“If you train just the exercises then it is Wushu, if you bring all of it to your life then it is KUNG FU.” – Words from a Shaolin Monk
I’ve been in martial arts for most of my life. Over ten years as a wrestler, a year in Tae Kwon Do, and many years in Wing Chun/Jeet Kune Do and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Yet, there was something different about the first day of training Kung Fu with the Shaolin monks. It wasn’t fear or anxiety. It was a heightened expectation, like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time. I mean, this was the source of all modern-day martial arts. This was the home of the mythical Shaolin warriors and their extreme physical talents that match a mystical spiritual connection. I was committed to experiencing all of it over the two weeks I was at the temple. Twice a day for 5 hours a day we were to train with the monks. After meeting the teacher I was ready.
The teacher took us out into the core of the temple past the tourists and led us to a door with a red sign in Chinese that must have said private or no entry as no tourists entered this part of the temple. The Shaolin temple was large covering over 57,000 square meters. The central complex consisted of a main temple area with 7 core halls that stretched across the 360 meters in length of the complex. This core area was enclosed and open to tourists throughout the day. On the outside of this ran a stone, paved road that separated two additional areas of the complex. Looking at the temple from the front gate, to the left side was known (at least to us foreigners) as the Warrior Monk side of the complex and to the right were the Traditional Monk quarters. I was told that the Warrior Monks did not have as many commitments as the traditional monks. Some lived outside the complex, were allowed to eat meat and get married if they chose. The Traditional Monks held deeper commitments and vows and stayed true to the life of a Buddhist monk.
Our teacher led us to the Warrior Monk side of the complex, and in crossing through the no entry door we made our way up an inclined stone road about 50 meters to the training center. We passed by the Warrior Monk living quarters, some additional training facilities and temple courtyards that were used to teach and train students both in the classroom and in Kung Fu. The main training hall was large, roughly 40 x 20 meters. In the center was a huge stage draped in a huge Shaolin backdrop used to train and practice performances.
At the far end were old, very used and dirty pads for gymnastics, and a huge wooden carved chair. To the left were more pads on the ground for practice, in the center of the room was a long red carpet used for traction and off to the right were 3 huge, gold statues watching over the training center. The center was simplistic, almost rustic. There seemed to be a purpose for this. This hall was about training – sweat, work and training. It didn’t matter if there was dust and dirty mats, this was a training center. This I learned quickly.
Mingling about outside the practice area were young students all dressed alike in their black pants and matching Shaolin t-shirts. Some older, teen students were preparing to train as well. They were not as matched, I guess the discipline had been engrained in them as children and they were now free to express themselves in their attire. The rest of the International crew were also prepping to train, stretching their legs on nearby rock ledges. There were no belts here for students. The Chinese students were simply grouped with their age and skill level and the international students were primarily broken into experience, 3 months and under in one group and 3 months and above in another where they received individual instruction with forms and training. In looking at the situation it looked like this was the beginning group of students for the monks to train. The advanced monks were only seen as teachers in this setting. There wasn’t much time for reflection as the teacher quickly said, “run.” I followed the path of the other students and we ran up and down the 100+ meter stone hill 5 times. It was around 95 degrees and as humid as I have ever felt which is saying something because I have lived in Florida before. Within minutes my shirt was soaked, and the sweat poured out of me. The Shaolin boot camp had begun.
Each day blended with the next, training from 8:30-11 each morning, we would walk the 1/2 mile or so back to the Kung Fu village and our living quarters to eat lunch and then we would relax and nap out of exhaustion from the training. Then, we would find a dry shirt and off to train again from 2:30-5, then dinner and rest.
The training had a structure. Most days were running to warm up, stretching, kicking and punching exercises and then practicing forms. We varied our warm up of running the stone hill with running laps around the temple which included a trek through the throngs of tourists inside the main area of the complex. This became a game for us as the Chinese tourists were fascinated with a group of foreigners and the thought of non-Chinese training Kung Fu with the monks. The selfie sticks were on high alert when we ran through the temple. Picture after picture was snapped. A contingent of our crew (all three of my roommates included) shaved their heads, not as a monk declaration but as a way to deal with the heat and the intensity of the training. It was here that the Viking Monk- Asbjorn became a cult like figure around the complex with his shaved head and full, red Viking beard. He was quite the sight in his green, five-finger shoes, his shaved head, red beard and Kung Fu pants. As we came into view with the tourists you could see them slap each other to look at us while grabbing for their cameras. The Viking monk would make a game with them in quickly altering his course and running right at them. This caused more than one to startle, and trip backwards, all the while laughing in the exchange. This made me deeply laugh in watching the Viking monk try to scare the tourists. This was very entertaining and a break from the training.
Some of the days were mixed with gymnastic training in doing cart wheels and flips. Our group would attempt to flip and kip up from the ground. The experienced students would come in and we would stop in amazement to watch. The young kids would flip, jump and fly in the air, yet when the older kids came in they were like Olympic gymnasts, flipping in the air, landing on their back and jumping straight up. The athleticism and skill were astounding. They would mix this with kicks and punches in the air to bring these spectacular Kung Fu exchanges that were right out of the movies, yet this was real. Raw and real. The skill set of these kids 15-16 years old made me wonder what the older, Shaolin demonstration team was like. What more could they bring in fusing the body, the mind and the spirit into a Zen warrior.
The skill level of the children and young adults amazed me. I watched this around the village and in the city of Deng Feng while I was in town. These two places were filled with Kung Fu training centers. The buildings in the city rose like huge dormitories, and seemed to be individual villages with their own gates, multiple apartment like living quarters and expansive open, dirt or sand covered courtyards for training. Thousands of uniformed, soldier like, kids marched about all day training in Kung Fu. From my view China was building a Kung Fu army, it still baffles my mind in multitude of the students. The biggest training center has a large complex in Deng Feng and one outside of the Shaolin Temple. I was told they have over 75,000 students alone in this one training club. The magnitude is staggering, and this was just one training center. Everywhere you looked were marching Kung Fu students training all day. They would get up at 5 am and I could hear them yelling out in the streets counting their punches and kicks, or running in cadence. They marched to breakfast, all with a purpose and chores led by older students and then marched back to train some more, this happened all day long into the evening. I talked to one parent who spoke English and was told some of these kids were here all year, in a sports like camp for students, and some were here for months, perhaps during their summer break. I would see a parent visit on the weekend and have lunch or dinner with the student and then they would leave. I don’t know how frequent these visits were, however, I do know these students were primarily on their own in their new Kung Fu family. The city of Deng Feng was a myriad of Kung Fu schools, street after street of schools and masses of students. I joked that Deng Feng was the last place you wanted to get into a fight. This was not the place to speak back or engage in a testosterone fueled dance over trivial matters. This was the place to learn respect and humility with self and others.
Yet, from my view, most things in China were not everything as they seemed on the surface. China was a dichotomy. There seemed to be a presentation for the public, a surface level to convey a certain image, yet below this there was something else. It was evident when you arrived in the country. On the walls at the airport were huge, beautiful pictures of majestic locations in China. These places alone were amazing, yet these pictures were Photoshopped to add a rainbow, and birds flying to create this surreal, yet fake scene. This was my experience in China with this amazing, epic adventure yet underneath the face of it, there was this dichotomy. I found this with the kids training in Kung Fu. I would marvel in their skill set, yet at the same time I would watch in amazement in how they were trained. There was a discipline and treatment of children that you would not see in the west. I do not speak to whether this is right or wrong, it was simply quite astonishing for a westerner to watch. These tiny children were ordered around like soldiers, yelled at, even poked with sticks and poles all the while without empathy or compassion. I watched these 5-6 year olds frog jump up and down the stone hill 50 meters at a time, over and over again and then run up and down the hill to the point of exhaustion. This was followed by stretching and more stretching. One small child screamed in the pain of his legs, I watched the instructor go over to him thinking he would comfort and encourage him, yet he grabbed his leg and pulled it higher into a full split as the child screamed louder. Finally he let go and the child dropped to the ground screaming in agony. He was left to deal with this on his own. This was the training. Push beyond the physical comfort and build discipline. I watched two kids probably around 9 or 10 stand on one leg and grab the other above their head in a standing split. They were put here in punishment. At first I watched in amazement at the difficulty in this and then the minutes ticked by, first 5 and then 10 minutes. My heart began to beat faster wanting this to end. I was in pain watching. Yet these kids calmly stood there, 15 minutes, and then 20. I finally left after 30 minutes. I don’t know how long they stood like that, my guess was close to an hour. This was my dichotomy as I couldn’t understand how a monk could treat other human beings this way. I came to realize that there were monk-monks and simply Warrior monks. The latter were astounding in their physical feats, yet their spiritual depth was limited in comparison to the other monks. There were traditional monks with deep Kung Fu training who were also teachers. You could tell the difference as their seemed to be a gentleness, and warmth to them. They seemed to look at other living beings with love and empathy.
Outside of the normal routine of training, one day a week was typically for developing power. We would do monk style kettle bells made out of concrete, followed by hundreds of strikes to a sandbag. Saturdays were also a change-up to the schedule. These were single training sessions and then we had Sundays off. Saturdays were considered a conditioning day and most of the students around the area, including our group, ran up the mountain to the statue of Damo- 1300+ steps straight up. Lines of Kung Fu students climbed the mountain as if it were an outdoor gym. The heat, the unevenness of the steps and the incline made this quite a challenge and we were spent at the end of the run.
After two weeks of training I had lost 10 lbs, was far more flexible and could complete two forms. The physical components were not my focus, I wanted to reflect on the connection between mind, body and spirit. In practicing just the exercises the movements became lifeless, like going to the gym. No depth, or spiritual connection simply a workout. It was in deeper reflection, in moving from the source that I found the unified connection. My instructor would constantly say in his limited English “more power”. As a beginning Wushu Kung Fu student it was often difficult to see. I would see glimpses in my training, yet I saw flashes of it from masters. At one point my teacher was showing me a move in deflecting a punch, countering with a punch to the opponents throat. As I mindlessly went through the movements he pulled me aside and said, “it is here….with power.” With this he deflected my punch and in a flash punched at my throat, grazing my Adam’s apple. It took me a moment to get past the “he almost killed me”, I mean really a half-inch more and my throat was crushed. Yet, I got it. His power that came from within his energy. It happened in a flash, without effort as if from his root, his being.
On my last day in China I had the opportunity to see this full connection further as I was given the chance of a lifetime in seeing the Shaolin performance team give a demonstration in front of the Abbott and a dignitary from Iran. Without warning on my last day, our training was canceled and our group was shuttled into a closed off building within the temple for a performance. It was determined that 3-4 International students would perform as well to show the expansion of Shaolin Kung Fu across the globe. My friend Erika was asked to perform and after a few moments to gather her thoughts she reveled in this incredible opportunity. Our group was brought into the room where 20-30 of us lined the walls next to the performing space to watch the show. After a few moments the Abbott and the dignitary came in and sat down and on cue 16 monks marched out to the center of the stone floor in four by four rows. I was excited beyond belief. I had heard of the incredible skills of the monks. I had already seen my instructor do 2 finger push ups, I was anxious to see more. All at once the monks screamed to start their form. They flowed with grace and power across the floor. I could feel the power from their kicks and punches 15 feet away as if the Chi energy slapped me in the face. The energy was palpable. Then in unison the form was over. From the back one of the monks screamed and sprinted 20 meters straight at the Abbott, just prior reaching him he leapt as high as he could in the air, flipped and landed flat on his back on the stone floor. The room echoed with the slap of his body on the hard floor but he was not fazed. He bounced his head off the floor and jumped back up into a fighting stance, did some more acrobatics and then bowed. Another monk immediately leapt out front like a Kung Fu riff off, each out to top the next. The monks would leap in the air and land in the splits, lift themselves up with one hand and jump in power and speed. Finally, to close out the ceremony two monks came out with one dropping into a handstand while the other held his feet. Immediately he extended one finger on each hand into a one finger handstand with no waiver in his fingers or arms. I struggled to maintain a calm presence as I watched the magnitude of these amazing feats. Erika came on with the International students and completed her form with power and intensity. Such a proud moment in watching her perform well and for the gratitude in her opportunity.
Example of Shaolin monks performing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DV5AB317oBs .
In reflection in my Kung Fu training, I was blessed to have had this opportunity and to have experienced the training and being in the presence of such incredible martial artists and individuals on a spiritual quest. The term epic adventure doesn’t do this justice as it was more than training, it was the relationships and the experiences. This is what I will remember most. I feel as though I have life long friends from this trip, ones that jointly experienced a life altering event together. In this we are now joined as brothers and sisters along our path in life, no longer able to view it the same. We are all Zen warriors in quest of bettering ourselves and those around us. This is the essence of Damo. This is Kung Fu.
Be well. Be love.
Thomas D. Craig
Author of A Cup of Buddha and Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening
writer. seeker. Zen warrior