First I'd like to talk a little about Buddhism and why it relates so heavily to what will be referred to in the notes here. It's important to have a very quick background on it to understand a few simple concepts.

As mentioned in my last article, the Shaolin temple practices a subset of Buddhism known as Chan, which translates to ‘meditation’ – also known as Zen in Japan and the Western world. Chan Buddhism can essentially be boiled down to enlightenment through self-realization of studying texts and simply practicing the precepts throughout daily life. Meditation allows for this self-realization and is a very important part of Chan.

How does it relate? Buddhist concepts rear their heads constantly through Shaolin kungfu in very small ways, generally by way of numbers – pressure points to attack, numbers of techniques, vital areas of the body, methods of training. As a prime example, the number 108 is one of the most sacred in Buddhism – a Buddhist rosary generally has 108 beads representing every reincarnation before enlightenment. 108 and its factors appear very often throughout kungfu and other Eastern martial arts in a variety of ways. Many karate schools name their kata (forms) after the number of moves – 18, 54 and 108 being some of the major ones. In fact, in one of the biggest karate styles, a kata known as Suparinpei, the Chinese pronunciation of 108, is their ultimate kata. There’s obviously the Chinese traditional medicine and other such links that make themselves prevalent, too.

Why does this matter? Simple – for Shaolin monks, perfection of mind and body is their method of achieving enlightenment. This is their religion. This is what they do day in, day out, and how they express their beliefs. It’s important to keep this in mind as we go through the next section. Needless to say, Buddhism is a strong influence on kungfu and that influence has shone through via mind and body training. But enough about that! Let’s get on to the most important part of this entry: internal versus external martial arts.

Internal Versus External Martial Arts
For Chinese arts, internal and external are two very different types of art. In summation, an internal art focuses on inner-body/spiritual elements as part of its training, while external arts use external body. Spiritual versus physiological strength, if you will. From an outsider’s, non-spiritual, point of view, this distinction is very difficult because an internal art is something that Western culture is not used to having to process.

An external art is a very easy thing to explain – it relies on having a tough body, great flexibility, a lot of strength and constant, rigorous training of body to achieve mental and spiritual strength. This is the way of the Shaolin kungfu and of almost every single Western martial art; very few arts really practice spiritual strength in the Western world. And, as Northern Shaolin falls directly into this category, so does Echani. Certainly there is a religious/spiritual aspect to this, but this is less emphasized than it is in other formats.

Internal arts are a little trickier to understand. The requirements of an internal art as dictated by Chinese tradition are that it uses mental and spiritual strength to move the body, has a sound development and expression of qi (internal energy), and applies Taoist principles of daoyin (yoga-based meditation), qigong (internal energy arts) and neigong (breathing). Tai Chi is a perfect example of an internal art. While many people see it as meditation and relaxation (which is certainly true), it’s also one of the longest-standing martial traditions in the world and is just as deadly in the hands of a master as a professional boxer or karate champion. There are some non-Chinese internal arts, such as the Japanese aikido, but it is never found outside Eastern martial arts. There is not a single martial art that is ‘internal’ in nature.

This distinction is important, because it tells us just how detailed the art becomes when it comes to internal energy. Yes, there is certainly a need for ‘qi’ in Shaolin, and yes it does have its own breathing and spiritual aspects, but not in the same way that an internal art does. For example, the Yijin Jing, a qigong manual that works on hardening the body through postures, poses and movements that closely resemble many Shaolin boxing techniques, also improves natural qi. However, given that its focus is on the body’s strength to improve spiritual strength, it’s an external art method.

It’s an important concept to understand, but a very fine line to walk from our understanding. It comes down to three things: intent, method and end result. An internal art can improve the body as an end result, just like an external art. If the intent is to improve spiritual strength and promote awareness of mind through gentle motions that use no muscular strength, however, then it falls more under the internal art banner. We in Western culture see martial arts as something to improve fitness, self-control, confidence, coordination, et cetera – we see it as a fighting method and little more. For the Chinese, the martial arts are a tradition as old as their nation, older than many Western nations combined, and their spiritual beliefs have crossed into it. Needless to say, the precepts of Chinese medicine as it focuses on qi have spilled into both internal and external as a result, and we’ll discuss qi in a future article and how it applies to what we’re doing here.

However, hopefully this gives you a tad more background on what we’re doing here, and I’ll demonstrate how it’s going to apply to Echani later on.