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The Shaolin temple has many legends and mysteries surround it. The origin of martial arts, the origin of kung fu surround the vague mysteries of the Shaolin Temple and the shaolin monks.
Shaolin Temple is probably the most famous temple in China, not only because of its long history and its role in Chinese Buddhism, but also because of its martial arts or Wushu Chan. Shaolin Temple is situated in the beautiful Songshan Mountains, which is only eight miles of Dengfeng and about 50 miles southwest of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province.
Founded in 496 during the period of the Northern Wei (386-534), the temple is full of history. Batuo, an Indian monk, came to Luoyang, the ancient capital, for spreading Buddhism at that period. Emperor Xiaowen was a believer of Buddhism so he decided to build the temple in the Songshan Mountains to house Batuo, who translated many Buddhist works and had a few hundred followers there.
In 527, an Indian monk, Bodhidarma (known to the Chinese as Da Mo), founded the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which is known as Chen (or Zen). He stayed there till his death in 535, and the temple has become the centre of Chinese Buddhism. There are many legendary stories about him. One of the well-known stories says he was meditating in a cave for nine years. The cave is now called Damo Cave. Many people believe he wrote the famous 'Yijinjing,' the base of Shaolin martial arts or Gongfu. But there is no record about the book before and during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) so experts think Damo has little to do with Shaolin Gongfu. Zongheng, a Taoist priest of Tiantai Mountain, wrote 'Yijinjing' in 1624, but to add mystery to it, he made up a story saying 'Yijinjing' was originally written by Damo.
Shaolin does have a long tradition of Chinese martial arts, as the saying goes 'All martial arts (gongfu) are from Shaolin.' This is partly because Shaolin was located in a strategic area so they had to protect the temple themselves from wars or any invading, and partly because of the support of most emperors from different dynasties, which came after the 13 Shaolin monks once saved Li Shimin, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since then Shaolin was allowed to have solider-monks. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shaolin housed over 1,000 solder-monks at its peak and they were often used by the government to combat rebellions and Japanese bandits. But martial arts were forbidden during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Even with the protection of solder-monks, Shaolin was severely damaged by fire a few times. The largest fire set by the army of Shi Yousan in 1928 destroyed most of the buildings of Shaolin Temple.
There are many noted relics at Shaolin. There are over 300 ancient stone inscriptions, some of them by famous calligraphers. The large mural of 500 arhats in the Qianfo Hall was from the Ming Dynasty.
In another part of the temple, you can see the unique "Forest of Dagobas" (Pagoda Forest), with its 243 stupas or dagobas each containing the remains of an abbot from the Shaolin Monastery. They were built of either stone or brick. The first stupa at this site was built in 791 and the last in 1803. They range from seven stories (14.6 metres) to just a metre in height with many different styles. Against the deep and far mountains, this forest looks more like a holy place. But most of the trees are badly weather beaten and require maintenance.
Unlike other temples such as Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou or Ta'er Temple in Qinghai, Shaolin Temple enjoyed much fewer worshipers with burning incense. The layout of the temple is quite similar to other Chinese Buddhist temples. However, there are some differences. One of these variations is the numerous stone steles that line the main roads of the temple on which there have been left important records. On the high stele in front of the Bell Building, people can see the carved autograph of Li Shimin, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) emperor. Li granted the temple the status of "No.1 temple on earth", and gave the monks a high rank, after 13 martial monks saved him from the enemy - this is the plot of the movie "Shaolin Temple". Afterwards, the temple became famous and attracted a lot of lay people to study Kungfu. In other areas of China, other schools were established with names such as Emei Shaolin and Guangdong Shaolin. At present special organizations for imparting Shaolin Kungfu have been set up in more than 10 countries including the US, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, and Switzerland. People from more than 30 countries and regions have come to the Shaolin Temple to receive Kungfu training. And delegations of Shaolin monks have visited many countries for cultural exchanges in Kung Fu. Quietly wandering in the temple, you are sure to learn more about Shaolin Kungfu while listening to the monks practicing in the yard.
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