Hsin Tao Myths and Indian Hsin Tao History explained by Ratziel Bander
I have often been asked about the name Hsin Tao. It seems like an appropriate time to shine more light on this and other aspects of my work. The name was chosen to help people understand the subtleties of the methodology created around the Hsin Tao movements. Our translation of the Chinese words—“The way of the men in the mountains”, men who became like gods— (which are actually open to a wide variety of translations) is intended to instruct and inspire students. When my teacher taught me the precious technique, it had no name. It was referred to simply as Buddhist Yoga. After my first year of teaching it, we named it Hsin Tao for the perfect summation of the technique’s spirit. The Myth about the creation of the Hsin Tao movements described in the book ‘The Miracle Of Hsin Tao’ (see http://www.hsintao.ch/shop.asp) was also intended as an aid to people’s understanding. Have you used these aspects as instructive tools, or are they relegated to mere background information?
Myths are didactic in nature—they teach us lessons. So far I have focused solely on the myth from the Chinese perspective with due deference to my forebears methods. The myth of Ta Mo and his legacy, as it was handed to me, is intended to show us how to approach the movements and how to revere and keep them personal and private. For example, when we describe Bodhi Dharma sailing up the Yangtze River on a leaf, facilitated by his lightness of mind, it teaches us to have a light and easy attitude to the practice and not get too serious and ‘precious’ about it.
When it tells us that he stood up after nine years of meditation and began to move in this mysterious way, the myth teaches us how to approach the movements. Not with force or agility, as would a healthy, normal person, but instead to gently and gingerly explore the limits of natural movement, like a man so stiff, weak and decrepit from sitting still for such a period of time that he can barely move at all. The mythical episode in which Ta Mo insults the Chinese Emperor by being honest in his speech and not bowing to ceremonial norms, exhorts us to observe ourselves authentically and form honest, accurate insights into our inner behavior, without bowing to what we ‘should’ be or wish to be (see more on this subject in the book ‘How To Become Who You Are—a do-it-yourself handbook of Introspection, Meditation and Self- Love’by Ratziel Bander ©2018, http://www.hsintao.ch/shop.asp). The king represents our conscious self, whilst Ta Mo represents the observer, the visitor trapped in the court of the mind, who uses higher intellect to discern truth from artifice.
When the myth tells us that Hsin Tao was kept hidden, known to only a chosen few in a monastery, it helps us consider the sacred and intimate nature of the teachings and how they should be regarded as sacrosanct. Yet there is more to discover—it is the Shaolin monastery that is quoted in the myth and the monks of Shaolin were irreverent, ill kempt and dangerous. They were known as nonconformists, retired generals and fighters, not your ordinary meek monks. Contemplating on this aspect of the myth helps us see that although the teachings are precious and intimate, yet they should not become dogmatic, or submerged in a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Instead we should allow them to be adventurous, exciting, dangerous, fun. We can continually explore new limits, steer away from the conventional, and like the unwashed Shaolin monks of the 16th century, become skilled to perfection through unbridled repetition and dedicated, internalized practice. And so the subtleties of the myth unravel secret after secret, that mere lessons cannot so easily reveal. But one has to explore the practice and at the same time contemplate on these subtleties of myth to reap the benefits.
Every aspect, every word of the myth is designed for contemplation, and is a useful guide directing us in the way to approach the practice both physically and mentally.
But a myth holds questionable historical value. For example there is no record of any of the events described here as ever happening. Indeed, in some Zen sects the very existence of Bodhi Dharma is disputed—some Wu Shu [fighting] schools believe that Ta Mo himself is an invention to rationalize a natural evolution of fighting and meditative skills that evolved from Chinese sources over the years, or that if he existed he never went to Shaolin. Other Zen sects claim he travelled to China at the behest of his Buddhist teacher, taking with him the lineage of Buddhism in direct line from the Buddha himself. Stories of Bodhi Dharma told by monks, masters and experts nowadays are conflicting and incomplete. All that emanates from China is certainly guided by the strong hand of the communist party ‘line’. Mythology is taken as history, while history is clouded and obscured by vested interest, conjecture and wishful thinking.
We know that, historically, the Hsin Tao teachings did not exist in the Shaolin Temple by the late 1700s, being firmly established among laymen by the time of the Boxer Rebellion (only two per generation). My great grand teacher was a renowned fighter and doctor, who was a family man, and no monk—feared by the British and the Chinese governments. We also know that the secret technique was removed from China into British Hong Kong after the Boxer Rebellion, never to return to the mainland. And we also know that in the 1960s only one of the two recipients of the technique was Chinese. With the approaching return of Hong Kong to China, the technique was spirited away from Chinese influence altogether, re-established in Australia and Thailand. In the 1990s the technique was handed to two Westerners—both Australian—one of them, myself, given instructions to reveal the teachings and break the cycle. But none of these facts fit with the myth. They do not have didactic value, so they are not handed down as part of the teaching. The historical facts have, up till now, been kept for those who had already assimilated the lessons of the myth.
Yet there is an older, perhaps more interesting record of Bodhi Dharma that is considered a true history, and it too has no instructive purpose other than to record events that happened over a thousand years ago. It comes from a very special social stratum in Southern India that existed centuries before Ta Mo was born, and continues its rich Vedic tradition today.
Kalaripayattu is the Indian Martial Art that for millennia has been reserved for only higher class Kstreyas. (Kstreya is the Hindu warrior caste, constituting the military and ruling classes of India before the Muslim invasions). It is a system of mental and physical warfare, incorporating combat, strategy, medical knowledge, meditation and life restoring practices known in Sanskrit as Mrita-Sanjivini.
Kalaripayattu is a southern Indian practice, still quietly flourishing on the Kerala Coast and in parts of Tamil Nadu. At the time of the Chola Dynasty, practitioners—the royals and aristocrats—achieved superhuman levels of expertise in this exclusive knowledge and practice of warfare and healing. The Chola kings date back to an unknown Tamil antiquity, and their empire—spanning a thousand years, ending around 1200CE—at its height stretched from North Eastern India all the way down to modern Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Malay Peninsula, the Indonesian Archipelago and southern Thailand. The Cholas had many trade and diplomatic interactions with China, and their navy, around the year 1100CE, rivaled those of any contemporary maritime nation. In the Chola Empire, Kalaripayattu was the core of the Kstreyas’ military might as well as their physical and psychological wellbeing.
The history I am about to discuss is part of the historical record maintained by modern day Kalaripayattu practitioners.
The man who became known as Bodhi Dharma (Ta Mo) was a Chola King. Chola society was matriarchal, steeped in spiritual piety, and with extensive influence throughout swathes of the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
Ta Mo’s grandmother—the imperial matriarch—became aware through her meditations and ‘inner sight’ that an epidemic would soon strike southern China. The impending disease would be of a previously unknown type, with no known cure, and if left unchecked by the relatively primitive knowledge of the Chinese, would wipe out the local population and spread through trade and travel into the Chola Empire and thus threaten its wellbeing and very existence. She requested that one of the greatest of the Kalaripayattu experts go to China, learn the language, adapt his knowledge to the local region, and insure the disease did not enter the kingdoms of India. The King himself offered to fulfill the mission, and soon left on horseback with a small entourage for the long, arduous journey to the matriarch’s specified destination in southern China.
When finally he arrived at journey’s end the locals treated him as a madman. Indeed, there was no disease in the town and his expedition seemed useless. The hostility of the locals drove Bodhi Dharma to retreat into the forest, where he meditated, hunted, practiced Kalaripayattu, gathered herbs and medicines.
According to the Kalaripayattu history, after some years the epidemic did break out as the Chola matriarch had prophesied, and it was devastating. Corpses were left to rot outside the town limits.
One day Ta Mo found a sick child wrapped in leaves, left at the edge of the forest to die. He took the child to his dwelling and treated it with herbs that he had gathered in the forest and other healing methods. When the child recovered, he took it back to the town, and his fame spread from there. Suddenly Bodhi Dharma was a hero, and the townsfolk, as well as people from surrounding towns and cities came to be healed and taught by him. The epidemic was terminated.
But the woes of the Chinese were not over. Now bandits attacked the area. Ta Mo fought and defeated them with his Kalaripayattu techniques, stunning the Chinese onlookers. He was an expert in a certain fighting skill called Mokumarma—the ‘freezing technique’. With this skill a Kalaripayattu warrior could freeze a person in mid action, or even a charging elephant, so the unruly, vicious bandits, fighting with conventional weapons and ideas, had no real defense. Their demise was certain and swift. The astonished bandits and local population had never seen anything like Bodhi Dharma’s displays of military prowess. The healer was a killer as well. A dark skinned Dravidian madman who had been driven off to the forest now acquired the status of super-hero and his fame spread accordingly. People from all over came begging him and his cohorts to instruct them. He graciously taught medicine, Buddhism, martial arts, and the most secret of all his teachings, the Mrita-Sanjivini techniques (the physical aspects of which, we call Hsin Tao) that he developed during his years waiting in the forest.
The Cholas were not Buddhists. They were great proponents of Siva worship in the Hindu tradition. Their dynasty built some of the most impressive Siva Temples still extant in India today. They viewed Buddhism as an agnostic interpretation of Vedic thought. As such, it was a respectable system derived from aspects of Vedic Philosophy and practice. Ta Mo, with the requisite kingly knowledge of his subjects’ spiritual beliefs, had reputedly studied with the Buddhist patriarch Prajnatara, and reckoned now that Buddhist philosophy would be accepted more easily by the Chinese mindset, tuned as it was to Taoist and Animist thinking. The Buddhist ideals of compassion were a beneficial adjustment for the Chinese in this area.
Once he had established the teachings he decided to leave China and return to his kingdom in India. The Chinese were distressed at this news. They believed he had divine powers, and feared that if he left, the benefits they were experiencing would leave with him. They had hoped he would live his life out with them, and when he died, his body buried on their land, would anchor his power into their community. So, the benefit of his divine powers would be transferred to them. Since he had decided not to live with them into old age, they came up with an alternate plan. They began to poison his food. Bodhi Dharma understood instantly what was being done to him. He confronted the Chinese who revealed their scheme, but in boundless compassion he decided to cooperate with them, administering a fatal dose of poison himself.
They buried him with elaborate ritual in a selected site, and it is his grave on which the original Shaolin Temple stands. It is believed that the semi-divine power of his spirit, to this day, underscores and gives power to the Shaolin monks and the survival of their temple. The Chinese never mention that this Indian hero was one of the greatest Kalaripayattu experts of all time, and a supreme teacher who reaped a cruel reward for his efforts. His Indian Kalaripayattu retainers made the journey back to their Chola lands without him, relaying the events that led to Bodhi Dharma’s final days.
So that is the historical record according to the Indian martial arts tradition. In 2012, in honor of that history, I taught the technique to a small group of people in India, located in an area central to the ancient Chola Empire. The technique returned, full circle, to its historical source. Whether the history is true or not, Bodhi Dharma remains a mythical and sometimes contentious figure. We have no idea if the Hsin Tao techniques were ever actually in Shaolin. That myth comes from the voice one man, my teacher. I chose to believe his stories because they helped me understand the technique and opened doors to an exotic, and ever-expanding inner world. And indeed the myth, or parts of it, may be perfectly true. On the other hand, the ‘history’ of Bodhi Dharma told by the Kalaripayattu practitioners is known by many, and is accepted as factual by an entire community with a rich and ancient history.
This fascinating background, this mingling of myth and history, only serves to enrich the practice of Hsin Tao, and deepen the mystery of our inner exploration. Ultimately, the truth lies solely in our own, inner experience.