Most of us have heard of the ‘Shaolin’, including those who have little interest in martial arts. Legends state that besides the Northern Shaolin Temple, there was also a Southern Shaolin Temple in the Fujian Province. However, there is no reliable proof of its existence.
Right from Bruce Lee to Kung Fu Panda to the spread of Buddhist philosophy, Shaolin has certainly played an integral role in our global culture. Here are some of the most surprising and exciting facts about the Shaolin.
1 – Kung Fu Did Not Come From Shaolin
Yes, you read it right! In China, it is said that all martial art forms originate from the Shaolin. However, this is not true. Apparently, there was no institutionalized combat training for many centuries after Shaolin was found. The monks never participated in the battles that created the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). There is no evidence to prove that they developed a unique form of martial arts.
Historians believed that the monks from the Tang Dynasty used the Tang weapons and were not skilled fighters. Early records from the Shaolin reveal that the monks specialized in fighting with a long staff, which was their signature weapon, during the 12th century.
Shaolin’s hand-to-hand combat started only around the 16th century. Kung Fu’s history can be traced back long before the Shaolin monastery was founded. The Spring and Autumn Annals, referred as hard and soft martial arts techniques were composed between the 800 to 500 BC and remain to stay as Kung Fu’s core philosophy even today.
By the time the Ming Dynasty established between 1368 to 1644 AD, when Shaolin got associated with martial arts, Kung Fu was already famous in China.
2 – It Was Started By An Indian
According to one of the legends, in 464 AD, a holy monk named Batuo or Buddhabhadra took the long and dangerous road from his native India to China to spread Buddhist teachings. After travelling all over China, he came upon the Shaolin monastery, (now Henan Province) and decided to stay there in a nearby cave. He then settled in the monastery on Mount Songshan where he started the Hinayana school of Buddhism.
The monks found it difficult to follow the Hinayana path as the monastery was relatively small. The Hinayana path was discarded after Indian monk Bodhidharma replaced it with the Chan (Zen) Buddhism, which is followed till date.
3 – It Helped Found An Imperial Dynasty
Shaolin stayed superior among the Chinese monasteries during the end of the Sui dynasty between 581 to 618 AD. The Sui united China, however, the unity was toppled by a series of revolts and the assassination of the emperor. Many noble houses started controlling the falling empire. Wang Shichong, a former Sui General, was one of the claimants who quickly occupied the Zheng territory.
Shichong built a signal tower and military encampment at Mount Huanyuan to strengthen his hold over the city of Luoyang. He built the signal tower and the army camp on the piece of land that was given to the Shaolin by Emperor Wen of Sui. Shichong feared that the monks would rebel against him and he sent an army to lay siege to Shaolin itself.
The monks joined hands with Shichong’s rival Li Yuan to offer a counterattack. Li Yuan eventually became the founder of the Tang dynasty. Li Yuan’s son, Prince Li Shimin was sent to help the monks and attack Luoyang. Li Shimin, along with the monks removed Wang Shichong’s army from Mount Huanyuan. Shichong surrendered, and the Tang dynasty consolidated its hold over China which they ruled until 907 AD.
4 – The Shaolin Werewolf
Tai Djin, born in 1849 in China’s Fukien Providence, suffered a rare genetic condition called hyperthrihos, where his entire body was covered in thick hair. His strange appearance prompted his parents, who thought they gave birth to demon, to abandon him as an infant in a nearby forest. Little did they realize their child would become a kung fu master because, as luck would have it, a wandering Shaolin monk found the small boy and took him back the temple where the masters decided to raise him as one of their own.
Djin began his kung fu training at a very early age, spending all of his time with the temple’s masters. He set about learning all of the various techniques presented by the warrior monks such as tumbling, forms, strength training and sparing. The young boy was so dedicated to his craft that the masters allowed him to train in every aspect of Shaolin, highly unusual since most monks only trained in one very specific fighting style. Djin quickly mastered over 200 empty-hand Shaolin styles and became an expert in over 140 weapons.
As the years went on Djin’s skills increased, Djin eventually became Grandmaster of Fukien, or the temple’s chief teacher and representative. It was around this time that Djin’s fighting skills started to come in handy. As legend has it, Djin once held a meeting with the 11 other Shaolin masters from across China. When he entered the room, the other masters stood and bowed. However, instead of returning the bow, Djin launched a dagger straight into the ceiling, killing a would-be assassin. When asked how he knew the assassin was there, Djin said that he could hear the breathing of 12 people when he should have only heard 11.
It is not clear whether Djin was associated with the Shaolin or did he even exist. The legend continues to inspire the aspiring martial artists till date.
5 – Shaolin and the Star Wars
According to George Lucas, the famous American filmmaker, the Shaolin monks are a perfect inspiration for his films like Star Wars and the Jedi Knights. Every living thing has an all-encompassing force within itself which is compared to the concept of the Chi legend. The Shaolin monks credited their superhuman prowess to the manipulation and the control of the Chi, just like the Force and Jedi.
Jedi’s lightsaber fighting style is similar to the acrobatic techniques used by the monks when they use their staffs or double-edged swords. Jedi’s belief in semi-pacifism or of using force only when needed, abstinence from earthly pleasures and emotional detachment reflect Buddhist beliefs. In fact, Jedi’s Order’s backstory and the Shaolin Temple’s history share many similarities.
Jedi’s power struggle with the Jedi Order and Emperor Palpatine is same as Shaolin’s conflict with the Qing dynasty emperors. Anakin Skywalker is ordered to attack the Jedi Temple by Palpatine in the Revenge of the Sith and kill the young trainers. Similarly, the Qing emperor ordered the destruction of the Shaolin temple and massacre of its inhabitants, including the kids.
6 – Shaolin and the Japanese Pirates
The Shaolin monks were often sent to fight for China owing to their developed combat skills. One of the major threats to China was the ferocious Wokou, the dwarf pirates from Japan. In early 16th century, many coastal towns in China were frequently ravaged by these pirates. Trade suffered immensely, and people started fleeing from coastal areas.
In 1553, the Wokou attacked the port city of Hangzhou. Many people died, and thousands were left homeless. Finally, the Ming court sent 120 elite warrior monks to end the pirate menace. With Tianzheng and Tianchi as the generals, the monks headed to Wokou to destroy the pirates. The pirates were not easy to defeat as the monks thought. They fought four major battles and finally at the Battle of Wengjiagang, the monks defeated the pirates.
7 – The Shaolin God
The Shaolin monks adore and venerate a godlike being called Bodhisattva Vajrapani. Just like the Christian saints, many legends are surrounding Vajrapani, including the one about how he saved a young monk from the bullies.
According to the legend, a monk named Sengchou was constantly bullied by his fellow monks. Sengchou could not tolerate the abuse, and he sought divine help to end the torment. He went to the temple and prayed to Vajrapani for six days and six nights with no food or water. Finally, on the sixth night, the God appeared before him and offered the monk a huge bowl of hot meat.
Monks are not supposed to eat meat, and the lad was horrified by the god’s orders. Annoyed by the monk’s reaction, Vajrapani took out his knife to force the meat into Sengchou’s throat. The monk tried to puke it out, but Vajrapani threatened to beat him unless he cooperates. Terrified of the god’s anger, the monk swallowed the meat quickly.
On returning to his dormitory, he was accosted by the bullies. But to everyone’s surprise, Sengchou displayed unusual physical strength and combat skills and defeated the bullies. Sengchou’s expertise and strength were attributed to Vajrapani’s bowl of meat
8 – It Isn’t The Only Order Of Warrior Monks
Shaolin does not hold a monopoly over the warrior monk business. In fact, it was not even the first monastery to have fighting monks. Years before the Shaolin came into being; other Chinese Buddhist monasteries were storing weapons and practicing martial arts. Shaolin, on the contrary, was built as a peaceful center of learning. Only after the arrival of Bodhidharma during the 5th or 6th century AD, the Shaolin monks began practicing fighting skills.
9 – Mythical Origin Of Tea
There are many myths and legends surrounding the source of tea, China’s favorite beverage. The legend states that many years after the Shaolin Temple was founded, Bodhidharma demonstrated intense devotion by meditating with his eyes wide open for nine years without food or water against a cold stone wall.
After many years, Bodhidharma decided to repeat this feat. However, he would find himself sleeping in the middle of the meditation. Angered by his lack of discipline, he cut off his eyelids so that he doesn’t succumb to the temptation of sleep. However, a plant sprang out from the ground where his eyelids fell. The plant’s leaves helped him stay awake, and the tea bush made its debut. The legend summarizes the reason behind why the dried tea leaves resemble withered eyelids.
10 – The Jieba
Most often, the Shaolin monks are depicted with nine round dots on their forehead. The dots are called as the Jieba or sacred marks placed by the monk’s master to signify the completion of his training. Each dot signifies the fundamental rules of conduct that each monk is supposed to follow.
Unfortunately, the Jieba was banned recently. The Jieba ceremony is elaborate and involves a month of intense meditation and physical conditioning. At the end of the ceremony, nine incense sticks are affixed on top of the head with a paste. The incense sticks are allowed to burn the skin of the scalp is entirely black.
In 2007, the Chinese government decided to lift the ban partially. Out of more than 100 monks, only 43 have received the Jieba branding ceremony. Till date, only one Westerner, Franco Testini, also called as Shi Yan Fan has been given the Jieba and runs an affiliated temple in California.