The Shaolin Temple, famous in modern and popular culture as the Buddhist temple which has served as the mecca of all modern Asian martial arts.
But how many of us actually considered the seemingly apparent contradiction between the practice of warfare and the aims of Buddhism to enlighten man through non-violence and the letting go of worldly things?
Chan (or Zen) Buddhism has been one of the three great philosophies that has influenced China for centuries. The other two philosophies being Taoism and Confucianism. The Hinayana sect of Buddhism typically advocates enlightenment by not engaging in worldly affairs. However Chan Buddhism advocates remaining within the daily affairs of life to obtain enlightenment. This is also advocated by the Mahayana sect of Buddhism. Experience is the key to our development.
Legends credits an Indian monk, Bodhidarma (sometimes called Da Mo )with being a key figure of the development of Shaolin Kung Fu with his teachings in early 6th Century China. Recently some researchers expressed serious doubts that a Bodhidarma ever existed. According to some scholars, rather, Bodhidarma refers a group of masters who contributed to the spread of Chan Buddhism throughout China.
The Shaolin Temple was created around late 5th Century China by the Emperor Xioaming for the first abbot of the Shaolin Temple, an Indian Buddhist monk names Ba Tuo. While there is no record of Ba Tuo being trained in the martial arts, current historical records show that he had two disciples who possessed formidable martial arts skills. These disciples were Seng Chou and Hui Guang.
Perhaps here, we have the true inception of martial arts within the Shaolin Temple.
The Shaolin Temple aligned with Chan Buddhism, was somewhat liberal in its practices by allowing the partaking in worldly affairs (with the exception of stealing, killing and sexual activity). Buddhist monks who drank wine or ate meat and would be turned away at some Buddhist temples would find acceptance within the Shaolin Temple which was more liberal minded. Perhaps it was this environment that also contributed to the practice and study of martial arts within the temple.
The first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shi Min (once known as the Prince of Qin) is accredited for the helping of the expansion of the Shaolin Temple in gratitude for their aid as the lent the use of their "fighting monks" to help turn the tide of a civil war with a rogue general, Wang Shi Cong.
The extent to which the "fighting monks" of the Shaolin contributed to the capture of Wang Shi Cong is disputed but what is known that the temple did experience significant size and member expansion under Emperor Li Shi Min.
Below are a couple of clips of an interesting documentary on the birth of the Shaolin Temple.