Description of the Temples
There were 5 main temples at the height of the Shaolin
order, though all 5 temples were rarely active at the same time.
Henan: This is "the" Shaolin temple seen
in Chinese kung fu movies, and the one portrayed in the ABC-TV "Kung
Fu" series of the 1970s. The physical premises, located in Loyang, a
small mountain town southwest of Beijing, have been restored by the
Chinese government in the mid 1970s (the temple was destroyed as a result
of the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, but probably not until the late 1920s),
and subsequently become a tourist/martial arts Mecca. Most of the resident
"monks" seen today are actors, similar to the people you would
meet in Colonial Williamsburg and other historical sites. During most of
its history, Henan Temple was the seat of the most senior monks in the
Fukien: Probably built around the same time as
Henan Temple, but originally a mainstream Buddhist temple until the early
1600s. This temple was integrated into the Shaolin order around 1650.
Larger than the Henan Temple, Fukien served as the
"headquarters" during times when Henan was either destroyed or
under threat. The southern styles of praying mantis, snake, dragon, and
Wing Chun were all developed in Fukien Temple, or by its masters. The
temple was burned during the Boxer Rebellion, and its remains were
rediscovered in the early 1980s.
Kwangtung: southern school, taught many great
warriors, snake temple. Temple was built in late 1700's as a Shaolin
temple, built in a mountain area overlooking the ocean near the city of Canton in Canton Province. This
Cantonese temple was close to (ca. 150 miles southwest) Fukien, and was
home to many southern styles, including Choy Li Fut and dragon (styles
often originated in one location and were modified at others). Shelled
during the civil warring following the Boxer Rebellion.
Wutang: Tiger temple. Located near the town of
Wutang. Built in a politically unstable area (near Manchuria and the
Korean peninsula). Probably the temple most involved with temporal
concerns, and consequently often besieged by one army or another.
Mercenary monks, including Bok Lei, Hung Si Kuan, and Bok Mei all came
from Wutang, eventually moving to Henan (and thus involving Shaolin in its
biggest political incursion). Very old temple, integrated into the Shaolin
order around AD 800.
O Mei Shan: (literally, "Great White
Mountain"), northern, library and medical temple. This temple was
located in an inaccessible area of the Szechuan province and imported
monks much like research institutions do today. The temple itself was very
old, probably Taoist in origin. Integrated into Shaolin order around AD
1500. Was in close contact with Tibet. Crane temple. This was a major
medical "school" for four centuries, the libraries filled with
tomes from East and West. The buildings were used for artillery practice
by the armies of both Shang Kai Shek and Mao Tze Tung, but restored in the
early 1970s. Today, the "temple" serves as the conservation
service headquarters for the bamboo forests of Szechuan and research
center for the pandas.
The first four temples had the brands of the tiger and
dragon on the left and right forearms respectively. The O mei shan temple
had the mantis and the crane on the right and left forearms.
Structure of the
Description of Ranks
The Shaolin had a limited class structure with three major
levels: students, disciples, and masters. At the base was the student
class, which held the most individuals. Members of this group cooked all
the meals, washed clothes and performed all other menial or manual labor.
Their station was such in order to teach them humility and respect, but
also to provide the masters with an opportunity to observe potential protégés
before entrusting them with martial arts skills. One who entered before
you and was still in your class was an older brother or sister.
The next class of the Shaolin was composed of disciples.
They were students who had demonstrated that they were worthy of learning
the martial arts of the temple. Upon entrance into this class, they spent
from two to four years in the exclusive study of the Shaolin arts of war
and medicine, having already received their basic philosophical training
as students. As students they learned the principles of Shaolin ethics; as
disciples, their time had come to live those ethics, posing as examples
for others to follow.
Above the disciples were the masters, who were accorded
status as full monks of the temple. The title of master had been bestowed
upon them because they had learned completely a system of martial arts
from their temple and perfected it, thus achieving technical mastery.
Also, they had succeeded in learning the philosophy of the temple well
enough to teach what they had learned. Indeed, this was their function in
the temple. They were the dispensers of knowledge to the student classes.
Among themselves, they had levels of excellence which indicated their
martial arts prowess and their grasp of the Shaolin philosophy.
The title "grandmaster" is not a traditional
rank, but a modified term to indicate that the master had also been a
teacher of other students who had attained master rank. There was no test
or formal requirement for the use of this title, and grandmasters rarely
use the term in reference to themselves.
These titles are in Mandarin
Black Sash, 1st-2nd
Black Sash, 3rd-4th
Black Sash, 5th
Gold Sash, 5th-7th
Red Sash, 8th and up
These titles are in Cantonese
Black Sash, 1st-2nd
Black Sash, 3rd-4th
Black Sash, 5th
Gold Sash, 5th-7th
Red Sash, 8th and up
There are four traditional sash colours in Shaolin (master
ranks are divided into a lower gold and higher red levels):
white sash: student
black sash: disciple
gold sash: weapons master, basic unarmed master
red sash: unarmed master, pries/monk level
The standard uniform is white with the colors used below
Choy Li Fut: tan stripe, symbolic of horses
Crane: white stripe, symbolic of the crane
Tibetan white crane: pale blue stripe
Cobra: emerald stripe, origin unknown
Dragon: color of style of dragon studied
Snake: very dark green stripe
Tiger: red stripe, symbolic of healthy muscle
What is a disciple?
The young student was curious about why some wore the
black sash and others didn't, though both showed similar martial prowess.
The Master was approached, and the questions presented to him. His answer
"What is a black sash? By now you know that it means
entry into discipleship, one who has proven himself over a period of
rigorous training. He is dedicated, loyal, knowledgeable and above all,
trustworthy. So trustworthy, in fact, that they alone in the organization
have a rank which automatically expires annually unless they prove they
are still worthy.
"It is not an automatic award; there are no specific
physical requirements to met for all. The number of forms is irrelevant.
Intangible elements are the most important elements in this promotion.
Taking responsibility for one's life and actions; the ability to respect a
trust; the ability to be friend, counselor, sibling, or training
companion. Out of the nearly 3000 students in this pai, only a very few
have been the black sash.
"They do more than what is asked of them, seeing
tasks not as duties but as challenges to learn from. They sacrifice time
and effort. Rather than neglect work or school, they learn to cultivate
each with their Kung Fu. They are competent in their chosen field, and use
this knowledge to enhance that competence. They do not forget the
philosophical principles after each class; they LIVE them. And they
persevere, even-ESPECIALLY-when things get rough.
"They lead, not through intimidation or rank, but
through compassion and respect. They are models, and people openly and
genuinely respect them. And they learn, always."
The student pondered this answer for some time. He watched
the senior students and new disciples work out, then he watched them
during non-training time. In time he saw the difference in action between
those who acted in full knowledge of their actions, and those desperately
fighting a flow from outside
Finally he understood the whole point of the structure of
Shaolin ranking, as it were. You could not be made into a worthy one, but
rather you acknowledge that you are by being one. How subtle! How
appropriate. How Shaolin.
LIFE IN THE TEMPLE
It would be as difficult to describe an
"average" day in the life of an "average" Shaolin monk
because, as with almost all other human activities, each day and each life
was different. What we shall attempt is a guided tour through a temple
(based on oral history from Canton's temple) as it existed until about
1915. The features are generalized, but intended to give a vicarious feel
for what the reality was like.
The grounds outside the temple contain a variety of
agricultural gardens, where most of the monk's food is grown. The front
walls, however, are landscaped to reflect Shaolin concepts of peace and
harmony. Pine and bamboo are carefully tended to line the approachway, but
a grassy area separates the front gates from the trees. This
"moat" is about 40 feet wide, and provides an area of no cover
for potential intruders to hide behind. It is also out here where most of
the weapons practice takes place (only Hollywood could afford a temple so
large that all its functions were contained within walls). The main
entrance is barred by two huge, wooden gates, that close at right angles
to each other; one swings like conventional doors, the other slides
laterally from one wall to the other, providing extra protection against
battering ram assaults. Normally, the front gates are used for ceremonial
occasions, such as the exiting of a recently promoted monk. For today, the
gate is secured, and we must enter by a smaller gate on one of the side
As you walk along the side wall, you may observe a few
monks playing traditional musical instruments, or attending a
philosophical discussion with a senior monk. Though movies portray Shaolin
as testosterone-enhanced mega-jocks, the temples were actually cultural
centers, something like modern universities. It was believed that mastery
could only come from attaining a harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Each
monk, therefore, was versed in more than martial arts, which were actually
considered among the lower levels of accomplishment. (Here we must
digress; Shaolin did not belittle their kung fu, but saw it and the
practitioner incomplete and rather wasted if fighting was all he could do
well. Kung fu proved a peace of mind through superior firepower, but was
mainly used for physical discipline. That discipline was expected to be
used to improve the holistic person.)
You enter through a narrow stone portal, and pass into
another garden, possibly planted with a variety of flowers. In a small
adjacent courtyard some disciples are training in kung fu. Along the walls
are benches, where younger students are mending clothes, making baskets,
or practicing calligraphy. A stone building on the left is the granary,
and just beyond are more monks making flour. All around you are people
doing rather mundane activities, for this is the guts area, where food is
stored and prepared, students study, and daily business with the outside
world transacted. A large structure twenty yards to the right looks like a
temple; you enter to find a small temple area, with an altar, statues, and
burning joss sticks at the far end. This is not the main temple, but a
disciple and student area for daily meditation. It is here where they
receive morning and evening instructions in meditation and visualization,
and during the daytime disciples are taught other aspects of coordination.
It is here where you may first notice that not all the
inhabitants are men; nor are men the only monk trainees. Shaolin was
dedicated to the universality of human experience, and denied no one with
qualifications admittance (again, contrary to television). Among the most
famous Shaolin were some of the "nuns", including southern green
dragon co-founder Ng Mui, Wing Chun founder Ng Mui (separated by about ten
generations, and probably no relation), and others. The chauvinistic idea
that Shaolin was for men only is loudly declaimed by the very existence of
two of the Temple's most famous and prestigious styles. As for the term
"nun," a sad choice, but, like "priest," was taken
from the familiar structure of Christian missionaries to name their
"heathen" counterparts. Women in the temple had the same rights,
privileges, responsibilities, and offices as the men. All were addressed
as (loose translation) "monk." Only titles of specific address
were gender-related (see RANKING), such that senior women were called
"older sister", training masters called "aunt", and so
Moving out the far door and continuing to the left, you
walk through a beautifully manicured garden. The path meanders among short
islands of grass and carefully raked sand and gravel. Small trees are
dotted among the islands. A pool of fish is on one side, and sitting near
it is a monk in meditation. At the far end are some students, also
meditating. Your walk ends abruptly at another wall, and you may go either
left or right; going right, you eventually come to the end of the wall,
which is the south face of the main and ceremonial temple building. Ahead
some 200 feet is the main gate again, but instead we turn left and proceed
across the barren courtyard towards the temple's entrance. We climb three
sets of stone stairs and pass through an intricate door, each side
supported by a column carved to resemble upwardly-flying dragons, their
scale edges colored with gold, their bodies painted dark green. Across the
entrance is a red plaque with gold characters that translate into
"Shaolin Temple." Huge wooden doors would normally be closed,
except when the temple is in ceremonial use; for now, they are open and we
Our eyes slowly adjust to the dark interior, illuminated
today by a minimum number of candles along each wall. Above and behind the
candles are statues, each 2-3 feet in height; along the left wall are
various incarnations of the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and important Shaolin
patriarchs from history. Along the right are depictions of the classical
animals in a variety of fighting stances, each posed as if defending its
human counterpart across the aisle. At the far end of the long hall is a
giant statue of the Buddha.
As you leave by a small rear door from the main temple,
you can again see the food area to the far left; ahead are the kitchens,
eating, and sleeping areas; and to the far right a string of low buildings
that house the common rooms, library, and writing areas. You walk through
the dining hall into another narrow courtyard bordered by a low wall. At
intervals along the wall are narrow entrances, each with a wooden door.
Beyond each door is an area for the training and instruction of kung
fu-these are the legendary chambers.
The training chambers of Shaolin have assumed a nearly
mythical status among martial artists, probably because of the legendary
results of their successful students. In reality, the chambers were simply
training areas for different aspects of kung fu. Some were style-specific,
that is, where you would learn the kuen (formwork) of tiger or dragon.
Others were places for muscular development, such as horse-training and
water-carrying chambers. Some taught coordination and reflex drills;
combat and sparring; weapons use; and meditation and visualization
techniques. The actual number of chambers varied, depending upon which
temple you were in, the combination of skills taught as a "core"
by particular training masters, and, naturally, the size of the temple. In
Canton, for example, many chambers served double or triple functions. You
might study a crane form in chamber 4 at 8 a.m., practice sparring there
at 12, and return for coordination drills at 5.
It is important to stress that more myth surrounds our
general beliefs about Shaolin monks than is warranted. Among the readily
dismissed fallacies are: Shaolin were all male, were celibate, were
primarily warriors, studied primarily kung fu, were all trained
physicians, were different somehow from other people. Myths place real
people on pedestals, and this does nothing for potential students. After
all, who could possibly and realistically expect to attain demi-godhood?
Shaolin had their heroes and villains, ascetic priests and political
rebels, devout celibates and prolific parents.
The most universally held belief seems to be that Shaolin
was a place to study, first and foremost, kung fu. China has a history of
hundreds of martial arts, only a small fraction being true
"Shaolin" practices, so it was virtually never necessary to get
thee to a convent to learn pugilism. In fact, the combat side of kung fu
was taught to Shaolin disciples as a means of combating the self, to
restrain ego and develop physical domain over your own body. Consider how
little true control people generally have over themselves; we are never
far from a "pathological" klutz, or people who revv their
physical energies to little avail. When Bodhidharma instituted the
practices that evolved into kung fu, his primary concern was to make the
monks physically strong enough to withstand both the isolated lifestyle
and the deceptively demanding training that meditation would require. In
fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that "one who engages in
combat has already lost the battle." Such philosophies, alas, make
for terrible movie plots...
The early phases of Shaolin training involved a lot of
what we would call grammar school (for most students, entry was made when
under the age of ten). Long days were spent learning to read and write,
and quality calligraphy was seen as proof of a good education. Students
also learned math, history, manners and customs, Taoist and Buddhist
philosophies, painting, music, textile work, agriculture, pottery, and
cooking. To be anything less than self-sufficient was seen as a failing of
the training regimen. Older students and disciples would often write books
of history, poetry, or natural history, while others would form musical
ensembles (often with a master or two), paint, or learn medicine. It was
one's development of the cultural side of life that mainly marked one's
standing in the Shaolin community.
Hence the rather large amount of building space for
housing a library, art materials, a music area, and other life-skills.
Such interests were actively encouraged, and to again draw a parallel to
modern American universities, such monks often taught "outreach"
sessions to the local community. Wandering monks brought art, reading,
medicine, and agriculture to remote villages, while people near a temple
could come for sessions in all these topics. Mainly, however, they came
for farming and medical assistance, as most Chinese villagers were not as
intellectually active as some "New Agers" would have us believe.
Now for a controversial note: our instructors, all
products of the old temples, taught that if a person study Shaolin and
learn little more than kung fu, he was not Shaolin. All the arts of the
temple were aimed at leading one closer to enlightenment by providing
tools to make a whole person, or what we often call Renaissance people. A
jack of many trades, master of one or two, those are qualities that define
a priest, according to those who long made such designations in China. If
you are a young person in school, do not sacrifice studies for martial
arts; even if you learn skill, a tool with a dull edge is a dull tool of