Damo: Conspiracy of Ignorance

Damo: Conspiracy of Ignorance, by Chris Toepker

Many martial artists will have heard the story of Bodhidharma or Damo. In the story, this Indian monk arrived in China, eventually making his way to Shaolin temple on Mt. Songshan. There he found the monks’ physical condition poor and so unable to sit in prolonged meditation. At first he was so disgusted that he retired to a cave to sit in meditation for nine years. Then a monk named Hui Ke cut off his own arm to show that he had grasped Damo’s deepest teachings. Damo then agreed to teach the “Marrow Washing” and “Tendon Changing” classics as well as the 18 Lohan stances, a series of exercises meant to improve the monks’ ability to meditate. Many tellers add that these exercises were derived from martial routines familiar to Damo from his youth in a warrior caste family. In any case, the story concludes that these exercises were to blossom into Shaolin kung fu and are therefore the root of kung fu. It’s a good story. What a pity it is a fake.

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“Shrine to the Western Saint” (Damo), Shaolin Temple early 2000s

This story has been under scrutiny in China for a very long time, but gone largely unquestioned in the west. For example, Tang Fan Sheng’s 1930 book “A reference on Shaolin and Wudang,” reports that this fable can be traced back to a single source: the preface by Li Jing to the “Marrow Washing Classic.” Li Jing states in this preface that he is writing in during the Tang dynasty. Mr. Tang notes that the Shaolin monastery indeed held a great attraction for literati who wrote many poems and essays featuring the monastery during this time. Shaolin enjoyed such fame not only because it held royal favor, but also because it was also the fountainhead of Chan (Zen). However, Mr. Tang’s research finds many contradictions and anachronisms.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction Mr. Tang considers is the difference between Damo’s actual teachings and those recorded in the Classics. While Damo preached and practiced a method of direct transmission of enlightenment, the heart and soul of Chan teaching, the Classics are full of chants and “contortions.” Therefore, according to Mr. Tang, the contents are anathema to Damo’s aim and it is hard to believe that anyone living near the time of Damo would have dared to pass on such an obvious disparity. Still, there are even more concrete examples that point directly to the piece’s fraudulence. Among these obvious mistakes is Li Jings report that Damo arrived in the Wei kingdom during Xiao Ming’s “Tai He” year. However, this would place Damo’s arrival more than 30 years before the establishment of Shaolin at all. Someone writing at the time probably wouldn’t make such a mistake. Secondly, much of the text seem to be copied directly from the “Transmission of Light,” a largely allegorical book describing Chan enlightenment which was not written until the Ming dynasty.

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Drum Tower, Shaolin Temple (newly remodeled, early 2000s)

Mr. Tang asserts that since the preface contained references to the very real Hui Ke and Indian Buddhist scriptures, readers accepted Li Jing as having lived during the Tang dynasty. Further, he explains that many of the stories currently taken for granted about Damo and the establishment of Shaolin kung fu cannot be found in sources before the Ming dynasty. For example, he notes that there are no stories of Damo staring at the wall and leaving his shadow in the contemporary Tang dynasty accounts. As a result of this discrepancy, Mr. Tang suggests the fable was created in the late Ming or perhaps early Qing dynasties. Mr. Tang’s book is interesting to read as a piece that reflects its own Republican era. He does not stop at researching the story, but criticizes many books and materials published in his time that not only advance the errors, but also compound them. For example, one history of martial arts, which refers to the Damo tale, reports that the kingdom of Wei was somehow in southern China, while Liang was in the North..the complete opposite of fact! Mr. Tang denounces his “modern contemporaries living in this scientific age” for not doing more research before transmitting fabrications.

Tang’s findings are further supported by the work of Matsuda Takatomo in his book “An Illustrated History of Chinese Martial Arts,” published in 1979. Matsuda revisits original sources as well as work done by Tang Hao and Xu Ze Dong. He reports that the Classics were supposedly published in 628 and yet according to all findings, the oldest available copy was published in 1827, leaving a gap of approximately 1,200 years. During this millennium and more, many books were published concerning Shaolin martial arts. For example, “An Overview of Shaolin Pole Techniques,” the “Fist Classic,” and “Collections of the Spirit Hall.” Oddly, none of these works mention Damo and stranger still Matsuda reports that the words “Marrow,” “Washing,” or “Classic,” are not to be found among their pages at all. Even books that cover Buddhist history and lineage report only that “Damo lived in Shaolin and sat in Chan meditation all day and all night,” without any mention of a “Marrow Washing Classic.” Mr. Matsuda notes that during the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was very common for writers to attribute their works to long-dead, well-respected authors so that the piece would gain authenticity. He therefore contends that late Ming or early Qing dynasty martial artists borrowed Damo’s name in order to increase their own popular support and power.

Finally, “A Practical Guide to Chinese Martial Arts,” written by Kang He Wu in 1991 reviews the history of discovery, including Tang Hao’s work. In addition, he quotes monks interviewed in 1927 that report an oral tradition that the fist techniques that now comprise Shaolin kung fu were brought into the temple during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Before that, Shaolin techniques were reported limited to staff fighting. In any case, Mr. Kang also concludes that Damo is not the founder of Shaolin martial arts.

For myself, I wonder why so many are so willing to believe in this tale so deeply. Perhaps belief comes from faith in our teachers? Perhaps there is a need to point to a single, simple originator? Or perhaps the need to be as worthy as Hui Ke drives us. Whatever the reason, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect and wonder if the Damo story is nothing more than allegory.

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“Shrine to the Western Saint” (Damo) in Shaolin Temple, early 2000s


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