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Shaolin Temple: Beyond the Martial Arts

Shaolin Temple is best known for its superior martial arts. In
reality, its history is steeped in its Buddhist practices and teachings.

Martial Arts. Kung Fu. Wu Shu. The names have varied but the origins lie unchanged, deep in the temple of Shaolin. But, have you ever wondered why a tranquil Buddhist temple would be famous for fierce martial arts? The Shaolin Temple is historically famous for its Shaolin Kung Fu and the popular belief of Zen Buddhism.

Situated in the Songshan Mountain 50 miles southwest of Zhengzhou, at the capital of Henan Province, Shaolin Temple was built in 495 A.D. for one initial reason: to house Batuo. Batuo, an Indian monk, came to China to spread Buddhism. A strong believer in Buddhism, Emperor Xiaowen made orders to build the temple as a sanctuary for Batuo and a few hundred followers to translate the Buddhist works. The temple was built on land that was previously burned, near Shaoshi Mountain. Here, the builders planted new trees. Thus, the name Shaolin comes from Shao, meaning "young," and Lin, meaning "forest."

Batuo had a great interest in martial arts. Conveniently, two of his disciples were already skilled in the art. These two disciples taught the art form to others and soon it spread through Shaolin. The centralized location of the temple attracted other Kung Fu masters who passed by, and served as a refuge for counter militant leaders who were being chased by local armies. As a way of expressing their gratitude for housing, they often passed on battalion tactics and martial art techniques to the Buddhist monks. As Shaolin Temple grew in recognition and prominence, the Buddhist emperors supported the temple by presenting gifts of gold and land. Its growth in wealth has made Shaolin Temple a target for burglars and foreign bandits. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), 13 Shaolin monks saved Emperor Li Shimin from invaders. From that point on, Shaolin was allowed to have soldier-monks to protect the temple’s assets. By the start of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Shaolin Temple housed over 1,000 soldier-monks.

The significance of the Shaolin Temple lies beyond its extraordinary reputation for the martial arts. Thirty- five years after the completion of the temple, another Indian monk arrived, following Batuo. This monk was the legendary Bodhidharma (Da Mo in Chinese). Bodhidharma introduced a new type of Buddhism to the Chinese people—Chan, or more widely known as Zen. Zen Buddhism was less strict and more adapted to the Chinese way of life. Zen spread quickly and widely throughout China and is the prevailing form of Buddhism today.

It is said that Bodhidharma hiked through Tibet’s Himalayan Mountains, surviving both the treacherous weather and bandit attacks. Upon reaching China, Bodhidharma met with the Emperor Wu Di. A Buddhist himself, the emperor asked the Indian monk what good deeds he had accomplished, but Bodhidharma could not respond with an answer. He was then rejected from Shaolin Temple and sought out a nearby cave in which he meditated for nine years. Over the nine years, the shadow of his image discolored the far wall of the cave (this site is now a tourist attraction: Bodhidharma’s cave). When Shaolin monks discovered Bodhidharma, they believed that he had proven himself worthy and accepted him into the temple. Bodhidharma spread a new style of meditation and physical training, benefiting both the monks and the soldier-monks.
Today, the Shaolin Temple continues to symbolize the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism. The Shaolin Temple, over 1,000 years old, comprises 230 separate ancient towers. Sadly, 28 of the 230 ancient towers are currently in critical condition and on the verge of collapse due to deterioration and instability of the foundation. Shaolin Temple’s abbot, Shi Yongxin, says that they are currently conducting a well-rounded analysis of each ancient tower and will take all necessary steps to preserve the traditional essence of each structure. As long as the magnificent structures of the temples are kept alive, the world will be able to witness these Chinese traditional beauties that have endured the destruction caused by the Chinese Cultural Revolution.