Bodhidharma Arrives at Shaolin Temple

After leaving the capital, Bodhidharma traveled north to the area around Luoyang, where Buddhism first started in China. Here was the White Horse Temple and many other temples that had been established soon after. Bodhidharma climbed to a mountain temple called Shaolin Temple. He was initially refused entrance to Shaolin Temple. Bodhidharma climbed up further into the mountains to a remote cave where he reportedly meditated for nine years.

Legend claims that he meditated so long and with such intensity that his shadow became forever burned onto the wall of his cave. It is also said that he struggled to stay awake during his deep meditations. In his frustration he cut off his eyelids so that he would never again fall asleep. In the many paintings of him, he is often depicted with bulging, lidless eyes, as in the painting at left.

After showing such remarkable knowledge and dedication to Buddhist practice, Bodhidharma was invited to enter the Shaolin Temple in 526 CE. Upon gaining entrance to Shaolin, Bodhidharma observed that the monks were weak and could not complete the demanding meditation routines that they should have been practicing. Like himself, the monks often fell asleep while meditating due to fatigue, and for this reason, could not achieve inner peace.

(The below description of Bodhidharma's solution is adapted from the biography of Bodhidharma at

Bodhidharma was moved by the terrible physical condition of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Likening the monks to the young Buddha, who almost died from rigorous meditation practices, he informed the monks that he would teach their bodies and their minds the Buddha's law through meditation and physical training.

Bodhidharma created an exercise program for the monks that strengthened their bodies and could be used in self-defense. Bodhidharma's primary concern was to make the monks physically strong enough to withstand both their isolated lifestyle and the deceptively demanding training that meditation requires. Nonetheless, the techniques he taught also served as an efficient fighting system, which evolved into the marital arts style called kung fu. Bodhidharma taught, however, that martial arts should never be used to hurt or injure needlessly. In fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that 'one who engages in combat has already lost the battle.'

Bodhidharma was a member of the Indian ruling class and a master of staff fighting. His system of movements and exercises were eventually formalized into the martial arts system that today is known as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements. This style is the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts, a powerful and well known system of hand-fighting.Thus Bodhidharma integrated martial arts and yoga for exercise and self-defense as well as for spiritual culitvation. Monks of the Shaolin Temple specialized in certain areas of Bodhidharma's kung fu and have continued teaching Bodhidharma's techniques since 539 CE.

Throughout Shaolin's history, bandits frequently attacked the temple in search of treasures and gold. The temple was also burned to the ground on several occasions, when the monks of the temple found themselves drawn into political battles in the empire. Nonetheless, Shaolin Temple grew and prospered. Today it remains a center for teaching philosophy and martial arts.