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The Shaolin order dates to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese), traveled to China to see the Emperor. At that time, the Emperor had started local Buddhist monks translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. The intent was to allow the general population the ability to practice the Chan religion.

This was a noble project, but when the Emperor believed this to be his path to Nirvana, Tamo disagreed. Tamo’s view on Buddhism was that you could not achieve your goal just through good actions performed by others in your name. At this point the Emperor and Tamo parted ways and Tamo traveled to the nearby Buddhist temple to meet with the monks who were translating these Buddhist texts.

The temple had been built years before in the remains of a forest that had been cleared or burned down. At the time of the building of the temple, the emperor’s gardeners had also planted new trees. Thus the temple was named “young (or new) forest”, (Shaolin in Mandarin, Sil Lum in Cantonese).

When Tamo arrived at the temple, he was refused admittance. Rejected by the monks, Tamo went to a nearby cave and meditated until the monks recognized his religious prowess and admitted him.

At the time that Tamo joined the monks, he observed that they were not in good physical condition. Everyday they spent hours transcribing sitting and transcribing handwritten texts. Consequently, the Shaolin monks lacked the physical and mental stamina needed to perform even the most basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises, designed to both enhance chi flow and build strength. These forms based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake, dragon, etc.), were the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.

It is hard to say just when the exercises became “martial arts”. The Shaolin temple was in a secluded area where bandits would have traveled and wild animals were an occasional problem, so the martial side of the temple probably started out to fulfill self-defense needs. After a while, these movements were codified into a system of self-defense.

As time went on, this Buddhist sect became more and more distinct because of the martial arts being studied. This is not to say that Tamo “invented” martial arts. Martial arts had existed in China for centuries. But within confines of the temple, it was possible to develop and codify these martial arts into the new and different styles that would become distinctly Shaolin. One of the problems faced by many western historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of non-violence coupled with Shaolin’s legendary martial skills. In fact, the Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she dispatch the most devastating defenses in any situation. Rather, the study of kung fu leads to better understanding of violence, and consequently how to avoid conflict.

The Shaolin philosophy is one that started from Buddhism and later adopted many Taoist principles to become a new sect. Although a temple may have been Taoist or Buddhist at first, once it became Shaolin, it was a member of a new order integrating the common Chinese philosophies of the time.

Other temples were established from Henan.  This happened because the original temple would suffer repeated attacks and periods of inactivity as the reigning Imperial and regional leaders feared the martial powers of the independent-minded monks.

The Boxer rebellion in 1901 was the beginning of the end of the Shaolin temples. Combined with the antipathy by the Chinese for their Empress, a Nationalist movement was born known as Boxers.  Though their initial assaults on the military powers of the occupation governments were not entirely successful, their temporary defeat would lead to a more modern reformed China.

 

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