A Painful Pilgrimage to Shaolin

Article by Daniel Newman

My first pilgrimage to Shaolin didn’t quite pan out as I’d envisioned. I was eighteen years old, had become obsessed with Chinese martial arts, and had wildly unrealistic dreams of becoming a legendary Shaolin monk. Ten days later I limped away from the school that had been trying to teach me the basics. They had broken my optimistic spirit.

Seventeen years later, I’m even further away from realising my dream of becoming the next Bruce Lee than ever, but I’m still a regular visitor to Shaolin, and each time I go there I remember the excitement of seeing it for the first time.

Shaolin Temple’s martial traditions are said to have begun in the 5th century with the arrival of a silently determined Indian missionary called Boddhidharma. He brought with him a new form of Buddhism now known in the West as Zen, and rejected the idea of earning merit by writing and translating holy texts. Instead he felt that one should focus purely on meditation, so as to achieve enlightenment. Since Shaolin was a temple that specialised in translating Indian sutras, they refused to let Bodhidharma into their temple. In response to this, he climbed a nearby hill, and proceeded to meditate for nine years.

You can still visit the Cave on Wuru Peak, where Bodhidharma once sat facing the wall. Shaolin Temple also contains the very rock extracted from the cave, upon which the monks of Shaolin claim you can see where his aura was burned with the intensity of his gaze.

During one particularly intense day of meditation, Bodhidharma fell asleep. When he woke up he was so disgusted with his own lack of discipline that he cut his own eyelids off so sleep would never interrupt his meditation again. Where he threw his eyelids to the ground, tea shrubs are said to have sprouted up, and the monks of Shaolin claim that the local tea is imbued with the essence of Bodhidharma’s dedication and that that is what enables them to meditate for longer (although I’d imagine that the caffeine probably helps too).
Suitably impressed by Bodhidharma’s nine years of meditation, Shaolin Temple eventually decided to invite this extraordinary Indian visitor to live amongst them. Once he moved in, Bodhidharma observed that the monks of Shaolin would also often fall asleep during meditation. No matter how strong their determination, their bodies weren’t strong enough to support their prolonged attempts at meditation. To remedy this, Bodhidharma is said to have introduced Indian boxing and yoga to strengthen the bodies of the monks. Known as the “Muscle Change Classic” (yì jīn jīng, 易筋经) and “Marrow Washing Classic” (xǐ suǐ jīng, 洗髓经), these exercises are said to be the origins of Shaolin’s distinctive physical exercises, and yet their original purpose was not martial, but simply to enhance meditational stamina.

Of course, if you go to Shaolin today, much of what you will see looks a lot more aggressive than a yoga practitioner demonstrating downward dog. This is because Shaolin went on to become one of the biggest and wealthiest temples in Asia. In doing so it became a worthwhile target for robbers and rebels alike, and so the monks of Shaolin started using their boxing techniques to protect the bounty of their famous temple.

Much of Shaolin’s wealth is said to have been received directly from the emperors of China. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907AD), for example, the monks of Shaolin are said to have rescued Prince Li Shimin after he was kidnapped by a local warlord. When Prince Li Shimin went on to become Emperor Taizong, he rewarded Shaolin Temple with land, positions in government, and permission to eat meat and drink wine. A dynamic fresco showing this scene can be found on the walls of Shaolin Temple, and the legend became all the more infamous when Jet Li appeared in the film Shaolin Temple (1982), which dramatised this imperial rescue.

Adding further to the Shaolin estate shortly afterwards, China’s only ever female Emperor, Wu Zetian, moved the capital to nearby Luoyang, and presented Shaolin with yet more gifts since she felt that Buddhism had a more favourable attitude to women than Taoism. Indeed, a short drive away from Shaolin at the Longmen Grottoes you can see a depiction of Buddha whose face is said to resemble the visage of Emperor Wu Zetian. You see, in order to justify her status as China’s one and only female Emperor, the world’s most powerful woman claimed to be a reincarnation of Buddha himself.

Of course the best way of experiencing Shaolin is to go and train in the temple itself (Songshan Mountain, Dengfeng 450000; 少林寺450000嵩山) or at one of its many schools. Even if you only have time to do a couple hours of training, it will help you appreciate just how hard the movements being demonstrated around you really are. Like me, you might not be good enough to become the next Bruce Lee, but forcing yourself to eat a bit of humble pie once in a while can be a good way of subduing the ego.