Damo and Zen Buddhism
Around 500 AD, an Indian aristocrat turned Buddhist monk known as Bodhidharma traveled East through China to spread his particular brand of Buddhism, Dhyana. His emphasis was on a stripped-down form of meditation wherein the practitioner focuses on counting the breath to remove attatchment and ultimately reach enlightenment.
Puti Damo (as he was known to the Chinese) arrived at the palace of the emporer and was given an audience. The emperor regailed Damo with stories of his many acheivements in the advancement of Buddhism: temples built, sutras copied, and on and on. When the list was over, the emperor asked Damo what spiritual attainments he would receive for his contributions to the Buddhist faith. Damo's answer was "none whatsoever."
Astonished, the emperor asked Damo what was the fundamental principle of Buddhism. "Absolute emptiness," was Damo's answer. Embarassed and offended, the emperor asked Damo who he thought he was. "I don't know," was Damo's response. Such unexpected and perplexing answers would become a common technique of Damo's followers in the establishment of "Chan" ("Zen" to the Japanese) Buddhism.
The Shaolin Connection
Damo arrived at the Shaolin Temple around the year 520. He presented himself to the abbot and offered his services as a teacher of meditation. The abbot responded to his strange ideas and behavior much as the emperor had, and Damo was sent away. He set himself up in a nearby cave and sat in meditation for nine years. At one point, frustrated that he was beginning to nod off, he is supposed to have cut off his eyelids and cast them outside the entrance to his cave. According to legend, a tea plant grew where his eyelids landed, and the monks years later would harvest the leaves of the plant to brew tea to keep them awake for long sessions of meditation. Damo sat for so long that according to legend, his image was etched into the wall of the cave. Today at the Shaolin temple you can see the rock that supposedly bears his image. Another version of the same legend has Damo burning a hole in the wall of the cave with the intensity of his gaze. Impressed by Damo's dedication, the Shaolin abbot invited him back to the temple and installed him as the meditation teacher.
Back at Shaolin Temple, Damo discovered that the monks were in very poor physical condition and could not sit for the long meditation sessions demanded by his regimen.
Perhaps drawing on the martial arts training he would have received as an Indian aristocrat, Damo devised 49 exercises to develop strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus. Many of the postures are similar to yoga, many incorporate isometric strength exercises. Known as the I Ching Ching (Change the Tendon Classics), these became the foundation of Shaolin conditioning, which developed into Shaolin kung fu.
Damo's I Ching Ching
The I Ching Ching start simply, with isometric tensing and pushing, using muscle groups against each other. (Note: Because they are practiced with the most intensity you can muster, "simple" is not the same as "easy!") Some of the exercises involve holding the body up in a position that requires a lot of muscular strength, endurance, and balance. Among the most difficult are those such as the one legged squat and the one-armed push-ups, where the practitioner is supposed to start all the way at the floor and slowly push him/herself up one breath, one centimeter at a time.
These 49 exercises that combine focusing the mind and strengthening the body have been passed down to today where they are still a major part of the Shaolin-Do training system.
The Legacy of Damo
There are other amusing legend surrounding Damo. In one, he is met by a monk three years after he was known to be dead and buried. The surprised monk saw that Damo was wearing just one shoe, and asked him where he was going. Damo replied that he was returning to India, and that the Chinese emperor had just died. Then he went his way. The monk arrived in the Capitol and found that the emperor was indeed dead. He told this remarkable story to the new emperor, who ordered Damo's remains exhumed. The grave was empty save one shoe.
Over the next 1,300 years the Shaolin Temple became the leading martial arts research and development institution of China. Many great martial artists and generals would seek refuge there when they needed to escape powerful enemies or political persecution, and their techniques would be incorporated into the Shaolin arsenal. An underground network of martial temples developed, with the original Shaolin Temple at Henan at its head. The Henan temple was periodically destroyed or suppressed by emperors jealous of its power, and the Fukien Temple became the secret headquarters of the Shaolin sect, with Henan operating merely as a figurehead. Henan Shaolin began a long period of decline in the 1840s, and during the civil wars in 1928 it was all but wiped out by fire. By that time, Grandmaster Su Kong Tai Djin of Fukien temple, head of the Shaolin sect, had destroyed his temple and taken refuge in the mountains.