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Buddhism as a philosophy and "religion" came into being during the 5th Century BCE with the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha. the founder of Buddhism, was born in 563 bc in the ruling Kshatriya family of the Lichhavi tribe in Lumbini, in the foothills of Nepal. His father was the chief of this tribe. It was prophesized that Gautama (who was named Siddharth) would become a saint and renounce the world. Therefore, his father took all possible care to keep Gautama in a palace full of luxuries and comfort.

However, Gautama was not satisfied with his materialistic surroundings, and one day, the young prince sneaked out of the palace in his chariot to see the outside world that was still unknown to him. He and his charioteer first came upon an old and frail man; when Gautama asked about it to the charioteer, he replied "He is simply old, my lord. We all become old". They next came upon a very sick man. "He is ill, and we can all become sick." Lastly they came upon a corpse, lying on the side of the road. Again, Gautama asked about this new scene, and the charioteer replied, "He is dead, when life has left the body. We will all die someday." Shocked as Gautama was, they continued along. He then saw a Shramana (an ascetic; clear eyed) and was perplexed but amazed by the calmness on his face. The charioteer told him that the saint had renounced all materialistic things and therefore he was content and happy. This incident left an indelible mark on the mind of the young prince. He realized his life of luxury and pampering had hidden worldly truth from him, and one night he left his beautiful wife and infant son and began his journey to attain the truth of life.

When Gautama left his palace, he was twenty-nine. He wandered from place to place and studied under various shramana teachers of differing philosophies. He studied deep concentration, introspection and even put his body through harsh and sever austerities, eating one grain of rice per day, pushing the body to utmost punishment possible to liberate the mind. Yet nothing could bring to him the peace and understanding he desired. After six years of studying, he decided it was insanity; he was no closer to attaining his goal, and if the body died, how could one attain truth? He regained his strength and took a new path. Beginning with a dispassionate, happy mind he meditated anew.

Gautama attained Enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree in a place called Bodhgaya (in the state of Bihar), at the age of thirty-five. After attaining Enlightenment, he came to be known as the Buddha (the Enlightened One). He preached his first sermon in a place called Sarnath, which is near Varanasi (Benaras). He taught for many years before passing away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar near Gorakhpur (in the state of Uttar Pradesh).

The core of what the Buddha taught is often summed into what are termed the Four Noble truths. These are:

  1. Dukkha - Dukkha is often translated as "Suffering", but also has a stronger connotation of "Dis-ease". It teaches that there is pain, suffering, old age, and death in life. These transient factors affect us all, and are part of the reality that defines life. Everything is impermanent, made of the 5 Skhandhas, forever coming together and breaking apart.
  2. Tanha - The cause of Dukkha is desire, or attachment. Be it for wealth, health, love, money, and life all desires cause suffering. This is because we cannot have everything we want, and denial is a source of pain. Additionally, we may have what we do not want, me may be afraid to lose what we do have.
  3. Cessation - The third truth simply states that extinction of desire ceases pain and suffering; killing the ego releases one from wants. Dukkha can cease-remove causes & conditions by understanding.
  4. Path - The final truth speaks of the 8 fold path, and that adherence to the Eight-Fold Path is the route to the extinction of desire. This is the path that leads to enlightenment, or Nirvana.

The Eight-Fold Path is given here:

  1. Right View - Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realize the Four Noble Truths. As such, right view is the cognitive aspect of wisdom. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions. No action should be mindless; a spiritual person knows why he acts.
  2. Right Intention - While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, i.e. the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.
  3. Right Speech - Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
  4. Right Action - This involves the body as natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others.
  5. Right Livelihood - Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.
  6. Right Effort - Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavors that rank in ascending order of perfection: 1. to prevent the arising of un-arisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.
  7. Right Mindfulness - Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualize sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facility of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.
  8. Right Concentration - The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.

Ch'an Buddhism

Buddhism is said to have traveled into China along the Silk Road in the first half of the first century AD. Its rise to prominence grew in proportion to the increasing traffic along the Silk Road, so that by the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) when China's capital, Chang'an, was one of the world's most prosperous cities, Buddhist translations were for the first time accessible. It was during this period that a new variant of Buddhism arose, which used elements from Daoism to beget a quintessentially Chinese variation of the Indian import. This new school came to be known as the Chan school (more commonly known in the west by its Japanese name, Zen).

As the legend goes, Bodhidharma (or to the Chinese, Tamo (440?-528 CE) was a Buddhist scholar from India who visited the court of the Chinese Emperor Wu of Liang in the sixth century C.E. Following this visit, during which he is said to have debunked the Emperor's view of Buddhist teachings, he traveled to the Shaolin Monastery. There he spent nine years in a cave meditating. Bodhidharma advocated the teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra, which stressed the direct realization of one's Buddha-nature, and this line of Buddhist thought, coupled with Daoist tradition, became the foundation of Ch'an Buddhism.

The general principles of Buddhism are evident in Chan Buddhism. That is to say that the world is an illusion conjured up by each individual's mind, that every thought has the power to produce a retributive future result (known as karma), and that it is this that decides what form we will appear in during our next life. Enlightenment occurs when we understand this, and nirvana is attained when we are emancipated from the endless cycle of life and death to join the Universal Mind. The word Ch'an was a Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word "dhyana", which referred to the Buddha's teaching of meditative concentration. But the Chinese chose to interpret the word to mean "awareness." Thus the Ch'an school was centered around utilizing meditative concentration, rather than relying on sacred texts, in order to attain a direct awareness of one's true nature. The key variations in Chan Buddhism are as follows:

  • The Theory of the double truth - This defines two different kinds of truth, a common one and a higher one, on three different levels. At the heart of this complex theory is an examination of the inter-relationship between existence and non-existence. Truth is complicated by the fact that on the one hand there is physical form or existence and, on the other, everything is said to be illusory or non-existent. In which case, what and where is truth - within existence or non-existence? After considering this, the theory then considers the same question for enlightenment.
  • "A good deed entails no retribution" - This idea stems from the Daoist belief in non-action, i.e. that action without effort, which is natural and spontaneous to the essence of the individual, does not entail any future retribution or "karma".
  • Enlightenment - The method of attaining enlightenment is to do things without deliberate effort and purpose and live naturally. This prepares the mind for enlightenment.
  • Sudden Occurrence - That enlightenment occurs suddenly. Although non-action or living the life of non-cultivation diminishes distracting elements and facilitates contemplation, enlightenment itself is not a gradual process but a sudden revelation.
  • Indescribable - Although words can be a useful tool to explain a thought, they can only ever be an approximation to the idea. Thus, the state of enlightenment can never be described.
  • Reality - There is no other reality than this phenomenal world. Whereas the unenlightened only see the physical objects around them, the enlightened in addition to this see the Buddha nature within the phenomenal world.

Thus, Ch'an adopted doctrines of "absence of thought" and "seeing one's original nature" and also used illgical question and answer methods - all aimed at developing intuition, intuition itself seen as the true source of wisdom (prajna), not rational thought. Meditation is the heart of Ch'an practice. All there is to be done in order to fulfill the quest is to simply stop the workings of one's mind and look no further outside oneself. The entirety of becoming (or rather recognizing the state of being) enlightened is placed on the individual, not on texts and ancient canon. In a sweeping gesture Tamo urged self-motivation, self-awareness, and self-recognition. Then one will realize no-mind, be free from all mentation, and be everywhere released. One can go back to everyday life.

A Ch'an mystic, after coming to understand the other side, can come back to work on this side. The strong emphasis placed by Ch'an Buddhists on manual work, "in carrying water and chopping wood is the wonderful Tao", has to be understood in connection with their concern with the human mind, with a salvation in the here and now. Everyday life and the everyday laity were never considered apart from Ch'an Buddhism, but part and parcel to the whole.

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