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How did the Shaolin Temple become a martial arts school?

A long time ago around 6 A.D. the Shaolin temple was a Buddhist monastery. One day a man by the name of Bodhidharma came to the temple. He requested permission to enter but the monks at the gate sent him away.

Bodhidharma decided to walk up the mountain a little ways and took up residence in a cave. Legend has it that he stayed there for 7 years. As the legend goes he stayed in the cave the entire time meditating. At first he found himself unable to keep from falling asleep, so he took a knife and cut off his eyelids to stay awake!

After years of his continuous meditation, the monks at the Shaolin temple decided to let him enter as a meditation master. When Bodhidharma entered the temple he started to teach the monks to meditate the way he had been doing in the cave. The monks were lazy, however, and undisciplined, and they would fall asleep during the meditations just like he used to do. Their bodies were too frail so Bodhidharma invented a different type of meditation that was a moving exercise for the monks to do.

He created the I Chin Ching postures which translates as: muscle tendon change. The I Chin Ching were a set of yoga like postures that were incredibly difficult to perform, and the monks quickly found their minds getting sharper and their bodies getting stronger.

The I Chin Ching exercises built the willpower and physical strength of the monks. These days almost no one has a complete set of the exercises except for the Shaolin-Do martial arts schools. Sifu Katy Moeggenberg wrote an amazing write-up of the I Chin Ching which can be found on Amazon.

Click here to get yours:

After several years of training, the monks began to have to deal with bandits that raided their temples. Being peaceful monks, the Shaolin at that time didn’t have any way to defend themselves. They were simply beat up much like you see in modern Hollywood movies, the way they portray monks from any religion.

The monks started to look for ways to stop these bandits. They started to notice that nature had provided the best possible examples of ways to fight, and they do it all the time: Animals!

The monks started observing 5 animals as their starting points. They modeled the movements of the tiger, crane, snake, leopard and the monkey.

The monks developed 18 forms after each animal, and as they went on they developed more and more animal forms. Some of these forms include dragon, praying mantis and eagle forms. They also either developed or adapted other styles of martial arts too, such as the eight drunken immortal forms and the entire library of Tai Chi.

The animal forms combined with the intense physical training from the time they were 6 years old ended up making the Shaolin monks formidable fighters, and transported them from their humble beginnings into characters of legend.

Ben Newcomb is a 4th degree black belt and a martial arts blogger. Read more at:

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