History of Choson Kwon Bup

The Origins of Kwon Bup, Chuan Fa, Kempo, Kuntao

Ian A. Cyrus, 9th Dan, Headmaster, Choson Kwon Bup
International Chosondo Federation


Most martial arts, modern and extant claims that that their art originated at the Shaolin (Little/Small Forrest) Temple located in Sung mountains of northern China. The temple was originally founded by Emperor Hsiao Wen for the Sarvastivada monk Bhadra. It is recorded that the mountain temples had been in the Sung range since 381. It is significant that martial schools claiming to be of the original Shaolin (Japanese: Shorin; Korean: Sorim) School of Tamo, whether in China, Korea, Okinawa, or elsewhere, never articulate, or even seem to know of, the existence of Bohidharma’s other, and equally famous, texts concerning Nata and Pratima. It should be painfully obvious that there are no original Shorin or Sorim Schools on the island of Okinawa and the peninsula of Korea respectively. All of the many traditions attributed to that school came from China and previously, India. All of the Chinese traditions came from one Temple.

A survey of texts on Kwon Bup, Chuan Fa, Kempo, and Kuntao does not explore the actual origin of the use of these terms. It seems that the authors were not familiar with the fact that these terms cannot be used without considering that they are a transliteration of the Sanskrit term Dharmamutki or Vajramutki (Teachings of the Clasped/Closed Hand of Buddha). The history of the Dharma Clasped Hand lies so embedded in the Buddhist teaching, it cannot be truly separated from it. This is because many works on Buddhism ignore Kwon Bup/Chuan Fa/Kempo/Kuntao completely. Further, more commonly, popular works about Kwon Bup/Chuan Fa/Kempo/Kuntao or its derivatives such as Karate, Taekwondo, and Hapkido also ignore any serious consideration of Buddhism. Even in China claims are made that are baseless. The Shaolin monastery, one of the original homes of the real Vajramutki had, within two generations of Bodhidharma’s residency, moved to the south, but one can suprisingly read of schools started by persons claiming to have been monks who trained there hundreds of years later.

Historical Perspective:

The introduction of Buddhism into the Chinese culture brought more than just a spiritual path. Along with Buddhism came a highly advanced system of medicine in which surgery was common place and warrior arts as practiced by the “Ksatreya” of India. Although, various forms of armed and unarmed methods existed before this time, but they lacked a moral-ethical code and the discipline of a spiritual path. Shakyamuni Buddha came from this tradition. This title stems from the Sanskrit root “Ksetr” meaning “power”, described an elite force of usually royal or noble-born warriors, who were trained from infancy in wide variety of military and martial arts, both armed and unarmed, religion, medicine, arts, and literature. The ksatreya existed long before the Korean “Hwa Rang” and the Japanese “Samurai”. It is my theory that the Hwa Rang and Samurai drew their structure and function from the Ksatreya. The Ksatreya practiced a skill called “Vajramutki (Sanskrit for Thunderbolt Closed/Clasped Hands). This term was used by both the Ksatreya and the Brahmins to describe their art. “Vajra” (Chuan: Chinese) (Ken: Japanese) (Kwon: Korean) is a bipolar five pointed visible physical representation of the “Five Phases or Activities” reflected upward and downward representing the spiritual and material realm respectively. The clasping of the hands at chest level is a Mudra (Anjali (Sanskrit: ritual gesture representing the “Vajra”). Each of the five fingers represent one of the five elements and their reflected form is effected by placing the hands together at chest level. It is the only posture which balances the pulses, having a profound effect one’s state of mind. Many Buddhist were familiar with the extensive knowledge of surgery common to Indian medicine which assisted them in both spreading the teachings of Buddhism and in their practice of diagnosis and therapy. Surgical technique was almost unknown in China prior to the arrival of Buddhism. Jivaka, a direct disciple and Buddha’s personal physician was the father of Indian pediatrics. He and Mahakasyapa, another famous disciple of Buddha are credited with several definitive treatises on medicine and surgery. The skill of these two are attested to in early Hindu works on surgery. One of the ways in which Buddhist monks created a development of an inner and outer mind-body balance, lie in the practice of healing and preventative medicine. The martial arts were a part of the preventative medicine aspect. Martial arts within the context of Buddhism is rationalized with the notion that violence needs to dealt with in both oneself and others. Martial arts deal practically with this situation and teach what is required to nullify a situation through which such inner violence is produced so that it never arises.

One might ask the question, what does martial arts have to do healing or religious traditions? Actually, the three have so been intimately connected it was very difficult to discuss one without some reference to the other, i.e. they were considered aspects of the same body of knowledge. From earliest times, and in most countries, the healing arts were almost the exclusive domain of spiritual, medical, and martial art teachers. Suffering and death have concerned all three disciplines equally. Throughout the centuries this body of knowledge fragmented and each became highly specialized. So much so, that at this point in time, they appear to have no connection.

Martial arts as we know it today can be traced to both Chinese Buddhist and Taoist Traditions and eventually to the Indian Buddhist and Brahmin Traditions. It must be said at this point that Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, came from the Shakya Clan of Maghadi, in northern India. He was an Indian prince named Gautama Siddharta who renounced his rightful heritage and became a monk. Much stemmed from his ministry. Therefore, a brief look at the introduction of Buddhism into the Chinese culture and the resultant Taoist Traditions is necessary to get the big picture. According to some historical accounts, Buddhism was introduced to China circa 200 B.C. Popular lore talks about an Indian Buddhist Monk, Bodhidharma, who spent considerable time at Shaolin. Apparently, he taught a series of exercises, “The Muscle-Tendon Change” and “The Bone-Marrow Washing”, which eventually evolved into to what we know today as martial arts. Many believe that he actually introduced what is commonly referred to as the “18 Lohan”. Lohan is derived from an ancient Buddhist Sanskrit term, “Arahant” which was earlier derived from “Arihan” (those who subdue or attain victory over foes). The “18 Lohan” according to Chinese sources originated from the “Lion Play School” of Ksatreya Vajramutki in its “forms” (Sanskrit: Nata) (Jap: Kata/Kor: Hyung) and “applications” (Sanskrit: Pratima) (Jap: Bunkai) (Kor: Ung Yong Sool). Apparently, Bodhidharma was sent as a missionary to succeed his contemporary, Bodhiruci, by his Sarvastivada-trained teacher, Prajinatara. The “18 Lohan” is known in India as the “18 Subduings” (Sanskrit: Astadasajacan) or “18 Victors” (Sanskrit: Astadasavijaya). The “18 Subduings” were the most important of the Indian Ksatreya Vajramutki forms which seemed to reflect the doctrine of the “18 Paramitas” (Spiritually Perfecting Practices) and the “18 Voidnesses of Wisdom”. They were developed within the context of Chinese Buddhism by the Yogacara School of Vasubandhu. Although there were similar groupings of “18 Spiritual Realities” in many earlier Traditions. These exercises were a part of various Indian medical traditions which can be traced back to the Indian Brahmin Traditions and possibly to the birth of the Indian civilization as depicted in the Bhagavad Gita (Song of The One Who is Most Dear). There was numerous mention of martial and healing arts and spiritual practices which formed the cornerstone of the basic structure of this culture.

The “18 Subduings” essentially consist of 18 classical sets of mudra (ritual symbolic gestures or Hand Moves of the Arahants) each of which were combined with respiratory patterns, steps, muscle tension and relaxation, and specific meditation themes. The “18 Suduings” were said to contain three levels of understanding and meaning (Sanskrit: Trisatyabhumi), each relating to the mind, body and speech analysis. Once transplanted in the Chinese Buddhist traditions the three levels became known as “San Chin or San Chan” (Three Battles or Three Graspings). The “Three Battles or Three Graspings” indicated the battle of mind, body and speech undertaken by the trainee esoteric monks. The predominant way of placing the body to represent the “Three Battles” is now known as the “San Chin Posture or ritual gesture”. This posture is also known as “San Ti” by Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Trigram Boxing) and Xing Yi Chuan (Mind-Form Boxing) practitioners. San Chin is distinct from many other forms of body posture used for defensive purposes. When wearing the monk’s robe, it is the only posture in which the position of the legs is completely invisible to an observer. It is the only posture taken from the outer shape of the Vajra (Thunderbolt) and physically embodies the triangulation of physical and mental harmony and balance. When in this posture, the body is segmented into five elemental levels, each being composed of three equal degrees of torsion. Symbolically, these form three complete “jewel” shapes representing the Buddha (One Who is Awake), Dharma (The “Law” or totality of the principles realized by Buddhas and taught to mankind), and Sangha (“Congregation” or group of followers). The balancing of the tripartite torsion, both in the outer muscles and the inner organs maintains a composite pattern of physical power maintained by the body. Although totally stilled, the posture is capable of initiating instant response to external conditions. It is only posture from which a monk can immediately sit or stand from the cross-legged meditation position. Many contemporary Chinese and Korean temples contain Arahant Halls where lifelike statues of the original 18 Arahants stands each representing one the original ritual gestures. They may be hundreds of years old and represent many different races and cultures. Supposedly, these 18 Ritual Gestures forms the cornerstone of the Chinese martial disciplines and their derivatives. The modern Shaolin Tradition claims that their “Luo Han Shi Ba Shou (Luo Han 18 Hands)” is the first Hsing (form) of the Shaolin tradition. There is also the Korean “Ship Pal Gi (18 Weapons or 18 Hands) probably taken from the original Chinese name for the “Subduings”, Shi Pa Lohan Shou. In my opinion, neither of these versions bears any resemblance in practice or representation to the original 18 Ritual Gestures depicted by the 18 Arahants. The 18 Subduings was taught as a Nata (an ancient Buddhist term describing the earliest form of the art of ritual movement practiced for spiritual purposes, and used by Vajramutiki practitioners in India). The ritual movement made up of Mudras (a ritual gesture or pose assumed by a part or all of the body in order to invite, evoke, express, sanctify, or convey a principle or power of the forces involved in Enlightenment. Mudra may be performed singly or in sequences). This was the early beginnings of what we now know as Hsing (Chinese), Kata (Japanese), and Hyung (Korean). Mudras, Nata, and Pratimas forms the corner stone and building blocks for what we now know today as Martial Arts (Mu Sool). These are in fact sequences of preset, patterned movements originally drawn from ancient Indian (Hindu) warrior skills involving particular attitudes and orientation of mind, breath and body based on Buddhist principles. It is used as a means of neutralizing attacks without harm to those involved, and as a “self-unraveling” moving meditation capable of being explicated at many different levels of understanding.

Origin of Martial Art Skills

A close examination of two of the main Mudra of Buddhism that also has its root in Vajramutiki are the Abhya Mudra (Sanskrit), Shi Wu Wei Yin (Chinese), Semmui-In (Japanese) and the Vara/Dana Mudra (Sanskrit), Shih Yuan Yin (Chinese), Segan-In (Japanese) illustrates its Buddhist and Martial connection. Abhya Mudra physicalizes the giving of fearlessness. It represents a mental condition in which the experience of fear no longer exist. This mudra is formed by the upright right hand held with the palm toward the front and with the fingers extended forward and downward. Abhya Mudra is the basic position for the circular defensive movement upon which all Kwon Bup is based. When the mudra is described in a circular movement in-front of the body, all and every attacks against one’s body is harmlessly redirected. Vara/Dana Mudra symbolizes both Buddha’s promise to aid all beings seeking to attain enlightenment and the Bodhisatva’s binding vow to continually dedicate themselves to such an ideal. This mudra is formed by the left hand held with the palm upward at the height of the waist with the fingers extended. Both mudras were commonly depicted in the earliest Indian and Chinese statues of Shakamuni Buddha. Abhya Mudra represents the ultimate and unselfish form of self-defense while the Vara/Dana Mudra describes its object. Together they form the epitome of the Buddhist Kwon Bup attitude embracing the idea of multilevel safety and protection.

The practice of Kwon Bup involves the study of sets of movement sequences. These are not just self-defense practices, but they are kinetic keys to open the elemental door to consciousness. When Kwon Bup is practiced correctly, its acts as a cathartic force upon the deepest part of our nature. Kwon Bup deals directly with the nature of “self”. It teaches that all worldly phenomenon is transitory and subject to change.

Most accounts of martial arts history seem to give credit to the Indian Buddhist Monk, Bodhidharma as the progenator of the martial culture of Shao Lin (Little Forest) Monastery. This monastery was founded by Emperor Hsiao Wen Wen for the Sarvastivada monk, Bhadra. Bodhidharma was not the first Indian Monk to take up residence at the monastery, but he was probably the most enlightened. Bodhidharma was most likely sent as a missionary by his Sarvastivada teacher, Prajnatara. Therefore, the 18 Subduings was already long known to Chinese Buddhists.

It always amazes me how present day martial artist can use terms such as Chuan Fa (Fist Law/Method) and Kempo (Kenpo) and Kwon Bup which all has the same meaning and not pay any attention to Buddhist teachings and practice or its origins. The original meaning of Chuan Fa and its derivatives as discussed earlier came from the Sanskrit term, Vajramutki which means “Clasped or Closed Hand of Buddha or “Dharma Clasped Hand”. The aforementioned terms were a reasonable facsimile used by Chinese monks to represent the aspects of Vajramutki concerned with ritualized movement practices that contained the principles of life extension, health preservation, unarmed self-defense, and meditative insight. The Chinese character radical for “Chuan” (Closed or Clasped Hand) used to represent the Sanskrit term “Mutki” was chosen not because of its historical roots within India’s Ksatreya but, because of an important and relevant incident which took place in the life of Shayamuni Buddha.

Fearful that Buddha might die without teaching some vital or important principle, one of his disciples asked him if there was any other teaching he had not imparted to them thus far. The Buddha then replied by grasping a handful of leaves from the ground then asked the disciple whether the leaves in his hand were greater than the leaves upon the trees of the forest they were standing in. When the disciple replied that there were more leaves upon the trees than those in his hand, the Buddha replied, so it is with his teachings. The symbolism here was that what he has shown his disciples was compared to the leaves in his hand. What he could have taught he compared to the leaves on the trees. The Buddha then explained that he did not have a “Clasped Hand” of a teacher, but rather the open hand of a Buddha. Though there were many doctrines, he had concerned himself only the most pertinent ones necessary to attain enlightenment. Thus, the term ”Clasped Hand” was thought to be appropriate to describe the Vajramutki method, as its mastery was considered an esoteric and difficult to understand lineage practice, taught by a few masters to even fewer students. By comparison, the ordinary teachings of the Buddha was an “Open-Handed Teaching”.

The terms Chuan (Chinese), Kwon (Korean), Ken (Japanese.) is etymologically related to the ideograph used to describe a manuscript text (also pronounced Chuan) but using slightly different characters. Chinese and Korean Buddhist Sutras were written on manuscript paper that was rolled up or folded for protection and storage. This “turning inward to protect” action of the paper is what is meant by Chuan for a written work. The ideograph for clasped hand (Chuan) also describes the same action of the fingers as in making a “fist”.

The suffixes Fa (Chinese.), Bup (Korean.), Po (Japanese.) are all transliterations of the Sanskrit term “Dharma” (Teachings of the Buddha). Dharma is the “law” or totality of the principles realized by Buddhas as taught to mankind. Such suffixes were commonly used in Buddhism to represent not just the teachings themselves, but also all of the arts and crafts, and practices and rituals associated with them. In modern times these suffixes are translated as “Law” or “Method”. Most of my contemporaries interprets this as an actual method of doing or practicing. But, as we can see, this is far from its original meaning and intent.

Historical accounts of Korean Martial Arts (Taekwondo, Hapkido, Hwa Rang Do and Taek Kyun) makes reference to “Kum Kang Yuk Sa (statues in combat postures) as evidence that it existed during the Three Kingdom Period of Korea. These statues (Dharmapalas: Sanskrit, Fa Huo: Chinese, Hogo: Japanese) were usually found flanking the entrances to Buddhist temples or on either side of the main altars of important shrines and esoteric temples. The Dharmapalas were idealized protectors of the Doctrine. They were depicted in the form of two Vajra Kings ( Ching Kang Wang: Chinese; Kongo-O: Japanese); Kum Kang Yuk Sa: Korean). These statues usually portrayed classical defense stances of Kwon Bup and performing tactically significant Mudra (ritual gestures) with their hands. Their forearms are often held in the traditional protective positions. Not many people realize that the praying position (Anjali: Sanskrit) with the hands joined before the chest, is an ancient Vajramutiki based defensive position. These statues were in fact records, in a highly visible form, that active aspect of Buddhist practice, which recognizes no dichotomy between movement and stillness in mind or body. They highlight the unique esoteric understanding of motion itself. Their actual postures, weather in a manuscript or statue, are always accurate even down to the subtle details such as the positions or angle of flexion of the fingers. These statues are perhaps records of early Kwon Bup positions and gestures so that they can be clearly recognized today. The hand mudra were, the initial starting point of the Kwon Bup art and at later times were expanded and rationalized at several levels. The martial arts of Taekwondo, Hapkido, Hwa Rang Do, and Taek Kyun and others are in fact modern adaptations based on national pride and prejudice and justified with fabrications, misinterpretations, and half-truths of the of their ancient antecedents. Choson Kwon Bup (Chosondo) is one those rare arts that has maintained some of these teachings.

Other misconceptions about origins of certain practices have been taught as truth, when in fact, they are weak fabrications and misinformation. For example, “Lion Dancing”. A cursory look at this puts it into historical perspective. The lion is not indigenous to China, but it is to India. From time immemorial, one of the Ksatreya titles for the monarchs, and later of many nations, was Simha (Lion – King of Beast: Sanskrit). Many Indian monarchs, and also teachers of esoteric Buddhism, had names containing the word “Lion” (even now the animal is featured on Indian postage stamps). Shakyamuni Buddha was said to deliver his ministry with the “Lion’s Roar (Simhanada: Sanskrit; Shi Ku: Japanese). Further, Buddha was also called “Son of the Lion”. This was also an indirect reference to the Ksatreya fighting cries (a warrior’s scream or howl of battle). This was said to be able to freeze birds in midflight, halt fish in mid stroke and definitively control elephants. This is perhaps the origins of the Kihap (yell in Korean Martial Arts) and Kiai (yell in Japanse Martial Arts). Early scriptures representing the title “Lion” in Chinese used the phonetic characters Seng in addition to Chia. The particle Seng was similar in form to that used to represent the Sangha (order of monks). Later, the phonetic caharacter for “Lion” (Seng) was replaced by “Shih” meaning (in Chinese) “Lion”. The earliest character for “Shih (Lion)” was formed by the root radical for “wild” plus a particle representing “military”. These two may have been used to suggest the nature of the wild Lion. In medieval times, the character for Shih was replaced by another particle Shih, literally meaning “teacher”, with a different radical but pronounced the same. Nowadays the title “Shih Fu” is used for teacher. Therefore, a “Shih Fu” is one with a lion’s roar or one who speaks with authority. Further, the practice of Vajramutki and its Nata practices were called “Lion Play, Art, or Skill (Simhavikridita: Sanskrit). This designation became the general name for all structured Vajramutki sequences. The Ksatreya warriors who practiced these sequences were called Simhanata (those who practiced the lion’s art movements). This was the origin of the sequences introduced into China and later developed in the now famous “Lion Dance” commonly seen performed by practitioners of Chuan Fa at Chinese New Year Festivals.

Another example is the use of the term “ Jitsu (Art/Skill: Japanese)”. This term was actually derived from the Chinese phonetic use of the term “Hsiu (Light)”. “Hsiu” is a transliteration of its earlier derivation, “Ming (Light)”. “Ming (Light)” was derived from its sanskrit origin, “Vidya (Light)”. Vidya represented the inner principles of Vajramutki-the practice of esoteric arts, a synonym for many different metaphysical principles.
A cursory look at the development of the systems of the world would reveal clear connection between spiritually, medicine, and the warrior arts. All three were practiced as the same body of knowledge.

Traditional Medical Theory

Much of the theoretical basis of the Asian Healing Arts and Medical Sciences was organized and compiled under the regime of Mao Tze Dung during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (circa. early 1940’s). Much of the actual theory and practice of acupuncture and related modalities was lost or fragmented prior to this period. What we now know today as acupuncture theory is actually Chinese Herbal Medical theory superimposed on acupuncture. This is evident in the manner in which modern day acupuncturist practice. They often find it very difficult to distinguish between Channel or Meridian as opposed to Zang-Fu (organ) disturbances. To this end, I like to think that acupuncture is to Channel Disturbances, as herbal medicine is to organ disturbances. It must, however, be kept in mind that channel disturbances can eventually affect the organs as well as organ disturbances can eventually affect the channel. Therefore, locating the disturbance is a primary concern. We will concern ourselves with channel disturbances since martial arts injuries is essentially trauma. Trauma is described as “stagnation of Qi and Blood” in the channels and collaterals. Stagnation of Qi and Blood is characterized by localized pain, swelling, discoloration, and reduction or loss of function. Identifying the channels involved is tantamount to the success treatment. There is a famous saying in Chinese Medicine that best describes this concept, “when there is free flow of Qi in the channels, there is no pain and dysfunction, when there is no free flow, there is pain and dysfunction”.

The theory of this type of medicine can be confusing, cumbersome, and voluminous. However, ultimate goal is to balance Yin and Yang. In this case Yin is considered the Blood and Yang is considered Qi. Although, they are inextricably connected to each other. One is necessary for the other to exist. Qi is insubstantial while Blood is substantial. Qi is always on the verge of becoming material and Blood is always on the verge of becoming immaterial i.e. they are a part of the same continuum. Qi is considered to be the mother of Blood. Therefore, if Qi does not move, Blood does not move. Qi is the motive force that drives all physiologically functions in the body.