Shrouded by the Song Shan mountain range, Shaolin Si or temple looks as if it’s floating as you approach it. Most Westerners know Shaolin from martial arts movies - Shaolin Kung Fu was born here. But it is more famous in Asia as the birthplace of the Zen Buddhism movement. Visitors come to Shaolin to study Kung Fu, meditate in the ancient surroundings or to enjoy an ancient historical place that is by all means, off the beaten path.
For whatever reason you come, Shaolin Temple is worth a visit.
Shaolin Temple is located in the foothills of the Song Shan mountain range just fifteen minutes outside the town of Dengfeng, which is about two hours away from Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan. Buses run from Zhengzhou and Luoyang, another larger Henan city, to Dengfeng. Alternatively, if you are staying in Zhengzhou or Luoyang, you can arrange a day tour from your hotel.
Shaolin Temple was established by Buddhabhadra, a monk from India who came to spread Buddhism in China over 1,500 years ago. Soon after opening, another Buddhist monk from India came and established Shaolin as the center of Zen Buddhism in China. But only a few years later its doors were closed in the wake of anti-Buddhist sentiments at the imperial court. Over its 1,500 year history, Shaolin’s teachings have been both patronized and banished by various emperors.
Flourishing today, Shaolin Temple has a long and variegated history.
Shaolin Temple complex can be thought of as three major sights within the compound. You will enter the main gateway where the tour buses park and you can purchase your entry tickets. This area has been refurbished to support hoards of tourists – there is a large plaza flanked by souvenir vendors on both sides.
Don’t buy anything on the way in – you’ve got a long day ahead of you and you can buy it, if you still want it, on the way out.
- Area One – Kung Fu Performance: After you enter the complex, you will walk ten minutes or so to the Kung Fu performance hall. If you can manage to get there early in the morning, you’ll see students of all ages practicing outside in the grassy fields next to the walkway. The Kung Fu performance is very geared for tourists with flashing lights and an announcer with a microphone. But don’t let this deter you, the performance of these young boys is incredible. We saw a sculpted teen pierce glass with a needle and another break a metal bar with his arm. The skill and concentration are palpable; the performance is not to be missed.
- Area Two – Shaolin Temple: After the performance, you can take electric cars or walk another fifteen to twenty minutes to the temple itself. Shaolin Temple is set upon the mountainside. You’ll enter at the bottom and make your way up through the multiple halls to the top. The buildings are all in very good condition; money flowing in from the popularity of the temple for tourists as well as student fees have given the temple plenty of money to support renovations.
The temple complex follows a south-north axis and you’ll pass through a multitude of halls and buildings. Two of the highlights are the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, also called the Training Hall, where you can see depressions in the cobbled floor left from monks training over hundreds of years. The second is the Shadow Stone where you can see Bodhidharma’s shadow burned into the rock from his years of meditation (see also A History of Shaolin Temple for more about Bodhidharma.)
- Area Three – The Pagoda Forest: Another half-kilometer walk through a wooded path will bring you to the Pagoda Forest where there are nearly 250 stone and brick pagodas ranging from the Tang, Song, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties (618-1911). If you can escape the vendors walking around with prayer beads for sale, it is really quite lovely to wander through this quiet wooded place.
Most visitors use Zhengzhou as a base for making the day trip to Shaolin Temple. Day tours can be arranged from your hotel and this is certainly the most relaxed way to go. Your hotel can arrange for a car and a guide and I’d highly recommend this if you have the means as you will certainly get the most out of your visit. Alternatively, buses to Dengfeng city and Shaolin Temple depart from the long-distance bus terminal in Zhengzhou.
See the article Visiting Zhengzhou, "Getting There" for more information on this. You can then make your own way around the complex.
Opening hours: 8am-7pm, daily, all year.
Recommended time for visit: half-day (minimum). If you can, spend the whole day so you have plenty of time to wander around the temple complex and even take a stroll in the mountains or up the hill to Bodhidharma’s cave.
- There is electric car service to transport you from one area to the next. I’d recommend making the walk on the way, but taking the car on the way back to the parking lot.
- Lunch: There are restaurants offering such delicacies as “free-range chicken” in little villages that abut the temple complex. Hawkers stalk visitors and make a very grand claim to your guide and you about their offerings. I would highly recommend avoiding these places unless you are very comfortable with questionable surroundings and food. There’s a vegetarian restaurant on the compound run by Shaolin nuns, this is your best option.