Lecture outline 15

Shaolin Martial Arts
and Buddhism
 Staff legend associated
with the Vajrapāņi
Legend: Vajrapāni, aka.
 Tang account indicates
that Sengchou, a Shaolin
monk in the 5th century,
became a fighting monk
after being helped by the
god Vajrapāņi, who forced
him to eat “sinews-flesh”
 Vajrapāņi is a vajra
wielder, a divine warrior,
Shaolin’s tutelary deity
 Vajrapāņi inspired Shaolin’s military
training, staff fighting techniques and
provided physical strength to martial
 He also provided religious sanction to
monastic violence, and Shaolin fighting
monks changed his image, transforming
him into a staff fighting expert
 A 12th century stele associated with
Shaolin depicts Nārāyaņa as a
manifestation of Guanyin, noting that
whoever studies his mudrā and mantra as
described in the Sutra of the Assembled
Charms can increase his body’s strength
 Shaolin monks worshiped this deity from this
time on
 14th century Shaolin monks changed his
image, arming him with a staff and
transforming him into a staff expert,
progenitor of the monastery’s renowned staff
 Ming Shaolin legend also elevated Vajrapani to the
position of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, or Guanyin
 Also the monastery's "guardian spirit", replacing
Lord Guan (Guan Gong) as the temple's tutelary
deity. Guan Gong remained tutelary deity in
most Chinese Buddhist temple
 The deity’s name was changed from Vajrapāņi
and Nārāyaņa to Kimnara, a name originally
designated a semi-divine and semi-human
heavenly musicians and had nothing to do with
• Shaolin’s bare-handed fighting techniques are
said to have been practiced in the Ming
dynasty, particularly late Ming
• Late Ming authors, however, attributed
creator of the bare-handed fighting
techniques to Bodhidharma, who allegedly
authored the Sinews Transformation Classic,
• The book outlines a method of hardening the
body to protect practitioners from being
• Legend says that the text was written in
Indian language and that Shaolin monks
could only comprehend a 30% to 50% of it
• A Shaolin monk brought the text to Mt.
Emei in Sichuan, where he met an Indian
holy monk Pramiti who explained point by
point the text and rendered its meaning
• A Ming author, an outsider to the
monastery, eventually got hold of the
translated text and published it
• The text was frequently referred to in
Chinese fiction produced in Qing times
and became widely popular in military
• Bodhidharma was perceived as the
originator of Shaolin’s fighting techniques
and Shaolin monks began to practice the
techniques taught in the text
• Both Buddhists and Daoists regarded him as
the creator of different Buddhist and Daoist
meditative, gymnastic, and martial art
exercises and techniques
• Religious syncretism in the Ming provided
an intellectual foundation for the late Ming
evolution of bare-handed fighting
• Despite syncretism, competition between
Buddhism and Daoism continued well into the
Ming and the Qing:
• Shaolin’s bare-handed fighting was considered
“offensive”, “external” school
• Legends talk about a “defensive”, “internal”
school created by Zhang Sanfeng, a Shaolin
disciple turned into a Daoist immortal who
secluded himself on the holy Mt. Wudang in
Hubei (p.179)
• Two hand combating schools emerged:
• Shaolin—Northern School; Shaolin Quan
• Wudang—Southern School, Taiji Quan
• Shaolin’s Fighting Monks
(Wuseng) in Historical
• Two important historical instances in which
Shaolin monks resorted to armed forces
• During the last years of the Sui dynasty (ca.610),
warded off bandits’ attack
• Beginning of the Tang dynasty, assisted the would-be
emperor, Li Shimin, in his military campaign against
Wang Shichong
• During the second half of the Ming (1368-1644)
• Helped defend the nation against Japanese
• Serving the emperor:
• Shaolin monks defeated Wang
Shichong's army that occupied a
strategic mountain, where the
monastery's Cypress Valley Estate was
• the monks also took Wang's nephew
captive; thereby pledging their
allegiance to the dynasty
• Later on, Shaolin monks were awarded
titles of general and prefecture officers,
although Tang emperor wanted them
to disband and return to their
monastery to perform their duties
• Shaolin monk Tanzong is said to have
become very famous because of his
unsurpassable fighting skill
• Shaolin's contributions to the Tang
dynasty in its very beginning were
recognized in three Taizong's letters and
other documents that were engraved on
stones and became known as "Shaolin
Monastery Stele“
• The stele safeguarded the monastery,
protecting it from being destroyed by
Tang government in 845, when Buddhism
was suppressed and 4,600 monasteries
were destroyed, many itinerant monks
were Killed because they did not follow
the order to return to laity.
• Shaolin Monastery continued to receive
official patronage.
• Defending the Nation
• By the second half of the Ming period,
the 16th century, Shaolin monks had
established themselves as expert
fighting monks specialized in a wide
variety of fighting techniques, including
staff (gun) fighting, spear (qiang)
fighting, broadsword (dao) fighting, and
unarmed hand combat (quan)
• Shaolin’s martial arts had become a
household name and were often
praised by late Ming military experts,
despite Shaolin’s concentration on
staff fighting
• Decline of the regular Ming army and
piracy crisis prompted people to study
Shaolin martial arts and form
monastic troops
• Ming military officials mobilized Shaolin and
other monastic troops to fight against Japanese
• Shaolin monks and those clerics receiving
military education at Shaolin often scored
victories in battles
• Shaolin monks reaffirmed their renown after the
piracy campaign and the Shaolin monk Tianyuan
became best known for both his martial arts
skills and his strategic genius
• In early 16th century, Shaolin monks
were drafted to quell local bandit
armies in North China and continued to
offer military support well into the
dynasty’s last years, 1640s, during
which the Shaolin fighting force was
annihilated by the bandit led by Li
• In early 20th century, Shaolin monks
became embroiled in warlords' feud and
sided with General Fan against General
Shi, whose army defeated General Fan's
and Shaolin monks and set fire to the
monastery, destroying some towers and
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