Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my fifth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the stone monument at Shaolin temple erected in 728 AD, with a full translation of the inscription on the Stele.

Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(August, September, October 1995 issues #16-18)
Article #5

Shaolin History . . .

The Shaolin Monastery Stone Stile Monument of 728 AD

By Salvatore Canzonieri, New Jersey

The celebrated Shaolin Monestary is known to have preserved a good number of ancient stone monuments (known as Steles) with engraved inscriptions. One of the most famous of these is that which contains Pei Cui's August Tang Dynasty period inscription, which chronicles the history of Shaolin up to the stele's erection in 728 AD. It is a large stone, four meters high, more than 136 cm wide, and 38.18 cm thick; making it the largest stele at Shaolin. The stele is beautifully engraved with boldly carved dragons, auspicious birds, and spirits, with equally beautiful calligraphic engravings of text by various personages. The very title of the stele (seen on both faces of the top panel) was personally calligraphed by the then emperor Xuanzong (reigned from 712 to 756 AD).

This stele is from the time when 13 of Shaolin's monks rescued a Qin prince, Li Shimin, when he was under attack. A grateful Li, when he became Tai Zong, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), rewarded the 13 monks with promotions, gifted a large tract of land to the monastery and, most important of all, allowed Shaolin to train 500 fighting monks who could be called upon at any time to defend the country.

A great deal of importance was attached to the stele by the monks of Shaolin, not only because of the imperial inscriptions. There was an economic motive also: the stele's historical inscriptions represented the monks' desire to be recognized as holders of the right of possession to the 100 qings of land comprising the Baiguwu Estate, at a time when there was a strict land confiscation policy enacted by the emperor. The stele represented the monks' wish that their right henceforth go unquestioned and be maintained and assured into the future.

The monks enjoyed such an influence as to have the emperors themselves make an exception to their policy. This influence was essentially due to their mililtary merits, which was noteworthy in the midst of a pacifist Buddhist tradition. These military exploits, as recorded in the stele, gave rise to the ongoing legends about the system of fighting that the monks of Shaolin are credited with creating.

There are four inscriptions on the stele, covering the subject areas of religion, history, and financial administration, that help to corraborate and clarify other literary sources. Rubbings have been made of the inscriptions and they have been studied by many European and Asian scholars. In 1987, the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies of Kyoto University, Japan, published a major study of the social, intellectual, and legal aspects of China's early dynasties, titled "A Study of China's Aristocratic Society". Included was a chapter by Professor Tonami Mamoru on the Shaolin Monestary, which was translated from Japanese into English in a paper entitled, "The Shaolin Monestary Stele on Mount Song" (published by the Italian School of East Asian Studies). In this paper, Professor Tonami 'gives a vivid picture of the lives of the Shaolin Monestary monks, showing that, besides being pious clerics well versed in all aspects of the Buddhist religion, they were careful builders and estate managers and, when necessary, canny politicans well able to guard the vested interests of their monestary by exploiting their connections in high places' (from the paper's preface). Professor Tonami's paper works to prove that the main stele inscription by the aristocratic high offical Pei Cui was intended to safeguard the monestary's hold in their landed estate near Mt. Song.

Following is a reprint of this direct translation of Pei Cui's inscription:

Under the August Tang. Shaolin Monastery on Mount Song:

Composed and penned by the yinqing guanglu dafu provisionally holding the office of President of the Board of Personnel, Upper Pillar of the State, Viscount opening up the fief of Zhengping County, Pei Cui. Now originally the stars handed down the Brahmaloka (fanjie realm of form) and sagely destiny initiated the commencement of the countless changes (of all matter in the universe). The sun shone upon the (princely) palace and divine traces bound together the origins of the three numinous powers. Cloaking itself in the Great Void to appear in the material world, Buddhist Doctrine is transmitted throughout countless ages. Caging himself in the realm of creation to show himself to mortal beings, Dharmakaya (the Law Body, here the buddha) first responded (to human needs) in middle antiquity. The manisfestation of superhuman powers far and wide eradicated the effects of evil karma, while the throwing open of the gares of prajna (wisdom) through and through lit up the realm of joy. The Crane Grove changed its appearance on beholding hearts filled with devotion. The Goos Pgod unclosed its door, throwing open the route to worship.

Now the Shaolin Monastery was founded by Xiaowen (r. 471-499) of the Latter (Nothern) Wei dynasty. Close to the Eastern Capital, on the western slopes of the Greater Chamber (Taishi), the principal pneuma dwells at the centre of the six directions and the pure capital is the hub of the empire. The northern spur of Mount Hou dovetails with the Heavenly Gate of Yuan and Luo. The southern streams of the River Ying connect with the misty marshes between Mount Jing and the Yellow River. Thus are laid out the sacred confines of the imperial domain, the blessed ground of Yangcheng.

The monk, Buddhabhara, was a man of India. His unworldly heart was of mysterious purity so that his benevolence spread afar and when he preaches the doctrine of the unity of Buddha nature his skill in expounding the Way was extremely profound. From the distant Western Regions, he travelled to the capital of our land. Emperor Xiaowen yielded precedence to him to accord respect to the Buddhist grove. In the Taihe period (A.D. 477-499), Emperor Xiaowen ordered the authorities to place this monastery at Buddhabhadra's disposal and had offerings and vestments provided at public expense. The Master of the Law forthwith on the western terrace of the monastery constructed the Holy Relic Pagoda (shelita) and, behind the pagoda, constructed the Hall of Translating the Sutras (fanjingtang). Mixing the plaster with holy water and using a golden rope as plumbline, putting heart and soul into their task, the builders worked night and day. The place for Prabhutaratna's complete bodily manifestation was achieved in less than a day and the sermons of the Tahagata's golden mouth was sheltered in the building among rolling clouds. To the west, the monstery was built by the side of a mountain torzent, lined with lonely woods of pine and cypress and to the north, over againt a loftybluff, covered in dense thickets of bamboo. Smoke patterned the dense clouds and darkness brought down heavenly incense. The mountain spring bubbled a clear note as dawn carried the Buddhist chant. Here, Buddhabhadra, cutting off his mind from worldly things and enjoying the transuility of his hermit existence, was moved to a full understanding and finally achieved enlightenment. Between walking and sleeping, it was as if one endowed with divine powers brought a set of musical stones, one more than four feet long. Their pitch was natural and they covered the complete scale of musical notes. They were obtained at the bend of the Yellow River aand came to be known from the lofty converse of the Han envoy (the Chinese envoy to the Western Regions). They floated at the edge of the River Si and were taken as tribute to the Xia King. The music of pipe and string drifted on the breeze at night, harmonising with the clear notes of the natural world in the middle heavens. The note of the monastery bell congealed in the frosts of daybreak, blending with the sacred sounds reverberating to the last kalpa.

At that time, there was a Master of the Tripitka Ratnamati (fl. begining of sixth century) who translated the Buddhist holy works and travelled to this enlightened land while Chn Master Chou, seeking after the Saddharman (the True Law, ie., Buddhist teachings), stayed in the stupa and maintained the law in the capacity of administrator.

Time, however, passes by and reputations grow tarnished, yet still the rainbow points to the image of Buddha. Emperor Wu of Zhou in the Jiande period (572-578) accepted the words of Yungsong of Wei dnasty and proscribed Buddhism and Taoism. Throughout the empire every monastery was abolished and destoryed. The Enlightened August Emperor (Ming Huangdi, otherwise Xuangdi) inherited Emperor Wuþs throne and post humously promoted his well-being. In the Daxiang period (580-581), he first restored the Buddhist and Taoist images and for each of the two capitals, estblished one monastery. These, since they were set up in the spirit of filial peity, were called 'Yearning for Father' (Zhihu) Monasteries. The monstery designated Zhihu Monastery for Luoyang was this very monastery.

When Sui Goazu received the Mandate, on the change of the reign period title, all designations were changed. Only the name of this monastery, by special order, was allowed to revert to its old form. In the Kaihuang period (581-601), there was an edit to the effect that: 'Since the Two Techings first arose, the four quarters have been filled with harmony. Students go to study in its mountain groves and believers are numerous. One hundred ging of state land at Baigu is to be presented to the Shaolin Monastery.' At the end of Daye period (605-617), the Sui empire collapsed. Rebel hordes attacked and pillaged, making no distinction between clergy and laity. This monastery was attacked by mountain brigands. When the monks and their disciples fended them off, the brigands set fire to the monastery and put the pagoda and the cloisters to the torch. All the buildings along the cloisters sudently went up in flames. The famous sacred pagoda alone remained, standing in solitary splendour. The Heavenly Dragon preserved it and the Guardian God of the Mountain afforded it auspicious protection. Never before, even in ancient times, was such a deed attained by spirit power.

Fifty li (Chinese miles) to the northwest of the monastery in Baigu Retreat. There the myriad peaks crowd one upon another, threaded about with deep ravines. From ledge upon ledge rimmed with cloud, looking down, one might espy the realm of the Dragon. The high summits brush against the clouds and give a view across the highway of the birds. Under Jin, the estate became a bailiwick town (wu) and under Qi, it was made a commandery (jun). When Wang Shichong made his bid to usurp the throne, it bore the name Yuangzhou. Taking advantage of its strategic location, he established a mountain-top garrison post there and recruited troops in Luoyang city with the intention of attacking the monastery.

The August Tang responded at a turning point in the cycle of the five elements lightning flash revealing a wandering dragon. Sacred herbs grew in tangled profusion on the peppered plaster and the spray from a spring flew across the surface of brocaded stone. To the carved roof beams was added even greater splendour, as if they were garlanded with spring flowers and the golden floor mats sparkled as though sprinkled with autumn dew.

On the decease of Tianhuang (the Heavenly August One), Zetian Da Sheng Huanghou (Great Saint and August Empress who Took Heaven as a Model), on behalf of her late saintly husband, established merit and virtue. In the Chuigong period (685-689), a bamboo plant put out shoots in winter and at the back of the pagoda and cloisters, creepers grew once more. In the Zhengsheng period (694-695), an imperial commissioner sent money for repair of the step sin the place where the creeper was growing. Above the monastery, the Universal Light Hall (Puguangtang), was planned and as a result of good works, over the course of time, it was constructed. From then onwards, flying birds no longer dared to soar and flock together there.

At this monastery, Buddhabhadra halted his wanderings, creating a karma sacred and occult. The August House regarded the monastery with reverence and events illuminated its mysteries. Curious parents often appeared among animals and plants and numinious responses frequently came forth in the monastery gardens. Successive saintly monarchs showed concern for the monastery, each bestowing on it generous favors. Princes uttered pronouncements and wrote their signatures which bathed in splendor this Rooster Peak. Precious Buddha images and bedded banners were likewise brought post-haste to this Dragon Ravine.

The present emperor's sagely strategy reaches wide compass and his divine action shows manifold abilities. He bases himself on the transforming purity of the Luminous Terrace. He understands the mysterious subtleties of the Heavenly Lake. Understanding how closely interwined with the fate of his saintly predecessor this monastery had been, His Majesty wrote a stele title in seven characters and in the winter of the eleventh year of the Kaiyuan period, sent down his Edict of Grace, through Master Yixing, presenting the calligraphy to the Shaolin Monastery for engraving. In the Heavenly Halls hung the splendour of sun and moon and in the Buddha groves wafted clouds of fragrant incense. Compared to this Emperor Yuang of Han and Emperor Wu of Wei won admiration for their silk scrolls inscribed with seal characters in vain and Zhong Yao and Cai Yong drew empty praise for their inscription on bamboo tablets. Recently, an enlightened decree ordered: 'The landed estates of the Buddhist monasteries and Taoist temples of the empire are all to be confiscated'. The present emperor, in consideration of the facts that the lands and mill of this monastery, the generous donation of his saintly predecessor, for many a long year in the monasterys possession, cloaked in the bosom of the mountain and trailing a train of numinous traces. The dewlling of a host of immortals, surpassing the golden peaks of Rajagrha, the abode of those of highest virtue, throwing into the shade of King Asoka 'tupas, as a social favor, returned the lands and mill to the monastic community and did not include them in the official appropriation, for they had been alienated, in a pious gesture, from the domain of the stare and graciously conferred upon the clergy. Decidedly it was a case of "this monastery's fame exceeding all others in the land, it is to be treated with special courtesy, setting it apart from all ordinary monasteries."

The eminent monk Buddhabhadra was fully conversant with all branches of the Tripitaka, whether of discipline or meditation. his disciples, the Chan Masters Huiguang, Daofang, and the Chan Master Cho, were meticulous and conscientious in observing Buddhist rules of behavior, able in preaching and masters of the clerical office. Huiguangþs disciples, Masters of the Buddhist Law Sengda, Tanyin, and Fashang, among others, were the ten Bhadanta (clerics of great virtue), also dubbed the 'Ten Heroes'. Then again there was Chan Master budhidharma, who, profoundly schooled in the sect of charity, was trusted as a ford or bridge of deliverance. His disciple, such as Chan Master Huike, who possessed a profound insight into the Dharma Treasure (the Buddhist Law), at some time resided on this mountain. In the Daxiang period of (Northern) Zhou, when the monastery was first revived, there were chosen from among the monks persons whose virtuous karma as self-evident and they were appointed the Bodhisartvasangha, the body of one hundred and twenty Bodhisartva monks. Master of Law Huiyuan and Master of Discipline Hongzun were numbered among them. Under the August Tang, from the Zhenguan period, there have been the Master of discipline Mingzun, Ciyun, Xuangsu, and Zhiqin, who abstractedly pursued the single mean of existence and attained a thorough comprehension of the source of Truth. Then there was the Great Master named Faru (638-689), head of the Samadhi (Concentration) Sect, whose preaching shed light on abstruse doctrines. His disciple Huichao had a rare talent for abstruse thinking and pursued his devotions deep into religious mysteries. His literary output was brilliant and he had an effortless grasp of doctrine. In the Jinglong period (707-710), it was decreed that at the Shaolin Monastery at the Central Mountain, ten positions of Great Virtue (dade, Chin, tr. of Sk, bhadanta) were to be set up. Whenever there was a vacancy in their number, a monk from within the monastery was to be picked to fill it. No one was to be brought in from outside and no seat was to be left empty. Thus men like Cheng and Shi succeeded one another and men such as Lin and Yuan followed in each others' footsteps. The stars and frosts have scarce completed two twelve year cycles since that time and orchid and chrysanthemum both spread their fragrance up to ten paces. The Elder, the Chief of the Monastery and the Administrator lock up the liturgical library and stroll in composure in Meditation Grove. They gain merit by reciting their rosaries and, through their observance of their vows, bring into being the Sweet Dew (ambrosia). Of all the numinous peaks within the seas, non matches Mount Song and of all the mountain sites where religion is practiced, this is the greatest monastery. The Two Chambers stand side by side and in the eight valleys flow streams. The ground is encircled with shell-like flowers. The doors are flanked with stone pillars. The mysterious lodges and pavilions pervaded with incense are overshadowed by rowering forests. The golden masts arop the pagodas and the precious belts hanging from their roofts are tossed on high in the Milky Way. Thus was the mysterious revelation of the Dharmadhatu (the Nature of the Law or spiritual truth, i.e., Buddhism). so came the blessed response of the August House. As heaven is enduring and earth eternal, speak not of the palace of the Trayastrimsa. as the ages are whittled away to dust, who should record the concourse of the Cakravala? After searching thoroughly for a fine craftsman, I intend to follow the tradition of the poets in singing the raises of the virtues of the golden immortals (the monks). With my pen I proclaim the truth in its entirety, expounding upon the Absolute Void. The verse reads
as follows:

Countless the lands, as the sands of the River Ganges,
Infinite the particles which make up every class of matter.
Haphazardly they appear, darring hither and thither,
But the upright heart comprehends them all.
On the dark path (or rebirth) no light falls,
But the Root of Purity will descend.
We rejoice in the bondage of our passions,
Like those who peacefully dream in their sleep.

Peerless, indeed, the Great Sage Buddha,
Come down to leave his mark upon the morral world.
Diligently he leaves through his precious sutras,
Far and wide sails his ship of mercy.
In truth he denies himself nirvana
To show his ability to conquer with kindness.
His purple palaces (Buddhist monasteries) spread from the West,
As a white horse carried his teachings to (us in) the East.

The karma of illusion is born of pride.
Enlightenment arises from faith.
A jade monastery here is established.
A precious mountain bears it upoin its peak.
On the terrace of flowers, a bamboo grove,
In the clear spring, holy water.
Indeed, the true image of tranquility
Is lodged here in all its profundity.

High above toewrs Songþs ridge.
By He and Luo Rivers stand mightly townships.
Flowing down, the rivers join the nine streams.
Soaringup, the mountain is a wall of a thousand cubits.
The ledges of heaven are piled up steeply.
The immortal capital is pure and lofty. Just made for a place of worship,
The nature of the site draws one forward.

Gentle, indeed, is the one of Supreme Virtue,
Setting out from Vulture Peak,
Preaching in the Western Lands
And expounding his doctrine in China.
Emperor Xiaowen extended him respect
And graciously heaped donations (upon him).
Planned and built for him a retreat
(So high) it emerged above clouds and mist.

At Central Mountainþs northern base
And the western foot of Songþs heights,
Flanked by a jake lake,
At a cavern's opening is Baigu,
Flowing his way and that, mountain torrents:
Stretched side by side, water and trees.
Densely rises the sandalwood,
Planned and built by whose hand?

Our Master labroured painstakingly.
Purifying the sanctified ground.
He braced himself to build the chamber of images
And concentrated all his effort on constructing the sutra hall.
The Vajradharu (Realm of Wisdom) he deliniated with a plumbline
And in his fragrant pepper plaster mixed holy water.
The flower offerings had teir proper position
And the hassocks were put into place.

Apprehending the immaterial and responding to truth,
Englihtened gentelmen (monks) who understood the silent teaching
Came bearing their begging bowls to gather here
And waving their staffs, made this their loding place
They translated the holy chants
And preached the abstruse doctrines.
An immortal musical stone gave a numinous response
And scared finches came down as a sign of blessing.

In the cycle of transformations,
Earth was succeeded by Wood
In the cycle of dynasties, succedding Zhou and Sui.
The fires that mark the end of an old era raged
the winds of Mara (the Evil One) blew in contention
The bodies of the law were all felled
And the unsettled (temporal) stae was likewise overthrown.
Some said that there would be a restoration
But how to save the lost land and scattered people?

(blank space) Shenyao (Tang Gaozu), responding to the turning point (of the elements),
Despersed disorder and restored uprightness.
Imperial, indeed, were (Taizong's) powers of perception.
Great and mighty his good fortune and blessing.
He it was who held in check the forces of evil
And rapidly restored (blank space) saints (by rule)
He favoured (the monastery) with a succession of (blank space)
Acts of Grace And repeatedly gave orders conferring gifts.

(black space) Gaozong froom time to time visited Yu (Henan)
and the Former Empress made progresses (here).
Frequently they turrned their imperial carriages
And repeatedly came towards the rainbow banners (of this monastery).
On this cliff-face they inscribed their jade letters
And shook this ground witth the music of their brass.
Auspicious signs constantly appeared,
Even material things manifested such portents.

(black space) Our present emperor dragonlike arose
To uphold law and order.
In admiration for this higher realm
Just a he took up his sacred pen.
The clouds shook the great peak of the enclosing range
And the phoenix returned to Lesser Chamber.
Upon the grass hung immortal dew
And above the forest rose the Buddha sun.

They guard the Eightfold Noble Path,
And ever wait uopon Sakyamuni.
(Buddha) bhara was a Virtuous One come to earth
And Master Chou was a worthy associate.
He was a laterday Companion of the Way,
Yet greater at preaching the Revealing Cause.
With his skill in debate and high standard of conduct
None could replace him in cleansing wordly impurity.

How clear it is that the monastic community
In each generation has produced men of surpassing wisdom.
Today, you, my masters, inherit their rejoicing in themystic trace.
More flourishing than the wild ginger herb.
More pure than ice and snow.
From air you form up the fords and bridges of deliverance,
Never wanting in renacious loyalty to your high principles.

Above the River Ying, a numinoius peak,
Among the mountains, a palace of the Precious One (Buddha).
Finer than the rahmaloka (fantian heaven of form),
Standing alone, examplar to this, our land.
Though a city-full of mustard seed be used up.
And mulberry fields undergo transformations,
This pure stone will carry its inscription forever
And the sacred flower will constantly go through its cycle.

Erected on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of Kaiyuan 16 (24th August 728).

This relatively long inscription, as indicated by the words 'Composed and penned by the yinqing guanglu dafu, provisionally holding the office of President of the Board of Personnel, Upper Pillar of the State, Viscount opening up the fief of Zhengping County, Pei Cui' following the title, comes from the hand of Pei Cui, who held the important post of President of the Board of Personnel. The entire text, excluding the eleven characters Kaiyuan shiliunian qiyue shiwuri jian 'Erected on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of Kaiyuan 16' noted at the end of the text, is included in the section of Pei Cui's compositions in Quan Tang Wen (Complete Prose Works of the Tang Dynasty) 279, where it also bears the title Shaolinsi Bei (Shaolin Monastery Inscription). Biographies of Pei Cui may be found in Jiu Tang Shu (Old History of the Tang) 100 and xing Tang Shu (New History of the Tang) 130. From these it may be ascertained that he was a member of the eminent Pei Clan of Wenxi, that he held a series of high offices int he Kaiyuan period, that he was romoted to President of the Board of Personnel on the special recommendation of his close friend, Zhang Yue, was subsequently transfereed to the post of Adviser to the Crown Price (taizi binke) and passed away aged over seventy in Kaiyuan 24 (736).


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