And so we moved to the highlight of the holiday: the visit to Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Kung Fu. Behind us a statue of a monk holding his hands in the traditional salute.
As we entered the temple compound we each stepped on at least 7 of the lotus flowers carved in the stone flags. This was to represent 7 wishes /intentions as you enter the sacred space.
Shao is the name of the large mountain and means ‘young’ or ‘youth’. Lin translates as ‘forest’. So Shaolin means the temple in the young forest.
We went first to a Kung Fu performance by local students. All in all there are 1200 Kung Fu schools here and the largest has 35,000 students. These kids have a rigorous training schedule to be able achieve not only academically but also physically as the moves require great strength and flexibility. It’s a tough commitment.
The Shaolin Temple was founded in 456 AD as the home of the Shaolin school of Buddhism when Buddhism spread eastwards from India. As the religion encountered Chinese culture it became the version which we know today as zen.
The temple was frequently attacked so the founding abbot trained his monks in fighting techniques and so Kung Fu was developed. They were the warrior monks who protected everyone else in the complex but they were highly successful so there was no shortage of recruits.
I am fascinated by the creatures which you see on the curved rooflines. We discovered that these are usually animals associated with water eg sea horses, turtles, fish etc. The reason being that the buildings were all wood and so susceptible to fire. The animals are for spiritual protection and to keep the fire away by fooling it into thinking that the building is full of water.
The picture below is an original cooking vessel which would have been used to feed over 3000 monks. Being a kung fu school the monks would do extra endurance practice by being hung upside down over the pot to do the stirring. One has to hope that none of them ever had a runny nose!!!
The ginkgo trees in the courtyard are 1600 years old. There are multiple holes in the bark which legend says were finger punches from the monks’ training sessions but are more likely to be from them putting out the embers on the sticks that they used to poke courtyard fires in winter.
This is the son of dragon with its dragon head and turtle shell back. Sitting on and touching its head, neck and teeth is supposed to bring longevity, good fortune and health.
Busman’s holiday moment! This is the temple library where valuable manuscripts are stored. We weren’t allowed in (quite rightly)!
In the temple infirmary we each got a peach that has been specially blessed. Peaches are a symbol of longevity and although these felt suspiciously underripe at first, they were actually one of the best and most tasty peaches I have ever eaten.
This carving was very interesting. Can you see three faces? One in the middle and two in profile on either side. These represent the three main and interconnected religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Also in the Infirmary courtyard was a statue showing some of the body’s meridians. Taiji and Kung Fu work with these energy lines.
This is the pagoda forest. Each structure has the ashes of a master buried inside. There are so many that they are now running out of space so now only the abbot or very important contributors can have one. This picture below is the previous abbot so has trains, cameras and cars engraved on the plinth.
With a definite sense of dejavu we boarded a cable car and rode up to the summit on another very high mountain (only 1400 ft but who’s counting!). This was ShaoShi Mountain one of the 5 most important mountains in China. This one is considered to be the leader of the 5 so the most important mountain
And yet again, another scary cliffside walk which seemed to go on forEVER!!! I still didn’t much like it but again I did it (gripping Michelle’s hand this time). I sure am a glutton for punishment!
After that we did some filming. I put on my special Taiji outfit, the one that looks like calligraphy ink. It felt like being on a film set as there were soon crowds of curious onlookers around us, many of them also filming me as I did the Taiji routine. Part of what we do is to focus on the energy and ignore what is happening around us (which helped) It felt especially powerful doing the moves in front of the Temple gate and I could feel the energy very strongly there.
At one point we filmed me in my outfit with Peter and Shifu standing a little behind. They both had our group polo shirt on (with the Tai tree symbol that Kevin created). Shifu of course does the moves perfectly and so beautifully but someone thought that they were the students and I was the master and asked to join my school!!!!! It was all in mandarin so of course I had no idea what he was saying and just walked away! Lol!!
This was a beautiful gift for me and I am so touched and honored. It made the whole trip more meaningful and special.
We were curious to know how this place with such cultural and historical significance survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. We learned that in 1928 the Temple had largely been burned down after the Abbot supported the Nationalist Party. I guess the spirit animals on the roof hadn’t helped much. In any case, the temple complex was in bad shape and therefore ignored by the Red Army (fortunately). Only a few buildings are original. Most have been rebuilt or restored in recent years as martial arts have grown in popularity.
The Shaolin Temple is now more of a business than a religious institution. There are franchises all over the world and the town around has grown to deal with the tourists who flock there every year.
One of the tourist attractions was the sound and light open air show written by Tan Dun. It was quite magical to watch a cast of hundreds dancing and singing before the most impressive backdrop.
The lighting effects were out of this world. It was just a shame that many in the audience kept up loud conversations, arguments or watched videos on their phones!!!! It was frustrating for all of us who wanted to soak up the atmosphere and the music but reflecting on the experience I realize that there is no culture of attending theatrical performances (except Beijing Opera) so people did not know how to behave as an audience!!!