Martial Arts at Shaolin
Historical evidence points to pragmatic reasons for the development of martial arts expertise at the monastery. The principal factors were:
1. Buddhist monasteries and in particular the large public ones contained large granaries and other provisions. These supplies made them attractive targets for robbers and renegade bands of rebels and invaders, who had plagued Henan Province for centuries.
2. Monasteries often held incredible wealth in the form of gold, silver and copper ritual objects, jewels and cash reserves.
3. Important state/public monasteries like Shaolin Si were situated in more remote, unprotected areas which made them susceptible to attack.
4. Anti-Buddhist suppressions as well as lawless conditions during dynastic changes contributed to the development of martial arts among some groups of Buddhist clergy.
5. Chinese Buddhist monasticism was intimately connected with mendicant monks who commonly traveled great distances alone and on foot.
6. A decree by Emperor Tang Taizong provided the 'legal' frame-work which made possible the long-term development of martial arts at Shaolin.
7. There was a continuous interaction between the military and the monks. Both military officers and senior clergy came from the same well-educated class and both were often posted to the same remote regions. Eventually, martial arts (read military combat) at Shaolin, under the influence of Chan Buddhist practice, absorbed Buddhist nomenclature and methods of self-cultivation connected to longevity.
ABOVE: Early 19th century mural at Shaolin illustrating weapon contact training at the monastery
A Brief History of Shaolin Monastery
Shaolin Si (chin.: 少林寺) was an important state/public monastery (chin.: Shifang Conglin 十方叢林) since ancient times. The character "Lin" (Chin.: 林) means 'forest', a term only attached to the names of Imperial monasteries. Monks who resided in these official establishments were selected and ordained by Imperial decree and required higher qualifications. Their supervisory clergy were appointed by the Imperial throne and accountable to it. These monasteries were also required to perform ceremonies for the Emperor such as those for the military dead.
Buddhism in the great centers like Luoyang and Buddhism close to Imperial capitals tended to be more orthodox and stable. A further important distinguishing feature of monasteries like Shaolin was that they were designated official places of worship. These monasteries also received their name via Imperial decree, displayed images of the Imperial five clawed dragon on their roofs, recieved land, money, servants, subject families, known as "seng zhi hu" (Chin.: 僧祇戶), and rights to maintain certain industries which generated profits. The number of official monasteries known as Shifang Conglin tended to be small and stable throughout dynastic history.
There were other significant reasons for Imperial patronage which in large measure accounted for Buddhism’s success in China. In order to expand cultivation to regions that were more arid, monasteries were granted land and given families who farmed under supervision. The monasteries stored grain, and in return supplied implements, oxen, and in those times of chronic famine, relief. This role in famine relief helped Buddhism to gain converts.
© 2012 by Honan Shaolin (Cultrual & Historical) Association, Alberta, Canada, and Honan Shaolin Association, Golden Dragon Team, Inc.™ 河南少林金龍會, New York.