Shaolin Gongfu and Chan Buddhism are one. Just as you cannot separate your mind from your body, Chan cannot be separated from the martial practice of the Temple. Thus to discuss Shaolin history thoroughly, we must first start with the origins of Buddhism.

Shakyamuni Buddha and the founding of Buddhism

Founder of BuddhismSiddhartha Gautama was a prince born to the Shakya clan in what is now Nepal about 500 BCE. At his birth, a sage predicted he would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father of course wanted him to become king, so he tried to shelter him as much as possible within the palace walls. However, as he got older, Siddhartha wanted to see the kingdom he would one day rule. Despite his father’s best efforts, on his tour he encountered suffering in the form of sickness, old age, and death. He resolved to give up his comfortable royal life to become a holy man, in order to find the cause of suffering and a way to end it.

After studying under several teachers and mastering their philosophies, Siddhartha was still not satisfied. He had tried several methods of spiritual attainment practiced at the time, ranging from begging to meditation to asceticism. One day he sat beneath a fig tree and resolved not to get up until he had found the answer to his questions. After 49 days of meditation, he discovered the truth of the middle way, and from then on was known as Buddha – “awakened one”. He also was called Shakyamuni, or Shijiamouni fo in Chinese. Shakyamuni means “Sage of the Shakya clan”.

For the rest of his life, he traveled around teaching the philosophy, or dharma, to anyone and everyone who desired to study with him. He formed the Sangha, the community of monks, who would record and continue his teachings after his death.

Origins of Chan

Chan Buddhism is said to have originated at one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s sermons. One day, the Buddha brought his disciples together for a sermon on the Dharma. However, the Buddha did not say a single word, but simply held up a flower. Although many of his disciples tried to understand the meaning of this, only one, Mahakasyapa, fully understood. He smiled, and the Buddha acknowledged his realization. Chan is said to be a direct transmission of the dharma outside of the sutras (texts recording the teachings of the Buddha), passed “Mind to mind, Heart to heart” from master to disciple.

Batuo and the Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 by the Indian monk Batuo, or Buddhabhadra. After traveling to China, he received permission from Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty to build a temple at the foot of Shaoshi mountain in the Song mountain range in the Henan province. The word Lin means forest in Chinese, thus the temple was named Shaolin for the forest at the foot of Shaoshi mountain.

Batuo preached the orthodox teachings of Hinayana, or Nikaya Buddhism (Xiao Sheng in Chinese). In this type of Buddhism, which closely follows the teachings of Shakyamuni, there are 250 rules for monks and 500 rules for nuns. Batuo had two disciples named Sengchou and Huiguang, who were both martial artists before becoming monks. They were the first ones to bring martial arts to the temple.


Bodhidharma (PutiDamo or just Damo in Chinese) was another prince of a clan in what is now India. He also chose to leave the royal life to become a monk. When Bodhidharma came to the temple in 527, he brought the teachings of Chan Buddhism, part of the Mahayana (Da Cheng) school. This understanding had been passed down directly from Mahakasyapa to Bodhidharma’s master Prajnatara, who was the 27th in the lineage. Bodhidharma was the 28th, and the first patriarch of Chan in China.

Bodhidharma created 4 integral parts of Shaolin Kungfu, also sutras. They were
– 2 qigong (Chi Kung) forms; the Yijin Jing (Muscle Tendon Changing Sutra) and the Xisui Jing (Bone Marrow Washing Sutra)
– The Wuxing quan, the 5 original animal forms (Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Crane, and Snake)
– The Luohan Shiba Shou, The 18 Luohan Palms

Bodhidharma’s disciple Huike was, like Sengchou and Huiguang, a military man before becoming a monk, and also brought martial arts knowledge to the temple. Huike became Damo’s successor, and after him there were four more before the lineage ended. They were Sengcan, Daoxin, Hongren, and Huineng.

Click here to read the whole story of Bodhidharma and Huike

Hui Neng

Hui Neng, the 6th patriarch, was an illiterate man from the south, and thus considered by the elite to be a “barbarian”. However, his spiritual understanding was very high. One day while delivering firewood, he overheard a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra, and instantly became enlightened. He asked the monk what the text was and where he was from, and soon made arrangements to study with the 5th patriarch, Hongren, at Dongshan Monastary. Upon meeting, Hongren immediately knew that Huineng had very deep understanding. However, because of Huineng’s background, he was put to work pounding rice and chopping wood so that people would not notice him.

One day, Hongren assembled his disciples and told them all to write him a poem. The writer of the poem that demonstrated full understanding of the dharma would become his successor. All of the disciples assumed their older brother Shenxiu would easily accomplish this, and so none wrote their own poems. Shenxiu, after writing his poem, went to the Patriarch’s chamber many times over the course of the next few days, but every time he became too nervous to submit the poem. He finally resolved to write the poem anonymously on a wall, to see Hongren’s reaction later. His poem read:

Our body is the Bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

When he saw the poem the next day, Hongren announced that those who practiced the poem will gain merit and not be born into lower levels of existence. That night, he spoke with Shenxiu, who admitted to being the poem’s author. Hongren told him that he had not yet attained the highest level.

The next day, Huineng overheard someone reciting the poem while he was working. He also knew that the author was not yet at the highest level. He asked someone to write another poem next to it, as he was illiterate. Huineng’s poem read:

There is no Bodhi tree,
Nor is a clear mirror the stand.
Originally, all is empty
So where can the dust motes land?

All present were shocked that a ‘southern barbarian’ could have written such a poem. Hongren quickly announced that this poem’s author had also not attained enlightenment, and rubbed it off the wall. However, that night Hongren brought Huineng to his room and secretly passed on his alms bowl and robes, the symbol of the patriarch. Thus Huineng became the sixth and final patriarch of Bodhidharma’s lineage.

Tang Dynasty and Emperor Taizong

At the end of the Sui Dynasty in 614, a despot named Wang Shichong overthrew the first emperor of the newly created Tang Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu (birth name Li Yuan). Wang Shichong’s new state occupied the area where the Shaolin Temple is and its surroundings. During one battle, Wang Shichong defeated prince Li Yuanji. Immediately after, head priest Zhicao and other armed Shaolin monks appeared from a mountain pass behind Wang’s troops and led a suprise attack. Wang’s army was thrown into confusion and his nephew, Wang Renze, was captured alive and sent to the Tang camp.

Li Yuan’s son Li Shimin became the 2nd emperor of the Tang dynasty, known as Taizong. He issued an edict to the Shaolin temple thanking them for their help, and had an audience with 13 monks who stood out particularly in the battle. He gave the temple several hundred hectares of land, official permission to train a small army of martial monks, a special robe for each monk, a large cauldron, and most importantly, permission to eat meat and drink alcohol. These events are depicted in Jet Li’s first movie, Shaolin Temple.

Five Chan Families

During the Tang dynasty, five different families of Chan developed. They were the Guiyang, Linji, Caodong, Yunmen, and Fayan. Shi Yan Ming traces his generational lineage to the Caodong family. However, Chan philosophy is not limited–the message of Shi Yan Ming at the USA Shaolin Temple can be stated clearly: “Understand yourself, respect yourself, and do good…train harder!”

Fu Yu

At the beginning of the Song dynasty, Fu Yu was the abbot of the Shaolin Temple. He was the first abbot of the current Caodong lineage of the temple. He invited all of the martial artists in China to the temple three times, each time for a period of three years. They discussed, shared and refined their styles, making the Shaolin Temple even more of an important center for martial arts in China.

Click here to see the Lineage Poem written by Fu Yu

Recent history

The last hundred years of Chinese history have been very turbulent, and the Shaolin Temple has been part of this. Over the course of history, the Shaolin Temple generally enjoyed great favor with the Chinese emperors, but was also destroyed many times by various warlords. One such instance was in 1928, when warlord Shi Yousan attacked the temple. It burned for 45 days, and many of the buildings, books, and records were destroyed.

When the People’s Republic of China was established, all religion was outlawed. All training at Shaolin was of course prohibited. During the cultural revolution, the red guard destroyed even more of the buildings, statues, and other relics at the temple. During this time period, six monks stayed to protect temple and suffered the red guard’s abuses. They were former abbot Shi Xingzheng, Shi Wanheng, Shi Suxi, Shu Suyun, Shi Dechan, and Shi Miaoxing.

Following the release of Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple in 1981 and the worldwide popularity of kung fu that followed, the Chinese government restored and rebuilt many of the old buildings at the temple. However, the temple is not currently a place of study or training, but a destination for tourists. Many large kung fu schools with thousands of students teach modern wushu in towns and cities near the temple.