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Monks, Bandits and Buddhas: Religious Myths of the Shaolin Temple

Ask your typical man-in-the-street about the history and legends of the Shaolin temple and you'll hear a tale of Buddha appearing there one day to teach martial arts so the monks could defend themselves against bandits and government upheavals. Ask a martial artist and you might get a slightly different version but one still basically outlining the same “facts”.

Legends of the Shaolin Temple

As often happens, legends and fairy-tales become fact after a sufficient amount of time has passed, especially in a case of a high-profile subject such as the Shaolin temple. All the necessary elements are there: exotic China, ancient times, mist-shrouded temple on a mountain, Buddha, bald-headed fighting monks, bandits wandering the roads, corrupt government troops invading … it's no wonder that children's books and adult's soap-operas have been created to perpetuate these myths – they're just too colorful, too romantic to ignore.

But the truth is perhaps unsurprisingly a bit more boring.

The First Buddhist Monasteries

The first Buddhist monasteries were established in China in the first century CE and over the following centuries became a familiar and accepted part of Chinese life, even if it always retained a somewhat tainted reputation among commoners as being “foreign”. Taoists copied the temple concept for their own religious uses, but China continued for the most part to remain staunchly Confucian. Two of the biggest points of alienation were the temple's insistence on being separated from family and the abstention from sex. The concept of family was already strongly bred into Chinese society at that point, as was the filial requirement to produce abundant off-spring. Placing a ban on both only served to make the temples seem that much more foreign to the average citizen.

Perhaps even more of a problem were the monks who wandered from temple to temple, begging alms along the way. China had long followed the Confucian dictates of having a permanent address and a respectable job, neither of which the monks could claim. The Buddhist monks therefore stood apart from mainstream society in a very fundamental, and often frightening, way.

Bad Monks

Cut-off from their families and hometowns, and without a stable job, the monks soon were associated with the thugs and bandits that infested the roads. In fact, many people shaved their heads and donned robes in order to appear to be monks, when in fact they were simply wolves in sheep's clothing. The government began requiring certification of ordination but the manpower available to check these qualifications was woefully thin. Combined with the number of monks who often broke their vows of celibacy and vegetarianism, stories of banditry committed by monk-clothed individuals served to further distance the temple's inhabitants from the common man.

The monastic authorities at large institutions represented the opposite end of the social hierarchy. Monasteries were large institutional landowners that often amassed enormous tracts of land and industrial production facilities such as water mills. Such powerful institutions controlled their tenants just like powerful local families, often treating them in the same domineering and exploitative manner. Also like local lineages and landlords, they organized their tenants into defensive forces and employed martial artists to train and lead those forces. The leaders of major monasteries were often themselves members of the social elite.

Introduction of Chan Buddhism

The early forms of Buddhism that reached China were heavily dependent upon literacy, and many of the monks described in Huijiao’s (d. 554) Biographies of Eminent Monks, Daoxuan’s (d. 667) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks and Zanning’s (d. 1001) Song Biographies of Eminent Monks were scholar-monks. Literacy and education were markers of high status in Chinese society, indicating beyond all protests of poverty in a biography that a monk came from the elite. A new form of Buddhism, Chan (Zen in Japanese), developed in China some time in the fifth century. Its introduction was connected to a legendary figure, Bodhidharma, who took up residence at the Shaolin Monastery. Chan Buddhism argued strongly against any preoccupation with text, something that Daoxuan and some later Buddhist biographers had some difficulty accommodating in their histories. It must be pointed out, however, that Bodhidharma was usually described as a member of the Brahmin class from India, and his early disciples were themselves well-educated.

Sectarian divisions within Buddhism, not to mention conflicts with Taoists and Confucians, bounded and shaped the biographies of monks. Yet in all of this, Bodhidharma and his nine-year “wall contemplation” had no connection whatsoever with martial arts. These disparate strands – Chan, meditation, martial arts, and Shaolin – were twisted together into a single thread nearly a millennium later, transforming Bodhidharma into a foundational martial artist.

The Monk Wars

The signal event that provided the historical Rosetta Stone of this myth was the participation of a group of Shaolin monks in the wars that took place after the Sui dynasty fell. When a warlord seized some of the Shaolin lands in 621, the monks raised a force and struck back, directly contributing to the efforts of Li Shimin, the future emperor Tang Taizong, in his efforts to secure the city of Luoyang. The monastery was rewarded with confirmation of its rights to the land and water mill in question and later with a certain measure of imperial protection from official harassment.

The monks involved were rewarded with military titles. No further mention of combat or martial arts at Shaolin Monastery appears for nearly nine hundred years following this event, though the monastery was frequently visited and written about. Shaolin’s prominence was the result of its importance as a center of Chan Buddhism. The spurious connection of a distinct tradition of martial arts at Shaolin to these monks was created in the Ming dynasty. The real connection between the monks and their military activities was land. As an institution whose wealth was based upon the lands and water mill granted to it by an earlier emperor, Shaolin had to defend its property from seizure. There was no religious connection to the martial arts.


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