Faith and kung fu are a good mix for Shaolin monks

By Pushpa Adhikari, Asia Times, 22 June 1999

DENGFENG, HENAN, China—Shaolin monks gained worldwide attention in the 1980s when a Hong Kong movie based on one of their main preoccupations became a blockbuster hit. But the monks of the Shaolin temple here in Dengfeng county, in the central province of Henan, have a history that goes back more than a thousand years. And while they may not leap as high in the air as kung fu film stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, martial arts is something that has long been a part of their centuries-old tradition.

The Shaolin monks are quick to point out that kung fu is not their only activity. Like other Buddhist monks, they chant scriptures, sit in meditation and perform Buddhist services for the faithful. They are also careful to explain that while martial arts may seem to go against the peaceful teachings of Buddha, there is really no conflict in mastering kung fu and following dictates of their faith.

For instance, kung fu requires discipline and concentration, both of which Buddhism considers virtues. In addition, the Shaolin monks' mastery of martial arts proved crucial in the protection of temples and defense of the country during several periods of China's ancient history. Indeed, the Shaolin monks once saved the life of Tang emperor Li Shimin and participated in the war against Japanese pirates in southeast China during the Ming Dynasty.

What distinguishes Shaolin kung fu from other schools of martial arts is that its movements are based in folklore and on the movements of animals found in the woods and mountains surrounding the monastery in Henan. Through time, Shaolin monks have developed several kinds of what they call Xiangxing Boxing, such as that of the Eagle, Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Crane, Monkey and Dragon. According to Abbot Shi Yongxin, these boxing techniques show the oneness of man with nature.

People who have been lucky enough to watch the monks during their rare martial arts exhibitions say that they have heads of iron and brows of brass because they are able to use these body parts not only to deflect blows but also as weapons against their opponents.

And while the Shaolin monks have yet to demonstrate that they can fly in the air like film star Chan and his ilk, many believe they would not have any problem doing it. As one proud Henan resident explained, The Shaolin monks who have gained high attainment can fly and do everything that is beyond the imagination of common people.

The monks themselves do not want to say much, but what is certain is that it takes several years before a disciple at the monastery is considered a master of one of the temple's boxing techniques. Xiao Wang, for instance, has been hard at work learning Drunken Boxing for the last three years. But the 12-year-old says he has to learn some more before his mentor pronounces him a master of the technique that masks powerful strikes with seemingly unsteady movements.

Xiao still needs five more years of martial arts experience before a martial arts monk master will take him in to learn Hard Qigong, a high-level Shaolin kung fu technique. It is said that once one learns Hard Qigong, he will be strong enough to withstand being struck with sticks, knives, spears and swords.

Martial arts practitioners say their craft is not only about strength but also about achieving a state of mind in which one is in harmony with the universe and where nothing is impossible. In this light it is easy to see why the Shaolin monks insist that kung fu and Buddhism are interwoven.

The martial arts skills of the Shaolin monks have been no secret to many Chinese, especially Henan residents. But following the release of the movie Shaolin Temple a decade or so ago, the monastery at Songshan Mountain has become a popular pilgrimage site for other Buddhists from all over the world.

The Shaolin Monastery is listed by the State Council as one of China's key national cultural relics. Sprawled over 14 hectares, the compound has some seven rows of palaces and halls, and features a large number of steles and pagodas. But there is no mistaking that this is a religious place, imbued with a sense of serenity.

The monastery was first built by Emperor Zinowen of the Wei Dynasty in 495 A.D., for a monk named Batuo who had come from India. In September 1995, the Shaolin monastery, which belongs to the Chan Buddhist sect, held a grand ceremony marking the 1,500th anniversary of its founding.

There is no doubt that the monastery will be celebrating more anniversaries in the years to come, if only because it keeps on attracting youngsters like Xiao Wang, who says he wants not only to master Shaolin kung fu but also to become a monk of at the monastery someday. Asked if he would consider using his skills in movies instead, the shy Xiao said simply: The master would scold me.