Most of us are familiar with the Shaolin Kung Fu style of martial arts. Even if you do not follow or practice the martial arts yourself, you may have seen Shaolin Kung Fu as portrayed by David Carradine in the 1970’s TV series, or in the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, as well as more recent movies and TV series. Full disclosure here, I am a child of the 70’s and I loved the TV series Kung Fu! 😉
They were based on the warrior Kung Fu monks of the Shaolin Monastery/Temple.
Shaolin Temple is a Chan (“Zen”) Buddhist temple located in Dengfeng, Henan Province, China. Chan (Zen) meaning a meditation/meditative state, it is a Chinese school of Mahayana Buddhism. “Mahayana emphasizes the altruistic practice—called the Bodhisattva practice—as a means to attain enlightenment for oneself and help others attain it as well.” (1) (ROTW, p. 108-109 & 145)
The Chan branch of Buddhism developed in the sixth century CE and is an indigenous form of Chinese Buddhism. It spread to several East Asian countries including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Although the word Chan signifies its meditative techniques, that is not what made it distinctive within schools of Chinese Buddhism. What made it different was their “novel use of language, its development of new narrative forms, and its valorization of the direct and embodied realization of Buddhist awakening. In contrast with the epistemic, hermeneutical, and metaphysical concerns that shaped other schools of Chinese Buddhism.” (2)
The Shaolin Temple is believed to have been founded in the fifth century, It is the main temple of the Shaolin school of Buddhism to this day. The martial arts films and the Kung Fu TV series have made the Shaolin Monastery the most famous and popular to visit Buddhist temple in the world.
Although Kung Fu did not originate at the Shaolin Monastery, and martial arts were practiced in China way before the founding of this temple, there is strong historical documentation of martial arts being practiced there for centuries. (3)
The name of the temple refers to the nearby woods of Shaoshi mountain, which is one of the seven peaks of the Song mountains. The first Shaolin Monastery abbot was Batuo (also called Fotuo, Bodhidharma or Buddhabhadra), a dhyāna (which means profound meditation) master who came to ancient China from ancient India to expand the Buddhist teachings. A legendary Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma was originally a prince from the Pallava Kingdom in South India. He crossed the Himalayas and is traditionally credited as the carrier of Chan Buddhism to China in 464 CE and also as having started the physical training of Shaolin monks, which would eventually lead to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu. In Japan Bodhidharma is known as Daruma. He is regarded as the first Chinese patriarch of Chan Buddhism. (4, 5 & 6)
The Shaolin monks practice both mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. (10)
A bit of interesting history involving the monks of Shaolin and Japanese dwarf pirates!
The Wokou pirates raided the coastlines of China, Japan, and Korea. The above picture is of Wokou pirates surrendering to the Koreans on Tsushima in 1389.
Because of the developed fighting skills, the Shaolin monks were often sent to fight for China. “One of the major threats to China was the ferocious Wokou, the dwarf pirates from Japan. In the early 16th century, many coastal towns in China were frequently ravaged by these pirates. Trade suffered immensely, and people started fleeing from coastal areas.” (9)
In 1553, the Japanese dwarf pirates, the Wokou, attacked the port city of Hangzhou, China. Many people died, and thousands were left homeless. The Ming court decided to sent 120 elite Shaolin Kung Fu monks to attempt to stop and destroy the Wokou. They were not as easy to defeat as the monks originally thought them to be. It took the fighting of four major battles, until at the Battle of Wengjiagan, the Shaolin monks defeated the Wokou. (9)
The Shaolin Temple today is a huge complex where martial arts enthusiasts, Zen Buddhists, and tourists flock every year. Thousands of young people from around the globe come there to study Kung Fu (known as Wushu in China) in the schools around the temple. The studying of Shaolin Kung Fu provides a way out of poverty for thousands of children and young people. (8)
But not everyone likes what commercial success has brought to the temple. The monetary successes are evident everywhere and some sights are even jarring, like the telephone kiosks with Buddhas on top! (8)
The abbot of the monastery is Shi Yongxin. He is a farmer’s son from nearby Anhui, he has been credited as the architect of Shaolin’s revival since taking over in 1999. He is known for his business-minded acumen and for transforming the temple and promoting Chan (Zen) Buddhism throughout the world over the past two decades, this approach has spawned his detractors to give him the nickname CEO MONK. (8)
“Since 1986, he has led Shaolin monk delegations across China and abroad to perform Shaolin martial arts shows, registering the trademark of the names “Shaolin”, and “Shaolin Temple” in 1994.” (8)
He has been accused of fathering children with several women and of pilfering money from the temple coffers. Although so far he has been exonerated of these accusations. He also was criticized for accepting expensive gifts, including a luxury sports car from the authorities, and many monks did not like the decision to host its own martial arts reality TV show. (7 & 8)
But Qian Daliang, general manager of the Henan Shaolin Temple Development Company, insists the temple needs its commercial activities to ensure its survival. “The Shaolin monastery has had its ups and downs. At one point there were over 2,000 monks here, but after the Cultural Revolution, there were only 15 monks left. But the spirit of Shaolin never stops, and that’s what we are aiming to continuously deliver.” said Mr Qian. (8)
Whether you agree with the commercialization of the Shaolin Temple or not, it provides an abundance of advantageous benefits for the local people of the area, across China, and the world. Including economic, social, cultural, and religious benefits. There are more than a million students of Kung Fu around the world, and many centers of Shaolin culture and learning globally, which stem in large part from the Shaolin Temple.
☆ This blog entry is from my work in my World Religions course at Phillips Seminary. ☆
ROTW = Hopfe, Lewis M., et. al. Religions of the World, 13th Edition. Pearson Education, 2016.
4. Shahar, Meir (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: history, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. University of Hawaii Press.
5. Broughton, Jeffrey L. (1999). The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 54–55.
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