Shaolin Monastery Buddhism

Shaolin Monastery

Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Temple (Chinese: 少林寺; pinyin: shàolín sì) is a Chan Buddhist temple located on Song Mountain in Henan Province, China.

Founded in the fifth century, the monastery has long been famous for its association with Chinese martial arts, particularly Shaolin kung fu. To the Western world, it is perhaps the best known Buddhist monastery.

The monastery is led by Abbot Shi Yongxin. The martial education of the monks is led by Abbot Shi Yanlu. People from all over the world learn kung fu at Shaolin Temple. Although they can practice and learn on site, foreigners cannot live in the temple and have to pay for their training.


The term Shaolin is formed from 少, shào, "young", which refers to shàoshi, the name of one of the mountains in the Song Mountain range.

Some French-speaking authors sometimes translate Shaolin, literally, as "young forest".


The history of the monastery, its political and military implications, and its major role in the emergence of modern martial arts are linked to numerous legends forged over the centuries.

Transmitted by ancient manuscripts, these legends are still very much alive in the culture of martial arts practitioners, despite contemporary historical studies and archaeological discoveries.

Foundation of the monastery

Shaolin Monastery was built at the end of the 5th century, in honor of the Indian monk Batuo who had been preaching Theravāda Buddhism in China since 464 and became the first patriarch of the monastery.

In the year 477, according to Daoxuan's The Biographies of Eminent Monks (645), which locates this temple on the north face of Shaoshi and credits Emperor Xiaowendi with the origin of its construction.

The Register of Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (747) by Yang Xuanzhi, and the Ming Yotonhzhi (1461) by Li Xian confirm this location and attribution. But it is the year 497 that is retained in the Jiaqing Chongxiu Yitongzhi (1843).

Chan Buddhism and martial arts

According to the legend, the Indian monk Bodhidharma (?-536?) arrived at the monastery and developed the teaching of Chan Buddhism, as well as a martial practice by the monks (Shaolin quan) to help them defend themselves from animals and brigands.

Academic research criticizes this legend from the eighteenth century. The historical existence of an Indian or Persian missionary who came to China around 480 and spread Buddhist teachings in the Luoyang region until 520 is generally accepted.

Nevertheless, most historians consider the attribution of Bodhidharma as the Chan founder to be false, and the first mentions of this attribution in documents are later than the tenth century.

"Through a prolonged and dynamic process of development and exchange, Buddhism integrated concepts from Confucianism and Taoism into its doctrines, and eventually transformed itself into a new orthodoxy known as Chan."
- Shi Yongxin, senior abbot of the monastery.

Historians also date the legend linking Bodhidharma to the creation of Shaolin martial arts to the seventeenth century. The first mentions of physical practices in Shaolin (qigong) appear in passages of the Yì Jīn Jīng (supposedly dated from the seventh century), the authenticity of which is questioned by historians, who believe it to be later than the seventeenth century.

Moreover, the tradition, which links the invention of the first Chinese martial techniques to Shaolin, is refuted by texts predating the creation of the monastery (see the history of Chinese martial arts).

Tang dynasty (618-907)

Martial or warlike practice by the monks is nevertheless attested as early as the Tang dynasty, without any evidence of combat techniques specific to Shaolin. In particular, the monks took part around 610 in a defense of the monastery against bandits, and in 621 in the Battle of Hulao which marked the defeat of Wang Shichong.

These events are attested by the inscriptions on a funerary stele dating from 728. As a reward, the Tang emperor later enlarged the monastery and allowed the monks to take up a military career.


The monastery was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

In 1641, Li Zicheng's anti-Ming rebel troops ransacked the monastery because of the monks' support for the Ming dynasty and the possible threat they posed to the rebels. This sacking effectively destroyed the monastery's fighting strength.

The most famous story of the destruction of the monastery is that it was allegedly destroyed by the Qing Dynasty government for anti-Qing activities. This alleged destruction or burning took place in 1647 under Emperor Shunzhi, or in 1674 under Emperor Kangxi, or in 1732 under Emperor Yongzheng.

This destruction is believed to have contributed to the spread of Shaolin martial arts throughout China, through the legendary five fugitive monks. Some stories claim that a southern Shaolin monastery was destroyed instead of or at the same time as the Henan monastery.

These stories commonly appear in martial arts history, literature, or movies.

Although these supposed destructions are common among martial artists, and often serve as stories about the origin of various martial arts styles, their accuracy is questionable.

These events are often known through conflicting stories of nineteenth-century secret societies, or through popular literature, and also seem to be based on both Fujian (southeastern Chinese province) folklore and popular stories such as At the Water's Edge.

For contemporary scholars, the interest in these stories lies mainly in their role in folklore, clues to the history of secret societies, or the existence of a Southern Shaolin Temple.

Modern History

In 1800, the monastery was rebuilt.

In 1928, the general Shi Yousan burns the monastery during 40 days, which destroys 90 % of the buildings and the manuscripts of the library.

In 1966, the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution attacked the monastery and imprisoned the monks after having humiliated them in public. The government left the place abandoned for years.

In 1972, the American president Richard Nixon visited the monastery.

From 1972 to 1980, martial arts groups from around the world donated money to restore the monastery; sculptures at the entrance are dedicated to it. In 1976, the movie The Shaolin Temple was inspired by the Manchu attack.

In 1981, the monastery officially reopened. A demonstration of Shaolin Kung-fu takes place there. In a few years, the Shaolin Quan style is reconstituted.

From this date, the monastery gains a worldwide popularity thanks to the demonstrations of a great technical perfection. In order to prevent the Shaolin art from being badly copied, the monastery teaches in the surrounding schools.

Martial demonstrations are organized by the monks throughout the world; the first tour took place in the United States in 1996. Every two years, a "Shaolin Festival" with martial demonstrations, dances, concerts, etc. is organized in China by the government to promote Chinese culture and to encourage economic investments in China.

In 2004, the monastery received two million visitors.

In March 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to visit the monastery since its reopening.

Southern Shaolin

There also reportedly existed a legendary Southern Shaolin Monastery (南少林寺), located in southern China and destroyed during the Qing Dynasty. The historicity of its existence, its claimed affiliation with Shaolin, and its exact location are subjects of controversy.

The historical existence of the temple, its alleged affiliation with Shaolin, and its exact location are subject to controversy. "Perhaps the Shaoshi Mountain Temple was not the only one in this case; dozens of monasteries claimed asylum to accommodate Ming loyalists who had their sympathies.

They were not as active as the Shaolin, but the fact of finding mention of half a dozen Shaolin in very different parts of the country does not lead us to suppose that, because of the circumstances, other monasteries suddenly followed the same warlike vocation as their Henan model?
- Habersetzer

These temples would have been destroyed under the Qing Dynasty, which was more favorable to Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna Buddhism) than to the Chan Buddhism (Mahāyāna Buddhism) practiced in these temples.

Associated with this monastery (or monasteries) is the evolution and practice of a martial style, nanshaolin quan, which is believed to be the origin of many southern Chinese martial arts (Chinese nanquan: 南拳; pinyin: nánquán).

In the past decade, discoveries of ruins of ancient destroyed Buddhist temples have suggested several possible locations of this temple, bathtubs found in Fujian resemble descriptions in ancient writings, bathtubs that were filled with medicinal mixtures to treat monks were found in Fujian, suggesting that the monastery was located there.

The local and national authorities then designated these places as Southern Shaolin Monasteries, and as in the whole of China, worked with Buddhist practitioners to restore them or build replicas, as well as to revive the practice of Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu in this region.

At the same time, this has helped to develop the religious or secular tourist economy of the region. We can list:

Linquanyuan Temple near Putian (Fujian), built in 757, rediscovered in 1986;
the Fuqing temple (Fujian);
the Longshan temple at the foot of the Qingyuan shan near Quanzhou (Fujian), built in 756;
the Panshan monastery, in Jixian (Hebei);
the monastery of Chengdu (Sichuan).

Popular media


The Temple of Shaolin released in 1982, by Yen Chang-hsin, with Jet Li.

Video games

In MapleStory, the Shaolin monastery is named Shaolin Temple, located in Shanghai.

In League of Legends, one of Jax's skins is Jax Shaolin. He is in front of the Shaolin Monastery.

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is an action video game.
Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style is a video game.

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