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The Shaolin Temple (Chinese: 少林寺; pinyin: Shàolín Sì) is the birthplace of the Martial Arts and Chan approach to Buddhism. The original Shaolin temple is located in Mount Song (Simplified Chinese: 嵩山; Pinyin: Sōng Shān) - the central mountain of the "five sacred mountains" (simplified Chinese: 五岳; traditional Chinese: 五嶽; pinyin: Wǔyuè) of China, near Dengfeng (Chinese: 登封; pinyin: Dēngfēng), Henan (Chinese: 河南; pinyin: Hénán; Wade-Giles: Ho-nan) Province. The name "Shaolin" was inspired by the lush forest of the Shaoshi Mountain. Another story suggests that the temple was built on a piece of land that had recently been ravaged by fire, because the builders planted many new trees. The temple was thus named Shaolin ("Shao" meaning "young" or "new", and "Lin" meaning "forest").

This monastery played a prominent role in Chinese history. For many periods, it was considered to be an imperial temple where emperors of the ruling dynasty would ascend to pray on behalf of the people. However, its fame also brought with it many hardships. During periods of unrest, the temple often becomes a focus for the imperial wraith and retribution. The temple had been destroyed many times only to be rebuilt once again.

Historically, some of the best generals, ministers, poets and philosophers have passed through the gates of this monastery either as layman guests or following the Buddhist path. The Shaolin Temple can be considered to be both a focal point and an education center for some of China's elite. As such, the temple represents an important Chinese cultural landmark. The history of the Shaolin temple is long and controversial, but it is most important to acknowledge its impact on the Chinese population and the Martial Arts.

 1.  Bodhidharma
 2.  Ancient History
 3.  Modern History
 4.  Shaolin Now


The Shaolin temple was founded in the Northern Wei Dynasty (495 CE), Bodhidharma (Da Mo) arrived at the temple at 527 A.D and for the next thousand years contributed to Chinese civilization as well as struggle for its existence. The temple was destroyed several times only to be rebuilt again each time. According to the Shaolin Historical Records ( 少林寺志) and the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (AD 645) by Dàoxuān, the Shaolin Temple was built in the 19th year of the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (北魏孝文帝,Taihe) of Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏, pinyin: běi wèi, 386-534) in 495 AD for the eminent Indian monk, Bada (跋陀 Batuo, Moha, Pao Jaco) and his two Chinese disciples (Weiguang, Weineng). Bada was recognized as a Buddhist scholar in the Hinayana tradition-not as a martial artist. Any reference to the martial abilities of Bada, his students or the Shaolin temple at that time is conjecture at best. The Shaolin tradition recognized their contribution - the inscription '”Saint from the West”(西方圣人) is written on the signboard hung above the Thousand Buddha Hall in the Shaolin Temple.

Bodhidharma (DA MO, 达摩) is acknowledged as the First Patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism and is credited with providing the foundations for the Shaolin martial arts. Although his existence can always be questioned, the following information is generally accepted as historical fact. He was born to a Royal Family in Southern India around the year 440 CE. He studied under Prajnatara, the 27th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism. His teacher gave him the name Bodhidharma, past Mind Transmission on to him, and finally made him the 28th Patriarch. Prajnatara instructed him to transmit Dharma to China, and Bodhidharma traveled east to Guangzhou (Kwang Chou), Southern China, in 528 AD. He was initially honored and welcomed by the Chinese government and obtained an audience with Emperor Wu Di (梁武帝) of the Liang Dynasty (梁朝; Pinyin: Liáng cháo, 502-557). The emperor did not understand the teachings of Bodhidharma and did not retain his services.

Bodhidharma continued to travel north, crossed the Yangtzu River, and eventually arrived at the Shao Lin Temple. During his life he had very few disciples, only three of which have made it into the history books. Bodhidharma transmitted the patriarchy of his lineage to Huike (487-593) (Chinese:慧可; Chinese for short:慧可; pinyin: Huìkě; Wade-Giles: Hui-k’o; Japanese: Taiso Eka). Soon afterwards, Bodhidharma passed into Nirvana. He passed away at Longmen, (洛阳龙门, Luoyang) in 536 AD and was buried in Shon Er Shan (Bear Ear Mountain). A stupa was built for him in Pao Lin Temple. Later, the Tang dynasty Emperor, Dai Dzong, bestowed on Bodhidharma the name Yuen Che Grand Zen Master, and renamed his stupa Kong Kwan (Empty Visualization).

Many stories and legend have been told concerning the time that he spent at the Shaolin Temple:

  • He entered the cave beneath the Wuru peak and sat before the cave wall for nine years. When the feat of cultivation, accomplished by facing the wall, was completed, his image incredibly appeared on the wall, hence the famous "wall-facing rock" which can still be seen today.
  • When, during mediation he fell asleep, he was so angry with himself that he cut off his eyelids and flung them to the ground, where they became tea plants.
  • He saw that many of the monks at the Shaolin temple were sick and weak and therefore could not perform their mediation. He introduced a set of exercises to improve their body and cultivate the spirit. Those sets of exercises are similar to the postures found in Yoga. They were recorded in two books: the Shi Sui Yin Gin Ching (洗髓易筋经, Marrow Washing Muscle Changing Exercises). This classic was first published and available to the public in 1624 and its authenticity has been strongly questioned.
  • After his nine-year mediation, he introduced a new form of Buddhism - now known as Chan Buddhism, which appeals specifically to the Chinese mind.
  • His student, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the First Patriarch as a token of his sincerity at which point Bodhidharma accepted him as a student and changed his name from Shenguang to Huike (“Wisdom and Capacity”).
  • Few years after his death, a Chinese official reported encountering Bodhidharma in the mountains of Central Asia. Bodhidharma was reportedly carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official that he was on his way back to India. When this story reached his home, his fellow monks decided to open Bodhidharma's tomb. Inside there was nothing but a sandal. The sandal becomes a metaphor for Chan Buddhism.
 Bodhidharma contributed to Chinese civilization in two different ways: the concept of Zen Buddhism changed Chinese philosophy, and the integration of mental training with physical training influenced the future of martial arts.

Ancient History (570 - 1911 CE)

Northern Zhou Dynasty (北周; 557 - 581 CE)

During the Northern Zhou Dynasty (Chinese:北周, 557 to 581 CE), the Imperial government was concerned with the spread of Buddhism. The authorities closed down the Shaolin Temple, and it remained closed for the next thirty years. 

Tang Dynasty (唐朝; 618 - 907CE)

At the end of the Sui Dynasty (Chinese: 隋朝; pinyin: Suí cháo; 581-618 CE), Lǐ Shìmín (Chinese: 李世民) fought with the renegade general Wang Shichong (王世充). Legend recounts the story that Shaolin monks including Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, Tan Zong and ten other helped Li in his battles. After Lǐ Shìmín became the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (Chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: Táng Cháo; 618 –907 CE), he rewarded his supporters according to their military merits and contributions. The Shaolin Temple was reopened and expands to 600 acres of land. The monks also received a royal dispensation that permitted them to train in martial arts in order to protect the property. This is often seen as the first government promotion of the martial culture within the temple. A new class of priest martial artists in the temple were created called Monk Soldiers (Chin.: sēngbīng 僧兵) and later as Warrior Monks (Chin.: Wǔsēng 武僧). Inside the Shaolin Monastery there is a stone tablet (Chin.: shíbēi 石碑) personally inscribed by second Tang emperor, Li Shimin, which honors the Shaolin monks for their aid in subduing the rebels. The 1979 movie, Shaolin Temple (少林寺) starring Jet Li is an account of this story.

Through the Tang dynasty, the fame of the Shaolin Temple grew through the insight of Chan thoughts as well as their expertise in the martial arts. Practitioners from all over China came to visit the temple both to understand the nature of Chan as well as experience the Shaolin martial arts. Not only the Monks but the laypersons that visited all contributed to the rich heritage of Shaolin.

Song Dynasty (宋朝;  960 - 1278 CE)

According to Shaolin history, during the Song Dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng Cháo; Wade-Giles: Sung Ch'ao; 960-1278 CE), Emperor Zhao Kuangyin (Chin.: Zhào Kuāngyìn 赵匡胤) studied at the temple. He also allowed his generals to contributed their knowledge and offer material to the Shaolin system. Emperor Zhao is created as the creator of the form called "Great Ancestral Long Boxing" (Chin.: Tàizǔ Chángquán 太祖长拳).The monk Jueyuan (Juéyuán Héshang 觉元和尚)) traveled on a pilgrimage across China to study the status of martial arts. During his travels, he encountered Li Sou (Chin.: Lǐ Sǒu 李叟), a famous martial artist from Lan Zhou, Li’s friend, Bai Yufeng (Chin.: Bái Yùfēng 白玉峰) and Bai's son. Jueyuan convinced the three martial artists to return and train at the Shaolin Temple. After ten years of study, Bai Yu-Feng entered the temple and took the name Qiu Yue Chan Shi. According to the book Shaolin Temple Record, Qiu Yue Chan Shi was described as an expert in bare-hand fighting and narrow-blade sword techniques. He was credited with the improvement of the 18 Buddha Hands techniques into 173 techniques. He also compiled the existing Shaolin techniques and wrote the book, The Essence of Five Fist. This book described the practice methods and applications of the Five Fist (Animal) Patterns. The five animals included: Dragon, Tiger, Snake, Panther, and Crane. Li Sou imparted his matching sets, named for the flowing characteristic of Shaolin, Small and Large Flood Boxing (Xiaohongquan & Dahongquan), as well as stick fighting (Chin.: gùnshù 棍术) and the art of joint-locking (Chin.: qínná 擒拿).

Yuan Dynasty (宋朝; 1960 - 1278 CE)

After the Mongol conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (Chinese: 元朝; pinyin: Yuáncháo; Mongolian: Dai Ön Ulus/Дай Юан Улс, 1218-1368 CE), martial arts once again was suppressed and the activities of the Shaolin temple discouraged. The Shaolin temple continued to expand despite those repression. Shaolin Abbot Xueting Fuyu (Chin.: Xuětíng Fúyù 雪庭福裕, 1203-1275) personally invited many masters to train at the Temple. Near the end of this era, Shaolin Chan practice and martial arts training spread to Japan. In 1312 CE, Da Zhi (大智, 1290~1366), a Japanese monk, came to the Shaolin Temple to learn the nature of Chan. During the next 13 years, he also learned elements of the Shaolin martial arts (barehands and staff). In 1324 AD, he returned to Japan and became one of the founding members of Zen Buddhism. Dai Zhi’s visit was followed by Shao Yuan (邵元), another Japanese monk. He came to Shaolin in 1329 CE. During his stay, he mastered calligraphy, painting, Chan theory (i.e., known as Zen in Japan), and Shaolin martial arts. He returned to Japan in 1347 A.D. Shao Yuan is regard as a "Country Spirit" by the Japanese people.

Ming Dynasty (明朝; 1363 - 1644 CE)

Chinese society was in turmoil near the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang (Chinese: 朱元璋; Wade-Giles: Chu Yuan-chang) rebelled against the central authorities. Groups such as the Red Turban Army (Chinese: 紅巾軍) and the White Lotus society (白蓮教) turn arms against Mogol rule because of the high taxation and famine. Their eventual success in the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo, 1363-1644) re-established the glory of the Shaolin Temple. Both Zhu Yuanzhang and the rebel groups is Buddhist in philosophy, their military victories supported the martial arts background of the Shaolin temple. Like Lǐ Shìmín of the Tang Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang supported and encourages the spread of Buddhism and the growth of the Shaolin temple. Much of the legend surrounding the Shaolin Temple originated in this era. A famous episode accounts how 500 warrior monks responded to imperial decree to protect against the Japanese pirates (Chin.: wōkòu 倭寇), and over 1,000 more were reserve forces at the Shaolin Monastery. Famous monks as Yuekong (Chin.: Yuèkōng 月空) led the Sengbing against the Japanese pirates.

Ming Dynasty (清朝; 1644 - 1912 CE)

The Ming dynasty fell to a foreign power, the Manchus, a tribe in Northeastern China. The Qing Dynasty (Chinese: 清朝; pinyin: Qīng cháo; Wade-Giles: Ch'ing ch'ao; Manchu: Daicing gurun.png) was the last ruling dynasty of China, ruling from 1644 to 1912. Like the Yuan Dynasty, the Ching government banned the practice of martial arts for fear of rebellion. The Shaolin Temple suffered from their persecution. During this era, the Shaolin temple was thought to be destroyed by the central authorities only to be repaired. The martial art community including the Shaolin Temple rallied to the slogan "overthrow the Qing, restore the Ming" (Chin.: Fǎn Qīng fù Míng 反清复明), and thus the imperial court repeatedly issued edicts prohibiting Wugong training. According to legend, branches of the Shaolin Temple were secretly established in the South and offered refuge to many rebels. There were many stories of rebellion lead by formal members of the Shaolin Temple. The legend of the Five Elders of Southern Shaolin Kungfu fame is a popular example.


Modern History (1911 - Present)

The turn of the century marks the end of the Dynastic era of Chinese History. The new Republican government (1912-1945) actively encourages to strengthen the Chinese identity. Martial arts were considered to be one example of Chinese culture and this led to the popularization of the Shaolin story. One of the earliest references to "DaMo" or Bodhidharma was in a widely popular novel, "The Travels of Lao Ts'an" (The Travels of the Old Vagabond, 老残游记) by Liu E (simplified Chinese: 刘鹗; traditional Chinese: 劉鶚; pinyin: Liú è, 18 October 1857 — 23 August 1909). This was a satirically description of the rise of the Boxers in the countryside and a commentary on the absurdities of the Chinese government at that time. However, some of his fictitious accounts are now accepted as historical truths. Other stories followed, including: "Shaolin School Methods", in a Shanghai newspaper in 1910, and "Secrets of Shaolin Boxing" in 1919. These works of fiction contributed to some of the mystique and popular misconception of the art.

The Shaolin Temple itself could escape while China was in Turmoil during the Warlord Era (1916-1928). Abbot Shi Henglin (Chin.: Shì Hénglín 释恒林, 1865-1923) at that time led a small regiment of Sengbing to pacify the area. His actions brought him into conflict with the regional Warlord Shi Yousan (Chin.: Shí Yǒusān 石友三). In 1928, Shi You-San's razed the Shaolin Temple. The damage was extensive with the fire lasting for more than 40 days, and all the major buildings were destroyed.

When the People's Republic of China was established, all religion was outlawed. This also applied to the functions within the Shaolin walls. The treatment of the Shaolin legacy was even worst during the wide spread social and political upheaval of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (simplified Chinese: 无产阶级文化大革命; traditional Chinese: 無產階級文化大革命; pinyin: Wúchǎn Jiējí Wénhuà Dà Gémìng; literally "Proletarian Cultural Great Revolution"; or simply Cultural Revolution; abbreviated in Chinese as 文化大革命 or 文革) . The Red Guards (simplified Chinese: 红卫兵; traditional Chinese: 紅衛兵; pinyin: Hóng Wèi Bīng) who were composed mainly of students and other young people were mobilized by Mao Zedong to completely eradicate the 'Four Olds' of Chinese society (old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas). This political movement succeeded in destroying many of the most famous sites through out China and set back the intellectual development of China for more than a generation. The Shaolin Temple suffered tremendously during this period of madness. In 1966 and 1967, the Red Guards destroyed the remaining buildings, statues, and relics at the temple. Six monks out of fifty remained to protect temple and suffered as a result of the Red Guard's abuses. They were former abbot Shi Xingzheng (释行正 ; 1914-1987), Shi Wanheng, Shi Suxi (釋素喜), Shu Suyun, Shi Dechan (释德禅) and Shi Miaoxing. Those monks were shackled and forced to wear humiliating placards acknowledging their misdeeds. They were publicly flogged and paraded through streets in humiliation. After being beaten and jailed, the monks had to beg for food and hide in the mountains surrounding the temple. Despite their hardships, they tried to covertly affect what repairs they could on the few remaining buildings of Shaolin Temple.

The revival of the Shaolin Temple only began as Chinese society recovered from this period of unrest. By 1980, Deng Xiaoping (simplified Chinese: 邓小平; traditional Chinese: 鄧小平; pinyin: Dèng Xiǎopíng; Wade-Giles: Teng Hsiao-p'ing; 22 August 1904 – 19 February 1997) finally became the leader of China. He advocated a new era of economic reforms and openness. This includes acknowledging the value of China’s cultural heritage. As part of this open policy, private enterprises and tourism was encouraged.

Shaolin Temple Today

The revival of the Shaolin temple can be attributed to the start of the production of the movie “The Shaolin Temple”. This movie was a Hong Kong production that for the first time included an all mainland Chinese cast as well as help from Japanese Shorinji Kempo association. In 1979, invited by the Chinese Government, So Doshin (Doshin So (宗道臣, 1911-1980), the founder of Shorinji Kempo (少林寺拳法, Shōrinji Kenpō) in Japan, visited the Shaolin Temple for the first time. He erected a stele on the temple grounds and played homage to the birth place of his martial arts. The movie Shaolin Temple finally released in 1982 starring five-time all-around national Wushu champion, Jet Li. It proved to be a resounding success and rekindled the public’s interest in Shaolin Martial Arts.

By the middle of the 1980’s, there were many martial arts schools teaching the Shaolin method to the public. The most notable of those schools are headed by Chen Tongshan (陈同山), Liang Yiquan (梁以全) and Liu Baoshan (刘宝山). Events were changing much slower within the Shaolin temple. In 1979, the Shaolin Monastery set up the Shaolin Wugong Team (Chin.: Shàolín Wǔgōngduì 少林武功队), to be the "dissemination team" (Chin.: xuānchuánduì 宣传队, later, changed to "Shaolin Monastery Warrior Monk Regiment" (Chin.: Shàolínsì Wǔsēngtuán 少林寺武僧团) for the temple- performing Wugong to create interest in the Shaolin Culture and spread the Dharma.

In 1984, a Chinese documentary of Hai Deng (Chinese: 海灯法师; pinyin: Hăi Dēng Făshī; Wade-Giles: Hai Têng Fa-shih; reportedly 1902–January 11, 1989) the 32nd abbot of Shaolin Temple made him one of the most famous modern monks in China. This paved the way for his visit to the USA in 1985. The world got to see a demonstration of his one figure Chan – a technique where he supported most of his body weight on one finger. It would be 1992 before a full contingent of Shaolin monks visited the United States.

Today there are approximated 300 ordained monks (Chin.: Héshang 和尚) at the Shaolin Temple of which only 100 or so know or study the martial arts. This is a reminded that at the root of Shaolin practice is Buddhism and that martial arts is only one technique to achieve those goals.The Shaolin Temple itself has been awarded the honor of being a UNESCO world heritage site and the area is a popular tourist destination.  The Shaolin Temple organization are also establishing branch schools in other nations to promote the Shaolin practice.