Myths about the Shaolin monks


5. Most combat techniques were derived from Indian animals.

The kung fu combat techniques favored in China are actually reported by scholars to have been Indian in origin. A mystic was supposed to have gone into the area of the Shaolin Temple and introduced fighting techniques he had modeled off the movements of animals as if to give the organization a more benign, naturalistic air. As reported by National Geographic, though, it’s believed by historians that in fact the Shaolin tradition comes from something a little less enlightened. The organization started out essentially as someone’s private army, and the combat techniques came from within the group itself. A bit less pleasant to imagine them as probably a bunch of mercenaries in the beginning that took on a religious angle, but at least it’s a bit more grounded and relatable.

4. Thirteen monks saved an Emperor.

In the early seventh century, at the end of the Sui Dynasty, China was in arrears. Rebel forces occupied several parts of the empire, including strategic mountain passes near Shaolin.

The-Legend-of-the-Five-EldersIn 621, yet another prince found himself in Shaolin. This time it was the Tang Dynasty’s Tang Taizong, who was on a punitive expedition against insurgents holding the city of Luoyang. For months, he kept the city under siege. Then one day, another rebel general and his 300,000 men arrived to reinforce the enemy’s ranks.

Tang Taizong was in dire straits as the two sides prepared for an ultimate showdown. Just then, he received surprise reinforcement from the Shaolin Temple, as thirteen warrior monks joined his ranks. And, with their heroic contribution, and a quick, decisive battle, Tang troops emerged victorious, securing the empire.

Now the emperor, Tang Taizong did not forget the monks courage and loyalty.

He dubbed their temple “number one under the Heaven,” and allowed them to maintain their own 500man army. He also issued an edict permitting the monks to eat meat (and drink alcohol) in order to fuel their martial training.

3. The Training Trap Maze.

The rigors of training for the organization naturally had to have exaggerated stories, especially for the final exam. A myth arose that beneath the temple, there was a maze of wooden dummies that trainees had to get through. By that is meant spinning wooden poles with smaller poles branching from them at varying lengths and heights that meant using different techniques to get through. This maze was supposed to have 36 different dummies that you had to get through, and they were equipped with deadly blades.

2. The God Vaprapni hates bullying & Vegetarianism.

shaolin_meditation_031Vaprapni was a Hindu war god who was incorporated into Shaolin worship and the focus of a particularly odd story from seventh century A.D. There was a monk named Shengchou that was a living punching bag in his monastery. He begged to Vaprapni for help for six days. Vaprapni appeared, and then forced him to eat meat, an act which was taboo for a monk. From there it’s a typical nerd revenge fantasy where Shengchou demonstrates his great strength to his former tormentors and they beg his mercy. Why the Shaolin tradition would want a story of someone being rewarded for betraying their vows solely out of petty self-interest is really curious.

1. Escape…

In the mid-sixteenth century, the monastery was called upon to defend China from raids by Japanese pirates. Providing 120 warriors, they fought the Japanese in four battles armed with thirty-five pound staves and for the first three inflicted sound, one-sided defeats, suffering at most four casualties a fight. Then in the fourth one they were almost wiped out with three exceptions, though history has blamed that on bad military leadership from unrelated to the monks themselves. The story of the three is that they took reeds and buried themselves for a night, and then snuck away. It seems far-fetched and implausible, but also so undignified and specific that you have to wonder why anyone would make that up.


Additional tags: shaolin temple stories myths of shaolin monastery shaolin monk legends

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