The Two Murals in Baiyi Hall at Shaolin Monastery and the Nature of Shaolin Practice
As Viewed by Residence at Shaolin During the Eighteen and Nineteenth Centuries.
The exact date for these two frescos has not been determined; however, they were likely done sometime between the 1800's – and late 1700's – the early part of Qiánlóng 乾隆's reign or possibly early in during the reign of Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝. Be that as it may, the murals, suggest a couple of things. One might conclude they suggest a very significant part of martial art training and practice at Shaolin involved two or more person sets (known as Shuang Yan 雙演, Dui Da (對打) and Dui Lian (對 練). The second observation is that the Shaolin monks believed that both the Chan Buddhism and the martial arts they practiced, originated in India and that Bodhidharma was instrumental to both.
One of the frescos in the Baiyi Hall in Shaolin Monastery shows sixteen pairs of monks practicing Dui Lian, contact sets, of which ten pairs are practicing weapon sets and six pairs barehand sets. There are also three monks in protective positions just left and right of Buddha in the upper pavilion, which are practicing single sets. Two of the monks brandish weapons (練兵器) the other monk practices a barehand set 練拳套. This weapons dominated mural is done in the style of Qing artists characteristic of the early and mid-Qing period who specialized in large-scale decorative works. Such artists were mostly employed by the imperial court to produce documentary, commemorative, and decorative works for the imperial palaces. This leads me to speculate that it may have done with the support of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who was a patron of Shaolin Monastery. These master artists drew upon the representational styles of the Song dynasty. In this fresco, we see Bodhidharma enshrined at the center in the lower base pavilion. The placement symbolizes Ben (本) and also Men (門). We know that this figure is Bodhidharma because above him are the characters, 本 諦 源祖 (Ben Di Yuan Zu) which means, "The Root of Truth's Origin is Bodhidharma" (not the literal translation). You could also translate this as "Bodhidharma is the Method's Origin." On the pavilion's right, we see the characters: "法力無邊 (Fa Li Wu Bian)." Translated it reads: The Power of the Way has no Boundary" and on the pavilion's left is written, 佛恩廣大 (Fo En Guang Da), which means, "Buddha's Benevolence is Vast." Note, at the left door of this pavilion, we see a bearded monk. I believe this monk represents Bodhidharma. We see he is holding a mace. The mace is a weapon for crushing and symbolizes the smashing of the ignorance and emotional defilements created by karma 因果. His placement on the side of the center gate symbolizes the 'defense of the gate.'
The second fresco (see below) "Methods of Martial Arts" in Baiyi Hall, is less skillfully painted and done in a more realistically style in imitation of western naturalism. The mural has much less ornamentation, clearly influenced by the Western technique of linear perspective and realistically painted trees. Very likely done more recently in the 1800s. It illustrates sixteen pairs of monks practicing barehand Dui Lian 對練 and conspicuously lacking weapons, which may indicate the political climate of the time. It is my opinion that the large non-Chinese dark-skinned monk in the center is meant to represent Bodhidharma. The composition is intentionally symmetrical, and I believe that the placement of this figure is intentional, making a point of Bodhidharma's centrality to Shaolin. By the 18th century, it was a convention that Bodhidharma be shown with a beard and is very likely him, as the figure is the only one with a beard.
Significant number dark-skinned monks and masters, most likely meant to represent Indian masters training with or teaching Chinese monks, is not about documentation but rather idealization what monks believed to be the source martial arts and its reason for being – protection. During the Ming and Qing period, there were very few remaining Buddhist communities in India and the kind of movement of monks between India and China being suggested in these Qing dynasty frescos, happened much, much earlier. By the 11th century, Buddhism was already in decline in Indian, and at the end of the 12th century, the Moslems had conquered Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in India, and wiped out Buddhism there. By then, the movement of monks between China and India had largely stopped. Certainly, by the Ming and Qing period, there are no records of any important monks coming from India to China*. My point is that the frescos are not depictions of Indian monks at Shaolin at the time, but rather what those at Shaolin believed to be the source of Buddhism and martial arts at the monastery.
These murals strongly suggest that Shaolin monks of late 1700/ 1800's did believe that Buddhism and Shaolin martial art there, had its origins with Indian masters. The paintings show about two dozen Indian monks and masters. One Indian monk holding a Buddhist symbol of authority and obedience and sitting in the center of a pagoda, flanked on either side by Chinese monks, is being depicted as a senior master. Note that by the time these murals were done, Indian Buddhist monks had not been traveling to China for hundreds of years. I would conclude that the paintings of Baiyi Hall are more about beliefs rather than facts.
*Buddhism declined and disappeared from India in around the 13th century long before these frescos were done.
SHAOLIN WUSHU ROOTS
© 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.