese generals of the past.

The generals continued their martial art training at the Shaolin Temple. They modified the Shaolin Eighteen Lohan Hands, which was the fundamental set of chi kung taught by Bodhidharma to the Shaolin monks, to the Shaolin Eighteen Lohan Fist, which became the fore-runner of Shaolin Kungfu.

What was more significant was that kungfu became institutionalized. It means that, among other things, instead of finding out useful techniques on their own in haphazard sparring, Shaolin students inherited the best techniques and skills from generations of masters through systematic training. Hence, they could attain in three years what someone learning by trials and errors could not attain in his whole lifetime.

Let us take an example. Students of my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course could spar or perform vigorous exercise continuously for two hours yet do not feel tired or out of breath. They could do so because they followed a method of breath control perfected by Shaolin masters over many centuries. Someone inventing his own techniques could never do so on his own.

Did I invent the method of breath control? Of course, not. Who invented it? Nobody! Long ago at the Shaolin Temple some masters found from their actual fighting experience some rudimentary ways of breath control. Later, other masters improved upon those methods. Then, still other masters improved upon the improved methods, and so on until now these wonderful and proven methods are passed to us as a legacy.

Such a continuous development was possible when kungfu was institionalized. If an art is individualized, as in Western Boxing, development is limited to an individual's time and ability. No matter how intelligent that individual may be, his achievement cannot be anything near the accumulative achievements of countless masters over many centuries.

Question 2

Some say Shaolin Kungfu is the greatest martial art in the world. Why is it the greatest?


We can justify the greatness of Shaolin Kungfu from many perspective. From the perspective of combat, Shaolin Kungfu is the most efficient. It has the largest repertoire of techniques. While some martial arts focus on only one mode of attack and defence, like only on strikes, or kicks or throws, Shaolin Kungfu uses all these modes.

While other martial arts work only on the level of techniques, Shaolin Kungfu goes beyond techniques to tactics and strategies. For example, an opponent's kicks are fast and powerful. In many other martial arts, the exponent may not know what to do. In Shaolin Kungfu, you can employ a tactic whereby it becomes difficult for your opponent to kick you, or you can employ a strategy whereby using kicks would become disadvantageous to him.

Most martial arts use muscular strength, which has physical limits. Your knuckles, for example, are less hard than a brick, our body less tough than a bladed weapon, and your efficiency goes downhill at middle age. On the other hand, Shaolin Kungfu uses internal force which has no physical limits. Not only you can break bricks and withstand bladed weapon attack, you are more efficiency as you age.

What many people may not realize is that many other martial arts are detrimental to health, physical as well as psychological! Not only their exponents have sustained much internal injury, they also become aggressive, angry and even dull. Often I cannot help wondering why do they “punish” themselves. Shaolin Kungfu training eliminates illness and pain, enhances health and vitality, and promotes mental freshness.

The best claim of Shaolin Kungfu to being the greatest martial art is that it leads the practitioner to the greatest achievement any being can ever attain, i.e. enlightenment. This, in fact, was why and how Shaolin Kungfu started. When the great Bodhidharma taught the Shaolin monks “Eighteen Lohan Hands” which later developed into Shaolin Kungfu, his intention was not to enable the monks to fight better, not even to attain better health, but as a means towards enlightenment.

The only other martial art in the world which also had such a spiritual beginning is Taijiquan. When the great Zhang San Feng developed “Thirty Two Patterns of Wudang Long Fist” which later developed into Taijiquan, his intension was spiritual cultivation.

Please refer to my webpage Why Shaolin Kungfu is the Greatest Martial Art for more information.

Question 3

The way I see it is different. Bodhidharma was not a martial artist. He was an enlightened chi kung master with amazing abilities. He couldn't be moved and could generate enormous amount of chi to move and control the elements. In my opinion he had no need for martial art training because he could simply draw the chi out of anybody who confronted him, or shoot chi into an assailant and totally mess up the person's chi flow.


Like the Buddha before him, Bodhidharma was both a great scholar and great martial artist. To be trained in both scholarship and martial art was an essential development of a prince groomed to succeed the throne. But, like the Buddha too, Bodhidharma willingly renounced the throne to take on a more important task, that of seeking, and later teaching, enlightenment.

Bodhidharma had miraculous power. One typical image of him was his using miraculous power to cross the Yangtze River on a reed. Should any person be foolish enough to attack him, Bodhidharma would not need any martial art technique to overcome the attacker. Yet, it was through his early martial art training that he later developed tremendous miraculous power.

In the same way but of course at a much lower level than Bodhidharma's, I do not need any kungfu techniques to cure students of serious illness. Yet, it was through my early kungfu training that I developed internal force for healing others.

Question 4

Kungfu is only good because of chi kung. Why waste time training kungfu when it all came from chi kung? If you mastered chi, how could someone beat you? To me kungfu is a distraction from the real goal, chi. I believe the Great Buddha is proof enough. Do you believe any master could have beaten him?


You are right to suggest that kungfu becomes great because of chi kung. And chi kung becomes great because of Zen, or meditation. Indeed, this is one of the best pieces of advice my own master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, gave me.

Shaolin Kungfu, Shaolin Chi Kung and Zen are integrated. When one practises genuine Shaolin Kungfu, he is also practising Shaolin Chi Kung and Zen, although due to the limitation of words, we often use the terms provisionally as if referring to three separate arts.

Nevertheless, there are also many styles of kungfu which are good without chi kung. Choy-Li-Fatt, for example, is a great kungfu style, but it does not pay much attention to chi kung. Here, I am using the terms “kungfu” and “chi kung” in the sense most people use them, i.e. as separate arts.

Mastering chi does not necessarily make the practitioner invincible. A Choy-Li-Fatt exponent, for example, can cause serious injury to a chi kung master, especially one who does not practise kungfu.

Kungfu and chi kung serve different purposes. If a person wants to learn how to fight, he learns kungfu. If he wants to overcome illness, he learns chi kung. Actually there are many genuine kungfu masters who do not know chi kung, and also many genuine chi kung masters who do not know kungfu.

As mentioned earlier, Sidharta Guatama, who later become the Buddha, was a great martial artist. In his young days he beat many other princes in martial art contest to win the marriage to Princess Yasoka.

Nevertheless, even if the Buddha had not known martial art, no martial art masters no matter how powerful they might be could have beaten the Buddha. This was because of the tremendous miraculous power of the Buddha.

Shaolin Kungfu

Shaolin Kungfu is not just for fighting. The performamce of this Shaolin pattern, for example, involves the training of form, energy and mind.

Question 5

I have just started a form called Pancha Tanmantra which I believe is similar to Shaolin Kung Fu. In it, we do forms according to the elements, (ie wood, earth, fire, metal) and we started with water and fire.

— Susan, Ireland


I do not know about Pancha Tanmantra, but I don't think it is similar to Shaolin Kungfu. Its name suggests it has Tibetan or Indonesian influence.

While the five elemental processes are found in Shaolin Kungfu, they are however not a major aspect. They are more important in Xingyi (Hsing Yi) Kungfu, but I also don't think Pancha Tanmantra is similar to Xingyi Kungfu.

Pancha Tanmantra is not an established kungfu style. I guess it might be a recent invention by someone in Indonesia who incorporated Vajrayana philosophy into kungfu forms.

Question 6

Do you have any information or know where I could get information on the different elements and what emotions are represented by each element?


“Five Elements” is a wrong translation made by early European writers of the Chinese philosophical concept of “Wu Xing” due to their insufficient understanding of the Chinese concept, but the English term has become established and almost everyone today uses it without realizing the mistake.

“Wu Xing” means “Five Movements” or “Five Processes”. This philosophical concept refers to processes, and not to elements. The mistake was made probably because the early European writers wrongly related this Chinese philosophical concept with the Indian philosophical concept of “Four Elements”.

In Indian philosophy, the “Four Elements” refer to “earth”, “water”, “air” and “fire”, from which everything in the world is made. But this Indian concept is also inadequately understood. “Earth”, “water”, “air” and “fire” are symbolic, not realistic, terms. What is meant is not that everything is made of earth, water, air and fire; what is meant, as explained by the Buddha, is that everything is made of four “ultimates”, symbolized by “earth”, “water”, “air” and “fire” — what modern physicists might call quarks with down, bottom, up and top spin.

While the “Four Elements” of the Indians refer to “substance”, the mis-translated “Five Elements” of the Chinese refer to processes. There are, of course, countless processes in the world, but the Chinese generalize these countless processes into five archetypes, symbolized as “metal”, “water”, “wood”, “fire” and “earth”.

In the Chinese language, the “Four Elements” in Indian philosophy are called “xi da”, which means “four greats”; and the mis-translated “Five Elements” in Chinese philosophy are called “wu xing”, which means “five movements”. Thus, there is no confusion in the Chinese language as two different terms — “da” and “xing” — are used. Confusion arises in the English language when the same term “element” is used for two different concepts, “da” (great) and “xing” (movement).

In an attempt to help clarify the confusion, I have used the term “Five Elemental Processes” instead of “Five Elements” for the philosophical concept of “wu xing”. I would prefer “Five Processes”, which is both literally and figuratively closer to “wu xing”, but I retain the word “Elemental” to maintain the link with the common term “Five Elements” although it is wrongly translated.

You can find mention of “wu xing” in many books on Chinese philosophy, Chinese medicine, kungfu, feng shui (the Chinese art of environmental energy) and Taoism, but as far as I know all these books in English use the term “Five Elements”. Also, not a single of them explains the philosophical concept of “wu xing”; at the most, some of these books merely repeat the trite description that “metal destroys wood”, “wood destroys earth” and so on, which is actually not saying anything. I can safely say that the authors themselves do not understand the real meaning of “wu xing”; they also do not know what is actually meant by “metal destroys wood”, etc.

I believe I am the only one so far writing in English to explain “wu xing” as “five processes” and not “five elements”. Detailed explanation can be found in my book, “The Art of Chi Kung”, and further explanation can be found in my forth-coming book, “The Complete Book of Chinese Medicine”. The following is only a brief explanation.

Processes with sonorous characteristics are symbolized as “metal”, processes with spreading characteristics symbolized as “water”, processes with growing characteristics symbolized as “wood”, processes with rising characteristics as “fire”, and processes with centralizing characteristics as “earth”. An example of a “water” process is an expansion of a business, an example of a “wood” process is setting up of new branches, and an example of a “fire” process is quarrelling.

When business expands, new branches are set up. This is symbolized as “water creates wood”. When there are more branches, they tend to quarrel among themselves. This is symbolized as “wood creates fire”. To overcome the quarrelling, the general manager may expand his control over the branch managers. This is symbolized as “water destroys fire”.

In the field of emotions, grief is symbolized by “metal”, fear by “water”, anger by “wood”, joy by “fire”, and worry by “earth”. If you are sad or depressed, you can overcome your emotional problem by becoming happy. This is “fire destroys metal”. How you may implement the principle of “fire destroys metal” will depend on your skill or the skill of your doctor. As the heart corresponds to “fire”, one excellent way is to practise chi kung to open your heart. In fact the term “kai xin”, which literally means “open heart”, is the Chinese term for being happy.

Question 7

How do you work through or transform, i.e. if you are working on sadness, what does that transform into?


Your question reminds me of some people who practise or worse still teach techniques, and philosophize on them, without knowing what they are doing or saying. For example, they may have read, or mis-read, about “Five Elements”, and that sadness is associated with the element “metal”. They also have read from different sources about visualization. In their practice, they visualize transforming “metal” into “fire”, which they have read to represent joy. In this way they fancy that they could transform sadness into joy. If they persist on such practice, they could land themselves, and the students they teach, into serious trouble.

What these bogus masters do not realize is that in the East, philosophy follows practice. First, people practised chi kung. They did not worry about any transformation or any philosophy; they just practised what their masters taught them. As a result of their dedicated practice, they became happy. This went on for centuries. Then, masters attempted to explain what had happened. They discovered that the chi kung practice opened the practitioners' heart. So, from the practice which had happened first, the masters formalized the philosophy that opening one's heart made the person happy.

It is not the other way round. It is not that first someone philosophized that by opening the heart one could be happy. Then he invented techniques to open the heart. This is what many bogus masters do. They read about Eastern philosophy. They also read about techniques in chi kung, meditation and other arcane disciplines. Then they matched some philosophical concepts with some techniques and invented their own art.

Another big mistake many bogus masters make is that they fail to realize, or simply refuse to accept, that techniques require much time to master. For example, in Vajrayana meditation, practitioners may personify their negative emotions into an imaginary being, and then transform this imaginary being with negative emotions into one with positive emotions. Such meditation requires many years of practice under the supervision of a genuine master. But bogus masters can be so arrogant, or naïve, that they think they can learn the technique in a few days from books and teach it to others. These bogus masters do not realize the great difference between skill and technique.

Question 8

We do a lot of stances (horse riding, bow and arrow, cat, scissors) and we have done three of the water movements, i.e. “Water One” would represent loss, “Water Two” would represent loneliness etc. I wonder if you have any more information on this subject? We have also done “Fire One”, “Fire Two” and “Fire Three”. These movements are done both hard and soft. We start off with the soft movements.


You too do not realize the great difference between skill and technique. And you are confused over information and ability. You have the misconception that once you have the information, you will have the ability. Let us take a simple example. You may read the information on brain surgery from a book, but you may not have the ability of a brain surgeon.

Different people have different ways, or techniques, of doing things. Secondly, different people may use the same technique for different purposes. Thirdly, they may have different names for the same techniques. Fourthly, they may have the same names for different techniques.

Hence, while “Water One” and “Water Two” may represent “loss” and “loneliness” respectively for you and your classmates practising Pancha Tanmantra, these terms may represent different emotions for other people practising other arts. More likely other people would use different techniques. Even if they have similar techniques they may give the techniques different names.

Then, what about the symbols of “wu xing” mentioned earlier? I mentioned that grief is symbolized by “metal”, and fear by “water”. Could you, instead, use “metal” to symbolize loss, and “water” to symbolize loneliness?

You could, but then you would have denied yourself the wonderful benefits and deep wisdom of “wu xing” accumulated by centuries of masters. The point is that the philosophy of “wu xing” is established, whereas your system is not. If you follow the symbolism of “wu xing”, loss and loneliness belong to the group of emotions represented by grief, and hence both these emotions are symbolized by “metal”. As mentioned earlier, the symbolism in “wu xing” was not mere speculation, it was the result of centuries of empirical knowledge.

Nevertheless, you should not be unduly concerned about the names. What you should be concerned are the practical benefits your techniques bring you, and not the philosophy which you do not really understand. In other words, if your training makes you healthy and happy, it does not matter much whether you call your techniques Soft Water One and Hard Fire Two, or simply Technique A and Technique B. But if you are still lost and lonely despite knowing the beautiful philosophy behind your techniques, then you would have wasted your time.

Later when you have benefited much from your training, you may study Pancha Tanmamtra philosophy deeper, and when you have become a master, you may formalize your own philosophy about your techniques to help your students. Whether your philosophy will become established will depend much on whether your techniques and the philosophy will have helped many people for a long time.

Shaolin Kungfu

Many consider Shaolin Kungfu the greatest martial art in the world

Question 9

I am a 42 year old single mom, and I work in the alternative fields as a massage and reiki person. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer four weeks ago. I have been doing a lot of work on meditation, good food, spiritual healing, getting to the core of my repressed anger, fear, etc.

I would like to heal my body naturally without chemo and radiation. I am struggling. I don't feel I have time to purchase a class and study your course because it is so new to me. I know mastering anything takes time and I feel time is of the essence. I am enjoying the process of my spiritual growth at this time but I still have a lot of fear to work though. Can you offer me any help? Do you do hands on healing?

— Crystena, USA


What I am going to tell you may not sound pleasant, but the advice is given sincerely to help you and people like you. Of course whether you would heed my advice is your prerogative.

You appear to me as a New Age person. I have met many New Age persons, and they have the following characteristics in common. They are kind people, and believe they are on a spiritual path. They claim to work with energy and they want to help others. But they are sick, physically or emotionally, frequently in pain, and are often depressed.

They seldom realize the irony they are in. They honestly believe they practise spiritual cultivation, but they do not really know what spiritual cultivation is. They talk about energy, but do not really know what they are talking about. They want to help others, but they themselves need help urgently.

Let us take a few examples from your case. If you have done a lot of work on mediation, you should be peaceful and mentally fresh, but you are fearful and confused. You said you had been getting to the core of your repressed anger and fear, but do you really understand what you said? For example, how did you get to the core of your repressed anger and fear, and what happened to these negative emotions when you got to their core? You said you were enjoying the process of your spiritual growth, but do you really know what spiritual growth is? Your spiritual growth means the growth of your spirit. But your spirit is more depressed, more confused and much weakened now than before.

But the biggest irony is that instead of taking advantage of the best help I can offer you, i.e. taking my Intensive Chi Kung Course to overcome your cervical cancer, you ask me, implicitly, if I could help you by doing hands on healing, which is something I am not noted for.

Many cancer patients have recovered by practising chi kung learnt from me. You can read some of their testimonies in my Comments pages. My good track record in helping cancer patients recover was one of the main reasons why the Second World Congress on Qigong presented me the “Qigong Master of the Year” award in 1997. Yet, you felt you didn't have time to learn chi kung from me — even though you knew mastering anything, such as mastering chi kung to overcome cancer, needed time.

Question 10

I live in a building complex. There is a cemetery 200 metres away, a church 300 metres away, a high-tension line 500 metres away, and a hospital 800 metres away from my apartment. What do you think about practicing chi kung here?

— Lydia, Austria


This is not a good place to practise chi kung, or to live. I would recommend that you move to another place. It will cost you some money, but you will find that your life will improve and you will also earn more money. You may not know how you can earn more money, but the extra money will flow in somehow. In the end, your financial position, as well as other things, will be better than what you have now.

Why is this so. It is because of “feng shui”. Feng shui is the Chinese art of environmental energy. Like chi kung, feng shui was kept as top secret in the past, and is now becoming more popularly known. In the past, very important people like emperors, generals and ministers always consulted feng shui masters concerning important buildings.

Also like chi kung, what the public know about feng shui today is often a much degraded form of the art. Feng shui has nothing to do with superstitions; it is based on science. The science of feng shui of course is different from what modern people conceptualize a science to be. According to feng shui, the place you stay is surrounded by negative energy, which not only affects your health but all aspects of your life.



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