POSTCARD FROM SHAOLIN
In the Shaolin temple thrive the skills and sensibilities of an ancient faith.
In the reposeful silence of the morning, the persistent and powerful images of contemporary China, of profit and progress, seem to diminish a bit.
Photo: Sadhana Rao
Ancient ritual: Students showcasing Kung Fu skills.
Tucked amidst the Songshan mountain ranges, China’s legendary Shaolin Temple appears shaped more by landscape than human hand. Built in deep and dense forestland, at the North foot of the Shaoshi mountain, the disorderly but joined mountains an
d peaks form a natural defence for the temple. Layered and creased in the sprawling hectares and hectares of temple land are skills and sensibilities of an ancient faith. Of Zen Buddhism and martial arts (Kung fu). The sibilance of wind and birds, air redolent with fragrances of foliage, determined disciples practising Kung Fu, robed monks, colourful wooden beams of the temple showcase a flow of organic constancy and continuity. The ectoplasm of Shaolin Si (as the temple is known) retains its spiritual emanations; notwithstanding the tourist onslaught. In the reposeful silence of the morning, the persistent and powerful images of contemporary China, of profit and progress, of concrete and bricklaying, seem to diminish a bit.
Like the Lama Temple in Beijing, Shaolin Si is a place of active worship. Giant incense sticks and lotus flower offerings are the expressive insignia of the temple’s landscape. Situated in Henan province, Shaolin Si has given Dengfeng, the closest city, an occupation, that of packaging and selling Shaolin. Zhen Zhou, the provincial capital and nearest airport, is three hours away by road.
An Indian monk, Batuo, following a solitary meandering path of preaching Buddhism arrived in the provinces of China. Emperor Xiaowen (in 495 A.D.), influenced by his teachings, benevolently ordered the temple to be constructed. The form of Shaolin Si came into existence. Followers were accepted and activities of expounding and translating Buddhist scriptures commenced.
A few decades later, yet another Indian monk, Bodhidharma, navigating his own Buddhist trail, arrived in China. He did not get an immediate audience with the Emperor; hence he retreated to a small cave behind the Shaolin Temple, where he undertook long meditation sessions. Between the sessions, he studied the motions of birds and animals in detail. Based on the agility, sureness and swiftness of their movement, he developed a series of exercises for physical combat and spiritual concentration. The retreat of Bodhidharma (or Damo) lasted nine long years. Folklore states that his shadow got imprinted on the stone wall and formed a water colour painting. This stone wall was chiselled off from the natural cave and later transported to Shaolin Si.
Damo was invited to the Temple with due honours. He introduced the concepts of Zen Buddhism and in a way is considered the father of Zen practice. On our trek to the “Damo Cave”, the words of Ralph W. Emerson “do not go where the paths may lead: go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” held strong resonance. What a trail the monks left behind for futurity.
Shaolin Si has experienced the transitive nature of good fortune; witnessed some terrible and ambivalent twists of history. However, its form of martial arts, Kung Fu, has survived and endured for over 1,500 years. An Order that held sway over the mindscapes of the world. Currently over 40,000 students undergo training in these grounds.
Against the backdrop of the mountains, in brightly coloured ensembles, young boys performed the Kung Fu show. Sure, it was a packaged show for the tourists. However, once the show commenced it was evident that the rituals of rigour and an anthem of discipline had been followed. The boys performed unbelievable tasks; breaking iron bars, piercing a glass sheet with a needle, effortlessly taking on an assailant. Their movements were poised, centred, so completely rooted in the present moment. Their stillness also reflected great depths. The group’s concentration was so intense; it did appear that they had transcended technique, achieving an integration of body and mind. The dazzling display was reminiscent of celluloid images from the film “36 Chambers of Shaolin”. From the viewing audience there were many polysyllabic quips of appreciation.
The temple has a ceremonial bigness to it. Since it is set upon the mountainside, you enter from the bottom and make your way through the multiple halls right to the top. The temple starts from a gateway with glazed, tiled roofs. There are then seven courtyards for worshipping the Buddha, sitting in meditation, chanting scriptures, reception, collecting books and undertaking religious ceremonies, for residence of monks. The various points of worship have unique names, like “Forest of Steles,” “Mahaviro Hall”, “Six Masters Hall”, etc. Particularly interesting was the “Hall of Thousand Buddhas” with its various depictions.
All that Shaolin stands for is etched on a stone tablet called “Stella for Integration of Three Religions and Nine Schools of Thoughts”. The calligraphist Zhu Zaiban has etched a man, with a picture of the integrations of nine social walks. The man is the Buddha, at whose left ear is a portrait of Lao Zi; the portrait of Confucius is at the Buddha’s right ear. It is truly a remarkable installation.
The Shaolin temple has been destroyed, damaged and rebuilt several times. The rebuilt parts standout as reminders of irretrievable losses. But faith and worship have their own way of chugging along .Shaolin Si still retains its power and vibrancy. That, I guess, is its gratuity beyond the remotest bounds of its equity.