When Hollywood discovered the Shaolin monastery 50 years ago, it proclaimed the temple as the heart of Kung Fu. Shrouded in tradition, the temple houses 400 monks, 100 of which are warrior monks. But what Hollywood doesn’t understand is that for these monks, Kung Fu isn’t just a martial art, it’s a spiritual practice. The extraordinary final test to become a Shaolin Master exemplifies that belief.
The BBC’s Sacred Wonders series dedicated an episode to following the journey of a Shaolin monk as he took this final test. To rise to the point of taking the test is a process of years, with thousands of hours of dedicated practice. The test not only has requirements in Kung Fu, but also in Buddhist teachings. There’s plenty of pressure to perform well, especially since if he should fail, the monk will have to wait three years before he can try again.
Kung Fu is thought to have originated as a way for monks to stay physically fit enough to make it through hours of silent meditation. The skills gained through the practice came in handy as the monks used their martial art to protect themselves and local villages. Today, perfecting the art is a sign of spiritual mastery. Throughout the course of their studies, each monk chooses a specialty. For the monk being tested, it’s Monkey Stick, but there’s one skill he has yet to master. In response to his struggles, his mentor shares an insight that speaks to the spiritual side of Kung Fu. “You are struggling to do it well because of what is inside. Your mind is not at peace.”
The monk must also display his mastery of spiritual matters. The masters will require him to recite a passage from any of over 200 pages of mantras.
The first part of the test involves displaying Kung Fu mastery before the temple abbot and three other masters. The first part goes well for the young monk, even with the challenging technique that he has struggled with. The mantra test…also goes well. Now the monk will spend the rest of working toward enlightenment. “I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to be ordained. It’s a new starting point for my life journey.”