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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Arts and Religion, Reviews

The Book Club: The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar: Introduction and Chapters 1-2.

Tourists at the front gates of the Shaolin Temple.  Note the large inscribed stone monuments that line the walk.

Welcome to the Chinese Martial Studies Book Club

This is the first post in new experimental series here at Kung Fu Tea. The goal of the “book clubis to introduce readers to some of the classic works on martial studies, engage the arguments of the authors on a detailed level and encourage conversations among readers. Taking an academic interest in the martial arts is rare enough that most of us do not really have any colleges to discuss this stuff with. So let’s consider this to be our virtual book club.

Rather than simply offering an academic review of the text I will split it up into a number of chunks (usually 2 chapters) and we will review, discuss and expand upon the ideas that we find there. A few weeks later we will meet again to go over the next few chapters, giving everyone a chance to read along if they so choose. And just as we all learned in school, the more your read, the more you will have to say in the subsequent discussion.

The first book that we will tackle is Meir Shahar’s well respected volume The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. This book came out in 2008 so it is still relatively recent. It was published by the University of Hawaii Press, which has traditionally been an important outlet for high quality Asian Studies research.

I choose this as my first pick for a couple of reasons. Shahar is a very important voice in the field of Chinese martial studies and this book is a great way to familiarize yourself with his thought.  His research methodology is compelling and represents a great example of what Chinese martial studies can, and should, be. In writing this book, Shahar seamlessly weaves together detailed textual analysis of Buddhist and Confucian histories, archeological and epigraphic evidence from Shaolin itself, and the experience of modern martial artists and monks in the larger “Shaolin community.” This last area of his research allows him to draw on ethnographic and historical analogies that reorder the earlier written and epigraphic record, giving us new and convincing ways of understanding these texts. As I hope to demonstrate below, this “methodological triangulation” allows Shahar to solve problems that have stymied other historians.

Our first reading assignment will cover the Introduction and Chapters 1-2 of the Shaolin Monastery. This first section of Shahar’s work discusses the creation of the famed temple and reveals the ultimate sources of some of its most compelling myths. The next reading assignment will be chapters 3-4. Right now they are slated for discussion on Wednesday November 21st. That should give you plenty of time to dig out your copy of Shahar or to order one.

If this experiment is a success I would like to tackle other books in 2013. Obviously Peter Lorge’s 2012 volume Chinese Martial Arts by Cambridge University Press deserve a close read and careful consideration. Beyond that I am open to suggestions. What books would you guys like to discuss? They do not even have to be on Chinese history. Anthropological or cultural works are also welcome. In addition to works on the Chinese martial arts I am also open to looking at other Asian or Western fighting traditions. The only real requirement is that the book makes an important contribution to how we understand or approach martial studies. If you have a suggestion, drop me an email or put it in a comment below.

A well known mural at the Shaolin Temple. This is how many martial artists think of the monastery today, as a center for hand combat training.

Introduction: Why Should we Study Shaolin?

The answer to that question is actually far from obvious and addressing it is the main hurdle that Shahar has to overcome in his introduction. When teaching one of the things that I was surprised (and sort of disturbed) to learn was that my undergraduate students would regularly skip the introductions to the books that we were reading in class. This is not a great idea as very often the author provides useful information about his methodology and approach to the subject in the introduction that might not be explicitly addressed elsewhere.

For Shahar the introduction is more pressing than it might otherwise be simply because of his choice of subject matter. Martial artists love Shaolin because of its real or imagined link to so many modern fighting styles. Academics and intellectuals within the Chinese martial arts communities tend to take a dimmer view of the subject.

As Shahar is very well aware, important voices in the field including Stanley Henning, Kai Filipiak, Peter Lorge and Adam Hsu (to name a random assortment of current writers) have all argued that our collective obsession with the temple is unhealthy. While medieval martial arts are an interesting topic Shaolin was never a center for their creation or dissemination. In fact, according these authors, it is more of a “myth” than a real place.

Filipiak has recently argued (“Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives”) that while the question of monastic violence in China might be an interesting one, scholars should pass over Shaolin in favor of other, less well documented temples that may be able to shed more light on the ultimate relationship between Buddhism and organized violence (p. 25 in Michael A. DeMarco (ed.) Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Via Media Publishing. 2012.)

Shaolin has a problem. The sorts of people who “take Chinese martial arts seriously” often have trouble accepting the temple as a legitimate part of China’s martial heritage. From poorly produced boxing manuals making outlandish claims in the 1920s to Jet Li movies in the early 1980s, the Shaolin Temple just has too much baggage.

Visitors can attest that the sanctuary itself is overpriced and perpetually thronged with tourists. In fact, it has been fashionable for visiting intellectuals to complain about the over-commercialization of the temple and the lack of any sort of martial arts genius among its monks since at least the 1500s. That is a solid 500 year tradition of the hipsters and cool kids hating on this temple. Given the marginality of Chinese martial studies as a whole, if you get a chance to publish a book through a top university press, you don’t want to waste it. So why did Shahar choose Shaolin?

Over the course of his introduction he bring up all of the right answers. Globalization has brought a huge amount of attention to the Chinese martial arts, and you cannot understand them without knowing how to evaluate their claims about Shaolin. He consciously places himself in the same traditions as Tang Hao, an important early Chinese historian of the martial arts who conducted an extensive research project of Shaolin.

He notes that the Temple’s history raises all kinds of questions about the relationship between Buddhist entities and organized violence in medieval China. Further, the origins and development of the Chinese martial arts are actually not as well understood as we might hope. This is especially true of the Ming period. Shaolin reached the height of its fame during the Ming dynasty and lots was written about it at the time. So if we understand how the martial arts came to be adopted and promoted at Shaolin we might learn something about their development as a whole.

This is all very true. Yet I have a nagging feeling that he still has not answered the central question. Why Shaolin? It seems that one might be able to answer all of these questions by doing the same thing for the martial monks of Wutai or maybe Emei in the southwest? That certainly seems to be what Prof. Filipiak is advocating.

I suspect that Shahar starts to tip his hand when discussing the question of monastic violence. Casual readers or martial artists may be unaware, but this is a major research topic for Asian historians. Just about anywhere you find Buddhist temples (China, Japan, Korea etc.) they will have come into conflict with local or state governments and some times each other. Understanding why, and how their actions shaped political, economic and social history, is something that historians are very interested in.

Readers should remember that Buddhist temples were often the largest and most economically dominant players in the local landscape. In an era with no large corporations and limited markets they controlled vast agricultural estates and had direct control over the lives of dozens, or hundreds, of tenant farmers. They were often the only domestic institutions that could challenge the local government’s monopoly on literacy, organizational acumen and ability to craft a public message.

Nor were all temples content to sit and take direction from state officials. Buddhist monks often had very definite opinions issues as diverse as tax policy, public works or which officials should receive public appointments (particularly if those appointments had anything to do with regulating the state’s various religious communities). We know for a fact that these sorts of political and economic factors led to clashes between temples and rulers in Japan and Korea. But we generally don’t hear anything about this in China?

In his introduction, Shahar notes that the written record is actually an impediment when trying to understand the relationship between church and state in medieval China because it has been so heavily censored. Over the years it has been redacted by multiple parties with differing agendas.

Chinese Buddhism has produced many fine historians, and they loved to write at length about their beloved temples. Yet Shahar asserts that not one of these classical monastic scholars ever mentioned monastic violence, political uprisings or participation in state military exercises. Not once.

This is sort of stunning given the number of warrior monks that China has produced over the years. Shaolin was by no means unique in its ability to field a small army. Lots of temples across Asia have done that at various points in time. Yet the ideological prohibition against violence in Buddhism is so strong that these instances were literally ignored, treated as an embarrassment, and written out of the official histories of Buddhism in the region. As Shahar points out, the official religious records are no help when trying to understand monastic violence in general and Shaolin in particular.

Instances of monastic violence were not treated with the same silence by government officials. Temples were a major economic problem for these individuals. Very often they were the largest landholders in a region, yet they paid no taxes on their income. In certain times and places this led governments to burn temples not because they had anything against Buddhism on a spiritual level, but because they were desperate to return productive lands to the tax-roles.

Conservative Confucian scholars in China have often expressed a more proactive dislike of Buddhism. They could never forgive the “foreign” origins of the faith and distrusted the growth of any independent base of social power in society. Throughout the medieval period Confucian scholars record dozens of instances of popular uprisings led by Buddhist temples. In their view these were often linked to apocalyptic cults.

Shahar can accept that temples were frequently engaged in violence and may have even clashed with the state. I too don’t have a problem with that statement. But is there really any evidence that these clashes really focused around “doomsday cults”?

This is a tricky question. There certainly were uprisings led by apocalyptic Buddhist and Daoist groups in Chinese history. We even see similar movements in Japan, a useful comparative case because the link between monastic violence and the state is better documented there. What the Japanese case further suggests is that the link between large Buddhist temples and violence may actually be more complicated than Confucian officials are willing to admit. They too are manipulating the historical record for their own reasons.  At the very least they seem to have been overly enthusiastic in their use of terms like “White Lotus” and “heterodox sect.”

Large temples in both Japan and China could be incredibly wealthy. And sometimes wealthy temples did clash with the state. But these clashes usually had more to do with economics and politics than spirituality. Nor do large temples with extensive land holdings generally tolerate populist uprisings or heterodox doomsday cults. These things are just as destructive to their wealth and position in society as they are to the state. Instead “White Lotus” sects tended to be popular uprisings supported by the more disenfranchised members of society and marginal, highly radical, religious figures. I personally suspect that Chinese officials understood this, but such uprisings presented too good a rhetorical opening to pass up in their perpetual struggle to keep land on the tax roles.

In short, you cannot believe everything you read, especially if we are talking about medieval monastic violence. The literary accounts that historians have today were produced by a small educated elite in the hopes of propagandizing future readers. Both the documents produced by the church and the state are tainted. As historians we can’t afford to throw them out, but we can’t take them at face value either.

What we really need is some sort of external check. A type of evidence that testifies to what people actually thought and did at the time. Something that is a product of the common monk or worshiper, and not an elite scholar. This would allow us to better frame the debate that we find in these other documents.

This is also why we need to study Shaolin and not some other random temple with a martial monk tradition. The Shaolin temple is very old and famous because of its association with the Tang and Ming dynasties on the one hand, and its seminal role in the dissemination of the Chan Buddhist tradition on the other. It had an important heritage of imperial patronage and was considered something of a “national historic site” by the 1300s if not before.

All of these factors conspired to make Shaolin a fairly wealthy temple, and one of the things that they did with their wealth was to commission a rich library of stone monuments inscribed with accounts of important events and people in the monastery’s history. The temple’s Stupa Forest (which holds the cremated remains of important monks) is the largest in China and contains an extensive database of the names of martial monks, the specific battles they fought in, and occasionally the circumstances of their death.

This rich archeological collection opens an entirely new window onto the world of monastic violence which contradicts much of both the official church and state party line. Further, these inscriptions date to the generation of the actual events in question. They were meant to be read by the monks and other visitors to the temple, and so they reflected accepted practice.

Finally we have the answer to our question. The reason that we should study Shaolin is because it presents us with a unique body of data that few other temples can rival. This data allows us to better understand the documents created both by other Buddhists and the state and more properly theorize the relationship between monastic violence and political power in medieval China.

A view of the Pagoda or Stupa Forest at Shaolin, one of the largest found at any Buddhist Temple in China.

Chapter 1: The Two Masters of Shaolin: Bodhidharma and Bato.

Shahar’s actual title for Chapter 1 was “The Monastery,” but for our purposes these are the two figures that readers need to carefully consider.  The main goal of this chapter is to outline the creation of the historic Shaolin Temple.  Nevertheless, with Shaolin being what it is, Shahar finds that it is not actually possible to start at the beginning, with the Temple’s construction for the Indian monk Bato (starting in 496) under the patronage of Emperor Xiowen of the Northern Wei. Instead it is necessary to understand something about the broader myth complexes of Chinese religion.

He begins with a brief but interesting discussion of sacred geography in Chinese thought. Mountains have played an important role in the popular Chinese religion and have subsequently been adopted as sacred sites by both later Daoist and Buddhists. Mount Song has actually been the home to a large number of temples, but it’s essentially sacral nature predates them all.

Next Shahar briefly discusses the connection between Bodhidharma and Shaolin. Accepted by many as the patron saint of Chan, Shahar explores his essential connection with both Chan and Shaolin. In simple historical terms, there is none. The development of Chan was the end product of a certain set of debates within Chinese Buddhism. It was greatly influenced by both Daoism and Confucianism. Religious scholars have known for some time that while the missionary Bodhidharma was likely a historic figure, there is no real reason to link him to the development of Chan, and later Zen.

Secondly, there is no actual evidence that this figure ever visited Shaolin. As a matter of fact, there is very good evidence that indicates that these stories are later inventions, designed to bolster the region’s links to the venerable saint as a way of shoring up their unique chain of Dharma transmission. Lineage was a critical issue in the early Chan community just as it is for Chinese martial artists today.

Shahar glosses over these points pretty fast. I agree with what he has to say, but readers who are interested in the development of Chan and how it fit into Chinese society might want to take a look at a few other sources to nail this down. I personally found Chan Buddhism by Peter D. Hershock quite helpful (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

Chapter one is a good introduction to some of the essential issues surrounding the early history of Buddhism in China and the creation of the Shaolin Temple. If you are a student of Chinese religious history you will likely already be familiar with much of this material. If you are more of a “practical martial artist” this is the minimum you need to know about the creation of the Shaolin temple and its actual relationship with Bodhidharma.

Rubbing of a Shaolin stele showing Vajrapani’s defeating Red Turban rebels attacking the monastery, 1517. The work was installed by the Abbot Wenzai. Source: The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar.

Chapter 2: Serving the Emperor.

It is in chapter 2 that things start to get interesting. This is where I feel Shahar really starts to hit his stride. The chapter begins with a very important review of what we know about the early military actions of the community at Shaolin. The epigraphical evidence discussed above plays a critical role in this.

While other texts might elude to a militarized incident, Shaolin’s cooperation with the fledgling Tang dynasty resulted in period monuments recording the incident from the temple’s point of view, a signed letter of thanks from Li Shimin himself, and the results of an official investigation into the incident ten years later (as part of a lawsuit over landownership claims). I am not aware of any other case where there are so many well preserved period witnesses to such an important instance of monastic violence.

The intervention on behalf of the Tang dynasty was really the foundation that much of Shaolin’s later reputation was based on, so it is nice to see such a clear discussion of the event.

Shahar then turns his attention to a more difficult question. What sort of training, if any, was being carried out by the monks at Shaolin? Was there something different about their behavior or lifestyle that set these individuals apart as “warrior monks?”

The quick answer is that it may be impossible to say. The archeological record is silent on this point. There is no evidence that the monks of Shaolin had any special “martial art” at this point in time. They might have been drilled in some of the basic of military maneuvers, or possibly they went out with no real formal training at all.

To shed some additional light on this question Shahar turns to fictional stories composed in the Tang dynasty. One of these focuses on a young novice at Shaolin who is bullied by his peers when they are practicing wrestling. Distraught the youth implores the Buddhist deity Vajrapani for help. The deity eventually appears, forcing the boy to eat enchanted meat (a violation of monastic law) which grants him great strength and military skill.

The story is interesting as it seems to suggest that some form of regular drill or practice was happening at the temple as far back as the Tang period. Further, it points to the temple’s long running association with the Indian demon tuned Buddhist deity Vajrapani. Usually invoked to provide magical powers and protection, at Shaolin he seems to have been venerated as a martial god. His role in protecting the Buddha provided the community with a mythological, rather than a theological, justification for military training. (I actually think that this is one of Shahar’s most critical insights). Period texts seem to indicate that the first “special” martial art at Shaolin may have been essentially magical in nature.

Shahar goes on to note that there is still controversy regarding the consumption of meat within the Shaolin community today. While the actual religious monks residing in the temple do not eat meat, many of the other monks who they have trained and ordained do start to consume meat once they leave the confines as a formal temple and open a martial arts school or cultural centers in the west. These same individuals often claim that the consumption of meat is a traditional part of the Shaolin martial tradition. This claim was even documented in the 1982 Jet Li film that helped to re-popularize the temple.

One wonders to what extent this is true, and for how long it has been practiced. A different way of framing the question might be this, “Who actually lived in and around the Shaolin Temple?” Were the “warrior monks” actually ordained religious officials, or were they basically lay practitioners who took only a partial set of vows?

This is a critical question as the government regulated the ordination of monks in traditional China. It speaks directly to the shifting relationship between religious authority and the political structure.

Shahar seems to believe that the temple was inhabited by fully ordained and official monks who also studied the martial arts and pursued military careers during at least the Ming and Qing periods. While the government never really doubted the loyalty of these monks the discipline and habits of other, more marginal, religious figures and martial artists who inhabited the outlying shrines was an issue. He seems to conclude that the highly secular (and possibly criminal) behavior of these individuals was the single greatest irritant in Shaolin’s relationship with the Qing state.

This may very well be true and I suspect that he is probably correct. Still, I would like to raise one other possibility that might be worth considering. I think that we should at least discuss the possibility that Shaolin may have contained many fewer “warrior monks” in certain eras of its history than we generally assume.

When looking at the same problem in the Japanese context Adolphson (The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha. University of Hawaii Press, 2007) concludes that almost none of the “monks” engaged in actual fighting in Japan were really ordained Buddhist priests. Instead some of these individuals may have been samurai who joined monastic communities, others were likely hired for their military skills and most of them were tenant farmers who worked the temple’s land and acted as retainers for the higher ranking monks.

I am still thinking about Adolphson’s claims, but he raises points that we need to be consider when talking about Chinese monastic violence. Even if his conclusion does not apply to China, it may be very useful to ask why not? What is different about the Chinese case?

In the documents that Shahar reviews at the end of Chapter 2 the Qing do seem to be very concerned that local villagers (e.g., the same people who are probably working the Temple’s lands) not congregate at Shaolin and not be influenced by the monks. If you wanted to prevent Shaolin from gaining the influence that it needed to challenge state tax policy or make demands about the appointments of various civil servants, this would be a pretty good way to start. I suspect that we could gain a lot from a comparative study of monastic violence in China and Japan.

An iconic image of a Japanese “Warrior Monk.” Notice the nagamaki he holds in his left hand, the trademark weapon of the Sohei.  A comparative study of monastic violence in Japan and China is starting to sound like a lot of fun.

Discussion Questions

That wraps up my discussion of the first section of The Shaolin Monastery. Here are some discussion questions to think about before next time. Remember, we will move on to chapters 3-4 on the 21st of November.

1. Let’s say I am not a medieval historian. Why might I care about monastic violence in China anyway?

2. Is there anything essentially religious about the martial practices that Shahar describes at Shaolin? To what extent can we call these “Buddhist Arts.”

3. Of all of the martial legends that China has produced, why has this one become the most ubiquitous? What does that tell us about the Chinese martial arts, or Chinese society?

For section two of this review (chapters 3-4) click here.  For section three (chapters 5-conclusion) click here.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “The Book Club: The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar: Introduction and Chapters 1-2.

  1. The sohei picture. Are you sure it was a nagamaki (and not a naginata)? I don’t see any “long wrapping” there. 🙂

    Posted by Ren | April 11, 2013, 2:53 pm
  2. Hi Ben,

    I just ordered this book and should catch up in a week or so.

    The idea of a buddhist “domesday cult” is interesting since there is no such thing as a “domesday” in Buddhism. This seems to have been a ploy by the governments to discredit Buddhist organizations. The last Ming Emperor who was not Buddhist, went on a rampage to destroy all the buddhist temples primarily because they had all the wealth and were not paying taxes. A good source is John C. H. Wu’s The Golden Age of Zen. (World Wisdom Pub.)

    As far as Bodhidharma is concerned I suggest reading ” Tracking Bodhidharma: A journey to the heart of Chinese culture” by Andy Ferguson. Ferguson who regularly leads Buddhist pilgrimages across China, created an in-depth and scholarly look at the historical Bodhidharma and his relationship with the Tang Emperor. By looking into actual historical records (amazingly many still exist from that time period) he was able to trace, temple to temple, the root that Bodhidharma took. Prior to his arrival there was what he called “Imperial Buddhism” which was lead by the Emperor Wu. Bodhidharma was instrumental in creating a separation of Buddhism from the state and that Chan (zen) which may or may not have introduced by him, was significant as it represented the first form of Buddhism that was not dependent on the state. Although Shaolin Temple was not as significant to Bodhidharma’s career there is evidence that he did reside there for some time and was influential to there development as a center of the new more independent role that Buddhism was forming during the Tang period.

    As far as meat eating is concerned, it is important to remember that most (probably as much as 90%) of the martial monks that had studied and still study at Shaolin are not fully ordained monks. In Buddhism, while residing at a temple whether you are a lay person or a novice monk, one takes 8 precepts, one of which is to abstain from meat. When you leave the temple you are reverted back the original 5 precepts, where vegetarianism is more of a wise suggestion that a rule. Most of the monks at Shaolin and almost all that leave the temple never go past the novice stage and only a rare few are fully ordained monks.

    Thanks for this blog and book club. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive!

    Alex Lamas

    Posted by Alex Lamas | November 22, 2013, 12:22 pm
    • Hi Alex, Thanks for the thoughtful reply and taking the time to engage with this post.

      “As far as Bodhidharma is concerned I suggest reading ” Tracking Bodhidharma: A journey to the heart of Chinese culture” by Andy Ferguson”

      I appreciate the tip. I am not all that deeply versed in Buddhist studies and am grateful for the recommendation.

      Posted by benjudkins | November 23, 2013, 9:52 pm

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