20) Shaolin – What the early Buddhists found in China and what became Chan, Pure Land and Zen Buddhism

The narrative continues from my last entry following the Silk Road from Xi’an and Ashao1the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to its end in Luoyang at the White Horse Buddhist Temple and Longman Grottoes. From there Buddhism was to find its true beginnings in China, many believe at Songshan Mountain and what would become known as the Shaolin Temple. The narrative generally follows my trip to China last September/October (2018). As a point of reference, I have been coming to China for more the twenty years, taught at Jining University in Qufu, am a published author on Chinese history in China, and have visited numerous Buddhists, Confucius, and Taoist historic and religious sites over the years. For myself, what I have learned is the essence of Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy in general,  is when we know that to take care of one life, we have to take care of all life – and that life includes what we say, how we act, what we do, and what we honor. This is the beginning of our spiritual growth and the sacred embodiment that leads to true civilization and becoming truly universal, i.e., transcendental.

My foundation published the Unity Daily Word in China for two years. Copies of Ashao2which have now been seen by more the three million people (or so I’ve been told). Ninety-nine percent of the pictures here on my blog and website I took myself. I do not profess to be an expert here, only give an introduction to Chinese influence in this entry on how the Buddhist religion and philosophy grew over the centuries. There are many people with greater insight. Helping others to cross over to greater understanding is my purpose here. I am not attempting to “convert” anyone to anything. You do not have to “believe” a particular religious path is right in understanding its founding, practice, and impact on the world. Dispelling fear and understanding our ultimate role should be the aim of all of us.

All religious and spiritual paths promote love and understanding at their core (love thy neighbor as thyself). It is when we “disrespect” the way of others that we sometimes get lost. Free will means we are free to believe what we choose to believe… just do so with respect of others – with compassion and love as they learn and try to do the same. The vibrations we send out from our inner selves equals those we get in return. The original intent of The Kongdan Foundation that I started over ten years ago was to simply be a conduit that leads to greater awareness, knowledge, mindfulness, and hopefully wisdom that assists others in finding their own path. What you see here is more from the prospective in Chinese history. Not the definitive definition of Buddhism. That would consist of volumes I am not really qualified to do. My writing is in more an “everyday” approach, so that more people can see themselves and come along for the ride.

Continuing from the Silk Road and Luoyang from my last entry… as if expected, Ashao3serendipity came along to change my plans that would take me to Songshan Mountain and the famous Shaolin Temple about an hour and a half away. He came in the form of a professional film maker who was staying at my hostel and planned to stop there on his way back to Shanghai. He invited me to come along so I changed my plans. I left my suitcase and computer at the hostel, gathered things for my backpack and away we went…

Buddhism from India and Tibet coming to China focused on assimilating with what was there over time. Buddhism had been coming to China for centuries prior to the influx created by more travel, but began in earnest in the second and third century. A key to Buddhism is moving people and their thoughts beyond contention to universal growth and understanding – remember the bodhisattva vow. It is for this reason that “non-contention” allows others to grow into Buddhist thought from where they presently are at the moment. In my previous posts here, I have stressed that you could follow another religious path and still adhere to Buddhist principles. It was the same then as now. So, what did the Buddhists find in China and how did they make such a lasting impression? Expanding beyond the Silk Road and Chengdu, Xi’an and Luoyang became essential. How did they make such in-roads with an already established population where Confucianism and Taoism had been prevalent for centuries? It is as the I Ching teaches – that change begins from within. To know what will be the outcome of things, you must return first to what went in – in the beginning… to its roots to see where the branches grow. (The idea of “roots and branches” is a central theme of Eastern philosophy and religion that has been cultivated to gain greater understanding for centuries).

Freedom comes with abandoning fear of change to become one with your ultimate self and innate spirit, or nature. Something quantum physics is beginning to teach us. As you acknowledge change must occur, you learn to adapt and become one with Ashao4the change itself. This made the connection between Lao and Chuang Tzu’s Taoism and what was to become Chan and Pure Land Buddhism a natural fit.

To the left is the famous Sanhuang Basilica dedicated to the three sovereigns – heaven, earthly, and human that sits at the top of Songshan Mountain.

There was no separation of thinking… as if both were on the same page, perhaps only a different paragraph illuminating ways to reach a common end. In China, it has been assimilation, convergence, and finding the middle way that has always succeeded. Finding the true essence of what was known as the Middle Kingdom. So, after reaching the end of the Silk Road in Luoyang, Buddhism went south to Songyang Mountain, in what is now Dengfeng, and focused on creating the Shaolin Temple that become the epicenter of what was to become their own Chinese version that would become Chan and later Pure Land Buddhism.

Songyang had for thousands of years prior to that time been considered a sacred place representing Taoism’s beginning because it was said that Lao Tzu had spent a great deal of time here. The teachings of antiquity and the shaman connected you to the stars and Taoism meant you had the freedom to discover for yourself how you Ashao5were connected to the universe and stars above by climbing and reaching greater heights yourself. Songshan Mountain is considered one of the five great mountains in Taoism in China… Buddhism has their mountains as well.

The famous “elephant rock” at Songshan. 

We were going to the Songshan Mountain Area that included the Songyang Temple this afternoon. On Friday, climb one of the mountains and visit the Shaolin Temple and Pagoda Forest at its base. And on Saturday climb to the summit of a second mountain that was adjacent to the first (we didn’t go because the tram was broken). Ashao6First, to clarify, I do not write under some false illusion of one day being published. I write simply for my own enjoyment and enlightenment because it is my writing that takes me there.

The Tang Stone Tablet at the entrance of Songyang Temple built in 744 AD during the time when it was used in honoring Lao Tzu and Taoism. (Depicted here as top and bottom)

If others choose to come along for the ride… you are welcome. Today on the bus to I wasn’t sure where… which is where I often find myself – I couldn’t help but think of Ashao7our divine presence and what that means for ourselves and others. Changing from within first to the alignment with the universe we came in with and the things we are here to work on or correct this time. As if coming into focus and letting our own light shine. Moving to who we are supposed to be. Simply to find and go with the flow I have always known with no pre-conceived intent or outcome and letting the spirit of the Tao (the universe) guide me. Ultimately, it is not for me to simply write down someone else’s impressions – but to add my own take on the environment I find with everything as context with connections that leads to the next step.

My travels in China are not simply going to these places for pictures. Pictures are but Ashao8a mirror, recalling scenes from a past I sense I have always known. It is in keeping with a personal journey whose purpose has not been fully revealed as yet. It is my reflecting what I see with what I write with what I already know (and be reminded of) with what I am here to learn and know or build on again. Leaving behind a cluttered mind while adding as much new wisdom as I can take. Being present every moment in meditation and remembering… As if I am seeing what has changed since my last visit and writing about the antiquity that lies within each of us. Often laughing at my own frailties. With times spent with the ancients who don’t want to be forgotten, so that even their own immortality might not come into question with me taking myself much to Ashao9seriously as I go.

To let these images from the past take you there. Each with a story to tell – just waiting to be told of when things or they were someone or something of importance. Something more than they are considered now. It is as if in the stillness they reside, they lie in wait with images and vibrations… for the storyteller. Not just being present only for your own story, but to tell the story of everything around you – with the older the story – the more there is to show and tell. And I don’t write fiction. With no pre-conception of where what you are here to learn may lead. As Ashao10doors are waiting to open for the stories just waiting to be told and fine-tuned again as history continues to tell the ultimate narrative of a never-ending memoir. As I’ve relayed before… many simply wanting to have their say in history. Tomes, or volumes of a much larger work, have been written over the centuries with commentaries and updating scriptures, or sutras, or re-reading Buddhist influence and writing. My question today is what were they thinking?

My efforts here are simply first to relay what the Buddhists found in China when they arrived and how they re-wrote history with their presence. In the present day, people you meet are here to take you to places you are needed – the stories are endless and your role never-ceasing. The more you write the more you need to write. It is as if my trips to China are always a form of meditation beyond where I find myself just now… saying you are a conveyor of ancient wisdom and to use your time wisely. It makes me wonder, how are we moved by Ashao11“divine order”. Or are we taking and receiving our que from what might be called “universal divine order” only to be conveyed when there is no contention or ego present. Who is to say? It’s the vibrations you know…

It was here at Songshan Mountain and Shaolin Temple where so much occurred where people came for centuries. Three religions and philosophies of life and death in one body (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) were formed as what was seen as a “convergence” Ashao14in this area. Emperor Wudi and Empress Wuzetian came here to commemorate the mountain and convey its importance to this belief. As if life is about remembering who we are yet to become before we forget. Songshan Mountain has been famous as a place where people came with a desire to improve themselves and discover and find comfort with their inner virtue.

The Zhongyue Temple is not only a repository of ancient wisdom here, but also a Ashao12reminder that there was more to climbing mountains than the climb itself. It is the appreciation of the overwhelming nature you find with the mountain as you climb, just as life has its ups and downs your eyes remain on the horizon and the clouds above.   I am here at one of the five most famous mountains in China. Tomorrow I climb the mountain.

The mountain is one of the sacred Taoist mountains of China, and contains Ashao13important Taoist temples such as the Zhongyue Temple; however, the mountain also features a significant Buddhist presence. It is home to the Shaolin Temple, traditionally considered the birthplace of both Chan and Zen Buddhism, and the temple’s collection of the pagoda forest is the largest in China. The Zhongyue Temple (mentioned above) is also located here, and one of the earliest Taoist temples in the country. The Songyang Academy nearby was one of the four great academies of ancient China. The mountain and its vicinity are populated with Taoist and especially Buddhist monasteries.

Friday, September 29 we went to the Shaolin Temple and Buddha Forest at the Ashao19base of the mountain and then on Saturday I took the bus back to Luoyang and Lin headed for Shanghai. I’m reminded of the old TV series with Keith Carradine about the Shaolin Temple and Kung Fu. (I’ve been carrying around the cassettes from the early 90’s of the TV shows for almost twenty-five years… of course, you can now watch them on UTUBE). How he traveled the old west rescuing people from trouble and things they had gotten themselves into. Flashbacks of his time back in China at the Shaolin Temple and his mentor referring to him as “grasshopper”. I never thought at the Ashao20time I would someday be here… reliving history again.

We were walking in front of the temple and I saw someone with one of the wheelchairs our sister city committee had donated to Qufu back in 2007. Christiane Francois and I came to Qufu to facilitate donating two hundred wheelchairs from The Wheelchair Foundation and the Boynton Beach Sister City Committee. It was quite a surprise. The first wheelchair I had seen in more than ten years. It was in great condition too. As if coming full circle again and again.

Shaolin Temple Wushu (Martial Arts) Training Center

The Shaolin Temple Wushu (Martial Arts) Training Center comes after you Ashao21have visited the temple. The scenery adjacent to the temple makes it an ideal place for practicing the Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu. Shaolin monks have been practicing Kung Fu here for over fifteen hundred years. The system was invented to teach the monks basic methods to improve their health and defend themselves. The martial art performance shows (which I attended), illustrate the true Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu. For example, Tong Zi Gong, performed by teenagers, as a kind of martial art to train one’s flexibility and strength. Shaolin Kung Fu has a great tradition in China. Today, the day I am here, there are more than 50,000 students in facilities across from the Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Temple, in the region of Songshan Mountain in Dengfeng, Henan Province, Ashao22is reputed to be ‘the Number One Temple under Heaven’. Shaolin Temple history can date back to Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534), and it played an important role on the development of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism in China.   Upon entering you first see Shanmen Hall. Hung on its top is a tablet reading ‘Shaolin Temple’. The tablet was inscribed by the Emperor Kangxi (1622 – 1723) during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). Under the stairs of the Ashao24hall crouches two stone lions made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The hall enshrines the Maitreya Buddha. Two sides of the corridor behind the hall’s gate are paved with inscriptions on stone steles made during several different dynasties. Sometimes the less said the better to let the reader use pictures and their own imagination to take you there.

The Shaolin Temple has two main legacies: Chan, which refers to Chan Buddhism, Ashao25the religion of Shaolin, and Quan, which refers to the martial arts of Shaolin. In Shaolin, these are not separate disciplines and monks have always pursued the philosophy of the unification of Chan and Quan. In a deeper point of view, Quan is considered part of Chan. As late Shaolin monk Suxi said in the last moments of his life, “Shaolin is Chan, not Quan.” Zen Buddhism is said to have traveled from here to Japan. Although, Japanese Zen Buddhism can claim many origins and fathers.

On the Quan (martial) side, the contents are abundant. A usual classification of contents are:

  1. Basic skills (基本功; jīběn gōng): These include stamina, flexibility, and balance, Ashao23which improve the body abilities in doing martial maneuvers. In Shaolin kung fu, flexibility and balance skills are known as “childish skill” (tóngzǐ gōng), which have been classified into 18 postures.
  2. Power skills (气功; qigong): These include: Qigong meditation: Qigong meditation itself has two types, internal (nèi), which is stationary meditation, and external (外; wài), which is dynamic meditation methods like Shaolin four-part exercise (si duan gong), eight-section brocade; bā duàn jǐn), Shaolin muscle-changing scripture (yì jīn jīng), and others.                                             
  3. Combat skills (quanfa “skills”): These include various barehanded, weapon, and barehanded vs. weapon routines or styles and their combat (sàndǎ) methods.
    • The 72 arts: These Include 36 soft and 36 hard exercises, which are known as soft and hard qigong

In practice, beyond the martial arts aspects of Shaolin, was that the essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students. It was through Chan Buddhism that whatever insight, or dhyana, would occur as a series of cultivated states of mind which leads to a “state of perfect equanimity and awareness,” commonly translated as meditation, that would serve as one’s verification. In effect, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting in the world with Ashao26other people present. Shaolin was the result of both purification of both body and mind. (some of the above from Wikipedia)

The Pagoda Forest

The Pagoda Forest, next to the Shaolin Temple, serves as a graveyard for Buddhist dignitaries through the ages. On average, the pagodas are about 50 feet high. The layer and the shape of a pagoda depend on many factors, such as one’s status, attainment and prestige during his lifetime. The Pagoda Forest here is the largest of China’s pagoda complexes.

Next, what became of Chan Buddhism in China from the beginning of the Shaolin Temple over the centuries? It begins with Bodhidharma, who was a Buddhist monk Ashao27who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. (A patriarch has a lineage in Buddhism that is a line of transmission of the Buddhist teaching that is “theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself. The acknowledgement of the transmission can be oral, or certified in documents. Several branches of Buddhism, including Chan, plus Zen and Seon, and Tibetan Buddhism maintain records of their historical teachers. These records serve as a validation for the living exponents of the tradition)”.  According to Chinese legend, Bodhidharma also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin kungfu. In Japan, he is known as Daruma. Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is known and subsequent accounts became layered with legend and unreliable details. Aside from the Chinese accounts, several popular traditions also exist regarding Bodhidharma’s origins. He was an energetic teacher who called all Buddhists, monks or lay people to make their best effort in this lifetime. He opposed the idea of earning merits by making donations. Instead, he affirmed that everyone has Buddha-nature and encouraged everyone to awaken. Bodhidharma’s  teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Lankavatara Sutra. The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Gautama Buddha himself. The Anthology was a Chinese text compiled by two Chinese Buddhist monks in 952 during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-979). It is the oldest existing collection of Chan (or Zen) encounter dialogs, dating from about half a century before the much more well-known Transmission of the Lamp. After being lost for centuries, it was rediscovered by Japanese scholars in the 20th century at the Haeinsa temple in Korea, in a complete form with all twenty chapters. The Pure Land teachings were first developed in India and were very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia, where they may have originated. Pure Land sutras were brought to China as early as 147 AD, when the monk Lokaksema began translating the Buddhist sūtras into Chinese.

There is so much history its hard to know what’s important as it all seems important. The repositories of Buddhist sūtras and related history are scattered throughout China and elsewhere. I have now been to ten or twelve Buddhist monasteries and temples in China (and many Taoist and Confucius shrines for lack of a better word). Ashao28Perhaps Part 3… the next entry relating to Eastern philosophy and religion will begin to try to relay my visits and the take-away I had from them. I also want to spend more time on the foundations of the I Ching, and the “roots and branches of things”, especially the role of the shaman.  I seem to revert to my own comfort level… which always seems to be considered ancient China and Taoism. It is a journey and we are all teachers and students. With an open mind along with a thirst for knowledge and insight, we can gain a historical context to stay on a learning path – as foresight and wisdom comes our way. We are all metaphysicians on a transcendental journey through time and the universe.

For myself, still a novice in trying to get a more global view of Chan and what is called Pure Land Buddhism, I think of how it was transmitted over the centuries along the Silk Road initially, and how Buddhism blended with Taoism, and the teachings of Confucius which in practical terms became the structure and cornerstone of the examination system in the Han Dynasty in about 200 AD and was basically in effect until the end of the last dynasty in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China.  This Confucian order, or structure, effectively kept religion and political order separate. It seems as though the Confucians ruled the head and governed, while the Buddhists and Taoists, Moslems to the west, and others, the heart and popular culture. Collectively, this convergence worked… in my opinion. Ashao30They’ve had more than five-thousand years of continuous history that through trial and error figured it out.

There is a famous painting done at the end of the Song dynasty and beginning of Tang (about 1000 AD) of the vinegar tasters. The Vinegar Tasters is a traditional subject in Chinese religious painting.

The illustrative composition depicts the three founders of China’s major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The theme in the painting has been interpreted as favoring Taoism and critical of the others.

The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his philosophy: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state. Another interpretation of the painting is that, since the three men are gathered around one vat of vinegar, the three teachings are one.

In an excerpt from ‘The Tao of Pooh’, a book by Benjamin Hoff:

To Lao Tzu, the harmony that naturally existed between heaven and earth from the very beginning could be found by anyone at any time, but not by following the rules of the Confucianists. As he stated in his Tao Te Ching, the “Tao Virtue Book”, earth was in essence a reflection of heaven, run by the same laws — not by the laws of men. These laws affected not only the spinning of distant planets, but the activities of the birds in the forest and the fish in the sea. According to Laozi, the more man interfered with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the further away the harmony retreated into the distance. The more forcing, the more trouble. Whether heavy or light, wet or dry, fast or slow, everything had its own nature already within it, which could not be violated without causing difficulties. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed from the outside, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life become sour.

To Lao Tzu, the world was not a setter of traps but a teacher of valuable lessons. Its lessons needed to be learned, just as its laws needed to be followed; then all would go well. Rather than turn away from “the world of dust,” Lao Tzu advised others to “join the dust of the world.” What he saw operating behind everything in heaven and earth he called Tao, “the Way.”

A basic principle of Lao Tzu’s teaching was that this Way of the Universe could not be adequately described in words, and that it would be insulting both to its unlimited power and to the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so. Still, its nature could be understood, and those who cared the most about it, and the life from which it was inseparable, understood it best.

In the Vinegar Tasters, Lao Tzu is found smiling, why? Well, as said before the vinegar found in the illustration represents life, and certainly in reality, must certainly have an unpleasant taste, as the expressions on the faces of the other two men indicate. Yet, living in harmony and accordance with life and the Tao, this understanding transform what others may perceive as negative into something positive. “From the Taoist point of view, argues Benjamin Hoff, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.”

By 1dandecarlo

Leave a Reply