The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Examining the Myths Surrounding the Shaolin Temple



Before we get to the meat of this post, I would like to announce that the 2016 Advent Challenge ends today.

I want to thank everyone who stuck with it, those who fell off the wagon and crawled back on and even those who couldn't finish. There is always next year.

Enjoy your holiday.

Over at Skeptoid, there was an interesting article on the history of the Shaolin Temple. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


Today we're going up into the misty mountains of China's Henan Province, to find an ancient red Zen Buddhist temple. It is the home of the Shaolin, said to be the creators of kung fu, and the very birthplace of Zen Buddhism itself. This ancient and mysterious order of orange or yellow robed monks have studied here for centuries, and are the most accomplished of all martial artists, able to withstand any blow or attack. At least, so the story goes.

Americans got their first big exposure to the Shaolin monks with the 1970s TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine. In the intro, we see him as a young monk completing a rite of passage ceremony where he had to lift and move a heavy cauldron filled with glowing cinders, and in doing so his arms were branded with a dragon and a tiger. For all his quiet wisdom and serenity, this monk had fighting skills that were unsurpassed. It was a combination that was deeply attractive to Western audiences of the seventies obsessed with the superiority of Eastern enlightenment over Western materialism.

This obsession has not been lost on marketers. Today you can go to virtually any city in the world and find a Shaolin martial arts school. You can go to a theme park or aboard a cruise ship and catch a live stage show of Shaolin masters demonstrating their amazing abilities. Never mind that almost none of these have any connection with the actual Shaolin Temple. China is a land where counterfeit Apple Stores outnumber real ones by hundreds to one; and just as we'd expect, the name Shaolin is exploited every bit as much. But even the real Shaolin Temple licenses its name to anything and everything, even including instant noodles, coffee, take-out foods, tea, car tires, beer, and cigarettes, pulling in untold volumes of cash. The Shaolin Temple itself is little more than a tourist attraction now: take a five-minute group kung fu lesson with everyone else from the tour bus, and pose for your group photo holding your certificate; then stay for the live show, a mind-blowing combination of Cirque du Soleil and New Year's Eve at Times Square. It's little wonder that many serious martial artists hold the modern Shaolin in such disdain: the authentic ones sold out to be pawns for official government public relations, and the inauthentic ones exist only to cheat extra dollars out of naive martial arts students impressed with the venerable name. In short, it's very, very easy to find lots of uncomplimentary things to say about the modern Shaolin.

But even if all of that's true, it merely poisons the well of the Shaolin monks' actual history and actual abilities. It's still valuable to know these things; real history offers real insight and real lessons. But we find we quickly come up against a roadblock. It comes in the form of 1500 years of shifting governments and recycled, repurposed histories. It's trivial to look up and read about the history of the Shaolin, but the more scholarly the research, the more likely you are to encounter qualifications like "many historians consider this to be fictional" or "these stories are more accurately considered traditions than facts". But one thing we can say for sure: attempts to nail down the history of the Shaolin past 1928 are fraught with peril.

1928 was a pivotal year for China. It was the end of the warlord era, and the beginning of the reign of Chiang Kai-shek. For several years, growing Republican sentiment had been separating the warlords, but with a complexity far beyond the scope of a Skeptoid episode, combining ideologies, religious differences, and political changes. Suffice it to say that in March of 1928, the Shaolin found themselves with the wrong loyalties at the wrong time, the temple was overrun along with the surrounding city, and some 200 monks were killed. Elements of the National Army spent weeks systematically burning and destroying this symbol of Old China. Modern histories are always quick to point out that this loss included their library; more about that soon.

Prior to the 1928 destruction, the true history of the Shaolin Temple is probably quite mundane compared to its traditional history, which is filled with many more battles and cases of destruction. In particular it's said that the Qing Dynasty, sometime in the 1600s or 1700s, destroyed the Shaolin Temple and caused five fugitive monks to disperse throughout the land, thus creating a surrogate history for some of the other Shaolin temples and the spread of kung fu. Such stories are probably not true. Plenty of photographs of Shaolin Temple taken in the 1920s and earlier still exist, and show that the buildings were very old. Inscriptions can be seen in the photos documenting other parts of its long history of not being destroyed.

Nevertheless, there are times in its history when the Shaolin Temple was ransacked and even abandoned for periods of time, but it does not seem to have ever been destroyed prior to 1928.

Its original founding does indeed mark the probable start of both codified martial arts and Zen Buddhism in China, which is pretty remarkable. In the 5th century, an Indian Buddhist master named Buddhabhadra traveled to China to spread Buddhism, and by the year 477, he had become influential enough that Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei built the original Shaolin Temple for him to begin teaching Chinese monks. These are among the few facts of the early Shaolin that scholars generally agree upon.


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