The Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng county, China, is a modern day legend. Dating back nearly 1500 years, the school has a history so rich that its name has become common in cultural lexicons the world over. Its members — the monks that practice there — have thusly come to find their likenesses embedded in the various legends, historical accounts, films, and even graphic novels and video games people enjoy everywhere. Yet it is far from outdated. The school still accepts thousands of new students each year, and has evolved into a contemporary, world-renown academy for martial arts.
However, its age-old training techniques remain irrefutably gruelling. If there were ever an “Elightenment Boot Camp”, the Shaolin Monastery would be it. Behind each Shaolin Monk lies a history of intense discipline known for pushing both physics and human biology to extremes (and in certain cases, seemingly defying them), lending to their near-mythical reputation. Children are accepted as young as the age of three, and their turn at the monastery can last a lifetime. A typical day begins at 5am and doesn’t end until 10pm, with the simplest of meals and excessive mental and physical refinement filling the spaces between. All of this is done in an age-old pursuit of mastery over both the material and immaterial worlds that each of us individually occupies. Here follows a break-down of the specific processes involved…
The training one must undergo in order to become a true practitioner of Shaolin Martial Arts goes much deeper than physical training alone, as it is the rigorous preparation of the mind that forms the foundation from which all Shaolin techniques flow. Shaolin teachings are divided into two facets– Chan and Quan. Chan refers to the Buddhist spiritual awareness, and mastery over perceptions of the mind. Quan refers to the physical side of the training, but Quan itself is rooted in Chan, as one cannot practice Shaolin Kung Fu without first understanding the Buddhist teachings of meditation. Indeed, one famous Shaolin monk was quoted as saying, “Shaolin is Chan.”
For Shaolin Monks, Buddhist teachings are more than just a means to improve fighting techniques. It is their religion. Chan Buddhism is the specific sect or teaching of Buddhism which students of Shaolin practice adhere to, and when a student is accepted as a trainee by the Shaolin Monks, they must first shave their head. This is to honor the form of Buddha, and it also symbolizes the release of all worldly desires. These teachings of Chan Buddhism encourage students to turn their eye inwards, and become self-aware. This self-awareness is incredibly useful when it comes to Kung Fu. Once a student begins to become more aware of their breathing patterns, they can begin to control them and use them to lend immense power to their physical movements. In addition, ancient Buddhist teachings that date back to the construction of the temple explain how to isolate and control muscle and ligament groups through meditation. It is because of these intense periods of focus that students are then able to increase control over their bodies and increase flexibility and power. Shaolin Monks spend hours each day seated in a state of meditation.
Another extremely important aspect of Shaolin Kung Fu is a force that can only be activated through mental awareness. This force, known as Chi by Shaolin Monks, is the true source of a Martial Artist’s strength. The harnessing of one’s Chi is achieved through meditation, but can be activated at will by accomplished Shaolin Monks during combat. This requires incredible focus, and it is this skill that enables Shaolin Kung Fu masters to achieve what outsiders may view as physically impossible. Chi is considered a type of “active” meditation, where control and awareness are achieved without the process of seated meditation, a concept similar to Yoga. Tai Chi is an exercise that focuses entirely on this concept, and it is practiced regularly by Shaolin Monks. Tai Chi is a Martial Arts technique that involves slow, purposeful movements designed to strengthen Chi.
A similar type of exercise also practiced by Shaolin Monks is Qi Gong. This practice also involves slow movements, but not as a Martial Arts technique. Instead, Qi Gong focuses on using Chi, also known as Qi, to strengthen and heal the body, and its health benefits are extremely well documented. It also has direct applications to Shaolin Kung Fu. Using a technique known as “Hard” or “Hard Style” Qi Gong, Shaolin Monks are able to use lower-abdominal breathing methods to turn their bodies into living shields. This increases their toughness exponentially, surviving incredibly powerful blows and continuing to fight virtually uninjured. This technique is epitomized by a training exercise that involves one several monks lying on top of each other. One monk lies on top of several knives, another lies on top with a layer of nails separating them, and an additional monk lies on top of them both. A concrete block is then placed on top of the third monk, which is then broken with a sledgehammer. All the three monks must employ the use of “Hard Style” Qi Gong to avoid injury.
Shaolin Monks believe that once they have trained their minds to achieve the level of focus necessary to harness their Chi, their physical movements are limited only by their imaginations. They are capable of extraordinary feats when it comes to their Kung Fu skills. The course of a Shaolin Monk’s physical training will carry them from straightforward tasks, in the beginning, into ever-increasingly complexity, cresting with seemingly impossible trials of physical strength, agility and flexibility. A Shaolin Monk is not allowed to progress to the next level of his training until he has mastered what he has already been taught.
The initial training techniques a Shaolin Monk learns are known as the “Childish Exercises.” These techniques involve stretching the body to achieve incredible flexibility, in a variety of poses. These exercises, known as “Tong Zi Gong,” are essentially a Chinese form of yoga. There are 9 poses which train stretching and flexibility, and 9 poses which focus on balance. The reason these techniques are called “Childish Exercises” is because once a Shaolin Monk masters them, he is said to reclaim the purity and youthfulness of a child’s body. Because Shaolin Kung Fu demands extreme flexibility in order to carry out most of its movements, it is necessary to train using Childish Exercises before attempting any Martial Arts techniques.
The next stages of a Shaolin Monk’s training are the Kung Fu techniques. The foundation from which all Shaolin Kung Fu movements flow are rooted in the 5 basic Shaolin Stances, as follows:
his stance is achieved by standing with the feet wide apart, bending at the knees while keeping the back straight, and raising the arms outward or to the side. This can also be developed by standing on stumps elevated from the ground, which puts more of an emphasis on balance. Horse stance, when practiced over time, greatly increases strength and stability.
Bow stance is similar to Horse Stance, although it focuses on directing energy to one side rather than balance on both feet. Bow stance is achieved by starting in Horse Stance and rotating one foot until it is pointed outwards, then leaning in that direction while rotating the other foot outwards.
This stance focuses on lowering the centre of gravity to the ground. Starting from Horse stance again, Sliding Stance involves lowering the body down over one foot, while extending the other leg straight outwards.
This stance involves putting both feet together, and bending one’s knees. The important part of this stance is to put weight on only one foot while maintaining a strong posture. This is one of the most iconic Shaolin poses, and also one of the most difficult.
Twisting stance is achieved by starting with the feet together. The right foot steps back about a foot with the heel raised, while the body lowers and the torso twists to the left. The right foot should be bent and almost touching the ground, while strongly connected to the left foot.
The Seventy-Two Secret Arts of Shaolin
The seventy-two secret arts of Shaolin are the mastery of Chi put into action. Together when viewed as a whole, they form a guide for using Chi to unlock latent powers hidden within the human body. Therefore, it is extremely important that a Shaolin Monk masters the Buddhist teachings of meditation, focus and self-awareness before attempting any of the seventy-two secret arts. These secrets not only form the basis for Shaolin Kung Fu, but have also had a massive influence on various forms of Kung Fu which have branched off from Shaolin. The word “secret”, however, is a misleading part of the teachings’ name, as all 72 arts of Shaolin have been published and can be found in the book entitled Authentic Shaolin Heritage: Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin by Jin Jing Zhong.
Shaolin Monks consume a strictly vegetarian diet with some unique attributes. This diet is commonly referred to as “The Shaolin Temple Diet.” It is a science of good health, preventing a wide range of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer, but Shaolin Monks also adhere to it because of their Buddhist belief systems.
A Shaolin breakfast is usually something as simple as good old-fashioned beans. This is followed by vegetables for lunch, typically eaten raw. Spices are a no no for the Monks, because they believe any kind of flavor or spiciness incites emotion. Finally, at dinner, they mix things up with noodles and, wait for it… bread. Of course, both these exciting ingredients also have to be whole wheat and gluten free.
After one hundred days of training, the first skills amongst Shaolin Monk trainees emerge. After three years, they achieve mastery over Shaolin Kung Fu. But it is only after fifteen years that Shaolin Monks begin to exhibit truly extraordinary skills. Some of the legends accompanying the Shaolin Monk’s abilities may seem like science fiction, but keep in mind that these powers are rare even amongst their most proficient fighters. While these metaphysical abilities may seem unreal, it is important to note that Buddhism is mainly a nontheistic religion, and Buddhists are well known for their empirical outlook on life. They would be the last to knowingly spread an un-truth.
In the end, Shaolin Monks stand as living examples of the type of mastery — over mind, body and emotions — that humans are capable of. Their entire lives are spent in dedication to honing every aspect of their bodies and their consciousness into a state of being that mimics both the serene peace and fierce power of nature itself. They are the very embodiments of their philosophy, and, as the world continues its awakening process, with ancient eastern teachings such as this filtering through into the west, they may just be appearing on the horizon as harbingers of a future that finds the human race far more in touch with its own mind, body and soul.