Shaolin culture is the result of numerous cultural exchanges.
Brought from India, Buddhism was integrated with Confucianism
and Taoism in China and has borne the feature of the Chinese
traditional view towards the universe- “the unity between
the heavens and man.” By practicing Buddhism and experiencing
spiritual enlightenment, Chan Buddhists exemplify the active
attitude and extraordinary wisdom human beings have in their
quest for the mysteries of Nature and the Universe.
Shaolin Temple was first built in 495 AD (the 19th year in the
reign of Taihe of the Northern Wei Dynasty.) It was a royal temple
built by the decree of Emperor Xiaowen to accommodate Indian Buddhist monk Master Batuo. During the Tang Dynasy, with the help and support of the various emperors of the Tang Dynasty, Shaolin Temple extended on a large scale. Large numbers of Buddhist palaces and towers were built, forming a spectacular complex; shining monasteries with jingling bells stood dominant towering to the sky. There were altogether more than 5000 halls, chambers and rooms and the number of monks exceeded 2000. It became the center of Buddhism in China, where holy monks gathered, emperors and high-ranking officials came to visit and pay homage, and poets and scholars came to admire the beauty of this scenic place. Shaolin Temple, as a magnificent royal temple of the Tang Dynasty was renowned as the most famous Buddhist Temple in China.
During the Ming Dynasty, Shaolin Wushu (martial arts) had become very prominent in China. During the reign of Jiajing (1522-1566), Shaolin Temple again sent monk-soldiers to help the imperial army in fighting Japanese aggressors and performed meritorious exploits. As a result, Shaolin Temple was highly praised and rewarded by the emperor. The various emperors of the Qin Dynasty also paid great attention to Shaolin Temple. Emperor Kangzi personally wrote inscriptions on a horizontal board for Shaolin Temple. In the 15th year of the reign of Qianlong (1750) Emperor Hongli visited Shaolin Temple and passed a night in the Abbot’s hall. During the ending years of the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China, the nation’s power was seriously declining and Shaolin Temple suffered from successive wars and turmoils. After this disaster, Shaolin Temple was reduced to dilapidated walls and piles of debris. It went into complete declination. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government once again appropriated money to have Shaolin Temple repaired.
In 1963, the people’s government of Henan Province designated Shaolin Temple as a provincial-level spot of cultural relics. In 1983, the State Council designated Shaolin Temple as one of the national key temples under state protection. In 2007, Shaolin Kungfu was announced as a national-level Intangible Cultural Heritage by Chinese government.
The Origin Temple of Chan Buddhism and the First Patriarch Bodhidharma (Damo)
According to the legend, Bodhidharma (Damo) was a royal prince of state
king in Southern India in ancient Indian history. His teacher was Prajnatara, the twenty-seventh patriarch of Indian Buddhism. It took three whole years for Damo to travel all the way to Guangzhou. Hearing of Damo’s arrival, Emperor Wu Di sent a mission to take him to Nanjing, but since he found Wu Di not congenial to him, Damo crossed the river on a reed to the Songshan Mountains and for nine years meditated in a small cave on the Wuru Peak (a mount behind the Shaolin Temple.) The futurity addressed Damo as the founder of Chan (Chinese Zen) and thus Shaolin Temple was also called the Origin Temple of Chan Buddhism.
The Story about Damo and Second Master Huike
In the first year of North Wei Zhengguang (520A.D.) Shengguang came to Damo Pavilion to learn Buddhism and Damo was in meditation without paying any attention to him. Shengguang was waiting outside in the cold winter snows. When the daylight came out in the next day, the snow covered his knees, but Damo still ignored him and said firmly, “Only if it falls with red snow.” To show his sincerity, Shengguang took out a sharp knife and cut off his left arm to consecrate to the service of Damo. Seeing his sincerity, Damo granted his mantle onto him and gave him a Buddhist name of Huike.
Being the single most outstanding representative of ancient Chinese martial arts culture, Shaolin Kungfu is very welcomed among people of many different cultures. It is a vivid legend in the history of the human being’s civilization. The Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Kungfu has already become the important spiritual asset of Chinese people and the precious cultural inheritance owned by all human beings.
The optima form of movement of the human body of Chinese martial arts, together with their spirit of harmony of the individual’s inner mind, harmony of man and society and harmony of man with nature, integrated with Chan Buddhism developed by Shaolin Temple where martial monks practicing Chan Buddhism search for the spiritual enlightenment. Shaolin Kungfu thus embraces Chan and martial arts on which its binary principles is based. Thereby Shaolin Kungfu, “the combination of Chan Buddhism and martial arts” becomes a witness to the dialog between different cultures and to the creativity of human beings.
Shaolin Kungfu refers to the traditional cultural system that has been formed in the particular Buddhist cultural environment in the Shaolin Temple of Mount Song over a long history. It is based on a belief that supernatural power of Buddhism fully reflects the wisdom of Chan Buddhism. The martial arts practiced by Kungfu monks in the Shaolin Temple are its major form of expression. The soul of Shaolin Kungfu is rooted in the wisdom of Chan Buddhism. Chan Buddhism is replete with a thorough understanding of life as interpreted by Oriental wisdom.
Shaolin Kungfu is one of the ways that monks in the Shaolin Temple study the Chan Buddhism. The combination of Chan Buddhism with a unique system of martial arts has become the chief characteristics of Shaolin Kungfu and as such the adoption and practice of this strict belief system is what especially makes the monks of the temple as “Shaolin” monks who regard their personal perfection in this system as their ideal and lifelong goal. Fully understanding life with no fear in their hearts, they have continually demonstrated great wisdom and courage.
The Inheritance of Shaolin Kungfu is carried out strictly through transmission from the masters to the disciples. The patriarchal clan system of the Shaolin Temple was established in the 13th century when Master Fuyu, Leader of the Caodong Sect, led the Temple. Master Fuyu set down the naming system for passing down Shaolin Kungfu for 70 generations. At present, the monks in the Shaolin Temple still follow the naming system of Master Fuyu of the 13th century. In nearly 800 years, there have already been more than 30 generations, and the representatives of the current generations have in their surnames the characters of “Su”, “De”, “Xing”, “Yong”, “Yan”, and “Heng”.
In history, the recognition of new masters of Shaolin Kungfu was based on the Chan Buddhism system of inheritance. Only when the masters have acknowledged that the disciples have reached a certain level in their Buddhist practice and Kungfu skills can these disciples become the inheritors and acknowledged masters or priests of Chan Buddhism.
Most of eminent Shaolin monks are versed in Chan martial arts and Medicine. Shaolin Medicine Center was founded in 1217, leaving a large number of precious works on Chinese medicine and literature. The body building methods of Shaolin Kungfu have demonstrated the ancient
Chinese belief in “the unity between the heavens and man.” The design and the arrangement of Shaolin Kungfu movements are based on the medical knowledge of ancient China and conform to the rules of movement of the human body as understood in Shaolin thinking. The development and practice of these skills put special emphasis on the combination of movement and stillness, the balance between yin and yang, the complements of toughness and softness, and the inclusion of both the spirit and the form. And demonstrate the ancient Chinese belief in “the unity between heaven and man.” Those movements that fit the natural structure of the human body can be called the most reasonable. Shaolin Kungfu gives full play to the potential of the human body and has achieved and optimal form of movement for the human body which allows room for its adherents to develop and thrive. As a result of this centuries-long attention to “the unity between heaven and man” we can say that Shaolin Kungfu is most likely one of the most effective bodybuilding systems in the world today especially if we examine the famous texts of the “Yijin Jing” and the “Xisui Jing.”