top of page

Zen is Spiritual but not Religious

Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit in the Sitting Zen posture.



Sifu, in one post Arhat said: I'm looking to be a part of a spiritual tradition that is as close as possible to the source of Ch'an. WKK doesn't offer that, and basically says as much in his answers.

I believe as a Shaolin successor of one of the last of the Shaolin monks and with such a very short lineage, you are very close to the source of Ch'an Buddhism. I thought that the clear break in the modern Shaolin monks' lineage during the Ching dynasty would mean that there was also an interruption in the teaching of the Dharma at the temple. Please can you give your opinions on this?

~Dan, Inglaterra



You are right, Dan. It is indeed remarkable that although about 150 years separated us and the burning of the southern Shaolin Temple when the last of the traditional Shaolin monks escaped, we are only four generations away, when most other lineages may have ten to fifteen generations. This short generation gap in the lineage despite the long time in between, accounts for the fact that what we practice today is very close to what was practiced at the Shaolin Temple.

Another important factor was that our first patriarch from the Ho Fatt Nan lineage, the Venerable Jiang Nan, was a missionary, rather than a revolutionary. His main aim was to preserve the Shaolin arts for personal development, rather than to teach fighting skills meant to overthrow the Manchurian government. This has a great influence on the way we train our Shaolin arts, resulting that Zen (Ch'an) forms an integral part of our training.

On the other hand, while the southern Shaolin Temple was burnt down, the northern Shaolin Temple remained until 1928 when it was burnt by Republican warlords. It was restored by the present Chinese government in the 1970s. Hence for about 50 years there were no Shaolin Temples.

However, the interruption of Zen teaching in the Shaolin tradition in China itself might even be longer, because since a Ming emperor built another Shaolin Temple in the south, the focus of both Shaolin Kungfu and Zen was at the southern rather than the northern Shaolin Temple. As the Ming emperors stayed in the south, the southern Shaolin Temple became the imperial temple.

When the Ching Dynasty replaced the Ming Dynasty, the Ching emperors patronized the northern Shaolin Temple, but it did not have the same prominence as before because unlike the Ming emperors who were Zen Buddhists, the Ching or Manchurian emperors were Vajrayana Buddhists. A Ching emperor built another imperial temple in Bejing, known as Yong He Temple, sometimes called the Little Potala because it followed the model of the Potala in Tibet.

During the time of the first Republic, which replaced the Ching Dynasty in 1911, the northern Shaoljn Temple was either neglected or deserted. Then a warlord, escaping from his rival, retreated to the deserted temple. The rival warlord attacked and burned the temple in 1928.

During the early part of the People's Republic of China, which replaced the first Chinese Republic in 1949, practicing any traditional arts, including Kungfu, Qigong and Zen cultivation, was discouraged and in some cases even prosecuted. The ruling Communists considered these arts bourgeois. The worst period was during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s, when practicing anything traditional was regarded as counter-revolutionary, the worst crime in China at that time.

For a time many people, including many kungfu exponents, thought the Shaolin Temple was just a myth. When I was a child, I loved to hear kungfu stories about folk heroes like Hoong Hei Khoon, Foong Sai Yoke and Sam Tuck Woh Seong. We knew they practiced Shaolin Kungfu, but no one knew where the Shaolin Temple was. Later when I myself learned Shaolin Kungfu, even my sifu, Uncle Righteousness, was unsure whether the Shaolin Temple was real or a myth.

It was indeed a great joy when the Chinese government restored the northern Shaolin Temple in the 1970s, and later opened China to the world. Since then, the Chinese government has reversed its earlier policy. It promotes chi kung and wushu (the Chinese word for kungfu) actively, and practices religious freedom.

With this historical background, one can see that you are right to say there was a clear break in the modern Shaolin monks' lineage during the Ching dynasty as well as the subsequent periods until the 1970s. On the other hand, as our lineage can be traced continuously to the Venerable Jiang Nan, who was the last of the traditional Shaolin monks, we can reasonably say that as our Shaolin tradition is unbroken and as Shaolin is the source of Ch'an, our spiritual tradition is not just as close as possible to the source of Ch'an, ours is Ch'an, or Zen as it is more popularly known. Whether Arhat agrees is his business.

Notwithstanding this, having an unbroken lineage is one thing, but believing in and practicing Zen is another. Those who wish to understand the philosophy and practice of Zen are requested to read my book The Complete Book of Zen. It is written in the Shaolin tradition. Some brief information on Zen can be found at FAQ on Zen. The following is a very brief description of the philosophy and practice of Zen I offer in our Shaolin Wahnam training.

Zen or Ch'an is spiritual, but not religious. It means that anyone of any religion, or of no official religion, can practice and benefit from Zen training. The highest aim is to attain Enlightenment, called variously by different peoples as returning to God, attaining the Tao, or just returning Home. We are serious about it, we do not merely say this for fun or for impressing others.

But we also realize that most people are not ready for, or even interested in, this highest, most noble aim. Most people, therefore, will practice Zen for lesser aims or objectives, such as having good health and vitality, getting the most from our work and play, and leading a meaningful, rewarding life for ourselves and for other people. Yet, we know that when we are ready, we shall strive for the highest, most noble attainment.

Our practice to attain our aims and objectives are guided by the three characteristics of Zen, namely simplicity, directness and effectiveness. If our objective is to experience some internal force, for example, we shall choose a technique or method that is simple, direct and effective, such as Pushing Mountains.

The technique is bafflingly simple, basically it consists of pushing the hands forward and bringing them back with appropriate breathing. We would not worry, for example, about such complexities like how internal force is developed, or why we push mountains and not clouds, or is it Buddhist or Taoist in origin. While it is simple, it may not be easy for other people, though it is also easy for us, and the result can be very profound.

The technique chosen is directly related to our objective in mind. We would not, for example, jog for a few miles or carry weights, for that would deplete our energy instead of increasing it for our internal force. Our approach to the technique as well as the actual activity in the technique itself are also direct. For example, we do not need to warm up, or perform extraneous movements.

We choose the most effective technique available to us, and measure its effectiveness or otherwise with direct reference to our set objectives or general aims. We do not wait for years, or even months to feel the effect of our training. Usually we feel the effect immediately! This is what we mean by effectiveness.

Arhat may not believe this, thinking that internal force takes a long time to develop. He may then count this as another of my fraudulent claims, as he often insinuated in the discussion forum in question. He is right in thinking that internal force takes time to develop. Those who use Water-Buffalo methods may take ten or twenty years, but those who use smart methods can develop reasonable internal force in a year or two.

But this is not the point here; the point is that if we use a very effective method and do it correctly, we can feel internal force immediately. If we use a right method but do it wrongly, or use an inappropriate method but do it correctly, we may not feel any internal force at all even if we have practiced for many years. Even when we feel internal force immediately, we still need time for it to accumulate before it can be reasonably strong.

Almost everyone who attended my Intensive Qigong Course, Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course, or Intensive Taijiquan Course felt internal force immediately after performing an exercise like Pushing Mountains, Golden Bridge or Lifting Water. Asking us to prove it scientifically, as Arhat frequently insisted was the only way to prove whether a claim was true or false, is difficult or inappropriate.

Then how do we know we have internal force? We know from direct experience, as well as by other means like applying the internal force to perform certain tasks. In similar ways we know we are happy, or we have thinking ability. We know this is true not from scientific proofs, but from direct experience or by applying our happiness or thinking ability to situations or tasks.

If Arhat is a Zen or Ch'an cultivator, he should but not necessarily does, know that there are many things in Zen where scientific tests are simply not appropriate. Whether eating your meal when you are hungry, or drinking some tea when you are thirsty can or cannot lead to a spiritual awakening, for example, cannot be tested or proved by science. Arhat may not know, or believe, that even some ordinary Zen cultivators saw through walls, but he should have heard that the great Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River on a reed. These acts would not be easy for science to prove or disprove.

This, of course, does not mean Zen cultivators do not value science, or should believe blindly whatever is mentioned in Zen. But as a Zen cultivator, one should not concertedly ridicule beliefs that are traditionally accepted in Zen or other spiritual cultivations, even he may not personally believe in them, such as distant healing, multi-dimensional universe, power of mind over matter — beliefs which mediocre scientists sneer at but far-sighted scientists are beginning to appreciate. If Arhat reads my book, The Complete Book of Zen, he would hopefully understand why a blind reliance on science or on the intellect may obstruct an awareness of the supra-mundane.

Arhat and a few others were offered an opportunity to test my claims from direct experience, which is characteristic of Zen, without any expenses if they were dissatisfied, and to debunk me if they found my claims false. Instead of making good use of the opportunity, which is another characteristic of Zen, he concluded that the falsehood of my claims was so obvious that it was unnecessary to test, an attitude that was uncharacteristic of Zen and also unscientific, and he concertedly insinuated, by name, that I was fraudulent and cheated students' money.

Arhat and those like him would not have such an opportunity again. Even if they wanted to, I would not want them to be my students, or my students' students. Why? In terms of our Ten Shaolin Laws, they are simply not deserving. Then, why would I answer this question in such details. The answer is mainly for other people who may benefit from it.


The above is taken from Question 7 Feb 2003 Part 1 of the Selection of Questions and Answers.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page