Shaolin Temple was established in 495A.D. at the western foot of Songshan Mountain, 13 kilometers northwest to Dengfeng City, Henan Province. The then-Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557) had the temple built to accommodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra). Shaolin Temple literally means “temple in the thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain”.
As the first Shaolin abbot, Batuo (Buddhabhadra) devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and preaching doctrines to hundreds of his followers. Later, another Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at Shaolin Temple, who was said to have crossed the Yangtze River on a reed. He spent nine years meditating in a cave of the Wuru Peak and initiated the Chinese Chan tradition at Shaolin Temple. Thereafter, Bodhidharma was honored as the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As Chinese Kungfu also originated from Shaolin Temple, it has been recognized as the origin of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Kungfu.
1. Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589)
Eastern-spread of Buddhist dharma had reached its peak in the Southern and Northern Dynasties since Han Dynasty. According to Wei Shou’ s Weishu Shilao Zhi, there were a total of 6478 temples in the Northern Wei Dynasty and more than 77200 monastics in the year of the Taihe period during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (477) of the Northern Qi Dynasty; more than on hundred temple were build only in the capital, with more than two thousand monastics. The Emperor also received Hu monks in the western regions and built temples for them to propagate the dharma. Then Shaolin Temple was established by the royal family under such a historical background.
Shaolin Temple was built in the year of Taihe period (495) of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Records about Shaolin Temple in the early days in the Huang Tang Songyue Shaolin Si Bei written by Pei Cui in the Tang Dynasty were described full and accurate: Shaolin Temple was built by Emperor Xiaowen in the Northern Wei Dynasty. Buddhist monk Bhadra was ancient Indian...he preached the one and only way and had a high level of the dharma. In the year of the Daohe period, the imperial edict was claimed that Buddhist monk Bhadra took charge of the position here, offered with cassock and supported by the government. Tripitaca dharma master, Bodhiruci and other eminent monks also came here to translate the Buddhist scriptures, which showed some eminent monks attached great importance to Shaolin Temple. And the number of people was attracted for Buddhist dharma reaching several hundred at that time.
Bhadra was a eminent master paying equal attention to Chan and Vinaya schools. His two disciples Sengchou (480 to 560) and Huiguang (487 to 536) carried on his career.
2. Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534)
Another prominent monk coming from Western Regions was Bodhidharma, honored as the primary ancestor of Chan Buddhism by the later generations, travelling among the Songshan Mountains and Luoyang area in around Xiaochang three years (527) of the Northern Wei Dynasty and Datong two years (536) of the Liang Dynasty. The Notes To Luoyang Temples by Yang Xianzhi records that.
The Continuation Eminent Monk Biography by Shi Daoxuan records about Bodhidharma’ s activities: Bodhidharma, got to the territory of the Song Dynasty earlier and later crossed to north in the Wei Dynasty. He preached Chan Buddhism wherever he went. Huike nearly 40 years old met Bodhidharma, worshiped as his teacher. Bodhidharma taught the Lankavatara Sutra and said: I observed the Han region only this sutra can be followed by the benevolent and transcend worldly life.
Bodhidharma and Huike, Master and disciple, ever relied on the mountains, inhabiting in Chan grottoes or Thatched cottages near the Shaoshi Mountain because there might be no temples to live. Maybe the Damo Cave, the Founder Nunnery, the Second-Master Nunnery and other memorial buildings are all outside the Shaolin Temple for historical reasons. Damo died in Datong two years (536) and was buried in Xionger Mountain where Kongxiang Temple was built.
3. Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581)
With the growing impact of religion in the Northern Zhou Dynasty posing a serious threat to the interests of the ruling class or the royal family, thus Emperor Zhou Wu ordered a national ban on activities of both Buddhism and Taoism in the Jiande three years (574) after many debates between both Buddhism and Taoism hosted. This is the second one of three famous events of destroying Buddhism in the history of religions of our country. Then Shaolin Temple was during the Northern Qi Dynasty, not yet involved. Shaolin Temple was renamed Zhihu Temple in the Daxiang two years (580) of Emperor Zhou Jing’ reign.
4. Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907)
The Northern Zhou Dynasty was replaced by the Sui Dynasty of Yang Jian’ s regin shortly after Shaolin Temple was renamed. Yang Jian grew up in the temple and believed in Buddhism. He issued an order that one hundred hectares of fields in Bogu village were given to Shaolin Temple during the reign of Emperor Suiwen (581-600). With the rapid development of the temple garden, Shaolin Temple became the target peasant uprising army attacked in the late Sui Dynasty. In the havoc of war of the late Sui Dynasty, Shaolin Temple suffered disasters again, the whole temple was destroyed and only one pagoda built in the age of Buddhabhadra survived.
In the early years of the Tang Dynasty, Shaolin Temple was able to be rebuilt due to the thirteen warrior monks’ war exploits meanwhile being given a large amount of farmland, which laid a good economic foundation for the development of Shaolin Temple. Shaolin Temple was known for its vinaya school at that time.
5. Five Dynasties, Song and Jin Dynasties
After activities of destroying Buddhism in the Huichang period, Shaolin Temple’ s reputation increasingly declined and monks scattered. There were nearly no new construction projects and little relevant literature data on cultural relics and historic sites.
Song and Jin Dynasties
Chan master Yiqing’ s two disciples Daokai and Bao’ en brought Caodong clan of Chan school into Songluo area. Chan master Bao’ en carried forward Caodong clan of Chan school in Shaolin Temple in 1093. Shaolin Temple still maintain a certain scale in the Song and Jin Dynasties.
In the late Jin and early Meng dynasties, master Wansong Xingxiu of Caodong clan as well as his disciples Donglin Zhilong, Mu’ an Xingying and others presided over the temple in succession. Zhilong built a free pharmacy bureau in Shaolin Temple.
6. Yuan and Ming Dynasties
Mongolia’ s ruling class advocated religious diversity to strengthen the reign of thoughts. Then the position of Shaolin Temple was obviously enhanced, known as the ancestral monastery of Chan sect or great Shaolin Temple and so on.
Shaolin Temple had 23 affiliated temples in the Yuan Dynasty with a population of more than two thousand monks, which was unprecedented in history. A number of disciples held administrators of the Sangha at that time.
In the early Tang Dynasty, Shaolin monks carried out extensive repair work for the destroyed temple in war in the late Yuan Dynasty, such as the Thousand Buddha Pavilion, Lixue Pavilion, the Sixth Patriarch Hall, the Kimnara Hall, the Dharma Hall, the Bell Tower and so on. In addition, many pagodas were also built in the Ming Dynasty. The pagodas reached the number of more than 140, ranking first place in history. Caodong clan of Chan school played a leading role in Shaolin Temple during the Ming Dynasty.
Japanese Monks Studying in Shaolin Temple, and Sino-Japanese Cultural Exchanges and Friendship, in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties
In the Yuan and Ming dynasties, there were Japanese monks visited Shaolin Temple to study Buddhism and also held the monk rank to manage affairs of the temple, and forged a profound friendship with Chinese monks, which has become a favourite story to this day.
7. Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China
Shaolin Temple also conducted a certain size of temple construction projects before the middle of the Qing Dynasty though less prosperous than the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The scope of the temple was still large. Since the Qing Dynasty, Shaolin Temple’ s ethos of sutra chanting and martial arts practice was still popular. The Qing Government followed the example of the Ming Dynasty to manage and control temples and monks. There were also many inscriptions of Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong for Shaolin Temple or its halls
The period of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China was its low time. Shaolin Temple went downhill because of social politics, poor management and others. In 1928, Shi Yousan contrived soldiers to Shaolin Temple whose main building was nearly burned to dust and ashes apart from Lixue Pavilion, the Thousand Buddha hall and the Gateway. Monks were forced to flee from home.
8. The Period since the Founding of the Country
The government allocated funds to renovate Shaolin Temple after Dengfeng’ s liberation in 1948. The country’ s religious policy was successively restored and promulgated after the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee. In abbot Xingzheng’ s care and protection, Buddhist activities of Shaolin Temple were restored, temple renovation was gradually launched and Shaolin Kungfu began drilling. Master Shi Yongxin comprehensively presided over Shaolin Temple’ s affairs after abbot Xingzheng’ death in 1987.
Master Shi Yongxin has been vice president of the Buddhist Association of China ever since September 2002, and president of the Buddhist Association of Henan Province since July 1998. He had been successively elected as the deputy to the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th National People’ s Congress since 1998.
In the leadership of abbot Shi Yongxin over 30 years, Shaolin Temple has achieved fruitful results in terms of boosting Buddhism and benefiting beings as well as cultural exchanges: cultivate monastic talents with right belief and right conduct; rebuild or renovate halls and restore the magnificence of Shaolin Temple; build Shaolin Kungfu monk corps going abroad and propagating Shaolin culture; restore the Shaolin Pharmacy Bureau to benefit beings. Shaolin Temple has been synonymous with China while Shaolin Kungfu becomes an import window that countries from all over the world know China.
Meantime Shaolin Temple also inherits and carries forward its own unique fine tradition: restore the Meditation Hall, hold Chan Qi each year and Shaolin Chan Inquiries for many years, host academic seminar on the science of Shaolin and Shaolin culture, restore the the Three Ordination Platforms Precept Transmission Ceremony; hold the China summit forum of Buddhist medicine each year; collect and arrange ancient rare books, enrich collection of books at the Sutra-keeping Pavilion, and also edit and publish many books successively; hold the Shaolin culture festival or Shaolin Temple Day in Europe and North America and so on. Abbot Yongxin had given special lectures on culture at Harvard University, Stanford University, Oxford University and other world famous universities. It was praised as the world-renowned Shaolin Temple by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2013.