The Shaolin Temple 100 years later: Photo comparison

How wonderful is it when you stumble upon old photos of your grandparents or your hometown, and you can recognise details in them to connect them to your experiences and memories? The same thing happened in 1991 when Abbot Shi Yongxin of the Shaolin Temple paid a visit to Dharma Temple in Japan and discovered photos of the temple and the surrounding area taken in 1920!

Read on to see some of those pictures and see how the locations photographed look almost a century later!


The Shaolin Temple was built in the year 495 by the Buddhist Emperor Xiaowen. He gave it over to a monk he especially respected called Batuo, who became the first abbot. The temple has had a tumultuous history, and was destroyed three times, the most recent in 1928 when much of the temple was burnt to the ground by the warlord Shi Yousan under orders from a Christian general to destroy Buddhist temples. Luckily, however, monks from Hōrin-ji Temple  (Dharma Temple) in Kyoto had visited Shaolin in 1920, and had taken photos of it eight years before its destruction. On his visit, Abbot Shi Yongxin was able to view the 48 photos for the first time. 

It really is fascinating to see these photos, now exactly 100 years old, together with photos of the temple as it currently is, (as taken by Cultural Keys during our most recent Warriors’ Way Bootcamp at the temple in 2019.)

Shanmen (Main Gate)

The name of the most important gate in a Buddhist temple is shanmen 山门, meaning mountain gate. It may be called this because Buddhist temples were usually built in remote mountainous areas to enable monks to focus on monastic life, or possibly because of the similarity between the form of the doors and the character 山. The gate has a large archway in the middle and two small ones on either side, symbolising the ‘three liberations’ in Buddhism: emptiness, signlessness and desirelessness. The three characters over the central doorway say ‘Shaolin Temple’ 少林寺 and were written by Emperor Kangxi in 1704. 

Stele Corridor

The path leading from the Shanmen to the first hall is flanked on either side by stele, large stone tablets recording main events or important visitors to the temple over the centuries. 

Great Hall (Mahaviro Hall)

This is the main hall of the temple, where three Buddhas are enshrined: Sakyamuni, the Buddha of Medicine and the Buddha of Infinite Wisdom. 

Bodhidharma’s cave

 

Located on Wuru Peak to the north-west of the temple, this is the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, is said to have meditated for 9 years. 

Chuzu Nunnery

At the foot of Wuru Peak, this convent, where a few nuns still live, is named after the ‘first patriarch’ of Chan Buddhism (Bodhidharma). 

Pagoda Forest

Between the temple and the foot of Wuru Peak, the pagoda forest is where the cremated remains of former abbots and eminent monks were buried under pagodas. The oldest pagoda here dates from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535), during which the temple was founded. 

Shaoshi Peak

Giving its name to the temple (‘Shaolin’ means ‘the forest at the foot of Shaoshi Peak’), this distinctive flat-topped mountain dominates the landscape of the area. 

Erzu Nunnery

This nunnery is located on the side of Shaoshi Peak, and has been completely rebuilt over the last few years. No nuns currently live there. It’s named after the ‘second patriarch’ of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma’s disciple, Huike. Legend tells how he cut off his own arm to achieve enlightenment and was later healed on a rock platform near the nunnery. 

White Robe Hall

Standing apart from the temple, this secluded hall was built in 1729 and contains a statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) wearing white robes. 


It is our pleasure to be able to show you these beautiful old photos. Since 2015, Cultural Keys has had the honor of being able to work together with the Shaolin Temple to offer tailored kung fu programs, helping foreign students train at the temple with genuine warrior monks, and immerse themselves in the life, culture and kung fu of the Shaolin Temple.  

To read the temple’s article on these photos, or to find out more about the Shaolin Temple, the work they do and the study opportunities they provide, please visit their Official WeChat Account here, or their website at www.shaolin.org.cn. 

Do you think comparisons like this are interesting? Can you see a lot of similarities between the photos, or do you think there have been many changes? Do you have any photos of China past and present you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys; Hōrin-ji Temple


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