Shaolin Temple is a Chan Buddhist temple located in Dengfeng city. Every year, both domestic and foreign travelers come from far and wide to the small village nestled away in Henan Province's Songshan Mountain, roughly an hour's drive from Luoyang or Zhengzhou, to visit the fabled birthplace of Shaolin Kungfu.
Rounding hairpin turns on a winding mountain road, the Shaolin temple's surrounding scenery is as rugged as the legendary fighting-monks themselves.
But Shaolin Temple is more than that thousands visit every year to pray and pay their respects at one of China's oldest Buddhist temples. The temple is believed to have been founded in the AD 495 by Indian monk Ba Tuo on land given by the Northern Wei emperor for monks to focus on the disciplines of their faith.
In AD 527, Bodhidharma visited and founded what became the (Zen in Japanese) sect. According to popular lore, Bodhidharma crossed the Yellow River on a single reed then spent nine years meditating in a cave before entering the temple grounds. His shadow can still be seen in a nearby cave to this day, aptly named Bodhidharma's Cave.
Because Chan Buddhism emphasizes enlightenment through meditation; kung fu developed initially as stretching exercises between long hours sitting in a prone position and were used to help the monks' concentration. Imitating animals and insects, the stretches eventually became fighting forms, which would make the name of the temple synonymous with kung fu.
The village at Shaolin is fully caught up in kung fu, stopping in the village around the temple affords visitors an opportunity to see youngsters training at the various schools nearby. Children of all ages can be seen spinning in mid-air, high-kicking, lunging with spears and sparring all around, with the sounds of hundreds of young voices barking in unison. Entry to the temple grounds includes access to all attractions within for RMB 40.
Strolling through the temple's main gate you can see the characters Shaolin Temple written in calligraphy by the Qing emperor Kangxi. Among the highlights, apart from the main temple and its inherent shrines, hosts of contemplating Buddhas and monks roaming the area, are the pavilions on the grounds. A giant wok is also visible, it's said that it could cook 750kg of rice and it's considered one of the smaller woks that once graced the grounds.
In front of the Bell Tower is a stele with three faces carved on one side. The faces of Buddha, Laozi (the founder of Taoism) and Confucius are grouped together to represent the harmonious unity of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Nearby another memorial stele provides a list of rewards given to the monks of Shaolin by the future Tang emperor Taizong. As the Sui dynasty disintegrated, Taizong rose up in rebellion. When he was cornered by a local warlord, 13 monks from the temple aided him in his escape. When he later ascended to the throne, he threw a huge banquet for the monks, with the finest dishes and wines available, to show his gratitude. To his chagrin the monks refused to eat due to their strict vegetarian diet as emperors were likely to do, he simply issued a decree allowing the monks of Shaolin to drink wine and eat meat, though the monks today follow a vegetarian diet.
Many of the pavilions bear a number of wall murals devoted to Buddhist mythology, Shaolin legends and the different stances in Shaolin kung fu the most well-known depicting the rescue of the prince. Many of the murals were removed and re-painted when the building was rebuilt. The temple was destroyed in 1928 when it was destroyed by a warlord. It reputedly burned for 40 days. The floor in the Thousand Buddha Hall is sunken, supposedly due to the constant exercises held there.
For those seeking quiet contemplation, the Meditation Garden is nice place to meditate. A hallway wraps itself in a square around a quiet garden there's a terrace to sit and contemplate while swarms of tourists mill around outside. The hallway itself offers observers an insight into some of the colorful characters of Buddhist lore with statues of arhats stretching their limbs, green skin, alternately scowling or smiling. Some eye you with joy while others stare you down with a sinister glare.
A must-see is the Forest of Pagodas, aptly named for the 246 multi-tiered monuments to noted monks from years gone by. Many bear inscriptions detailing the lives and exploits of the monks for whom the pagodas were built. Each pagoda houses the ashes of a monk interred on the site from AD 791 to 1803. The pagodas take up a significant plot of land at the foot of breathtaking mountain scenery, although the views can be blanketed in a haze that obscure what would otherwise be a picturesque panorama.
Just outside of the Shaolin Temple grounds is the small town of Dengfeng which offers some good opportunities to get away from the crowds at the Shaolin Temple. Check out the Zhong Yue Temple (Middle Mountain Temple), a Taoist temple which was originally built for the purpose of worshipping the mountain is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains, with each representing an element in the Taoist belief that the world is made of five elements (earth, water, wood, fire, metal), with Song Shan representing the earth element. It became a Taoist Temple during the Northern Wei period and was rebuilt during the Qing dynasty using Beijing's Forbidden City as a model. Just north of town is the Songyang Academy one of China's four great academies.Inside the academy grounds are two very old cypresses, over 2,100 years old, planted by Han emperor Wudi.
Apart from these obvious attractions, watch out for demonstrations by martial arts practitioners held at various times throughout the day at the training center just inside the front gate to the compound. For those eager to get a shot of bald gentlemen in colorful robes striking kung fu poses, these types are plentiful around the grounds.
Shaolin Temple Memorable Experience
Wandering through the Forest of Pagodas and imagining the lives of the past monks.
Sitting in the Meditation Garden and contemplating the meaning of life.
Visiting schools around SongShan and watching the youngsters run through their drills.
Gazing at the various murals that fill the temple grounds and gaining insights into the legends of the monks.