Chan Buddhism in China and the Shaolin - 禅佛教


Chan Buddhism in China and the Shaolin Monasteries - 禅佛教

Shí Lóng (石龙), collected: Xiao Feng @ Xing Long Tang

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Without Chan Buddhism there would have been no Shaolin Kung Fu. Chan provided the peaceful center, necessary mental discipline and emotional grounding essential to the creation of an environment where the most explosively powerful martial artists could come together and forge something more powerful than the world had ever seen before. Chan is the foundation upon which the Shaolin Monasteries and legacies they earned were built, and so this chapter on Chan Buddhism and the Shaolin is presented first in this book. It is also true that the destinies of the parent Songshan Shaolin Monastery and North Shaolin Monastery were different yet simultaneously intertwined. Sometimes they paralleled each other, sometimes they diverged, but they were always closely connected.

Buddhism may be the fastest growing religion in the west at this time in terms of new converts and in terms of “friends of Buddhism” according to some sources (Asian Tribune, 2007, Kulananda, 1997), though only representing 6% to 7% of the world’s population. On September 30, 2013 Reuters published an article titled: Xi Jinping hopes traditional faiths can fill moral void in China.

    “Xi, who grew up in Mao's puritan China, is troubled by what he sees as the country's moral decline and obsession with money, said three independent sources with ties to the leadership. “He hopes China's ‘traditional cultures’ or faiths - Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism - will help fill a void that has allowed corruption to flourish, the sources said. “President Xi and his family have feelings for Buddhism,” said Xiao Wunan, executive vice chairman of the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, a Beijing-backed non-governmental organization. “China estimates it has 50 million practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism, 23 million Protestants, 21 million Muslims and 5.5 million Catholics.

    Independent experts put the number of practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions at between 100-300 million.

Chan Buddhism (called “Zen” in Japan and the west) originated in China and is totally unique, especially as it applies to martial arts. The following is a quote by Shaolin Temple Abbot Shi Yong Xin posted on the official Shaolin website:

    “That a Kungfu practitioner must be at the same time a Chan practitioner is exactly what differs Shaolin gong-fu from gong-fu of any other Wushu (martial art) school in China. What is the kernel of the tenets of the Buddhist Chan Order? The kernel includes the following points: A practitioner needs:

    1. to stay consistently calm in emotion,
    2. to always keep his mind concentrated on his goal,
    3. to make a point of incessantly purging his mind of unwholesome thoughts, &
    4. to leave himself relaxed mentally and physically at all times.

    “In other words, he must keep his mind isolated from any possible worldly worries, vexations, or concerns, so that his mind is free of all possible disturbances and can work methodically to bring him from one minor awakening to another before he attains his ultimate enlightenment. Master Shenxiu (神秀) left us his Gatha (verse) which reads:

    “Devoid of defilements my body is pure as a bodhi-druma. Free of delusions my mind is lucid as a cleaned mirror. “But Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan Order, left us the following two lines of his Gatha, which read: ‘A bodhi-druma is in itself an illusion. Even more phantasmal are a cleaned mirror and its lucidity!’”

    Shaolin Temple Official Site

Buddhism is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama who lived from about 563 BC to 483 BC. He taught a middle path between the pleasures of the material world and more extreme asceticism sometimes used in search of enlightenment. Buddha means “the enlightened one,” or “the awakened one.”

Learn more about the Monastery and the History of the Chinese Martial Arts - televant articles in Hungarian are

Indian and Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Chan takes Buddhism forward in a way even beyond Indian Buddhism:

    “In Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) texts we find a far more powerful and all-encompassing attack on knowledge as such. Chan exegetes, as heirs to Perfection of Wisdom and Madhyamika dialectic, pushed the notion of skillful means to its logical conclusion, becoming deeply skeptical of any and all constructs. There were radical contextualists, who were, at times, willing to cast doubt on anything and everything, famously including the Buddha himself. Many well-known sayings (later to appear as Gong‘an) come to mind: ‘If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarch, kill the patriarch’ (fengfo shafo, fengzu shazu). And, ‘A monk asked Yunmen, What is Buddha?’ Yunmen replied, ‘A dry shit-stick.’”

    Sharf, R.H. (2007) P. 215

Differences between Indian and Chinese Buddhism may also have something to do with national character as Yamada Mumon suggests in the Forward to the book “The Record of Linji.”

    “Indian Buddhism is distinctly contemplative, quietist, and inclined to speculative thought. By contrast, Chinese Buddhism is practical and down-to-earth, active, and in a sense transcendental at the same time. This difference reflects, I believe, the national characters of the two peoples. Chan (Zen), the name given to the Buddhism the first Zen patriarch Bodhidharma brought with him to China when he came from India, proved well suited to the Chinese mentality, and achieved a remarkable growth and development in its new environment. An Indian would no doubt find incredible the Chinese Zen master Baizhang’s famous saying, ‘A day of no work is a day of no eating.’”

    Sasaki, 2009

The history of Buddhism in China is a bit complex and the short outline history that follows is only a thumbnail sketch of some major trends, theories and events.

Brief History of Religion and State in China

Han & Xin Dynasties (206 BC – 220 AD)

In 60 or 61 Emperor Ming-Ti of Han (汉明帝) sent an imperial embassy to India inquiring about Buddhism as the result of a dream wherein the Emperor saw an unknown Indian deity, which he later discovered was a gold statue of a Buddha. The envoys returned in the year 67 accompanied by two Indian monks Kasyapa Matatanga (Jia Yemoteng 迦葉摩騰 ) and Dharmananda, and shortly thereafter the practice of Buddhism was granted imperial sanction. Under the patronage of Emperor Ming-Ti “White Horse Temple” (白马寺) the first Buddhist Temple in China was built in the Eastern Han capital Luoyang in 68. For the next three hundred years however Buddhism was only represented by foreign monks as Chinese were not permitted to enter monasteries until 355 AD. (Eder, M. 1973)

Northern Wei (386-534), Jin (265 - 420) & Liang Dynasties (502-556)

From the fourth to the sixth centuries Buddhism enjoyed the support of many emperors, in the North during the Wei Dynasty and in the South during the dynasty of the Liang.

Bodhidharma (बोधिधर्म, 菩提达摩)

Bodhidharma was the Indian patriarch that originated Chan Buddhism in China. Chanis uniquely Chinese. In the Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (洛陽伽藍記), Bodhidharma is described as a Persian Central Asian (Broughton, 1999, P. 54 & 138). However, his disciple Tanlin identified his master as a South Indian Tamil (Broughton, 1999, p. 8). Given that Bodhidharma is described physically as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian” 藍眼睛的野人 (lán yanjingde yěrén) in Chinese texts (Soothill & Hodous, 1995), it seems probable that he was from the Central Asian region rather than south India. Many (Central Asian) Kashmiris have reddish hair and blue eyes, which they attribute to being descendants of Alexander the Great’s army which marched through that area (330-323 BC) with some staying and intermarrying with locals. Tamils being from the south of India are virtually all dark skinned with brown eyes and black hair. In all fairness to the Tamils however, it is possible that Bodhidharma was from there, but because brown eyes are a dominant genetic trait, both of Bodhidharma’s parents would have to have had foreign ancestors for him to have blue eyes. Daoxuan’s (道宣, CE 596-667) version of the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (續高僧傳 Xù gāosēng zhuàn) says that Bodhidharma arrived in the South Chinese Kingdom of Song, making his arrival sometime before 479, as that kingdom fell to Southern Qi in that year.

However, according to another historical record, the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (祖堂集 Zutángjí - 952) Bodhidharma arrived in China in 527 during the Liang Dynasty. So, it’s fairly safe to say Bodhidharma arrived in China sometime around 479 - 527, plus or minus a few years. After arrival in China he visited the Liang Court (now Nanjing) but left after his cryptic teachings offended Liang Emperor Wu (Emperor Xiao Yan 蕭衍 of Liáng 梁) a sincere patron of Buddhism.

    “The emperor asked Bodhidharma, ‘How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?’ Bodhidharma answered, ‘None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.’ The emperor then asked Bodhidharma, ‘So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?’ Bodhidharma answered, ‘There is no noble truth, there is only void.’ The emperor then asked Bodhidharma, ‘Then, who is standing before me?’ Bodhidharma answered, ‘I know not, Your Majesty.’

    “From then on, the emperor refused to listen to whatever Bodhidharma had to say. Although Bodhidharma came from India to China to become the first Buddhist patriarch of China, the emperor refused to recognize him. Bodhidharma knew that he would face difficulty in the near future, but had the emperor been able to leave the throne and yield it to someone else, he could have avoided his fate of starving to death. “According to the teaching, Emperor Wu’s past life was as a Biqiu (one of the first disciples of the Buddha). While he meditated in the mountains, a monkey would always steal and eat the things he planted for food, as well as the fruit in the trees. One day, he was able to trap the monkey in a cave and blocked the entrance of the cave with rocks, hoping to teach the monkey a lesson. However, after two days, the Biqiu found that the monkey had died of starvation.

    “Supposedly, that monkey was reincarnated into Hou Jing of the Northern Wei Dynasty, who led his soldiers to attack Nanjing. After Nanjing was taken, the emperor was held in captivity in the palace and was not provided with any food, and was left to starve to death. Though Bodhidharma wanted to save him and brought forth a compassionate mind toward him, the emperor failed to recognize him, so there was nothing Bodhidharma could do. Thus, Bodhidharma had no choice but to leave Emperor Wu to die and went into meditation in a cave for nine years. “This encounter would later form the basis of the first koan of the collection ‘The Blue Cliff Record.’ However that version of the story is somewhat different. In the Blue Cliff's telling of the story, there is no claim that Emperor Wu did not listen to Bodhidharma after the Emperor was unable to grasp the meaning. Instead, Bodhidharma left the presence of the Emperor once Bodhidharma saw that the Emperor was unable to understand. Then Bodhidharma went across the river to the kingdom of Wei.

    “After Bodhidharma left, the Emperor asked the official in charge of the Imperial Annals about the encounter. The Official of the Annals then asked the Emperor if he still denied knowing who Bodhidharma was. When the Emperor said he didn't know, the Official said, ‘This was the Great-being Guanyin (i.e., the Mahasattva Avalokiteśvara) transmitting the imprint of the Buddha's Heart-Mind.’

    “The Emperor regretted his having let Bodhidharma leave and was going to dispatch a messenger to go and beg Bodhidharma to return. The Official then said, ‘Your Highness, do not say to send out a messenger to go fetch him. The people of the entire nation could go, and he still would not return.’”

    Translation from, adapted from the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall

There is some controversy regarding Bodhidharma and his visit to Shaolin. Legend has it that after his visit to the Liang Court Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River on his way to the Kingdom of Wei, location of the Songshan Shaolin Monastery where he sat facing a wall for nine years in a cave in silence and that he experienced his enlightenment during this time. For example, Wang Guangxi, who was standing director of the Modern Chinese Literature Research Institute and Deputy Dean of Wushu Culture Research Center, Physical Education Institute, Shengzhou University wrote that: “Bodhidharma (?-563) once visited the Shaolin Temple but didn’t live there for a long time…” (Wang, 2008, P. 14) However, the Jingde-era Record of the Transmission of theLamp (景德傳燈錄 Jingde chuandeng lu- dates vary between 1004-1011) records the following:

    “The Second Patriarch of Chinese Chan is Huike 慧可 (487–593). After studying Taoism in his youth he turned to Buddhism, ordaining under Chan Master Baojing (寶靜禪師). Later he spent eight years in meditation, leading to a vision at about the age of forty that guided him to Bodhidharma… Huike went to Shaolin temple and called upon Bodhidharma at the cave where he was meditating. Receiving no acknowledgment from the master, Huike waited outside for the entire night. It was winter, and by dawn the snow had reached his knees. Finally Bodhidharma asked, “You have stood long in the snow. What do you seek?” Huike replied, “I request only that the master, in his mercy, open the Gate of Sweet Dew and liberate all beings.” Bodhidharma said, “The supreme, marvelous Way of all Buddhas can be attained only through ages of effort practicing what is difficult to practice, enduring what is difficult to endure. Why should you, with your shallow heart and arrogant mind, ask for the true vehicle and suffer such hardships in vain?” Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the master as a sign of his detachment and desire to study the Way. With this, Bodhidharma accepted him as a disciple.

    “One day he said to Bodhidharma, ‘My mind is not yet at rest. Master, I implore you, please put my mind to rest.’ The master replied, ‘Bring your mind here and I will put it to rest for you.’ Huike said, ‘I have searched for my mind, but am unable to find it.’‘There,’ said the master, ‘I have put your mind to rest for you.’ After about five years Huike received dharma transmission from Bodhidharma, then became a wandering teacher.”

    Sasaki, R.F. (2009 b) P. 264, 265

This text clearly states “after about five years…” which suggests that Bodhidharma’s stay at Shaolin was more than for a “short time,” giving some credence to the legends regarding the length of his stay at Shaolin. Six short treatises called Xiaoshi liumen are attributed to Bodhidharma while he was at Shaolin Temple “although there is no evidence that he was the actual author.” (Sasaki, P. 419)

    “Xiaoshi liumen” (小室六門) or “Bodhidharma’s six gates.” “Shaoshi” (少室) is an alternate name for Bodhidharma from the fact that Shaolin si 少林寺, is his temple, and was located on the peak Shaoshi 少室 of Mount Song (嵩). The six treatises that comprise the Xiaoshi liumen are: 1) Xin jing song (心經頌) Verse on the mind sutra; 2) Po xiang lun (破相論) Treatise on the cessation of thoughts; 3) Er zhongru (二種入) The two entrances; 4) Anxin famen (安心法門) Dharma gate for pacifying the mind; 5) Wuxing lun (悟性論) Treatise on awakening to the nature of mind; and 6) Xuemai lun (血脈論) Treatise on the transmission. The individual texts date to the Tang; texts for the Anxin famen and the Er zhongru have been found at Dunhuang. The Xiaoshi liumen itself appears to date to the Song.

    Sasaki, R.F. (2009 b) The Record of Linji,P. 419-420

The enlightenment of Bodhidharma, so the legend goes, laid the foundation for Chan Buddhism - the last major branch of Buddhism to evolve. Though the roots of Buddhism lie in India, Chan is uniquely Chinese, and is considered by many to be the most direct path to enlightenment. Bodhidharma’s vision of the path to enlightenment was radically different from the status quo of that time. He rejected most of the standard Vinaya (Buddhist rule) system of the time focusing instead on an intuitive grasp of the Buddha mind through meditation (“wall-gazing” 觀 biguan). In the Two Entrances and Four Acts, traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma, the term "wall-gazing" appears as such:

    “Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason.”

    Red Pine, Ed. (1989)

Both Tanlin and Daoxuan (writers of the Biographies of Eminent Monks) associate wall-gazing with “quieting the mind,” or an xin (安心) in Chinese which literally means “Peaceful heart.” Bodhidharma was unique amongst Buddhist monks in that he emphasized a mind/body unity and personal enlightenment rather than heaven. Some scholars suggest he was influenced by Daoism (Taoism) which emphasizes naturalness, simplicity, patience, non-action, receptiveness and spontaneity, generally speaking those themes found the in Daodejing (Tao Te Ching):

    “Simplicity, patience, compassion
    These three are your greatest treasures
    Simple in actions and thoughts,
    you return to the source of being.
    Patient with both friends and enemies
    You accord with the way things are
    Compassionate toward yourself
    You reconcile all beings in the world.”


The above quote does sound strikingly like “Peaceful heart.” Within Chinese Chan there are five schools. The lines: “One flower opens five petals, the fruit naturally ripen,” attributed to Bodhidharma is said to foretell the branching off of the five Chan schools that later evolved in China: Yunmen, Guiyang, Linji, Fayan, and Caodong, each of which derives its’ name from its founder.

The North Shaolin Monastery, originally called “Faxing Si” was built sometime in the Wei Jin Dynasty. It is the oldest temple in the very large mostly rural Jixian area but did not join the Shaolin Family until the Yuan Dynasty nearly a thousand years later. The Songshan Shaolin Monastery was established in 495 also during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). Emperor Xiaowen was a believer of Buddhism and he built the temple in the Songshan Mountain range to honor and house Indian Dhyana Master Bátuó (Buddhabhadra - 跋陀) the first abbot of Shaolin Monastery. He had traveled to China in 464 AD to preach Hinayana Buddhism. In 520 AD Bátuó’s disciple venerable master Sengchou was appointed Abbot of Shaolin Temple.

Not long after Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549) an ardent Buddhist assembled and catalogued a collection of 5,400 books. (Translations of Sanskrit books into Chinese gradually made up the Chinese Tripitaka Sanzang, which was concluded in the tenth century and first printed in 972.) In 577 Emperor Zhouwu issued an imperial decree to abolish Buddhism and the Shaolin Temple was destroyed (for the first, but not the last time). In spite of some emperor’s anti-Buddhist tendencies Buddhism continued to grow in China. In 580 Emperor Zhoujing proclaimed an imperial decree to rejuvenate Buddhism and Daoism and Shaolin Monastery was rebuilt and renamed Zhihu Temple, until the next year when it regained its original name: “Shaolin.”

Buddhist scriptures traveled into China via many different routes at different times. For a fascinating review of three different Chinese pilgrims travels to India during the first millennium, see The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims: Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing by Tansen Sen (2006). The status of Buddhism throughout its’ history in China varied greatly according to different emperor’s predilections toward different philosophies and in the case of the Shaolin, military needs of the different emperors, some of whom were devout Buddhists and others who sometimes brutally suppressed it. Buddhists and Taoists were often the targets of persecutions by primarily Confucian Emperors. Buddhism was a “foreign religion” and Taoists were often looked down upon by Emperors because Taoist philosophy showed somewhere between little and no respect for the established powers. It was an axiom for Daoists that “a prince is in no way different from a brigand,” and that any individual that is in communion with the Tao is a noble; ideas not especially appreciated by the nobility of the time.

According to the Weishu (魏书) the History of the Northern Wei Dynasty (History of Wei of the Northern Dynasties, tenth of the 24 dynastic histories 二十四史, compiled by Wei Shou 魏收 in 554 during Northern Qi Dynasty 北齊|北齐, 114 scrolls)), the origin of Chinese Buddhist “warrior monks” can be traced to the Wei Dynasty, whenthe Northern Wei Dynasty Emperor Shi Zu (Cao Pi) found weapons (bow, arrows, spears, shields) in a Buddhist temple and furious,ordered the destruction of their statue of a Buddha.

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

The Tang Dynasty is considered by many to have been the golden age in China for philosophy, arts, sciences and cultural development. However, under Emperor Gaozu, who reigned 618 to 626 and the founder of the Tang Dynasty (618-906) a treatise was written against Buddhism stating that monks and nuns were doing harm by neglecting their duties to their families and the state. Subsequently Buddhism and Daoism were prohibited. (Daoism was included in this because they had started a monastic tradition emulating Buddhism monasteries.) In 618 the Shaolin Temple was ransacked and burned. Only the Pagodas remained intact. In 622 the Shaolin was abandoned. Two years later in July of 624 the Shaolin was restored on the original site as the result of the monks appeal to the court. Despite the rough beginning, during the Tang Dynasty Buddhism virtually became China’s national religion.

Prince Li Shimin and Wang Shichong

Emperor Gaozu son, later to become Emperor Li Shimin (also known as Emperor Taizong), was a much more tolerant individual than his father in most respects. Li Shimin commanded troops from the age of 18 and was an expert with bow, sword and lance. He defeated a numerically superior army supported by Dou Jiande (573-621) at Luoyang in the Battle of Julao on May 28, 621 AD Also in 621 he enlisted the assistance of the Shaolin Monastery in a campaign against a contender for the throne of the dying Sui Dynasty, Wang Shichong. The battle took place around Luoyang where he would in later years Li Shimin would build his capital. Following the defeat of Wang Shichong:

    “The Tang court handsomely rewarded the Shaolin monks, one of whom was appointed General-in-chief (Da jiangjun) in Li's army. The inscriptions include a letter of thanks that Li Shimin addressed to the Shaolin monks, as well as several official documents, in which the Tang government bestows land and other privileges upon the monastery in recognition of its military support.”

    Shahar,Meir (2008) P. 363

In the Appendix, Shaolin historian Dr. Shahar goes on to write:

    “The stele (engraved stone memorial etched with the letter) is still extant at the monastery and includes a detailed history of the Shaolin Monastery, which was authored by the Minister of Personnel Pei Cui. Pei alludes not only to the military assistance Shaolin monks rendered to (Prince) Li Shimin, but also to another incident in which they resorted to arms: during the last years of the Sui Dynasty (around 610) they warded off an attack by bandits. Pei’s inscription, which is usually referred to as the “Shaolinsi bei,” is transcribed in numerous sources.”

    Ibid, P. 408

Dr. Shahar makes the point that there is no direct evidence of martial training at the Shaolin Temple at this point in history. “Though the names of 13 of the monks were recognized by Li Shimin for their meritorious service,” he wrote, “they could have been trained outside the Temple.” Dr. Shahar continues that this is a clear-cut example of “Buddhist monks operating in the service of a prince and indirectly an emperor, as part of an army on behalf of the state.”The distinction between different kinds of “monks” is discussed later in this chapter in the section titled: “Roads to becoming a monk.”

Buddhism, war and violence

One can only ponder upon the decision making process that went on in the Shaolin Monastery regarding whether or not they in any form (e.g. sponsorship of lay disciples) should engage in warfare on behalf of the state, though clearly a precedent had been set around the year 610 when the Shaolin Monastery first supported a military effort against bandits. Buddhism is an ancient religion which has been forced to confront many issues of the material world however much they may have wished to avoid them. For example, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (2003) lists the term: Yi sha duo sheng (一殺多生) which means: “To kill one that many may live.” (In a recent interview with the head monk of North Shaolin Monastery, Shi Yan Pei shuddered, and said: “No!” when read the phrase: “Yi sha duo seng.”) None-the-less, within the corpus of Buddhist culture and philosophy one can find such justifications. There is also “The right of great Bodhisattvas, knowing every one's karma, to kill without sinning,” e.g. “…in order to prevent a person from committing sin involving unintermitted suffering, or to aid him in reaching one of the higher reincarnations.” (Fangbian shaseng 方便殺生).” Soothhill, W.E. & Hodous, L. (2003) A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms There are alsomany Buddhist doctrines which acknowledge the need for a ruler to have a strong army to protect the people.

    “In the ‘Chakkavatti- Sihanada Sutra’ (The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of Wheel) of the long discourses of the Buddha, Buddha justified the requirement of the king having an army to provide guard, protection and security for different classes of people in the kingdom from internal and external threats.

    “Soldiering was accepted by the Buddha as a noble profession. The soldier was known as “Rajabhata.” However, Buddha did not permit Rajabata to become monks whilst in service as a soldier. Buddha instituted a law (Vinaya) for the monks to the effect that, ‘No soldier could become a monk whilst in military service.’ Further in terms of the Vinaya (the code of conduct for monks) monks were permitted to visit the battle field but they were ordered to return before the sunset. Permission was also given to visit injured relatives in the battlefield.”

    Major General Ananda Weerasekera(2013) Buddhism &The Soldier

There are usually many avenues to modify dangerous people’s behavior short of killing them, e.g. education, persuasion, negotiation, humoring, bribing, physical restraint of one kind or another, (e.g. supermax prisons) etc. However, history has repeatedly shown that certain individuals and groups are completely immune to such efforts in which case moral decisions must be made by those who have the legal and moral authority, and power to do so. “Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word cherished by the Buddha and other lovers of peace that means “do not harm or injure.”

    “The Buddha said
    All tremble at violence. All fear death.
    Comparing oneself with others
    one should neither kill nor cause others to kill.”

    Dammapada, Chapter 10, Verse 129

    “Victory gives rise to hate,
    those defeated lie in pain,
    happily rest the peaceful
    surrendering victory-defeat.”

    Dammapada, Chapter 15, Verse 201

In his Master’s Thesis titled “The Buddha and the Four-Limbed Army: The Military in the Pali Canon” Matthew Kosuta Ph.D. found that the Pali Cannon treats the military in a variety of different ways, which he arranged in six main categories:

  • Scenery, Symbol and Security. This category contains doctrinally neutral references in which the military appears as part of the background or scenery of the passage. It may appear as a symbol of the power and prestige of a king or as security for him or the state.
  • Category of Mundane (Lokiya) vs. Transcendental (Lokuttara). Military action is not conducive to following the Path; it should be recognized as such and renounced. The Buddha himself in his last life and in previous lives renounced the apex of Kshatriya life, that of a king. The skills and actions of a warrior are said to lead to a rebirth in a purgatory or hell. But, the military does not find itself singled out and condemned more harshly than any other mundane profession, action or skill. In fact, even when being condemned as ultimately unproductive, the Pali Canon often corroborates the high social status of the military within the mundane.
  • Teachings from the Viniyapitaka (the Book of Discipline) makes up the third category: Monastic Discipline and the Military. Some important rules include: a monk may visit an army that has marched out of its garrison only if he has sufficient reason and if his stay does not last longer than three days; monks are forbidden from viewing a mock combat, army deployment, or an army review. One of the crucial references in this study concerns the regulation banning soldiers in the king's service from joining the Sangha (the monastic community). This passage suggests that the Buddha made a political decision in recognition of Buddhism's need for protection from physical dangers and monks (fully ordained “Biqiu” at least) should not be part of that protection system.
  • Then there is a category treating the utopic rule of the Cakkavattin (a Wheel Turning King). Here, the military plays a strange role where the Cakkavattin maintains a complete four-limbed army and his sons are described as “foe crushers,” yet neither (actually) performs a military function and appear only as a necessary symbol of kingship.
  • The next category Professor Kosuta called “The Metaphor: Nirvanic Action is War.” Here the military plays an important role serving as a metaphor. A monk is frequently told that he must be like a “warrior or elephant skilled in battle.”
  • The final category is titled The Bodhisattva in Battle. Here we find militarily involved Jataka or past life stories of the Buddha. In them the Bodhisattva and future Arahants participate in military conflicts. Several of these Jataka present the battlefield as an excellent place to perfect energy (viriya). Several stories raise questions as to the karmic fruits reaped by the Bodhisattva because of his military actions. As we have seen these karmic fruits should be negative, but the Canon remains silent on the matter. From the Jataka we learn that being a soldier in no way negates one's ultimate ability to attain nirvana and, in fact, being a soldier might be an aid since as seen in the category Nirvanic Action is War, a superior soldier has the necessary qualities for a monk to succeed.

    Adapted from: Kosuta, Matthew Ph.D,The Buddha and the Four-Limbed Army: The Military in the Pali Canon

Thus the Shaolin Monastery was not the only or first Buddhist organization in the world that had to address these moral questions.

Western theology on engagement in war and self defense

Some western theologian’s rational for a “moral engagement” in war, defense of others and self-defense may shed some light on the Shaolin Monasteries’ participation in various levels of military affairs.

    “’May a Christian become a soldier and fight in a just war?’ According to Saint Augustine, he doubtlessly may do so if he is led by patience and benevolence. The military service shall only be open to moral and pious men, for they will not only bring about just peace through minimal use of violence, but they are also less susceptible to hatred and revenge when fighting the enemy.” Justenhoven, H.G. & Barbieri, W.A. (2012) P. 63

    “Killing in times of war can be legitimized in two ways: (a) by the legality of the war itself, what is a matter of natural-law-arguments, and (b) by the goodness of the soldier’s concrete behavior, which is a matter of virtue…. Its main principle is that the enemy will not be regarded with hatred.” (ibid, P. 167-168)

    “Augustine and Aquinas also strongly distinguish the private good defended in self-defense from the common good defended in war. A private person rightly kills only to defend his own life while a public official kills to defend not himself but others. So a private person is defending merely a private and personal good, while the public official is defending the common good: this is why, they argue, we permit public officials, but not private persons, to intentionally kill wrongdoers. If private killing in self-defense were indeed limited to merely defending one’s own self, then the analogy to war seems remote; but the right of killing in self-defense is not so limited. By both morality and law, a private person may use force to repel force directed, not merely at himself, but against innocent third parties. A private person has a natural right, recognized by all modern legal systems to use force to defend innocent strangers from direct attack.”

    Justenhoven, H.G. & Barbieri, W.A. (2012) P. 179-180. Italics added by author.

Taken a step further, one might argue that someone who has the power and means to protect innocent people from murderous actions, but fails to take action to protect those innocent parties against aggressive attacks is in fact engaging in a form of passive aggression against the innocent victims by allowing the aggressors to kill (or rape and rob) them (of movable property and hereditary lands). This implies a moral responsibility conferred upon those, Buddhist or otherwise, who have the power and the means to protect innocents from deadly violence.

The Abbot’s decision

This sort of reasoning may well have factored heavily into decision making process of Shaolin Abbots to engage in martial affairs outside the Monastery, albeit through secondary means, specifically lay disciples. Choosing to ignore large gangs of bandits, pirates and warlords would have been an abrogation of Shaolin Abbots’ and monks’ sworn duty to protect life as Buddhists. This kind of conclusion differs from that of Dr. Shahar who wrote:

    “Their generous patronage of the monastery resulted from the Shaolin’s support of the dynasty’s founder rather than from religious piety. The monks’ disregard for the Buddhist prohibition of violence was therefore the very source of their monastery’s prosperity.”

    Shahar, Meir(2008) P. 51 & 52

Shaolin’s participation in military affairs may well have been an extension of religious piety rather than an abrogation of it, following the reasoning of Saints Augustine and Aquinas as outlined by Justenhoven & Barbieri (2012), thereby nullifying the assertion that the Shaolin “monks” were: “disregarding Buddhist prohibitions” to win the favor of emperors given that protecting life is the first duty of Buddhists. Thus protection from imperial persecutions and prosperity may well have simply been just rewards for just actions as assuredly their rewards were neither asked for nor sought after.

First five Abbots of the Songshan Shaolin Temple: 1. Northern Wei Ba Tuo (跋陀, 495-520), 2. Seng Chou (僧稠, 520-560), 3. Zi Yun (资云, dates unclear), 4. Tang Zhi Cao (志操 -621), 5. Yi Jiang (义奖, -704)

One can see from the above table above that it was probably Abbot Zhi-Cao in 621 who made the decision to support Prince Li Shimin. Had he known what would happen only five years later he might not have made that decision as he did. Had he known what would happen over the next thousand years, he may well have made that decision just as he did.

The Prince becomes an Emperor: Taizong

On July 2nd, 626 Li Shimin murdered his two brothers, Li Yuanji and Crown Prince Li Jiancheng. His father abdicated later that year (some historians suggest under threat of force) and Prince Li Shimin, also called by his temple name, “Taizong” became emperor. Though these events may lead one to consider Li Shimin to be a rather terrible person, in fact he is considered by most historians to be one of, if not the greatest emperor in Chinese history. The Tang Dynasty entered into a golden age of sorts with rapid advancements in arts and sciences, and previously unknown levels of economic prosperity that lasted for more than a century after his reign. During the Tang Dynasty China was the largest and strongest nation in the world, covering present day China, Vietnam and much of Central Asia.

Subsequent Tang Dynasty Emperors and an Empress

His reign lasted 23 years and he was succeeded by his one of his sons, Emperor Gaozong of Tang (reigned 649-683). Sometime between 670 and 674 Emperor Gaozong visited Shaolin Temple, inscribed the Golden Prajna Stele(“Stele” is a large engraved stone) and granted pictures and other objects to the Temple.

Sometime in 682 or 683 Emperor Gaozong bestowed the character Fei (fly) upon the Shaolin Temple, which was inscribed onto the wall of the Temple. On September 25, 683 Empress Wu granted gold, silk and other goods upon the Shaolin Temple and erected a stele for her mother. Later on Emperor Gaozong left most of the business of ruling an empire to his wife, Empress Wu who officially reigned 690-705, though her reign really started many years earlier due to several strokes suffered by the emperor who passed away in 684. Shortly thereafter Empress Wu, best known as “Wu Zetian” came to the Shaolin to pray blessings for him. Wu Zetian had previously been a concubine of her father-in-law Li Shimin and was the only true Empress in Chinese history. She is generally considered to have been quite excellent in many respects. She greatly expanded the boundaries of the Chinese empire, updated census figures to ensure fair land allocations, and helped satisfy the lower classes through various forms of relief. Empress Wu Zetian promoted Buddhism over Confucianism and Daoism as the state religion in China countering Confucian beliefs against female rule with her own iron, and silken hand. She sponsored many scholarly exchanges and the construction of many Buddhist pilgrimage sites. She was the mother of three sons who briefly served as emperor after her, however her grandson Emperor Xuán Zong of Tang also commonly known as Emperor Ming of Tang and Hsuan-tsung of Tang (唐玄宗 712–756) was to become the longest reigning emperor of China, holding power for some 43 years.

In 704 Master Yijing returned from the West and restored the Ordination Platform at Shaolin Monastery. Under Tang dynasty Emperor Xuán Zong (712-756) a persecution of the Buddhists began on the basis of a memorial written by Yao Ch’ung, a Confucian. In the year 714 AD, 12,000 monks were forced to return to their families. The persecution was aimed at curbing what was seen as an excessive growth of monastic communities. (Eder, M. 1973) Although his reign was considered one of cultural brilliance, he also introduced new political elements including the notorious eunuchs that repeatedly usurped power and authority in the Chinese imperial court for the next thousand years. Emperor Xuán Zong’s strong preference for the rigidly patriarchal strictures of Confucian philosophy starkly demonstrates the dynamic tension (conflict) between Buddhism and Confucian administrative policies in China.

The Shaolin Temple however again had some residual protection from this suppression by virtue of its services to the former emperor –laying as it were the foundation for the Tang Dynasty. In November 723 Emperor Xuán Zong inscribed two tablets and dispatched Master Yuxing to send them to Shaolin Monastery. But, in another radical shift, in 845 Emperor Wuzong issued a decree to destroy Shaolin Temple and ordered the monks to resume secular life. Fortunately the next year, Emperor Xuan Zong of Tang (唐宣宗 reigned 846-85) (not to be confused with his ancestor, Xuán Zong ) reversed the anti-Buddhist policies of his predecessor and encouraged the reconstruction of destroyed temples. Part of his rational for this was his strong belief in Feng-shui (wind and water system) with which Buddhism was closely affiliated at that time. According to Chinese Buddhist historian Eder,

    “From the Tang time on the Buddhist clergy was placed under strict state supervision.

    “Altogether 5,358 monasteries and convents were allowed to exist, 3,235 for monks and 2,123 for nuns, besides 1,687 Taoist monasteries, 776 for the male and 988 for the female sex. The number of Buddhist monks was restricted to 75,521, and that of nuns to 50,576.

    “In addition, ordination certificates were instituted, without which one was not considered a member of the monkhood and could not live in a convent or near a religious institution. The law by which the Tang dynasty curtailed monasticism was taken over by succeeding dynasties and actually resulted in curbing the activities of the monks and preventing them from attaining in China an influence comparable to that in other Asiatic countries.”

    Eder, M. (1973) P. 169

Alternating waves of support for and persecution of Buddhists continued in subsequent dynasties.

Between 954 and 959 the Shaolin Monastery was abandoned again.

Northern and Southern Song Dynasties (960 - 1127 & 1127 – 1279)

The Song Dynasty was much the same as the Tang with one emperor supporting Buddhism and the next persecuting it, however the cycle became more extreme. For example, in 1019 Emperor Zhenzong (?? - 3rd Song Dynasty Emperor 997 – 1022) canceled all restrictions for entering monastic life. His successor Emperor Zhao Zhen (reign 1022 – 1063) tried to completely eradicate Buddhism. Historically however, practically everywhere in the world persecuting religion only makes them grow stronger.

Thus, it should be no great surprise that it was during the Song Dynasty that Chan Buddhism in particular reached its peak in China exercising a profound influence on Chinese life. As can be read in Chapter 4 – The Origin of Chinese Zen Buddhist Tea Ceremony – Chan Chadao: “One can discern the harmony between (and co-evolution of)Chan and Chádao and the natural pattern of both growing from the south to the north and from inside the monasteries to all the towns, villages and remote areas in China.” This process was well underway in the Song Dynasty. In 1087 Master Bao’en started teaching at Shaolin Monastery. About the same time Chan tradition was established, replacing the Vinaya tradition.

Guardian deities and moral justification for martial endeavor

The Song Dynasties (North and South) were also a time when some degree of moral justification for martial (war) arts via the veneration of the supernatural guardian deity Naluoyan at the Shaolin emerged. Dr. Shahar goes on to mention that in the 16th century Naluoyan’s identity “merged” with that of another Buddhist deity, Jinnaluo, if for no other reason than the similarities in their Chinese names. Though Jinnaluo was also a foreign deity, he was adopted by the Shaolin and armed with a staff ennobled with divine prestige colored with “a Buddhist aura as befitting a monastery.” This then laid a foundation for the “supernatural provenance of the Shaolin martial arts,” (ibid).

Dramatic growth at the dawning of the Yuan Dynasty

In 1220 Abbot Zhilong set up the Shaolin Pharmacy. In 1242 Master Wan Song of theCaodong sect sent his disciple Fuyu to preside over Shaolin Monastery. In 1245 Fuyu held an ordination assembly at Shaolin Temple under the order of Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan (reigned 1260 - 1294) of the Yuan Dynasty. In 1258 Kublai Khan hosted a debate in Karakorum on Buddhism and Daoism. As the representative of Buddhism Fuyu argued on behalf of Buddhism and soundly defeated the Daoist representative.

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

The Mongolian Yuan Dynasty emperors were generally quite tolerant towards religion within their realm; however Kublai Khan didn’t care much for Confucianism and in 1281 demoted Confucius from a “saint” (Shengshén) to a sage (Shengxián). He also ordered Taoist literature to be burned. During Kublai’s time there were in China 42,318 monasteries with 213,148 monks. (Eder, M. 1973)

The Mongolian emperors favored Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhist advisors, teachers, and administrators brought a sense of civilization to the Mongolian court influencing each of the succeeding Khans. In the decades leading up to the official founding of the Yuan Dynasty Abbot Fuyu had been given jurisdiction over five other monasteries (in addition to Shaolin; dates vary as to exactly when this happened, though sometime between 1245 and 1260 seems mostly likely). One of those temples called Faxing Si, located on Panshan, in Ji County (Jixian, northeast China) was in 1315 to become the North Shaolin Temple. The other four temples were in Helin (then capital of the Yuan Dynasty), Taiyuan, Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and Loyang (in Henan Province).


The following is Fuyu’s story from the Goshen Biography of Eminent Monks.

    Monk Fuyu who is called “Snow Court” with the word “Hao Wen,” and surnamed Zhang, was born in Wenshui, Taiyuan (now Wenshui County, Shanxi Province). At the age of nine, he went around chanting words. Not long after there was some social unrest and he was orphaned. Before long he met an old monk. The older monk persuaded him to study Buddha, saying: “It would be enough if you are able to recite the Hokke Sutra.” Fuyu replied: “Buddhas teaching, is it only one book, Hokke Sutra?” The monk was surprised feeling that the child was not average, and subsequently brought him to a place named Xianyan, Wenzhou, in Zhejiang Province. There they met an old monk named Xiu Lin. After the old monk met Fuyu, he said to him: “You are the seed Dharma-Dragon and I’m sure you can make achievements in the future.” Right away he shaved the child’s hair and changed his dressing. Fuyu received full ordination. Fuyu and Guanggong, who came from Shuangxi (today in Jinjua, Zhejiang Province) took Co-Chair Deacon positions, and later had tours of Yen Ching (now called Beijing), and sheltered the monk Wansong for a long time. Fuyu’s reputation was rising at the time. A lot of seekers after Dharma went to learn from him. Before Emperor Kublai Khan ascended the throng, he ordered Fuyu to Shaolin Temple to preside over the General Assembly. Soon after Fuyu was ordered by Emperor Yuan Taizong (also called Ögedei Khan who reigned 1229-1241) to manage Taiping Xingguo Temple located in the capital city Hala Helin. In the Xinhai year (1251) Yuan Xianzong (Möngke Khan, 4th Great Khan of The Mongol Empire, reigned 1251-1259) led troops in battle in Beiting, Xinjiang province and later resided there. Month after month he asked Fuyu about the Buddha’s teachings. Fuyu answered simply and correctly which entered deep into the mind of the Emperor. As soon as Kublai Khan (Yuan Yuán Shizu - reigned 1260-1294) ascended the throne he appointed Fuyu to be the head of the Buddhist Affairs over all the country, and built a monastery for him in his hometown which was named Baoen Temple. He also gave substantial land to the temple. In the spring of 1271, Kublai Khan wrote an order to have the monks of the world gather in Beijing. Among those monks, the students of Fuyu stood as one third. The quantity of monks was magnificent and all were very talented in different areas, which pleased the Emperor. At that time, there was no head master in Shaolin temple, and two excellent monks named “Wan Song Xing Xiu” and ”Hai Yun Yin Jian” both recommended Fuyu to be the Abbot. Kublai Khan looked at Fuyu and said: “You have hosted the General Assembly of Shaolin temple, which means your destiny is tied with Shaolin Temple. Please take this position as the head master of Shaolin temple and make a change of this weak circumstance, revitalizing Shaolin Temple.” When Fuyu arrived at Shaolin temple, millions of people came to Shaolin temple because of his reputation, and millions of people made a donation. Temples in Song Yang were all decorated and renovated shiningly and brightly. At Bai Ma Temple in Luoyang, there were no breaks between lectures about Buddha and all of these scenes were due to the leadership of Fuyu. But Fuyu was very calm regarding his achievements, meditating as usual, like nothing had ever happened. Fuyu was very generous and humble; his posture was elegant and beautiful. He had made speeches for more than thirty years, with golden sounds like drums and thunder, his character was shining like the moon and sun. He inherited the forefathers’ goodness and standardized the code of youth; it was much more like he was the spring of all good merits. At that time, the dried pool sprang out with water; old palaces shined brightly, these great phenomenon occurred frequently. Fuyu told people around him, “Don’t spread this news out.” Yet everybody knew he will attain nirvana. In 1312, Yuan Renzong (also called: Buyantu Khan who reigned 1311-1320) was on the throne, entitled Fuyu as: “Si Kong”, “Kai Fu” and “Yi Tong”, and also conferred upon him the posthumous title: “Jin Guo Gong”, and wrote epitaphs in order to memorize his contributions to the empire. Emperor Yuan Renzong spoke to the country in person that: ‘The fore emperors were very humbled, and he was strong but did not to show his power by killing. He ruled by our forefathers’ with kindness. I feel like manifesting the merits of our ancestors, continuing our work to build a better world, the only way to achieve these is to keep our ancestors’ kindness and continue benefiting the people in our country. In memory of our saints, I feel sad because I can never witness his appearance in person. Although the past and the future are all like dreams, is it our obligation to entitle the great name to our saint only after he is gone? The reason we are conferring upon you a posthumous title is to convey my grief for your loss, and inspire the latter, to sing your merits of goodness.’ From this speech, we can see that Fuyu was admired and memorized to an incredible extent. Wang, Rutong (Ed.)(2013) Goshen Biography of Eminent Monks (P. 258-260), English translation by Wang Chen Gang and Jin Tai Feng(Not previously published)

Before closing this section on the Yuan Dynasty is should be noted that in 1327 Japanese monk Shao Yuan came to Shaolin Monastery and lived there for 21 years. During that time he was appointed to several positions of authority including Secretary, Chief Elder, and others. On March 26, 1351 “Red Turban rebels” (uprising aided by the White Lotus Society devoted to overthrowing the Yuan Dynasty) laid siege to Shaolin Temple, and monk Kinnara frightened them away with “miraculous divine power.” (Shi Yong Xin, Shaolin Abbot, Publ. 2013)

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

Born a poor peasant, the founder of the Ming Dynasty Hóngwu (reigned 1368–1398) was a monk himself a couple of times as a youth and young man. He learned to read and write in the monastery and became emperor at age 40 in 1368 after leading a truly massive rebellion against the decaying Yuan Dynasty. Nonetheless in 1372 he issued a proclamation reinstalling restrictions placed upon Buddhism rather similar to those in the Song Dynasty. The third emperor of the Ming added to those restrictions including a rule that no one may enter the monastery until age 40. Emperor Jiajing (1521–1566) enacted even harsher mandates against Buddhist temples. Not surprisingly people sympathizing with the monks whose temples had been plundered and burned by soldiers joined the “White Lotus Society” which ultimately played a pivotal role in ending the Ming dynasty (1644). None-the-less, the Shaolin Temples sailed through these times by again, defending the state against murderous, rapacious aggressors and in support of the Emperor.

    “During the Jiajing (1522-1566) reign, the Liu bandits, Wang Tang, and the pirates, as well as Shi Shangzhao and others created violent disturbances. This monastery’s fighting monks (wu seng) were repeatedly called upon to suppress them. They courageously killed the bandits, many earning the merit of putting their lives on the line. Thus this monastery’s monks have relied upon culture (wen) and warfare (wu) alike to protect the state and strengthen its army. They are not like monks in other monasteries throughout the land, who merely conduct rituals, read the Sutras, and pray for the emperor’s long life…”

    “It might have been Zhang Yong who suggested to the emperor that Shaolin monks be invited to the palace. We know that Zhu Houzhao employed Shaolin monks at the Leopard Quarter (Baofang) the pleasure grounds he built himself within the Forbidden City. It is unclear what the monks’ role within this private palace was, whether they served as bodyguards, or whether the emperor was fascinated with their religious powers, as he was with Tibetan Lamas. At any rate that they served the emperor in his private chambers indicates that Shaolin monks enjoyed unprecedented access to the imperial throne, maintaining an intimate connection with the reigning emperor himself.”

    Shahar, Meir (2008) P. 72,73

This symbiotic relationship between the Shaolin Monastery and the emperors, and the imperial largesse it engendered continued throughout the Ming Dynasty. In 1548 a pagoda was erected for Shaolin Kungfu monk Zhou You, inscribed with “A rival of the world, a Warrior Monk of Buddhism.” Six years later in 1554 more than 30 Shaolin monks received the imperial order to fight against pirates in the Southeast coast area of China and sacrificed their lives in that war. (Recall that Warrior Monks (Seng bing 僧兵), are different from fully ordained monks,Biqiu(Biqiu 比丘). In 1561 the famous general Yú Dayóu (俞大猷) (1503–1579) came to Shaolin Temple to inspect martial arts and selected monks Zongqing and Pucong to study club techniques with him. Chen Yuanbin from Hangzhou came to Shaolin Temple to learn Kung Fu and in 1638 traveled to Japan to teach and promote club techniques.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Unfortunately, the Qing Dynasty, also called the Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911) wasn’t much better for most Buddhists and in many ways worse. Emperor Kangxi for example was a strict Confucian and issued a verdict labeling religions that deviated from Confucianism as heretical. Most people at the time, and historians today believe this was due to his fear of secret societies that had sprung up during the Ming leading to its downfall. None the less, Emperor Kangxi was a supporter of both Songshan and North Shaolin. In 1704 Emperor Kangxi inscribed “Bao Shu Fang Lian” (Treasured Trees and Lotus Fragrance) and “Shaolinsi” to Shaolin Temple. He also visited North Shaolin many times, building a palace not far above the temple for himself and another for his mother, the foundations of which remain today.

His son (Emperor Yongzheng) wasn’t a Shaolin supporter, forbidding for example, the Shaolinmonastery from using weapons, however his grandson Qiánlóng (reigned 1735-1796) was not only favorably disposed towards Buddhism but also an avid supporter of the Shaolin, especially the North Shaolin Temple on Panshan.

In 1775 Henan Governor Xu Ji took charge of renovation of the Thousand Bodhisattva Hall, also called Pilu Hall, and Western Sage Hall.In this hall today one may see the deep impressions in the stone floor made by Shaolin monks during forms practice. In 1828 Henan government Yang Guozhen and others donated over 3,700 Liang of silver (185 kilos) for renovation of the Shaolin Monastery. In 1912 the child emperor Puyi was forced to resign brining to an end over 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. Unfortunately this created a power vacuum which was filled by competing warlords that tore the country apart. On March 15th, 1928 Warlord Shi Yousan set fire to Shaolin Monastery. Ninety percent of the buildings burned including “Scripture Hall,” and Shaolin Temple Annals (the history library).The greatest documents of the most enlightened minds in history were destroyed, along with the greatest collection of Chan Buddhist Shaolin history.

Dynasty Summary

From this brief history of the fluctuating relationships between religions and state in China one may observe that Emperors had a great deal of control over the disposition of the three major religions prevalent at that time, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, much more so than for example European kings, who for the most part had to bow before the centralized power of the Roman Catholic church for most of their histories at least until the Reformation.

This absolute power of the Emperors in China is derived from the Confucian concept that the Emperor rules only with the “Mandate of Heaven,” (Tianming 天命) and if he rules unjustly or unwisely he will lose that mandate along his throne. Buddhist temples in general had many great and terrible times usually dependent on the philosophical orientation of each emperor, as well as political, military and macro-economic trends e.g. need for monastic support in internecine warfare, or even weighing the materialistic productivity of monks compared to farmers or other working people. Chan Training - Gong‘an (Koan in Japanese and English) and Huatóu

    “If there was anything that was distinctive about the Chan monasteries, it was not the stress on zazen (seated meditation) or the occasional ritual in which the entire community was required to perform manual labor together (fushin samu) -those practices were common to all the public monasteries. No, what distinguished the training in Chan monasteries was chiefly the teaching style of the abbots, who based their talks and debates on the koan literature that was the hallmark of the Chan tradition.”

    Foulk, Griffith T. (1995) History of the Soto Zen School

Chan Training - Gong An

Gong‘an (公案), called “Koan” in Japanese are usually thought of as simple nonsense statements and questions for Chan Buddhists to meditation on, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Mediation on Gong‘anis one way to break the chains of the sometimes questionable logic that locks us into a narrow perspective of the universe, at least for a while. However, meditation on Gong‘an is more than paradoxical anti-intellectual nonsense designed to stop logic. This is evidenced by the fact that Chan tradition produced the largest literature of any Buddhist school in East Asia (Sharf, R.H. 2007). In Chinese Chan meditation, “Huatóu” (話頭) or “word head” is a common practice. Huatóu is the critical phrase of a Gong‘anand is also sometimes called “the point beyond which speech exhausts itself.” In this meditation, a fragment of the Gong‘an, such as “mu,” (emptiness and nothing) or a "what is" question is used by focusing on it and repeating it over and over again. The Huatóu or critical phrase was usually part of a larger or more involved Gong‘an.

The Huatóu method was instituted by the Chinese Chan master Dahui Zonggao (1089 – 1163) who was a member of the Linji School (of Chan). Master Dahui was interested in teaching the lay community, particularly the educated Chinese scholar-officials. According to Dahui, Huatóu is also a form of meditation that "can be carried out by laymen in the midst of their daily activities.”

The following are some examples:

“Who is it now that repeats the Buddha’s name?”

“Who is dragging this corpse around?”

“What is it?” (This comes from an interaction between the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, Hui-neng [638 – 713] and a disciple.)

“What is the original face before my mother and father were born?”

Huatóu is not about answering the question, but rather locking the mind into an open-ended question with no real simple logical answer. The meditator can play with and examine the question from all angles inside and out and never get an answer.

There is a saying about Huatóu meditation, “small doubt, small awakening, great doubt great awakening, no doubt, no awakening.” Dahui was against the intellectualism that he felt had begun take over Gong‘an practice with the book, “Blue Cliff Record” (碧巖錄) written his master Yuanwu Keqin (圜悟克勤). Dahui subsequently burned his copy of the “Blue Cliff Record.”

Most people would question: “Isn’t logic necessary for a good life?” The answer is “Yes” usually, but not always. For example, a smart person won’t close their eyes and run out into a busy street. That would be illogical unless they wanted to die. On the other hand, some people get so locked into (negative) “logical” thinking that they suffer depression and worse. Learning how to let go of the logic sometimes can free people to see the world simply and clearly as it is, rather than just a reflection of personal egoistic history which many people carry with them everywhere they go, unconsciously projecting it onto the world around them. Thieves tend to think everyone is a thief, business people often think everyone is out after money, and so on. On a deeper level a more accurate translation of Gong‘anis “legal case.” “Calling the teachings of Chan masters “public (legal) cases” (Gong‘an) started during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and became popular during the Song Dynasty. They are in one way an expression of official documents of secular law. However, when facing a wall (in meditation) it is the zero point. The perceptive master tests for this with scolding, shouting and even blows to see the real extent of attainment, like an old magistrate testing evidence.” (Adapted from Sharf, R.H. 2007).

    “Someone asked, ‘Why is it that the devices and encounters of the Buddha and patriarchs are commonly called public cases’ (Gong‘an)? Huan (Zhongfeng) replied: ‘Public cases’ are likened to case documents of the public court (gongfu zhi andu). They embody the law, and thus the control of disorder through the Kingly Way truly depends on them. ‘Public’ (Gong) refers to the ultimate principle (li) by which the sages unify the wheel ruts and standardize the roads through the empire. Cases (an) are the authoritative writings recording the principles set forth by the sages.”

    Sharf, Robert H., (2007)Thinking in Cases, Specialist knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, published in Furth, C. et. al, (Ed.) P. 209

Part of the deeper meaning of some Gong‘an stems from ancient debates regarding the sentience (有情佛性 youqíng fóxing) of animals and plants. This question arises as important because Buddhists can eat plants, but are forbidden to eat meat. Both are living, but why one and not the other? A monk once asked Tang Dynasty Chan Master Zhaozhou Congshen (赵州禅师): “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” (狗会有佛性?) Zhaozhou replied “No.” (無門關) On one level this stops the mind because it directly contradicts the Mahayana belief that all things have the Buddha nature. From a Chan historical perspective, it’s unbelievable, illogical, mind stopping and potentially mind opening.

However, there is another level of analysis here. It was during the 7th and 8th centuries in China that the doctrine that all sentient beings contain the Buddha nature, including plants, trees, stones and even dust particles emerged. However, others argued that only the sentient can attain Buddha nature. The sixth century Monk Jingying Huiyuan (523-592) made a distinction between the “Buddha-nature that knows” (néngzhi xing 能知性) and the “Buddha-nature that is known” (suozhi xing 所知性). The “Buddha nature that knows” then, was classified as “true consciousness” (真實性) which would include animals (sentience) and capable of awakening to Buddha nature through the elimination of ignorance. The “nature that is not known” was associated with the dharma-realm, emptiness, ultimate truth and so is universal, penetrating everywhere and applies to sentient and non-sentient things. Thus, a dog being an advanced, sentient life form, definitely has the Buddha-nature. Zhaozhou’s “No” therefore was simply astonishing. Later on in the Tang Dynasty this dichotomy between sentience and non-sentience became quite accepted. However, the ninth Tiantai Patriarch Zhanran (711-782) took this a step further by asserting 1) Mahayana doctrine insists on the universality of Buddha-nature, and 2) therefore cannot make a distinction between sentient and insentient things: the absolute principle is not dualistic and there are no objects apart from mind. Again, the dog has the Buddha-nature.

Zhaozhou’s “No,” (無門關) therefore was either an outrageous denial of classic Chan philosophy, or perhaps his “No” wasn’t an answer to a question at all, but rather an indication that the question itself was wrong, i.e. this is a false dichotomy, and the famous “No” was an admonishment to the questioner rather than an answer to a question and perhaps should be written (at least in English) as: “No!”

    “This ‘No’ is not, in the end, a denial of Buddha-nature to dogs so much as it is a rhetorical strategy for eluding the conceptual trap laid for him. Zhaozhou must neither affirm nor deny the doctrine of Buddha-nature and at the same time must avoid postulating a third ‘transcendent’ position.”

    Sharf, Robert H. (2007) published in Furth, C. et. al.(Ed.) P 226

The controversy regarding Zhaozhou’s dog did not end there but resonates up and down the corridors of Chan philosophy and the above is only one example in the long history of this Gong‘an. Another dialogue centering on Zhaozhou’s dog can be found in the Jingde Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (景德傳燈錄 Jingde chuandeng lu):

    “A student asked: ‘Does a dog also have Buddha-nature or not?’ The Master said: ‘It does.’ The monk said: ‘Does the Reverend also have it or not?’ The Master said: ‘I don’t have it.’ The monk said: ‘All sentient beings have Buddha-nature. Why does the Reverend alone not possess it?’ The Master said: ‘I am not all sentient beings.’ The monk said: ‘Since you are not a sentient being, are you a Buddha or not?’ The Master said: ‘I am not a Buddha.’ The monk asked: ‘Ultimately what sort of thing is it?’ The Master said: ‘It is also not a thing.’ The monk said: ‘Can it be seen or thought?’ The master said: ‘If you think of it you won’t reach it; if you deliberate on it you won’t get it. Therefore it is called inconceivable.’”

    Sharf, Robert H. (2007) P. 241

Thus, Gong‘anwere/are more than simple mind stopping paradoxes. They also represent authoritative precedents on how a Chan trainee is to respond to doctrinal questions and challenges. This quote from the “Transmission of the Lamp” should also illustrate that answers to questions such as about Zhaozhou’s dog vary according to the questioner and context. There is “no one size fits all” correct answer to a Gong‘an. Indian Buddhist doctrine compares the Buddha’s teachings to a raft used to cross the river. Once the river has been crossed, the raft must be left behind. Chinese Buddhists used a similar metaphor, referring to a finger pointing to the moon and one’s attention should not be focused on the finger but rather the moon to which it points. Thus, the teachings of the Buddha are in many ways similar to the raft and the finger, they help along the way but will become an obstacle if taken for the truth itself. The question: “Why can Buddhists eat living plants but not animals?” is a reasonable one, and the answers are not always simple but they are reasonable, until one confronts non-dualism which like the famous finger can only point the direction but never replace the moon. These Gong‘ans were central in a Buddhist Chan Monastery, Shaolin or otherwise as there can be no understanding of life in the Shaolin monastery without them. They were and are the focal point of meditation and meditation is the center of life in a Buddhist monastery.

    “Patriarch Bodhidharma once said: ‘Our mind must be like a wall in order to reach realization, without grasping of external appearance and with equanimity of mind.’ This statement refers to Mahayana’s Wall-Gazing Dharma Gate, whereby we use one thought to overcome all the tens of millions of thoughts. Only then can we achieve our monastic vow. As the ancestral monastery of Chan sect, Shaolin Temple considers the recognition of meditation as the most important and critical process of restoring the tradition and continuing the development of Shaolin Temple.”

    Shaolin Abbot Shi Yong Xin (2013) Shaolin - Temple in my Heart P. 142

Abbot Shi Yong Xin also notes: “Historically Chan is also derived from debating and Gong‘an is the result of the monastics’ disputes and examinations.” In his thought provoking book he goes on to recount some topics used in previous Chan debates at Shaolin Temple. In 2008 they used: “All the dharma (Buddhist teachings) coverage on one, and on what would this one converge?” And “The non-empty Tathagatagarbha Sutra, is it emptiness or non-emptiness?” The topics in 2009 were: “Outside of mind there is no dharma; the eyes are filled with blue mountains. Why?” “On Heaven and Earth, I alone am the Honored One. For what is he honored?” “Bodhidharma faces a wall, where he turns his back?” (ibid p. 164)

Chan Training - Mantra (Mantela 曼特拉)

Also essential in a Buddhist Chan Monastery is chanting of prayers. According to the Official Shaolin Temple site, every morning, all monks in the monastery gather in the Mahavira Hall to chant two sessions of sutras starting at 5:30 am. The morning sutras are:

1. The Shurangama Sutra, (Da Fóding Shouléngyán Jing 大佛頂首楞嚴經) which provides clear understanding of Buddhist principles, moral discipline, essential Buddhist cosmology, development of Samadhi (a very high level of meditation in which mind becomes very still and is able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience), and how to avoid falling into various delusions in meditation.

2. The Sutra of Sahasrabhujasahasranetra Avalokite'svara (Heart Sutra, a prayer for guidance from Guan Yin) and ten minor sutras. There are tranquil and pleasant songs of praise before and after each session. This is followed by breakfast at 6:30 am. At 4:40 pm Evening Chanting commences. There are three sessions of the evening chanting.

1. Chanting “The Buddha Expounding Amitabh Sutra” and Buddha’s name

2. Homage to 88 Buddhas & Great Repentance

3. Mount Meng Food Offering Rite

“The first session is for the deliverance of oneself to the Western Paradise World, the second session is for the repentance of the sentient beings, and the third session is to take some grains of rice from lunch and offer these to the Pretas (hungry ghosts). The first session is chanted on the odd dates, the second one on the even dates, and the third one daily.” (Official Shaolin Site)

This evening session lasts till nearly 5:30 pm at which time the monks are allowed supper called “Medication,” as traditionally monks were not allowed to eat after noon. However due to social development, an evening meal is now allowed. Tradition holds that Bodhidharma’s chosen sutra was the Lankavatara Sutra, and he was described as a “Master of the Lankavatara Sutra.” An early history of Chan in China is titled Record of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara Sutra, (Léngjia shizi ji 楞伽師資記). It is also sometimes said that Bodhidharma himself was the one who brought the Lankavatara Sutrato China.

The Lankavatara Sutra can be found online and read for free in many languages. It is about a meeting of Buddhas and in the form of a question and answer session between Mahamati the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva who had visited all the Buddha-lands, together with all the Bodhisattvas, and the Blessed One (Buddha Gautama). Reading just a paragraph or sentence is enlightening. Below is part of that sacred scripture.

    “The Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas, Mahamati, will before long attain to the understanding that Nirvana and Samsara are one. Their conduct, Mahamati, will be in accordance with the effortless exhibition of a great loving heart that ingeniously contrives means [of salvation], knowing that all beings have the nature of being like a vision or a reflection, and that [there is one thing which is] not bound by causation, being beyond the distinction of subject and object; [and further] seeing that there is nothing outside Mind, and in accordance with a position of unconditionality, they will by degrees pass through the various stages of Bodhisattvahood and will experience the various states of Samadhi, and will by virtue of their faith understand that the triple world is of Mind itself, and thus understanding will attain the Samadhi Mayopama. The Bodhisattvas entering into the state of imagelessness where they see into the truth of Mind-only, arriving at the abode of the Paramitas, and keeping themselves away from the thought of genesis, deed, and discipline, they will attain the Samadhi Vajravimbopama which is in compliance with the Tathagatakaya and with the transformations of suchness. After achieving a revulsion in the abode [of the Vijnanas], Mahamati, they will gradually realize the Tathagatakaya, which is endowed with the powers, the psychic faculties, self-control, love, compassion, and means; which can enter into all the Buddha-lands and into the sanctuaries of the philosophers; and which is beyond the realm of (43) Citta-mano-manovijnana. Therefore, Mahamati, these Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas who wish, by following the Tathagatakaya, to realize it, should exercise themselves, in compliance with the truth of Mind-only, to desist from discriminating and reasoning erroneously on such notions as Skandhas, Dhatus, Ayatanas, thought, causation, deed, discipline, and rising, abiding, and destruction.” “In order to make it attractive to all beings, a picture is presented in colors. What one teaches, transgresses; for the truth (tattva) is beyond words.”

    Suzuki, D.C. (Trans.1931) Lankavatara Sutra

The above quotes strongly suggest the reasons why the Shaolin Monastery moved away from the strict Buddhist Vinaya rule system and entered “pure”Chan during Bodhidharma’s stay.

Monastic Codes Sila 戒律 (jie 戒) and Vinaya (Lu 律) - The rules/laws

“Sila,” in Buddhism is one of three subsections of the Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right remembrance, right meditation) and is a code of conduct solemnly devoted to harmony and self-restraint with the main focus on non-violence, or at least freedom from causing harm. It is translated as “virtue,” “right conduct,” “morality,” and “moral discipline.” To understand life in the ancient Shaolin Monastery it is also necessary to understand least some of the Chan monastic codes, the earliest of which goes back to “The Great Canon of Monastic Rules” (Mó he seng qí lu 摩訶僧祇律) a work of the Vinaya of the Mahasamghika school, translated into Chinese in 416 by Buddhabhadra, (佛陀跋陀罗 Fótuó bátuó luó- the translator, not to be confused with a Shaolin Abbot with the same name) a monk from northern India, and Faxian (法显), a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim.

Faxianleft Chang'an(present day Xi’an) in 399 and journeyed to India to seek Buddhist texts. He obtained the Sanskrit text of “The Great Canon of Monastic Rules” and brought it back to China. This work divides the Buddhist precepts into two large categories—those for monks and those for nuns.(Adapted from Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism).

And then there was the “Chanyuan Qinggui” (Rules of Purity) written by Changlu Zongze (長蘆宗賾 died c. 1107) a Chan Buddhist monk in 1103. This document is the earliest guide to seated meditation in the Chan tradition. These rules governed daily life, and outlined very precise procedures for communications between the abbot and monks and laymen.

    “The Chinese text entitled ‘坐禅仪’, or ‘Zuo-Chan-Yi’ translates satisfactorily into English as ‘Seated Meditation Regulation’, and appears in the Chinese Ch’an Buddhist manual entitled ‘禅苑清规’, or ‘Chan-Yuan-Qing-Gui’, which translates as ‘Rules of Purity for Ch’an Monasteries’. This manual was compiled in 1103 CE by the emanate Chinese Buddhist named Changfu Zongze who lived during the Song Dynasty and represents one of the earliest attempts to formulate a regulatory manual for Ch’an communities – although traditionally the work by Tang Ch’an master Baizhang (720–814), entitled ‘百丈清规’, (or ‘Bai-Zhang-Qing-Gui’) is considered older. In this respect, the manual of master Baizhang is written in a descriptive, narrative style that suggests the correct ‘Buddhist’ conventions for the organizing of a Ch’an community – it is a ‘rule’ in a broad sense. Changfu Zongze’s text, by way of comparison, although not as old as master Baizhang’s work, nevertheless, may be described as providing a specific guide to personal behavior within a Ch’an monastic community – as its structure offers detailed advice in the form of exact ‘rules’…”

    Richard Hunn (2013)Zuo-Chan-Yi

“The Songshan Shaolin today follows the ‘Bai-Zhang-Qing-Gui’ rule system established by Master Bai Zhang during the Tang Dynasty.” (From the Official site of the Shaolin Temple, Chan Origin, Chan Rules, Monastic Routines.) However, this was not always true in the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Recall that the Shaolin Temple was built by Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei Dynasty for the eminent Indian monk Bhadra (also called “Batuo,” and “Fotuo”) who came to China in AD 464.

    “As the patriarch of Vinaya and Chan, Bhadra initiated the Vinaya tradition and Chan tradition at Shaolin Temple… A few years after Bhadra’s arrival, another eminent Indian monk, Bodhidharma visited Shaolin Temple and his teachings were a ‘special transmission outside the scriptures,’ and ‘letting one see into nature and attain Buddhahood’ initiated the mind-to-mind line of transmission and developed into the Chinese Chan sect. These historical events are all recorded on the book ‘Biographies of Eminent Monks.’”

    Abbot Shi Yong Xin(2013)

Thus, Vinaya rules were suspended in favor of pure Chan. Sometime later the Shaolin returned to the Vinaya system. However, not long after the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) the Shaolin Temple abolished the Vinaya tradition (again) and adhered strictly to the Chan tradition. (Abbot Shi Yong Xin, 2013) Again, sometime later the Vinaya system returned.

    “During the Tang Dynasty however, “there was a Tripitaka master Yijing, who had been to India to study Buddhism just like Xuanzang. He set up the ordination platforms to transmit precepts at Shaolin Temple. According to historical records the latest precept transmission ceremony was held during the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1662-1722). During the Kangxi era, the officially designated Shaolin Temple Abbot Bi’an Haikuang held a precept transmission ceremony. After the passing of Haikuang, Shaolin Temple had no officially designated abbot and thus creased to conduct the precept transmission ceremony.”

    Abbot Shi Yong Xin(2013)

The Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was a strong supporter of Shaolin Temple and he wrote the calligraphic inscriptions that still hang over the Heavenly King Hall and the Buddha Hall today. This went on for some three hundred years, until it was revived under the auspices of Abbot Shi Yong Xin, May 24, 2007.

    “Since 1999 we have been making meticulous preparations for the restoration of Shaolin Temple’s Ordination Platform. In 2001 we held a special academic conference on “Shaolin Temple and Chinese Vinaya Sect.” The reconstruction of the Ordination Platform commenced in October 2005 and completed in August 2006. The new Ordination Platform, 26 meters high and 3 stories, follows the architectural style of Qing Dynasty. It is so far the tallest wooden structural ordination platform in China.”

    Abbot Shi Yong Xin(2013)

Coincidence or not, there is an “elevated platform” very near North Shaolin Monastery (only a couple of hundred meters uphill at the top end of the Ta-Lin, or graveyard), about 25-35 meters tall made of a very huge rock. However, whether or not it was used as a Vinaya Sect ritual ordination platform is not known at this time. Though it looks impossible to climb, there is in fact an ancient stairway behind it, though it is extremely decayed and covered with forestation. It may have served a number of monasteries in the vicinity.

Roads to Becoming a Shaolin Monk (Ru zhong 入 衆)

According to Gene Ching, Editor of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Chinese martial arts, “In English, the word ‘monk’ means someone who is accepted into a monastic fraternity. The warrior monks are accepted as part of Shaolin’s lineage. However, in English, we use the word ‘monk’ to refer to Biqiu (比丘), a much more specific term. A Biqiu is a fully ordained male Buddhist monastic. Among their vows is the ‘no killing’ abstinence.’ Now, a warrior monk, or Wuseng(Wuseng 武僧), is technically a Sújia Dizi (俗家弟子), a secular disciple who does not take full ordination vows. All martial disciples fall into this class... The wuseng are fully accepted by the monastic fraternity of Shaolin.” (Gene Ching, Jan. 2014, correspondence)

To clarify the above distinctions:

  • Wuseng (Wuseng 武僧) Warrior monks – who fought for example thieves and pirates, but were not fully ordained monks in the western sense of the word “monk,” though in Chinese languageWuseng are called monks. Even today there are Wusengas thereis a special initiation ceremony, vows which must be taken and they must follow an accredited Shaolin Gong Fu Master.
  • Sengbing (Sengbing 僧兵) Military monks – fought as part of an army, i.e. at the founding of the Tang Dynasty, but also were not fully ordained monks in the western sense of the word “monk.” According to the head monk at North Shaolin Monastery Shi Yan Pei: “During special periods in Chinese history, Sengbing were organized to help the country, but they do not exist at this time as China is now in peace.”

The above two were

  • Sújia Dizi (俗家弟子) or Chan Buddhist lay disciples as compared to:
  • Biqiu (比丘) Fully ordained monks who did and do not engage in martial activity outside the temple (though one might speculate that they might have during the last great battle against the warlord Shi Yousanthat finally burned the Songshan Shaolin in 1928, or in the case of the North Shaolin, Biqiumay well have joined the Chinese resistance movement fighting against the Japanese, however according to Vinaya rules, by joining an army they would be violating their vows and thereby revoking their status asBiqiu).

This short explanation by Shi Yan Pei was followed by a short story: “According to ancient Buddhist law, monks in India were not allowed to carry money. So, when it was necessary to carry money they hired someone to carry it for them.” This may have been a metaphoric example justifying the use of employing Wuseng and or Sengbing to engage in military affairs, thus keeping the ordained Shaolin monks free from violations of monastic codes. Asked about the steps necessary to become a ShaolinSújia Dizi Shi Yan Pei answered with the following:

  • First, one must have the intention to become a Buddhist
  • Then, find a Master from the Shaolin Temple.
  • Then, after deep communication with the Master and the development of a bond of trust
  • accept “Wu Jie” (wujie 五戒 which means Five Precepts – see below) and food requirements

The food requirements include a) following a vegetarian diet (sushí 素食) and b) wasting no food.These precepts are not formulated as absolute imperatives for the Sújia Dizi, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice. After a sincere belief in Buddhism is established, there is a formal “Gui Yi” (Gui Yi 皈依) ceremony, wherein one becomes a “Sújia Dizi.” The Buddhist Gui Yi in China is a formal ceremony where one pledges the “Three Refuges,” (also called “Triple Gem, ”三宝 Sanbao): the Buddha(佛陀 Fótuó), the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha, the Sutras, 法, Fa) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community, 僧, Seng). In some Gui Yi initiates wear either a black or brown floor length wide-sleeved traditional robe. At others people wear their regular clothes. It begins with the about-to-be lay disciples assembling, usually in the “Buddha Hall” of a monastery, or in some cases a larger venue as the needs require.Usually the Abbot of a monastery will preside though in some cases another high ranking monk will take that position. Then there is a formal ritual invitation requesting the monks to attendand grant Gui Yi, who upon assent then solemnly parade in and assemble on a raised platform at the front of the assembly.

    “Your eminence, all of us, your disciples, who are now supplicating that your eminence will the master who transmits the Three Refuges to us, so that relying on your eminence we take pure Three Refuges. We take pure Three Refugesall due to the kindness of your eminence.”


(The above is a formalized version, usually not adhered to exactly. As Gene Ching noted: “Every Sújia Diziceremony is unique… They are like weddings. The ceremony reflects the couple.”) The initiates (may) then offer incense- holding it first verticallyin folded prayer hands, then turning it horizontally in front of the forehead before placing it in an incense burner.

    “We offer this incense, taking refuge with and paying homage to the Buddha, who is the king of the Dharma.”


In some Gui Yi there is a Repentance portion:

    “For all the evil karma that I have done in the past, Arising from beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance, And created by my body, mouth, and mind, I seek to now repent of and reform all before the Buddhas.” “Now you have repented before the Three Jewels, your bad karma is sure to be purified, and consequently, your body and mind are purified. Externally you should follow the ritual procedures; internally you should contemplate to generate compassion towards and protection over all the sentient beings and non-sentient objects, and vow to never do any evil but do all good things so as to benefit all the living beings.”


At some point, probably near the end of the Ceremony, the formal “taking of Refuges” is performed.

I, disciple _____, after taking refuge with the Buddha, will only take refuge with the Buddha.
I, disciple _____, after taking refuge with the Dharma, will only take refuge with Buddhist canon.
I, disciple _____, after taking refuge with the Sangha, will only take refuge with Buddhist communities.

Again, each Gui Yi is unique and the exact wording and specifications may be different.

During most of the ritual initiates are kneeling with the body upright, though in a few parts disciples are standing. Bows with the forehead touching the floor follow each major section.Gui Yi initiates take classes or do advanced study before this solemnoccasion to ensure they can fully recite and understand what they are vowing. The chanting is slow and beautiful and there are different melodies to the different prayer and proclamation chants. Part of the Mahayana Gui Yi Ceremony in China has the initiates proclaiming: “I (name) will not follow other religions or read the sacred books of other religions…”The Chinese Shaolin Gui Yi Ceremony is a little different with the initiate pledging to follow only Buddhist teachings. This is different from Gui Yi at the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple where initiates are reminded to continue to believe in whatever they believe, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohamed, God or Buddha. (

After this Ceremony the initiates are officially and at least in China, legally, Sújia Dizi .

In China after the Gui Yithe new Sújia Dizi receives a certificate, maybe similar to a Diploma, or in the form of a small booklet, like an I.D. with the date of his or her Gui Yi, the presiding temple official and his or her new Dharma name. The first name will be the generation name of the Buddhist group family name cycle, followed by a second “personal” or given name chosen by the Shifu (pronounced: “Sherfu”), or Master. If a person’s true desire is only for enlightenment (开悟 kai wu) then they can consider becoming a Biqiu - a fully ordained Buddhist monastic who forsakes the world, shaves the head (tidu 剃度) and follows the 250 Disciplines. This final series of steps to becoming a fully ordained monk is called Chujia (Chujia 出家). The entrant makes vows to the Temple, to Buddha and to his or her Master. To enter the assembly of ordained monks; also one must follow the Five Rules for the Entrant,(Ru zhong wu fa 入衆五法): Submission, Kindness, Respect, Recognition of rank or order, and none but religious conversation.

Since the reopening of the Songshan Shaolin about thirty years ago, most monks at the Songshan Shaolin were exceptionally talented Shaolin Kung Fu students living in the area around the Temple, who also inculcated the Buddhist virtues of the Eightfold Path. However foreigners are definitely welcome to join the Sangha.

Asked if a Jewish, Christian and/or Muslim could also be a Buddhist, Shi Yan Pei answered: “That is a matter of personal choice.” Within the past ten years very traditional methods have been included as part of the Vinaya process at Shaolin Monastery for someone that wishes to become a fully ordained monk.

    “The ‘Three Ordination Platforms’ refer to the three assignments that the monastics must get through from the householder to the home-leaver or monkhood. “At first, the monastics go to the Three Refuges and receive the Five Precepts, then the Ten Precepts for Sramanerawhich is considered as the entryway for the monastic life. Afterwards (prospective monks) take the two hundred fifty BiqiuPrecepts in advance of receiving Bodhisattva Precepts. “Sramanera Precepts, Biqiu Precepts and Bodhisattva Precepts are the three assignments that the monastics must go through. This is what we call the Three Ordination Platforms.”

    Abbot Shi Yong Xin (2013) P. 152

Though these may sound very esoteric and incomprehensible to the average person, taken one by one they are not difficult to understand.

  • Three Refuges (Sanbao 三宝) (See above)
  • The Five Precepts form the basic Buddhist code of ethics followed by lay and ordained Buddhists in both Theravada and Mahayana schools. These are:

    • I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing
    • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
    • I undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct.
    • I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
    • I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.

  • A “Sramanera” is a novice Buddhist monk. The 10 traditional Precepts are:

    • Refrain from killing living things.
    • Refrain from stealing.
    • Refrain from unchastity (sensuality, sexuality, lust).
    • Refrain from lying.
    • Refrain from taking intoxicants.
    • Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times.
    • Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment shows.
    • Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland (decorative accessories).
    • Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
    • Refrain from accepting money.

  • Two Hundred Fifty Biqiu Precepts (This refers to the) “Two hundred and fifty precepts according to ‘The Fourfold Rules of Discipline,’ set forth for monks. The term Biqiumeans one who begs, particularly for alms, and generally one who devotes oneself to Buddhist practice and subsists entirely on alms received from laypersons through the practice of alms-begging. A nun is called Biqiuni. With the development of the community of monks and the establishment of a system of monastic rules, Biqiu came to refer to only those men who had gained admission into the Buddhist Order by going through an established ordination ceremony. They were permitted to own only three robes, all made of cast-off rags, and one begging bowl. Thus equipped, they carried out their practice of religious mendicancy. Monks still in their teenage years were not recognized as Biqiu. In the early period of Buddhism, Biqius lived alone in forests and other quiet locations, devoting themselves to meditation and other practices. Later they gathered with other Buddhists to form a community.” The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism

(Monks in North Asia, China, South Korea and Japan do not beg, while those in South Asia do.) The 250 rules can (roughly) be summarized as follows:

    “Rules of discipline to be observed by fully ordained monks of Hinayana Buddhism. They are set forth in The Fourfold Rules of Discipline and consist of eight groups: (1) Four prohibitions. The prohibition of the four major, or unpardonable, offenses: killing, theft, sexual relations, and lying. Lying refers particularly to claiming a level of insight or understanding that one has not in fact attained. A monk who commits any one of these offenses can be automatically expelled from the Buddhist Order. (2) Thirteen major prohibitions. Monks who violate these may be divested of membership in the Buddhist Order for a certain period. (3) Two indeterminate prohibitions. The prohibition of two kinds of offenses by monks: being alone with a woman in the open and being alone with a woman in seclusion. They are called indeterminate because the punishment for violating them varies according to the nature of, or circumstances surrounding, the act. (4) Thirty standards that prohibit monks from storing things they are not allowed to possess or storing things they are allowed to possess either beyond the prescribed amount or by prohibited means. These offenses are considered light and can be pardoned if the violators confess their offense and relinquish their improper possessions to the Order. Refusal to confess is regarded as a cause for falling into the three evil paths. (5) Ninety standards, the violation of which requires confession to other monks. They deal with light offenses, such as lying about an insignificant matter, killing an insect, and duplicity with the intention of causing discord between two monks. (6) Four standards that concern the receiving of donated meals. For example, a monk is prohibited from receiving an offering of a meal from a nun who is not his relative. The breaking of these rules requires that one confess to another monk. (7) One hundred standards, which concern such matters as meals, dress, preaching, and daily behavior. Violations of these constitute light offenses. Those who commit such offenses unconsciously are required to repent in their hearts, and those who have done so consciously are required to confess to another monk. (8) Seven rules for settling disputes within the Buddhist Order. As an example, when monks are involved in a dispute, both parties must appear before the other monks, who arbitrate the disagreement.”

    The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism

Other essential knowledge for monks includes:

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths (si fa shi 四法施): all life is suffering (苦 ku), the cause of suffering is desire (Yu 欲), emancipation comes only by eliminating passions (fánnao zhang 滅/灭), the way (dao 道) to emancipation is the Eight-fold Noble Path (bazhengdao 八正道).

The three fires [poisons] are desire, hate, and stupidity, (san dú 三毒).

Most people living in the illusory world, eat, and dream in swirling deep seas of desire for power, wealth, beauty and other physical pleasures. Monks have to let go of (impure) desires to attain enlightenment. The way of the monk is not easy for it requires a level of spiritual, mental and physical discipline which most people cannot even conceptualize. For a Shaolin monk this must be exceptionally challenging as they have to endure intense physical training in addition to the spiritual and mental disciplines. But, no human or monk is perfect and indeed it seems some monks lean towards the martial end of their training while others towards the more spiritual/mental aspects, whereas a third smaller group finds the road between – the middle path – and truly excels at both.

Like China itself, the Shaolin Temple remains somewhat paradoxical. Some monks stay in the temple their whole lives, some go to other monasteries to live and/or teach, while others travel in or outside of China and teach. Some monks decide to stop being a monk, in some cases getting married. In some ways monks are free to do as they wish within certain parameters, however the organization itself is very top-down power oriented. The Abbot makes the decisions and the disciples do what they are told. But, as with the assignment of Gong‘an, decisions are likely to be contextually driven and tailored to assist the monk along his or her unique path to enlightenment. This is part of the special bond between Shifu (master) and disciple. Not everyone that wants to become a Shaolin monk can. It takes a special kind of individual and a unique relationship between the aspiring monk, his or her Shifu, the temple community and Abbot.

The Abbot’s (Zhuchí 住持) Role in the Monastery

The Abbot in a traditional Chan Monastery, following the judicial metaphor holds the role of magistrate and judge in assigning the Gong‘an to monks and is the quintessential spiritual and administrative leader of communities that sometimes number in the thousands. The North Shaolin Temple at its inception probably mostly followed Song Dynasty Vinaya monastic rules. Faxing Buddhist Temple was officially incorporated into the Shaolin family and named “Bei Shaolin Si” (North Shaolin Temple) in 1315, though it was at least nominally under the direction of Abbot Fuyu since 1245, even before the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and at the end of the Song Dynasty (960 - 1271). Thus, rituals at the North Shaolin Temple were likely to have followed Song dynasty tradition ultimately based on Chan monastic codes known as “pure rules” (qinggui 清规). In regards to the function of Abbots, at least two rituals from the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) deserve special note. First is called “Entering the Chamber” where the Abbot provided religious instruction to individual monks or small groups in personal interviews, and second, delivering formal talks in ceremonies attended by the entire assembly of the monastery.

In the first of these rituals the (strictly advanced) monk(s) had to follow an elaborate procedure called “Entering the Chamber” (rushi 入室) which included prostrations to the abbot and offerings of incense. Then the student would move in a proscribed manner to take up a position in the southwest corner to face the Abbot with hands folded reverently. The monk was then permitted to speak as (briefly as possible) and the Abbot may or may not have chosen to respond or engage in conversation. The student then withdrew with hands still folded and made a final series of prostrations. In some ways this procedure was a reenactment of the meetings between even more ancient Chan masters and disciples. “The student was required to enter and exit the room as if he were in the presence of a living Buddha.” (Sharf, 2005)

The second ritual is called “Ascending the Hall” (shangtáng 上堂) wherein the Abbot addressed the entire monastic assembly within the Dharma Hall (sometimes called “Buddha Hall”). The Dhyana Chair (Chanyi 禅椅) was the ceremonial “throne” of the Abbot located on a raised platform in the rear center of the hall, facing south. The most senior monks stood in the front row and subordinates behind in order of seniority. In both “Entering the Chamber” interviews and “Ascending the Hall” assemblies the Abbot’s discourses focused on sacred texts and recorded sayings and transmissions of the Chan tradition. Although Abbots were appointed by Emperors, they were regarded as the embodiment of Buddha by followers within and without the monastery.

To quote Robert Sharf, a preeminent scholar of Chan Buddhist tradition:

    “The Chan Abbot was treated, by virtue of his office, his spiritual genealogy and bona fides, and his deportment, as an enlightened master and living Buddha… Enlightenment is better viewed as a “social fact” constituted through his monastic office – earned as it was through years of intense study and practice – and displayed and reaffirmed in an ongoing cycle of ritual performances. In these performances the abbot was rendered the object of worship; monastics and laypersons would approach the abbot with prostrations and offerings in the same manner as they approached a consecrated icon.”

    Sharf, R. H. (2007) P. 232

Contemporary Shaolin Temple Abbots

Abbot Shi Yong Xin is the 30th generation Abbot of Songshan Shaolin Temple. At the age of 16 in 1981 he left home and went to the Shaolin Temple asking to be accepted. Then Shaolin Abbot Xingzheng asked him why he wanted to be at Shaolin and the future abbot answered that he wanted to become a monk and study martial arts. The Abbot told him to return home and get a letter of introduction from his parents, who then strongly objected and tried to dissuade him. Eventually however, realizing the sincerity and steadfastness of his intentions, they agreed.

Shi Yong Xin’s master, Abbot Xingzheng was an phenomenal person: abandoned at the Shaolin Temple at the age of six and practically blind by the age of nine, but none-the-less possessing of an extraordinary understanding of Chan Buddhism, memory and ability in mathematical calculations, he went on to begin leadership of the Shaolin temple during the great drought of Henan province in 1951. He also led the Shaolin Temple through the very difficult years of political change in China, patiently and intelligently ebbing and flowing with those changes until he passed away in 1987, some five years after the rebirth of the new Songshan Shaolin and the world fame that came with it. According to Abbot Shi Yong Xin:

    “My master took up the helm of Shaolin Temple during most difficult period in its history. He put his life on the line in order to secure the resumption of management of the monastery by monks. He was truly extraordinary and a living Bodhisattva. I and many others, including the older generation in our municipality and the villagers who knew him and his deeds and life story, all acknowledged the legendary life of the old abbot and deeply respected him. People did not think much of him when he was alive. It was only after his passing when people started to remember all that he had undergone for the sake of Shaolin, including his sincere and uncompromising commitment to Buddhism. They felt a deep sense of loss. The old abbot’s life was not easy. The old abbot’s contribution to Shaolin was monumental. Had it not been the old abbot, the continuity of Shaolin would have been truncated and the Shaolin that we know today would not have existed.”

    Abbot Shi Yongxin (2013) P. 23

When Shi Yong Xin was 19, Abbot Xingzheng named him as one of the heads of the Management Committee of the monastery and other monks began to refer to him as the “Second-in-Charge.” Shaolin has always been traditional in that each abbot is appointed by his predecessor, involving among other things the ritual passing of the Abbot’s dharma scrolls, alms bowl and robe to the successor. In 1987 on the edge of death, Abbot Xingzheng passed these sacred objects to Shi Yongxin. At the time there were 48 monks at the Shaolin Temple. Abbot Xingzheng’s last words to his successor were: “You must do your utmost to revive Shaolin’s reputation, and prosperity to its former height.”

For a variety of reasons however Shi Yong Xin’s official term as the 30th Abbot of the Shaolin Temple did not begin until August of 1999. At the Platform Ascension Ceremony, Master Benhuan, Chairman of Consultative Committee of the Buddhist Association of China and the Abbot of Hongfa Monastery in Shenzhen performed the formal ceremony of presenting ceremonial instruments and his platform to him. Thus he was consecrated as the 30th abbot of Shaolin Temple.

The Buddhist Association of China (BAC, 中国佛教协会), founded in 1953 and headquartered in Guangji Temple in Beijing is the official supervisory and regulatory organization for Chinese Buddhism sharing jurisdiction with the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The current president of the BAC is Venerable Master Yi Cheng. The BAC encourages participation of Chinese Buddhists in international Buddhist events and supports local Buddhist associations in paying clerics’ salaries, in registering temples with the government and other functions. The association publishes a journal called: Chinese Buddhism.

In 2013 Shaolin Temple Abbot Shi Yongxin published a book titled: “Shaolin – Temple in my Heart,” in which he wrote about his master Abbot Xingzheng, his own path to becoming Abbot, and many fascinating anecdotal stories about the near destruction of the Songshan Shaolin Temple during the Cultural Revolution, the rebirth of the monastery that occurred as the direct result of filming and release of the movie “Shaolin Si” starring Jet Li (Li Lianjie) in 1982, and many other fascinating things.

The “Eternal Dhyana” Abbot Shi Yongxin goes into some detail about the life of a monk in the Songshan Shaolin Temple of today. “Dhyana” (禅) in Chan Buddhism refers to various forms of meditation; however, Dhyana proper is the concentration of the mind resulting in Samadhi (Sanmei 三昧).After development of Samadhi the mind becomes purified of defilements, resulting in calm tranquility and luminosity. Once a strong concentration has become achieved, the mind can see into the ultimate nature of reality and eventually obtain release from suffering (enlightenment). Buddhist sutras mention that Samadhi practitioners may develop extraordinary and even supernormal powers and list several that the Buddha developed, however warn that these should not be allowed to distract the practitioner from the larger goal of complete freedom from suffering. Watching movies or reading books about the Shaolin Monastery, or Shaolin Kung Fu in general one gets the impression that it’s mostly a life full of innocent playfulness or martial heroism. In fact, now and historically, the life of a Chan Buddhist monk – Shaolin or otherwise - revolves around meditation. Abbot Shi Yong Xin’s book reinforces this assertion strongly.

    “Meditation is the focal point of the daily life of a Shaolin monk and monastic members are able to transcend life and death only through meditation, which is the foundation of Shaolin’s culture. Other forms of cultural expression perfected with meditation include, Wushu, medicine, calligraphy, architecture and sculpture.”

    Abbot Shi Yongxin (2013) P. 141

He goes on to say that the ideal state of Shaolin Kung Fu is the attainment of “immutable mind,” raising the question, “what exactly is immutable mind?”

    “Immutable mind-corpus, or mind-nature, (Xinxing 心性) is the self-existing fundamental pure mind, the all, the Tathagata-garbha, (or 如來藏心). Another definition states that mind and nature are the same when there is awareness (wu 悟) and understanding, but differ when in illusion (mí 迷); and further, in reply to the statement that the Buddha-nature is eternal but the mind not eternal, it is said, the nature is like water, the mind like ice, illusion turns nature to mental ice form, awakening melts it back to its proper nature.”

    Soothhill, W.E. & Hodous, L. (2003) A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms(P. 150)

One of the more arduous challenges for Chan monks is the longstanding Chan Qi, or Chan Seven, engaging in seven days of retreat. The ShaolinChan Qi is a series of seven back to back Chan Qi sessions lasting 49 days, called - Da Chan Qi - mainly done in winter. Not many outsiders know about this practice as canonical rules stipulate that monks remain in a state of austere practice behind closed doors and undisturbed in the Meditation Hall. Not every monk can even enter the meditation hall, not to mention participate in Da Chan Qi. The participant must have reached a certain level in meditation and be physically fit and strong. They must be able to sit comfortably for prolonged periods of time with crossed legs and must understand the rules of the Meditation Hall. There are many rules, over a thousand in fact. For example talking is not permitted and everyone must act according to instructions and follow the rituals precisely. Everyone who enters the Meditation Hall, also called the “Great Realization Hall” has a different vow but must have the goal to completely shed their old self and be re-born in the 49 days of Da Chan Qi.” Monks are disciplined if they doze off, sleep, shake or turn their heads, scratch or mumble. Those who breach the rules are reprimanded by the incense staff. There are also group leaders who talk to the monks and offer advice for their individual progress in meditation.

For the entire 49 days the monks contemplate the same “Huatóu.”

During the Da Chan Qi, monks wake up at 4:30 am and rest at 11:45 pm, taking a break from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. For the first 35 days the monks are not allowed to wash their face, shave or bathe. The monks cannot take a nap in the Meditation Hall and there are specific times when the monks can use the bathroom.

Essentially they sit in meditation for the duration of burning 12 incense sticks, then walk for the same duration which results in an estimated distance of 35 kilometers per day while meditating on their Huatóu. The rules and schedule of the meditation hall are quite strict. Again, to quote Abbot Shi Yong Xin:

    “Through Da Chan Qi, the monks undergo a major change in their inborn qualities and state of mind. The sense of “omnipotence” and transcendent joy that they experience cannot be described with words.”

    Abbot Shi Yong Xin

Comparison of Songshan Shaolin Temple and North Shaolin Temple

Little has been said publically regarding the plans for North Shaolin upon completion. As of this writing (Summer 2014) two of five main halls have been built: the Sutra Hall and the Buddha Hall. The next building planned to be built will be the Monk’s quarters, designed to house around 100 monks. Completion date for the entire temple complex has been estimated by construction crew chiefs as around 2016 or 2017.

Conversations with Shi Yan Pei, acting head of the small contingent of Shaolin monks currently living adjacent to the construction site suggest that North Shaolin will be even more focused on Buddhism than Songshan Shaolin has been in the past, but closer to that which is evolving now, and there will be less commercialism in the area around the Monastery grounds. This latter assertion will be assisted by the fact that North Shaolin Monastery is in a much more rural area.

Giving and Equanimity

Dana(Bushi 布施)and Upekkha (Anzhiruosu 安之若素)

In Chapter 19 of his book Abbot Shi Yong Xin defines “Dana” as giving, a means to eliminate greed and uses the encounter between Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma as an example of someone who puts accomplishments in the material world before cultivation of the perfection of self and cultivating the liberation of sentient beings. Upekkha he defines as equanimity, one of the four Immeasurables: Loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. He went on say that Upekha and Dana are closely linked and unified.

Historically the Shaolin Temples and most or all Buddhist temples in general helped the poor and needy in good times and bad. As the proud inheritor of Shaolin’s fine tradition, Abbot Shi Yong Xin is extending that tradition in a number of different areas.

  • In 1988 Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Monks Team was founded to assist in promoting traditional Shaolin culture.
  • In 1993, Shaolin Charity and Welfare Fund was established with a mission to relieve people from poverty.
  • In 1995, the Shaolin Publishing House was established and published the quarterly journal “Chan Development,” “Collection of Shaolin Kung Fu,” “Medical of Shaolin Kung Fu,” and “Collections of the International Chan Cultural conference” designed to promote Chan culture.
  • In 2004, the Shaolin “Ciyou” House (orphanage) was opened to support the “Thousand Orphan & Light Opening” project they initiated in 2003.
  • In 2008 they sent a monk medical team to the Wenchuan Earthquake zone and donated more than 100 million Yuan to help relief projects there.
  • Following the 2010 Yushu earthquake they donated some 230,000 Yuan for relief.

The above are just some of the more high profile charitable efforts made by the Shaolin temple, but does not include the thousands of smaller more personal efforts made by monks and other members of the Shaolin family in helping people both materially and spiritually worldwide.

    “I feel India’s Buddhism is not entirely the same as China’s Buddhism. Indian Buddhism emphasizes traditional meditation and many monks have exceptional achievements in mediation even attaining the state of perfection. There were many Chinese Buddhists who practiced meditation in the time before Chan Buddhism was founded in China. An example was Gao Shi-An, who spread the teachings of Chan and translated many Buddhist cannons. However, after Bodhidharma came to China, the approach to meditation underwent a profound yet harmonious transformation. Meditation no longer followed the Indian meditative approach whereby a practitioner would stay away from the world, engage in asceticism and focus on the pursuit of deep contemplation and meditation. Instead, the practice of dharma and meditation are integrated into all aspects of everyday life, whereby meditation is not separated from eating and sleeping or daily living and one could engage in contemplative meditation in everything that he does and realize awakening at any moment. Just as the saying goes, ‘walking is Chan, sitting is Chan, abide in a state of mindfulness when talking, when silent when moving or when staying still.’”

    Abbot Shi Yongxin (2013) P. 193-194

Buddhism and Other Religions


In 1971 John Lennon first released his visionary magnum opus, “Imagine.” The song encourages people to imagine a world at peace, not divided by nationalism, religion and material possessions. Naturally, he was murdered as have so many of the world’s greatest teachers of peace. The world’s population exceeded seven billion on March 12, 2012 and increasing population has resulted in increasing competition for resources which are in limited supply. Simultaneously, humanities killing power has increased logarithmically. All life on earth (except perhaps for some frozen cockroaches floating in the stratosphere) can be extinguished in a matter of hours using thermonuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Clearly a safe bridge between nations and religions is needed.

Is Chan Buddhism a religion?

Buddhism is about the path to “Enlightenment,” (开悟 Kai wu) and “Chan” means “meditation.” Certainly anyone can become “enlightened,” that is, truly in touch with reality without egoist biases, and the baggage of individual’s semi-random experiences in life funneled by language, culture, and global trends. Unenlightened people are trapped by materialism and lead more animalistic lives driven solely by base selfish desires. There can be and are, more and less enlightened Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples. Likewise there can be and have been very enlightened Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. Buddhism is totally unique as a religion in that there is no affirmation or denial of any God; it is simply a methodology for attaining enlightenment in some ways the same as medicine is a methodology for curing disease and attaining health. Some people believe that one can be a Jewish, Christian or Muslim Buddhist, just the same as one can be a Jewish, Christian or Muslim scientist or artist. No “faith” in an unseen God is required in Buddhism, but as with the other major religions of the world, an effort to free oneself of selfish, base animal level desires is required. Like Buddhism, the three major monotheistic religions generally assert that what is not forbidden is permitted and thus religious scholars of all major religions should in theory claim no “divine right” to forbid the practice of meditation (Chan Buddhism) to its followers.

The Buddha referred to “Buddhism” as Dharma-Vinaya— “the doctrine and discipline.” In Buddhism Dharma means cosmic law and order, something that physicists, astronomers, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists try to define. Newton’s Laws for example are not forbidden by any religion and neither shouldDharma be forbidden. Dharma means essential quality of the cosmos or one’s own nature, virtue, and law and in traditional Buddhist practice is used to promote equality and harmony among people, e.g. altruism. Most rational people view this as a complement to other religious philosophies rather than a contradiction or denial of their tenants. And, Chinese Chan Buddhism is more “secular” (practical) in its philosophy and practice than traditional Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism which are more scripturally bound.

It is safe to say that Chan Buddhism is absolutely unique and cannot be classified simply. It is about a direct intuitive path to enlightenment. Over the centuries some people have confused and mixed the religious. Some people have accidentally inherited odd mixes; syncretic amalgams of different religions yet believe they are practicing this religion or that. The Buddha never said or suggested in any Sutra: “Worship me.” That is “leak” from other religions into pseudo Buddhist practice.

Certainly many people bow before statues of Buddha, but in East Asia (but generally not China) people bow to each other and it is not a form of worship, but rather simply a show of respect. Great respect in English is called “reverence,” in which case the Buddha is worthy of reverence as Buddhism is definitely one of the great religions. People of most religions will agree that respect between humans and for clean ethically minded ideals is a good thing.

Chan Buddhism and fighting skills

Chan is meditation. Meditation is not this or that as these are the benchmarks of dichotomous thinking we first learn as infants and in very early childhood. As we “develop” we learn to separate ourselves from others more and more and shatter that harmony of oneness that permeates the universe. The Shaolin temples were the nurturing centers where the harmonization of mind, body and the environment first re-occurred bringing humanity back to humanity, cutting through the “culture” and “civilization” that divided us. Gong‘an, (legal case) is a very apt metaphor for the testing of enlightenment, as the needs of individuals and society are fluid and absolutely unique to each situation.

Kung Fu (Gongfu 功夫) is a lot more than kicks or punches. Kung Fu really means art, skill or discipline, depending on the situation. An attorney arguing brilliantly in the Supreme Court is using Kung Fu, just the same as a poet reflects the shimmering heat waves on a steamy summer day or frog jumping sounds in a small pond with words. There is immediacy, purity of purpose and clarity in the movements of a Kung Fu master that is instantly recognizable. There is no wasted movement (words or colors) in Kung Fu; the art flows effortlessly yet has tremendous irresistible power. Conscious thought is transcended and the artist is only a tool of greater forces in the universe expressing themselves. Meditation is the crucible, the rich fertile earth, the empty circle wherein creation is birthed. Without it there is no art, no Kung Fu, no harmony of forces.

But Shaolin Kung Fu is more than oneness or perfection of fighting skills. Babies, psychotics, drug addicts and morons can be experience “oneness” and cruel evil people can have masterful fighting skills. ShaolinChan Buddhism is unique even among other Buddhist schools because it perfected these arts within the context of a moral framework that protects life not only by non-action (meditation, being vegetarian, etc.) by also by fighting and sometimes dying to protect life, the community and nation. This moral purpose, centered in meditation and harnessed by an absolute commitment to the protection of life adds a depth of commitment and purpose not found elsewhere in human experience.

Practice of meditation can have a peculiar effect on the perception of time. During meditation time becomes more fluid. One can observe how the perception of time can speed or slow depending on internal mental activity (perception and cognitive flow). One second can last an eternity, or hours can flash by in an instant. The speed of the flickering of images through our minds is conditioned in us from birth and entirely unconscious but in meditation we can learn to become aware of our mind’s activity and harmonize it to the ongoing needs in and of our environment.

During fighting times seems to slow because of hyper acceleration of the mind and body. During fighting the entire organism becomes focused; both concentration (one pointed – right hemisphere of the brain) and awareness (everything at once – left hemisphere of the brain) are perfectly integrated and enhanced (a gestalt function). The “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Mental focus – concentration is perfect with awareness expanded not only to the relationship between fighters but also their relationship to the environment and useful potential tools in the environment that can be helpful in achieving the artists’ goal, whether it is a fighter, painter orsomeone arranging flowers.

For a fighter, past present and future merge as he utilizes ongoing learning of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses which is integrated into predictions regarding the probability of their attacks and reactions to any particular attack or defense – without “thinking.” Openings, weaknesses and their intentions become obvious. This is all processed unconsciously in the most ancient parts of the midbrain.

Chan meditation opens what doors are needed to enhance the harmonization needed for the artist to optimally express their art, whatever it may be, within the context of a moral framework illuminated by the masters who have gone before us. Time is not a “hallway” but an n-dimensional horizon – a blank canvass upon which we can paint a better, more peaceful and harmonious future for everyone. True masters do not seek power and work hard to avoid the powerful and complications that go with the material world if for no other reason than the old immutable rule that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Masters are perfectly happy to cultivate their own enlightenment until they experience the great awakening (成佛 Chéngfó in Chinese, Satori in Japanese), and at that point many of the masters then help others upon their own path to enlightenment.

For those of who don’t have to fight to survive or protect their communities with martial endeavor the applications of meditation are still omnipresent. Meditation has been demonstrated to have positive effects on everything from high blood pressure to problem solving skills, Olympic performance, improving sleep and attaining joyfulness. (For more on this subject seeThe Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research, by Michael Murphy, Steven Donovan, and Eugene Taylor.)


The foregoing should demonstrate that Chan(meditation) Buddhism is at the foundation of the Shaolin Monastery and Shaolin Gong Fu and is a philosophy unique in the world. Whereas most religions rely on rigid dogmas to perpetuate faith, Chan Buddhism in China has been and remains fluid to meet the ever changing needs of individuals seeking enlightenmentwithin the context of the teachings of the masters and ongoing needs of communities, the nation, world and cosmos and without. Chan Buddhism (meditation) speaks honestly and directly to the heart and mind bringing us to higher levels of awareness, freeing us from the chains of associations, fears and “overthinking” that inhibit and dull our perceptions (and fighting skills).

On the back cover Shi Yong Xin’s book “Temple in My Heart” it states:

    “As the successor of the Shaolin culture, my mission is to work tirelessly to perpetuate what our predecessors had left us and to pass on the Chinese Chan lineage from one generation to another. On this matter I admit that I am a staunch conservative because our tradition contains wisdom that can creatively respond to the realistic problems of individuals, society and nature.”

    Abbot Shi Yongxin (2013)

Ultimately the truth of Chan Buddhism is infinitely greater than any words can describe. The greatest truths are wordless:

    “Words are not known in all the Buddha-lands; words Mahamati, are an artificial creation.”

    Suzuki, D.T. (Trans. 1931) Lankavatara Sutra (Bodhidharma’s chosen sutra)

Interestingly this concept is reflected in the first sentences of the Dao (Tao). Below are a few translations of the first sentences: (Line 1) The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao. The Name that can be named is not the true Name. (Marby Trans.) Line 2: The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the mother of all things. (Chan Trans.) (For an interesting collection of 23 translations of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) in English, see: )

    “Xuefeng asked, ‘As for the style of our school that has been handed down from the past, how do you show it to people?’ [Deshan] said, ‘My teaching has no words or phrases. Truly there is not a single dharma to give to people.’

    Sasaki, R.F. (2009 c) The Record of Linji, P. 237

But in the end, “words” and “wordless” are just another dichotomy. Let ‘em go.

Javasolt irodalom és források

1. Asian Tribune (2007) Perera, Janaka. Buddhism fastest growing religion in West,Downloaded from: Feb, 2014
2. Boorstein,Sylvia (2010) That’s Funny, You don’t look Buddhist, HarperCollins, NY
3. Broughton, Jeffrey L. (1999) The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen,Published by Berkeley, University of California Press
4. (Date not specified)Encounter with Emperor, Downloaded from Feb. 7, 2014
5. Canzonieri, Salvatore (1998) History of Chinese Martial Arts: Jin Dynasty to the Period of Disunity, Han Wei Wushu 3 (9) February–March
6. Draeger, D. & Smith, R.W. (1969) Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, Kodansha USA, p. 15. ISBN 978-0-87011-436-6.
7. Eder, Matthias (1973) Chinese Religion, published in Asian Folklore Studies – Monograph No. 6. Downloaded from Feb. 7, 2014
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9. Furth, Charlotte, Zeitlin, Judith, T. & Hsung (Ed.) (2007) Thinking with Cases, Specialist knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, contains: How to think with Chinese Gong’an, by Robert H. Sharf
10. Hunn, Richard, “Zuo-Chan-Yi - ???The Ch’an School’s Correct Method for the Practice of Seated Meditation, downloaded from:, Oct. 21, 2013
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12. Kamenetz, Rodger (1994) The Jew in the Lotus, Published by Harper, San Francisco, CA
13. Kazemi, Reza Shah (2010) Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, Published by Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY
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18. Lim, Benjamin K. & Blanchard, B. (2013) Xi Jinping hopes traditional faiths can fill moral void in China, Reuters, September 30. Downloaded from: Feb. 7, 2014
19. Murphy, Michael, Donovan, Steven, and TaylorEugene, (1997)The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research, Institute of Noetic Sciences (Publ.) June.
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24. Sen, Tansen (2006) The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing, Education about Asia, Vol. 11, Number 3, Winter 2006, Downloaded from: November 9, 2013. Links to translations of specific travel records can be found in his references, e.g. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms – Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hsien of his Travels in India and Ceylon (AD 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline, Translated and annotated by James Legge:
25. Sharf, R. H. (2007) How to Think with Chan Gong’an, published in Thinking with Cases – Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, published in Furth, C., Zeitlin J.T. & Hsiung, P.C. (Eds.) University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
26. Shi, Yong Xin (2013) Shaolin – Temple in my Heart, China Intercontinental Press, Beijing
27. The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, Downloaded from Feb. 7, 2014
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29. Tang Fan Sheng, (Tang Hao) (2008) Shaolin Wudang Zhi, Published by Plum Publications, Santa Cruz, CA, USA
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31. ...

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How you may Enhance your Health, Combat Efficiency, Mental Freshness and Spiritual Joy through autentic Gong Fu and Chan Teachings