There are few historical entities that engender as much debate, confusion, and acrimony as the nature and reality of Shaolin. We have heard distinguished university professors categorically deny the existence of either Shaolin or its problem-children Tongs; that only authenticated accounts by the Communist Chinese government are to be trusted; or that the temples are fictitious, based on stories in
old novels. To the latter (most common) observation we reply that Americans have similarly been
deceived about the reality of an historical event they call the Civil War, which is actually a fictitious
event taken from a novel called "Gone With The Wind." The following accounts are taken from sources
who 1) practiced the specific styles to Master level from the "supposed" temples, 2) learned their arts AT
those temples before the temples were destroyed, or 3) were taught by practitioners from those temples.
Also, our sources were corroborated by at least three individuals (standard rule of evidence accepted by
most professional journalists). The masters, however, have declined to be named for the reasons that 1)
they do not want to engage in controversy--the information is here to accept or reject as you like (as
directed by the last lesson of the Buddha), 2) they have assumed new names after leaving China because,
as refugees, did not want their families to suffer for their actions. Having said that, and agreeing in
advance to protect the cofidentiality of our sources, we have been told that...


The Shaolin order dates to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhistpriest named Bodidharma (Tamo in
Chinese), traveled to China to see the Emperor. At that time, the Emperor had started local Buddhist
monks translating Buddhist texts from sanskrit to Chinese. The intent was to allow the general populace
the ability to practice this religion.


This was a noble project, but when the Emperor believed this to be his path to Nirvana, Tamo disagreed.
Tamo's view on Buddhism was that you could not achieve your goal just through good actions
performed by others in your name. At this point the Emperor and Tamo parted ways and Tamo travelled
to the nearby Buddhist temple to meet with the monks who were translating these Buddhist texts.
The temple had been built years before in the remains of a forest that had been cleared or burned down.
At the time of the building of the temple, the emperor's gardeners had also planted new trees. Thus the
temple was named "young (or new) forest", (Shaolin in Mandarin, Sil Lum in Cantonese).

When Tamo arrived at the temple, he was refused admittance, probably being thought of as an upstart or
foreign meddler by the head abbot (Fang Chang). Rejected by the monks, Tamo went to a nearby cave
and meditated until the monks recognized his religious prowess and admitted him. Legend has it that he
bored a hole through one side of the cave with his constant gaze; in fact, the accomplishment that earned
his recognition is lost to history.

When Tamo joined the monks, he observed that they were not in good physical condition. Most of their
routine paralleled that of the Irish monks of the Middle Ages, who spent hours each day hunched over
tables where they transcribed handwritten texts. Consequently, the Shaolin monks lacked the physical
and mental stamina needed to perform even the most basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo
countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises, designed to both enhance ch'i flow and
build strength. These sets, modified from Indian yogas (mainly hatha, and raja) were based on the
movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake,
dragon, etc.), were the beginnings of Shaolin Gung Fu.

It is hard to say just when the exercises became "martial arts". The Shaolin temple was in a secluded
area where bandits would have traveled and wild animals were an occassional problem, so the martial
side of the temple probably started out to fulfill self-defense needs. After a while, these movements were
codified into a system of self-defense.

As time went on, this Buddhist sect became more and more distinct because of the martial arts being
studied. This is not to say that Tamo "invented" martial arts. Martial arts had existed in China for
centuries. But within confines of the temple, it was possible to develop and codify these martial arts into
the new and different styles that would become distinctly Shaolin. One ofthe problems faced by man?,
western historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of non-violence coupled WIth western historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of non-violence coupled with Shaolin's legendary martial skills. In fact, the Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she
dispatch the most devastating defenses in any situation. Rather, the study of gung fu leads to better
understanding of violence, and consequently how to avoid conflict. Failing that, a Buddhist who refuses
to accept an offering of violence (ie, and attack) merely returns it to the sender. Initially, the gung fu
expert may choose to parry an attack, but if an assailant is both skilled and determined to cause harm, a
more definitive and concluding solution may be required, from a joint-lock hold to a knockout, to death.
The more sophisticated and violent an assault, the more devastating the return of the attack to the
attacker. Buddhists are not, therefore, hurting anyone; they merely refuse delivery of intended harm.
The Shaolin philosophy is one that started from Buddhism and later adopted many Taoist principles to
become a new sect. Thus even though a temple may have been Taoist or Buddhist at first, once it
became Shaolin, it was a member of a new order, an amalgamation of the prevailing Chinese
philosophies of the time.

Other temples sprung for Honan. This happened because the original temple would suffer repeated
attacks and periods of inactivity as the reigning Imperial and regional leaders feared the martial powers
of the not-always unaligned monks. Refugee Shaolin practitioners would leave the temple to teach
privately (in Pai) or at other Buddhist or Taoist temples. In rare cases, a new Shaolin Temple would be
erected (Fukien, K wangtung) or converted from a pre-existing temple (Wu- Tang, 0 Mei Shan).
Politically and militarily involved monks (such as the legendary White Eyebrow and Hung Tze Kwan)
would be perpetual sources of trouble for the generally temporally aloof monks.

The Boxer rebellion in 1901 was the beginning of the end of the Shaolin temples. Prior to that, China
had been occupied by Western and Japanese governments and business interests. The British had turned
the Imperial family into an impotent puppet regime largely through the import and sales of opium and
the general drug-devastation inflicted upon the poor population. This lead to the incursion of other
European powers, including Russia, France and Holland, and later the Japanese and Americans. By the
late 1800s, China was effectively divided into national zones, each controlled by one of the outside
powers (similar to post World War II Berlin, on a hugely larger scale). The long standing animosities
between China and Japan worsened, and extended to include all other "foreign devils" as well. Coupled
with the now almost universal disdain by the Chinese for their Empress, a Nationalist movement with
nation-wide grass-roots support was born. Among the front line soldiers of the new "order" were the
legendary and near-legendary martial artists--many Shaolin--known as Boxers (remember how Bruce
Lee, in his films depicting these times, refers to himself as a Chinese boxer...). Though their initial
assaults on the military powers of the occupation governments were not entirely successful (many
believed in Taoist magical spells that would make them impervious to gunfire), their temporary defeat
would lead to a more modem reformation that included adopting modem military weapons and tactics.
The withdrawal of western forces was prolonged over many years, and by the end of World War I saw
China in an almost feudal state of civil war. Not only were national troops fighting loyalists, but both
sides had to fight the Japanese (who still held much of the northern Manchurian region of China) as well
as many powerful, regional warlords. Many parts of China were virtually anarchies, but by 1931 almost
all non-Asian occupants had been successfully driven out (with the interesting exception, in the late
1930s, of the volunteer American airmen known as The Flying Tigers, who helped repel Japanese forces
prior to World War II), and the major combatants within China were the Nationalists and the
Communists. Both sides displayed the typical jingoistic attitudes of forces in mindless warfare--if you
aren't with us, you are against us. Neutrality meant nothing except the possibility of a later enemy.
Consequently, Shaolin and other monks were routinely murdered by soldiers from both sides. One result
of this program of murder was the exodus of many monks into the hills, or abroad, with the hope that
Shaolin knowledge might survive even if the temples themselves did not.

The temples were unfortunate victims of war in a land that had abandoned its historical practice of
respecting posterity and ancestors. All were ransacked and looted by various armed groups. 0 Mei Shan
Temple ("Great White Mountain"), in Szechuan Province, was situated on a mountain top and deemed
by Chinese officers to be a fitting target for artillery practice. It was shelled in turn by Nationalist and
Communist armies. In a fitting twist of fate, this one-time site of medical and natural history knowledge was rebuilt by the Communists in the mid 1970s, and now stands as the National Park and Research

There are various stories coming out of China today referring to the history of Shaolin, particularly over
the past 300 years. However, many of these stories are suspect (compare Chinese accounts of Tianamin
Square with CNN news coverage), with the more commonly "authenticated" versions coming from
government records. The fact that Chinese authorities outlawed Shaolin and martial arts practices makes
any story about their history from such sources suspect. The prevalent wu-shu styles originated as a
result of a compromise between the post-World War II governments and the national need and history of
having a martial arts tradition. Wu-Shu, however, was not designed as a martial art (strictly illegal), and
claims to the contrary date back only a decade or so, following on the popularity of Kung Fu.