I once saw a television program about Buddhist shaolin monks. They were extremely skilled in martial arts and begin their training as young as 3-4 years old. Their day consists of martial arts training and Buddhist practice.

I was wondering about two things:

  • What Buddhist tradition do shaolin monks follow?

  • What kind of meditation do they practice?

Thank you for your time.


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  • AFAIK Buddhism in nature is the path of eliminating sufferings, cultivating perfect wisdom and attaining enlightenment. There is no "tradition" per se. Here is an interesting read
    – user5194
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 11:12
  • My Tai Chi teacher said he was from Wudang: that they closed the monastery there during the Great Cultural Revolution and made people find work (so, he worked as a bodyguard then and training soldiers). I think that the Chinese State isn't happy with there being too many different political organizations; for example, Christians are allowed, but not Roman Catholics, so whatever is happening in Shaolin is politically compatible with the Chinese State.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 15:41
  • I also guess (but this is just a guess, I don't know and have never met anyone from Shaolin) that they (the State) might see Shaolin as being chiefly important for its cultural (or even touristic) appeal and legacy, rather than for its Buddhist tradition.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 15:44
  • @Chris. Thanks a lot for the insight-answers. Do you know about the current political situtation for these monks? I mean it sounds like their culture and oppertunity for practice is being taken away from them by the government. When looking at pictures of them they seem to just mind their own business in the mountains. They seem peaceful.
    – user2424
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 16:02
  • 1
    The Cultural Revolution happened decades ago, under Mao Zedong: The government purged Buddhist materials from within the monastery walls, leaving it barren for years. I don't know what the current situation is, but I'm speculating that "tradition" was disrupted somewhat.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 16:02

2 Answers 2


Shaolin Buddhism

"Action Meditation"

Basically Shaolin martial arts come from the idea of “action meditation” of Chan (dhyana – Sanskrit, Jhana – pali) Buddhism (Mahayana).
The first Shaolin temple was started by an Indian Theravada monk called Buddhabhadra and the next Abbot of the temple was the famous Indian Mahayana monk called Bodhidharma who brought Chan Buddhism to China.

Batuo and the Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 by the Indian monk Batuo, or Buddhabhadra. After traveling to China, he received permission from Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty to build a temple at the foot of Shaoshi mountain in the Song mountain range in the Henan province. The word Lin means forest in Chinese, thus the temple was named Shaolin for the forest at the foot of Shaoshi mountain.

Batuo preached the orthodox teachings of Hinayana, or Nikaya Buddhism (Xiao Sheng in Chinese). In this type of Buddhism, which closely follows the teachings of Shakyamuni, there are 250 rules for monks and 500 rules for nuns. Batuo had two disciples named Sengchou and Huiguang, who were both martial artists before becoming monks. They were the first ones to bring martial arts to the temple.


Bodhidharma (PutiDamo or just Damo in Chinese) was another prince of a clan in what is now India. He also chose to leave the royal life to become a monk. When Bodhidharma came to the temple in 527, he brought the teachings of Chan Buddhism, part of the Mahayana (Da Cheng) school. This understanding had been passed down directly from Mahakasyapa to Bodhidharma's master Prajnatara, who was the 27th in the lineage. Bodhidharma was the 28th, and the first patriarch of Chan in China.

Bodhidharma created 4 integral parts of Shaolin Kungfu, also sutras. They were

  • 2 qigong (Chi Kung) forms; the Yijin Jing (Muscle Tendon Changing Sutra) and the Xisui Jing (Bone Marrow Washing Sutra)
  • The Wuxing quan, the 5 original animal forms (Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Crane, and Snake)
  • The Luohan Shiba Shou, The 18 Luohan Palms

Bodhidharma's disciple Huike was, like Sengchou and Huiguang, a military man before becoming a monk, and also brought martial arts knowledge to the temple. Huike became Damo's successor, and after him there were four more before the lineage ended. They were Sengcan, Daoxin, Hongren, and Huineng.

More on Shaolin Martial Arts


Shaolin monks practice Ch'an Buddhism. They say that the teachings of Ch'an Buddhism are inseperable from Shaolin martial arts, and that to reach the highest level both are required.

Often it is said that Bodhidharma visited the temple and found that the monks were not physically fit to make progress in meditation. This is why he created the chi kung forms Yi Jin Jing (Muscle Tendon Changing Sutra) and the Xi Sui Jing (Bone Marrow Washing Sutra). It is said that his teachings formed the basis for Shaolin martial arts. Martial arts were practiced in China long before this time, and other traditions including Taoism no doubt influenced the development of Shaolin.

In Western culture it is very natural to talk a lot and ask lots of questions. Also in the West, if someone wants to learn about Buddhism they often start to read lots of sutras and books. But Shaolin Buddhism in common with other types of "Zen" Buddhism places an emphasis on experience. It is "A transmission outside of the scriptures, not relying on words, pointing directly to one's mind. The attainment of Buddhahood by seeing into one's nature."

Shaolin Buddhism is an esoteric form of Buddhism which incorporates a thorough knowledge of internal energy (chi). Skill in cultivating this energy can lead to feats that appear superhuman. It is used both for healing and for martial arts. Also internal energy is considered essential for deep states of meditation.

Shaolin monks practice both mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. There is also the philosophy that everything you do can be a form of meditation. Sometimes students are given a koan (gong'an), or a hua tou. The master is able to tell which methods of meditation are best for the student at their particular stage of practice.

Shaolin Buddhism has now spread worldwide with temples in many countries.


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