March 2013

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by Keith Vargo Illustration by Shin Yul-Da 

Zen in the Art of Archery, Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Temple: Martial Arts Fact or Fiction? (Part 1)When a person uses the word “myth,” he is usually pointing out that something is false. What’s more, he is claiming it’s a falsehood many people believe is true, such as urban myths about illegal kidney harvesting or murderous lunatics who make threatening calls from within their victim’s home. These stories aren’t true, but many people believe they are. They don’t seem especially powerful or meaningful. Maybe “myth” isn’t the right word for them.

A myth is a story meant to convey a fundamental truth or belief. Usually it’s a mixture of history and fantasy, a kind of cultural ideal. It is, in short, a story so compelling that it doesn’t fit into the easy categories of truth or falsehood.

The martial arts are full of myths. For instance, there are stories about Japanese warriors being taught swordsmanship by tengu, or mountain goblins. I don’t think anyone believes goblins were the origin of kenjutsu, but it’s still a story, not a lie. Some people think tengu were actually yamabushi, mountain ascetics whose ritual privations were supposed to give them special abilities. The underlying message is that the secrets of swordsmanship originated in a single-minded, religious devotion.

The tengu story is a little closer to what we normally think of as myth, but there are grander stories in the martial arts that mean a lot more to people. Two of the most popular are the myth of Shaolin Temple and the myth of Zen in the art of archery.

Most martial artists know the general outline of the Shaolin Temple story: A monk named Bodhidharma traveled from India to China as a missionary for Dhyana (Zen) Buddhism. He found the disciples there in poor physical shape, so he taught them exercises to improve their health, thus enabling them to meditate for longer periods. Those exercises eventually developed into an original martial art, from which all forms of kung fu, kenpo and karate descended.

Many writers and researchers believe this is myth, not history. There probably was a Bodhidharma, and there are historical records of fighting monks. But it’s unlikely that the Indian patriarch fathered the martial arts. Historians point to records of fighting arts in China long before Bodhidharma’s arrival. Also, the one work attributed to the Indian patriarch, the I Chin Ching (Muscle-Change Classic), suggests he taught the Chinese monks yoga, not kung fu.

So why was the story told to begin with, and why does it continue to be so compelling? Probably because it expresses the martial ideal better than the complicated, incomplete and sometimes contradictory facts of real history. Shaolin Temple was likely the first place in the world to produce what we think of as a martial art by combining wisdom, meditation, discipline and fighting skills into a way of life.

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