The Eighteen Hands of Siva:

Indian Foundations of Shaolin Martial Arts.

Presented by: Robert L. Barton 

            The martial arts world is rife with legends and traditions and any attempt to examine the history of martial arts development in Asia is extremely difficult. Many centuries which have included vast wars and periods of social upheaval have destroyed records and obscured events. Of several Shaolin Temples only one remains and it has been destroyed and rebuilt three times with the last being a burning by a warlord in 1929. Though two temples in Southern China are being rebuilt. 

Methods of research:

            Historical, para-historical and pseudo-historical research is a starting point for us. We examine a wide range of documentation and legend concerning the origins and history of martial training in Asia. What has been emerging as a valuable tool in identifying and isolating the different strata of technical development is technical morphology. By examining the way in which techniques change and the way new techniques are developed we are able to place them in a developmental order which allows us to see the various levels scattered among a wide range of martial arts. 

Legend and history:

            There are two major schools of martial arts in Chinese history, one being Taoist is believed to be Chinese in origin while the second school is Buddhist and believed to have originated in India and been introduced to China, Japan and Okinawa along with the new religion from the west. It is the Buddhist martial traditions which primarily concern us here. 

            The origin of Buddhist martial arts is linked to the origin of Buddhism itself or more accurately to the land of the origin of Buddhism. India, though geographically part of Asia, was culturally connected to Europe and the language and dominant people of India were Indo-European.  India was ruled by a professional hereditary warrior class who trained in the skills of a warrior. The new religion of Buddhism was founded by a member of the warrior class rather than a member of the class of religeuse. Buddhism also created the missionary who traveled in order to spread this new ‘universal truth’ with the intention of benefiting all of mankind. It was one of these missionaries operating in China in the 5th century C.E. who established the Shaolin Temple on land given him for this purpose. This temple was established in the 470s and contained monks who practiced an extreme asceticism. Approximately a century later another missionary from India came to Shaolin to teach a new form of Buddhism known as ‘Greater vehicle’ but what he found was a group of extreme ascetics who were weak and unable to physically or mentally handle the methods being taught. This particular missionary had grown up in Indian as part of a warrior family and he had been trained in the methods of physical development used by his people. Becoming the first Abbot of Shaolin, Bodhidharma established a regime of physical training based upon the martial training of his childhood. Legend also says that he possessed or produced a book known as Ekkin Sutra which contained these methods. The Shaolin order would go on to establish more temples throughout China. Eventually the travels of these monks would bring Buddhism and Shaolin martial training to Japan where the Chinese martial methods would be come known as kenpo to differentiate them from the indigenous Japanese arts. Okinawa would become an insulated living library of the Southern Shaolin methods.

 There is a common error in popular belief which maintains that the most basic level of martial training in the Shaolin schools is something called the five animals. While the five animals are relatively early developments they definitely are not the foundation level of Shaolin arts. The most basic level of Shaolin martial skills are represented by a group of ‘forms’ known as The 18 Arhats, with a few Shaolin systems maintaining in oral tradition that these are part of the foundation of this martial family known as The 18 Hands of Siva, and that the name of Arhat is a reflection of the Buddhist influence. 

What we know about the Arhat is that Buddhism had 16 Arhat (saints) the development of 18 Arhats in Chinese art gives 18 exercises. So the question forms as to why this particular group expanded the 16 to 18. Whatever the answer to this may ultimately be, we know that there are 18 patterns which comprise the foundation of Shaolin arts and which are traditionally attributed to India via an Indian teacher. We know exactly what the technical parameters of these patterns contain and so we know what the original techniques of this martial lineage are. (See chart 2) For a listing of the 18 Arhat exercises see chart 1. 

In the development of Shaolin Martial Arts we see two sub-schools the oldest being centered around the original Shaolin temple in Hunan province and commonly referred to as the Northern School, the second is centered around the next largest temple of the Shaolin Order located in the Fukien province and commonly referred to as the Southern School. 

Most of what we now see as Shaolin Chinese Kung-fu presented in the US is actually of the northern school. Systems coming out of or based upon the northern schools include many modern systems such as long fist and the early Kenpo systems in Japan. By some accounts Wing Chun was based on northern methods however the fact that it is so refined to pure combat indicates that the southern school is most probably originally the source. 

The southern schools lost central cohesion when the Fukien temple was razed with the monks and nuns scattering and teaching throughout China. The southern methods were transplanted to Okinawa through trade and exchange and the nature of Okinawa preserved these methods very effectively preventing a lot of the technical exchange that mixed the southern schools with different schools in China. The result of this is that the Karate systems of Okinawa are actually considered to be the continuation of the heritage of the Southern Chinese methods. Systems based on the Southern school include: Uechi Ryu, the Goju Family, Rukyuo Kempo, Te and basically all of the traditional arts of Okinawa. Descended from these Okinawan arts are also a set of Japanese Karate schools Shoto-Kan being the largest. 

There is a whole series of forms which come from the core of Shaolin martial arts as it moves forward through time. Starting with the 18 Arhat exercises we see the technical progression to the Lohan (monk) forms, 18 hands Arhat and the Small Arhat representing the earliest stages. As things progressed we see methods starting to be devised around five animals, then additional animals were added. We see styles such as Cannon Fist, Through-the-back-heart-rending Fist etc. As these systems progress we are able to see the technical modifications in action as new techniques develop, this morphology helps us to establish where various forms fall within the strata of development and can help us place the different schools and styles into a family tree of Shaolin systems. 

The 18 Arhat exercises are today taught in a wide variety of martial art schools and systems and have been preserved in many places. The 18 hands of Siva has been preserved as a tradition in a very small number of schools, in fact only two schools that have representation is the U.S. to my knowledge. 

Teaching method of the 18 hands of Siva today:

            The 18 hands of Siva is taught today to include two distinct areas of content the first area is a technical area with a vast amount of technical skills. This area includes hundreds of refined single techniques. This represents a progressive development of martial techniques based upon the original few techniques. This is actually not considered to be an art so much as a training method that is applicable to any art. It is simply a list of technical skills: punches, kicks, traps, strikes etc. This area is not considered to be that important in that these techniques can be developed anywhere, in fact most of the few masters of the 18 hands do not really consider this to be the actual system and consider it to just be a tool box of principles with no real importance placed on the source or school of the physical skills. 

What is considered to be the actual system is a set of principles and methods which are applicable to any of the simple physical schools. The 18 hands today can be taught to a student of any technical school, though the teacher may require that the student seriously expand their technical skills in order to apply the principles. These principles as taught today represent a continuous development with some of them being very old in their development and some having reached their present state of development more recently. Some of these principles can be seen to have disappeared from various Shaolin schools over the years as they focused only on certain of the principles. 

Principles and areas of study: 

5 corners. This most basic of movement pattern of directions considers the center to be a direction relative to movement the center being the fifth corner. This is the precursor to the next pattern. 

Angles. Eight directions of movement and the center combine here. The difference being the presence of the center in the figure. This is generally taught by a placing the student in the center of a figure drawn on the ground consisting of four lines all crossing in the center. The figure looks like a large asterisk and gives nine directions of motion for the student. A more advanced level of this has the student visualizing their partner or opponent standing in another identical figure giving nine directions of movement to both participants. Taoist systems work these angles based on the number eight and without the center being considered a direction. Figure 1 

Pole. A pole is imagined extending through the student with the bottom deep beneath the surface of the ground and the tope extending into the sky. This imagined pole is used to keep posture upright and well centered keeping the feet, knees, hips, shoulders and head in alignment. 

Centering or dropping the center. The principle of lowering the center of gravity to create stability on the part of the student. 

Striking through the back. This is the earliest striking principle and was most likely a founding principle from India. The student is taught to strike through the target by throwing a penetrating strike with a follow through. If the student is punching the front of the body they attempt to punch through the back of the opponent. 

Splashing strike. This principle was a very late development, so late in fact that it is not seen in many forms of Shaolin arts and is originally only found in a few of the systems. The splashing hand or splashing palm is a strike that is delivered with a whipping motion. The strike does not have much penetration beyond the surface of the target and contact with the target is momentary with the striking hand firm but relaxed. This striking method takes its name from the splashing feeling of delivering the strike with the hand hitting and ‘splashing’ off of the target very quickly. This soft strike is generally used against body targets and is designed to minimize surface and skeletal trauma while still doing damage to organs that are beneath the outer layer of muscle.   

*** (The three following sets of dichotomous principles are often confused by martial artist who do not understand them fully. Hard, linear and external are often used interchangeably or associated with one another, while internal, soft and circular are also often confused or equated.) 

Hard/soft. This area of study is a dichotomy to describe the extremes of energy transference and application to a target. A basic straight horizontal punch is considered to be hard while a willow leaf palm would be considered soft. Most Shaolin techniques and styles are hard. 

Internal/external. This dichotomy has to do with energy development with external being focused on the application of strictly physical muscular energy and internal being focused on the use of a relaxed mental/spiritual type of energy that directs body movement. Early Shaolin techniques and methods are very external but as the systems advanced more internal methods were developed.   

Circular/linear. This dichotomy has to do with the application of technique through movement with linear techniques thrown with the intention of following the shortest path to the target while circular techniques follow oblique paths to the target. Circular and linear techniques are seen widely used at all points in the history of this martial family.  

Breaking the pole. The principle of moving, striking or manipulating the opponent in a way that moves their body in a manner that will break their posture. Generally this is done by moving the head or shoulders in order to upset the physical alignment the shoulders often being manipulated through the application of a lock or hold on the arm or wrist though leg sweeps actually fall into this area. This principle is seen in the earlier Shaolin material but as the systems advanced and spread out this principle became less prevalent. In many systems this principle is no longer seen. A few systems have been the exception systems such as mantis and eagle both of which use the grabbing and twisting to take opponents of their feet. This principle is very highly developed in martial system outside of the Shaolin continuum of schools within styles such as Aikijutsu and Mongolian wrestling. We also know that early IE grappling systems used this principle to a great extent and most of the surviving European martial systems are of this sort of grappling system. 

Uprooting. The principle of causing an opponent to raise their center of gravity in order to uproot them and easily knock them over. Most commonly this principle is seen in the early punches and kicks, many of which were designed to lift the opponent in order to weaken their foundation. There is a very mental way of doing this also where you shift the attention or concentration of an opponent to the upper body or head, often a simple slap in the face will make a person far easier to throw or knock down. 

Centerline. For offensive and defensive purposes each fighter has a line that extends forward from the center of the body between both arms and both legs. This is the most dangerous zone because all weapons are able to be easily brought to bear. This is considered one of the most important Shaolin principles and can be seen in all Shaolin styles. In many systems or schools this principle has become confused with the next principle and so we see a situation where neither one nor the other is taught to full comprehension. Many schools now actually teach one skill that is a little of each. 

Midline. A line drawn between opponents or partners is the midline. This is a reference line for angles and for the use of the centerline. But while the centerline moves relative to the individual, the mid line is located relative to both people always directly between them. 

Zoning. An advanced level of angling and midline in combination, zoning deals with multiple opponents. 

Dimensionality. There are taught four dimensions of movement in a fight, three special plus time. The first dimension is to move forward or backward. The second is lateral movement from side to side. The third is up and down. The fourth is the movement through time. It is the fourth dimension of movement that is so seldom seen being taught in martial arts, there are specific methods for altering the perceived time that a techniques takes. 

9 gates. They are center, center upper, center lower, and middle left, lower left, upper left, middle right, upper right and lower right. Figure 2. Each gate has both a defensive and offensive arrangement giving each person a total of eighteen gates. Either opponents or partners have the two times nine gate arrangement which gives a total of 36. This leads to the legendary 36 chambers of Shaolin often mentioned and seldom understood. The goal always being to attack through empty gates/chambers the more empty chambers there are the better, or worse depending on who has command. To be in a state of 36 empty chambers with nine waiting to be entered literally is a point where either you are behind your opponent or he is behind you. To be in a state of 33 chambers with 12 waiting to be entered is a state where the opponents are turned sideways to one another similar to the way tournament point players contest each other. 

Proximetrics. It is a matter of debate how active this principle is in the early stages of these methods. We know that by the time that the eagle and mantis forms developed this principle was known, but early trapping or locking techniques do not fully apply this principle in a general way. In fact this principle is often seen half used in that only one or two aspects of it is applied. The first part of this principle teaches that when a hold, trap or submission is applied to an appendage such as the arm of an opponent the greater the distance between the hold and the body of the opponent the weaker their response and ability to resist. The second part of this principle teaches us that when applying a hold, trap or submission to an appendage the closer that technique is in proximity to the applicant the greater the strength that can be applied to the technique and the more effective it is for the applicant. A third level of development for this area is concerned with removal of space taking locks to a close proximity to prevent escape or counters. This principle has never had the popularity in these methods as it has in some of the Japanese schools of martial training such as the Aiki schools. When this principle is seen in schools of the Shaolin methods is not generally highly developed. It should be noted that this principle has reached the highest level of expression and application in European grappling arts with the old style of traditional Catch as Catch Can, often today simply called Catch Wrestling demonstrating very refined ideas of proximetrics.

Falling wave, is a principle in which the opponent is made to feel overwhelmed and even surrounded by a single person similar to the feeling of being pulled under by a large wave on the sea shore which seems to be pulling and pounding from every direction. This is extremely effective when grappling and ground fighting. When applied to standing positions simultaneous leg and hand techniques are often used along with body to body contact. 

**Vital points. While there is some debate still made by those who have a romantic notion of these early methods there is nothing overtly present in the original eighteen methods that demonstrates the application of any advanced medical knowledge. There is not a single target seen that is chosen based on anything other than a general knowledge of gross anatomy. The argument is often made that these techniques are going to known acupuncture points, nerves or specific blood vessels. The fact is that it is difficult to hit a person without contacting some acupoint and pretty much impossible to hit a person without contacting a nerve or vessel due to the wide distribution of these points.    

Chart #1

1)      Single rafter, more appropriately known as the bow leg thrust. Any time that we see the word bow included as one of the names for an exercise it is generally the oldest name for it.

2)      Drawing the bow. The punch in this exercise is usually demonstrated as a horizontal punch, but there is reason to believe that this punch was originally a vertical punch.

3)      Cannon mounted on the beam. Obviously a late name for the pattern with no hint at what the original name would have been.

4)      Monk strikes the bell. The original name seems to have been associated with a hammer.

5)      Skillful needle.                         

6)      Swinging the hammer.

7)      Twisted phoenix elbow.

8)      Chop the log

9)      Pushing the door

10)  Golden hook

11)  Iron broom

12)  Ball kick

13)  Duck feet

14)  Eagle grabs throat

15)  Basket on the arm

16)  Twisting silken strand

17)  Dragon subduing grip

18)  Rope the tiger 

Chart #2

Techniques present in the original 18 Arhats.

Front stance (bow stance)                                                             Horse stance

Outside middle block outer and inner arm                                        High block

Inside block and grab                                                                    Push block

Windmill block                                                                               Windmill strike

Reverse punch                                                                                Lunge punch

Vertical and horizontal fist positions                                                 Chop

Backfist                                                                                          Hammer fist

Double punch                                                                                 Palm Push

Grab and twist trap                                                                         Forearm smash

Elbow to rear                                                                                 Opening flower

Twisting arm trap                                                                            Throat grab

Iron Broom                                                                                    Front sweep

Front kick                                                                                      Arm traps

Downward push block











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