The Shaolin Temple

Written by Oct 16, 2004 13:10
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General Heng and Ha

After a grueling 45hr train ride from Urumqi, we finally reached Xi'an at around 9pm. I decided to join a select group of students wanting to visit the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province instead of spending the last day in Xi'an again. I just had to pay an extra 150 yuan for the tour, the meals, and the train ticket. So we stayed on the train for another 11hr ride. We arrived in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province shortly before 8am. After breakfast, we got on a bus and went straight to the Shaolin Temple. It was a 2hr ride from the train station to the temple. As you near the temple, you could see dozens of schools focusing on martial arts as well as bald-headed students doing their regular workout. Some are jogging while others are practicing martial arts.

Having seen other bigger and more magnificent temples in China, I guess I wasn't at all impressed with the temple. It just consisted of residence compounds, pagodas as well as two temples dedicated to the founding monks. After the entrance, you could see a dozen of stone tablets flanking the main path that were erected by foreign monks who have completed their studies at the temple. Most of the buildings were also being renovated at the time, so there were hardly anything worthwhile seeing. The two huge figures at the entrance could probably be what fascinated me the most. They were known as Generals Heng and Ha. Legend has it that whenever they entered a war, they would win by shouting the sounds "heng" and "ha". It's no wonder the Shaolin monks and students could be heard shouting the same words during their daily exercises! I took a picture with one of them, but I don't know if it was with Ha or Heng. All I know was that it was a big fierce looking blue figure!

A Very Short Shaolin History

Here's a little bit of history. It is said that a certain monk by the name of Bodhidharma reached the Shaolin Temple in 527 AD to spread Buddhism. The temple was built sometime in 495AD so wha's with this guy? Actually, he founded the Zen sect which is a major branch of Buddhism (embodiment of local Chinese religions and Confucian doctrines) here and also developed what is termed as "Arhat boxing" in an effort to relax himself after his prolonged sitting in meditation. Later, his disciples perfected this kind of boxing and made it a must for every monk. It is in this sense that the Shaolin Temple came to be famous for its martial arts.

A few meters away from the temple is the Forest of Stupas. It's China's largest group of stupas; what in the world is a stupa? Well, a stupa is the specific name for a pagoda, which originated in India. Since its introduction into China along with Buddhism in 68AD, it has become the most sublime construction in monasteries. In India, the pagoda is exclusively built for preserving the Buddhist relics, that is, the Buddhist's bones, hair, and teeth. In China, however, pagodas were dedicated to some eminent monks whose remains were buried underneath. In integrating the traditional architectural features, the Chinese have created various forms of pagodas. The earlier ones were mostly built of wood, but this did not last as wood is prone to fire and rain. With the passage of time wood was gradually replaced by stone, copper, iron, and brick. The ones in this area were mostly made of bricks and stones. There were more than 240 pagodas of varying shapes and sizes. The difference in shape and height indicates the varying positions, popularity and support of disciples the deceased enjoyed when they were alive. What is more, all the pagodas in the area are of one-storey mainly because Buddhism holds that an odd number is the symbol of cleanliness and of being single.

I didn't bother staying long as the area served as a cemetery dating back to the Tang dynasty. Besides, there were a lot of shops nearby from where I can do my haggling to buy souvenir items. I didn't find any tha's good except for an incense smelling bracelet that I happened to find unique.

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