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Fact vs. Fiction: Truths from Inside the Shaolin Temple

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Shaolin Temple.

Two words with a lot of weight. The phrase immediately conjures up images of bald monks in orange robes, superhuman martial arts, and Buddhist isolation. That’s pretty unique, as far as multi-million dollar per year enterprises go.

The Shaolin Temple has stood in Henan province since the 5th century. It’s the founding site of Chan Buddhism, which would later spread to Japan where it was called Zen. The story of how kung fu was introduced to the temple varies depending on who you ask. The most popular legend goes that it was the Indian monk Bodhidharma who brought kung fu to Shaolin as he traveled across China to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Bodhidharma, legendary founder of Shaolin kung fu

When he arrived at the Shaolin Temple, he found the monks fragile and weak from extensive hours of meditation. Bodhidharma retreated to a cave in a nearby mountain, where he spent nine years meditating, facing the cave wall. When he emerged, he’d written the Muscle Tendon Change Classic, a text for physical conditioning which laid the foundation for Shaolin kung fu (like we said, “legend goes”).

Fast forward to today, and the Shaolin Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lifeblood of tourism in Henan province. It draws tens of millions of dollars each year in ticket sales alone, and operates over 40 overseas companies. The current abbot Shi Yongxin has notoriously come under fire for the temple’s commercial turn, having been dubbed “the CEO monk” by international media; and the wheels of capitalism show no sign of slowing down.

I started studying Shaolin kung fu in middle school. In those years, the image of the Shaolin Temple and its monks represented my gold standard. When I was training hard, the monks were training harder. If faced with a dilemma of morality or discipline, I’d ask myself what would a Shaolin monk do?

Adolescent kung fu geek to fully grown kung fu geek

A decade later at 24, I was invited by the government of Henan to host a short travel video on the temple, and to learn kung fu from the monks there. As a kid I’d consumed docu-shorts of people training at the Shaolin Temple the way other kids consumed SpongeBob — it was a dream come true.

But in ten years my worldview had grown, and I no longer viewed the temple with the same blissful naïvety as when I was a young teen. I knew the history and the breadth of culture within Shaolin’s kung fu tradition. I also knew that this was a business, and that China’s government had their hands in the Shaolin franchise cookie jar. Between these two truths, there was a mixed reality that I was eager to see for myself.

So on that note, here are some myths and realities of the Shaolin Temple.

Foreigners who train at the Shaolin Temple are hardcore

Author Matthew Polly training at the Shaolin Temple in the early ’90s

After kung fu movies like Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made the site famous abroad, wide-eyed foreigners like myself all made it their mission to train there (you’ll notice in my bio down below, that’s the whole reason I started learning Chinese in the first place).

Are the few foreigners who make it there truly the cream of the crop? Are they the most fastidious students of the temple’s art and philosophy, capable of enduring its infamously rigorous training regimen?

No. Definitely not.

Foreign “study abroad” students at the Shaolin Temple generally do not go through the severe training that the temple’s resident monks put up with. Shi Yanbo, one of the monks who oversaw my training, describes life at the temple as grueling: waking up at 4:30 each morning, going straight into the study of new material, then rigid physical conditioning. All of that happens before breakfast, after which the training resumes.

“A lot of foreigners come to the Shaolin Temple,” says Shi Yanbo. “From Africa, Europe, the United States — everywhere. They come from around the world each year to train for a month or two. But foreigners’ training definitely isn’t the same as ours. Our training commitment is much greater. Foreign students come out in the afternoon, just doing some simple training. If they did it like us, they’d be getting up at 4:30 each day.”

In contrast, adventure tourists who come to the Shaolin Temple to train generally practice in a decorative ceremonial training hall, where they receive a few hours of lessons each day on a conveyor belt of kung fu fulfilment. I put years of effort into learning Shaolin kung fu and understanding its culture, but no, I was definitely not waking up at 4:30 AM in the barracks each morning for a jog up the mountain.

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There have been a handful of foreigners who’ve trained seriously and longterm as disciples of the temple. But even more interesting, every one of them seems to be “the first foreigner to train at the Shaolin Temple”.

Well, who was it? Was it Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin? An excellent book, which follows Polly after “the Shaolin Temple’s abbot Shi Yongxin accepted him as his first foreign student“, back in the ’90s? Was it Matthew Ahmet, from Middlesex in the UK, who trained at the temple and became “the only non-Chinese disciple of the Shaolin Temple” to perform around the world with the monks’ touring kung fu show? Was it a 14-year-old German student, who traveled to Shaolin and “became the first foreign disciple in 1989”? Or was it Harsh Verma, the Indian football fan who moved to the Shaolin Temple after a knee injury in 2016, and has called himself “the first non-Chinese Shaolin Temple warrior monk” as recently as this year?

Every foreigner who’s spent significant time at the temple has some spin to paint themselves as the mythic “first foreigner”. Everyone wants that mystique, and because most people don’t really know much about the temple, it’s easy to take advantage of the awareness gap and ride that wave to international stardom. And for anybody who’s trained at the temple for a less-than-extended time — that’s just a kung fu vacation. They’re doing the white people, kung fu ascetic version of Eat, Pray, Love. Just like me.

Shaolin monks practice lives of solitude and hermetic minimalism

Photo: Tomasz Gudzowaty

You might picture the living conditions of Shaolin monks as somewhat third world. Students waking up in cots, without electricity, donning their single orange training robe, and cartwheeling to the river to collect water for their rice gruel breakfast.

Instead, consider the following scene. I’m walking down a dirt road with Gao Weizhen, my teacher. He’s wearing the temple’s sleeveless summer training uniform, and I’m wearing imitation Shaolin monk robes our producers ordered on Taobao. Gao is walking ahead, video chatting on his Oppo phone. He turns around and says to me — “can you read Chinese?”

He hands me the phone, at which point I realize he’s livestreaming. Gao and I walk the rest of the way, livestreaming together, answering questions from his audience of 1.2 million followers.

The Shaolin monks have a rather large audience on livestreaming app Kuaishou, popular in China’s more rural provinces

“Sure we livestream,” says Shi Yanbo. “When we’re not training kung fu, we all like to hop on a livestream in our downtime. There are a lot of benefits for the temple — with our stream, more people can see into our lives as monks, and learn about traditional Shaolin culture. If you get on Kuaishou and search for Shaolin Temple, you’ll find a lot of us monks, who all livestream when we’re not busy.”

So it seems that the monks don’t forego all modern comforts. That being said, there’s some truth to the harsh living conditions of Shaolin. Shaolin monks live without central heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, adequate plumbing, or spacious shopping malls with international outlets. But that’s not Shaolin minimalism — it’s the reality for people living in rural Henan, one of China’s less affluent provinces, which hasn’t gone through the same huge leaps in infrastructure as Shanghai or Beijing.

Shaolin monks practice kung fu and Buddhism

Shaolin monks. They do kung fu, and they practice Buddhism. Right?

Well, yes, but it’s not that simple. There are two kinds of monks at the temple: warrior monks, and scholar monks. Shi Yanbo, a warrior monk, has huge respect for the scholar monks.

“Warrior monks and scholar monks aren’t the same. Warrior monks practice kung fu every day — their focus is on physical training. Scholar monks, they spend their time reciting sutras, sitting, and meditating. Meditating on what? On achieving enlightenment. That is the purpose of Chan Buddhism. Warrior monks simply train kung fu, striving to perfect their skills.”

By way of living in the unique, spiritually-oriented universe of the Shaolin Temple, both warrior and scholar monks are sure to receive training in Buddhism. But when it comes to the nuances, principles, and practice of Buddhist philosophy, that’s the domain of scholar monks.

Filming a segment inside the closed off grounds of the temple proper, our producers asked me to pose with a monk. “Do a kung fu pose,” they told him. His confused response was, “but I don’t know any kung fu.” That’s a scholar monk, for you.

Shaolin monks possess superhuman abilities

Alright, well this one is just true. Shaolin monks are wild.

At the Shaolin Temple, I saw more than my fair share of superhuman abilities. And we’re not just talking about backflips — six year-old monks can do backflips, and they do, all over the temple grounds, all the time.

I watched one monk throw a sewing needle through a pane of glass. I handled the glass beforehand to make sure it was real (“checks out — this is glass”). One monk held the glass with an inflated balloon behind it, while another monk stood several feet away with the needle, took a few concentrated breaths, and threw it. It bounced off the glass and fell to the ground. He picked it up and went in for take two. Several even slower, even more concentrated breaths later, he threw the needle again. This time, it pierced the glass, lodging itself inside like an arrow into a bullseye, and popping the balloon on the other end.

I don’t care what anyone tells me — those are some superhuman abilities right there.

The Shaolin Temple has its share of myths and legends. But to be fair, it also holds onto a significant amount of kung fu tradition (really, a massive amount, considering we’re talking about a 1,500-year-old temple now worth billions in tourism revenue).

The only constant in this world is change. And the monks exemplify that more than anyone. They’re still playing the same, centuries-old game, albeit on an evolving playing field with an ever-shifting set of goal posts. Today, there are no bandit warlords to defeat. But there are livestream followers to gain, and a new generation of young kung fu fans to swoon, all of whom are susceptible to the fantasy-laden mystique of the Shaolin Temple. And it’s a mutual gain, because Shaolin might be just the chunk of enlightenment they need.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.