What you see in movies about Shaolin Temple kung fu isn't always true. Get the scoop from a martial artist who's made annual training trips to Shaolin for 17 years.

During my annual visits to Henan, China, the head abbot of Shaolin Temple instructs one of the older monks to teach me what he thinks I need to know about the famed monastery and its style of kung fu. After 17 years of such treatment, I’ve been “enlightened” on a number of popular beliefs that Western martial artists hold. I offer the following to set the record straight.


Popular Belief No. 1: The Indian monk Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese) created Shaolin kung fu.

Not necessarily true. The senior monks don’t know whether he studied the animal movements and devised the fighting art himself or simply brought the skills with him from India.

Entrance to one of the main buildings at Shaolin Temple, 1986

Popular Belief No. 2: When Bodhidharma came to China, his first stop was Shaolin.

Nope. He traveled first to the city of Nanjing because he was invited there by the emperor. The Indian monk also stayed at White Horse Temple but left because there was too much confusion and noise.

Popular Belief No. 3: Bodhidharma meditated for nine years at Shaolin.

Almost. He actually meditated in a cave on nearby Song Mountain. I’ve visited it myself; it’s a grueling hike up the mountain.

Popular Belief No. 4: Bodhidharma was the Buddha.

No. He was actually a Buddhist monk, a 28th-generation disciple of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.

Popular Belief No. 5: Monks have to be accepted into the temple, and they must start training at age 3 or 4.

Yes and no — maybe. In the past, that might have been true. These days, an adult can be accepted, even a married one, and being accepted doesn’t mean you’re a monk.

Part of a display that retells the history of Shaolin Temple, 1988

Popular Belief No. 6: Shaolin monks are concerned only with perfecting their fighting skills.

Not even close. Buddhism is a life of purity and atonement, and being able to improve the quality of other people’s lives. It’s basically a life of sacrifice. It’s no different from many other religions in that respect.

Popular Belief No. 7: The physical labor monks do in movies was never part of the real Shaolin lifestyle.

Not true. Before they’re allowed to practice kung fu, they have to build their physical strength and humility. They sweep, carry things and do other tasks. The temple is a national treasure, but its inhabitants still have to take care of everybody and everything there.

Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt magazine. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video lessons to your smartphone, tablet or computer anytime and anyplace. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path!

Popular Belief No. 8: Young monks at Shaolin don’t receive a proper education.

Wrong. All children at the temple are educated in conventional subjects, as well as Chinese culture and Buddhism. They also do many chores to keep the temple in good working order.

Popular Belief No. 9: All monks get the same education.

They don’t. As a young monk progresses, he’ll usually get noticed by one of the senior monks or priests, who will take him on as a disciple. If that doesn’t happen, he won’t learn very much.

Popular Belief No. 10: A monk-in-training can have more than one mentor.

No. Each one has only one master, who accepts him as a son.

Popular Belief No. 11: All the monks live at the temple.

Most do. However, some are sent to other cities to help spread the Shaolin martial arts. The temple has a facility in which the monks live, and it’s pretty crude.

Chinese students training at a commercial kung fu school near Shaolin, 1988

Popular Belief No. 12: Once a monk starts training in kung fu, that’s all he does.

Not so. It’s a big part of his life — but not all. He also studies Shaolin culture, Buddhism, weapons, chi kung and Chinese medicine.

Popular Belief No. 13: Most visitors to Shaolin are kung fu students from America.

No way. More than 1 million tourists make the trek annually, and 90 percent of them are Chinese.

Popular Belief No. 14: Any tourist can come to Shaolin and train with the monks.

Unfortunately, no. I’ve seen the real training and the training tourists engage in, and they’re different. The real training is old-style Shaolin. The tourists stay in more modern facilities located near the temple and follow more modern training methods.

Shaolin monks demonstrating in California, 2003

Popular Belief No. 15: The monks are getting rich from their performances.

Nope. The individual monks have no income. They live at the temple, which provides food and clothing — a simple robe, pants and sandals. And they have their sleeping quarters. But real Shaolin monks have no money — nor any need for it.

(Photos by Robert W. Young)

Steve DeMasco is a Black Belt Hall of Fame member and a personal disciple of the abbot of Shaolin Temple.

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

The UFC returned to American network television for the first time in more than two years Saturday on ABC while former featherweight champion Max Holloway returned to his winning ways following two straight losses, earning a unanimous decision over Calvin Kattar in Abu Dhabi. Holloway showed he still has plenty left as a fighter dominating Kattar from the opening bell of the main event with a mix of punches and low kicks.

It appeared as if the former champion might stop his opponent in the fourth round landing a series of vicious body blows followed by hard elbows to the head as a bloodied Kattar sagged against the fence. But Kattar somehow survived managing to keep himself upright through the fifth stanza as well, only to lose a lopsided decision. After dropping his title to Alexander Volkanovski and then losing a controversial rematch, Holloway may have put himself in position for one more crack at the championship following Saturday's impressive performance.

The Legendary Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame has never before been documented in a single location. Now, you can learn about all the icons that have achieved one of the greatest honors in all of martial arts.

Black Belt Magazine is proud to announce the NEW Member Profiles feature for the Hall of Fame. At the time of this article, the online records account for every inductee from the inaugural year of 1968 all the way through 1990 (upwards of 200 martial artists). The page will be updated continuously and will include every inductee through 2020 in the near future. For now, you can enjoy images and facts about the legendary members for each induction they received before 1991. Take advantage of this never-before-seen opportunity to learn about many of the martial artists who contributed to the lifestyle, culture, and community that every martial artist experiences today.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE BLACK BELT HALL OF FAME

Black Belt Magazine Subscriptions

ONE Championship kicked off their 2021 campaign in Singapore on Friday, January 22, with ONE: Unbreakable.

The six-bout card featured five finishes including in the main event as Capitan Petchyindee Academy ousted Alaverdi Ramazanov for the ONE Bantamweight Kickboxing World Championship.

See how all of the action went down in The Lion City with this recap of ONE: Unbreakable.

Keep Reading Show less

These three simple ways will make you more flexible instantly!

Fighters need to have an optimal amount of flexibility to kick, punch, takedown their opponent and even to escape submission holds. Your body has to be able to move through ranges of motion effectively, and that requires your muscles to stretch and contract functionally. In order to create flexibility, you have to wrap your mind around that it is more than just stretching a muscle.

Keep Reading Show less
Sign up for our weekly newsletter!
Stay up to date in the martial arts community with news from around the world, techniques of all styles and all around guiding you in your martial arts journey
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter