The Founding of the Shaolin Temple
Buddhism was introduced into China during the Han Dynasty. From that time on, feudal ruling classes of all ages have advocated and made use of it. They often used Buddhism as a spiritual prop and tool for domination. Buddhism gained prosperity in the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420-589 AD).
The flourishing of Buddhism is due to several facts. Since the Kingdom of Wei (220-265 AD) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD), the society had been turbulent, and the people suffered greatly. Unable to vanquish the ruling classes, the suffering people were bound to place their hopes in the future. They wished for a happy afterlife. For their part, the feudal rulers fanatically recommended Buddhism. The “sold them cheap entrance to a happy heavenly world”. These are the reasons why Buddhism developed at that time.
In 476 AD Emperor Xiao Wen of the Northern Wei Dynasty ordered more than 100 men and women to enter into Buddhist priesthood and nun hood. He went so far as to personally cut their hair. By March 477 AD, the number of temples in the capital had exceeded 100. They had a total of more than 200 monks and nuns.
During this period, foreign monks and priests from the Western Regions and India were warmly welcomed by the emperor. Ba Tuo, who founded the Shaolin Temple, was one of them. In 495 AD (during the reign of Emperor Xiao Wen of the Northern Wei Dynasty), monk Ba Tuo from the Western Regions established the Shaolin Temple on the northern slope of the Shaoshi Mountain.
Ba Tuo, whose name means “man with consciousness”, was from ancient India. Why did he go to China? Because originally he joined five other Indians in Buddhist self-cultivation. It turned out that all five of his fellow Buddhist practitioners succeeded in becoming Buddha’s, but he did not. However, he did not loose heart. His friends told him that if he would go to China, he was likely to succeed. After touring many countries, he arrived in China, where he found himself highly respected by Emperor Xiao Wen. According to the legend, it was during this period that Ba Tuo also became a Buddha.
As Ba Tuo was by nature fond of living in seclusion, he often went to wooded hill gullies of Mt. Song to keep away from secular affairs. Observing this, Emperor Xiao Wen enacted an edict to establish the Shaolin Temple for him on the northern slope of the Shaoshi Mountain. Since the temple was deep in the woods (translated as “lin” in Chinese) of Shaoshi Mountain, it is known as Shao-lin. Jing Rizhen of the early Qing Dynasty explained this in his book Mount Song: “Shaolin means woods in Shaoshi Mountain”.
In the Shaolin Temple, Ba Tuo preached the Lesser Vehicle Buddhism, which was an early sect of Indian Buddhism advocating self-extrication. There were several hundred pilgrims, who came from near and far in devout search of Hinayana Buddhism. Of them Hui Guang and Seng Chou were among Ba Tuo’s best disciples. Hui Guang was born to the Yang family in Chang-lu. As a child, he stayed with his father in Luoyang. After he left and became a devote of Buddhism, he was called Sheng Shami (“new saint”). When Ba Tuo translated Buddhist scriptures, Hui Guang was there to assist him. In so doing, he became a distinguished monk in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD). Seng Chou, or holy master Chou, was born in Julu. He made a pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple and was admitted by Ba Tuo as a disciple. After having heard Seng Chou relate his personal view about learning Buddhist doctrines, Ba Tuo praised him as the best student of Buddhist doctrine of all the monks in the vast area east of the Onion Range. Later Seng Chou became the abbot of Songyue Temple east of Shaolin. It was here that Seng Chou edited two volumes of Samatha and Vipasyana (“Thoughts on contemplation”). He was considered the representative of the early Chan sect Buddhism in north China.
Bodhidarma, the next famous Indian monk to come to the Shaolin Temple after Ba Tuo, was one of the most influential monks in the Northern Wei Dynasty. It was said that Dharma was the third prince of a king in ancient India. However, “Dharma” was not his original name. Prior to his coming to China, he met and then became the disciple of the 27th Buddha after Mahakasyapa (the first disciple of Sakyamuni). His master named him “Bodhidharma” or “Dharma”. In 527 AD, Bodhidharma went to the Shaolin Temple and began teaching Chan or Dhyana, which in Sanskrit means “getting rid of distracting thoughts”. But the Chan that Bodhidharma preached was different from either the Dhyana of India or the traditional Chan in Northern China represented by Seng Chou. It was characterized by practicing deep meditation in the sitting posture, while keeping the mind as tranquil and unaffected as a wall. It was called the Greater Vehicle sect. Dharma practiced deep meditation by facing a wall. Once he meditated for nine years in a natural cave at the top of Five Breast Peak, which is behind the Shaolin Temple.
Dharma first handed his cassock and alms bowl to Hui Ke, who was afterwards worshiped as a second saint. After Hui Ke, the cassock and alms bowl were passed down to four more successors. So later followers worshiped Dharma s the founder of the Chan sect in China. And the Shaolin Temple is regarded as the ancestral hall of the Chan sect. Under the guidance of Dharma and his successors, the Shaolin Temple expanded and flourished.