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                                  First Founder :  Buddhist Priest  BODHIDHARMA 

     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 confidentiality of our sources, we have been told that...

     The Shaolin order dates to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma ( 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 traveled 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 occasional 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 of the problems faced by many western historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of non-violence coupled withShaolin'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 ( i.e., 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 from 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, Kwangtung ) or converted from a pre-existing temple ( Wu-Tang, O 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 modern reformation that included adopting
modern 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. O 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 Headquarters for the panda preserve.

            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  Tiananmen 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. We have started a  timeline of  Shaolin  History.
 From  " Shaolin Gung Fu Institute. "   2000


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