History of the Shaolin Temple

History of the Shaolin Temple


In China there is an ancient temple known as the Shaolin Temple. The name means Young or Small Forest and apparently when it was built almost 1200 years ago it was surrounded by a forest and on the side of the smaller peak of the Song Mountain. The Shaolin Temple is a Buddhist monastery. Buddhism has a long history in China, but it originally began in India. At first, the temple concentrated on translating texts from the Indian language of Sanskrit into Chinese.


Later a monk from India came to China. His  name was Bodhidharma, but the Chinese called him Ta MoTamo. He was a very exceptional person who had trained in Buddhism for many years and was very wise. Buddhist practice has many different types, but all hope to achieve Enlightenment a spiritual state of great insight and ability that was attained by the original Buddha. When Tamo arrived in China he had quite a few adventures, but couldn’t find any worthy students.  So, he went to the valley where the Shaolin monastery was. Then he went up into a cave and began waiting and meditating.

Tamo meditated by staring at the wall of the cave. He sat there for 9 years without moving and people gathered from all over to look in and hope that one day he would come out and teach them. His spiritual presence must have been quite extraordinary.

Staring at a Wall is Hard Work!

Shaolin_meditationWhen he emerged from the cave there were many people gathered. Tamo felt some of them were worthy of teaching so he began. What he taught them was to calm and clear their minds and stare at a wall. This is much harder work than most people would imagine, especially since they did it all day long. Most of the monks fell asleep and did not have the mental stamina and powers of concentration necessary. They were also too weak physically to sit that long. Therefore, he taught them a series of exercises known as the Yi Jin Jing, or Muscle Tendon Changing Classic, to strengthen them for meditation practice. These exercises were very effective and soon the monks had much more success with the other exercises and meditations that Tamo taught them.

The meditation method is now known as Chan in Chinese or Zen in Japanese. It builds enormous mental calmness and concentration. Chan or Zen is today very popular in many countries and there are countless people who practice it to improve themselves.

The Muscle Tendon Changing Classic

The Muscle Tendon Changing Classic also exists today. After 1200 years there is more than one yijinjing-muscle-tendon-changing-qigong-sifu-scott-jensen-san-rafael-10000-victories-Rachel Jensen-2variation of these famous exercises. However, they are all very healthy to practice and combine elements from Indian Yoga with Chinese Qigong.

The monks at the temple had a need to protect themselves from bandits and trouble makers. From the earliest days there were undoubtedly some martial arts practiced at the temple. For the Buddhist monks who are pacifists and vegetarians the thought of killing is unpleasant and against their vows. However, there is a long tradition of people staying at monasteries for short periods to rest and study and for people like politicians or military figures to retire there. These guests paid for their stays and this would help to fund the temples all over Asia. Certainly some were expert martial artists.

In any case the monks combined the Chan or Zen meditation with the Muscle Tendon Changing Qigong and the martial arts that currently existed and created something entirely new: Shaolin Kung Fu.

The history of the Shaolin Temple spans a truly long time for human beings, 1200 years.  During that time a lot must have happened. Unfortunately, few records exist today. So much of you might read is closer to legend or myth than historical fact. However myths and legends are often more powerful for motivating and guiding people than facts.

The Shaolin Temple Today

DENGFENG, CHINA - APRIL 6: A warrior monk of Shaolin Temple displays his kung fu skills outside the main hall of the temple on April 6, 2005 in Dengfeng, Henan Province, China. Shaolin Temple was built in AD 495 in the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581) and located in the Songshan Mountain area, is the birthplace of the Shaolin Kung Fu. Shaolin kung fu, with its incredible strength, vitality and flexibility, is expecting to be included in the UNESCO intangible heritage list. (Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

The Shaolin Temple does still exist today. The 20th century was very difficult for the Shaolin Temple. It was burnt to the ground in the 1920s and the monks dispersed. However, a few bravely rebuilt at least part of the temple. However, they were again killed or severely persecuted by Chairman Mao and the Communist Regime during the Cultural Revolution. By the 1980’s there were only a handful of battered monks left who have tried to keep it going. Today the Shaolin Temple is booming but it is more a tourist business and commercially oriented martial arts school and less a real monastery. However, times change and the temple will probably return to being more of a spiritual powerhouse as conditions in China change.

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  • Michael says:

    Well, I don’t know about all the martial arts and Shaolin Temple fighting styles. That was not my desire when reading this article. I an interested in learning about the path to Enlightenment and if it truly exists or not. As far as the fighting and all that goes that’s not my goal or my focus I would rather just learn how to achieve this so-called enlightenment or maybe inner peace.

    • Hi, Michael,

      The ultimate goal of classical Kung Fu IS to get enlightened. The modern Wushu showmanship they practice in Shaolin Temple these days will NOT get anyone on that path.

  • JD says:

    Are you people reading the article in its entirety or selectively choosing what you read? Have you been watching too many of Ranton’s embellished videos on YouTube?

    The article says: “Today the Shaolin Temple is booming but it is more a tourist business and commercially oriented martial arts school and less a real monastery. ”

    This means it is mutually exclusive and has no connection to the Shaolin temple of lore except in name and possibly location. If yo u think you are going to learn historical kung fu that Shaolin monks allegedly learned from Bodidharma , or mythical and magical fighting techniques used in rebellions that you see in kung fu movies you are sorely mistaken.

    What the so-called Shaolin monks do today is nothing more than repackaged sport wushu. One of the national sports of China. An embellished, ornate martial art taught for forms competition. You can learn the same stuff, and skip the ornate nonsense, by moving to anywhere with a large Chinese community, most often from Mainland China, and find a wushu school or club and learn the same type of stuff.

    Furthermore, the more fancy a martial art looks, the less effective it is in real combative or self-defence situations. Remember that. Do not be misled by fancy acrobatics, flying swords, and acrobatic movements. That stuff looks flashy and is certainly a lot of fun to do if you just want to do wushu forms competition but it’s going to get you nowhere if self-defence, or even mind/body coordination. If you want to learn an effective Chinese style combat sport then take up modern sanda (also called sanshou). If you want mind/body or something esoteric and aesthetic then take taichi, bagua, or hsing-yi. If yo uwant to be a total badass then take up MMA or subdisciplines of Thai kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, judo, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu which have all proven themselves effective against a real, resisting opponent.

    Don’t be fooled by kung fu movies, and phonies trying to push their YouTube channels like Ranton who is about as a real Shaolin disciple as Ralph Macchio is a karate sensei. DO YOUR RESEARCH before deciding to book a flight and go to some Shaolin monastery by name only.

    • Hi, Bent, You are right on! Shaolin Temple these days is just tourist trap! What Shaolin monks are practicing these days are just for shows. Not classical Kung Fu.

  • April Hardes says:

    I am 55 yrs Filipina by birth, Australian by choice and Trojan for life, I been divorce twice and have 4 children’s, they grown up already , My children left home to pursue their own fate, I am happy the path they chosen even though it cause me being alone which I choose it. I am not happy but I am not lonely, now my children is grown up and successfully successful and I don’t have nothing to be worried about them, I think this is the time for me to pursue my life that I am happy about, it was coincidental I read about Shaolin temple, I am not interested learning martial arts, I am more to learn in herbal medicine. I hope someone there might read this and give me some suggestions or ideas where to start, I am planning to visit China and India which to feed my curiosity regarding Buddhism.

  • kelly James Farr says:

    Hi there, to whom it may concern.
    I would love to visit the temple and if at all possible stay and train there for awhile. I am a canadian citizen currently and not sure exactly what i would have to do to visit……ie work visa, etc etc.
    From what i have seen i think if i visited, I would probably want to stay for as long as possible.
    Any suggestions, would be greatly appreciated.

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