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.
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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.
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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.
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)