Barefoot Zen: The Shaolin roots of Kung Fu and Karate

Barefoot Zen: The Shaolin roots of Kung Fu and Karate

by Nathan Johnson

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Most books about Kung Fu or Karate deal with techniques or history. Few examine the underlying purpose of these arts, or approach them as a tool for spiritual, rather than physical, development. Barefoot Zen is a brave new approach to the martial arts, which clearly demonstrates that the traditional movements of both Kung Fu and Karate, contained in the solo

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Most books about Kung Fu or Karate deal with techniques or history. Few examine the underlying purpose of these arts, or approach them as a tool for spiritual, rather than physical, development. Barefoot Zen is a brave new approach to the martial arts, which clearly demonstrates that the traditional movements of both Kung Fu and Karate, contained in the solo choreographed sequences of movements known as forms (or kata), grew out of the spiritual practices of the Shaolin order of Buddhist monks and nuns. Nathan Johnson explains that this mystical and non-violent teaching is a profound and beautiful expression of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and its pur-suit of wisdom, peace, and enlightenment. Contrary to popular assumption, he contends that it was never intended to be an actual means of self-defense. Barefoot Zen bridges the gap between Kung Fu and Karate, and reveals their common origin through the disclosure of vital research material on three of the world's most important Karate kata.

Part I explains the spiritual disciplines that contributed to what we know as the martial arts.

Part II explains the creation of the art along with practical instruction for performing kata.

Part III explains the formation of many of the world's Kung Fu styles. We learn that the original "empty hand art" was used as a method of kinetic meditation between pairs and was designed as a practical tool to assist practitioners in transcending the fear and insecurity of everyday living. Barefoot Zen makes the legacy of the Shaolin way accessible to all, releasing the art from the clutches of popular images and painful concerns about self-defense. The legendary courage of the Shaolin (Chan/Zen) order was not developed by fighting with enemies, but by not fighting!

The Shaolin teaching was designed to free us from fear, the only true enemy.

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barefoot zen

the Shaolin roots of kung fu and karate

By Nathan Johnson

Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Nathan Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-396-7


Kung Fu and Karate: Modern Progeny of an Ancient Art

Only by following the path of non-violence can defeat be avoided.

Kung Fu and Karate are widely popular in the West. Combined, their practitioners would make up a nation-state of several million people! Moreover, despite the decline of traditional martial arts in China and their replacement with Wu-Shu (a type of theatrical "martial" gymnastics), there are millions of Chinese people actively engaged in related arts today.

Unfortunately, because these arts have been classified and promoted as methods for staying in shape, as sports, self-defense, or performance arts, teachers have placed strong emphasis on physical and technical development, at the expense of the philosophical or spiritual teachings that these arts were actually intended to convey.

The general public has its own ideas concerning the value of Kung Fu and Karate. Unfortunately, many of these ideas are drawn largely from fiction and misrepresent the true nature of these arts. If we are to understand the original purpose and potential benefits of the empty-hand arts, we must distance them from sports, self-defense, and films, particularly those modern, violent screen images that have already exerted such a negative influence, putting off many people (the majority) who might otherwise have been interested. Regrettably, violence is the "stock in trade" for many films, and part of an entire generation has come to accept such scenes as normal, almost in the way that the crowds in ancient Roman arenas viewed fighting matches.

In modern times, "high kicks" have become representative of both Kung Fu and Karate. The stereotypical image of a martial artist, emitting a piercing shriek, face contorted, executing a high kick and presumably venting some bloodlust, is common. Such images also adorn badges, logos, and letterheads, and are very commonplace on posters—and the more spectacular, acrobatic, or gymnastic the kick, the better. Yet these techniques are not representative of the bulk of source material found in the key and antique (traditional) forms or kata. Furthermore, overemphasis of these modern kicking techniques is detracting from the study and application of the proper skills recorded and passed on through traditional forms and kata.

For those who are, or have been, involved in popular Kung Fu or Karate (or related arts), part of the initial attraction may well have been these high kicks. I was fascinated by them as a youth and remember eagerly setting out to try to master them. Earnestly believing in their alleged devastating potential, I was soon pounding a kick-bag with fairly agile kicking combinations. Hitting a moving target proved to be very different, but, with the zest of youth and some expert tuition from a Korean stylist, I persisted, firm in the belief that I was mastering something ancient and profound, not to mention deadly. Later, I learned otherwise. I learned that:

1. While they are very evident in modern Wu-Shu and styles influenced by it, high kicks do not appear in the traditional (antique) southern Shaolin forms or the antique Karate kata (see Appendix, page 241) in which the leg is used only fourteen times in the hundreds of movements comprising nine antique kata.

2. Karate practitioners, returning to Japan after being absent from 1935 to 1945, had never even learned the side kick, a popular kicking technique in which the leg is abducted by being thrust or snapped out to the side. The side kick is now considered as basic to Karate. Taiji Kase, a prominent contemporary senior Japanese Karate instructor, informs us that the side kick was developed in the absence of Karate-ka (Karate practitioners) overseas. When they returned, they would not accept it as a legitimate Karate technique!

3. High kicks have a poor track record of success in interdisciplinary full-contact Karate bouts, and those who claim to teach "real self-defense" generally disregard high kicks or give them little credence.

The martial arts and, by implication, the empty-hand art have become associated with scenes of violence. Indeed, this is the only exposure some people will get to them. In the way, however, that Clint Eastwood films do not depict the real life of a cowboy or a police officer, martial arts films are clearly not about real life. There may still remain a need for self-defense, but the term "self-defense" is as much a generalization as the expression "the average shoe size," something that obviously would not fit the majority of people.

Despite the many people worldwide who practice martial arts, there are many more who do not. In the age of modern technology, communications, law enforcement, and weapon usage, a barehanded duel is (statistically) an unlikely event for most adults. The average citizen, in fact, seldom thinks about self-defense until threatened (for example, by an aggressive drunk). Although some imagine that all good citizens could be protected against mugging by learning a few "tricks," those tricks could not possibly cover the full range of potential scenarios. If you try to examine all the possibilities, you can end up becoming obsessed with confrontation scenarios. Confrontation and violence, however, do not obsess the seeker of the "way," who requires more legitimate reasons for practicing.

In chapter 2, we will examine the notion of "kill or be killed" and discover just who is the most likely to be concerned with self-defense, and why. Indeed this is the crux of the matter. Please do not confuse the needs of professional warriors (both ancient and modern), law enforcement officers, practitioners of Shaolin, and the rights of the general public to go about unmolested. Each face different problems, and each require different tools.

There is, in the West, an incessant drive in martial arts toward "making it work." This is another factor leading to the distortion of the empty-hand way. Many courses are being run in which participants seek reassurance by rehearsing perceived common scenarios. Similar scenario-based training has also, traditionally, been the focus of self-defense courses for women. There is now a popular emphasis on tactics and methods connected with confrontation—for example, at a nightclub door. These methods bear no genuine relationship to the material found in the Shaolin-based forms and have nothing at all to do with the Zen foundation of the art.

I think it's a pity to see the empty-hand arts monopolized by the urban combat "specialists" and promoted as something violent, confrontational and negative. This book asks deeper questions: What if the original (Shaolin-based) Kung Fu is more than fighting? What if it is not even for fighting (as we perceive it) at all?

A Little Bit of Zen

If the Shaolin empty-hand art was created by Zen monks, how can we reconcile the so-called martial arts with the peaceful aims of Zen Buddhism? How can physical activity (martial arts) lead to Zen enlightenment? And, what is Zen enlightenment, anyway? Later, we will see that the attainment of Zen enlightenment, or even Zen self-improvement, through physical means unfolds in a way that differs from other physical activities.

Self-discipline is required for improvement or success in any sport or activity. Zen enlightenment is different. It cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of competition, aggression (even controlled aggression), image obsession, or self-defense anxiety. Traditionally, Zen training is not about the control of others; it is about the control of self. The road to enlightenment is an inward-turning pathway leading us back to our original nature.

Zen and Meditation

Zen is not a philosophy or a religion in any strict sense. Simply put, Zen is initially concerned with doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way, with a clear head and a good heart. Indeed, one of the early benefits of meditation practice is that it occasions mindfulness, which is perhaps best considered as involvement rather than thinking. Zen is the superlative, mindful way of doing things, because it is an efficient state of "being." In fact, it is the most efficient state of being, approached and experienced through meditation before gradually permeating out and embracing all aspects of life.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, meditation was not invented by hippies. It is not anti-establishment nor is the use of joss sticks obligatory. Meditation can be carried out perfectly well without any paraphernalia, for that matter. It does not make you docile and passive, nor does it encourage you to "drop out." For many of us, Zen represents quite a challenge in our modern, "hyper," must-get-something-done culture. It must be experienced to be understood.

"I see what you mean" ... said the man who was blind As he groped about in a narrowing mind.

An Example of Meditation

The example given in figure 1 is for those with no prior knowledge of meditation. It takes place in a quiet solitary place and may last for ten minutes to an hour, or longer. Sit either cross-legged or on a straight-backed chair, keeping your back straight. Swell out your abdomen and put a little strength there, then relax. Close your mouth and let your tongue touch the hard palate of your mouth. Leave your eyes slightly open, with your gaze cast down. Make sure that your chin is not sticking out. Relax your face and then your entire body. Continue to keep your back straight; do not sit tailor fashion (round-backed). Breathe through your nose and become still. In this stillness, begin to "let go"; first by emptying out and clearing away distractions such as impatience, doubt, fear, even curiosity, and then by detaching from all thoughts, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. Discard them all, even your identity. After reaching an initial state of calm, gently focus your attention on either the feeling of the breath at the tip of your nose, or the rise and swell of your abdomen, particularly at the point one inch below your navel. You can also practice counting from one to ten, simply returning to the number one every time your mind wanders.

It is amazing how many tricks the thinking mind will play during meditation. For instance, after having settled well, your mind may break in on the quiet moment and congratulate you with an "Oh, I'm doing okay with this meditation thing! OOPS, better start counting again, or should I try feeling the breath at the tip of the nose, or should I concentrate on the swell of the abdomen, I wonder what it's like to be a Buddhist, to be strong to be happy, wise, I wonder ...?" Presto! You have become a victim of classic thought-drift and you are thinking, not meditating.

Beginners may well find all this quite tricky, as doubt and suspicion also challenge the mind. If you are sitting cross-legged, pain (mostly in the knees) can reduce the resolve of even the most determined. Questions concerning the usefulness of sitting still, apparently doing nothing, are also particularly common at this stage. These and other obstacles can only be smoothed out with practice—by continuing to detach from thoughts and emotions, merely observing them and letting them pass, neither accepting nor rejecting them. As for the pain in your knees—well, it's advisable to move them, give them a rub, and settle back down to meditation!

What Happens Next?

If all conditions are shed, let go of to become "no-things," and if these limitations actually fade, your true nature or true self will be revealed. As the Zen expression goes, you will begin to see your true face before your parents were born.

This true self can be regarded as a pristine consciousness, an indwelling intelligence. Unlike mere intellectual intelligence, the indwelling intelligence is a force within that watches and knows. It is made manifest when the focal point of consciousness has been withdrawn from the external world of objects and becomes focused on the internal world of being.

If you get this far, you will have entered the internal world of being (the subjective realm) that is a vast and continuous mirror of the external objective world. Mistakenly perceived as a great "nothing" by those who have never traveled its broad expanses or plumbed its great depths, the subjective realm can profitably be compared to the relatively vast space inside an atom (nothing tangibly or truly concrete, alas, for the materialists). Within this space, the exciting potential of all creation exists. Here, we can find echoes of Taoism and parallels with the great vast "emptiness" of the Tao, or "Way" (see chapter 4).

In this sense, all potential exists within the individual, hampered only by ingrained habits, mind clutter, and ill-devised belief systems. In a simplistic sense, Zen meditation provides a means of zeroing the registers, cleaning out the "room of mind," and returning to a pure and unsullied state of consciousness. Freed from the objects of consciousness, we are conscious only of being conscious and free to experience (insperience) our true nature.

Western thought, concerned as it is with adding things—wealth, power, status, speed—sometimes turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to the possibility of embracing simplicity, graciously letting go, and no longer grasping. It often confuses Zen letting go with giving up or giving in. This is a mistake.

Metaphorically speaking, spiritual misers hoard everything—compassion, goodness, altruism, open-mindedness, and particularly their own spirituality—refusing even to empty the rubbish, so to speak. Dressed in rags, they live a miserable, impoverished, and purposeless life. Happily, the Zen ghosts of past, present, and future have helped many to let go of suffering, neurosis, fear, doubt, judgmental attitudes, and other impediments, and move progressively toward a more fulfilling way of life.

Indeed, during meditation, by letting go, you can "gain the way," find the center, and sit fearlessly within. This still center is a place of great balance and power. It is peaceful, yet dynamic; tranquil, yet eventful; instant, yet eternal. It was these high levels of meditation ability, rather than martial prowess, that gave the Shaolin monks and nuns their reputation for fearlessness.

In sitting, sit (still) like a mountain; above all, don't wobble!

Freedom from Fear

The Zen mind has a true (practical) value for the martial artist.

It is wrong to think that misfortunes come from the east or from the west; they originate within one's own mind. Therefore it's foolish to guard against misfortune from the external world and leave the inner mind uncontrolled.

As plants spring forth from seeds, so thoughts spring forth from minds. It is the ability to let go of these thoughts and cease to identify with them that truly liberates. In the book Buddhist Scriptures, we read:

For whatever a man thinks about continually, to that his mind becomes inclined by the force of habit.... For unwholesome thoughts will grow when nursed in the heart and breed misfortune for yourself and others alike.

At one time, I taught Kung Fu professionally and was considerably preoccupied with my combat efficiency in any potential confrontation. I had a hectic (hazardous) social life in which I kept regular company with fear, doubt, and egotism, my own and other people's. Although my quest to be a completely efficient martial artist only increased my unwholesome preoccupation with (potential) conflict, the turmoil this caused was a product of my mind.

In the second of the Buddha's four noble truths we learn:

Physical discomfort and suffering are not the same thing. We suffer in the mind, and the mind produces the conditions of life which are unstable and unsatisfactory.

Indeed, the suffering I experienced at this time was psychological. From a Zen perspective, however, such emotional damage can become dangerous if it becomes habitual. I suffered from too many days in the company of fear and paranoia.

You may wonder what this has to do with Zen in the martial arts. Well, the usual platitude employed at this point is: Zen helps a warrior (or a fighter) to calm and focus his mind, making him more efficient. The cultivation of Zen however, should not be undertaken to make you a cold and mechanical person, devoid of passion and humanity. Zen was born from the Mahayana (Sanskrit, Great Vehicle) school of Buddhism and founded on compassion. This is incompatible with any notions of "warrior Zen."

Excerpted from barefoot zen by Nathan Johnson. Copyright © 2000 Nathan Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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