The Shaolin Temple – A brief Introduction and a short Guide
The world knows this unique monastery for one famous reason – Kung Fu. Being the cradle of this martial art and further boosted by films featuring Kung Fu fights, the Shaolin Temple has so far attracted millions of visitors from the Western world. George Lucas once revealed how he was inspired by the Shaolin monks for his Jedi Knights. The Star Wars films themselves owe a great deal to these monks. However, the influence of this ancient monastery is not limited to a popular martial art. The Shaolin Temple is also the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and served as an agent for promoting Buddhist values in the West. The results are the wings of Shaolin organisations in different countries like the US, UK, Germany, etc.
The monastery existed as a centre for translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit/Pali into Chinese in the latter half of the 5th century AD. Buddhabhadra, (known as Ba Tuo in Chinese) an Indian monk preached the earliest form of Buddhism, Hinayana, while translating the texts. The Shaolin Temple is said to have been built for him by the then Chinese Emperor, Xiaowen and he became the first abbot of the monastery. Several other Indian monks helped him preach Buddhism among the locals, but there was one called Bodhidharma (known as Da Mo) who brought about winds of change in the way the Temple functioned. He is credited with the introduction of Chan Buddhism in China and also the martial art which is known as Kung Fu. Bodhidharma felt that monks needed to indulge themselves in healthy exercises to make sure they are fit and fine for daily meditation practices.
I reached here on a cloudy and somewhat humid afternoon and paused for a few minutes at the magnificent entrance gate, at least 3 kilometres before the gate to the main temple. The background view is graced by the two mountains – Shaoshi and Songshan. The Shaolin temple is situated on the foot of the Shaoshi mountain, facing the Songshan mountain on the west. As the monastery complex is more than 250 acres wide, plenty of walking around is expected if you would like to explore the whole compound in detail. This would take at least two days plus another day to visit the Dharma Cave on the Wuru Peak of Shaoshi mountain. There are battery cars available from one building to another.
I took a battery car and reached the two stone gates which lead to the Mountain Gate, the main entrance to the halls of Shaolin Temple. As you enter the gate walk straight and you get into the Devaraja Hall (the Hall of the Heavenly Kings). Originally this was the Mountain Gate, but after a renovation another Mountain Gate was built in front of this and this was renamed. The statues of the Four Heavenly kings and the statues of the two Generals, “Heng” and “Ha” who are tasked to protect the Buddha are located inside the Devaraja Hall. “Heng” and “Ha” refer to Kongorikishi or Niō, the two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the Buddha with a vajra (a thunderbolt or mystical weapon) in hands. The Chuipu and Ciyun halls are located on the right and left sides of the Devaraja Hall.
Then you enter the Mahavira Hall, or the Hall of Buddha Trinity, where there are statues of the Three Buddhas, Kinnara, who saved the monastery from an attack from enemies in the 14th century and Bodhidharma. The main religious activities of the Shaolin Temple are held in this hall. The monks gather here early morning and evening for chanting of the sutras. The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower stand on the right and left of the Mahavira Hall.
The Mahavira Hall is followed by the Scripture Hall, the abbot’s room and the Lixue Pavillion. On the sides of these three halls are located the dorms for monks. At the end of the compound comes the Thousand Bodhisattva Hall. Next to this there is a theatre where Kung Fu shows are held for visitors. There are at least 2 shows daily, each lasting 30 minutes. The monks show their mettle in different exercises.
There are many shops nearby this theatre where you may buy snacks and souvenirs.
Another attraction here is the Pagoda Forest which is located half a kilometer to the West of the Temple. The pagodas are tombs of the abbots and eminent monks of the Temple. On a distant view the pagodas look symmetrical, but on a closer observation you notice the apparent differences. Some are taller than the others, some have more detailed art work on them and some are totally differently shaped from the rest, all depending on the ranks and popularity of the monks.
A note on Bodhidharma
The Bodhidharma cave is situated on top of the Wuru Peak. You need a cable car to reach here. According to legends, Bodhidharma meditated here facing a wall for nine years. It is said that his shadow was reflected on a stone and embedded on it. This stone was called the ‘Stone of Bodhidharma’s shadow’. Unfortunately it was ruined during a war. The 7-metre deep cave has a statue of Bodhidharma and two of his disciples.
Who was Bodhidharma?
Available records say that Bodhidharma was a Brahman Prince in Tanjavur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. Following the instructions of his master, he travelled to China in the 6th century AD to preach Buddhism. We already know that many Indian Buddhist monks travelled to the eastern countries to preach Buddhism when the religion faced decadence in its own birthplace after the demise of the Buddha. Bodhidharma whom the locals called Da Mo reached Guangzhou and from there he travelled to Luoyang on a reed according to legends. After making his way to the Shaolin Temple he decided to stay there. This is where he introduced and preached the Chan Buddhism and opened the world of Kung Fu. The word ‘Chan’ is said to come from the Sanskrit ‘Dhyana’ meaning meditation. Buddha believed in silent meditation as the best form of preaching and that was what Bodhidharma followed. The same form of Buddhism is known as Zen Buddhism in Japan.
Here’s a short step-by-step guide to visiting the Shaolin Temple:
- You can fly to Luoyang from Beijing and take a bus to Dengfeng. There are shuttle buses from the terminal to Dengfeng every hour from 7 am to 5 pm. You may also fly or take a train to Xian from Beijing and from there take a train to Luoyang (one and half hour).
- Take the line bus 8 or one of the shuttle buses to Shaolin Temple from the Dengfeng terminal to reach the Temple.
- Once you reach the Shaolin Temple get to the ticket office and get your ticket for RMB 110, enter the huge gate and board a battery car. It will take you to the Mountain Gate. From here you may enter the halls on the compound one by one.
- There’s a restaurant near the ticket office selling western food.