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Many believe there was only one Shao-lin Temple, but in fact there were five Shao-lin Temples throughout the course of Chinese history. Some say there were more than five Shao-lin Temples. The exact number is ultimately irrevalent to this node.
The best known of the Temples was in Honan, located in Lo-yang, a small mountain town southwest of Beijing. This is the Shao-lin temple that most associate with the numerous martial arts styles we see today. However, this temple was destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1901. It has since been rebuilt by the Chinese government, but most of the original styles are no longer there.
In today's Shao-lin Temple what is taught is under the control of the Chinese government. In fact many Americans who have traveled to the Shao-lin Temple say real Ch 'uan Fa is no longer being taught there, but rather Wu Shu that is being taught by government officials posing as authentic Shao-lin monks.
This is one of the main reasons many authentic monks have fled the Temple and have come to the United States.
I live and work in China, and as a good Buddhist of the Zen persuasion, I went to Shaolin to see the place where Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years. The town is full of kung fu schools cashing in on the name as a kind of military boarding school for kids. The temple truly is a tourist trap now, with streets full of tat and a giant plastic Maitreya for kids to play in. But in the pagoda forest out back are the tombs of many monks and masters of a thousand years or more. It was peaceful and overgrown, the sun slanted down just so, and I felt an access to beauty.

Another time in the mountains of Yunnan I visited a tumbledown temple in a Bai area not far from Dali. Found a monk who'd studied at Shaolin, living alone, meditating, practicing his arts, and slowly repairing the temple with help from local villagers. He seemed like the real thing to me - and served good tea.

So I went down to Zhengzhou to see the Shaolin Temple. Zhengzhou's a country town for China, only 2 million people live there. Like everywhere in China it's in the middle of construction on every street and every street corner. Rows of buildings that have been just pushed half over, 10,000 people working with horses and carts and hands and feet to carry the broken hulks away brick by brick to build again elsewhere. China, in a nutshell.

And it seems you only have to go 6 hours (by train) south of Beijing to be in the tropics, that red or yellow incredibly fertile soil that is such a big part of what China is, thick on the surface of the earth, glorious topsoil, eroding daily by the supertanker load into the Yellow River (hence the name)and out to sea. Vast monoculture fields, meet Chinese soil. Chinese soil, meet "modern" agriculture. How do you do? Pleased to meet you. Let me cleverly overpopulate then starve the country that sits atop you. Ok, that would be lovely thanks so much.

Then of course Zhengzhou is the nearest "big town" to the famous Shaolin Si (Shaolin Temple in Chinese). When you think about it, there are few other Chinese things that have the same level of recognition for what they actually are as the "Shaolin Monks". I mean, the word "shanghai" is in English, but it doesn't mean "megapolis". Unfortunately, that name recognition has been the utter death of anything that was special about the Shaolin. If there was honesty in advertising, then the following would be on the brochure for the Shaolin Si.

  • THRILL to the 2-hour bus ride over bone-jarring under-construction roads! Special rest-stops to pointlessly wash the bus every 15 minutes!
  • SCREAM in delight at every traffic accident you see on the journey. "Look! There'a a tourist bus down that ravine too!"
  • LAUGH with joy at being just one of the hundreds of busloads of tourists to tread the sacred stones of the ancient temple that day.
  • WORSHIP at the reconstructions of ancient buildings (Batteries sold separately. Huge Shaolin bell tower does not contain huge Shaolin bell.)
  • CRY in gastronomic glee at the Buddhist(tm) Restaurant in the grounds of the temple that serves authentic meat dishes!
  • GASP with delight at the ancient pagodas as you view them from 5 kms away through high-power binoculars (binocular time sold separately, loud haggling guaranteed)!
  • SIGH with pleasure at the sounds of noisy electronic toys you (or thousands of other people's children, anyway) can buy directly outside the sacred cemetery (and nowhere else)!
  • APPLAUD the young Shaolin as they show their sacred martial arts skills to you, in an intimate (5,000 seat) auditorium!
  • WONDER at how similar the sacred skills look to the Chinese period dramas you see on TV!

In case you missed the bulge in my cheek - I really really did have a fun time in Zhengzhou, and at the Shaolin Si, by all means go if you get the chance!

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