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Shaolin History

By Master Shawn Liu

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 A.D. during the 19th Beiwei Dynasty, by Bada, a Buddhist Monk from India, who came to China in 464 to preach Buddhism. Bada's sincerity persuaded the Buddhist Emperor, Xiaowen, to build a temple in the Shao mountain forest in the Song Mountains. The temple was named after the mountain and the forest - Shao Shi Shan Lin meaning "Young Forest".

That was not only the beginning of Shaolin Temple, but also the beginning of Shaolin Kungfu. As the history of the Temple unfolds, there go many stories of the two famous early marital arts monks: Hui Guang and Seng Chou. Both of them were disciples of Bada. Hui Guang was brought to the Temple by Bada on one occasion when he was passing by Tian Street, in Luoyang seeing a boy of about 12 years kicking a shuttlecock around a well for over 500 times without a pause.

Seng Chou was not only famous for his spirituality and Chan enlightenment but as a monk capable of leaping onto roofs and walking along narrow walls without difficulty. His hands and legs possessed such a great power that he would often break rocks without using any tools when he needed the rocks to repair the front door stairs of his residence. He is most famous for breaking tigers' fights.

Bodhidharma came to the Temple in 527 A.D. in the third year of Emperor Xiaochang. Bodhidharma, the 28th-Dharma successor in the direct line of patriarchs descending from the original founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha, traveled to China in the old Liang capital of Nanjing. He took up residence in a cave in the middle o the Five Breasts Peaks. There he stayed facing the cave wall, meditating and studying for nine years.

It was said that during this period Bodhidharma reached enlightenment and from it developed a new sect of Buddhism known as Chan Buddhism. The sixth Buddhist patriarch of China, Master Hui Neng, and others refined and documented Chan Buddhism so that it spread throughout China. Chan Buddhism eventually migrated to Japan and became known there as Zen Buddhism.

Shaolin Gongfu's fame came out of the fame of the Temple, of which stood out in the world of Chan (Zen) Buddhist religion due to the magnificent Gongfu. In the beginning of the Temple, my early ancestors and great grandmasters practiced moving Qigong and other vigorous exercise to balance Yin and Yang energies in need. These early forms of exercises included Luohan 18 Postures, Soft Boxing, 8 Silk Brocades, and Longevity Boxing which later became today's Kungfu not only for self-defense, but also for the battlefields.

Since I was a child, my Shifu, Upper Su and Lower Xi, always told me that Shaolin Gongfu is part of Shaolin Chan, which is part of the Shaolin Temple. I did not comprehend the idea until many years later when it suddenly dawned on me the enlightenment of self-realization. Nature mingled with nature and Buddha - there comes nothingness. Chan is the integration of Taoism and Buddhism, which is the integral part of Shaolin Gongfu.

Since it's birth, there were many stories about the Temple handing down from generations to generations. Possibly the most famous story is depicted in the movie "Shaolin Temple". During the late Shui Dynasty, thirteen (13) monk warriors managed to capture the most powerful General and saved the new Dynasty's Emperor.

However, the stories about the Temple are not all pleasant. The Shaolin Temple, as the mother of many offspring, has stood like a seaworthy and storm worthy bastion of spiritual value in a sea of change. He has suffered many vicissitudes, having been demolished and rebuilt many times since his birth. Perhaps the worst disaster to befall the Temple was in 1928 when it was attacked and burned by the warlord Shi Sanyou and his huge army. Forty-eight volumes of the Shaolin Gongfu Encyclopedia were burned, along with Shaolin Battlefield Documents, and the Shaolin Medical Encyclopedia. The Temple burned for forty days, scattering masters and monks all over the countryside. Shaolin Gongfu suffered along with the fortunes of the Temple. It was not until the 1980s when the Shaolin Temple was rebuilt but other functions were still to be rebuilt.

During the late Qing Dynasty, Shaolin martial arts were not allowed to be practiced. Shaolin monks were forced to practice at night in closed doors, which evidenced by many holes in one practicing room, and some of the great martial monks went to the southern parts of China. At this period, southern styles were modified and many new forms were developed, such as Flying Whip, Iron Palm, Fire Cane, Tornado Whip, Xuan Hua Ax, and so on. The southern migration eventually spread throughout South Asia, then the rest of the world. Many popular styles in the United States today like Hongquan (Hung Guar), Yonchunquan (Wing Chun) were developed from the Shaolin system during this period.

Since the early 1300s, the Japanese monk named Dazhi came to study Chan Buddhism and Shaolin Gongfu at the Shaolin Temple and later taught Shaolin Gongfu to many Japanese.

In 1379, the Japanese monk Shaoyuan studied in the Temple and later taught Shaolin Gongfu to the Japanese and was regarded by his people as the Soul of Japan. During the reign of Wanli of the Ming Dynasty, Chen Yuanzhe, a disciple of the Shaolin Temple, spread Shaolin Gongfu throughout Japan. These early "China Hands", as the Japanese called them, brought about the origin of Karate.

In the 1930s, Zhong Daochang of Japan went to the Shaolin Temple to study Shaolin Gongfu and later established the largest martial arts organization in Japan, known as Shaoringji Kempo. Today there are thousands of Shaolin schools on five continents.

If Chinese Martial Arts is the crystallization of Chinese practical knowledge and wisdom, Shaolin Gongfu is the essence of traditional Gongfu the bright pearl of Wushu and Kungfu today. Its profound origins and subtle skills command reverence among martial artists throughout the world. The Shaolin School absorbed the best martial arts techniques from all schools throughout China.