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Shaolin's Chan Buddhism is dissimilar from most other Chinese Buddhist schools of Chan thought.  There are however similarities between Shaolin and various Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese sects of Buddhism.  Most Chinese Chan Buddhist sects require clergy to be celibate and vegetarian, for example.  Shaolin Chan Buddhism is more like Tibetan Buddhism, allowing greater latitude in practice.     Although some of the Order's spiritual practices might be considered mystical and esoteric, we are also extremely realistic in our spirituality. Shaolin is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism.  "Mahayana" is the term used today to refer to Buddhism's northern traditions present in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.  One branch of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is called "Chan."  Chan emphasizes meditation more than other Chinese Mahayana schools, some of which emphasize on scholarly study or praying as their primary practice.  Within Chan, known as Zen in Japan, are many traditions with differing emphases.

Shaolin is the most well-known Chan School that incorporates martial training into its meditative regimen.  Although martial training occupies a significant portion of our daily practice, the martial arts training of Shaolin is secondary to our Buddhist principals.  Shaolin’s martial arts and the closeness of combat provide the medium through which we strive to exist fully in the present - without planning for the future or reflecting upon the past. In this way, Shaolin martial arts provide an ideal meditation and an excellent means for practicing Right Mindfulness.  Shaolin’s interpretation of the Buddha's teachings has always been based on incorporating martial arts as a form of physical exercise as well as developing self-defense skills according to the way the Buddha taught the Dharma following the path of developing Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation.  There are eight aspects of the path. Shaolin Chan Buddhist monk’s treats all aspects as absolutely interconnected and does not neglect any part of their commitment to relieve suffering. For those unfamiliar with the eightfold path, it contains eight aspects: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.  In spite of the fact that Shaolin has become famous in the West particularly for its  kung fu styles and aptitudes of its monks, the foundation and spirit of Shaolin remains centered in the Buddhist teachings of an Indian teacher named Bodhidharma, or, to the Chinese, Tamo.   

Similar to most spiritual teachers, Tamo left few direct writings of his interpretation of the Dharma (or principles) of Buddhism, but through written and oral history, Shaolin have maintained his legacy.

A translation of his major teachings has been published (The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma).  Tamo's message is simple: The mind is the Buddha.  To the seekers of enlightenment he places the completeness of recognizing a pure state of being on the individual, urging self-motivation, self-awareness, and self-recognition at the expense of hierarchical "orders" of monks and token ceremonies.

 

Renounce the extraneous, he urges, ignore illusions, and go for the core, which is already there.

Tamo left the disciple considerable latitude in how to live, as did Shakyamuni himself. He did not require monks to be celibate, to fast, or perform rites of being without complication, nor was the "Order" limited to males. Quite the contrary, he embraced the human condition as the starting point from which all "higher" revelations would spring. Shaolin remains unique in allowing its members this degree of freedom (and thus liberating his disciples from an arbitrary condition). Tamo's message of simplicity (but not specifically denial), tells about limiting all aspects of prejudice and narrow-mindedness devoted to the teachings of any religious practice.

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There are many roads that lead to the Way, but these contain but two common features: recognition and practice. By recognition is meant that meditation reveals the truth that all living things share a common nature, a nature concealed by the veils of illusion.

By “many roads,” Tamo points out that enlightenment is reached by different souls in different ways; these may include the various seated and moving meditations. This practice is conditioned as a study of self-realization, self-awareness, and practice of the Dharma—the Eightfold Path—that allows enlightenment, recognizing the fact that all of life is connected spiritually.  We are mortal and wise; we are self and all else.

Reality and what appears, as reality are difficult to separate, the mind must cut through illusion and realize that duality is also an illusion.  In real practice of Chan Buddhism this means that one must participate and be in acceptance of Four Noble Truths: suffering, adapting, non-attachment, and practicing the Dharma. 

First comes suffering. When followers of the Way suffer, they should recall that in the countless previous incarnations they have been deterred from the path, sometimes becoming trivial and angry even without cause. The suffering in this life is an opportunity to exercise what I have learned from past lives. Men and gods are equally unable to see where a seed may bear fruit. I accept this suffering as a challenge and with an open heart. In recognizing suffering, one enters onto the path to the Way.

This is a lesson in karma, that we are ultimately responsible for our actions (also called the Law of Cause and Effect). If we can learn from our wrongdoing and attain true rehabilitation, we rejoin the path and move ahead. Because the First Noble Truth declares “there is suffering in life.”   By evolving in our Dharma, we come to realize that suffering is both a condition of being alive and a disease that can be treated.

Second, adapt to your conditions. Mortals are ruled by their surroundings, not by themselves. All we experience depends upon surroundings. If we receive a reward or good fortune, it is the fruit of a seed we planted long ago. However eventually, it will end. Do not delight in these blessings, for what is the point? In a mind unmoved by reward and setback, the journey on the path continues.

In essence, that means that we shall all have good days and bad days, the “goodness” and “badness” depending on circumstances or perspective. Accept what comes, knowing that both good and bad will pass, and stay focused on the important points of your own Way.

Third, seek no attachments. Mortals delude themselves. They seek to possess things, always searching for something. But enlightened ones wake up and choose reason over habit. They focus on the Way and their bodies follow them through each season. The world offers only emptiness, with nothing worth desiring. Disaster and Prosperity constantly trade places. To live in the three realms is to stay in a house on fire. To have a body is to experience suffering. Does any body have peace? Those who see past illusion are detached, and neither imagine nor seek. The sutras teach that to seek is to suffer; to seek not is to have bliss. In not seeking, you follow the path.

Buddhism is notorious for its non-attachment. Suffering is the disease that binds us to rebirth, and attachment—especially for life—is the tether that keeps us suffering. We all experience ups and down, and these are impermanent. 

To attach to any feeling is to anchor in the temporary moment that quickly becomes the past. Accept what comes, enjoy it, and then let it go. This is how to non-seek.

Fourth, practice the Dharma, the reality teaching all spirits are pure. All illusion is dropped. Duality does not exist. Subject and object do not exist. Buddhists say the Dharma has no being because it is free from the attachment to being; the Dharma has no self because it is free from the attachment to self. Those who understand this truth wisely practice the path. They know that the things that are real do not include greed and envy, and give themselves with their bodies, minds, and spirits. This allows them to help others see and enjoy the path to enlightenment through the practice of the fundamentals of the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. The elements are: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right devotion, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The teachings also include room for sharing, mainly in efforts to help other souls to see the possibility of enlightenment.  Actions taken to help such souls are seen as highly important to followers of the path.  Indeed, those who become enlightened and later choose to undergo another rebirth into this world are seen as “Saints and Angels,” forgoing Nirvana to help others escape rebirth.  Such noble souls are called Bodhisattvas.

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POWER OF CHI

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e-mail: powerofchi@earthlink.net

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We are proud to link to Kagyu Samdrup Chödzong the Greensboro North Carolina Dharma Center in the tradition of the Karma Kagyu lineage and an affiliate of Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery in New York State.