The art of Kempo, also written as Kenpo, is unique as far as its history goes in two respects; it is considered by many the first eclectic martial art, as well as having its founding roots stretch back to 520 BC. The person who was a catalyst of the way of Kempo was a prince and warrior of southern India called Bodhidharma. According to the records of the Lo-Yang temple, Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk from India, under the tutelage of Prajnatara, and it is presumed that upon his death bed that Prajnatara requested Bodhidharma to travel to China where he felt the principles of Buddhism wherein decline, and that the knowledge of dhyana (Zen) should be known.

It is estimated that Bodhidharma entered China and traveled northward to the kingdom of Wei where the fabled meeting with emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty began. This meeting is recorded due to the intense conversation and discussion of Buddhism and dhyana which took place. The meeting was to no avail, his words to the worldly emperor meant nothing, and thus, sullied by his attempts, Bodhidharma left the palace of the emperor and traveled to the Honan province where we entered the Shaolin temple and began a martial history.

Bodhidharma’s depression grew once he reached the famed Shaolin temple for Prajnatra’s telling was true. The monks were in a raged condition physically and mentally diminished due to the excess amount of time the monks spent in meditation and little else. Many of the monks would often fall asleep in meditation while others needed assistance in the basic necessities of life – so feeble was their condition.

For an unknown period of time, Bodhidharma meditated in a cave at the outskirts of the temple seeking a way to renew the feat of Buddha’s light, as well as letting the monks regain control over their lives. Upon his return, Bodhidharma instructed the monks into the courtyard, from the strong to the feeble, and began to explain and work with them in the art of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho, or the 18 hands of Lo Han. These techniques which are the foundation for almost all martial arts today were never originally intended to be utilized as methods of fighting but were a manner in which the monks could attain enlightenment while preserving their body’s health. During the Sui period, approximately forty years or so after the death of Bodhidharma it is told that brigands assaulted the Shaolin monetary; one of many attacks that would occur until the early twentieth century. During this first invasion, the monk’s attempts at defending their temple were futile, their skills were not attuned to fighting techniques and it looked as if the temple would fall. A monk of the temple, with reference only as of the “begging monk”, during the last siege of the temple by the brigands attacked several of the outlaws with an array of aggressive hand and foot techniques, killing some and driving the remaining attackers away. The other monks were so inspired by the display of this single priest that they requested tutelage in this martial style as a means of protection. In later scripts, this fighting art was recorded as Chuan-Fa Kempo.

Over several decades the fighting arts of the Shaolin temple grew and were said to prosper over 400 arts in total over the next several centuries. Several decades after the fight of the begging monk, a master of Chuan Fa called Ch’ueh Taun Shang-Jen was said to have rediscovered the original Shih Pa Lo Han Sho which had been lost for many years. Church over a period of time-integrated his art of Chuan Fa with that of Lo Han increasing the total number of techniques from the original eighteen to a total of seventy-two. For several years after this period, Ch’ueh traveled the countryside of China promoting his art in several grueling fighting matches until he came upon a man named Li in the province of Shensi. Li, a master of Chuan-Fa Kempo traveled and trained with Ch’ueh for some time developing the curriculum of Chuan-Fa to form a total of one-hundred and seventy techniques. Furthermore, they categorized these techniques into five distinctive groups distinguished by various animals whose instinctive reactions best reflected the movements of this new Chuan-Fa Kempo and brought to the Shaolin temple a new stage in martial arts evolution.

Over the next several centuries the history of Chuan-Fa and its advent to Kempo is ragged in its tales and difficult to gain accurate descriptions. What is known is that the art of Kempo remained and is still practiced in China, but its teaching also found its way to Okinawan Islands and the Ryukyu kingdoms as well as Japan. In both places, the art was referred to as Kempo.

Between the Sui and Ming periods (an 800-year gap) it is considered that many a wandering monk traveled across Japan and Okinawa bringing with them a working knowledge of the art of Kempo which explains its wide-spread distribution. The art of Chuan Fa which translates into Kempo would have been taught as a supplement to the daily spiritual training the monks endured. Many of the monks would often choose disciples or teach at various Buddhist temples bringing the word of Buddha and the power of Kempo as well.

From there the art of Kempo could easily spread among the commoners and nobles alike.