When we imagine life in a Shaolin Buddhist temple, we think of a place far removed from contact with the mundane. Where the simple, quiet atmosphere of spiritual retreat combines with the arduous training of martial arts to help forge the minds and hearts of the monks in their orange robes as they walk the Buddha’s path.

The reality is less romantic.

In 1992, Matthew Polly, a 21-year-old American, arrived at the gates of the famous temple with the idea of ​​becoming a disciple and learning kung fu, motivated perhaps by Bruce Lee’s films or David Carradine in his role of  Kwai Chang Caine. His first image of the place puzzled him. Thousands of tourists swarming everywhere. Cars, tour buses, and donkey carts mingled on the streets near the temple. Dozens of restaurants competing to feed the curious, attracted by the mythical name of the place, and among rickety houses some Kung Fu schools with similar names and of dubious origin.

As Polly said, “This is a cheap Disneyland.”

After searching through the crowd, he found a monk in the video game room. He would be the intermediary who would contact Polly for the future abbot of the temple, the monk Shi Yongxin.

The intermediary said, “The apprenticeship has a political purpose. Yongxin is the next abbot. He has a good relationship with the big figures in Beijing.”

At the time, Shi was the president of the Shaolin Temple and a representative of the National People’s Congress. He moved around in an imported luxury car with a driver, which they said was a gift from a well-known Beijing politician.

Faith, and something else

After giving an envelope with 1111 yuan to Shi, and a simple bow, Polly became the first foreign disciple of the Shaolin.

The price to pay as a foreigner was much more than I thought. Tuition was $1,300 a month. Far exceeding Polly’s budget. After haggling and lying a bit, he managed to bargain his way down to less than half. To become a disciple does not only depend on faith, sweat, and tears.

Buddhist monks must stay within the requirements of an austere life—without material possessions—in order to eliminate their earthly attachments and forge themselves through suffering. They eat little and sleep on the ground. Historically, monks relied on begging for their food. Many forgot the inner content of this practice of austerity and were carried away by the search for comfort. Some began selling martial arts-related items to raise money, buy a passport, and pursue the American dream.

According to Polly’s point of view, “In the game with the local government, Shi Yongxin earned more profit for the Shaolin and allowed the monks to live a good, very happy life. It was very successful.”

Despite his initial disappointment, Polly was drawn to kung fu. Among the martial arts master monks inside the temple, some displayed unique abilities that amazed the new disciple.

One of the elderly monks mastered the skill of the “iron sand palm” and with his right hand was able to split a palm-sized stone. He practiced every day, his right hand was visibly larger than the other.

Another monk, named Dong, showed his “iron crotch” skills in an exhibition. He spread his legs and let a monk kick him in the groin, full force. Dong didn’t flinch. Polly was surprised and wanted to try it. He gained momentum and punched the monk between his legs. The monk remained impassive. Polly angrily kept pounding until his feet were numb but to no avail. “Your groin is harder than my feet,” he said later.

Dong showed the training required to achieve this skill. He placed his testicles on a table and began to hit the scrotum with the palm of his hand. 

He then tied a one-pound stone to his private parts and began dragging the stone across the floor as he walked. Still amazed by this display, Polly decided it wasn’t worth taking the practice to this extreme.

After spending two years as a disciple in the temple. Polly returned to the U.S., and began a career as a writer, publishing his experiences in the book “American Shaolin,” which achieved some success. The book was based on his experiences in the Shaolin Temple.

 Zen Buddhism and kung fu

The history of the Shaolin Temple began with the arrival of Buddhabhadra, (Ba Tuo) from India who built a small temple on Songshan Mountain, in Henan Province, China, in AD 495 to teach Buddhism.

Thirty years later, another monk from India named Bodhidharma knocked on the temple door to be admitted, but the abbot refused him entry. The monk, after being rejected, climbed the mountains and settled in a cave to meditate for nine years. The monk’s shadow was engraved on the stone, which was moved and today is displayed in the temple complex.

The abbot of the temple finally accepted Bodhidharma and he later became the patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

Once at the temple, Bodhidharma began teaching a series of exercises that, combined with other martial techniques, gave birth to the Shaolin version of kung fu.

Throughout its history, the Shaolin Temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

After being attacked by Kuomintang soldiers and then looted by Mao’s anti-religious policies, in the 1970s it began to flourish thanks to the success of martial arts in film and TV.

Today, the Shaolin Temple welcomes 2 million tourists a year, 150,000 of them foreigners. Students come from all over the world, not to become Buddhists, but to practice kung fu. 

Shi, who is now the abbot of the temple, is the driving force behind this new stage. From being a Buddhist religious temple, it became a company that registered the name Shaolin as a trademark and spread its fame around the world. Companies of monks offer shows in which they display their skills, while profits are capitalized with the formation of new kung fu schools, temples, and recreation centers like the one announced in Australia. It is a $297 million complex that will include a temple, a hotel, a kung fu academy and a golf course. The abbott commented, “If China can import Disney resorts, why can’t other countries import Shaolin monasteries?”

The excessive commercialization of Buddhist religious heritage disgusts believers and symbolizes the current state of degradation of religious institutions in which money is prioritized over spiritual pursuit. I don’t think Sakya Muni, the founder of Buddhism, and Bodhidharma would have wanted to leave such a legacy.

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