The real Shaolin History is one of those animals that’s difficult to pin down. One reason for this is that the communist regime controls all history, and rewrites it to suit the state. Another reason is that the current history is of an oral tradition, and therefore quite open to mythicizing.
The real history starts with Bodhidharma taking the long journey to China to see the emperor. This tends to build up Bodhidharma at the expense of the emperor, and this isn’t right. The Chinese ruler, you see, was encouraging Buddhist monks to translate texts from sanskrit to Chinese.
The emperor believed that if he saw to the translation of these religious texts the general public would be enabled to study this religion. He believed this would allow him to enter nirvana. Bodhidharma told the emperor otherwise, which gained him nothing but a swift kick in the pants right out the emperor’s doors.
Bodhidharma then sought refuge at a local temple to meet up with other monks, and was turned away. The head abbot apparently thought him a trouble maker, or maybe he just didn’t want to rub elbows with somebody the emperor found wanting.
The temple he was refused entrance to was constructed in an area which had been razed, or burned down, and the emperor’s gardeners had planted new trees. Thus, the temple was named Shaolin (young forest). Nowhere to go, Bodhidharma began living in a cave.
Eventually Bodhidharma gained admittance to the temple, and legends have it that it took nine years, he bored a hole in the cave with his eyesight, he cut off his eyelids and planted them, and all sorts of other rather ludicrous legends. No one knows why he was admitted to the temple, but it was a good thing he was. The monks were in bad physical shape.
The Shaolin monks spent all their time hunched over books (scrolls, etc.) and were a sickly lot. So Bodhidharma taught them a series of movements based on hatha yoga and raja yoga. These movements were based on the 18 main animals of Chinese-Indian iconography, and this was doubtless the source of the five Shaolin animals.
This was the true origin of shaolin kung fu, though it is difficult to say when body conditioning was transformed into actual martial arts. The region was preyed upon by bandits, and it can be safely assumed that somebody whose body is in good physical condition is going to stand a better chance of survival than somebody whose body is not. At any rate this real Shaolin history has more legitimate sources than the various myths and legends which currently abound.
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