SHAOILIN TEMPLE, ITS FIGHTING MONKS, KUNG FU AND SACRED MOUNT SONG

MOUNT SONG

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Mount Song (near Dengfeng, 50 kilometers southeast of Zhengzhou and 35 kilometers southwest of Luoygang) is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China and the home of Shaolin Temple. Song. Mount Songshang is considered to be the central sacred mountain of China. It is the natural symbol of the centre of heaven and earth is used as the focus for sacred rituals that reinforce that earthly power.

Mount Song (Songshan) is situated along the southern bank of the Yellow River. Composed of Taishi Mountain and Shaoshi Mountain, it has 36 peaks and stretches 60 kilometers, The highest peak (Junji) is 1512 meters high. The seven peaks of Song Shan stretch between the cities of Luoyang and Zhengzhou. The slopes rise steeply from the valley and most have dense vegetation. There is one steep precipice — Shuce Cliff — with rock formation similar to those on Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and has a harrowing walkway in the middle of the cliff. Songshan Geopark covers of 464 square kilometers and has rock formations from the Archean, Proterozoic, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. The combination of steep peaks, dramatic valleys and abundant vegetation forms the park's spectacular vistas. In 2004, Songshan Mountain was approved as a first-rate global geopark by UNESCO.

Songshan contains important Taoist temples such as the Zhongyue Temple and important Buddhist monuments such as Shaolin Temple, traditionally considered the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. This temple's pagoda forest is the largest collection of pagodas in China. There are numerous Taoist and especially Buddhist monasteries. The Zhongyue Temple is one of the oldest Taoist temples in China. Nearby Songyang Academy was one of the four great academies of ancient China. Eight locations at the foot of the mountain in Dengfeng have been designated a World Heritage Sites (See Below). The 6th century Songyue Pagoda is located on the mountain and as Tang Dynasty (618–907) pagodas within the Fawang Temple. Empress Wu performed the Feng Shan ritual at Mt. Song in 695 CE.

Five Sacred Mountains of China

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The "Five Sacred Mountains of China” are: 1) Mt. Taishan" in Shandong Province; 2) the Southern Mt. Hengshan in Hunan Province; 3) the Western Mt. Huashan in Shaanxi Province; 4) Central Mt. Songshan in Henan Province; and 5) Northern Mt. Hengshan in Shanxi Province. There are several mountains in China with the names Huashan, Hengshan and Songshan, which is why there are referred to central, northern and western, Taishan was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The other four were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site called the “Four Sacred Mountains as an Extension of Mt. Taishan” in 2008, which collectively cover 547.69 square kilometers.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO:"The Five Sacred Mountains" has been worship for over three thousand years from Neolithic Age due to its unique geographical locations and majesty of relative altitude over a kilometer. In 219 B.C., Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of Qin Dynasty) held a ceremony of offering sacrifices on the top Mt. Taishan when special national sacrifice codes and systems originated, which was followed by later emperors to show their imperial power's validity and authority. Offering sacrifices to Five Sacred Mountains was held to make the emperors'' achievements informed to all the people and Five Sacred Mountains were regarded as boundaries of their reign. Therefore, as an integration which cannot be divided, Five Sacred Mountains symbolizes the unification and territory in the era of Chinese agricultural civilization. [Source: Ministry of Construction of the People’s Republic of China]

“The political position of Five Sacred Mountains makes them become the common target to which different nationalities worship and sacrifice and contributes to national fusion and unification. Meanwhile, Five Sacred Mountains have also gained their fame of cultural meanings. Five kinds of cultures are the most prominent ones. Firstly, the culture of "five elements". The "five elements" consisting of "water, fire, wood, gold and earth" are considered as the basic substances composing everything on the earth and are considered to promote the selection and formation of Five Sacred Mountains. Secondly, culture of "universal unity", a political concept which can be traced back to The Spring and Autumn Period and The Warring States Period, have been considered as the ideal state of dynasts. The "universal unity" has two major connotations: territorial and political unity, ritual and cultural unity. The "universal unity" has boosted formation and development of sacrifice culture and political position of Five Sacred Mountains.

“Thirdly, the culture of sacrifice. Systems of royal inspection, hunting on mountain, burning for sacrifice, distant sacrifice, fete and sacrifice with the representative of Five Sacred Mountains sacrifice have evolved in the feudal Chinese society and "fengshan" (offering sacrifice to gods) gradually evolved to be the most important national sacrifice ceremony of royal ones in feudal ancient China. Fourthly, the culture of religion. As sacred places of Buddhism, the Southern Mt. Hengshan and the Central Mt. Songshan, have witnessed the spread and development of Buddhism in China and imposed great influence on other countries especially Asian ones. Fifthly, the culture of landscape. A rich collection of stone inscription and literature works is precious fortune for both Chinese and world literature and arts. The five kinds of cultures are interrelated to each other, which advance the selection, formation, development and spread of Five Sacred Mountains.”

Dengfeng: Center of Heaven, Earth and the Martial Arts

Dengfeng (50 kilometers southeast of Zhengzhou and 35 kilometers southwest of Luoygang) is a sprawling city of 650,000 people. Situated at the foot of Mount Song about 10 kilometers from Shaolin Temple, it is the home of several dozen martial arts academies and tens of thousands of students. A drive down a main road passes some of the biggest schools. They rise like Vegas casinos, with towering dormitories adorned with murals of kung fu fighters, dragons, and tigers. Dengfeng is set among the green peaks of the Song Shan mountains. Dozens of martial arts school line the road up the mountain. Web Site: Lonely Planet

According to UNESCO: “Spread over a 40 square-kilometer circle, stand eight clusters of buildings and sites, including three Han Que gates-remains of the oldest religious edifices in China-, temples, the Zhougong Sundial Platform and the Dengfeng Observatory. Constructed over the course of nine dynasties, these buildings are reflections of different ways of perceiving the centre of heaven and earth and the power of the mountain as a centre for religious devotion. The historical monuments of Dengfeng include some of the best examples of ancient Chinese buildings devoted to ritual, science, technology and education. [Source: UNESCO]

“For many centuries Dengfeng, one of the early capitals of China whose precise location is unknown, but whose name is now associated with an area to the south of Mount Shaoshi and Mount Taishi, two peaks of Mount Songshan, came to be associated with the concept of the centre of heaven and earth — the only point where astronomical observations were considered to be accurate. The natural attribute of the centre of heaven and earth was seen to be Mount Songshan and worship of Mount Songshan was used by the Emperors as a way of reinforcing their power. The three ideas do therefore converge to some extent: the centre of heaven and earth in astronomical terms is used as a propitious place for a capital of terrestrial power.”

Dengfeng: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in “The Centre of Heaven and Earth” was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. According to UNESCO: “Mount Songshan as the natural symbol of the centre of heaven and earth is used as the focus for sacred rituals that reinforce that earthly power. The buildings that clustered around Dengfeng were of the highest architectural standards when built and many were commissioned by Emperors. They thus reinforced the influence of the Dengfeng area... Some of the sites in the nominated area relate closely to the mountain (Zhongyue Temple, Taishi Que and Shaoshi Que); the Observatory is very clearly associated with the astronomical observations made at the centre of heaven and earth, while the remainder of the buildings were built in the area perceived to be the centre of heaven and earth — for the status that this conferred. [Source: UNESCO]

“The concentration of sacred and secular structures in the Dengfeng area reflects the strong and persistent tradition of the centre of heaven and earth linked to the sacred mountain which sustained imperial sacrifices and patronage over 1500 years and became of outstanding significance in Chinese culture. The Buddhist structures came to have a symbiotic relationship with the sacred mountain. The astronomical idea of the centre of heaven and earth is strongly linked with the idea of imperial power, with the propitiousness of establishing capitals at the centre of heaven and earth, and with its natural attribute, Mount Songshan and the ceremonies and ritual associated with it. The serial property reflects the significance of the area in terms of prestige and patronage.”

“The nominated area lies within the Mount Songshan National Park...The majority of the monuments are protected as national monuments by the National Government. Only the Kernel compound of Shaolin Temple is protected at provincial level.

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Pagoda Forest at Shalolin Temple

Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple (on Mount Song, near Dengfeng and Luoyang, 80 kilometers west of Zhengzhou) is where many Hong Kong action movies have been set and where the "Grasshopper" character played by David Carradine in the 1970s Kung Fu television series reportedly learned his tricks. Shaolin literally means "Monastery in the Woods of Mount Shaoshi."

Shaolin Templei s reputed to be 'the Number One Temple under Heaven' and is the cradle of the Shaolin martial arts such as Shaolin Cudgel and Shaolin Gongfu (boxing). But the temple is not only the birthplace of Kung Fu it also a place of importance in the history of religion in China. In A.D. 527, the celebrated Indian monk named Batuo (Bodhhidarma) founded Chan Buddhism, the precursor of Zen Buddhism after spending nine years staring at a wall and achieving enlightenment. He also is credited with creating the basic movement of Shaolin kung fu by imitating the movements of animals and birds. According to one he invented kung fu to counteract the effects of extended periods of meditation.

Shaolin Temple is probably the most famous temple in China and is the main tourist attraction of Henan Province. Nestled at the foot of Songshan Mountain, the temple was designed to house Bhara, an earlier Indian monk who after many years of spreading Buddhism, was later known as Fo Tuo, or the Grand Monk. Shaolin Temple encourages tourists to come to study the "wisdom and power" of Zen thought to cope with the distress of the global economic crisis. The temple's abbot and CPPCC National Committee member Shi Yongxin announced the initiative to media during the 2009 legislative session. There are beautiful wild flowers and pines on the mountain.

Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia strong> Admission: 100 yuan (US$15.75) Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Shaolin Temple is near the town of Dengfeng which is accessible by bus and minibus from Luoyang, which is 80 kilometers away. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

History of Shaolin Temple and Kung Fu

Shaolin Temple was built in A.D. 495, the 19th year of the Taihe reign of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) by Emperor Xiaowen for the eminent Indian monk Bhara. In 527, the third year of the Xiaochang reign of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Bodhidharma (470-c. 543), another well-known monk from India, said to be the 28th successor of Buddha, came here to preach Buddhist sutras. He stayed in a natural stone cave for nine years in Five Breast Peak in Songshan Mountain, staring at a wall to cultivate himself and later took the lead in preaching Chan sect of Buddhism, which evolved into Zen Buddhism in Japan.

How did kung fu evolve and why was it founded by a bunch of supposed peace-loving Buddhist monks? Scholars speculate that monks learned to defend themselves at a time when banditry was rampant and there was a lot of fighting between local warlords. The origins of kung fu are somewhat murky. There are accounts in ancient texts of monks performing feats of physical skill and strength such as two-finger handstands, breaking iron blades with their heads and sleeping while standing one leg.

Shaolin Temple became associated with martial arts in the 7th century when 13 Shaolin monks, trained in kung fu, rescued prince Li Shimin, the founder of the Tang dynasty. After this Shaolin expanded into a large complex. At its peak it housed 2,000 monks. In the 20th century it fell on hard times. In the 1920s, warlords burnt down much of the monastery. When the Communists came to power in 1949, Buddhism, like other religions was discouraged. Land owned by the temple was distributed among farmers. Monks fled.

Many of the temples that remained at Shaolin in the 1960s were destroyed or defaced during the Cultural Revolution. All but four of the temple's monks were driven off by the Red Guards. The remaining monks survived by making their own tofu and bartering it for food. In 1981 there were only 12 elderly monks at the temple and they spent much of their time farming. Their religious activities were performed discretely or in secret.

“Shaolin Temple” — the film that made the temple famous and launched Jet Li's career — was released in 1982. It remains one of the most popular kung fu films ever. After its success the government and entrepreneurs realized there was money to made exploiting the temple. Old monks were asked to come back and new ones were recruited. In the 2000, about 200 students studied directly with the masters who lived in the temple. Many take a vow of chastity though the government forbids them from receiving jie ba, a Kung Fu ritual in which scars are made on their head and wrist with burning incense.

In 2005, dozen of pagodas at Shaolin Temple began to tilt after their foundations were soaked in a water sill due to a water pipeline fracture. At least 20 pagadas tilted and cracked. The groundwork sank after being soaked in the flush of water. Monks said many pagodas had already tilted and had cracks. After the water pipeline cracked, the big runoff of water flooded part of the tomb, speeding up the aging pagodas' tilting. Monks used four pieces of big tree stock to help support the tilting Fawan Temple Pagoda, the oldest in the country. The biggest crack now measures 2 centimeters wide and one meter long.

Bodhidharma

The Ch’an school of Buddhism in China is said to have been founded by Bodhidharma, a south-Indian prince who became monk and traveled to China around A.D. 520. It is not clear whether he was a real person or not.

According to legend, when Bodhidharma arrived in the Chinese capital of Nanking, the devout Chinese Emperor asked him how much merit he had earned building temples and copying scripture. Bodhidharma replied: “No merit at all...All these are inferior deeds, which would cause the doer to be born in heaven or earth again. They will show the traces of worldliness. They are like shadows following objects. A deed of true merit is full of pure wisdom and is beyond the grasp of conceptual thought. This sort of merit is not found in any worldly works." The Emperor then asked what is the holy truth? Bodhidharma replied: “Great Emptiness, and there is nothing in it to be called holy." The emperor then asked him who was. Bodhidharma said; “I do not know."

After this sharp condemnation of the pursuit of merit as basically selfish and self-indulgent, Bodhidharma left for northern China and meditated for nine years by staring at the wall of a cave. He sat there so long in meditation it is said that his legs fell off. To battle his occasional bouts of drowsiness he cut off his eyelids so his eyes wouldn't close.

While Bodhidharma was meditating a monk named Hui Ko came to visit him and seek the answer to troubling questions and calm his mind. Initially Bodhidharma was so absorbed in mediation that he did not notice the monk. Hui Ko waited in snowdrifts for some time but received no response. Finally he cut off his arm and gave it to Bodhidharma who at that point gave his attention to the monk. Hui Ko received the advise he sought and later became the second patriarch.

Bodhidharma is associated with ascetic discipline, serious mediation, yoga, psychic power and the Shaolin school of martial arts. He said: “A special tradition exists outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters; pointing directly into the mind, seeing into one's own nature and the attainment of Buddhahood."

Shaolin Temple: the Tourist Sight

In the early 1980s, Shaolin became a household name in China, mainly through the success the film "Shaolin Temple", which launched the career of martial arts film star Jet Li'. The impact of the film tourism was immediate and strong. The number of visitors to Shaolin climbed from 200,000 a year in late 1970s to 3 million by 1985. In 1987, there were only a dozen permanent monks in the temple but martial arts schools were opening up everywhere. To meet this threat the Shaolin expanded the surrounding area of Shaolin by tens of thousands of square meters and enlarged the ranks of Shaolin to more than 200 monks. [Source: Shanghai Daily January 7, 2009]

Several million visitors a year visit Shaolin Temple, which has become something a tourist trap. Few original buildings remain. In their palace are tacky martial arts schools; dragon-headed trams hauling around Chinese tourists; monks who wear Harley Davidson T-shirts and sit around watching Kung Fu movies; foreign tourists who have their picture taken with Claude van Damme look-alikes; and Kung Fu wannabes who come from the four corners of the world, aspiring to learn how to jump 20 feet in the air before delivering a kick. There are even karaoke hostess bars.

In the early 2000s, Shaolin's abbot Shi Yongxin ordered the tourist shops bulldozed in hopes of making the temple a World Heritage Site. He has also sent monks around the world to promote Shaolin martial arts and take MBA classes; launched a website in the mid 1990s when few on China even knew what the Internet was; and established a corporation to defend the temple's “brand name” and keep the temples name from being attached to pork sausages, Zen tea, vegetarian snacks, online games and cars.

On Shaolin’s effort to boost it prestige The Shanghai Daily reported: “The first experiment was the establishment of a fighting monk team, which has since toured extensively at home and abroad. In 2002, Abbot Shi applied for intangible cultural heritage for Shaolin kung fu. "We must turn to the intellectual property rights for the preservation and promotion of Shaolin culture," says the 43-year-old abbot, who holds a master's degree in business administration. In the next few years, the Shaolin Pharmacy was reopened to the public and an outpatient department was established. In 2008, Shaolin stepped up the pace of its commercialization. On May 12, Shaolin opened Huanxidi (State of Joy), a business complex comprised of a shop, a restaurant and a meditation center. It is actually a subsidiary of Shaolin Intellectual Property, a fully owned company of Shaolin. [Source: Shanghai Daily January 7, 2009]

Abbot Shi Yongxin and the Commercialization of Shaolin Temple

Abbot Shi Yongxin wears yellow robes and clutches heavy prayer beads like a normal monk but also spends much of his time moving from place to place in a chaffer-driven SUV and meeting with executives and Hollywood backers. He is the executive producer of a US$25 million film about the temple's legendary fighting monks that is scheduled to be released before the 2008 Olympics. He has also developed a Las Vegas stage show and worked out a reality television show that has been described as an “American Idol” for kung fu masters. In 2006, the abbot flew to Germany to watch the World Cup final at the invitation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

Shaolin business interests are handled by businessmen and accountants rather than monks. The temple runs souvenir shops that sell scented candles and T-shirts and has an online gaming site and a branch in Australia. The abbot insists these enterprises are necessary raise funds to run and maintain a large temple. Many complain that Shaolin's abbot is compromising the temples reputation and the entire of discipline of kung fu through his pursuit of commercialism and money, Some have even accused the temple's monks if being wimps as a result.

In response to criticism about his embrace of modern media and straying from the Buddhist path, Abbott Shi told the Los Angeles Times, “Movies, TV shows the Internet”---these are all modern communication tools. We are monks living in a new age. We should take advantage of these technologies and use them to serve Buddhism and traditional culture."

in 2008, Shaolin monks went to Kunming and took over the operational management of Tuzhu, Fading, Miaozhan and Guanyin temples there. .Shaolin has also set up branches or martial arts centers in Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

Sights at Shaolin Temple

The entire complex consists of 11 traditional structures, including the Shaolin Temple, the Observatory, Songyang Academy, Taishi Towers and Zhongyue Temple. The main tourist attractions in the Shaolin Temple include the Dwelling Center, Forest of Stupas, Bodhidharma Cave, Founder’s Hut, Second Seniority Hut and Shaolin Martial Art Hall. Songyue Temple (near Shaolin) contains the oldest Buddhist brick pagoda in China. It is in miraculously good shape considering it is 1,400 years old.

Fawan Temple Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the country. Here are tombs for monks from the imperial Tang Dynasty (618-907) to the Qing Dynasty (1368-1644). More than 230 pagodas in the temple provided vital clues for the study of ancient architecture and sculptures in China.

Donglin Temple is large temple that was renovated in the 2000s. The Hall of Sakyamuni was given a major make over the Towers of Bell and Drum were built. The aim was to restore Donglin Temple to its status as the flagship of the Shaolin Temple. Donglin has a 1,800-year history that dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Important to Buddhist tradition, Donglin was once regarded as one of the four major temples in Henan, along with Shaolin, Xiangguo and Baima (White Horse) temples. But its reputation has declined sharply after, General Feng Yuxiang, a warlord who governed Henan in the 1920s, ordered that Donglin be stripped of its religious functions and transformed into a public school. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the temple was destroyed with the exception of the Palace of the Heavenly King and a pagoda built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 2005, Abbot Shi unveiled a plan to rebuild a brand-new temple on the ruins of Donglin, covering more than 81 hectares, 10 times larger than the original, at a cost of 300 million yuan (US$44 million).

Forest of Stupas (a quarter of a mile from Shaolin) is a cemetery for the Shaolin monks. There are 243 stupas here that come in a variety of shapes: rectangular, conical, hexagonal, cylindrical and bottle-shaped. They have one to seven tiers and the highest is 50 feet. A waterfall near the temple is strewn with litter.

Shrine of Zhou Gong (near Shaolin) contains an observatory set up 700 years ago by the famous astronomer Guo Shoujing. The oldest of its kind in China, this brick-and-stone structure contains a sundial with 100 celestial charts made with blue stones. The locations of certain celestial bodies in the sky are indicated on the charts the by the shadow from the sundial.

Martial Arts Schools at Sahoilin Temple

In the area around Shaolin Templ are dozens of private martial schools that teach around 30,000 young children the fine arts of kung fu. The schools opened up in the 1980s after the success of the Shaolin kung fu films. Students from some of the schools have given demonstrations in Italy and the United States.

Tagou Martial School (down the road from Shaolin) is the largest kung fu academy in the world. Founded in 1978, it has 25,000 students and 3,000 teachers, Referred to sometimes as Kung Fu U., it attracts young people, hoping to be the next Jet Li or Jackie Chan, from all over China. Graduates have gone on to be actors, stuntmen, athletes, sports teachers, soldiers and bodyguards.

Students study Chinese, history and algebra. Each day begins with a run around a statute of a fighting monks, followed by long sessions of stretching. The kung fu training includes punching bags, doing cartwheel flips known as cekong fan, Each year teams compete in the huge courtyard exhibiting kung fu forms such as the Dragon, Praying Mantis and Eagle.

Describing the school life there, Ching-Ching Ni wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "At sunrise, entire hillsides are alive with the sound of children, many with shaved heads, hiking and training next to fields of peach blossoms and budding willows.

”After breakfast, the town quiets down as the student retreat to their studies, often in shabby classrooms with broken windows. By afternoon the silence is broken again. Children line up on the yellow earth, squatting, stretching, flipping and flying, until dinner is served in a large tin mugs. They sleep 10 to a room in dingy bunk beds and soak their bruised feet and bloodied elbows in plastic tubs."

Tagou (Ta Gou) is home to 8,700 students, many of them children of poor farmers, who send their children to the schools because they are often cheaper (around US$20 a month) than public schools and they at least teach some disciple. The hope is the training the children receive will ultimately land them land jobs as security officers, policemen, physical education teachers, soldiers or maybe even a kung fu action movie star.

In Dengfeng (10 kilometers from Shaolin Temple) some 60 martial arts academies have sprouted over the past two decades and now boast more than 50,000 students. A drive down a main road passes some of the biggest schools. They rise like Vegas casinos, with towering dormitories adorned with murals of kung fu fighters, dragons, and tigers. Dozens of martial arts school line the road up the mountain. More than 60,000 martial artists from all over the world practice here. Website: Lonely Planet

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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