History of Ch’an Yoga

History of the Shaolin Temple


The first Shaolin Temple was built in 377 A.D. on Shao Shih Mountain in the Song Mountain range, Hunan Province, China, for the purpose of teaching and study in Buddhism.  As legend describes, an Indian Buddhist prince, named Bodhidharma (Da Mo), arrived in China in 527 A.D. on a religious pilgrimage that was specifically driven by his desire to teach the Chinese people what he believed to be the true “way”.  Being first rejected by the Emperor of Wei, he travelled on to find willing minds and encountered the Shaolin Temple, where the monks also rejected his religious philosophy.   Deciding he must show the people the power of his practice, he went into a cave to meditate.  When he emerged nine years later, the monks instantly recognized the fullness of his religious understanding and accepted to learn his practice.  During the ensuing years, as he taught his Buddhist doctrine, he became aware of the increasingly poor physical condition of the monks from the hours spent in study and meditation.  To correct this, he introduced a method of health exercise in the way of 18 physical exercises and the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle Change Classics).  As they practiced these forms to strengthen their bodies, they discovered they could simultaneously develop the mind and the intrinsic energy of the body (Chi).  This was the birth of a practice that would become most practical and powerful.


In the ensuing years, there were incidents of renegade monks robbing and even killing people, defenceless against their martial skill, in the surrounding countryside. In 570 A.D., in response to these events, the Emperor of the Chen Dynasty ordered the temple closed down for the first time.  It wasn’t until 600 A.D., at the beginning of the Sui Dynasty, that the temple was allowed to re-open and resume its’ activities.  To avoid any recurrence of such immoral and unscrupulous behaviour, as had caused its’ closure, strict guidelines for moral education were instituted.  This established martial training and morality as one entity.  In addition to this practice of living, the monks included the research and development of: internal power, external power, meditation, various empty-hand and weapon techniques, massage, herbal medicine, and more.  With this method of teaching in place, the Shaolin Arts grew from 600 A.D. to 1600 A.D., expanding to become the most complete system of fighting arts in China, soon coming to be recognized as the authoritative way of martial arts the world over.  (In the elegy of Wang Zhong Nan, Huang Zhong Yi said, “…Shaolin Kung Fu is the most famous beneath heaven…”)


The Shaolin way became so influential that teachings spread to Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Vietnam and parts of Indo-China and Malaysia.  The oldest martial art in Japan in described as the “seizing technique of Ming’s people” or the “soft technique”.  This soft technique was taught by a Shaolin monk named Chen Yuan-Yen, who spent his life in Japan during the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 A.D.  Chen’s soft technique later developed into Jujitsu, Aiki Jujitsu, Aikido and Judo.


In 1644 A.D. disaster struck the Shaolin Temples.  The Manchurians attacked China, beginning the Chin Dynasty.  In order to consolidate their control, the Manchurians were determined to destroy the largest martial arts organization in China, the Shaolin temple.  Two hundred years of murder and destruction followed the invasion of the Manchu’s.  Around 1760 A.D., a massive attack was launched against the Shaolin which resulted in many deaths and many temples being burned to the ground.  Monks were forced to flee for their lives, which forced the Shaolin teaching underground.  The Shaolin Temple would never re-attain such a level of greatness.


With this exodus, the Shaolin monks began to teach non-Shaolin monks.  This was the catalyst for the creation of many modern styles.  The Shaolin fuelled the rebels of the Chin Dynasty by teaching them the techniques of the temples to usurp the foreign devils and return the rightful Emperor Ming to the throne.  This cause adopted the special hand sign of open hand over crossed fist, which symbolized the return of Ming, the “bright one”.  The symbol comprises the use of the characters for the sun and moon, the brightest sources of light in man’s world.  The showing of this sign indicated two things: firstly, the Ming Dynasty must return, and secondly, the person showing the sign was a “bright” agent of justice.


Around the 1800’s, the temples were able to resume some activity as the government’s attention had been temporarily shifted from the persecution of the Shaolin to the problem of internal corruption; they were also distracted with several invasions by Western powers.  In 1911 A.D., the Chinese people finally put an end to the Chin Dynasty by means of a revolution, lead by Dr. Sun Yet-Sen.


During the re-unification of the country, after 17 years of civil war, the Shaolin Temple was to receive a final tragedy.  In 1926, Chiang Kai-Shek began the now famous Northern Expedition (1926-1928).  His purpose was to re-unify the Country and be rid of the numerous warlords who stood in the way of a united China.  In the process of accomplishing this, Chian Kai-Shek appointed General Fong Yu-Hsiang to fight the warlord Farn Chung-Shiow in Hunan province, the home of the main Shaolin temple.  When Farn’s army was routed, Farn was forced to flee, eventually seeking sanctuary at the Shaolin Temple, from his friend Mean Shing.  To protect his friend, Mean ordered the monks to fight Fung’s troops.  The monks were good fighters, but the superior arms of the government troops gave victory to their forces.  The government soldiers were so outraged by Mean’s attempt to protect Farn that they burned the temple to the ground.  Mean Shing died in that battle, defending the temple.





It all started with a man named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese [460-534 AD]) who traveled from central Persia to spread his teachings of Buddhism to China.


Earliest account of Bodhidharma from 547 AD

“At that time there was a monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asian. He traveled from the wild borderlands to China. Seeing the golden disks [on the pole on top of Yungníng’s stupa reflecting in the sun, the rays of light illuminating the surface of the clouds, the jewel-bells on the stupa blowing in the wind, the echoes reverberating beyond the heavens, he sang its praises. He exclaimed: “Truly this is the work of spirits.” He said: “I am 150 years old, and I have passed through numerous countries. There is virtually no country I have not visited. Even the distant Buddha-realms lack this.” He chanted homage and placed his palms together in salutation for days on end.”


When he arrived in China he stayed at a Temple in Canton [520-527 AD] until he was summoned by the Emperor Wu in Nanking.


Meeting with Emperor Wu


Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”

Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”

Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”

Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only void.”

Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing in front of me?”

Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”


After leaving the Emperor he traveled to Loyang and to Mount Song arriving at the northern Shaolin(Young Forest) Temple. The monks at first rejected his teachings;

His Teaching


‘A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not founded upon words and letters;

By pointing directly to [one’s] mind

It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.”


So he went to a nearby cave and sat in Ching T’suo (Sitting at Peace) meditating by staring at a cave wall for nine years as the legend goes. When he emerged finally he presented the monks at the Temple with two exercises and the Lankavatara Sutra. The two exercises were the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/ tendon Changing Classics) and the Xi Sui Jing ( Brain/ Marrow Washing Classics).


This is the legend there is much controversy surrounding it. It is agreed by most that Tamo did indeed travel to the Temple and that he did stay in the cave for nine years but the Yi Jin Jing and the Xi Sui Jing time of development is in question.


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