Shaolin Kung Fu is the oldest and most widely known school of Kung Fu in the world and it is still going strong in China today. Shaolin is also shrouded in mystery and myth, at least in the west. Who can learn this martial art? Do you have to be Chinese or buddhist or both? What would it mean to be a kung fu practising monk?
So, can anyone learn Shaolin Kung Fu? Anyone can learn Shaolin Kung Fu by taking a course at the Shaolin Temple. But to become a proper Shaolin monk, you are required to be a practicing Buddhist, know basic Chinese, and be young enough to undergo very hard physical training.
Read on to find out what you would learn in Shaolin Kung Fu, why you should learn it and how you might be able to learn Shaolin Kung Fu.
What Do You Learn In Shaolin Kung Fu?
Shaolin is a martial art of two halves and for serious practitioners, it is the religious element Chan Buddhism which is the most important aspect. Chan is a school which developed from the Mahayana traditions of India but is uniquely Chinese in its aspects of practice.
While Buddhism was initially suppressed after the Cultural Revolution, its status as a philosophy as opposed to a religion meant that it was quickly allowed to return and since the 1970s, China has seen a rush of Buddhist converts and serious investment in its Buddhist temples.
However, for most Westerners the important part of Shaolin traditions is not its Buddhist heritage but its martial heritage and this is known as Quan.
The Skills Taught In The Martial Arts/Quan Of Shaolin
The martial arts skills are broken down into three separate components and Chinese students, who begin at the Shaolin Temple at around the age of 5, will spend more than 20 years studying these skills in order to be allowed to take up a position as a monk in the temple.
The Basic Skills
Westerners who are accepted to join the Shaolin Temple are often shocked to find themselves working with the 5-year-olds to develop the basic skills of Shaolin Kung Fu. These are:
- Stamina – the ability to work for many hours at a time is an essential part of Shaolin Kung Fu
- Flexibility – Kung Fu is a very mobile martial art, particularly, today when it has become more of a demonstration skill than a martial one – to carry out the demands of the art, the body must be very flexible, indeed
- Balance – if you want to fight, you have to be able to keep your balance
- The “childish skills” – these are 18 postures which must be mastered in order for the trainee to progress their training. This might not sound like a lot but it can take the best part of a decade to get them perfectly, right!
The Power Skills
Once the basic skills are mastered then it’s time to move on to the more advanced stuff. And that is the power skills of which there are “only” two:
- Qigong Mediation. There are two forms of this meditation:
- Internal – this is a stationary, usually sitting, meditation in which the trainee is expected to make friends with his thoughts and eventually to learn to control his thoughts at all times.
- External – this is a moving form of meditation, which is designed to help a trainee become mindful at all times even during the demands of combat. Moving meditations are slightly unusual
- The 72 Arts. The 72 arts are a range of forms that prepare the trainee for learning the combat variants of Kung Fu that the Shaolin Temple teaches.
The Combat Skills
The final set of teachings are the combat skills of Shaolin Kung Fu. These include:
- Barehanded combat practice. Which is what many Westerners feel is “traditional” Kung Fu, no weapons are involved.
- Weapon training practice. Yes, Kung Fu uses weapons and Shaolin trainees are expected to master several different weapons though they will not use guns or bows.
- Barehanded vs weapon practice. This is an acknowledgement that you can’t pick when you will fight and sometimes the other guy will have a big advantage over you, unless you can fight without a weapon against somebody with one.
Shaolin Kung Fu Styles
As part of all this training a Shaolin Kung Fu student will learn many styles of Kung Fu, a style is a series of related “forms” that are closely related to each other. In most cases a style will be a pair of forms (The “big form” and the “small form”) but occasionally may be just one form.
It is thought that the Shaolin temples knows more than a thousand forms (these are just those which are documented, mind you) though, in practice, they appear to have standardized on the best 100 forms in the period of the Qing Dynasty, though only 18 of these are known to the public.
Why Do People Want To Learn Shaolin Kung Fu?
Most Chinese people who want to learn Shaolin Kung Fu do so because they want to become a monk and advance in the temple ranks.
A Chinese student would join the temple at the age of 5 then he would become a monk in his early to mid-20s. He might become a monk assigned to the Shaolin Temple, in which case he will take vows of chastity and poverty and dedicate his life to serving the temple.
Or he might become a lay monk, which prevents him from further rising in the ranks but allows him to hold down another job (as well as serving the temple) and to get married and own property.
It is worth noting that not every Chinese monk at The Shaolin Temple learns Kung Fu, many choose to forego martial arts and concentrate on becoming Buddhist scholars, instead. It may seem strange to an outsider, but a scholar’s path is considered to be more respectable than a warrior’s one.
Westerns Have Other Motives
As you might expect Westerners have other motives when they want to learn Shaolin Kung Fu. The vast majority of Westerners do not have the time or inclination to make Kung Fu their life’s work at The Shaolin Temple.
They come for a short period of time, to learn a little Kung Fu and to embrace the atmosphere of having learned something in what they consider to be the spiritual home of Kung Fu.
However, it is entirely possible for a young Westerner to come and ask to study in the monastery as a local would. If they are accepted to the Shaolin Temple, they will then live and learn Kung Fu with the Chinese students, however, this process can take many years. This is the “authentic” way to study and it is a rarity.
What Benefits Would Come From Learning Shaolin Kung Fu?
There are two sets of benefits from learning Shaolin Kung Fu as a Westerner. The first set are the benefits of learning nearly any Eastern martial art:
- Physical benefits. Martial arts train stamina, strength, balance and flexibility. A martial artist is likely to be healthier, thinner and happier than a non-martial artist of a similar age thanks to the intense physical workout that they get from the program.
- Self-defense skills. Kung Fu is a martial art and while it is not designed for a student to go out and attack people at will, it is certainly proper for a student to bring all their skills to bear when called upon to defend themselves or others. A fully-qualified Shaolin Kung Fu student would be very much able to defend themselves.
- Mental benefits. Martial arts practitioners tend to have higher levels of self-esteem, self-confidence and restraint than average. They also tend to be able to set goals, act with discipline and remain in the present moment (thanks to meditation techniques)
The second set of benefits are uniquely drawn from studying at Shaolin:
- Bragging rights. It may not fit with “humility” but for a certain type of fighter, the right to say they’ve trained at Shaolin (which many in the West think is the source of all martial arts and not just Kung Fu) is impossible to turn down.
- The right to start a Shaolin affiliated school. For those who want to become martial arts instructors, properly graduating from Shaolin means that they are allowed to open a dojo teaching the Shaolin style. This is likely to command a price premium from students keen to do “authentic” Kung Fu.
- The chance to be a part of something historic. For many, this is the most important benefit of all. It’s not the chance to achieve something for themselves but rather to be able to take part in a tradition of martial arts which has lasted for hundreds of years in the most authentic way possible.
Can Anyone Learn Shaolin Kung Fu?
Certainly, anyone can sign up at a Shaolin Affiliated training school or attend one of the short-courses offered out of the Shaolin Temple at Shonshan in Hebei, China. These are genuine methods of learning Shaolin Kung Fu though neither will lead to a “warrior monk” classification this shouldn’t discourage students at all.
However, if you wish to study at the Shaolin Temple in the same way as the Chinese students then there are two things that will constrain your desires. The first is that you must be a practicing Buddhist. Shaolin is a real temple and that means you are expected to embrace the faith that it represents.
Secondly, you must be young enough to complete your training successfully. Shaolin training is hard, very hard and very physically demanding. It is unlikely that somebody in their 30s or beyond could reasonably expect to complete the training no matter how hard they worked.
For this reason, it is likely that you would be denied entry to the monastery to study Kung Fu if you are over 30, though you would probably be accepted if you wished to become a Buddhist scholar, instead and had the requisite Chinese language skills.
Training At Shaolin Affiliated Training Schools
Former graduates of the Shaolin Temple may start their own Shaolin-affiliated dojos anywhere in the world and many have. You can find a Shaolin affiliate near you by Googling for one.
You may want to check the dojo leader’s qualifications, however, as there are no legal restrictions on the right to claim to teach Shaolin Kung Fu. Even if somebody has never trained a day in the discipline, they are legally allowed to open up a school and say they teach it.
Training at these dojos can be every bit as good as training at the Shaolin Temple and you can learn the full range of skills used by Shaolin monks at your own pace.
Short-Courses At The Shaolin Temple Shonshan, Hebei, China
If you must have a more authentic experience but are either too old, too Buddhism-adverse or don’t have the time to commit to full training – then why not go to Hebei, China and enjoy a short-course at The Shaolin Temple at Shonshan?
You can stay as long as you can pay. These courses are a lot easier than those undertaken by actual Shaolin monks. You will learn some Kung Fu (and yes, proper Shaolin Kung Fu at that) but will only study for 4-8 hours a day (real monks do 16-18 hours!) and have a change to explore China in your down time.
The teachers are real Shaolin Monks and you will have a great time there.
Full Training At The Shaolin Temple
If you want to study at The Shaolin Temple properly, then you will need to brush up on your Chinese language skills, commit to Buddhism, be young and then go and present yourself at the monastery and ask to be taken in.
If accepted, you can expect to spend at least 10 years living in very harsh conditions, with no special allowances for foreigners, until you graduate. (Good luck!)
Can anyone learn Shaolin Kung Fu? As we’ve seen, yes, anyone can learn Shaolin Kung Fu though there are restrictions on who can study at the Shaolin Temple. Best of luck from CraftofCombat if you do decide to go for becoming a Shaolin Monk!