The Development of the Shaolin Temple
To be exact, during the Northern Dynasty the Shaolin Temple lasted for over 80 years from the time Ba Tuo established it, until the time Buddhism was forbidden by Emperor Wu Di of the Northern Zhou Dynasty. During this period there were three main events.
First, the Indian monk Boddidharma, with the help of the Emperor Xiao Wen of the Northern Wei Dynasty further established the Shaolin Temple at Mt. Songshan.
Second, while Dharma was living in the Shaolin Temple during the late Wei Dynasty, he meditated in front of a wall for nine years of devout Buddhist contemplation. In addition, Dharma used his own experiences and ideas to teach Hui Ke genuine Buddhist doctrines and also to create the Nahayana school of Buddhism in China. This made the Shaolin Temple, where the Ninayana school had originally been dominate, a holy center for Mahayana.
Third, the development of religion in the Northern Zhou Dynasty turned out to be in sharp contradicition with the political and economic interests of the imperial family. Debates after debate were conducted on the merits and demerits of Buddhism and Taoism. Finally, the Zhou Emperor in 574 AD gave the edict to forbid Buddhism and Taoism throughout the country. Consequently, Shaolin was badly deserted. However, even during the prohibition of Buddhism, Hui Ke, together with Master Lin managed to preserve Buddhist scriptures and images. In addition, after Emperor Jing Di of the Northern Zhou Dynasty ascended the throne, Buddhism quickly became legal again. As a result, the Shaolin Temple became prosperous once again and given a new name, the Zhigu Temple.
The founder of the Sui Dynasty, Yang Jian (580-601), was a devoted Buddhist follower. Encouraging the development of Buddhism, Yang Jian gave the order to set up a Buddhist Temple at the foot of each of the five holy mountains. In the early part of the 580’s, the original name of the Temple, Shaolin, was restored. Around 583 AD, Yang Jian conferred on the Shaolin Monastery 700 hectares of land in Baiguwu, 25 km northwest of Shaolin. During this period, several halls, pavilions, and pagodas were built.
At the end of the Sui Dynasty, the warlord Wang Shichong took over the Shaolin Monastery’s land at Baiguwu by force. The monks were bitter about this. Later, while the prince Li Shimin of Qin was fighting Wang, Li Shimin was captured. Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, Tan Zong and ten other Shaolin monks raided Wang’s camp, captured Wang’s nephew, and rescued Li Shimin. After Li Shimin ascended to the throne, becoming Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty in 627 AD, he granted a generalship to the monk Tan Zong in addition to rewarding the others. Tai Zong also bestowed upon the Shaolin Temple 300 hectares of land. With the support of the imperial government, the Shaolin Temple began to rebuild. When Empress Wu Zetian came to power, Luoyang became the capital and political center of the Empire. Because Luoyang is very close to the Shaolin Temple, the Tang emperors and empress’ visits to the Shaolin Temple were numerous. But the Empress Wu was especially important in the development of Buddhism. During this period, the Shaolin Temple owned over 1400 hectares of land and over 5000 compartments. At this time it was the biggest Buddhist temple in the world and was called “the First Famous Temple of Land under Heaven”.
Although the Five Dynasties period (907-960 AD) is a rather short period of time in China’s history, it left rare cultural relics and materials valuable for the study of the Shaolin Temple. More buildings were built during the Song and Jin Dynasties, such as the Dharma pavilion and the pagodas. Many inscriptions showed the confluence of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
During the Yuan, Ming, and early Qing Dynasties, the social status at the Shaolin Temple was further raised. It was respectfully called “The Birthplace of Buddhism”, or, The Great Shaolin Temple”. During the Yuan Dynasty, there were more than 2000 monks. Many famous scholars left stone inscriptions for the eminent monks of the Temple.
In addition to their high prestige in the Buddhist circle, some monks held important positions in the government. For example, Yu Gong had over a thousand disciples and respectfully was called “Great Master”. Emperor Xian Zong of the Yuang Dynasty once asked Yu Gong to join a discussion on state affairs. Emperor Shi Zu (reign 1246-1249) conferred upon him the title of “The Luminous Successor to the Buddha”. Later the Emperor officially granted him the title of Da Sikong, which was a ministerial level position. After he died he was posthumously awarded the title of “Jin Guo Gong” or “The Luminous Master”. When Yu Gong was in charge of the Shaolin Temple during the early parts of the Yang Dynasty, the Temple was still suffering terribly from the aftermath of a great war. But under Yu Gong’s leadership, the Shaolin Temple was resplendently rebuilt upon the ruins.
During this period, the Shaolin Temple attained the zenith of its importance. Eight princes left their homes to become monks in the Shaolin Temple. However, by the end of the Qing Dynasty, the abbot was not competent enough to restrain the monk’s behavior. Thus, people around the Temple became disgusted with the monks and the Temple fell into disrepute.
In 1928 the warlord Shi Yousan set upon the Shaolin Temple. The immense establishment was almost completely destroyed, along with many highly valued records and works of literature. However, after the founding of the new China, the government allocated large sums of money to restore the monastery. Now, the halls, pavilions, and corridors have regained their former grandeur, and this historic site has become a major tourist attraction.
- Written by: Guo Yin He