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Dharma Daishi, Great Teacher of Buddhism and the Martial Arts

Dharma Daishi (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit and Daruma Daishi in Japanese) was an enlightened Hindu from India who is credited with re-teaching and reviving Hindu philosophy in China, which was originally spread to China by another Indian Hindu, Siddhartha, or Buddha. This second teacher thus founded the martial arts. Buddhism is simply the worshipping of this enigmatic Hindu figure, called the Buddha, which means "great and focused mind" in Sanskrit.

Dharma Daishi began his life in southern India in the Sardilli family in 482 A.D. In the midst of his education and training to continue in his father's footsteps as king, he encountered the Buddha's original teachings. He immediately saw the truth in Lord Buddha's words and decided to give up his inheritance and esteemed position as a prince to study with the famous Hindu teacher Prajnatara. Dharma Daishi rapidly progressed in his Hindu studies, and in time Prajnatara sent Dharma Daishi to China in order to better teach the indigenous Chinese peoples the lessons and rigorous discipline required to achieve the perfect Hindu medititative states. Unfortunately, the Chinese people could not grasp the abstract concepts relating to this meditation and so Dharma Daishi taught them incredibly rigorous physical lessons in order to teach them the necessary discipline required for the true Hindu meditative journey to Moksha, or release from earthly bondage, otherwise known as Nirvana. The physical exertions were used to train the body, and then hopefully, the mind would also become harder and more disciplined after these regimented actions. Dharma Daishi arrived in China after a brutal trek over Tibet's Himalayan mountains, surviving both the extreme elements and treacherous bandits.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Ti, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Dharma. During their initial meeting, Wu Ti asked Dharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds. Dharma informed him that he had accrued none whatsoever. Dharma was subsequently unable to convince Wu Ti of the value of the teachings he had brought from India. Dharma then set out for Loyang, crossed the Tse River, and climbed Bear's Ear Mountain in the Sung Mountain range where a Shaolin temple was located. He meditated there in a small cave for nine years.

Dharma, in true Maha or "great" spirit, was moved to pity when he saw the terrible physical condition of the monks of the Shaolin temple, who were failing in their attempts to find perfect meditation taught by Buddha thousands of years prior. It seemed to him that they were unable to fully grasp the enormous mental and abstract discipline necessary to achieve Nirvana, or the ultimate release destination derived from meditation. The monks had practiced long-term meditation retreats, which made them spiritually stronger but physically weak and unable to finish their meditative journeys. He also noted that this meditation method caused sleepiness among the monks. Therefore Dharma informed the monks that he would teach their bodies and subsequently their minds the Buddha's dharma "duty" through a two-part program of meditation accompanied by excruciatingly difficult physical training.

Dharma created an exercise program for the monks which involved physical techniques that were efficient, strengthened the body, and eventually, could be used practically in self-defense. When Dharma instituted these practices, his primary concern was to make the monks physically strong enough to withstand both their isolated lifestyle and the deceptively demanding training that meditation requires. It turned out that the techniques served a dual purpose as a very efficient fighting system, which evolved into a martial arts style given the Chinese name, Kung Fu. Martial arts training helped the monks to defend themselves against invading warlords and bandits. Dharma taught that martial arts should be used for self-defense, and never to needlessly hurt or injure. In fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that "one who engages in combat has already lost the battle."

Dharma, a member of the Indian Kshatriya warrior class and a master of staff fighting, developed a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises. These movements found their way into print in 550 A.D. as the Yi Gin Ching, or Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic. We know this system today as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements, the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts.

Dharma settled in the Shaolin temple of Songshan in Hunan province in 526 A.D. The first Shaolin temple of Songshan was built in 377 A.D. for "The First Buddha," by the order of Emperor Wei on the Shao Shik Peak of Sonn Mountain in Teng Fon Hsien in the Hunan province. The temple was for only religious training and meditation. Martial arts training did not begin until the arrival of Dharma in 526 A.D. Dharma died in 539 A.D. at the Shaolin temple at the age of 57.

Dharma was an extraordinary being who remains an example and an inspiration to practitioners today. He is the source of many miraculous stories of dedication to the Way. One such story was that he became frustrated once while meditating because he had fallen asleep. He was so upset that he cut off his eyelids to prevent this interruption in meditation from ever happening again. Yet another legend states that he meditated for so long that his arms and legs eventually fell off. This is a reminder of the true dedication and devotion necessary in meditation practice. The Bodhidharma doll was developed as a symbol of this dedication. In Japan and other parts of the world, when someone has a task they wish to complete, they purchase a red Bodhidharma doll that comes without pupils painted on the eyes. At the outset of the task one pupil is colored in, and upon completion, the other pupil is painted. The dolls and the evolution of martial arts and meditation, are a continuous reminder of Dharma's impact on Buddhism and martial arts.

Robert David Mancini from New York City holds a 9th Dan in Shotokan.

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