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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Academically rigourous and thoroughly readable, April 30, 2008
By 
Dr. E. M. Cohen (Manchester, Lancashire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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I came to this work as both an academic and a practitioner of a Shaolin style of pushing hands. The evolution of the Shaolin arts from staff fighting to unarmed styles is explored in great detail from a variety of sources (many of which are primary and have been translated here for the first time).

This is one of the first books I've read that makes a scholarly attempt at explaining how the Buddhist monks of Shaolin successfully negotiated the cognitive dissonance caused by commitment to Buddhist principles of non-violence on one hand and mastery of martial arts on the other.

The book also succeeds in recognising and clarifying the role of Daoist thought and cultivation practices (namely the Dao Yin) in the development of Shaolin Gung Fu.

Some of the conclusions (especially in relation to the unarmed styles) lend some support to Nathan Johnson's (2000) thesis 'Barefoot Zen'. After long and careful study of the forms of Shaolin Gung Fu and Karate Kata, Johnson contended that these arts were never intended for fighting (whereas Shahar would likely contend that fighting was not their sole purpose, p.180 and p.200).
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Slayer of martial arts myth, August 7, 2009
This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
Here are some of the more interesting points covered, including the slaying of commonly held martial arts myth:

1) Although he is not sure when the monks began to learn how to wield weapons, Shahar states they were practicing the use of military weapons (sword, spear, bow, etc.) as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The monks chosen to learn these skills protected the monastery from mountain bandits that regularly laid siege to the complex. However, these monks were not apart of the religiously devout vegetarian body that lived within the monastery proper. They lived in small clusters located outside of the monastery and regularly broke the Buddhist precepts against eating meat, drinking alcohol, and killing. They were allowed to do this because of their distance from the monastery and the protection they provided. The allowances for killing were also connected to their religious beliefs.

2) The martial monks worshiped a Buddhist guardian deity called "Vajrapani," one of the Buddha's body guards. Legends tell how he regularly killed demons and other evil creatures that threatened the Buddha or Buddhism in general. Hence, this was all the justification the military monks needed to kill. This deity was always portrayed in Indian art with a club, but the Chinese eventually changed it to a staff (contemporary stelae located on the Monastery grounds attests to this). Vajrapani figures in Shaolin legend as the progenitor of their legendary staff method. Hence, he was connected to Shaolin arts CENTURIES before Bodhidharma.

3) Chinese fiction had a great influence on Shaolin legends. For instance, the Monkey King from the tale Journey to the West influenced the aforementioned staff legend. The legend takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion of the Yuan Dynasty. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than Vajrapani in disguise. Shahar compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions

4) Empty-handed boxing did not develop at Shaolin until the late Ming Dynasty. Before then, they were only known for their staff and spear methods. Because the Ming Dynasty revered the "Three religions" (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) as one universal teaching, during this time, Shaolin also studied Taoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exorcises). These exercises were eventually combined with fist arts (in and outside the monastery) to create a new form of cultivation consisting of gymnastics, religious rituals, and combative techniques.

5) Bodhidharma was not connected with Shaolin fighting arts until the 17th century. Prior to this, he was only considered the progenitor of Chan Buddhism. The first published source that mentions Bodhidharma in connection with Shaolin arts is the Sinew Changing Classic, which was written by a Taoist in 1624. This is the source for all current legends that state he taught monks exercises to strengthen their bodies. However, as originally conceived, these exercises ultimately ended in immortality. Practitioners of the 17th century "internal school," which predates the creation of Taiji, and eventually died out, combined the Wu Dang priest Zhang Sanfeng with a Taoist God (The Dark Warrior) to create a Taoist equivalent of Bodhidharma. Hence, Bodhi became the legendary progenitor of the "External" or "Northern school" and Zhang the "internal" or "Southern school."

6) Shaolin's fame from the Tang till today was derived solely from their expertise in choosing the correct side to fight for in struggles between warring factions. For instance, Shaolin fought for the New Tang emperor, guaranteeing their future for centuries. Had they fought for the other side, they would have been exterminated. During the Tang, Buddhism was targeted because of it's foreign origins. Monks were sent home to lay life (or killed) and their monasteries where destroyed. But Shaolin was allowed to stay open ONLY because of its help to the Tang founder. Shahar gives an example of the reverse (a bad political choice). The Shaolin Temple was burnt in 1928 because they chose a side and lost.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The foremost scholar on Shaolin today..., March 4, 2008
By 
Eightfish (New York, NY) - See all my reviews
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Meir is the foremost expert outside of China (and possibly even within China) on the history of the Shaolin Temple. An academic book by an amazing scholar, and a must read for anyone serious about learning the in-depth history of Shaolin, and martial arts, as he traces the history back 1500+ years. Scholarly, well written, peer reviewed, with loads of annotations...

A great book if you're seeking insight of the origins of Kung Fu If you are not seriously interested in martial arts, and their Shaolin China roots, this book is probably not for you.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A history like we've never seen, June 14, 2011
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
THE SHAO LIN MONASTERY by Meir Shahar (University of Hawaii Press, 2008) is both a Buddhist's and martial artist's dream book - but at the same time it is sadly deficient for those with a more scholarly/historical taste. Shahar, an interested "Shao Lin student" as I call him, is professor of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University. As such, I expected a truly well-rounded, highly referenced text on the history of the Shao Lin Order and Monastery.

In a way, this text - at a mere 202 pages of writing though it is in excess of 270 pages - is the definitive Shao Lin history, or shall I say 'historiography'. The remaining 68 or so pages consist of notes, citations, bibliography and index, inevitable in a scholarly work but here, it just seems superfluous.

Though subtitled HISTORY, RELIGION, AND THE CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS, that subtitle is actually the title of the concluding essay - this book is a string of overly long essays dealing only marginally with the history of the Shao Lin Buddhist Order. It is a bit fuller with Shao Lin Temple/Monastery history, but only just. In his defense, Shahar has written what I think is the most comprehensive book that can be written on the subject.

Yet it is still irksome, amateurish in a way. Examples: Shahar insists on doing what many lazy scholars are doing today, and that is writing in "Pinyin" when in fact it is gibberish without the tonal diacritical marks or at least a number to indicate tone. Real Pinyin has the diacritical marks or at worst numbers after each word to indicate tone. Here as in far too many Chinese-themed works, Shahar contents himself with merely spelling out the words American style.

Well, I for one am NOT content with that kind of laziness. Shahar is also obsessed in an unhealthy way with whether or not Buddhist clerics eat meat. In fact many do eat it, get over it! Shahar devotes what seems like an entire chapter to the subject and he is clearly not friendly toward the meat-eating priest. He'd be sadly disappointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I suspect.

What is worse, Shahar seems obsessed with the modern Shao Lin pop-culture martial arts scene, though he wisely sidesteps it after one too many references to the film SHAO LIN TEMPLE. On the bright side, he relies on Gene Ching (author of SHAOLIN TRIPS, vid. my review) as a source for Shao Lin martial history and certain other salient facts. Indeed, Shahar has presented us with a book that Ching's later book companions and complements very well.

Shahar approaches the subject in three main sections: origins of Shao Lin and its martial heritage from 500 A.D. to 900 A.D. (he addresses the Dynasties in brief but beautiful detail). The next section is the same, covering 900 A.D. to 1600 A.D. The final section 'covers' 1600 A.D. to 1900 A.D. with an early apology for not writing a more recent history - something Shahar clearly left open to Gene Ching.

This work is well-illustrated and detailed after a fashion, and even if it does contain some rather silly contradictions due to laziness, it is a must-have for anybody. Though I carp about the substandard Pinyin, the laziness and the last section that sounds like the conclusion of a cheap kung fu magazine article, I am also thrilled to be able to own this compendium of Shao Lin history as best we have it. It was a real thrill to read it in general, and I was deeply moved by the extensive attention Shahar paid to the tradition of the Buddhist staff, the way he blends it in with its preeminence as the Shao Lin signature weapon. (I own about a dozen staves and I use them for walking when I can walk.)

Get this, and if it's Shao Lin you really love, do not neglect to get Gene Ching's SHAOLIN TRIPS as a companion book. It is heavy reading mainly because these writers needed some pruning-editing ... but you'll love every second of it anyway.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent historical resource, September 25, 2009
By 
Jeffrey K. Mann (Selinsgrove, PA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
Unfortunately, quality academic work on subjects related to martial arts is in very short supply. With the appearance of Shahar's book, however, we have a first-rate addition to current scholarship. It is most welcome.

Having earned his doctorate at Harvard, Shahar currently teaches at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The Shaolin Monastery is his third book related to the intersection of Chinese history and religion, following Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Culture (1998) and his work as co-editor of Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (1996). In this most recent work, Shahar traces the history of the famous Shaolin Temple from the 6th century to the present day. With a remarkable grasp of the historical materials, he presents the early development and mythology surrounding the monastery's military exploits during the Tang Dynasty, its evolution during the Ming, disintegration through the Qing, and recent revival in the last fifty years. Along the way, historical misperceptions and legends are dealt with critically. In doing so, however, Shahar avoids the tendency of too many historians to giddily deconstruct popular beliefs with an iconoclasm that betrays a snooty elitism on the part of the researcher. Shahar prefers to uncover, explain, and clarify, not gleefully tear down.

This book should put an end to those arguing that Bodhidharma did indeed introduce physical exercise of any sort to Shaolin. As Shahar points out, the Shaolin monks did not even sell that story until the mid-Qing dynasty (c. 18th century). Likewise, he demonstrates that empty-handed fightings styles, both historical and contemporary, that claim to have originated at Shaolin are equally dubious. Anyone today claiming to practice martial arts with their roots in Shaolin - aside from modern wushu - will be hard pressed to do so after reading this book.

Shahar's historical research is, as mentioned above, first rate. However, readers who are looking for information on the nuts and bolts of Chinese martial arts will be sorely disappointed. There is almost no discussion of technique or principles of combat, leaving the reader wondering at times if Shahar has ever spent time training in martial arts himself. When Shahar quotes Cao Huandou, who criticizes those who "strain their muscles and expose their bones, waste their energy and use force," Shahar concludes, "Evidently, some artists considered the martial aspect of their technique secondary to the spiritual one." (171) Here, Shahar seems to equate straining with an emphasis on martial practice, as distinct from a more relaxed spiritual pursuit. This glaring ignorance of Chinese martial arts demonstrates Shahar's lack of understanding of the practice of these arts.

Additionally, while Shahar addresses issues that relate to the religious tension that exists when Buddhist monks train for and engage in violence, he provides no new insights or penetrating analysis. He has a clear grasp of the fundamentals of Buddhism and Taoism, but this is not the work of a scholar of religion. His surprise at a story of Buddhist monks being physically aggressive with each other was actually a surprise to me. He writes, "The violence and abuse [taking place between monks] recorded by Zhang Zhuo seem hardly fit for a Buddhist temple." (37) It would appear that Shahar has spent very little time reading of Chinese and Japanese Buddhists in the Ch'an/Zen tradition, for whom physical acts of striking, slapping, kicking, and other physical abuse is hardly out of the ordinary.

The comments above, however, should not be read as criticism. Shahar is an historian writing a history of the Shaolin Temple. In that task he has done an exemplary job. A book cannot be all things to all people, so potential readers should know what a book is, and what it is not. In the task he set out to accomplish, Shahar should be commended.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable, definative, fascinating, March 11, 2008
By 
David Chute (Los Angeles, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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A much more readable book than the previous review suggests, desoite its thoroughness, and a welcome antedote to the self-serving mythology that passes for history in most book about Shaolin. Meir's discussion of the roots of some of the most familiar Shaolin-based styles of will be especially absorbing for fans of kung fu movies.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book., July 2, 2014
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
Very good book, really teaches all about where the Shaolin martial arts originated from. It is a must have for true martial artist enthusiast.
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4.0 out of 5 stars kung fu, September 11, 2013
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
I feel as though the author doesn't have a command of conversational English even though he knows many English words. At times it seems pretentious in its language. Its meaning is clear. The information is well organized. The stories are interesting and provide a different look at Buddhism, Chinese, and Shaolin/WuShu for the casual reader.
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5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT BOOK, March 5, 2013
By 
richard cruz (OCEANSIDE, CALIFORNIA, US) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
VERY GOOD BOOK. VERY INDEPT INFORMATION ON THE HISTORY OF CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS. I WOULD RECOMMEND THIS BOOK TO THE SERIOUS STUDENT.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!, October 2, 2012
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This review is from: The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Paperback)
A very serious aproach to the study of the history of martial arts. All sources are cited and discused something that really helps to distinguish myth from reality.
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