‘Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so also this teaching and discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.’
The history of the Shaolin Temples with its fighting monks is a long and honored tradition. Through the ages, the Shaolin Temples (north and south) have been built, burned down, and rebuilt several times. In the 1,500 years the Temples have existed, they have continually been used as training grounds and holy places for the monks. Shaolin training is most famous for its deep knowledge and developments in Kung Fu.
Shaolin’s Fighting Monks have a reputation throughout China for being honorable, courageous, and greatly skilled. Shaolin’s Fighting Monks serve as role models for the spiritual warrior and spark great interest in martial arts today.
Shaolin Monks are regarded as the most loyal soldiers. Shaolin Kung Fu is much more than just a martial art; it is a spiritual, grounded in Buddhism. The path of a Shaolin Monk, if you choose to follow it, will require you to completely change your life. Shaolin Monks give up much, restrain themselves from typical pleasures that we take for granted, and have lives completely dedicated to their faith. Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the most respected and revered martial arts traditions in the world.
Shaolin Kung Fu practiced by monks from the Shaolin Monastery takes martial arts to a brand new level. Shaolin Warriors believe the strength comes only from the mind, there is almost no limit to what their bodies can do during training. They practice techniques centered around balance, strength, endurance, and self defense. They can endure incredible amounts of pain while training/fighting. The design and arrangements of their movements are based on ancient Chinese medicine and the movement of the human body.
Shaolin training techniques remain extremely grueling. 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), leading to their near-mythical reputation. Children are accepted into the program as young as the age of three, and their time at the monastery can last their entire life. A typical day begins at 5am and ends at 10pm, with simple vegetarian meals and extreme mental and physical challenges throughout the day. All of this is done in an age-old pursuit of mastery over both the material and immaterial worlds that each of us occupies.
The rigorous preparation of the mind forms the foundation from which all Shaolin techniques flow. Shaolin teachings are divided into two facets: Chan and Quan. Chan refers to 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 teaching of Buddhism which the students of Shaolin practice. When a student is accepted as a trainee by the Shaolin Monks they must first shave his or her head to honor the form of Buddha, symbolically releasing all worldly desires. The teachings of Chan Buddhism encourage students to turn their eye inward 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 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 in a state of meditation.
Another important aspect of Shaolin Kung Fu is a force that can only be activated through mental awareness. Chi (chee) 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 (chee gong). This practice also involves slow movements, but not as a Martial Arts technique. Instead, Qi Gong focuses on using Chi (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 durability exponentially, surviving incredibly powerful blows and continuing to fight virtually uninjured. This technique is epitomized by a training exercise that involves 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 a third 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 achieved 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 Monks’ 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 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. Known as “Tong Zi Gong,” are essentially a Chinese form of yoga. There are 9 poses which train stretching, 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. 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 Five Basic Shaolin Stances: Horse Stance, Bow Stance, Sliding Stance, Cat Stance, and Twisting Stance. From the Basic Stances, the Shaolin style was expanded over the years from 72 basic fighting movements to 170 movements. These movements were divided into five styles named for the animals that the movements resembled: Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Dragon, and Crane.
After one hundred days of training, the first skills of the Shaolin Monk trainees emerge. After three years, they achieve mastery over Shaolin Kung Fu. 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 the most proficient fighters. While 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.
The legacy of Shaolin is both simple and profound, there is more to the martial arts than fighting. Developing Chi through trained breathing and physical exercise helps develop a healthy body. Virtue is received, through the promotion of spiritual pursuits through meditation, philosophy, and the teaching of moral ethics. Together, the body and mind unite as one soul. By practicing and mastering traditional Kung Fu techniques and forms, individuals are able to receive direct transmissions through time from the original Fighting Monks of Shaolin. Few are lucky enough to have the opportunity to receive a legacy that has been handed down generation by generation, person by person.
Are you prepared to have your mind and body united?