There is one place in the world associated with martial arts and, in particular, Kung Fu more than any other and that is the Shaolin Temple. The temple was founded over 1500 years ago in China and has been turning out top martial artists ever since.
So, how long it takes to become a Shaolin Kung Fu Master? It takes 25 years for a Chinese child to become a Shaolin Kung Fu master. Boys enter the temple at age 5 and graduate at around age 25 as “warrior monks”, the first level of mastery. However, achieving full mastery in the Shaolin tradition is forever as it considered to be a lifetime endeavour.
While foreigners (non Chinese) cannot become full Shaolin monks, they are allowed to reach the “warrior monk” status and this takes about 10 years, depending on the route on getting there. There are other requirements too, so let’s look at the details now.
A Quick Note On Martial Arts In China
It is often though that the Shaolin temple is the source of all Chinese martial arts, but this isn’t correct. While it is the most important location in China in martial arts history many Chinese martial arts predate the temple by centuries.
Shuai jiao, the Kung Fu form of wrestling, for example is over 6,000 years old!
The reason that the Shaolin Temple was founded was to enable Chinese monasteries to better protect themselves. They had money, lands and power and many sought to take it from them. Monks had often practiced martial arts in the past, but Shaolin would enable them to formalize their training and learn to work together.
About The Shaolin Temple (A Brief History)
The Shaolin Temple was established in 495 A.D. and was found in the Song Mountains of Henan, China.
The very first monk to preach there was not Chinese but rather Indian. His name was Buddhabhadra though he was known as Baduo in Chinese. He preached a form of Nikaya Buddhism to the students and other monks of the temple.
However, from its inception – the monastery was associated with Kung Fu (or Wushu as it is known in Southern China). It is said that Master Baduo’s first disciples were Sengchou and Huiguang and they were well-known throughout the country for their incredible martial arts skills.
In fact, Sengchou’s ability to use a tin staff in combat was so important that his story forms part of China’s official Buddhist heritage.
After Baduo, came Bodhidharma, who is considered today to be the founder of modern Chinese Buddhism, a monk who may have been Central Asian or Indian and again his disciple, Huike was a famous martial artist.
It is thought that all three of the martial artist disciples had a military background before arriving at the Shaolin Temple.
The Development Of Kung Fu At The Shaolin Temple
The original fighting style taught at The Shaolin Temple appears to be “the 18 methods of Luohan” which forms the basis for the development of the unique styles of Kung Fu taught there today.
It was used in battle during actions to defend the monastery against bandits in 610 A.D. and it must of have been successful because again it was called on in 621 A.D. to ward off the attack of Wang Shichong a general who deposed the Sui Dynasty Emperor.
It is not until the 16th century that another record of the Shaolin fighting in combat but over the course of 2 centuries there are nearly 40 records of battles involving the monks.
It was during this time that the Shaolin Staff fighting method was added to the Kung Fu portfolio as well as fighting with a spear. They also absorbed ideas from T’ai chi ch’uan, Baguaquan, Xingyiquan, Chang Family Boxing and Bajiquan fighting styles that they encountered.
Much of the fighting from 1540 to 1560 involved pirates and while they suffered the occasional defeat, the pirates were driven from the region and at the battle of Wengjiagang 120 warrior monks fought a group of pirates and while nearly 100 pirates perished, only 4 monks fell during the combat.
The Modern Kung Fu Of The Shaolin Temple
Today, all Kung Fu taught within the walls of The Shaolin Temple is based on the principle of Quan (martial) this is in harmony with Chan (Buddhism). Many Shaolin monks consider Chan rather than Quan to be the true definition of what it is to be Shaolin.
Quan is broken down into three basic areas:
- The Basic Skills. These are known as “childish skills” within the temple but they are anything but. You must learn 18 specific postures, and undergo intense stamina, flexibility and balance training. Chinese initiates to the monastery will begin to learn these when they are, indeed, children.
- The Power Skills. This is broken down into two efforts:
- Qigong Meditation. There are two kinds of meditation one which is a form of sitting meditation and the other which is a form of meditation in which the Shaolin initiate will keep moving in set forms during the meditation.
- The 72 Arts. These are a set of 72 exercises split into 36 soft exercise and 36 hard exercises.
- The Combat Skills. This will include a variety of combat skills which includes barehand fighting, weapons fighting and barehand against weapons. The focus is very much on the use of these techniques in actual combat.
What Kung Fu Styles Are Taught At The Shaolin Temple?
The Shaolin Temple, in common with most other Chinese martial arts training centers, teaches its combat methods using forms.
Forms which are closely related are considered to make up a “style”. There will usually be a mixture of small and big forms that make up that style. However, some styles only have a single type of form.
The Shaolin temple teaches hundreds of styles. In fact, it is thought that there may be more than a thousand styles, if so, this means that Shaolin’s form of Kung Fu has more styles/moves than any other martial art in the world.
The core of their teachings, however, are a little simpler. They whittled down to 100 styles during the Qing Dynasty which every student should master and there are 18 famous styles from this.
If you want to be a Kung Fu Master at Shaolin, you would need to learn a complete system and many different styles and weapons.
The best known styles are Arhat’s 18 hands (the 18 methods of luohan), Flood, Explosive, Penetrating-Arms, 7-Star, Long Guard the Heart, Mind Gate, Plum Blossom, Facing & Bright Sun, Arhat, Vajrapani, Emperor’s Long Range, 6-Match, Soft, Mind, Imitative and Drunken.
Students would be expected to tackle many of these styles in their training.
Why Study Kung Fu At The Shaolin Temple?
Most people choose to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin because they want to get the most authentic form of training. Because Kung Fu was formalized at the temple, the big draw to potential students is the chance to drink knowledge from the source.
What Does Training Kung Fu At The Shaolin Temple Involve?
The core of training Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple is discipline. There are no creature comforts and initiates can expect a bed which is made from a plank of wood plus some sheets which must be folded neatly at the beginning of each day.
The training day starts at 5 a.m. and if you are not on time to training, you will be punished. Recruits are either beaten with a stick or made to stand for hours at a time on their heads on concrete. Former student, Matthew Ahmet, says this is a very painful process.
Chinese students start at the Shaolin temple at the age of 5 and the monastery will become the center of their lives.
Much of the initial training at the Shaolin temple is around the “childish skills”. This is because balance and posture are the core concepts around which all other training is based. If someone cannot hold themselves properly without a weapon or attacker to deal with, why would you train them to fight?
After these skills are mastered, more focus will be placed on meditating and learning the 72 arts with a gradual transition into learning actual combat.
This training takes place for 14 to 18 hours a day and it is hard. The monks may be Buddhists, but they push their pupils as hard as any military drill instructor.
How Long Does It Take To Become A Shaolin Kung Fu Master?
A Chinese child enters the monastery at the age of 5 and can be expected to “graduate” at around the age of 25 as a warrior monk. However, it is important to define “mastery” here.
When someone reaches the standard of warrior monk, they are good enough to fight for the Shaolin and to take part in displays of their athleticism representing the temple, and they are also good enough to found their own dojo and teach within it.
What they are not good enough to do, however, is to lead or teach at the highest standards within the Shaolin temple. Mastery, as it is perceived in the Shaolin tradition, comes with a lifetime of work.
Can A Foreigner Become A Shaolin Kung Fu Master?
Yes, there are two ways for a foreigner to become a Shaolin Kung Fu Master. The most authentic of which is to present yourself at the Shaolin Temple or one of its branches within China and ask to become a trainee.
If you are accepted, you will not be required to pay for tuition or board, but you will be expected to submit completely to the training regime and not to complain.
This can be very hard, psychologically, at first because there are no shortcuts in Shaolin training, you progress only when you show that you have mastered what is expected of you.
Foreigners who join the Shaolin Monastery are going to find themselves working out with the 5-year-olds to begin with.
You should expect to spend several years at the Shaolin Temple if you want to pursue this route. It is very unusual for anybody to undertake this training in later life and you’d expect to go, at the latest, in your early 20s.
The alternative method is to train under a Shaolin Master who has founded their own dojo. If you do this, you will never receive official Shaolin status, but you can learn all the skills that you want to in this fashion and master the training at your own time.
There are also some “short training sessions” available in China, which do cost money to attend, where someone can choose to undertake some of the Shaolin training without working all the way through to mastery. These trainings can last as long as you have the time and the money to undertake them.
Will A Foreigner Become A Shaolin Monk?
One thing that you should be aware of is that it is not possible for foreign inductees to become a full Shaolin Monk. This position is reserved for Chinese nationals only. It is not a matter of racism but a matter of legal status within China that prevents foreigners from taking up rank in the temple.
However, you can receive the rank of “Warrior Monk” which while not legally affiliated with The Shaolin Temple, is an indication that the instructors feel you are competent to fight and that you may start your own dojo and teach the things that you have learned.
You might also be able to attain the rank of “Lay Monk” which is a rank that allows you to marry, take up work, etc. as well as represent Buddhism correctly in the outside world.
It typically takes a foreigner about 10 years from entering the monastery to the point where they are considered skillful enough to be a “warrior monk”.
What Should You Do Before You Train Kung Fu At The Shaolin Temple?
If you are serious about becoming a Shaolin trainee, then there are many things you can do to prepare for your journey:
- Study what it is to be Shaolin. There are centuries of history and development to Shaolin Kung Fu. You can read many books on the subject and understand what is involved in training there and what will be expected of you in great detail.
- Study Buddhism. Shaolin is a temple and a monastery first and foremost. They are not there to indulge the movie star fantasies of Westerners but to teach a complete way of life and that means you will need to study and embrace Buddhism if you wish to enter the temple to train.
- Follow the 8-fold path. This is the fundamental principle of being a Buddhist, if you don’t know and understand the path and commit to following it – you simply can’t become an initiate.
- Change your diet. The Buddhist diet at Shaolin is a vegetarian one. The majority of their food is eaten raw. If you can change your diet before you train, it will be much easier than doing so in your first week of training.
- Try Shaolin Kung Fu. Find a Shaolin teacher in your area and go and see if you can join their dojo and get some initial training. You want to, at least, try this form of Kung Fu before you commit to spending a decade in a Chinese monastery.
- Train as a disciple. That is get your induction in living like a Shaolin practitioner at your dojo.
- Get your passport. If you want to go to China and study, you’ll need a passport to do so.
- Get your visa. You need a visa to travel to China, so make sure you get one.
- Get accepted by the Shaolin Temple. Your final hurdle is to get the temple to accept you as a student.
Do You Have To Be Buddhist To Study Kung Fu At The Shaolin Temple?
Yes, you have to be a Buddhist in order to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple. However, you should be aware that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a philosophy. You will not be expected to abandon any other religious ties you have in order to live as a Buddhist.
Muslims should be aware that they will not be given time to pray, however, during their Shaolin training.
What Can A Shaolin Kung Fu Master Do?
From the perspective of non-Chinese graduates of the Shaolin Temple, once you have become a Shaolin Kung Fu master you can give demonstrations of the art with other graduates of the Shaolin Temple.
You may also become a “shifu” (master/teacher) of your own Kung Fu dojo in the Shaolin style. This is often the main objective for foreign students who study Kung Fu at Shaolin.
If you want to know how long, it takes to become a Shaolin Kung Fu master then the answer depends on whether you are Chinese. If not, it takes about 10 years to reach the level of mastery that is permitted to foreigners. For the Chinese, it takes a lifetime to be seen as a master of Shaolin Kung Fu.