MR: I noticed on your website your description of the Preying Mantis form—that what you actually teach is an adapted form that brings in these other types of healing and martial arts.
AM: First of all, in the history of Chinese martial arts, the Shaolin monastery is the most famous. It’s considered the birthplace of what we call modern Kung Fu. It’s also the birthplace of Chan, or Zen. So the story is that Bodhidharma comes from India, has the audience with the emperor, leaves, finds refuge at the Shaolin monastery—which was already built before Bodhidharma got there. The Shaolin monastery, according to my understanding, was built as a place from which to translate Buddhist scripture into Chinese. Well Bodhidharma spent some time in a cave behind the monastery and came out and began teaching. At that time in China, there were many different schools of Buddhism flourishing. Bodhidharma taught a very specific type of Buddhism, which I believe came from Northern India. The legend has it that he required long periods of sitting, there was not much discourse involved—it was basically just sitting—but he found the monks there too weak to withstand the rigors of it. He didn’t discover martial arts, but he developed health exercises. From what I was taught, he developed the I Chin Ching, which is the muscle and sinew purification exercises and a system of movements called the 18 Lohan. These were just exercises to help strengthen the body.
These exercises ended up becoming the root of Shaolin martial arts, which underwent continual refinement for many centuries, until it was solidified—probably by the 15th or 16th century—into five concrete forms. These have animal names: the Tiger, the Crane, the Leopard, the Snake, and the Dragon. Each of these is a metaphor for different aspects of personal development. The dragon develops passion, which is like the love of learning. The snake develops chi. The tiger develops bone strength. The crane develops fluidity. And the leopard develops speed. These became forms of movement, but they also became systems of martial art or self-defense because China has had periods of lawlessness when you either defended yourself or perished. Chan developed at the same time at the Shaolin monastery and spread to other parts of China. In the seventeenth century, China was invaded from the north by Manchuria and the Shaolin monks tried to take the five different Shaolin systems—those five animals—and refine them into a new martial art that they could teach people en masse to try to overthrow the Manchurians. And that became Preying Mantis Kung Fu. That’s the system of Kung Fu I learned from Chan Poi. With Dr. Xie’s teaching, I gained the insight into how to change the Preying Mantis I learned from Chan Poi into what I’m teaching today.
MR: What do you feel is the heart of what you’re teaching today?
AM: Well, for the young student that comes in—discipline and the Kung Fu Code (Renyi), which I’ve broken down into respect, kindness, honesty, perseverance, and humility. Older students may be looking for health exercises and to keep fit, but we also have inquiries into the philosophical roots of Buddhism and Taoism. We have sitting class and Chi Kung. For me and for the students that have been with me for a long time, Kung Fu just becomes part of our lives. Like my first teacher, Chan Poi, said—when you realize that Kung Fu is like food, you don’t live without eating, right? And that’s what Kung Fu is. When you understand the value of it in your life at that level, then it becomes meaningful.
MR: What do you love the most about Chinese medicine, Chi Kung, Kung Fu
AM: What is it that I love the most about it? I think what I love most about it is that it’s connected to a philosophy that’s given me tools to further explore the content of my own consciousness. I’m happy with that
Arthur Makaris has been a master of Chinese martial arts, as well as an acupuncturist and herbalist for over 30 years. He is the founder and executive director of the Acupuncture and Qigong Health Center, the Vermont Kung Fu Academy, and the Jade School of Medicine, all in Essex Junction, Vermont.
Amy Shoko Brown, MRO has been a student at Zen Mountain Monastery since 1990 and practices art therapy in the Mount Tremper, NY area