Shaolin history dates back to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese) traveled to China to meet the Emperor. At that time, the Emperor had started having Buddhist monks translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. The intent was to allow the general public the ability to practice this religion. The Emperor believed this noble project was his path to Nirvana, but Tamo disagreed. With differences in religious views, Tamo and the Emperor parted ways.
Tamo traveled to the nearby Buddhist temple (Sil Lum) to meet with the monks who were translating these Buddhist texts. When Tamo arrived at the temple, he was refused admittance, as he was likely thought of as an upstart or foreign meddler. Rejected by the monks, Tamo went to a nearby cave and meditated until the monks recognized his religious prowess and admitted him. Legend has it that he bore a hole through one side of the cave with his constant gaze.
When Tamo joined the monks, he observed that they were in poor physical condition. Consequently, the Shaolin monks lacked the physical and mental stamina needed to perform even the most basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises, designed to both enhance ch’i (energy) flow and build strength. These sets, modified from Indian yogas, were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in the Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake, dragon, etc). These were the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.
It is hard to say just when the exercises transformed into “martial arts”. The Shaolin temple was in a secluded area where bandits would have traveled and wild animals were an occasional problem, so the martial side of the temple probably started out to fulfill self-defense needs. After a while, these movements evolved into a system of self-defense.
As time went on, this Buddhist sect became more and more distinct because of the martial arts being studied. This is not to say that Tamo “invented” martial arts. Martial arts had existed in China for centuries. But within the confines of the temple, it was possible to develop and codify these martial arts into the new and different styles that would become distinctly Shaolin.
One of the problems faced by many western historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of non-violence coupled with Shaolin’s legendary martial skills. In fact, the Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she dispatch the most devastating defenses in any situation. Rather, the study of kung fu leads to better understanding of violence, and consequently “how to avoid conflict”. Failing that, a Buddhist who refuses to accept an offering of violence (i.e., an attack) merely returns it to the sender. Initially, the kung fu expert may choose to parry an attack, but if an assailant is both skilled and determined to cause harm, a more definitive and concluding solution may be required, whether it be from a joint-lock hold, to a knockout, to death. The more sophisticated and violent an assault, the more devastating the return of the attack to the attacker. Buddhists therefore are not hurting anyone, and merely refuse delivery of intended harm.
The Shaolin philosophy is one that started from Buddhism and later adopted many Taoist principles to become a new sect. Thus, even though a temple may have been Taoist or Buddhist at first, once it became Shaolin, it was a member of a new order, an amalgamation of the prevailing Chinese philosophies of the time.
Other temples also sprung from Henan Province. The birth of new temples was because the original temple would suffer repeated attacks and periods of inactivity, as the reigning Imperial and regional leaders feared the martial powers of the not-always unaligned monks. Refugee Shaolin practitioners would leave the temple to teach privately (in Pai) or at other Buddhist or Taoist temples. In rare cases, a new Shaolin Temple would be erected (Fukien, Kwangtung) or converted from pre-existing temples (Wu-Tang, O Mei Shan).
Unfortunately the history of Shaolin tapers off into near extinction due to many revolutions and wars. Nevertheless, the knowledge and skills have spread throughout China and the world, and have given birth to other Kung Fu styles and Martial Arts.