Shaolin Kungfu refers to the traditional cultural system that has formed in the particular Buddhist cultural environment in Shaolin Temple of Songshan Mountain over long history. It is based on a belief in the supernatural power of Buddhism and fully reflects the wisdom of Chan Buddhism. The martial arts practiced by monks in the Shaolin Temple are its major form of expression.
Shaolin Kungfu encompasses complete technical and theoretical system, with martial arts and techniques as its major form of expression, and Buddhism belief and Chan wisdom as the cultural connotation. Shaolin Kungfu is a huge and well-developed technical system as opposed to the many "schools" or "Quan styles" of other martial arts. Chinese martial arts are complicated in structure and abundant in school. According to historical records, Shaolin Kungfu is the one school among a myriad of Chinese martial arts schools, which boasts a long history, a complete system and the highest level of skills. Those Quan guidebooks handed down over many generations in Shaolin Temple show that there are as many as several hundred series of Shaolin Kungfu skills of which several dozen are widely known and practiced. There are 72 unique sets of skills and all kinds of special bodies of Kungfu techniques such as Qi Gong, grappling, wrestling, disjointing, attacking a vital point of the body etc. This wide body of skills and knowledge constitutes a huge and orderly technical system organized according to special categories and levels of difficulty. Shaolin Kungfu is presented with the movement of the human body such as attack, defense and wrestling as its core and the series as its basic units. Series are made up of a group of movements. The design and arrangements of these movements are based on the medical knowledge of ancient China and conforms to the rule of movement of the human body. Movements and series put special emphasis on the combination of movement and stillness, the balance between Yin and Yang, the complement of toughness and softness, and the inclusion of the spirit and the form. The most well-known principle is "Six Harmonies", composed of the three external harmonies (shoulders and hip, elbows and knees, hands and feet) and the three internal harmonies (mind and intention, intention and Qi, Qi and force). The ancient Chinese belief in "the unity of human and nature" suggests that only those movements that fit the natural structure of the human body can be called proper. Shaolin Kungfu has long been tested by history, during which it has kept its Chan Buddhist essence while weeding out from itself what was undesirable while continually undergoing change and self-reformation. As a result, Shaolin Kungfu gives full play to the potential of the human body and has achieved an optimal form of movement for the human body which allows room for its practitioners to develop and thrive.
The wisdom of Chan Buddhism has imparted profound cultural connotations to Shaolin Kungfu. The practice of Shaolin Kungfu should first be based on the belief of Buddhism including wisdom belief and strength belief. The First Patriarch Bodhidharma is revered as its deity of wisdom and Kinnara as deity of strength. The aspiration for supernatural power and pursuit of supreme wisdom has always been the goals pursued by Buddhists. This is also the main reason for Kungfu’s mystical effects and distinguishes Shaolin Kungfu from other Kungfu.
Buddhists attach great importance to the supporting role of faith for the power of the vow. The belief in "the power of vow" is an important manifestation of the belief system of Shaolin Kungfu. It was formed during Tang Dynasty when the Lotus Scripture enjoyed an exceedingly high degree of popularity. Since then, it has passed through three Buddhist historical periods, which are noted by the development of belief in the Kwan-yin, belief in the Deity of Narayan, and belief in Kinnara. The major deity in the belief system of Shaolin Kungfu is Kinnara. There is a hall dedicated to Kinnara in the Permanent Residence Complex of Shaolin Temple. The soul of Shaolin Kungfu is rooted in the wisdom of Chan Buddhism. The underlying basis of the belief system of Shaolin Kungfu is "Chan ding (Dhyana)". The prestigious Indian monk Bodhidharma introduced Chan tradition to Shaolin Temple in the 6th century and from that time the temple has been regarded as the origin of Chan Buddhism in China. Chan Buddhism is the result and synthesis of a wide range of exchange in philosophical and religious understanding between what was known as Chinese "dark learning" of that time and Indian Buddhist culture after the latter’s introduction into China. Therefore it represents a significant development in cultural exchange, synthesis, and even metamorphosis between the two major civilizations of the ancient Orient. Chan Buddhism is replete with a thorough understanding of life as interpreted by the two great founts of Oriental wisdom, China and India. Previous to the birth of Chan Buddhism, Buddhism was mostly preoccupied with the problem of facing grief and death, but Chan Buddhism introduced a much more optimistic climate with an affirmation of the deep joy to be found in life. Chan Buddhism clearly reflects the depth of experience and penetration into the mysteries of the universe and the true meaning of life as exemplified by members of the Chinese religious and philosophical elite amongst who were many eminent monks and scholar-officials widely known in Chinese history. Throughout the Tang and Song dynasties, Chan Buddhism enjoyed a high degree of acceptance and popularity, and Shaolin Temple is rightfully regarded as its birthplace. Of course, it is also quite natural that during this long historical period the contents of the Shaolin Kungfu belief system and many of its features have also undergone refinement and change. The combination of Chan Buddhism with a unique system of martial arts has become the chief characteristic of Shaolin Kungfu and as such the adoption and practice of this strict belief system is what especially marks the monks of the temple as "Shaolin" monks who regard their personal perfection in this system as their ideal and lifelong goal. Chan Buddhism pays special attention to achieving the goal of Buddhism via the daily cultivation according to the strict precepts and religious doctrines. Shaolin Kungfu, as a component of Shaolin monks' daily life, has also been included into the forms of Buddhism and Chan Studies. The main body for practicing Shaolin Kungfu is the Chan Buddhists who practice martial arts out of the understanding of the Chan Buddhism. They fully understand life and have no fear in their hearts, demonstrating great wisdom and courage. Chan Buddhism has enriched Shaolin Kungfu and Shaolin Kungfu brings to them the unique state of relaxation, freedom and divinity. The comprehension of Shaolin Kungfu could only be achieved by long time practice and such spirit impressed Kungfu practitioners’ souls through accumulation.
The life of monks is subject to the precepts of Buddhism, which indicate the tenet of Buddhism "harboring compassion and helping sentient beings sail to the world of joy". They are rules of conduct for Buddhists. There are five basic precepts in Buddhism, refraining from killing, refraining from robbery, refraining from sex, refraining from liquor and refraining from lies. The precepts have been developed into precepts in practicing martial arts in the particular environment of Shaolin Temple and when shown in the practitioners, these precepts can also be called their ethics in practicing martial arts. These precepts have also directly affected the technical style of Shaolin Kungfu. Monks in Shaolin temple practice martial arts only for self defense rather than offense. Therefore Shaolin Kungfu shows features of self-restraint and modesty from time to time. Its movements do not require large space and are restrained, stressing on internal strength; the movements are brief but strong and capable of winning by striking only after the opponents have struck.
Shaolin Kungfu is taught mainly by oral formulas handed down from generation to generation. In history, the recognition of inheritors of Shaolin Kungfu was based on the patriarchal clan system of Shaolin temple. In the process of teaching and learning Shaolin Kungfu, it is necessary for masters to teach disciples by personal example as well as oral instruction and for disciples to study diligently. The inheritance of high level Shaolin Kungfu always depends on the teaching and oral instruction of masters as well as disciples’ spiritual comprehension of Chan Buddhism. To reach such level of Kungfu, monks have to improve themselves on both daily Chan studies and Kungfu practices. The idea behind Shaolin Kungfu is the belief in the combination of Chan and martial arts.