Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Temple (Chinese: 少林寺; pinyin: Shàolín Sì; Wade–Giles: Shao-lin Szu, pronounced ʂɑ̂ʊ̯lǐn sî]; Cantonese Yale: Siulàhm Jí) is a Chán Buddhist temple on Mount Song, near Dengfeng, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China. It is led by Abbot Shi Yongxin. Founded in the fifth century, the monastery is long famous for its association with Chinese martial arts and particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu, and it is the best known Mahayana Buddhist monastery to the Western world.
The shào (少) in "Shaolin" refers to Mount Shaoshi (少室山), one of the seven mountains forming the Songshan mountain range; it is on this mountain the Temple is situated. The word lín (林) means "forest". The word sì (寺) means "monastery/temple". The taijiquan master Zhang Zuyao incorrectly translated "Shaolin" as "young (new) forest" or sometimes "little forest". This newer translation is commonly accepted today.
According to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (645 AD) by Daoxuan, Shaolin Monastery was built on the north side of Shaoshi, the central peak of Mount Song, one of the Sacred Mountains of China, by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty in 477 AD. Yang Xuanzhi, in the Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547 AD), and Li Xian, in the Ming Yitongzhi (1461), concur with Daoxuan's location and attribution. The Jiaqing Chongxiu Yitongzhi (1843) specifies that this monastery, located in the province of Henan, was built in the 20th year of the Taihe era of the Northern Wei Dynasty, that is, the monastery was built in 495 AD.
The monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. During the Red Turban Rebellion in the 14th century, bandits sacked the monastery for its real or supposed valuables, destroying much of the temple and driving the monks away. The monastery was likely abandoned from 1351 or 1356 (the most likely dates for the attack) to at least 1359, when government troops retook Henan. The events of this period would later figure heavily in 16th century legends of the temple's patron saint Vajrapani, with the story being changed to claim a victory for the monks, rather than a defeat.
In 1641, rebel forces led by Li Zicheng sacked the monastery due to the monks' support of the Ming Dynasty and the possible threat they posed to the rebels. This effectively destroyed the temple's fighting force. The temple fell into ruin and was home to only a few monks until the early 18th century, when the government of the Qing Dynasty patronized and restored the temple.
Perhaps the best-known story of the Temple's destruction is that it was destroyed by the Qing government for supposed anti-Qing activities. Variously said to have taken place in 1647 under the Shunzhi Emperor, in 1674 under the Kangxi Emperor, or in 1732 under the Yongzheng Emperor, this destruction is also supposed to have helped spread Shaolin martial arts through China by means of the five fugitive monks. Some accounts claim that a supposed southern Shaolin Temple was destroyed instead of, or in addition to, the temple in Henan: Ju Ke, in the Qing bai lei chao (1917), locates this temple in Fujian province. These stories commonly appear in legendary or popular accounts of martial history, and in wuxia fiction.
While these latter accounts are common among martial artists, and often serve as origin stories for various martial arts styles, they are viewed by scholars as fictional. The accounts are known through often inconsistent 19th-century secret society histories and popular literature, and also appear to draw on both Fujianese folklore and popular narratives such as the classical novel Water Margin. Modern scholarly attention to the tales is mainly concerned with their role as folklore.
There is evidence of Shaolin martial arts being exported to Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Okinawan Shōrin-ryū karate (小林流), for example, has a name meaning "Small Shao]lin". Other similarities can be seen in centuries-old Chinese and Japanese martial arts manuals.
The Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 targeted religious orders including the monastery. The five monks who were present at the monastery when the Red Guards attacked were shackled and made to wear placards declaring the crimes charged against them. The monks were jailed after publicly being flogged and paraded through the street as people threw rubbish at them. The government purged Buddhist materials from within the monastery walls, leaving it barren for years.
According to Matthew Polly, a travel writer and martial artist, during the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong granted the Shaolin Temple extra land and special "imperial dispensation" to eat meat, and drink, which would make Shaolin the only temple in China that did not prohibit alcohol, although this practice has ceased today.
Polly's statement is not corroborated in any period documents, such as the Shaolin Stele erected in 728. The stele does not list any such imperial dispensation as reward for the monks' assistance during the campaign against Wang Shichong, only land and a water mill are granted. The historian Meir Shahar is unsure if the popular tale about wine and meat consumption originated after the release of films like Shaolin Temple.
In the past, many have tried to capitalise on Shaolin Monastery fame by building their own schools on Mount Song. However, the Chinese government eventually outlawed this; the schools were moved to the nearby towns. However, as of 2010, the Ta Gou kung fu school, one of the largest martial arts schools in China, owns and practises on land below Shaolin Temple. Current 31st Grand Master of the fighting monks is Shi De Yang, a disciple of the late abbot Shi Suxi.
A dharma gathering was held from August 19 to August 20, 1999, in Shaolin Monastery for Shi Yongxin's assumption of office as abbot. In March 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin became the first foreign leader to visit the monastery. In 2007, the Chinese government partially lifted the 300-year ban of the Jieba. The Jieba is the ancient ceremony of the nine marks, which are burned onto the head with sticks of incense. The ban was partially lifted only for those who were mentally and physically prepared to participate in the tradition.
A number of traditions make reference to a Southern Shaolin Monastery located in Fujian province. Associated with stories of the supposed burning of Shaolin by the Qing government and with the tales of the Five Elders, this temple, sometimes known by the name Changlin, is often claimed to have been either the target of Qing forces or a place of refuge for monks displaced by attacks on the Shaolin Monastery in Henan. Besides the debate over the historicity of the Qing-era destruction, it is currently unknown whether there was a true southern temple, with several locations in Fujian given as the location for the monastery. Fujian does have a historic monastery called Changlin, and a monastery referred to as a "Shaolin cloister" has existed in Fuqing, Fujian, since the Song Dynasty, but whether these have an actual connection to the Henan monastery or a martial tradition is still unknown. The Southern Temple has been a popular subject of wuxia fiction, first appearing in the 1893 novel Shengchao Ding Sheng Wannian Qing, where it is attacked by the Qianlong Emperor with the help of the White Eyebrow Taoist.
In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Tel Aviv University professor Meir Shahar notes that the bodhisattva Vajrapani is the patron saint of Shaolin Monastery. A short story appearing in Zhang Zhuo's (660-741) Tang anthology shows how the deity had been venerated in Shaolin from at least the eighth century. It is an anecdotal story of how the Shaolin monk Sengchou (480-560) gained supernatural strength and fighting ability by praying to Vajrapani and being force-fed raw meat. Shaolin abbot Zuduan (祖端禪師) (1115–1167) erected a stele in his honour during the Song Dynasty. It reads:
According to the scripture Lotus Sutra, this deity (Narayana) is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin). If a person who compassionately nourishes all living beings employs this deity's) charm, it will increase his body's strength. It fulfills all vows, being most efficacious. ... Therefore those who study Narayana's hand-symbolism (mudra), those who seek his spell (mantra), and those who search for his image are numerous. Thus we have erected this stele to spread this transmission. — Stele re-erected (chong shang) by Shaolin's abbot Zuduan
Shaolin believes Vajrapani to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, rather than a stand-alone deity. The Chinese scholar A'de noted this was because the Lotus Sutra says Avalokitesvara takes on the visage of whatever being would best help pervade the dharma. The exact Lotus Sutra passage reads: “To those who can be conveyed to deliverance by the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra (Vajrapani) he preaches Dharma by displaying the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra.”
He was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method by the monks themselves. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows the deity's vajra-club had by then been changed to a Chinese staff, which originally "served as the emblem of the monk". Vajrapani's Yaksha-like Narayana form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding "Kimnara Kings" from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to "Kimnara King". One of the many versions of a certain tale regarding his creation of the staff method takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion in the Yuan Dynasty. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realise that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise. Shahar notes the part of the kitchen worker might have been based on the actual life of the monk Huineng (638-713). In addition, he suggests the mythical elements of the tale were based on the fictional adventures of Sun Wukong from the classical novel Journey to the West. He compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.
Statues and paintings of Kimnara were commissioned in various halls throughout Shaolin in honour of his defeat of the Red Turban army. A wicker statue woven by the monks and featured in the center of the "Kimnara Hall" was mentioned in Cheng Zongyou's 17th century training manual Shaolin Staff Method. However, a century later, it was claimed that Kimnara had himself woven the statue. It was destroyed when the monastery was set aflame by Shi Yousan in 1928. A "rejuvenated religious cult" arose around Kimnara in the late twentieth century. Shaolin re-erected the shrine to him in 1984 and improved it in 2004.
The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is often popularly considered to be the creator of the monastery's arts. An example is provided by Wong Kiew Kit, who writes: "It was during this time that the Venerable Bodhidharma came from India to China to spread Buddhism. In 527 CE, he settled down in the Shaolin monastery in Henan province, and inspired the development of Shaolin Kung Fu. This marked a watershed in the history of Kung Fu, because it led to a change of course, as Kung Fu became institutionalised. Before this, martial arts were known only in general sense." Wong cites the "Sinew Metamorphosis" as being a qigong style that the Buddhist saint taught to the monks to strengthen their bodies. All of these claims, however, are generally not supported by martial arts historians because the idea of Bodhidharma influencing Shaolin boxing is based on a forged qigong manual written during the 17th century. This is when a Taoist with the pen name "Purple Coagulation Man of the Way" wrote the Sinews Changing Classic in 1624, but claimed to have discovered it. The first of two prefaces of the manual traces this qigong style's succession from Bodhidharma to the Chinese general Li Jing via "a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes." The work itself is full of anachronistic mistakes and even includes a popular character from Chinese fiction, the "Qiuran Ke" ("Bushy Bearded Hero)" (虬髯客), as a lineage master. Literati as far back as the Qing Dynasty have taken note of these mistakes. The scholar Ling Tinkang (1757–1809) described the author as an 'ignorant village master'."
Bodhidharma is traditionally said by Buddhists to have meditated at the temple and the important early Ch'an practitioner Shenhui locates it as the site at which Bodhidharma's disciple Hui-ke cut his own arm off to obtain the ineffable dharma. The collection of works attributed to Bodhidharma is called "The Six Gates of Shaoshi Collection" (少室六門集 Shǎoshì liùmén jí) Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 48, No. 2009 and consists of the six treatises or discourses of relatively brief but different lengths traditionally said to be authored by Bodhidharma. Each work is considered a gateway to the Buddhist dharma, making the "Six Gates" of the title. Shaoshi, the peak where Shaolin Temple is located on Mount Song, means "little hall" and thus the name of the peak becomes a play on words for the six gates or doors by which the reader may enter the little hall on Mount Song and find enlightenment. The actual authorship by Bodhidharma is disputed, but the Third Gate titled "Two Kinds of Entrances" (二種入) is considered by one of its translators, Red Pine (Bill Porter), to be the one most likely actually from Bodhidharma. That work is also found in the Buddhist Canon as a separate treatise with the longer title of "Great Master Bodhidharma’s Outline For Discerning the Mahayana and Entering the Way By Four Practices and Contemplation" (菩提達磨大師略辨大乘入道四行觀)Xuzangjing Vol. X63, No. 1217.