Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.
In early November, I return to China for the last major leg of the trip, a six-week journey—the longest so far—that will take me from Shanghai – Nanjing – Wudang – Xi’an – Shaolin – Weifang – Beijing.
Even though the hallowed Shaolin awaits, I am not looking forward to this trip. I need all my discipline to board that flight from Singapore to Shanghai on Nov 6th.
There are several reasons for this. The first is simply fatigue. After more than four months on the road, having covered more than 15,000km overland, I am just bloody tired. I am tired of searching for cheap hotels and the most cost-efficient overland journey. I am tired of packing my bags every four days and moving to the next place. I am tired of carrying around my voice recorder, camera, GoPro, phone and notebook wherever I go. I am tired of repeating my damn shpeel about Kerala and Shaolin. I am tired of looking at every person on the street as an interview subject. (I want to just look down and walk past you!) And I am tired of watching over my two team-members: as fun and independent as they are, I always worry about them, feeling somewhat responsible for their safety.
Impossibly blue skies that look fake, like creations from a Pixar lab; hills and mountains of varying shapes, sizes and colours, whose endlessness lulls you into taking them for granted, only to realise their true grandeur after you’ve left the rooftop of the world; monasteries that have somehow survived, that transport you to a bygone era of spirituality; rivers so pure, so clean, you can drink from them, bathe in them, live in them; and people so warm that the very concept of “stranger” soon evaporates, and you can almost imagine a oneness of humanity that predates Lennon’s poetry by generations.
All these elements are unwilling participants in the eternal clash between tradition and modernity, which is played out everywhere around you, in Lhasa’s glitzy new malls, along kilometres of power cables that line green valleys, in some monasteries that seem more intent on squeezing hapless tourists than lighting butter candles.
Philosophy and spiritual teachings have crept into conversations throughout the last eight weeks in India. Perhaps I should have expected this. Almost all Indian martial arts are grounded in spirituality, if not necessarily religion. Boddhidharma (pictured), who many believe brought some form of martial arts from South India to Shaolin sometime in the 5th-6th century, was a Buddhist monk.
Although, as somebody different reminds me every few days, back then Buddhism and Hinduism were not “religions” in the contemporary sense, and there might have been a lot more overlap between them. Many Hindus might have subscribed to the teachings of the Buddha; moreover, they would probably not even have identified themselves as “Hindus”, distinct from “Buddhists”. Even today, the terms “Hindu” and “Buddhist” do not have widespread currency across India. “I prefer to say that I am a follower of Lord Buddha’s teaching,” Kirit’s uncle, the secretary of a Japanese Buddhist organisation in Jaipur, tells me.1
All this is important, because as we consider the ancient connections between Chinese and Indian martial arts— a microcosm, perhaps, of broader cultural exchange—it is worth noting that undergirding those flows was not “religion” or “proselytisation” as we know them today, but rather a more universal ethos about living a good, honourable, spiritual life.
As such, the shorthand that I’ve been using this past year to describe kung fu’s origins—“Martial arts probably spread from India to China in the 5th-6th C with Buddhism as its vehicle”—is simplistic. Continue reading “Letter from India: Philosophies”