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Dengfeng Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple at Dengfeng, China

Early History of the Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple (Traditional Chinese: 少林寺; pinyin: Shàolín sì), also called the Shaolin Monastery and the Songshan Shaolin Temple, is a Ch'an (Chinese Zen) Buddhist temple in the county-level city of Dengfeng (Chinese: 登封; pinyin: Dēngfēng), which in ancient times was called Yangcheng (simplified Chinese: 阳城; traditional Chinese: 陽城; pinyin: Yángchéng). The Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng are in turn located in the province of Henan (河南; formerly romanized as Honan) in the central region of China. Henan, not to be confused with the independent province of Hunan, is the cradle of Chinese civilization with over 3,000 years of recorded history and was China's cultural, political, and economic hub until about 1,000 years ago. Founded during the Western 5th century AD, the Shaolin Temple is the primary temple of Shaolin Buddhism.

Shaolin Temple Pagoda Forest

Pagoda Forest at Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple and its Pagoda Forest were declared as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 and named among the "Historic Monuments of Dengfeng." The Pagoda Forest is a cluster of brick or stone pagodas (tiered sacred places or temples) erected from 791 AD during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) up through the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and Qing Dynasty (1636-1912).

The Pagoda Forest of the Shaolin Temple stands at the foot of Mount Song, or Shaoshi Mountain, (Traditional Chinese: 嵩山; pinyin: Sōngshān) and is one of the largest pagoda forests in China. Mount Song lies along the southern bank of the Yellow River. It is the central mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains of China. Its peak rises 4,900 ft (1,500 meters) above sea level.

Song Mountain

The Sacred Song Mountain in Henan, China

The name of the Shaolin Temple (literal: "Little Forest Temple") alludes to the forests of Shaoshi (Traditional Chinese: 少室; pinyin: Shǎo Shì) Mountain, which is one of the main seven peaks of the Song mountains. The Shaolin Temple faces Mount Song and leans against Wuru Peak (Traditional Chinese: 五乳峰; pinyin: Wǔ rǔ fēng). The Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (645 AD), written by the Chinese Buddhist monk Daoxuan (Traditional Chinese: 道宣; pinyin: Dàoxuān), records that the Shaolin Temple was built on the northern side of Shaoshi, the central peak of Mount Song. The Shaolin Temple was commissioned by Emperor Xiaowen (Traditional Chinese: 孝文帝; pinyin: Xiào wéndì) of the Northern Wei Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 北魏; pinyin: Běiwèi; 386–535) in the 20th year of the Taihe (Traditional Chinese: 太和 ; pinyin: Tìi hé) era of the Northern Wei Dynasty in 495 AD. The Shaolin Temple was built in the middle of the forest at the bottom of Shaoshi Mountain to provide as a tranquil retreat to honor and accommodate Budhhabhadra, a dhyāna master who journeyed from India or Central Asia in 464 AD to spread Theravāda (sutra- or scripture-based) Buddhist teachings. Buddhabhadra selected the site when he first gazed upon Mount Song, which he considered to have the appearance of a lotus, the symbol of fortune, pureness, and faith in Buddhism.

Buddhabhadra became the first abbot of the Shaolin Temple. He ordained hundreds of monks as disciples and translated numerous Buddhist sutras he brought with him into China. Following his parinirvana (Sanskrit: परिनिर्वाण , parinirvāṇa; Traditional Chinese: 般涅槃; pinyin: bān nièpán), nirvana-after-death (the death of the body of one who has attained nirvana during one's lifetime), Buddhahadra's disciples spread across China to disseminate Buddhist sutras since he established no rules for the succession of his position.

In 527 AD, the 3rd year of the Xiaochang era (Traditional Chinese: 孝昌; pinyin: Xiào chāng) of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian patriarch of Zen Buddhism journeyed from southern India to China. Bodhidharma first traveled across southern China, promoting Mahāyāna (meditation-based) Buddhism, before trekking towards the northern Henan province and the Shaolin Temple.

The Shaolin Temple abbot, Fāng Chāng (方昌), saw Bodhidharma as a barbarian troublemaker and refused him entry, though. Legends say that Bodhidharma climbed high into the nearby mountains to a cave where he meditated for nine years. It is held that he sat, facing the cave wall for much of these nine years so that his shadow became outlined on the cave wall. Today, the cave is a sacred place and the shadow imprint has been removed from the cave and moved to the Shaolin Temple compound, where it can be viewed by visitors.

Shaolin Cave

Shaolin Cave where Bodhidharma sheltered and meditated. Present day photo of the cave.

After nine years, Fāng Chāng finally admitted Bodhidharma into the Shaolin Temple, where he became the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

Bodhidharma was trained in the Indian Kshatriya warrior caste practice of Vajramukti yoga, "Thunderbolt Fist," (Sanskrit: वज्रमुक्ति; Traditional Chinese: 霹靂解放; pinyin: Pīlì Jiěfàng). This form of yoga included: mental techniques for reaching higher states of consciousness; physical techniques for hand strikes, throws, and wrestling; and methods of movement and evasion. Vajramukti yoga was instrumental to Kshatriya warriors for combining the mind, body, and spirit.

He likely exercised in the cave to stay fit. When he entered Shaolin Temple, he realized that the monks there were not very fit themselves and were unable to follow his meditative teachings without falling asleep. Bodhidharma accordingly developed for the Shaolin monks and nuns a set of exercises derived from Vajaramukti yoga and taught them Indian breathing and internal energization techniques. This training became the foundation for Shaolin martial arts or Shaolin quan (少林拳; Shàolín quán), including the Shaolin Five Animals style (Traditional Chinese: 五形; pinyin: wǔ xíng; literal: "Five Forms"). One offshoot of the Five Animal martial arts is the Northern Shaolin style of Yue Chia or Yuejiaquan (岳家拳, Yue Family Fist, alternately Yue Ch'uan).

Martial arts were already widespread in China and many of the Shaolin monks were former soldiers. Bodhidharma's teachings added a new dimension to Chinese martial arts. Rather than act as a means of promoting force and aggression, Shaolin martial arts were used as a method for cultivating a peaceful mindset and supporting a person's journey towards self-awakening and enlightenment according with Buddhist principles as well as a dynamic method of self-defense.

Bodhidharma Statue

Statue of Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Temple

Bodhidharma passed on his lineage to Huike, who became the second patriarch of China. Later the transmission passed to the third patriarch Sengcan, the fourth patriarch Daoxin, the fifth patriarch Hongren, and the "official" sixth patriarch Huineng. Huineng replaced Shenxiu who was the "first" sixth patriarch in a sectarian dispute that split the "East Mountain" School founded by Daoxin and Hongren into the Northern and Southern Schools of Ch'an. The wrongly labeled Northern School (in actuality the "East Mountain" School) foundered and the artificial Southern School came to prominence as the orthodox school of Ch'an. Huineng and the first five ch'an masters are seen as "the six Zen patriarchs of China." Bodhidharma summarized the theme of Zen Buddhism as: "A special transmission outside of the scriptures; not founded upon words to letters; by pointing directly to one’s mind, it lets one see into his true nature and attain Buddhahood."

After Bodhidharma entered the Shaolin Temple, though, Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou ((北)周武帝; pinyin: (Běi) zhōu Wǔdì) banned both Buddhism and Taoism in 574 AD and 577 AD. Emperor Wu adopted Confucianism for his reign and prohibited Buddhism and Taoism since he believed they had become too powerful and affluent. He decreed that the monks of both religions return to civilian life, make themselves available for military service, and contribute to the general economy.

His son Emperor Xuan of Northern Zhou ((北)周宣帝); pinyin: (Běi) zhōu Zuāndì), ended the prohibitions against Buddhism and Taoism in 579 AD.

The son of Emperor Xuan, Emperor Jingwen of Northern Zhou ((北)周靜帝); pinyin: (Běi) zhōu Jìng dì), revived the Shaolin Temple but changed its name to Zhihu Temple (志湖寺; "Aspiration Lake Temple") in 580 AD.

Emperor Wen of Sui (隋文帝; pinyin: Suí Wéndì; 581-604), who was a Buddhist and the founder of the Sui Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 隋朝; pinyin: Suí cháo; 581–618), restored the name Shaolin Temple.

The Shaolin Temple's Golden Era began during the early Tang Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: Tángcháo; 618-907). The 13 Shaolin cudgel fighting monks assisted Li Shimin, the Duke of Qin and the future second Tang emperor Taizong, in defeating a warlord who had deposed the last Sui emperor. Li Shimin rewarded the monks with prizes and titles, granted land and a water mill to the Shaolin Temple, and proclaimed it as the imperial temple of the Tang Dynasty and "The Supreme Temple" of China.

After the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin called upon the Shaolin Temple to defend Fujian province in Southern China from the incursions of Arab and Persian Muslim pirates. Three of the legendary 13 Shaolin cudgel fighting monks led 500 warrior monks in a campaign against the pirates to aid the Tang military in defeating the pirates. Following the campaign, the first Southern Shaolin Temples were founded in Fujian province.

The Shaolin Temple continued to flourish under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大元; pinyin: Yuán Cháo; Middle Mongolian: Dai Ön Ulus; 1271–1368). It was highly regarded by the Yuan emperors. Xueting Fuyu (Traditional Chinese: 雪庭福裕; pinyin: Xuětíng Fúyù) was appointed as abbot of the Shaolin Temple in 1245 by Kublai Khan (Mongolian: Хубилай, Hubilai; Chinese: 忽必烈), the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. In 1248, he was appointed as the head of Buddhism throughout China by Möngke Khan (Mongolian: Мөнх; Chinese: 蒙哥; pinyin: Ménggē), the grandson of Kublai Khan. Xueting Fuyu hosted three symposiums at the Shaolin Temple, where martial arts masters came from all over China to share their techniques and knowledge.

The Shaolin Temple was renovated and further commended during the era of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大明; pinyin: Dàmíng; 1368–1644) when China was beset by attacks along its eastern and southeastern coast by wokou (倭寇;) "Japanese Pirates." Shaolin warrior monks again valiantly fought to help restore peace in China from massive raids by the Japanese pirates, who also included disenfranchised Chinese as well as Portuguese adventurers. Eight princes of the Ming Dynasty joined the Shaolin Temple as monks during this period as well.

The Golden Age of the Shaolin Temple ended during the Manchu Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun), when it endured an uneven fate. The Qing Dynasty was founded in 1636 and ruled China from 1644 to 1912. The Kangxi (康熙帝) Emperor (1661-1722), the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was a supporter of the Shaolin Temple. In 1704, he wrote the entrance tablet "Shaolin Temple" (少林寺; shao lin si), which hangs over the Mountain Gate (山门; shan men) entrance and is one of the Temple's most prized treasures.

Shaolin Temple Name

Shaolin Temple Name by the Kangxi Emperor

The Qiánlóng (乾隆) Emperor (1735-1796), the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, spent a night in the Abbot's Room. He wrote the verse: "Tomorrow I view the mountains; tonight I pass in Shaolin."

The Shaolin Temple was also destroyed for supporting the fallen Ming Dynasty and anti-Qing rebellions. The time of the destruction is unclear, whether it was 1647, 1674, or 1732. Many treasures and sacred texts were lost and monks and followers were dispersed through China. The Shaolin Temple was allowed to reopen about one hundred years later, but the Qing rulers remained distrustful of it. The Shaolin Temple was burned and rebuilt many times over the following centuries.

The Buddhist and martial arts traditions of the Shaolin Temple are carried on, though, in martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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