The Shaolin Temple

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Title: The Shaolin Temple – A History and Evolution of Chinese Martial Arts, Zen Buddhism and the Shaolin Warrior Monks
Author: Ashley Croft
Publisher: Martial Arts Publishing Limited


Following five years of research and numerous trips to China and the Shaolin Temple, Ashley Croft has written a history of the Shaolin Temple and its world-renowned soldier monks. This has included speaking with the surviving Shaolin Monks, getting access to the most sacred parts of the temple and getting translations of inscriptions on stone tablets at the temple itself that are hundreds of years old. Ashley has also researched and had translated many Chinese documents not yet available to the wider world. This is a great read with many tales of heroic feats of the monks who have undoubtedly helped to shape the martial arts we practice today. The book can be ordered from all bookshops or online from Amazon.

The Shaolin Temple has a fascinating and intriguing past. It started with a small covered platform built at the base of the Songshan Mountains on the order of Emperor XiaowenEmperor Xiaowen for an Indian monk named BatuoBatuo, as a place for him to translate scriptures, and to spread the word of Buddhism. The year was 495.

It is known that the forest and region surrounding the temple was often plagued with bandits. Wild beasts such as tigers and bears are also known to have roamed freely. This is recorded on early stone tablets preserved at the temple. As a consequence some of the monks trained in martial arts to act as a protection force for the temple and its property. Records suggest this occurred almost as soon as the first stone was laid. BatuoBatuo´s early disciples are said to have been exponents of martial arts and were the founding fathers of a regiment of warrior monks that are known in Chinese as Seng Bing, meaning literally monk soldiers. The word seng means monk and bing soldier. Over time the warrior monks became an inseparable part of the temples culture and a national tradition that has continued throughout the temples 1500 year history.

Over time the monk soldiers were a combination of home grown martial artists who learnt and developed their fighting skills within the Shaolin Temple, and people who entered the temple already skilled in some form of fighting art. It is not hard to imagine that some of the monk soldiers were probably hired for their fighting skills and were in effect mercenaries similar to what occurred with the Knight Templar´s in medieval Europe in the 1300´s.

At times the martial art skills of the monk soldiers were used outside of the original protective remit. There are records of Shaolin monks’ engagement in battles across China in support of the ruling dynasty and on occasion as part of an orchestrated rebellion to remove the incumbent emperor and with the emperor the dynasty concerned.

The first of such recorded feats was as early as 621 when 13 Shaolin monks assisted Prince Li Shi MinLi Shi Min (who became Emperor TaizongEmperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty) in a decisive battle against the forces of a rival warlord Wang Shi CongWang Shi Cong. A contemporary record of this event is carved into a stone stele at the Shaolin Temple which names the 13 monks involved. To reward the assistance provided Li Shi Min gifted the Shaolin Temple with a watermill and land, and the monks themselves were offered official titles. This and many other martial feats that have been attributed to the Shaolin monks are described in detail within book. The book also provides a photographic journey through the temple and its main buildings.

There is more to the Shaolin Temple than its martial arts. What is not so well known is it was the birth place of Chinese Chan Buddhism which is more commonly known across the world as Zen. The creator of Chan Buddhism and therefore the first ancestor of the now widely practiced Zen sect was the Indian monk BodhidharmaBodhidharma (Da Mo in Chinese). Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple in 527 and legend states that on arrival he found that the monks in general were in a poor state of health and unable to cope with the long periods of meditation required when practicing his style of Buddhism. He reportedly climbed the Shaoshi peak and lived a hermitic life for nine years during which time he meditated and contemplated the dilemma. When he emerged he started to teach a series of exercises to the monks to help with the vigours of long periods of meditation. These exercises are thought to be the forerunner of Shaolin Qigong and are known as Shi Ba Louhan ShouShi Ba Louhan Shou (18-hands of arhat18-hands of arhat).

The Shaolin Temple has over the years occupied substantial tracts of land with satellite buildings being located as far as 3.5 km away from the main temple compound in the foothills of the Shaoshi peak. At one time the temple is reported to have had 1000 buildings and a curtilage covering 9.3 sq km of cultivated land. At its height the temple housed 1000 monks of which there were 500 monk soldiers. Its past has however been turbulent and its fate often at the whim of the incumbent emperor and the popularity of Buddhism at any given point in time. As a consequence the temple has frequently been attacked and on occasion destroyed by fire. The last attack was in 1928 when warlord Shi YousanShi Yousan led a contingent of his forces against the temple and almost totally destroyed it.

Despite these past attacks the temple has always been rebuilt and survived the test of time. The current temple has again been restored to close to its former glory and restoration work is still ongoing. There are many historical artefacts and relics still in situ that provide an invaluable insight into this amazing place. Anyone who has a serious interest in martial arts and the history and origin of the styles having roots in the Shaolin Temple will find it difficult not to be taken in by the temples story. Likewise anyone interested or following Chan / Zen Buddhism will be fascinated to learn of its history and how the Shaolin Temple played a significant role its development and spread across China, Japan, and Asia, and now the rest of the world.