According to tradition, after the Taoists and Hwa T'or laid down the early foundations, there came a Buddhist monk called Bodhiharma, who, in 500 AD left his Brahman tribe in southern India and crossed the Himalayas into China. After a long, slow and laborious journey across extremely rugged terrain, he eventually arrived at Chien K'ang, which was then the capital of the Liang province.
It was well known that the Emperor Wu was a Buddhist with an enthusiastic interest in all Buddhist doctrines. On learning this, Bodhiharma immediately sought an audience with the Emperor, and as a result the monk was given permission to teach and preach in the province.
So Bodhidharma began spreading the word and the doctrine of Ch'an, which the Japanese later adapted and called Zen. However, at that time it was found that these teachings not only clashed with the beliefs and the philosophy of the Chinese, but they were also found to be so complex that everyone, including the Emperor, found it extremely difficult to grasp even the fundamentals. This therefore created a tremendous amount of friction, frustration, irritation, and eventually such bad feeling towards Bodhiharma that he was dismissed from the Emperor's service.
It was then that he decided to travel northwards, although nobody knows why he decided to take that particularly difficult direction. The roads were extremely bad and in some cases almost non-existent, and he spoke very little Chinese so there was also a language problem, made worse by the fact that there would have been many different dialects spoken on this long journey. A greater hazard was the many roaming armed bands of thieves and robbers in the countryside along his chosen route. Small wonder then that it took him more than three years to cross the Yangtse River, and reach his intended destination of the Shaolin Temple at Sung Shan in Henan province.
He stayed at the Shaolin Temple for nearly ten years, teaching and meditating, and it was during the latter part of his stay that he realized that many of his pupils were not fit enough, either mentally or physically, to endure the physical austerity imposed by his teachings.
Ch'an Buddhism was based on very deep meditation with its aims being the unification of mind, body and spirit, and therefore Bodhiharma felt that physical endurance would help to equip his pupils for this objective. He borrowed a number of the Taoist stances and exercises, and hardened them up to create within the practitioners a sense of internal strength, and a feeling of inseparability of mind and spirit within the body. Thus he encouraged literally throwing yourself within yourself, becoming one single entity with all three parts becoming one, and so achieving constant harmony in the daily toil of life.
Many of these exercises would not be classed as entirely physical by today's standards, especially as the feet made no movement at all; even so, they soon earned the Shaolin monks the reputation of being China's toughest and the most formidable unarmed fighters.
Strangely enough, though, despite the monastery's nationwide reputation, Bodhiharma's pupils gradually dwindled away. This may have been due to the complexity and the severity of his teachings. However, part of his work and the foundation that he laid down still lived on, and to those basic exercises and movements, others were gradually added and further techniques evolved and so kung fu in its earliest form came into being.
It has been established that Bodhiharma did actually exist during this period, but how much he actually contributed to the art of kung fu, as we know it today, will always remain a controversial subject. But there is no doubt whatsoever, that he did lay the foundation on which are built many of the hard styles and solid defensive systems of the art of the Chinese boxing art of kung fu.
From about 1,000 BC, the Chinese began to pay greater attention to the physical and cultural sides of their lives, and to explore in great depth physical alchemy. At about the time that Bodhidharma went to the Shaolin Temple — about 200 BC — the martial arts began to be developed. To begin with, they were very, very hard and vicious, using sheer brute force and muscular strength, but, as the practitioners of these arts became aware of how to control and use their internal energy (Neichung Ch'i), so they learned how to take direct blows by fist or weapons without feeling the slightest pain and without being marked at all at the point of impact. The monks who trained at the Shaolin Temple in those days became very well known for the very hard physical training that they had to endure daily. They also became renowned for their prowess at boxing.
Back in the Primitive Period, eight basic physical exercises — most of them exercises from a sitting or squatting position — had been devised and developed to help open the channels of the body and the mind to spiritual awareness. Bodhidharma increased the number of basic stances to eighteen, most of the new ones being exercises from a standing position.