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Shaolin Monastery
Main gate of the Shaolin Monastery
Mountain Name Mount Song
Founded 477 AD
Address Dengfeng, Henan
Country China
Coordinates Coordinates: 34°30′01″N 112°54′56″E / 34.50028°N 112.91556°E / 34.50028; 112.91556
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The Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Temple (Chinese: 少林寺; ||pinyin]]: Shàolín Sì) is a Chán Buddhist temple at Song Shan near Zhengzhou City Henan Province in Dengfeng, China. It is led by abbot Venerable abbot Shi Yǒngxìn. Founded in the 5th century, the monastery is long famous for its association with Chinese martial arts and particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu, and it is the Mahayana Buddhist monastery perhaps best known to the Western world.[1]


The Pagoda forest (close view), located about 300 meters west of the Shaolin Monastery in Henan.

The shào () in "Shaolin" refers to "Mount Shaoshi", a mountain in the Songshan mountain range and lín () means "forest". With (), the name literally means "monastery/temple in the woods of Mount Shaoshi".

Others, such as the late master Chang Dsu Yao[2] translate "Shaolin" as "young (new) Forest"or sometimes translated as "little forest".

Early history

The first Shaolin Monastery abbot was Batuo, also called Fotuo or Bhadra (the Chinese translation for Buddha), an Indian dhyana master who came to China from India in AD 464 to spread Buddhist teachings.[3]

According to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (AD 645) by Dàoxuān, the Shaolin Monastery was built on the north side of Shaoshi, the western peak of Mount Song, one of the four Sacred Mountains of China, by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty in AD 477. Yang Xuanzhi, in the Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (AD 547), and Li Xian, in the Ming Yitongzhi (AD 1461), concur with Daoxuan's location and attribution. The Jiaqing Chongxiu Yitongzhi (AD 1843) specifies that this monastery, located in the province of Henan, was built in the 20th year of theTàihé era of the Northern Wei Dynasty, that is, the monastery was built in AD 497.

Kangxi, the second Qing emperor, was a supporter of the Shaolin temple in Henan and he wrote the calligraphic inscriptions that, to this day, hang over the Heavenly King Hall and the Buddha Hall.[4]


The Pagoda forest (wide view).

The monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1641 the troops of anti-Ming rebel Li Zicheng sacked the monastery due to the monks' support of the Ming and the possible threat they posed to the rebels. This effectively destroyed the temple's fighting force.[5]

Perhaps the best-known story of the Temple's destruction is that it was destroyed by the Qing government for supposed anti-Qing activities. Variously said to have taken place in 1647 under the Shunzhi Emperor, in 1674 under the Kangxi Emperor, or in 1732 under the Yongzheng Emperor, this destruction is also supposed to have helped spread Shaolin martial arts through China by means of the five fugitive monks Ng Mui, Jee Shin Shim Shee, Fung Doe Duk, Miu Hin and Bak Mei. Some accounts claim that a supposed southern Shaolin Temple was destroyed instead of, or in addition to, the temple in Henan: Ju Ke, in the Qing bai lei chao (1917), locates this temple in Fujian Province. This account states that Ming loyalists infiltrated the Southern Temple to disseminate anti-Qing ideology[6] and that the Qing Emperor himself infiltrated the Southern Temple to learn Shaolin Kung Fu.[7] Tibetan Lamas were said to have aided Yongzheng Emperor's army in razing the Temple with a deadly flying weapon known as "Huit Tik Tze"[8] or a Flying guillotine. These stories commonly appear in martial arts history, fiction, and cinema.

While these latter accounts are common among martial artists, and often serve as origin stories for various martial arts styles, their accuracy is questionable. The accounts are known through often inconsistent 19th-century secret society histories and popular literature, and also appear to draw on both Fujianese folklore and popular narratives such as the Water Margin. Modern scholarly attention to the tales is mainly concerned with their role as folklore, or as clues to the history of secret societies or possible southern Shaolin temples.[9][10]

Recent history

A painting on a wall in the temple.

There is evidence of Shaolin martial arts techniques being exported to Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Okinawan Shōrin-ryū karate (小林流), for example, has a name meaning "Small [Shao]lin".[11] Other similarities can be seen in centuries-old Chinese and Japanese martial arts manuals.[12]

In 1928, the warlord Shi Yousan set fire to the monastery, burning it for over 40 days, destroying 90% of the buildings including many manuscripts of the temple library.[13]

The Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 targeted religious orders including the Monastery. The five monks who were present at the Monastery when the Red Guard attacked were shackled and made to wear placards declaring the crimes charged against them.[13] The monks were jailed after being flogged publicly and parading through the street as people threw rubbish at them.[13] The government purged Buddhist materials from within the Monastery walls, leaving it barren for years.

Martial arts groups from all over the world have made donations for the upkeep of the temple and grounds, and are subsequently honored with carved stones near the entrance of the temple.

In the past, many people have tried to capitalize on the Shaolin Monastery by building their own schools on Mount Song. However, the Chinese government eventually outlawed this, and so the schools all moved to the nearby towns, such as Dengfeng (登封).

A Dharma gathering was held between August 19 and 20, 1999, in the Shaolin Monastery, Songshan, China, for Buddhist Master Shi Yongxin to take office as abbot. He is the thirteenth successor after Buddhist abbot Xue Ting Fu Yu. In March 2006 Vladimir Putin of Russia became the first foreign leader to visit the monastery.

Two luxury bathrooms were recently added to the temple for use by monks and tourists. The new bathrooms reportedly cost three million yuan.[14]

Patron saint

In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Tel Aviv University Prof. Meir Shahar notes the Bodhisattva Vajrapani is the patron saint of the Shaolin Monastery. A short story appearing in Zhang Zhuo's (660-741) Tang anthology shows how the deity had been venerated in the Monastery from at least the eighth century. It is an anecdotal story of how the Shaolin monk Sengchou (480-560) gained supernatural strength and fighting ability by praying to Vajrapani and being force-fed raw meat.[15] Shaolin abbot Zuduan (1115-1167) erected a stele in his honor during the Song Dynasty.[16] It reads:


1517 stele dedicated to Narayana's defeat of the Red Turban rebels. Guanyin (his original form) can be seen in the clouds above his head.

According to the scripture [Lotus Sutra], this deity (Narayana) is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin).[17][18] If a person who compassionately nourishes all living beings employs this [deity's] charm, it will increase his body's strength (zengzhang shen li). It fulfills all vows, being most efficacious. ... Therefore those who study Narayana's hand-symbolism (mudra), those who seek his spell (mantra), and those who search for his image are numerous. Thus we have erected this stele to spread this transmission.[19]
Stele re-erected (chong shang) by Shaolin's abbot Zuduan

Instead of being considered a stand-alone deity, Shaolin believes Vajrapani to be an emanation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. The Chinese scholar A'De noted this was because the Lotus Sutra says Guanyin takes on the visage of whatever being that would best help pervade the dharma. The exact Lotus Sutra passage reads: “To those who can be conveyed to deliverance by the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra (Vajrapani) he preaches Dharma by displaying the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra.”[20]

He was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method by the monks themselves. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows the deity's vajra-club had by then been changed to a Chinese staff,[21] which originally "served as the emblem of the monk".[22] Vajrapani's Yaksha-like Narayana form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding "Kimnara Kings" from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to "Kimnara King".[23] One of the many versions of a certain tale regarding his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty's Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise.[24] Shahar notes the part of the kitchen worker might have been based on the actual life of the monk Huineng (638-713).[25] In addition, he suggests the mythical elements of the tale were based on the fictional adventures of Sun Wukong from the Chinese epic Journey to the West. He compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.[26]

Statues and paintings of Kimnara were commissioned in various halls throughout Shaolin in honor of his defeat of the Red Turban army. A wicker statue woven by the monks and featured in the center of the "Kimnara Hall" was mentioned in Cheng Zongyou's seventeenth century training manual Shaolin Staff Method. However, a century later, it was claimed that Kimnara had himself woven the statue. It was destroyed when the monastery was set aflame by the KMT General Shi Yousan in 1928. A "rejuvenated religious cult" arose around Kimnara in the late twentieth century. Shaolin re-erected the shrine to him in 1984 and improved it in 2004.[27]

The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma erroneously came to be known as the creator of the monastery's arts. This occurred when a Taoist with the pen name "Purple Coagulation Man of the Way" wrote the Sinews Changing Classic in 1624, but claimed to have discovered it. The first of two prefaces of the manual traces this qigong style's succession from Bodhidharma to the Chinese general Li Jing via "a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes."[28] Scholars damn the work as a forgery because of its numerous anachronistic mistakes and the fact that popular fictional characters from Chinese literature, including the "Bushy Bearded Hero" (虬髯客), are listed as lineage masters.[29] In fact, Ling Tinkang (1757-1809), a scholar of the Qing Dynasty, described the author as an 'ignorant village master'."[30]

See also

  • Mudra
  • Shaolin Sect
  • Wudangquan
  • Yue Fei
  • Zhou Tong (archer)


  1. Shahar, Meir (December 2001). "Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61 (2): 359–413. doi:10.2307/3558572. ISSN 0073-0548. 
  2. Chang Dsu Yao-Roberto Fassi; Enciclopedia del Kung-Fu Shaolin; 1993; Hardcover 128 Pages ISBN 8827200169 ISBN 9788827200162; example,
  3. Order of the Shaolin Ch'an (2004, 2006) The Shaolin Grandmaster's Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch'an. Oregon.
  4. Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008 (ISBN 0824831101), p. 190
  5. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, pp. 185-188
  6. Cheong, Jack ; Origins of Chinese martial arts; Asiapac Books Pte Ltd, 2002;ISBN 9812292683; example Google Books Search
  7. Kit, Wong Kiew; The art of shaolin kung fu: the secrets of kung fu for self-defense health and enlightenment; Tuttle Publishing, 2002; ISBN 0804834393; example Google Books Search
  8. "Shaolin Wahnam History & Lineage". 
  9. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, pp. 183-185
  10. Kennedy, Brain and Elizabeth Guo, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2005 (ISBN 1-55643-557-6), p. 70
  11. Bishop, Mark (1989). Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques. A&C Black, London. ISBN 0713656662. 
  12. Leff, Norman. Martial Arts Legends (magazine). “Atemi Waza”, CFW Enterprises, April 1999.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Gene Ching., Bak Sil Lum vs. Shaolin Temple].
  14. Jiang Yuxia., Luxurious toilets debut in Shaolin Temple. Xinhua. 8 April 2008.
  15. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, pp. 35-36
  16. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 40
  17. This usage of Narayana is not to be confused with one of the many names of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  18. Instead of being a stand alone Bodhisattva, Shaolin considers him to be an emanation of Guanyin.
  19. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 42
  20. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 85
  21. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 84
  22. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 102
  23. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 87
  24. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, pp. 87-88
  25. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery
  26. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 109
  27. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 88
  28. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 165
  29. For a brief synopsis of this character's tale, see Liu, James J.Y. The Chinese Knight Errant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967 (ISBN 0-2264-8688-5), pp. 87-88
  30. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 168