In traditional schools and styles of martial arts, meditation remains an essential component of the practice. I was first introduced to meditation at age 11 when I first began learning martial arts. Today, it’s still a part of my daily practice. Meditation has served an integral part of preserving a deep spiritual and conscious flavor to practicing martial arts. Many people are unaware as to how meditation was introduced into many of the arts practiced today. It’s a great story. The story involves a traveling Buddhist monk from India who was known as Bodhidharma.
Bodhidharma is also known as Daruma in Japan. He traveled from India into China around the 5th or 6th century. A great deal of legend surrounds this monk but what is universally agreed is that he was the one who introduced the combined practice of meditation and martial arts practiced by many martial artists today. While traveling into China to spread Buddhist teachings, he encountered monks and lay practitioners of Buddhism who’s practices he found somewhat disagreeable. However, they were quite proficient at reading and interpreting many Sutras. What disturbed him most was the lack of a strong meditation practice.
His insistence on establishing a strong meditation practice into Buddhism in China was not initially welcomed. This caused Bodhidharma to move around a lot. Some have reported that he basically became a beggar. Eventually, he made his way further North to a place that would one day become legendary in martial arts. The Shaolin Monastery! The monks of Shaolin did not welcome Daruma. In fact, they refused him entry into the Shaolin temple. It has been reported that he retreated to a nearby cave. In this cave he meditated daily for 9 years. He also refused to talk to any of the monks. He would sit facing a wall and simply meditate. Daruma’s stamina and commitment astonished the monks. They decided to allow him entry into the temple.
The poor monks often suffered great physical pain, or got sick, while attempting to learn Bodhidharma’s meditation practice. As stated earlier, the monks were not physically strong. Bodhidharma then introduced several breathing techniques as well as some martial arts movements (18 Hands of Lohan) into their practice. It changed everything. For centuries now, Shaolin monks have continued to amaze observers and attackers with their seemingly superhuman feats of strength, focus, speed and balance. A strong meditation practice along with a rigorous martial arts regimen account for this prowess.
I witnessed a live demonstration of the Shaolin monks when I was a child. They were the reason I fell in love with martial arts and wanted to become a martial artist. I saw those red and gold robes, prayer beads and calm dispositions suddenly explode into movements with a focus I had never seen before. Then immediately after appearing to defy gravity they would humbly bow and allow the next demonstrator to execute his moves. No bravado. No cursing or self promotion. Just precise execution and a perpetual meditative state. As I see it, meditation is part of the “art” component in martial arts. Without meditation one neglects a significant part of the practice who’s roots go all the way back to the beginning of many martial arts systems.