Cashing in on Bodhidharma?s legacy

Deccan Herald, Aug 1, 2005

The Shaolin temple in China is surrounded by umpteen interesting legends. N N Sachitanand visits the temple where Shaolin Kung Fu saw its origin.
Henan Province, China
-- Having been an avid watcher of Kung Fu films ever since ?Enter the Dragon? made its spectacular debut in cinemas all over the world, I made it a point to include a visit to the Shaolin temple in the itinerary of our recent China tour. It is an eight-hour train journey from Beijing to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province located in central China.

The Shaolin temple is located about 90 km southwest of Zhengzhou. ?Shaolin? means ?forest at the foot of the Shaoshi mountain?, which is part of the picturesque Songshan range. In 496 AD, Emperor Wen Di, of the Northern Wei dynasty, built the temple for an Indian Buddhist monk by the name of Ba Tuo.

How the Shaolin temple became associated with the martial art of kung fu, or ?gongfo? as the Chinese call it, is a matter of different legends. The most popular legend ascribes the development of Shaolin kung fu to an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma, who was sent to China to spread the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism. On reaching Shaolin in 517 AD, he first meditated for nine years in a cave above the temple (now known as the Damo cave). During the period, he used the Kalaripaitu martial arts skills, which he had learnt in India, to counter attacks by robbers and wild animals. It was these skills that he imparted to the monks at Shaolin when he became the abbot of the temple.

Another version states that Bodhidarma promoted the practice of ?Dhyana? (meditation) that included sitting for a long period of time. Bodhidharma developed a set of exercises that helped monks to limber up. Over the generations, other monks improved upon these exercises by combining them with the Wushu of the local region. Thus was born the art of Shaolin kung fu.

Incidentally, ?Dhyana? became ?Chan? in Chinese and Bodhidharma became known as the founder of the Chan sect of Buddhism, which, on moving to Japan, was called the Zen sect. There is a moving tale about why the Shaolin monks raise only one hand in greeting, unlike the tradition of folding hands followed by other Buddhist monks. Apparently, a young monk from the monastery named Hui Ke was determined to become Bodhidharma?s disciple. He stood deep in the snow outside the cave in which the master sat in deep meditation and pleaded his cause. The sage was unmoved and said, ?Not until the Heaven makes the snow red.? At that, Hui Ke cut off one of his arms and the blood dyed the snow red.

Boddidharma was moved by this act of devotion and took him as a disciple. Later, Hui Ke, also known as Shen Guary, succeeded Boddidharma as the abbot of the monastery. Shaolin monks adopted the one-hand greeting in his memory. Shaolin?s close connections with imperial forces started from the time when 13 of its monks rescued a Qin prince, Li Shimin, when he was under attack. A grateful Li, when he became Tai Zong, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), rewarded the 13 monks with promotions, gifted a large tract of land to the monastery and, most important of all, allowed Shaolin to train 500 fighting monks who could be called upon at any time to defend the country .

During the 1000 years and many imperial dynasties that followed - Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing - the Shaolin monastery flourished. But at the end of the Qing dynasty, its downfall started. Monks started misbehaving with local people and a weak abbot was unable to discipline them. The last nail in the coffin was the Communist takeover of the country, which broke the back of organised religion.

The Shaolin temple was burned down three times in its history. The last fire was set by the warlord, Shi Yousan, in 1928. In this fire, which lasted for 40 days, the temple was almost wiped out and priceless ancient manuscripts on Shaolin kung fu were reduced to ashes.

The Shaolin monastery suffered another blow during the Cultural Revolution (1967- 1976 ), when roving bands of revolutionary zealots targeted it as a symbol of religious and traditional life. The monks felt threatened by them and decided to scatter. And the Shaolin temple became a desolate fire-devastated edifice.

By the late 1970s, the Cultural Revolution had run out of steam and some of the original monks of Shaolin felt emboldened to return. Lacking any sort of finances, or ability to farm, they decided to take on students, to teach martial arts for money. Youths from all over the region started flocking to the temple to learn Shaolin kung fu.

In the past decade, private enterprise has emerged as a big player in this game. Today in and around Zhengzhou, Dengfeng and Shaolin, there are over 85 private residential Kungfu schools catering to around 40,000 students, most of them from within China but quite a number also from overseas. There is now an entry fee of 45 Remimbi (about $ 6) per head.

The temple itself has been extensively renovated and the courtyards, pavillions and pagodas have been restored to their original grandeur. The temple is laid out in a series of courtyards along a south-north axis up the slope of a hill.

Above the entrance gateway , flanked by a pair of stone lions, hangs a sign that says: ?Shaolin Monastery?. A pathway lined by old gingko and cypress trees and new stellae put up by foreign students and Kung Fu organisations, leads to the temple proper. The oldest gingko tree here is over 1500 years old and has pit marks on its trunk caused by monks practicing hitting the trunk with their fingers.

Upon entering the mountain gate of the Shaolin temple, the first hall one encounters is characterised by double eaves flanked behind by a bell tower (which holds a great bronze bell) and a drum tower (which holds an artistic drum). The hall gates are guarded by two gigantic coloured clay figures of Vajras - Generals Heng and Ha. Inside the hall are statues of the four Heavenly Kings - Thunder, Wind, Rain and Harmony - each holding his distinctive weapon.

In the second, third, and fourth courtyards are the Heavenly King Hall, Daxiong Hall and scripture depository, housing around 5500 Buddhist manuscripts. In the fifth courtyard is the abbot?s room, also called the Dragon Hall in memory of Emperor Qianlong, who stayed there during a visit in 1750. (According to an old Chinese belief , the emperor was the son of a dragon.)

The main pavilion of the temple is the Hall of One Thousand Buddhas, located in the seventh courtyard. Enshrined in the middle of the hall are the statues of the Trinity Buddha - Sakyamuni, Amitabha and Bhaisajyaguru (God of Medicine). Flanking the Trinity on both sides are 18 arhats (generals). An impressive statue of Kwan-yin (Goddess of Mercy) and a magnificent bronze bell hanging over the Buddha statue can also be found in this hall.