The longest journey begins with a single step... Escaping the Emperor’s wrath, the Buddhist monk Kwai Chang Caine fled from the Shaolin monastery in China to end up to the American West, where he was forced to fight against rascals, armed only with his skill in martial arts. This was the story line of the TV hit series „Kung Fu” from 1972. Allegedly, a white actor got the lead role over martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who had extensive involvement in its development, because the producer felt the American audience was not ready for an Asian actor giving cowboys a good trashing. Since then, the names of Shaolin and kung fu have found a place in the Western collective imagination, and the warrior monk with almost mystical powers has become a pop-culture icon.
For the Buddhist East, however, the famous Shaolin temple, hidden among deep mountains in central Henan province, is the craddle of one of the most important schools of Buddhism, Chan (or Zen as it is best known under its Japanese name), which fused the.teachings of Buddha and the Tao tradition. Rituals and prayers were less important to him than achieving self-control and spiritual perfection through long and intense training in meditation in a fixed posture. On the other hand, for centuries Shaolin has been famous in China as kung fu's place of origin. There is no contradiction in this. The basic code of the monastic discipline comprises both meditation and martial arts – as the remedy for weakness of body and laziness of spirit – and it was introduced by one man, the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who went to the monastery in 527. Since the end of the Golden Era of China’s Buddhism, the monastery has been attacked many times, giving the monks numerous occasions to practice kung
fu as a real fighting technique. The most dramatic events, however, took place in 1928, when the warlord Shi Yousan set fire to the monastery, destroying the buildings almost completely. The last five monks were led away from the monastery in shackles in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution. The temple was restored by the government during the ideological thaw in the 1980s
Fans of karate, judo or Thai kickboxing often refuse to recognize kung fu as a real fighting or self-defence system, blaming it for being a game of tag, a theatrical exercise, oriented to testing one’s own endurance instead of destroying the opponent in the most effective way possible. In a sense it is true, because originally kung fu was not invented to kill. The kung fu stances and movements bearing poetic names evoke rather a mediatative mood than a figghting one. Yet the difference between smashing a jar full of water with bare fist and doing the same to someone’s skull is only a matter of will. That’s why direct physical contact is not essential in training. Despite commercial temptations, Kwai Chang Caine is still not at home in the Far West, among bullies and gladiators of our present-day arenas. His true place is in the mountains, among Buddhist manuscripts, in the real Shaolin Temple.