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The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolín Sì ) is a Chan (Zen) Buddhist temple located at Song Mountain (Songshan) near Zhengzhou City in Henan Province in China. It was founded in the 5th century and famous for its association with Chinese Martial Arts and particularly with the system of Shaolin Kung Fu.

The first Shaolin Monastery Abbot was India Dhyana Master Batuo who came to China from Indian in 464 AD to spread Buddhist teachings.

According to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (AD 645) by Dàoxuān, the Shaolin Monastery was built in Mount Song, is one of the four Sacred Mountains of China, by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty in AD 477.

However most influential to the unique fame of the Shaolin Temple goes to the Indian monk Da Mo (surname Sadili) – born around 483 A.D.  – also known as Bodhidarma.  Damo was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India . He was of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and was considered by many to have been a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who had renounced nirvana in order to save others). Da Mo was invited to China by Liang Wu emperor who was interested in seeking enlightment. He arrived in Canton , China in 527 A.D. during the reign of the  Ming emperor (516-528 A.D.) with Liang Wu emperor (502-550 A.D.). When the emperor decided he did not like Da Mo ‘s Buddhist theory, the monk was very disappointed and withdrew to the Shaolin Temple . When Da Mo arrived, he saw that the priests were weak and sickly, so he pondered the problem for a long while – it is said he went to a nearby cave to meditate and ponder on the problem. When he emerged after nine years of seclusion, he instructed two classics which was later written up and became the unique Shaolin system: Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and Xi Sui Jin (Marrow/Brain Washing Classic. Originally for the weak monks, the Yi Jin Jing taught the monks how to build their Qi to an abundant level and use it to improve health and change their physical bodies from weak to strong. After the monks practiced the Yijin Jing exercises, they found that not only did they improve their health, but they also greatly increased their strength. When this training was integrated into the Martial Arts forms, it increased the effectiveness of their martial techniques. This change marked one more step in the growth of the Chinese Martial Arts: Martial Arts with added Qigong.

From Damo’s teaching there were countless offsprints.  One special one was a young monk at the Temple called Zhang Sanfeng ( 张三丰Zhāng Sānfēng also Chang Sanfeng) who later  became Taoist (His original name was Zhang Junbao 張君寶 before he became a Taoist).  Zhang Sanfeng is credited to have originated the concepts of Neijia martial arts (內家 Kung Fu); the soft, internal  martial arts and specifically is the founder of Taiji system of martial arts (Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan).

Destruction of The Temple and Spreading of Shaolin Martial Arts

The Shaolin monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1641 the troops of anti-Ming rebel Li Zicheng sacked the monastery due to the monks’ support of the Ming and the supposed anti-Qing activities. (it is said many former Ming supporters and rebels hid in the temple after the Qing conquered the Ming Dynasty).  The attack and destruction of the Shaolin Temple effectively destroyed the temple’s fighting force.

However, this destruction is also supposed to have helped spread Shaolin martial arts through China (and over the several centuries, to the rest of the world) by means of the several fugitive monks Choy Fook, Li Yau Shan, Ng Mui, Fung Doe Duk, Miu Hin and Bak Mei.

The Shaolin Temple was a perfect place removed from civilization to promote the creation of martial and health systems.  At the heart of the Shaolin Temple of martial arts and body strengthening was the Sinew Changing Classic (易筋经 – Yijin Jing) and Marrow Washing Classic (洗髓​​经 – Xi Sui Jing).

Sinew Changing Classic (易筋经 – Yijin Jing)

Is a series of exercises, coordinated with specific breathing techniques done with intense mental concentration.  When practiced correctly and consistently, it is said to enhance physical health dramatically.  In modern days there are many variations, translations and distinct sets of exercises all said to be derived from the original (the provenance of which is the subject of some debate and the reader is warned of imitations). These Muscle Tendon exercises are notable for being a key element of the physical conditioning used in Shaolin training.

The basic purpose of Yijin Jing is to turn flaccid and frail sinews and tendons into strong and sturdy ones. The movements of Yijin Jing are at once vigorous and gentle. Their performance calls for a unity of will and strength, i.e. using one’s will to direct the exertion of muscular strength. It is coordinated with breathing. Better muscles and tendons means better health and shape, more resistance, flexibility, and endurance. It is obtained as follows:

  • postures influence the static and nervous structure of the body
  • stretching muscles and sinews affects organs, joints, meridians and Qi
  • torsion affects metabolism and Jing production
  • breathing produces more and better refined Qi
  • active working gives back balance and strength to body and mind (brain, nervous system and spirit).

Power and endurance are of paramount importance in martial arts, or simply better health and wisdom. Already another known Qigong system, Baduanjin, in its more radical and strong forms was used in the past from schools of Xingyiquan and Taijiquan as bodily preparation to fighting arts, in order to make body strong and flexible. Baduanjin still remains the first, entry-level routine to learn at Shaolin training schools.

Martial artists need to be powerful in the martial practice, like non-martial people need to be healthy. But there is also something supple and flexible inside of Yijin Jing. Movements are energetic and intense, but also developing inner peace. Yijin Jing unifies Yi (intention) with Li (strength), consciousness (yang) with muscular force (yin). The mind is free from thoughts, has a correct and well-disposed attitude, the breathing is harmonious.

Internal and external movement must be coordinated, like movement with relaxation. Externally is for fortification; inside for purification; unifying matter and spirit.

Some classic recurring points of Yijin Jing can be described as follows:

  • Most of the movements use open palms, fists are used only for stretching the tendons.
  • The names of exercises change, but often the basic idea of movement remains the same.
  • Movements are done standing, sometimes bending forward, and seldom lying or sitting.
  • Eyes are always open, never closed.
  • Movements are slow but full and stretching is emphasized with face and body showing relaxed attitude.
  • All directions of the upper body section (especially shoulders) are active and moved.
  • Dynamic tension rules the moves.
  • All parts of the body work together.
  • There are different ways of practicing the same Yijinjing form, according to the basic rules, to the body shape, to the time of practice and to the general health conditions.

According to traditional verbal formulas, we have that:

  • The first year of training gives back physical and mental vitality.
  • The second year enhances blood circulation and nurtures meridians.
  • The third year allows flexibility to muscles and nurtures the organs.
  • The fourth year improves meridians and nurtures viscera.
  • The fifth year washes the marrow and nurtures the brain.

The Five rules of Yijin Jing are:

Calmness
A quiet mind and calm spirit allows energy to move inside the body. Achieved effortless like lake water reflects the moon.
Slowness
Slow movements are required in order to use and flex muscles deeply, to get maximum extension and move Qi and Blood.
Extension
Each movement must be brought to the maximum – and then a little more.
Start-Wait, Pause
Efficacy comes through waiting and keeping tension for a longer time.
Flexibility
In attain maximum flexibility, limbs and trunk must be extended at the joint so that blood and energy can circulate.