"In some histories, the legend is as important as the facts."

The history of the Shaolin Temple is as much the history of an idea as it is the history of a building and its occupants. It’s an idea which the current abbot, Shi Yong Xin, has recently been trying to reclaim. In 1994 he registered ‘Shaolin’ and ‘Shaolin Temple’ as trademarks and set up a company to manage the intellectual property rights. Indeed in modern days the temple has aggressively defended its copyright and its image. For instance, in August 2007 a representative of the temple demanded an apology from an internet user who claimed that a Japanese ninja had defeated Shaolin monks in unarmed combat.

The Olympic chief, Jacques Rogge, and other VIP's are  just some of the foreign dignitaries who have made official visits to the monastery. However, it only in recent times that the Shaolin Temple, in Henan province in southern China, has enjoyed this kind of official status. In the 1980s the Chinese government restored the monastery and began to celebrate this symbol of its heritage. It is perhaps fair to say that the temple owed its revival to the impact of popular culture. Jet Li’s 1982 film, called the ‘Shaolin Temple,’ was shot on location and its great success helped to spread the name. The Seventies had already seen Bruce Lee and the television series ‘Kung Fu’ stamp the legend of Shaolin into popular consciousness.

Until its modern renaissance, the golden age of the monastery has been said to have been during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Thirteen warrior monks assisted the emperor and as a result Shaolin was designated as the ‘Supreme Temple.’ Much of the history of the monastery is intertwined with its myth. The Shaolin Temple has been hailed as the cradle of the martial arts, often by its own teachers. This could just be a means of describing a great institution, rather than the more implausible claim that it originated kung fu or organised martial schools.

Bodhidharma, or Da Mo, is said to have been an Indian prince who became a Buddhist monk and travelled to the Shaolin Temple in 527 AD. Among the legends associated with this character are that he crossed the Yangtze river on a reed (or small boat) and meditated in a cave for nine years before entering the monastery. The cave is a venerated site near the temple to this day. He is reputed to have found the monks to be too weak to practise mediation and so, in order to keep them strong, taught them external exercises, known as Eighteen Lohan Hands, and taught them internal forms, known as the Classic of Sinew Metamorphoses, to keep them healthy.

The Shaolin Temple is said to have been founded earlier, in 495 AD, by another Buddhist monk, Ba Tuo, with the support of the Emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Situated at the Song Mountain, the Central Sacred Mountain, the temple was frequented by generals and Emperors. It is likely that retired soldiers were among the monks in the temple. It is probable that martial arts were known and even practised at the temple throughout its history. But the unique aspect of Shaolin culture is the combination of martial training with Chan (the Chinese equivalent of Zen) Buddhism. The art of combat was sublimated into the monks’ spiritual development. This violence is captured in a moral framework. The monks could not kill or use certain forbidden techniques. The skill is refined and the training becomes part of the practitioner’s progress into the Chan discipline.

Shaolin Kung Fu

In the practice of Shaolin kung fu there is one central idea to enable the students to be successful and that is the need to understand that Ch'an Buddhism is at it's heart. Other schools of martial arts do not have this spiritual centre. Ch'an Buddhism is the propelling force behind Shaolin kung fu.