The mountain known in China as the Central Mountain, Mt. Songshan, stands in the province of Henan, dividing two mountain ranges. That to the east is called the Taishi range, and the one to the west is called the Shaoshi range. One often hears of the "twenty eight changes" of the Shaoshi range, this being people's way of referring to the variety of these mountains. From the west gate of the small town of Dengfeng one can gaze upon the peaks in the Shaoshi range, at the tall ones and the short ones, at the squat ones and the slender ones, reaching to meet with the blue sky and the white clouds lie the crown of a princess which has been lifted off the earth and raised into the air. When observed from the old town of Ruzhou the peaks appear to rise steeply, one upon the next, like the petals of a lotus flower in full bloom. If one stands at Gaochengzhen, the last rays of the setting sun shining on the mists which envelope the peaks create different shapes, seeming as though thousands of birds are being transformed into the glory of a phoenix. From everywhere it is the same, the peaks amazing in their variety and the images which they can conjure in the mind. Some appear as Guan Gong, throwing his robe open for battle; others as a gathering of heroes. There are children at worship, a group of drunken gods, a dragon dancing with a phoenix, an angel throwing flowers, tigers among a flock of sheep, lions fighting and many many more. And so it is that, from the deep past, people have said: "Climb the Shaoshi mountains and gaze upon the wonders of nature."
Legend tells that one year during the Northern and Southern dynasties, on the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, three men climbed the Shaoshi mountains to revel in their glory. One man took the road from the south, one took the road from the north, and the third made his way upward from the west. The man who took the road from the south was dressed in the garb of a geomancer, was at least sixty, and had gray hair and a silver beard. On his head he wore a gray colored flat topped cap. A prominent black collar fastened the neck of his long, steel gray robe, on the back of which the eight diagrams were embroidered in a circle using gold and silver thread. In the very center of the circle there was a symbol of the Taiji, the black half moon enveloping and being enveloped by, the white. The bell shaped tassels of the apricot colored silk belt tied around his waist swung back and forth as he walked. White stockings came to above his knees. His black satin shoes were sewn together by two strips which ran up the instep, and the stitched cloth soles were of a pink color. His face was wrinkled and wise and his rather delicate eyebrows sloped upward above the eyes which twinkled in his head. His mouth was large and square, his nose handsome, and the beard which grew down from his chin was long but very thin. He was around five feet tall and walked at a comfortable, steady pace with his feet pointing slightly outward. In his hand he carried an ochre colored cloth bag which contained the mirror vital in his tell of fortunes, and as he walked he muttered mystical incantations to himself.
The man climbing from the north was dressed as a monk, was almost seven feet tall, had a strong back, broad shoulders, a barrel chest and solid, wide hips. He wore a black, flat topped satin cap, a gray robe tied around the waist with a golden belt, and light yellow cloth shoes. His face was red an healthy, his eyebrows black an heavy, his nose a stub resembling that of a lion. His cheek bones lay above his red, thick lipped mouth, and beneath this his chin was covered in a full, black beard. A broadsword was slung across his back, in his hand he was holding a staff with a spear head on one end; a string of rosary beads was hanging around his neck. As he walked he chanted "Amidda Buddha" quietly to himself.
The third man, climbing from the west, was wearing the garb of a rich landlord. His cap was deep purple, with loose flaps falling over his ears, and a large white piece of jade was mounted in the center. His black silk cloak was hemmed with golden thread, and over the top of this he wore a tight fitting, bronze colored riding shirt, embroidered with flowers. The single strip on his high class shoes was set off by his thin white socks. In his hand he was holding open a large fan, made from mottled bamboo, upon which were written some flowing characters. His square face, thick lips, and bulbous nose were matched by a small goatee beard. As he walked he chanted to himself "Look for money and grow wealthy".
The three men were some way below the summit of Liantian peak when the weather suddenly changed and the cold wind which began to gust through the valleys brought waves of cloud and mist rolling and billowing closer and closer with every second. Eyeing the weather carefully the men plodded laboriously toward the summit. The clouds and mist came closer until they suddenly joined and the men were plunged into an eerie, gray world. When they reached the flat summit of the mountain, they were all sweating heavily, exhausted. At that time a large, twelve foot wide, flat topped rock could be found at the summit of Liantian peak and the men sat down on this, panting, their backs to each other, each unaware of the presence of the others.
They had not been sitting long, however, when they heard voices coming from the clouds above their heads. Lifting their eyes they stared at the clouds to the southeast as an old monastery faintly appeared before their eyes, indistinct but real. It was grand and imposing, with a series of nine courtyards running from front to back, and the halls were arranged neatly into rows. They had red walls and yellow tiles, vermilion pillars and carved roof beams. the ridge running along the apex of each roof was set off by six carved figures of wild animals placed at each corner. Pieces of metal hanging from the eaves tinkled in the breeze. The dark green of pines and the emerald green of cypress trees gently contrasted with the large wooden gates, and a pair of stone lions stood on guard, one on each side of the entrance. Hanging over the gate was a large, red, sandalwood plaque inscribed with the words "Zhulin Si" or "Bamboo Grove Monastery".
A young monk standing in front of the monastery gates with a broom in his hand turned toward a much older monk and asked, "Master, the Zhulin monastery has risen to heaven, so doesn't the earth still have Buddhist monasteries?"
The old monk, his beard trembling as he laughed, said, "Of course! Of course! Zhulin monastery is in heaven, but the earth still has the Shaolin monastery."
"Is there a Shaolin monastery on earth? Where is it?"
The old monk stretched out his right hand and pointing downwards said, "Look, it is in that grove of trees at the northern foot of the Shaoshi mountains. To the north of the monastery you can see Five breasts Peak towering above the others around it.
To the south is the flattened top of Nine Cauldron Lotus Peak. Running to the east from Nine Cauldron Lotus Peak are the five mountains Flag, Drum, Sword, Stamp, and Bell, and from over there Pearl Curtain Spring cascades down the precipice to flow eastward, past the front of the monastery."
"Oh! Master, it is now the middle of summer! Why does the mountain opposite Shaolin still have snow on it?"
"That is one of the natural wonders of Shaolin, 'Excess rain giving an illusion of snow on the Shaoshi mountains'."
The three men sitting on the large drum-shaped rock all heard very clearly the words which had come from above and, from the top of Liantian peak, they looked down in the direction indicated by the old monk. Sure enough, at the northern foot of the Shaoshi mountains a large monastery slowly manifested itself out of the cloud. There were seven courtyards and the halls were all neatly arranged in rows. Above the door of each hall hung a plaque, each having inscribed upon it in large, eye-catching, golden letters, the name of the hall. From the main gatehouse moving inwards the plaques read: Shaolin Monastery, King of Heaven Hall, Hall of Jeweled Heroes, Meditation Hall, Abbot's Study, Boddidharma Pavillion, and Hall of a Thousand Buddha's. Both inside and outside the monastery pines and cypress tress blocked out the sun, and bamboo and plum tress grew in thick abundance. The three men stared as if in a dream, and could not stop themselves from muttering their various incantations. As their voices broke the silence the cloud instantly broke and the mist cleared. They looked again at the northern foot of the mountains, but there was no sign of the monastery. As before the vision there was only a wide expanse of tightly packed virgin forest. The men were so surprised that they could only stare at the each other blankly. It was some time before they came to their senses and each began to make his own way back down the mountain, returning the way he had come.
As they descended the mountain each of the men thought of the conversation between the two monks, and the more he thought the stranger the whole thing seemed. They all knew of how the Zhulin monastery had risen to heaven, however the first time they had ever heard of the Shaolin monastery was when it was spoken of by the two celestial beings. And they had actually seen the illusion of the monastery with their own eyes. It was clear to each of them that the place where they had seen the illusion was of great spiritual significance - a "precious plot" of land. And so each man began to make his own plans.
The Geomancer decided to claim the "precious plot" as his own, and move the graves of his ancestors there, thus ensuring that his descendants would be noble, wise and talented. The landlord decided to move his living quarters to the spot, because he believed it would make him lucky in matters of money, and he would thus grow richer day by day. The monk decided to build a monastery, enabling the flame of the ancient Buddha's to burn for a thousand years. As they reached the food of the mountains night closed in and the men returned to their respective homes, each thinking to make his dream a reality as soon as possible.
The monk woke in the middle of the night, and being unable to get back to sleep again he got up and went back to the northern foot of the mountains. In the starlight he could see tress growing thickly on the "precious plot", with two tall cypress trees growing side by side in the very center. "This is the place," he thought, and taking off one of his shoes he buried it in a hole which he dug between the two trees, to act as a marker and proof of his possession.
The geomancer was up at the first crow of dawn and immediately returned to the northern foot of the mountains. Upon seeing the two cypress trees in the center of the plot he broke off the branch of a tree and stuck it deeply into the ground, right between the two trees. Having left his mark he also returned home.
As the sun rose above the mountains the landlord got out of bed and made his way back to the "precious plot" also intending to leave something at the spot to act as evidence of his ownership. When he arrived at the place he noticed that right between the two large cypress trees a tree branch was sticking vertically out of the ground. He took off his soft cap with the flaps, wrapped it around the branch, and went home.
Three days later the three men returned, each bringing with him his own people, in preparation to begin building. As their eyes fell upon each other they began to argue, each adamant that he was first to claim the land. They had argued to the point where it seemed that their conflict was insoluble when the emperor, Xiao Wen, arrived to visit Mt. Songshan. When he saw the three men arguing furiously he asked for the reason, and discovered that they were fighting over possession of the land. He asked each in turn what evidence he had of his claim. The landlord answered "The cap", the geomancer answered "The branch", and the monk said "My shoe". Upon hearing this the emperor said, "The cap is wrapped around the branch, proving that the branch was stuck in the ground first. The branch has been stuck in the middle of the shoe. It is clear that the shoe was placed there first. After hearing these words the geomancer and the landlord turned dispiritedly and left.
The emperor, while talking to the monk, had noticed that there was something strange about his looks, so he asked why. The monk told him that he was an eminent monk from India and had come to the east to spread the word of God. At that time he had already been traveling in China for three years. The emperor considered this man to be of great importance and so ordered all of the local county officials to assist him in building his monastery.
The eminent monk asked the emperor to grant him favor by naming the monastery, upon which the latter replied, "The mountains are called Shaoshi; the two cypress trees are a grove - lin. The monastery is to be built beside the mountains on the spot now occupied by those tress, and should therefore be called 'Shaolin'."
It is said that that was the beginning of the Shaolin monastery.