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Shaolin monks and disciples follow a unique practice among Buddhists in that they greet each other using only their right hand. This greeting is a tradition which dates back to Da Mo and his disciple, Hui Ke.
In 495 AD, the Indian monk Ba Tuo, or Buddhabhadra, came to China teaching a form of Buddhism known as Xiao Sheng Buddhism. He was given land at the foot of Shaoshi mountain by Emperor Shao Wen and founded the Shaolin Temple on this land.
Around the time that Ba Tuo was founding the Shaolin Temple there was an Indian prince named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was very intelligent and was the favorite son of the king of a region that is now part of southern India. Bodhidharma had two older brothers who feared that their father, the king, would pass them over and bequeath the kingship to Bodhidharma. In their jealousy, the two older brothers often disparaged Bodhidharma while talking with their father, hoping to turn him against their younger brother. The older brothers also attempted to assassinate Bodhidharma but Bodhidharma had very good karma and so the attempts were not successful. Despite being the favorite son of the king, Bodhidharma realized that he was not interested in a life of politics. He chose instead to study with the famous Buddhist master Prajnatara and become a Buddhist monk.
Bodhidharma trained with his master for many years. One day he asked his master, “Master, when you pass away, where should I go? What should I do?” His master replied that he should go to Zhen Dan, which was the name for China at that time. Years later, Bodhidharma’s master passed away and Bodhidharma prepared to leave for China.
During the many years that Bodhidharma had studied as a monk, one of his older brothers had become king of India and that older brother’s son had become king after him. The king of India was very fond of his uncle and wanted to make amends for the actions which Bodhidharma’s older brothers had taken against him. He asked Bodhidharma to stay near the capital, where he could protect and care for him, but Bodhidharma knew that he must go to China as his master had said.
Seeing that Bodhidharma would not remain, the king of India ordered that carrier pigeons be sent to China with messages asking the people of China to take care of Bodhidharma. These messages made Bodhidharma famous among many Chinese who wondered what was so special about this particular Buddhist monk that the king of India would make such a request.
In 527 AD, 32 years after Ba Tuo’s founding of the Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma crossed through Guangdong province into China. In China, he was known as Da Mo. Da Mo arrived in China practicing Da Sheng (Mahayana) Buddhism. When Da Mo arrived, he was greeted by a large crowd of people who had heard of the famous Buddhist master and wished to hear him speak. Rather than speak, Da Mo sat down and began meditating. He meditated for many hours. Upon completing his meditation, Da Mo rose and walked away, saying nothing.
His actions had a profound effect upon his audience. Some people laughed, some cried, some were angry and some nodded their heads in understanding. Regardless of the emotion, everyone in the crowd had a reaction.
This incident made Da Mo even more famous, so famous that Emperor Wu heard of him. Emperor Wu, who ruled over the southern kingdom of China, invited Da Mo to come to his palace. When Da Mo arrived, Emperor Wu talked with Da Mo about Buddhism. The emperor had erected many statues and temples devoted to Buddhism. He had given much wealth to Buddhist temples. In talking of his accomplishments, Emperor Wu asked Da Mo if his actions were good. Da Mo replied that they were not. This response surprised Emperor Wu, but they continued talking and eventually Emperor Wu asked Da Mo if there was Buddha in this world. Da Mo replied that there was not.
Da Mo’s replies were a reflection of Emperor Wu. By asking if his actions were good, Emperor Wu was searching for compliments and affirmation from Da Mo. Da Mo denied that Emperor Wu’s actions were good because it is the duty of the emperor to care for his people. Rather than seeking compliments, Emperor Wu should have been content to help his people through Buddha. Similarly, if one asks if there is Buddha in the world, then one has already answered the question: Buddha is a matter of faith, you either believe in your heart or you do not. In questioning the existence of Buddha, Emperor Wu had demonstrated a lack of faith.
Da Mo’s answers enraged Emperor Wu and he ordered Da Mo to leave his palace and never return. Da Mo simply smiled, turned and left.
Da Mo continued his journey, heading north, when he reached the city of Nanjing. In the city of Nanjing, there was a famous place called the Flower Rain Pavillion where many people gathered to speak and relax. There was a large crowd of people gathered in the Flower Rain Pavillion around a Buddhist monk, who was lecturing. This Buddhist monk was named Shen Guang.
Shen Guang had at one time been a famous general. He had killed many people in battle but one day realized that the people he had been killing had family and friends and that one day someone might come and kill him. This changed him and he decided to train as a Buddhist monk. Eventually, Shen Guang became a great speaker on Buddhism. As Da Mo neared the crowd, he listened to Shen Guang’s speech. Sometimes Shen Guang would speak and Da Mo would nod his head, as if in agreement. Sometimes Shen Guang would speak and Da Mo would shake his head, as if in disagreement. As this continued, Shen Guang became very angry at the strange foreign monk who dared to disagree with him in front of this crowd. In anger, Shen Guang took the Buddhist beads from around his neck and flicked them at Da Mo. The beads struck Da Mo in his face, knocking out two of his front teeth. Da Mo immediately began bleeding. Shen Guang expected a confrontation; instead, Da Mo smiled, turned and walked away.
This reaction astounded Shen Guang, who began following after Da Mo.
Da Mo continued north until he reached the Yangzi river. Seated by the river there was an old woman with a large bundle of reeds next to her. Da Mo walked up to the old woman and asked her if he might have a reed. She replied that he might. Da Mo took a single reed, placed it upon the surface of the Yangzi river and stepped onto the reed. He was carried across the Yangzi river by the force of his chi. Seeing this, Shen Guang ran up to where the old woman sat and grabbed a handful of reeds without asking. He threw the reeds onto the Yangzi river and stepped onto them. The reeds sank beneath him and Shen Guang began drowning. The old woman saw his plight and took pity on Shen Guang, pulling him from the river. As Shen Guang lay on the ground coughing up river water, the old woman admonished him. She said that by not asking for her reeds before taking them, he had shown her disrespect and that by disrespecting her, Shen Guang had disrespected himself. The old woman also told Shen Guang that he had been searching for a master and that Da Mo, the man he was following, was that master. As she said this, the reeds which had sunk beneath Shen Guang rose again to the surface of the river and Shen Guang found himself on the reeds being carried across the Yangzi river. He reached the other side and continued following after Da Mo.
There are many people who believe that the old woman by the river was a Boddhisatva who was helping Shen Guang to end the cycle of his samsara.
At this point, Da Mo was nearing the location of the Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin monks had heard of his approach and were gathered to meet him. When Da Mo arrived, the Shaolin monks greeted him and invited him to come stay at the temple. Da Mo did not reply but he went to a cave on a mountain behind the Shaolin Temple, sat down, and began meditating. In front of the Shaolin Temple, there are five mountains: Bell Mountain, Drum Mountain, Sword Mountain, Stamp Mountain and Flag Mountain. These mountains are named after the objects which their shape resembles. Behind the Shaolin Temple there are five “Breast Mountains” which are shaped like breasts. The cave in which Da Mo chose to meditate was on one of the Breast Mountains.
Da Mo sat facing a wall in the cave and meditated for nine years. During these nine years, Shen Guang stayed outside Da Mo’s cave and acted as a bodyguard for Da Mo, ensuring that no harm came to Da Mo. Periodically Shen Guang would ask Da Mo to teach him, but Da Mo never responded to Shen Guang’s requests. During these nine years the Shaolin monks would also periodically invite Da Mo to come down to the Temple, where he would be much more comfortable, but Da Mo never responded. After some time, Da Mo’s concentration became so intense that his image was engraved into the stone of the wall before him.
Towards the end of the nine years, the Shaolin monks decided that they must do something more for Da Mo and so they made a special room for him. They called this room the Da Mo Ting. When this room was completed at the end of the nine years, the Shaolin monks invited Da Mo to come stay in the room. Da Mo did not respond but he stood up, walked down to the room, sat down, and immediately began meditating. Shen Guang followed Da Mo to the Shaolin temple and stood guard outside Da Mo’s room. Da Mo meditated in his room for another four years. Shen Guang would occasionally ask Da Mo to teach him, but Da Mo never responded.
At the end of the four-year period Shen Guang had been following Da Mo for thirteen years, but Da Mo had never said anything to Shen Guang. It was winter when the four-year period was ending and Shen Guang was standing in the snow outside the window to Da Mo’s room. He was cold and became very angry. He picked up a large block of snow and ice and hurled it into Da Mo’s room. The snow and ice made a loud noise as it broke inside Da Mo’s room. This noise awoke Da Mo from his meditation and he looked at Shen Guang. In anger and frustration Shen Guang demanded to know when Da Mo would teach him.
Da Mo responded that he would teach Shen Guang when red snow fell from the sky.
Hearing this, something inside Shen Guang’s heart changed and he took the sword he carried from his belt and cut off his left arm. He held the severed arm above his head and whirled it around. The blood from the arm froze in the cold air and fell like red snow. Seeing this, Da Mo agreed to teach Shen Guang.
Da Mo took a monk’s spade and went with Shen Guang to the Drum Mountain in front of Shaolin Temple. The Drum Mountain is so called because it is very flat on top. Da Mo’s unspoken message to Shen Guang was that Shen Guang should flatten his heart, just like the surface of the Drum Mountain. On this Drum Mountain Da Mo dug a well. The water of this well was bitter. Da Mo then left Shen Guang on the Drum Mountain. For an entire year, Shen Guang used the bitter water of the well to take care of all of his needs. He used it to cook, to clean, to bathe, to do everything. At the end of the first year, Shen Guang went down to Da Mo and again asked Da Mo to teach him. Da Mo returned with Shen Guang to the Drum Mountain and dug a second well. The water of this well was spicy. For an entire year, Shen Guang used the spicy water for all of his needs. At the end of the second year, Shen Guang went back down to Da Mo and asked again to be taught. Da Mo dug a third well on the Drum Mountain. The water of this third well was sour. For the third year, Shen Guang used the sour water for all of his needs. At the end of the third year, Shen Guang returned to Da Mo and agains asked to be taught. Da Mo returned to the Drum Mountain and dug a fourth and final well. The water of this well was sweet. At this point, Shen Guang realized that the four wells represented his life. Like the wells, his life would sometimes be bitter, sometimes sour, sometimes spicy and sometimes sweet. Each of these phases in his life was equally beautiful and necessary, just as each of the four seasons of the year is beautiful and necessary in its own way. Without really saying many words to Shen Guang, Da Mo had taught Shen Guang the most important of lessons in a mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart fashion. This mind-to- mind, heart-to-heart communication is called “action language” and is the foundation of the Chan Buddhism which Da Mo began at the Shaolin Temple.
After his realization, Shen Guang was given the name Hui Ke and he became abbot of the Shaolin temple after Da Mo.
To pay respect for the sacrifice which Hui Ke made, disciples and monks of the Shaolin Temple greet each other using only their right hand.
Before I was born, who was I?
After I am born, who am I?
Respect yourself, and everyone will respect you.
Understand yourself, and everyone will understand you.
There are mirrors all around you:
Strive to see and understand yourself.
Strive to have the heart of a Buddha.
Stop doing bad things, only do good.
Do whatever you can to help others.
In these ways you help yourself.
Help yourself, and you help the world.
Buddhism was born in Nepal about 2500 years ago. It spread to India some 400 years later, and 1500 years ago, it appeared in China. Chan Buddhism is said to have originated at Shaolin Temple, and its spiritual founder was an Indian prince named Bodhidharma, or as he was known to the Chinese, Da Mo. It is characterized by a rejection of much of the protocol associated with other sects of Buddhism and is oriented around the practice of meditation. In Chan, the Temple is everywhere, and one can pray anywhere, meditate in any position, and it emphasizes the idea of personal awakening and understanding. Chan is the spiritual parent of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
What does “Amituofo” or “Amitabha” mean?
Amituofo means a multitude of things, depending on how it is used. It can be a greeting, a salutation, a blessing, or it can mean “please” or “I’m sorry.” You can use it to express anything from your heart. Literally, it is the name of a Buddha, the “Amita” Buddha (“fo” being the Chinese word for Buddha). It is pronounced “Ah-mee-twoh-foh”. “Amituofo” is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit “Amitabha”.
Why do we say “Amituofo” 3 times at the beginning and end of every class?
The first is to pay respect to Buddha, “Fo”.
The second is for dharma, “Fa” the way or the philosophy.
The third is for sangha “Seng”, the monastic community or family, as well as one’s master – even including mastering yourself.
What is “Action Meditation”?
Action meditation, or “dong chan” in Chinese, can be everything and anything we do. Play some music, speak, eat, go swimming, go climb a tree, go climb a mountain, walk upside-down, play basketball, make dinner, make love – any action you can think of that you can express in your beautiful life – that’s action meditation. There are a million different doors for a million different people to walk through in their lives, and a million different ways for a million different people to meditate in their lives.
Sitting meditation probably may not be good for some people, just like everyone likes different food and has different tastes. I can just sit there watching TV, and without warming up kiss my foot. It feels so good, so fresh and so clean – that’s my action meditation. Maybe you’ll never be able to do this kind of action meditation, or maybe you can. That’s why you have to be yourself. You can’t copy other people. You can borrow somebody else’s philosophy to use in your life, but you can’t live completely like somebody else.
Even now, in the 21st century, there are many monks, masters, or instructors who still just use one way to teach many people, to cross their legs and sit in the lotus position doing sitting meditation. Not everybody is flexible enough to put their legs together and sit there like that. They sit there for 15-20 minutes and their joints begin to ache, their knees, ankles, lower back, and neck get tired and uncomfortable. Why do you want to do sitting meditation when you’re torturing yourself, creating a problem for your life?
You can extend your leg to meditate, you can do splits if you want to. You can do Luohan Sleeping style to meditate, you can do headstands to meditate. Try different ways. Find yourself.
What does it mean to be a monk?
This is the source of confusion for many people who have a distorted view of what constitutes monkhood. In some types of Buddhism, there are 250 different rules for monks, 500 for those who wish to be nuns. One may wear the robes, shave one’s head, not speak a word, not look left or right, eat a restricted diet, and follow all 250 rules. But anyone can shave his head and wear the robes — this does not make him a monk. Some so-called monks might be strict in their practice but may be so for the wrong reasons. These people are not honest with themselves.
The Chinese word for monk is “heshang” (huh-shahng). The character “he” has the meaning here of the word “heqi” – friendly and amiable. The left side of the character means harmony, life. The right side is a pictograph of a mouth. Your mouth is not just only for eating good food, drinking good drinks, and making love – You also need to use it to speak with people and make wonderful relations between them. Use it to give people the knowledge and philosophy to help themselves and help the world. At the same time, the mouth can be used negatively to speak horrible things that can destroy people. When you’re healthy, it’s from what you eat and how you speak. When you’re sick, it’s from the same things. You must know how to use your chi positively. Shang means “gaoshang” – noble. It means a high level, different from others. To become a heshang, it is not necessary to shave your head, not necessary to wear the monk robes, and not necessary to live inside the monastery. Everywhere is your home, everywhere is your temple. You are the temple.
If you shave your head and wear the monk robes, but do things like eat meat, drink, be with women, underneath the table, out of sight, not wanting people to see or know about it, you’re cheating yourself. You’re not being honest with yourself. You’re not being yourself. Why are you doing that? If you do those things, but are open about it, honest with yourself and others, that’s beautiful. Express your beautiful life fully and honestly.
Why are Shaolin Monks allowed to eat meat and drink wine?
Shaolin Monks have been highly respected in their exploits outside the Temple, but no more so than at the end of the Sui Dynasty (581- 618), when the king of the Qin State, Li Shimin, needed to protect himself from the emperor of a rival state. Thirteen Shaolin monks rescued the nephew of the Emperor Li, and in the process, obtained the seal of the rival emperor. Later, Li became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and in gratitude to Shaolin, he granted the monks there the privilege of eating meat and drinking wine.
Shaolin Temple is unique among Buddhist temples throughout the world. Shaolin Temple monks practice physical as well as mental philosophy every day for many hours, and need protein to maintain their strong minds and strong bodies. Everything has life, everything has chi. In the last few hundred years, technology has helped scientists, doctors, and professors find out many things, what’s real, and what isn’t real. When you eat vegetables, you are also taking life. When you drink water, you kill many lives just from one sip. When you walk down the street, many little creatures walk all over your body, upside-down or horizontally. You don’t realize every day how many lives you kill just from doing these simple things! If you have a lovely heart and peaceful mind, you have to use them to help other people, yourself, and the world. That’s why I made the simple rules for my followers now in the modern world – “Only do good things, don’t do bad. Do whatever you can to help others. In these ways, you help yourself. Help yourself, and you help the world.” Whatever you eat or drink, it doesn’t matter. Understand yourself.
Do I have to change religions to train?
You don’t need to change anything. Stay believing whatever you believe, whether it’s in God, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad or anyone else. I believe in them all. I believe in all of the religion’s special leaders, they all teach people to be good people, to only do good things, not to do bad, and to help other people. All of them just have different names, I believe in them all, love them all, and I believe they love us too. When you come to the Temple, you don’t need to change what you believe, change religions, shave your head, or become a vegetarian. I do not teach Chinese philosophy, I teach International philosophy. I encourage my students, disciples, and followers to go to church, go to monasteries, go to mosques, to open their minds and open their hearts. Learn all of the philosophies and combine them together – that’s your philosophy. Just like in the martial arts world, there are many styles, karate, tae kwon do, jiu jitsu, muay thai, and hundreds more. Whatever style you practice, it doesn’t matter – learn all of the styles, combine them together, and that’s your style. That way, you can get the knowledge for yourself, and share it with other people.