I believe there is no martial artist today who haven’t heard about Shaolin monastery.
Frequent topic of martial arts films, source and subject of many legends, a place that many kung fu styles consider as their place of origin , Shaolin has a special place, not only in the kung fu, but among everyone who are involved in martial arts. Before I start I want to sat this article is based on research of one of the most important kung fu masters of the modern era, unfortunately almost unknown in the West, Tang Hao. This remarkable man was first who laid the foundations of modern, scientific approach in kung fu training back in the early 20 th century. He laid the foundations of modern MMA, he was one of the first who incorporated western boxing in his personal training as well as in the training of the Chinese army. He fought against superstition, advocated training based on constant sparring and exchange with other styles. He was the first person who conducted real historical and archaeological research under the the criteria of modern science ,exploring origin of the various kung fu styles. He tirelessly worked to break the misconceptions and myths. He developed bayonet training for the Chinese army . This remarkable man and a remarkable master devoted his entire life to promotion and modernization of kung fu
Let’s now go back to Shaolin monastery. The legend, more or less known to everyone states that Iin 495 AD, the Indian monk Ba Tuo, came to China teaching a form of Buddhism known as Xiao Sheng Buddhism. He was given land at the foot of Shaoshi mountain by Emperor Shao Wen and founded the Shaolin Temple on this land. Some years later the third son of an Indian king left his homeland and journeyed from South India to China. Eventually arriving near the famous Shaolin temple, it is said he sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. Suitably impressed with his great spiritual power and discipline, the monks at the temple asked him to teach them his methods for gaining enlightenment. He began to teach them the Chan (later Zen) method of seated meditationin 526 CE. Upon gaining entrance to Shaolin, Bodhidharma observed that the monks were weak and could not complete the demanding meditation routines that they should have been practicing. Like himself, the monks often fell asleep while meditating due to fatigue, and for this reason, could not achieve inner peace. Bodhidharma created an exercise program for the monks that strengthened their bodies and could be used in self-defense. Bodhidharma's primary concern was to make the monks physically strong enough to withstand both ,their isolated lifestyle and the deceptively demanding training that meditation requires. Nonetheless, the techniques he taught also served as an efficient fighting system, which evolved into the Shaolin kung fu. Bodhidharma taught, however, that martial arts should never be used to hurt or injure needlessly. In fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that 'one who engages in combat has already lost the battle.'In time Shaolin became a place of martial arts research and development. During the time of Mongolian occupation Shaolin became a center of resistance and was destroyed by the ruling Ching dynasty. Shaolin monls fought bravely but most of them were killed, few of them survived spreading Shaolin kung fu all over China.
More than 95 percent of the story is pure fiction. Apart from the fact that Bodidharma maybe existed ( there are no evidence to support his existence)
and maybe lived for some time in the monastery (latest research question this seriously) everything else simly is not true .Tang Hao dedicated an entire book in which point by point he disassembled the legend of Shaolin and presents valid historical data based on the material evidence and written sources.
Research conducted by Tang Hao and later by historians of PRC indicate that the legend of Shaolin has its roots in two pieces of popular literature from the early 20 th century .First work is popular novel 'Travels of Lao Can', written in the period 1904 to 1907. The second,which completed the story of Bodidharma is 'Secrets of Shaolin boxing' published if 1915. Before these books there is no evidence that the legend of Bodidharma and Shaolin existed in any form. The story was not a part of an oral tradition, nor is there any material nor written evidence , simply , before these two books there is no trace of Bodidharma and Shaolin in any form. Although the story these books was proven as false back in the days when they were published , they became so popular that the story eventually entered in history books and light entertainment story has become a historical fact.
This does not mean that there was no training in the monastery. There are clear historical references that indicate the monks were invited Chinese emperors to participate in military campaigns .This not unusual because the Buddhist monasteries were the owners of large estates, in Taiwan this is still the case today. As the feudal lords , monasteries had private armies or militias that were used for defense of their land and other economic and political interests. These private armies are being called on military campaigns as well as all other feudal conscripts at the time.
Despite of the wide spread opinion,( thanks to the Hong Kong kung fu movies and TV shows), Shaolin was not a place of martial arts research and development. What actually happened was that the monks brought the monastery whatever skills they have picked up ,mostly during the military training. No special training, development of new styles, research and all those things discussed in the legends did not happened. What monks really trained and what their lives depended on was classic infantry training usual for that time. So, the monks were practicing fighting and maneuvering in organized groups, trained with weapon , shields etc.. This was vital for the defense of the temple and its estate as crucial to the survival of the monks.