A New Breed of “Monks”

Long story short, a long long time ago, like 495 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty when the Shaolin Temple was first built, there was only one kind of monk, the monk. These monks read scriptures, had prayers in the morning, and spent most of their time sitting down with a scroll in front of them (similar to the hard-working modern desktop cubicle fanatics). So as a result, they had similar problems to those who sit in front of their laptop all day; back pains, shoulder issues, flabby skin, weak physical health, and lethargic attitudes. A few yrs later, an Indian monk named Damo came to the temple and saw this, and he thought to himself “nah man, if y’all ain’t even physically fit, how can y’all carry out the road to enlightenment and spread the practices of Buddhism with passion and diligence.”  So he decided to teach them meditative physical exercises similar to yoga, which concentrates on breathing and increasing the internal movements within your body, this combined with the physical labors of farming and cleaning the temple helped the monk greatly. As the centuries went on, it slowly developed into two groups of monks who both studied Buddhism, but one spends more time dealing with the scholarly and the academic called the Wen Sen, and the other group spends more time keeping their bodies strong and fit to protect the safety of the temple from bandits, called the Wu Sen.

And those have been the two groups of monks ever since, until recently. Nowadays, there’s a new breed of monks in town called the performance monks or the Biao-yan Sen. These people are more actors and super-skilled martial artists than actual monks, most of them don’t even have deep connections with the Shaolin Temple.  But the deceptive part of this for tourists and non-insiders is that these performance monks  dresses the same and has the same bald head as all the other real monks, and when they partake in activities such as drinking “gatorade”, consuming large amounts of red protein,  going to KTVs and nightclubs, spending time with beautiful woman (materialistic activities that they have the right to partake in), it often sheds a bad light on the temple and the name of Shaolin. This is not to say that ALL the real monks don’t partake in these activities as well, some do, but at least they are very discrete and private about it and won’t do it within the vicinity of the respected temple. Most of these performance monks start out in small private martial arts schools all over the country or in Deng Feng, and after a few yrs of fundamentals, the super-skilled and athletically gifted ones with connection to people around/in the temple,  are brought to Shaolin to try-out for the performance team, if they make it, they will practice and eventually travel the world and perform with real martial monks and fellow secular but “I am really good at martial arts and acting, so I made the team” counterparts like themselves, but to the foreign eye they are all monks.

The reason for the creation of this new breed of “monks” is the exponentially expanding popularity of Shaolin kungfu that just took off the late 1980s and is still going strong today. Skilled martial monks are scarce in numbers to begin with, and as the demand for more performances, shows, and martial arts schools increase all around the world, so does the demand for more martial monks. But skilled martial monks, well-educated in the culture and history of Shaolin, aren’t made in a year or even years. So to supply the demand for all these newly needed bodies, the Shaolin temple used it’s allure of a “better life” with opportunities to go overseas and perform to attract the athletically skilled and mentally tough and  hardworking young men of rural China, who through martial arts are seeking not only a better life for themselves but also for their families back home. With the influx of the new performances monks, Shaolin has been able to spread its influence all over the world today from Europe to Australia, South America to Singapore, it is literally everywhere. Before this “Shaolin Fever”, neither kungfu nor Buddhism has attracted this much popularity in this many places around the world at this rate, it has truly helped to spread the Shaolin culture and sell the Shaolin Franchise as one of the most well-ran associations in the world, right up there with the NBA and the NFL (without the unions and the lockouts). And this is how we come to have a new breed of monks, and there is really nothing wrong with it, China has got to catch up and adjust to the world, and so does Shaolin. That is a fact. The End.

PS: Please note that what I write is purely my opinion and a projection of what I perceive to be the truth; a collection of fragmented personal observations, blurry interviews, and self-connected dots. So seriously, take this with a grain of salt, as you should with all things written by people with a mind of their own.

Movements can be Zen: Why Shaolin Monks Aren’t Fighters

Most people tend to assume that if one practices deadly martial arts movements day after day, one is then obligated to use those skill-sets once in a while simply for the sake of having them. But that is not the case with Shaolin monks, which is why they are usually absent on the scene of MMA, Muay-Thai, and Kick-boxing stages. Many young fighters come to train at Shaolin and then go back to fight in their respectively leagues, but they end up missing out on a major part of Shaolin’s culture.

The spiritual or zen culture of martial arts is unique to Shaolin,  created by turbulent history. Around 483 A.D, Dharma first came to Shaolin from India to spread the thinking of Buddhism (it is rumored he meditated in a cave up in the Song Mountains for 9 yrs, a steep climb that we do every morning for conditioning). Back then, the monks in Shaolin were all fragile and saggy from sitting around all day, and doing nothing but meditating and reading texture, kinda like the really spiritual version of Asian video-game fanatics today. Dharma saw this and was like WTF, how can you reach Enlighten when your body is so weak and you are bedridden every other wk. So he started teaching the monks there what would later become the father of all martial arts, 13 simple breathing techniques that he derived from Yoga movements in India, they stressed the combination of movements with breathing and help to improve circulation of blood and chi throughout the body. These movements not only help to improve the physical and spiritual well-being of the monks dramatically, but also introduced a new way to reach Enlightenment, through quiet personal meditation and the practice of certain breathing directed movements.

During the centuries to come, the Shaolin temple would suffer countless raids from nearby bandits. Fueled by survival instincts, these breathing movements meant to direct chi and improve circulation through the body became deadly attacks meant to fend out enemies. Over time, more forms would be created based on the blueprint of its forefathers, some from observing the ideologies behind different animals’ way of attacking its prey, some from simple ingenuity of the monks, but their purpose remained the same. Shaolin monks still practiced martial arts in order to reach a personal peace that allows the mind to clear out all distractions, a prerequisite on the route to Enlightenment. But as the world is changing, and as Western ideologies of  capitalism and democracy becomes the norm, more and more Shaolin monks are learning to adapt to reality as they began to teach for money, practice for performances that have nothing to do with Zen or Buddhism, and slowly shying away from the spiritual wealth of martial arts and leaning on the monetary benefits of having those “certain sets of skills”.

Training Updates:

I recently found a home in my uncle’s gymnastic gym, as a prefix to my training at the Shaolin Temple. Basically to learn some simple flips and be comfortable with them in a place with mats, before heading over to a place where if I fell, I will have only the solid ground to catch me.

After 4 days of training, I am really like it. Other than eating LOTS of shit cause I tend to over flip (sometimes 1.5-2 revolution in the air), I am progressing well for only having a few days. I got more comfortable with my back-flip and aerial that I can perform it with no mats, without too much fear, cause there is always some fear. My front-flip is still very much in the D-League stage, I have yet to figure out how much strength equals how many revolutions, sometimes I can go too hard and do a double front-flip only to suck on the landing, while other times I simply jump forward and ignore the jump up motion completely.

But after eating lots of shit, I have learned quite a few things. The most important ones being that I have to multi-task with my body parts (to perform several actions with different parts of my body all at the same time), this is really hard for me because I am more of a step by step, “set this goal, go get the goal”, kinda guy and not the “hey, let’s do 5 things all at once”. And also how to draw on my chi or air from my body, I have learned that if I draw from my stomach and pull my chi up, I can jump almost my own body height in vertical length, without using half the strength I would need if I was just using brute power to lift off.

I am pretty sad that I only have 3 more days of practice at the gym here, everyone is so nice to me, teaching me all these things while watching me eat shit and telling me to keep getting up and trying after falling. But hey I am meeting with my homie Hong Chen tomorrow, before he brings his talents back to Socal, pretty excited to finally speak English again….even though I have a feeling I am going to end up just practicing my Cantonese with him.