In many ancient mystical traditions around the world, the method for passing the ancient wisdom to the next generation was through a discipleship system, in which a special relationship was established between master and disciple.
Such a system can clearly be seen in operation in the surviving records and descriptions of the earliest Greek philosophers, and it is amply attested in many of the observations of shamanic traditions in cultures in which those traditions remained largely undisturbed right up into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Such a system also continues in many of the martial arts of China and surrounding countries, and it is described in the traditions surrounding the life of Bodhidharma, or Da Mo, and his first disciple Shen Guang, later named Hui Ke.
As described in the previous post entitled "Bodhidharma, Shen Guang, and the Shaolin Temple," texts that are over a thousand years old contain the stories surrounding Shen Guang's attempts to convince Da Mo to accept him as his disciple include accounts of Shen Guang standing guard over the meditating Da Mo for years at a time, even in the snow, and -- when it seemed that he would never be accepted -- ultimately cutting off his own left arm and waving it around his head to demonstrate his incredible devotion and desire to be guided in the way by Da Mo.
As that previous post explained, this story contains many distinctive clues which point to a celestial foundation for all of the events in the traditional account, including the nine years' long meditation of Da Mo, the flicking of prayer beads from a necklace at Da Mo by Shen Guang, the traditions regarding Da Mo's one sandal (which can be seen in the first image of Bodhidharma included in that previous post), the tradition regarding Da Mo's crossing of a river upon a single broken reed (which can be seen in the second image of Bodhidharma included in that previous post), and of course the gory episode of Shen Guang's chopping off of his own left arm, after which he was accepted as Da Mo's disciple and changed his name to Hui Ke.
Interestingly enough, on the Shaolin Temple USA website created by Shi Yan Ming, who came to the US on one of the first Shaolin exhibition tours in 1992 and ran away in San Francisco, there is a page which explains that to this day there is a tradition that Shaolin Temple disciples and monks greet one another using only their right hand, out of remembrance and respect for the sacrifice Hui Ke made in order to be accepted as Da Mo's disciple (see for example the description and discussion on this page).
He also explains the importance of the disciple system for imparting the essence of Chan Buddhism, on this page, where we read:
Chan is said to be a direct transmission of the dharma outside of the sutras (texts recording the teachings of the Buddha), passed "Mind to mind, heart to heart from master to disciple."
That same page notes that the distinctive one-handed gesture of greeting which commemorates the single-minded devotion of Hui Ke can be seen in the first movie featuring superstar Jet Li, the 1982 film entitled Shaolin Temple (above), which depicts events during the reign of the emperor Taizong (who ruled from AD 626 until AD 649) of the Tang Dynasty (which ended in AD 907).
It is very interesting to consider the fact that this tradition is based upon a story which almost certainly comes from the constellation Hercules, who "plays" Shen Guang in the story and holds a sword in his right hand (which is why his left arm is the one he cuts off), as can be seen in the star-chart diagram included in that previous post.
It is also very interesting that this single-hand gesture is an adaptation of the traditional mudra or hand gesture of Namaste (or Namaskaram), a very ancient gesture and one that is described in the Vedas, and which has been translated to mean "I bow [in recognition of the divine in you]" or "the divine in me recognizes the divine in you" and which thus clearly fits the definition of blessing, or recognizing and bringing forth and raising the spiritual aspect which lies within and infuses all aspects of creation.
It is also noteworthy that this same mudra (with two hands) is used in the hand gesture associated with Christian prayer and the word "Amen," which insightful researchers have argued has clear connection to the ancient Egyptian god Amun or Amon, the hidden divinity. This concept of the hidden god or hidden divinity parallels the teaching found in ancient sacred traditions around the world that men and women are composed of both a physical and a spiritual component, and that the invisible spiritual component is submerged in the physical and almost forgotten or overlooked -- which is why we should work to bring it out in ourselves and others, and which is connected to the concept expressed in Namaste.
It is equally noteworthy that, in the film, whenever the senior monks and abbots of the Shaolin Temple use this hand gesture, they speak the benediction, "Buddha bless you," as they do so.
This can be seen, for example, at about eight minutes into the film, where we clearly see the senior abbot using the single right-hand gesture and intoning those words of blessing:
The use of a hand gesture to accompany a blessing is very ancient, and it can be very powerful in a positive way, as was discussed in this previous post on the association of Leonard Nimoy and the character of Mr. Spock with the hand gesture derived from the letter shin and the accompanying blessing, "Live long and prosper."
The fact that the message of Namaste / Amen has been modified in the traditions surrounding the Shaolin Temple into a one-handed gesture as a way of pointing to the story of Hui Ke and the devotion he had to exhibit in order to be accepted as a disciple by Da Mo thus incorporates two important concepts: firstly the concept of our inner spirit-nature, which must continuously be invoked and brought forth as it is always in danger of being ignored or forgotten in our incarnate material condition, and secondly the vital importance of the transmission of dharma "mind to mind, heart to heart."