Shaolin Temple 少林寺 (Dengfeng, Zhengzhou, Henan, China)

By Jason Lee and Pearl Zhang

Located in Dengfeng, Henan Province, China, at the foot of Mount Song, Shaolin Temple (少林寺) has gained worldwide attention largely due to the popularity of its martial arts. Led by the current abbot Shi Yongxin (释永信), Shaolin Temple nowadays has expanded its tourism and sought to establish itself as an academic institution of Buddhism, martial arts, and medicine. Situated in a relatively rural and impoverished area, the temple has been partially credited for bringing economic benefits to the region through tourism. In addition to its reputation in martial arts and as a tourist destination, Shaolin Temple has more recently strived to modernize, standardize, and commercialize its form of Chinese Buddhist medicine.

According to Shaolin Temple’s version of their history, the temple was founded in 495 A.D by Emperor Xiaowen in the Northern Wei dynasty to accommodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra) who translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and preached Buddhist doctrine. It is also said that when the Indian monk Bodhidharma (5-6th cent.) arrived, he founded Chan Buddhism (禪宗) here. The temple claims that gongfu and “Chan medicine” (禪醫) originated in the temple as well (Shaolin Temple 2021a). 

Scholars provide a different account. According to Shaolin historian Meir Shahar, Bodhidharma was likely not the one to found Chinese Chan Buddhism because it emerged at least a century after Bodhidharma died (Shahar 2008, 13). Shahar also notes that although activity in the Shaolin Temple was influential to Chinese martial arts, the full history of Chinese martial arts extends beyond the temple, and that the martial arts practitioners of the temple significantly drew from ancient fighting techniques that had non-Buddhist origins (Shahar 2008, 197). That being said, scholars and traditional accounts agree that the Shaolin Temple made substantial contributions to Chinese martial arts overall. One way that the temple contributed to this history is through its military involvement. Examples of the temple’s first military involvements include warding off a bandit attack around 610 A.D and participating in a military campaign led by future emperor Li Shimin 李世民 (598-649) (Shahar 2008, 51-52).  

In terms of Shaolin medicine, the temple contends that its origins can be traced to when the temple was first founded. According to the temple, generations of Shaolin monk doctors have been instrumental in refining Shaolin medicine (Shaolin Temple 2021b). Key figures such as Yiyuan Zhenren (异远真人), for example, purportedly invented healing methods to treat bone injuries sometime during the Ming dynasty (Shaolin Temple 2021c). Since one of the temple’s main goals was to treat martial arts-related injuries, they developed the Shaolin school of traumatology (伤科学派) as a field of study focused on diagnosing and treating internal injuries. The monks reportedly used mainly domestic healing methods and local materials, which is indicative of how Buddhist medicine has gradually transformed in China (Shaolin Temple 2021c).

More recently, the temple has published encyclopedias and anthologies to consolidate and standardize the practices of Shaolin medicine. Examples of such works include Collection of Secret Prescriptions of Shaolin Temple (少林寺秘方集锦) and Methods of Shaolin Acupressure (少林点穴法) (Shaolin Temple 2021b). In 2011, Shi Yongxin and other editors also published Complete Works of Chinese Buddhist Medicine and Pharmacopeia (中国佛教医药全书) (Shi & Li 2011). While such work presents a concerted effort to institutionalize Chinese Buddhist medicine, scholars that have reviewed them have pointed out issues with the criteria for including or excluding certain medical works (Burton-Rose 2017, 212-217).

Shaolin medicine utilizes acupuncture to heal bruises and injuries through promoting blood flow. In place of acupuncture needles, there are also other methods “one-finger Chan acupressure method” (一指禅点穴推拿法) (Shaolin Temple 2021b). In addition, techniques such as “bone setting and splinting therapy” (整骨接骨夹缚手法) are used to treat bone fractures through pressing on acupoints and applying topical medications (Shaolin Temple 2021b). Beyond treating physical injuries, Shaolin medicine implements the use of qigong (氣功), meditation, and chanting with the purpose of “cultivating the heart” (养心). With a heavy emphasis on nutrition and vegetarianism, Shaolin medicine also uses food, including soups, wines, and congee, as forms of medicine under the belief that food and medicine have a common origin (药食同源) (Shaolin Temple 2021b). Additionally, in line with its recent commercialization, the current Shaolin Temple also sells a variety of topical medical products ranging from ointments to medicated pads (Shaolin Temple 2021b).

Though derived from medical ideas and practices from India, Buddhist medicine has in many ways been domesticated in China, with aspects of Indian medicine replaced by or interpreted using theories and techniques of classical Chinese medicine (Salguero 2022, 128-129). Schools like Chan Buddhism, for example, have prioritized using classical Chinese medical models and to this day continue to emphasize native forms of medical therapy (Salguero 2022, 130). As such, Shaolin medicine as practiced today heavily relies on the use of classical Chinese concepts and techniques such as acupuncture, moxibustion, self-cultivation (养生), and herbal medication.


Google Street View

Scholarly Sources

  • Burton-Rose, Daniel. 2017. “Desiderata for the Principles of Compilation of a Canon of Buddhism and Medicine.” Asian Medicine 12: 203 – 232.
  • Salguero, C. Pierce. 2022. A Global History of Buddhism and Medicine. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Shahar, Meir. 2008. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Shi Yongxin 釋永信 and Li Liangsong 李良松, eds. 2011. Zhongguo Fojiao yiyao quanshu 中國佛教醫藥全書 [Complete Works of Chinese Buddhist Medicine and Pharmacopeia]. Beijing: Zhongguo shudian. 101 vols.

External Links