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The Shaolin temples (少林寺; pinyin: Shàolín Sì, WG: Shao-lin Ssŭ) are a group of Chinese Buddhist monasteries famed for their long association with Zen Buddhism and martial arts. They are perhaps the Buddhist monasteries most familiar in the West. The name "Shaolin" means "Young Forest".

The original Shaolin temple is situated at one of China's five holy peaks, Mount Song in Henan province. It was founded during the Northern Wei dynasty in approximately 497 CE and remains one of China's oldest Buddhist temples. It was said to have been used as a home by the Indian monk Batuo during the thirty years he spent preaching Nikaya Buddhism in China.

Perhaps the most famous name associated with Shaolin is that of Bodhidharma (pinyin: Dámó). He is said to have been an Indian monk who travelled to China in 5th century to teach Zen Buddhism. A story relates that Bodhidharma was initially refused entry to the Shaolin Temple, and was admitted only after sitting in zazen facing a nearby wall for nine years. Bodhidharma's ministry at Shaolin formed the basis for what would later be called Chán; or Zen Buddhism.

After entering Shaolin, it is said that Bodhidharma found the monks out of shape from a lifetime spent only in study and scholasticism, so he introduced a regimen of martial exercises which later developed into kung fu. Traditionally, the Shaolin monks developed their martial arts expertise as a defense against aggressors' attacks, as a means to promote health, and as a mental and physical discipline.

The temple's military fame began during the early Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). Records describe Shaolin fighting monks saving the life of the future emperor Li Shimin and assisting in his fight against renegade forces. Once enthroned, the gratified emperor enlarged their compound and gave permission for some monks to continue their military training. Shaolin kung fu reached its peak during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), when several hundred Shaolin monks were given military status and personally led compaigns against rebels and Japanese bandits. By this time, the Shaolin had developed their own unique style of martial arts, known as Shaolin Quan.

The original temple survived being sacked and rebuilt many times. The Manchus destroyed its compound in 1647 and massacred almost the entire population of monks. Shaolin was not rebuilt until around 1800. A large fire set by warlord Shi Yousan in 1928 destroyed many priceless manuscripts of the temple library.

Through the centuries, several Shaolin branches, including a famous one in Fujian which is known as the "Southern Shaolin", have been built in different parts of China. In modern times, thousands of secular branches dedicated solely to the teaching of martial arts have also been built in China and throughout the world.

Several modern writers have attempted to discredit Shaolin Temple as the birthplace of Shaolin Quan. However, others have criticized their attempts as relying upon specious textual criticism and avoiding Buddhist primary sources.

The most famous representation of Shaolin Temple in Western media is on the 1960s television series, Kung Fu, which tells the story of a monk travelling through the western United States, while frequently remembering his youth at Shaolin.

See also