Editors' pick

Shaolin Warriors


Editorial Review

Lisa Traiger wrote about the Shaolin Warriors in November 2003 for The Washington Post:

Sure, Jackie Chan is a wonder to behold. That's in the movies, though. When the monks of Shaolin (the Shaolin Warriors as they bill themselves) perform their "ballet" of defensive and battle-ready martial arts, they're not acting. See for yourself this weekend at Lisner Auditorium; the arsenal of weapons they wield -- axes, cudgels, spears, darts, daggers and a trunkful of other equally menacing tools -- is all real. It's enough to make you want to sit a few rows back, away from the heart of the action.

Shaolin kung fu is more than a martial art. Yang Bin and Xu Pengjun, two of the 23 monks appearing on this third American tour, recently described the origins of Shaolin and life in their monastery at the base of Mount Shaoshi in central China's Henan province. Dating from 525 AD -- when Bodhidharma, a traveling Buddhist monk from India, looked about and said, "This is the place" -- the Shaolin monastery has grown to support an elaborate codified system of mind, body and spiritual techniques.

In that ancient monastery the monks studied, meditated and copied holy texts. But Bodhidharma noticed that, hunched over their books or seated in contemplative positions, they were unfit to attain the highest levels of nirvana. Drawing from yoga postures and the traits of animals, he created a series of exercises that evolved into defensive techniques when the monks needed to protect themselves in war-torn feudal China.

Yang, speaking through a translator, noted that the monks begin their regimen as early as age 6 or 7; two of those acolytes, ages 9 and 10, are traveling with the company. "The monks practice five to six hours of martial arts in their monastery," Yang explained in Mandarin through company translator Goo Lai. Goo added his own thoughts: "Each monk is required to achieve an extraordinarily high level of proficiency in each of the 18 traditional [Chinese] weapons and to become a master of one." In addition to working daily on their kung fu techniques, Yang notes that they practice seated meditation for two to three hours, which enables them to sustain the demanding physical regimen.

"I am an expert" in the drunken cudgel, Yang continues. Before performing drunken cudgel, he explained, "I will bring my mood to be like a real drunken man; the style is a drunken style, but I'm not drunk. I pay all my attention to attacking and defending. It's a way to trick the enemy."

His colleague Xu adds, "I am master of double nine-section whip. I wield two whips with nine sections, one in each hand. When I practice this weapon I have to control my mood because this weapon is very different to control because of the nine parts. I have to control my mood and pay attention to the skills and techniques."

While the monks are experts of these elaborate defensive fighting techniques, they never put their skills to aggressive use. Through Zen meditation they quiet their minds to calm their bodies and focus intently. This complete state of mental absorption, samadhi, allows the monks to sustain extreme physical discomfort or pain. You may see a monk chopping vegetables while his stomach serves as the cutting board. Another may crack a steel pole over his head. Yet they remain unharmed.

Translator Goo adds, "We want the American audiences to understand that the main characteristic of Shaolin kung fu is the perfect combination of Zen and martial arts. You will see some ceremonies of Zen Buddhism; you will see how the monks practice their seated meditation. That is the main difference between popular movies of martial arts and the real Shaolin kung fu because Shaolin monks, they always espouse a philosophy of the combination of Zen and martial arts. Without Zen, there would be no martial art."