The Legendary Shaolin Temple
One of the most recognized martial arts, which appears in movies and video games, is Shaolin Kung-fu. It is almost impossible not to recognize the Shaolin monks, with their bright orange or yellow uniforms, long wooden sticks and shaved heads.
But Shaolin history and culture go far beyond what we see in movies. The origin of this martial art and it’s ingrained spiritual dogma go back to the 5th century CE and its foundation stone is the legendary Shaolin temple, located in China. Join us on this brief journey into the past to discover the origins of Shaolin Kung-Fu and the whole Shaolin culture
A temple for Zen Buddhism
Around 464 CE, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma traveled to China to spread the principles of Nikaya Buddhism ( basic Zen Buddhism). It is said that this monk was once an Indian prince who had renounced his title for traveling the world, and he was qualified as a great sage, being recognized even by the Chinese emperors.
After 30 years living in China Bodhidharma had gathered great credibility and a considerable amount of disciples, and for this reason the Emperor Xiaowen ordered to build a temple on the north side of Shaoshi (the central peak of Mount Song, the seven Sacred Mountains of China) so that the monk could have a place to live and to continue preaching his dogma, staying as close as possible to Luoyang city (one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China) so that both the emperor and his faithful could go and learn from the monk everytime they needed.
At the time of building the monastery, many trees were cut down from the Shaoshi mountain, which were soon planted again around the temple. For this reason the temple received the name of "Shaolin", from Chinese Shàolínsì, which literally means “young forest temple”. So, the Shaolin Temple became the first home of Zen Buddhism in China.
Principles of Zen Buddhism
Zen Buddhism back then had the same principles it has now: It's all about achieving the elevation of oneself through constant meditation, the study of Buddha's teachings, and a rigorous self-control to apply all learning in daily life, in function to abandon selfishness and think in “the neighbor and nature before anything else”
So all the monks and apprentices who lived in the Shaolin Temple used to practice Zazen, which was long meditation exercises. When these exercises were completed it was necessary to oil the joints, exercise the muscles and activate the circulatory system, so it was necessary for the monks to develop a physical activity that, without separating them from their internalization, allowed them to develop their physical potential as much as they daily developed the mind and spirit. Have you figured out what emerged from this practice?? Yes, the Shaolin Kung Fu.
Origins of Shaolin Kung-fu
Around 519 CE the Master Ta Mo from the state of Liang arrived at the Shaolin Temple. He was skilled in the Chinese wrestling and in personal defense, and took the task of training all the monks in these techniques. Bodhidharma, who was facing the obvious need to offer physical activities to his disciples, took advantage of this opportunity to develop a martial art compatible with the principles of Zen Buddhism, and that is how the legendary Shaolin Kung-fu was shaped.
With this martial art, the monks developed resistance, flexibility, and balance, and improved all the physical skills related to combat maneuvers, which was essential to defend the temple from the usual attacks of bandits in search of possible riches that could be kept in there.
The benefits of martial art fused with Zen Buddhism resulted in a holistic art that promotes inner balance and prolongation of life, which is why Shaolin Kung Fu became a traditional Chinese activity and has spread throughout the world.
The Shaolin Temple is still recognized as the main school of Zen Buddhism, and the place where the world best Shaolin Kung Fu masters emerge. From now on, when you see a film and identify a Shaolin monk, you will also identify all the history, doctrines and humanistic principles behind that striking orange uniform.