It was my first time in China and lucky me I got to visit the province of Henan also known as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Dengfeng one of the historical capital of Henan, is a place that is best known for its Shaolin Temple or Monastery and as the birth-place for yet another Chinese martial art, the Kung-Fu.
How popular Kung-Fu has become is easily visible as soon as you enter the Shaolin town. Streets are lined with a number of academies where thousands of children, mainly Chinese but also several foreigners, learn Kung-Fu and practice it in practically all the public spaces.
The words Shaolin Temple can be loosely translated as ‘the temple in thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain’. Not many Indians or even others know about it, but the Shaolin monastery has an intricate link with India and it certainly made me proud when I first learnt about this connection. The temple was established in 495 AD at the foot of the Songshan mountain by the then Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty. The temple had been specially built to welcome an Indian monk, Buddhabhadra or Bu Tuo, as the Chinese call him.
Buddhabhadra was named the first Abbot of the monastery and he devoted himself to translating the Buddhist scriptures and also preaching the religion to his followers.
At the time that Buddhabhadra was preaching Buddhism, thousands of kilometres away, in southern India, lived an Indian prince, Bodhidharma, a very intelligent prince and the favourite of his father, the King. However, Bodhidharma became interested in spiritual matters and renounced the world, became a monk and began studying Buddhism with a famous guru, Prajnatara.
Prajnatra told Bodhidharma to go to China after his death and the student followed the master’s instructions. Thus, in 527 AD, 32 years after Buddhabhadra had founded the Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma crossed into China through Guangdong province. He traversed through the country and reached near the Shaolin Temple, after having crossed the Yangtze river by using the weeds in the river as his support. Once he reached the mountains near the Shaolin temple, Bodhidharma went inside a cave and began meditation.
Soon enough his fame spread to the Shaolin Temple and the monks from the temple began visiting the cave, requeting him to come to the temple and take charge as the master. However, Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating in the cave before he moved to the monastery.
As the new Abbot of the Shaolin monastery, Bodhidharma initiated the Chan Buddhism and Shaolin monastery became the centre of this new form of Buddhism. « Bodhidharma also began training his followers in martial arts, mainly Kung Fu, mainly to allow the monks to defend themselves against attacks by wild animals that roamed the jungles around the monastery », adds Caroline our local guide.
The setting of the monastery appears to be perfect for practicing martial arts. Shaolin is set in dense pine forests with the backdrop of mountains, fresh air, peace and calm reign here, allowing the mind to meditate and the body to practice martial arts. The practice and the show offered to us by the students were quite impressive. Kung Fu, like most other martial arts is all about how you control your mind. The body follows.
The same evening, after the Kung Fu performance, we were treated to the Shaolin Zen Music ritual, which is truly one of its kind in the world.
Shaolin Zen Music Ritual
The Shaolin Zen Music ritual boasts of several firsts in the world. It is believed to have the world’s largest lights system with over 2800 lights controlled by computers and stretching all along Mount Songshan from the base to the summit, over 1400 m high. The stage of the show is also the biggest, covering an area of 5sqkm.
The highlight of the show is the world’s largest man-made moon, also controlled by computers and that rises from the forest in Mount Songshan. The moon stretches over 20 m across in diametre in its full moon form. It is amazing to see monks fly and tumble from a height of 80 m, just like in a slick Hollywood production.
The set, the music and the costumes, all join hands to completely mesmerise the viewers. In addition, you can see real Shaolin Kung Fu in this performance, such as the famous kids’ Kung Fu, Tai Chi. In the spectacle, hundreds of monks sing, chant and pray under the instruction of the old Abbot. The spectacle has five chapters, each representing an element – water, wood, air, light and earth.