What is it like growing up as a Shaolin monk?
The Shaolin Monastery is the most famous temple in China, renowned for its Kung Fu fighting Shaolin monks. With amazing feats of strength, flexibility, and pain-endurance, the Shaolin have created a worldwide reputation as the ultimate Buddhist warriors. But what does it take to become a Shaolin Monk, and what’s it like growing up as a Shaolin monk? In this video, we hope to answer these questions and more.
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In Henan province, in Dongchong, China, there is an ancient site shrouded in the near mystical aura of spirituality and monastic life – the Shaolin Monastery. Within the temple’s walls, generations of Buddhist monks have been trained throughout the centuries, many mastering the art of Wushu, also known as Kung Fu. In order to become warriors and masters in these widely respected martial arts, the monks must begin their training from an early age, often as young as 3 years old. The training involves rigorous physical conditioning and arduous tests in strength dexterity, flexibility and pain resistance. Most martial artists are familiar with the extraordinary powers of the Shaolin monks. They train in the use of 36 weapons and each monk picks two animal movements and styles to specialize in.
Shaolin monks live a life of discipline and dedication. Growing up as a Shaolin monk, a typical daily schedule, including the vegetarian diet served at each meal, is awake at 5:30 in the morning for chanting. At 6 a.m, it’s breakfast which consists of a soup made of beans called 8 treasures. Then more chanting and a half hour break, followed by 2 hours of Kung Fu training.
During training, the monks switch what form or style they are practicing every 10 minutes. After practice, it’s more chanting until 11:30 in the morning. Then lunchtime, which consists of 5-6 different vegetables, tofu and rice. No drink is consumed with meals to aid in easy digestion. Lunch finishes at approximately 12:30, then it’s back to chanting, followed by a 2-hour break. During this time, the monks may meditate, relax or nap. At approximately 3 in the afternoon, another 2-hour long Kung Fu practice session begins. This wraps up at 5. There is no chanting before dinner out of respect for the dead. At 5:30, noodles are served for dinner with bread made from black or yellow wheat. At 6:30, heart sutra chanting begins for 1 hour. 8 in the evening is quiet time for meditation before bedtime at 10.
Shaolin monks can perform seemingly impossible feats of mental and physical prowess. They poke holes in trees with their fingers. They bang their bare heads against stone walls and knock their heads together to harden their skulls. They knife scrape their stomachs to strengthen their core area. They break sticks, bricks or iron and steel bars atop their heads. Deep in meditation, they balance their entire body weight on their heads or index fingers for long periods of time.
Since everything they do seems painless and effortless, their remarkable acts are frequently labeled and dismissed as stunts, fabrications, special effects, or hoaxes. It goes without saying, the years of hard work, patience, dedication and perseverance going into strengthening their bodies and honing their qi.
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From a young age, Shaolin students start poking trees and wood planks to strengthen their fingers. As their training progresses, they start practicing hard strikes. Every finger on both hands must be trained to produce large bursts of strength. Upon mastery, the fingers will be strengthened enough to take on more difficult techniques, such as the diamond finger, the one fingered handstand. To further strengthen their fingers and develop the locking force of their thumbs, index fingers and middle fingers, students start by driving 108 nails into a wood plank and practice pulling them out with all three fingers. When this becomes easy, they practice removing the nails with their thumbs, ring fingers and pinky fingers.
As the training progresses, the nails are driven deeper into the wood. After completing the first stage on the way to mastership, nails are sprinkled with water and left to rust. An advanced student may pull out 1000 rusted nails in the last stage of training. A master in this technique would be able to remove rusted nails with two fingers or perhaps even just one. In combat, this exercise allows Shaolin warriors to perform effective locks with three fingers on the opponent’s vulnerable spots.
Young Shaolin students are required to kick small rocks with their bare feet on their daily morning and evening strolls. As muscles strengthen, the rocks get bigger. In fights, this technique allows Shaolin warriors to tip and throw their opponent with a single hardened kick aimed at the lower part of the body.
Ringing around a tree or Maitreya is when a Shaolin student wraps their arms around a tree, squeezes it tightly and tries to pull it out. Once the arms, chest and stomach muscles strengthen, the students will be able to shake the tree. This is practiced daily. Upon mastery, students have the force to uproot fully grown trees. In combat, Shaolin warriors clasping their opponents with both arms can inflict heavy and even fatal injuries.
Iron head is when students wrap their heads with layers of soft fabric and start hitting it against a wall a few times every day. The purpose is to harden the head, strengthen the skin muscles and bones. As training progresses, the force and number of blows increases. Eventually, the fabric is removed and the students then sleep in a headstand position, knock their skulls together and crumble stone slabs. The iron head method is used in Shaolin fights to knock down an opponent.
Iron bull is when Shaolin students start by scraping their stomachs every day with their fingers and palms at first, then with blades. After the skin has hardened, iron hammers are used. Eventually, students are hit with long battering rams weighing hundreds of kilograms.
Monk pillar skill improves leg and core strength, along with body balance. Monks stand on two pillars; one foot on each pillar, then sit in a squatting position with a sharp bamboo stick under them. They hold bowls filled with water, one in each hand and one on top of their heads. Eventually, these are swapped with oil lamps.
Skill of light body is practiced when a giant bowl is filled with water and a student walks on the bull’s rim carrying a heavy backpack filled with iron. The student would do that every day for hours. Once every month, water is removed from the bowl and more iron is added to the backpack. The student must continue his training without falling or tipping the bowl, until the bowl is completely empty. The process is then repeated and the massive clay bowl is replaced with a large wicker basket filled with iron clips. Advanced students are expected to be able to walk across grass without crumpling it.
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