I'm looking for a history of the Shao Lin, its customs, beliefs, anything. And if anyone has any good info on the Wu Dang Mountain.
I suggest reading Prof. Meir Shahar's new book The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (2008). Better late than never.
Some of the more interesting points covered:
1) Although he is not sure when the monks began to learn how to wield weapons, Shahar states they were practicing the use of military weapons (sword, spear, bow, etc.) from at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The monks chosen to learn these skills protected the monastery from mountain bandits that regularly laid siege to the complex. However, these monks were not apart of the religiously devout vegetarian body that lived within the monastery proper. They lived in small clusters located outside of the monastery and regularly broke the Buddhist precepts against eating meat, drinking alcohol, and killing. They were allowed to do this because of their distance from the monastery and the protection they provided. The allowances for killing were also connected to their religious beliefs.
2) The martial monks worshiped a Buddhist guardian deity called "Vajrapani," one of the Buddha's body guards. Legends tell how he regularly killed demons and other evil creatures that threatened the Buddha or Buddhism in general. Hence, this was all the justification the military monks needed to kill. This deity was always portrayed in Indian art with a club, but the Chinese eventually changed it to a staff (evidence of this appears in 12th century Shaolin steles). Vajrapani figures in Shaolin legend as the progenitor of their legendary staff method. Hence, he was connected to Shaolin arts CENTURIES before Bodhidharma.
3) Chinese fiction had a great influence on Shaolin legends. For instance, the Monkey King from the tale Journey to the West influenced the aforementioned staff legend. The legend takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion of the Yuan Dynasty. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than Vajrapani in disguise. Shahar compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions
4) Empty-handed boxing did not develop at Shaolin until the late Ming Dynasty. Before then, they were only known for their staff and spear methods. Because the Ming Dynasty revered the "Three religions" (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) as one universal teaching, during this time, Shaolin also studied Taoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exorcises). These exercises were eventually combined with fist arts (in and outside the monastery) to create a new form of cultivation consisting of gymnastics, religious rituals, and combative techniques.
5) Bodhidharma was not connected with Shaolin fighting arts until the 17th century. Prior to this, he was only considered the progenitor of Chan Buddhism. The first published source that mentions Bodhidharma in connection with Shaolin arts is the Sinew Changing Classic, which was written by a Taoist in 1629. This is the source for all current legends that state he taught monks exercises to strengthen their bodies. However, as originally conceived, these exercises ultimately ended in immortality. Practitioners of the 17th century "internal school," which predates the creation of Taichi, and eventually died out, combined the Wu Dang priest Zhang Sanfeng with a Taoist God (The Dark Warrior) to create a Taoist equivalent of Bodhidharma. Hence, Bodhi became the legendary progenitor of the "External" or "Northern school" and Zhang the "internal" or "Southern school."
6) Shaolin's fame from the Tang till today was derived solely from their expertise in choosing the correct side to fight for in struggles between warring factions. For instance, Shaolin fought for the New Tang emperor, guaranteeing their future for centuries. Had they fought for the other side, they would have been exterminated. During the Tang, Buddhism was targeted because of it's foreign origins. Monks were sent home to lay life (or killed) and their monasteries where destroyed. But Shaolin was allowed to stay open ONLY because of its help to the Tang founder. Shahar gives an example of the reverse (a bad political choice). The Shaolin Temple was burnt in 1929 because they chose a side and lost.
Edited by ghostexorcist, 24 June 2008 - 12:18 PM.