Shaolin Chi Kung as the name suggests originated from the Shaolin Monastery in China. It is generally agreed that in the year 527 the Venerable Bodhidharma visited the monks of the Shaolin Monastery and found them too weak for the rigours of spiritual cultivation.
Bodhidharma was the 28th patriarch of Indian Buddhism and the 1st patriarch of Chinese Chan or Zen. It is recorded that he taught the monks two sets of exercises, the 18 Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis. The 18 Lohan Hands later developed into the 18 Lohan Fist, a famous Shaolin Kung Fu form. Sinew Metamorphosis became Shaolin Chi Kung.
But what is Shaolin Chi Kung? Lets take each of the words in order to get a better idea of what this title really means:
Shaolin – this was a famous Imperial monastery in China. The word imperial is important because it tells us that, contrary to popular kung fu film mythology, only China’s elite could ‘study’ at this place. Many people think that there was only one Shaolin Monastery, but in truth there were three. There were two in the South, both burnt to the ground by the Qing army because they became centers for revolutionaries, and one in the North. The Northern Monastery was restored by the Chinese government in the 1970′s.
Chi – you can interpret this as ‘vital energy’. Vital energy or Chi/Qi is the ‘stuff’ that keeps you alive and keeps all the functions of your body working properly and performing the duties they should be doing. Practitioners of Shaolin Chi Kung believe that energy travels through a network of energy streams called meridians and that it is blockages to the harmonious flow of energy through these meridians that causes illness.
Kung – work.
So we can see that Shaolin Chi Kung literally translates as an energy art you must work at that originated from a famous imperial temple in China.
The Shaolin Monastery was a Buddhist monastery and so Shaolin Chi Kung is considered a Buddhist art, though you don’t need to be Buddhist, or accept any of the Buddhist principals to practice it or benefit from it. Because Shaolin Chi Kung is a Buddhist art it is relatively simple, clear and easy to learn if taught by a suitably qualified instructor.
Today Shaolin Chi Kung consists of many different Chi Kung exercises. But it is usually characterized by slow graceful movements, coordinated with the breathing and performed in what is called a meditative state of mind.
People practice Shaolin Chi Kung primarily for its health and energy benefits. But remember how at the start of this page I said that the Venerable Bodhidharma found the monks too weak for the rigors of spiritual cultivation? He taught them the 18 Lohan Hands and Sinew metamorphosis, not to help them fight or to overcome illness, but to help them attain enlightenment easier.
Authentic Shaolin Chi Kung is rare today and it’s sad to say that much of the ‘essence’ of this art has been ‘lost in translation’ like so many of the arts that have made the journey from east to west like Yoga and Tai Chi. So if you find a good teacher, hold onto them!