Damo is the name the Chinese have given to the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma. He was a 26th or 28th (reports vary) generation down the line of teachers from Buddha. The Chinese consider him to be a bodhisatva.

His unique outlook on the Buddha's teachings came to integrate several Taoist notions and evolved into Chan Buddhism in China and Zen in Japan. Legend holds that he eventually made it to Japan, where he was called Daruma and became the subject of several fine brush paintings. However, this legend would place him at as much as 250 years old.

Upon arriving in China sometime near 542 AD (again, exact dates are impossible) Damo went before the Emperor (I don't remember which, I think a Wu emperor) and told him that all the temples he had paid for still didn't earn him any karma. The emperor sent him away, and after crossing the Yangtze on a reed, he arrived at Shaolin temple.

At the time, the monks spent their days translating traditional Buddhist texts into Chinese. The fat, lazy monks were incapable of the physical and mental stamina required by Damo's innovative sitting meditation (you know, the Zen thing where you sit with your legs crossed and don't say anything? Damo's shtick.) Anyway, he got mad at them for being lazy and went to sit in a near-by cave.

Legends abound as to his activities in the cave. At the most extreme, he sat there for 9 years, and his gaze was so intense that he burned a whole in the wall. One of the Shaolin monks wanted to learn from him, and went so far as to cut off his own arm to prove it. After that, Damo returned to Shaolin. Watching the movements of animals around the temple, he devised several sets of exercises based on these movements. He taught them to the monks to get them into good enough shape to attain enlightenment.

Now, organized systems of combat do, in fact, pre-data Damo's visit to Shaolin by centuries, and men have been wrestling ever since they met each other, especially when you include military training. But the martial arts, as we think of them today, were born of Damo at Shaolin, perhaps in the 550s.

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