At the foot of Sung Shan (Sung Mountain), built approximately 495 AD, lies Shaolin Ssu (Young Forest Temple), the Shaolin Temple. It was once the largest Buddhist monastery in all of China. It’s red brick walls surround large pagodas and other buildings consisting of training halls, meditation halls, libraries, dormitories, kitchens, and other buildings used for everyday life. At the time, only priests or the wealthy were allowed to become educated. The monks were well trained in reading, writing, medicine, the sciences, and philosophy. Being Buddhist, and respecting all life, they also had a peculiar understanding of nature and how it survived.
The Legend Begins
It was in the sixth century (approximately 520 AD) that Ta Mo, known as Bodhidharma in India, crossed the Himalayas and made his way to the Shao-Lin Temple. He was an Indian prince that gave up all his wealth to travel, spreading the knowledge of Ch’an Buddhism. When he came to the Shao-Lin temple he was not well received by the head abbot and was not allowed to enter. So he took shelter in a near by cave behind the temple in Sung Mountain. There he lived for 9 years. Legend states that he meditated for those 9 years until the abbot allowed him entry to the temple.
When Bodhidharma walked through the temple he was amazed at how frail and unfit the monks were. There was no way he was going to be able to teach them the way of Ch’an meditation in the condition they were in. So he created a set of 49 exercises called the “I (ee) Chin Ching”, (Muscle Tendon Change). These exercises are very similar to yoga in which they strengthen the body and help it become more flexible by placing more emphasis on the dynamic tension and deep breathing with each movement. At first, the monks didn’t take to kindly to Bodhidharma and his exercise. But overtime they started seeing the benefits and had under gone a change, both physically and mentally. They had more energy and their bodies became stronger. Soon after, they started seeking other way to exercise. They found a great benefit in learning how to defend themselves. For many years the temple had been an easy mark for bandits and thieves. So the monks, being educated, looked to nature and how animals would survive. Legend also states that the Shaolin monks hired instructors to teach them self defense skills. Many of these were retired military that were willing to train the monks for a place to live in peace. With determination and focus the monks grew stronger. Learning, collecting and developing different forms and styles of fighting arts. Thus, the legend of the Shaolin Fighting Monks was born!
Throughout history, the Temple became more of a way of life than it was a collection of buildings. The Temple had been burned and rebuilt many times, but the idea never died. It lives on through the lives of each practitioner whom it has influenced.
It is important to understand that Shao-Lin Kung Fu is not a religious practice. It did originat in Buddhist and Taoist temples, but the religious aspects were divorced from the martial arts at the temples. The Buddhist or Taoist teachings brought together a moral code of ethics to the martial arts. The use of force should always be considered a last resort, to be used only in the defense of oneself or of another.
Shao-Lin Kung Fu still exists today, over fifteen hundred years after Ta Mo’s arrival at the Shao-Lin Ssu. His 49 postures of the I Chin Ching and much of the subsequent material has survived. The Shao-Lin Art has prevailed despite various attempts to eradicate it. The Shao-Lin Monastery is still standing and allows visitors, as does the cave where Ta Mo meditated for nine years.