The Shaolin Monastery has had three distinct lineages (successions of abbots) in its history. The following is a general overview of each.
In 495 A.D. the Shaolin Monastery was built in Henan province for an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra (Chin.: Fótuóbátuóluó 佛陀跋陀罗), and called "Batuo" (Chin.: Bátuó 跋陀) by the Chinese. He was given land at the foot of the Shaoshi Mountain (Chin.: Shàoshìshān 少室山) to build a monastery to teach the tradition of Nikaya Buddhism. The Shaolin name comes from the first character in the name Shaoshi Mountain, 少 shào, and the Chinese term for the surrounding woods, 林 lín.
The first lineage was very short. It consisted solely of Batuo, the founder of Shaolin Monastery, and he had few disciples. However, two former generals, Huiguang (Chin.: Huìguāng 慧光) and Sengchou (Chin.: Sēngchóu 僧稠), became his students and were the first to bring martial arts to the temple despite many who claim it was Bodhidharma who first introduced martial arts practice to unhealthy monks. So in fact martial arts practice has been a part of Shaolin Monastery from almost its beginning.
Batuo’s lineage ended 32 years later when Bodhidharma became abbot of the temple with the start of his newly founded Chan Buddhism (Chin.: chánzōng fójiào 禅宗佛教).
In 527 A.D. another Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma (Chin.: Pútídámó 菩提达摩) known in China as “Damo” (Chin.: Dámó 达摩) arrived at the Shaolin Monastery and founded a new tradition known as Chan Buddhism, which was more suited to the Chinese and thus overtook Nikaya Buddhism as the tradition of the temple.
Chan is known in the West through its Japanese form of Zen. Chan and Zen have the same roots but have developed into culturally different practice traditions over the centuries. Upon becoming abbot of the Shaolin Monastery, Damo made a sort of prophecy. He tied six knots in the belt of his robe and stated that his lineage would end upon the fifth abbot following him. Damo’s disciple Huike (Chin.: Huìkě 慧可) became the second generation, Sengcan (Chin.: Sēngcàn 僧璨) the third, Daoxin (Chin.: Dàoxìn 道信) fourth, Hongren (Chin.: Hóngrěn 弘忍) fifth and Huineng (Chin.: Huìnéng 惠能) sixth. Not much is known about the early abbots following Huike as China was in the midst of a very warlike time. However, there are very important and famous Chan teachings left over from each of them.
Throughout the six generations of Damo’s lineage, the teaching of Chan Buddhism was passed through a mind to mind, heart to heart transmission, avoiding unnecessary verbal instruction. Huineng, the “wood chopper” who became enlightened upon hearing a certain line spoken by a man reciting the Diamond Sutra (Chin.: jīngāngjīng 金刚经) while chopping wood, was the first to have the teachings written down. Although he was known for being illiterate he may have had others write it down for him or others simply decided to do so. Either way it allowed the philosophy of Chan Buddhism to be spread but also marked the end of Damo’s lineage.
The Five Flavors of Chan
After the end of Damo’s lineage Chan Buddhism developed into five schools, or as we like to say; “flavors”, called the Caodong School (Chin.: Cáodòngzōng 曹洞宗), Linji School (Chin.: Línjìzōng 临济宗), Yunmen School (Chin.: Yúnménzōng 云门宗), Fayan School (Chin.: Fǎyǎnzōng 法眼宗) and Guiyang School (Chin.: Guīyǎngzōng 沩仰宗). Each differed in mixtures and methods of practice but still kept to the same philosophies of Damo and further of the original Buddha of our time, Shakyamuni Buddha (Chin.: Shìjiāmóunífó 释迦牟尼佛). Hence it is fitting that they be named “flavors” of Chan- different icings on the same cake.
Many of these secular Chan branches were obliterated during the Tang dynasty persecution of Buddhism (842-845). Nowadays, only Linji and Caodong survive. Centuries later at the Shaolin Monastery, being root of these five branches had its price. Turmoil had caused riots that resulted in the burning of the temple. This would not be the last time the temple would be burned.
After the death of Huineng a new generation of monks was started at the Shaolin Monastery. The first abbot of this new lineage was Xueting Fuyu (Chin.: Xuětíng Fúyù 雪庭福裕, 1203-1275). He renounced the world for monastic life, took the Dharma-name Fuyu and started studying under monk Wansong Xingxiu (Chin.: Wànsōng Xíngxiù 万松行秀).
When he came of age, the first emperor of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty Kublai Khan (Chin.: Yuán shìzǔ Hūbìliè 元世祖忽必烈, 1215-1294), sent him to Shaolin to restore order. Shaolin Monastery led the Caodong branch at Fuyu's abbacy.
Fuyu became abbot at a very warlike period of China’s history. He invited the best martial artists to come share their techniques while staying at the temple. Three times, for a period of three years each time, martial artists from many places came to the Shaolin Monastery to share their knowledge. The monks recorded the forms and techniques into a library kept at the temple. It is for this reason that Shaolin is often called the birthplace of martial arts, however this is not completely accurate. It can be seen more as a modern day university that simply studied martial arts and combined the useful techniques into a system. This system is known today by the temple's name, Songshan Shaolin (Chin.: Sōngshān Shàolín 嵩山少林) and has influenced the evolution of many following martial arts.
Abbot Fuyu’s lineage has remained unbroken to this day. He composed a Chan poem which became the source for Shaolin "character generation" (Chin.: zìbèi 字辈) naming which each master uses to give Dharma names to their disciples- each character in order representing their generation.
The Shaolin Governing Committee
In 1987, the 29th abbot of Shaolin, Venerable Shi Xingzheng (Chin.: Shì Xíngzhèng 释行正), passed away leaving a period of time where no new abbot was appointed. Instead, Abbot Xingzheng decided the best for Shaolin was to have a governing commitee lead the temple, rather than having a single abbot in charge. This committee was to include several high monks, including venerable masters Shi Suxi (Chin.: Shì Sùxǐ 释素喜) and Shi Suyun (Chin.: Shì Sùyún 释素云), two old and highly respected monks who were among the 14 or so to return from the Cultural Revolution period of chaos and restore the Shaolin tradition. They entered the Shaolin Monastery in the early half of the 20th century and studied with monks who's masters predated the 1900's, namely their Master Shi Zhenxu (Chin.: Shì Zhēnxù 释贞绪).
Of course by the time of the founding of this new governing committee, these high monks were already in their 60's and 70's. Master Suxi was to head the committee but was also beginning to deal with the early ravages of Parkinson's Disease. Aside from his condition, it was never his wish to be more than a "common monk". Position and power was not for him. Following the advancement of Ven. Suxi's Parkinson's disease, Master Suyun took over as the head monk in 1998. However, he was older than Master Suxi and was also falling ill. His tenure did not last long; he died a year later.
The Current Abbot
Another member of the committee was much younger, about half their age. He was a close disciple of Abbot Shi Xingzheng. His Dharma-name; Shi Yongxin (Chin.: Shì Yǒngxìn 释永信). He had the position, the youth, and the knowledge. Soon there came a decree from the National Buddhist Organization in Beijing that decided he would become the new abbot of Shaolin. He was later officially inaugurated in 1999.
-少林禅城 Shaolin Chan City
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