The myths of Damo

The classical texts of the Brain Marrow Washing Muscle-Tendon Exercises and the 18 Immortal Hands were written by a Daoist priest during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE).  These exercises erroneously attributed to Damo (Bodhidharma) were consistent with Chinese Qigong exercises and bear little resemblances to Yoga.  Shaolin Temple records state that long before Damo’s arrival in China, two of its first monks, Hui Guang and Seng Chou, were already experts in martial arts.

It was fashionable to assume that all martial arts in China originated in the Shaolin Temple. Shaolin was just a small dot amongst the vastness of China, which was overwhelming influenced by Daoism with its belief of immortality, longevity, and health. Qigong practices originated from the Daoist thousands of years before the arrival of Damo around 450CE.

Damo was well respected in Shaolin, but tales about him were myths and exaggerated.  Firstly, he was a Buddhist preacher, not a gung fu, qigong or martial arts expert.  Chinese martial arts, qigong and meditation predated his arrival by at least four thousand years. One such master who predated Damo was Hua Tuo, who was an expert of the Daoist Five Animals Qigong during the Three Kingdom Period (220-265CE).

The story of Damo tearing his eyelids out because he fell asleep during meditation, was too ridiculous to believe.  Furthermore, tea leaves began to sprout from them.  You can imagine what happened to the state of his eyes and face due to such action.  Another told of him bringing tea to China, even though the Chinese have historical records, and even an ancient encyclopaedia, stating that they have been drinking tea since 200BCE.  Another story tells of how he crossed the Yangtse River standing on a floating reef.  Damo would have sunk beyond trace to the bottom of the Yangtse.  His nine years of meditation in a cave resulted in him being so sensitive that he could hear the ants screamed.  Perhaps it was more like delirium or hallucination.   He could even bore a hole in the wall simply by looking at it.  Stories emanating from Shaolin were always filled with exaggeration and superstition. They were perpetuated by imaginative story writers a thousand years later and subsequently in Shaw Brothers and other movies or dramas.  

Shaolin at that time was greatly influenced by the Daoist, Confucianists and followers of other sects, who were already martial arts and qigong experts in that region. Damo preached Buddhism and nothing else.  Anyone who doubt the reality of the situation should look at India or even Nepal, where Damo most likely came from; also, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. Not a single temple there shows anything resembling Chinese martial arts.  The Kung Fu exploded all-over South-East Asia, followed by the West.  It took another 20 years before Indian martial arts came out starting with the ‘Indian influenced’ karate and later Wushu. Nobody in India has even heard about Damo, until the Chinese told them so in their films and dramas after the 1970s.  He was simply non-existent then. Suddenly he became theirs, even though he was more likely to be a Nepali.

Even Yoga exercises do not bear any resemblances to the Brain Marrow Washing Qigong wrongly attributed to Damo.  A very big Yoga basket containing all the exercises of the universe, but no Brain Marrow.

Modern Shaolin monks show their salute in the form of two palms joining together, whereas in the past, it was always with a palm and fist together.  If kung fu styles emanated from Shaolin, why were their traditional salute not the same as the modern Shaolin monks salute?  The reason is obvious. The traditional salute of a left palm (Yang) and a right fist (Yin) was a very traditional Daoist symbol representing Yin and Yang, and harmony.  It was also a political symbol to expel the Ching and restore the Ming.

Take the example of a Wuzu (5 Ancestors) salute which was supposed to be from Shaolin. Their salute of a right fist on top of the left palm is a signal to battle, whilst a left palm hiding the right fist signals the end it.  This example is typical of most martial arts linking themselves to Shaolin whereas they might as well be linked to ‘red earth new villages or hung lai sun chin’.

By the way, modern Shaolin has a statue of Damo, whereas before it was non-existent.  It makes good business sense to have one, just for the naïve martial arts tourists.  Business is business, as the saying goes, but do not venture west of the Himalayas if you wish to study genuine martial arts and qigong.  You will find lots of songs and dancing, but not the real stuffs there.

Grandmaster Yap Leong