Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Early Origins of Shaolin

As told to D.L. Keur by Shaolin Shi Han Lei

This is a collection of Shi Lei's responses to questions put to him over time on the origin and history of Shaolin. As I go through my notes, I will post more. As I am told more, I will add more. This first document is written from my notes as taken over the four years I have been privileged to study under Master Shi Lei's guidance. Some of them are direct quotes. Others are rewrites of my note jottings. Some are compilations of several answers given to me at different times to the same basic question. (I have taken the liberty to translate to the best of my ability some of the words Shi Lei used - Chinese word-ideas he used when he could find no English substitute in his vocabulary. An example is my insertion of the word "hubris" in the form-story at the bottom of this page. To do this, I would ask Shi Lei to write the Chinese symbol of the word-idea he had used and then I would find that character's best definition using my references.)

Shaolin is a very old pathway. Its origins reside in, first, the ancient tribes of the lands now known collectively as China.

Shaolin is the art of the common people. It is based upon natural movement - movements emulated from nature. It uses as its tools the elements of nature. It is based upon principles of the earliest lifeways of the people, lifeways which were split and transformed into Taoism and Confuscism, its "zen" method of thought - "now-be" - adopted and grafted to what is called Zen Buddhism. It uses as its weapons only the bare hands and the tools of primitive peoples and, later, the tools of the farmers.

Shaolin's physical origins are the lands of the North - the low mountains and hills - the tribal people there. From dancing tribal stories of the origins of the beginning of being, and dances describing and celebrating birth, storms, trees in wind, water flowing, fire dancing...all things of nature...the birth of a turtle, the awakening from sleep of a These were dances of primitive people who were my ancestors very long ago. Shaolin's origins reside there in the very beginning.

It is said that when the usurpers came, long ago, my people were not ready. We were not warriors. Many of us died. Those who survived fled deep into the wilderness. There, we became warriors...over time. Never again would we not be prepared. Hence the ancient saying, "always prepared."

There are stories of great teachers who came - gods descended to help our learning to be warriors. There are two main versions of the story. One speaks of seven teachers, one of which was a servant to another of the teachers. There are mostly five main teachers, one who came later - the Mantis - and the servant. There is also the story of twelve teachers. But my own master said that these twelve were desciples of the first "god" teachers who came to help us.

You must understand. Our people were not angry people. We were happy people. We moved with seasons - from mountains and hills to plains and rivers, to the ocean sometimes...all dependent upon the season of the year and the needs of the people. We had times for fishing and gathering shells and salt. We had times when we collected nature's gifts in the forest. So and so. So was it told to me by my masters. We were not warriors. We did not seek battle or to fight our neighbors. The usurpers brought that with them. It is the usurpers who thinned our blood over the many centuries so that the true people no longer really exist. But the heart of our people will not die, no matter how thinned our blood becomes. In some it will always rise.

We are not fighting people by choice. We only fight when given no choice other than death. It is the usurpers who brought the ideas of conquering and levels of privilege and class. It is not our way.

Shaolin is the warrior way of our lifeway. It is a warrior way developed from our joy dancing...our life dances of ancient times. We call it now Tao Dancing -- the joy dance...the life dance...and it is a life giving dance...a dance that brings the dancer into complete harmony of being in Tao. We call it dancing in Chi. You are taught it when I teach you Tao Chi. Warrior Dancing is the fighting art form of Tao Dancing, the chi tranformed...transforming the person into a warrior when the need comes.

The forms are our way of talking to each other. They are our history. We pass our history and our knowledge down through the forms and dances. They are not only teaching tools, they are our history and our knowledge. I will tell you the story of a form that I have shown you in the past. Here is the story.

Legend has it that, long ago, seven animals descended of the high kingdom, ventured into the world to walk. In this world were men and the usurpers of men who were enemies. The animals, who were also gods, did see that there was no hope for men against the greater knowledge and cunning of the strange. and it was decided.

Into the tribes and villages, these animals, who were also gods descended of the high kingdom, came to be among men. They were: Dragon, leader and master of form/formlessness; Phoenix, master of fire/wind, who was Dragon's mate and servant; White Tiger, master of ferocity/vigor; Crane, master of disdain/disregard; Black Stalking Cat, master of lightning/cunning; Snake, master of insinuation/death; Monkey, master of disguise/trickery. To men these animals began to give the power of themselves that men might survive their enemies. But Leopard could not abide the leadership of Dragon. Dragon and Leopard fought, and Dragon defeated Black Stalking Cat who journeyed south. Snake could not abide the harshness of the cold, and, in the darkness of the night, stole forth alone to journey west; Crane, longing for his mate, flew away to return to the high kingdom, leaving only half his teaching and one feather dancing in the breeze to remind us of his coming; bored Monkey ventured east; Phoenix, freed from Dragon, ventured North. So only White Tiger and Great Dragon remained among the villages of men. Then, in an age, descended also Mantis, master of power, shape and hubris. And Mantis, who was stranger to the land and a leader in his own right, did challenge Dragon. Again the quaking thunder of gods at war shook the world of man. Again did Dragon win, but the price was death. Phoenix, who was Dragon's mate and servant, then rose from the North, and, leaving that land cold and embittered, returned in a great wind, and covered Dragon, who breathed again. Then Dragon beheld fallen Mantis, who was broken into many tiny pieces, and breathed upon him that Mantis too might live, for Mantis was the mightiest warrior Dragon knew besides himself. Waking, Mantis, swore alliegence to Dragon and began to teach men also.


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