In our minds, Buddhist monks are men of peace, of unyielding understanding, and of nonselective compassion. Well, that is true. But for the Shaolin monks? Well, they can be a force to reckon with if you happen to land on their bad side.
A short history of Shaolin
It is said that the Buddhist monk Buddhabhadra, known in Chinese text as Ba Tuo, came to China from India in A.D. 464. Then, the emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Xiaowen took a liking to the monk and gave him land in Mt. Song to build a temple in A.D. 495. From then on, Shaolin came to life. Shaolin martial arts, though, was only introduced after Bodhidharma was successfully admitted to the temple, thanks to his grueling nine-year meditation. When he entered the temple, he found that most of the Shaolin monks needed some physical activities. To help his fellow monks stay fit, he designed a set of exercises. As time went on, Bodhidharma’s exercise soon was incorporated with martial arts. Integrated with Bodhidharma’s teachings, Shaolin martial arts was born. Shaolin evolved during the later years incorporating many styles, including the animal ones that we know of today.
Lin Shimin and the 13 Shaolin monks
Shaolin martial arts was created so that monks can defend the temple when needed against animals and men. In one story, during a turbulent event in the Sui Dynasty, Li Shimin, the future Tang emperor, was caught in a bad situation. It was months when the young general’s punitive operation to take back the city of Luoyang started and victory was at hand; however, Wang Shichong, the self-declared Zheng Dynasty emperor, brought 300,000 enemy reinforcements, ensuring a historical battle.
The two forces clashed in the city. The enemy ranks were winning and Li Shimin was losing. But amid the chaos were 13 Shaolin monks led by Tan Zong, who came to Li Shimin’s aid. Ever since Wang Shichong’s invasion of the appointed fief of the Shaolin temple the monks were against him. With their help, Tang’s force gained the upper hand in the skirmish and emerged victorious against the enemy troops.
Li Shimin did not forget the contributions of the 13 monks in winning the battle at Luoyang. So when he finally ascended the throne as Emperor Taizong, he honored the monks. In particular, Tan Zong was given the rank of general. Gifts and lands were also bestowed and permission to the temple to establish their monk soldiers was granted. And finally, Emperor Taizong dubbed the Shaolin temple as the “supreme temple” in the country.
This event has been commemorated to this day. Relics of the story are displayed in the Shaolin temple, including stone murals depicting the 13 warrior monks in battle, and a monument from emperor Tang Xuanzong.
How do Shaolin monks get their extraordinary abilities?
A Shaolin monk is a master of his mind and body, training for years and years until he can seemingly do things that are out of the ordinary. Most likely, you have seen them in action from a video, and you might’ve asked yourself: “How are they able to do these superhuman tasks?”
Well, a Shaolin monk is allowed to enter the temple and start his journey as a monk at the age of 3. Their regimen is strict and grueling: A monk trains his their mind (chi) and body (quan) to its limits. Through meditation, they can access their energy force, known as chi, and achieve physical prowess and abilities that seem to defy the norms.
Some can withstand sharp objects hitting unscathed, some can throw a needle so fast it can penetrate glasses, some can even manipulate their temperature and use their body to dry wet sheets. These feats seem impossible, but in truth, it is because of their cultivated minds and bodies. It’s not because of their monk outfits, or some extraterrestrial secret hidden within the temple walls; these monks do the impossible because they have tapped their internal energy and cultivated their bodies.