"How do you become a monk?"
I really didn't want to go here, but I've been asked by far too many people. I have had the experience of visiting with many monks throughout Asia, and the differences and similarities, are profound. In Thailand, the monks beg on the streets, walk barefoot, and clothe themselves apparently constantly in their monk garb. But despite their appearances, they command respect above all in their society, with the exception of the king and royal family. In Tibet, the monks live a secluded life inside the monasteries, clothed again in their monk garb, and spend a good deal of their time praying and taking care of the various temples. They derive an incredible amount of respect from the largely Buddhist community, who revere them as their spiritual and political leaders. The "liberation" by the Chinese in the late 1950's has changed that to a degree, and apparently, will continue to change that, as I predict the monks will continue to take a less up front image in the community, and be relegated more to the still revered but less powerful temples throughout the land. The image of monk ranges from poor street pauper but highly respected individual to highly religious but hidden temple inhabitant. So where does the Shaolin monk fit in?
Tough question. Historically, the monks at the Shaolin Temple have basically been divided into two camps, the predominantly Buddhist monks, and the predominantly martial monks, or, as they have been called, monk soldiers. Has there historically been rivalry between the two factions? Who knows, but from my talks with Shi Wen Heng, apparently it is an issue that might never be resolved. According to Shi Wen Heng and Shi Su Xi, the monks of the Shaolin Temple all lived at the Temple, all studied Buddhism to various degrees, and all studied gong fu, also to various degrees. Some of the monks spent their time traveling to other monasteries in China, not only to discuss various Buddhist aspects, but to demonstrate and teach their specialties in gong fu. This intra-China cultural exchange between monks and monasteries went on for centuries, and was not only limited to monasteries within China's borders. This is the reason why Shaolin martial arts, though probably not the original martial art of China (fighting techniques within China, and other countries, originated and evolved to some degree centuries before the founding of the Shaolin Temple) has spread it's brand of gong fu eventually to some degree, throughout the world. But times have changed in the world, and World War II, along with the subsequent takeover by the communists in China in 1948, have led to major changes in the functioning of the Temple. Chairman Mao's Great Step Forward, the Cultural Revolution, caused many changes at the Shaolin Temple. (It eventually became referred to as Mao's Great Leap Backward, though you won't find anyone in China saying that). During the later stages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many of the Temple monks eventually had to flee from the area. By the time it was all over, the Temple had yet again been partially destroyed, most of the old texts were missing, and all of the monks, save fourteen (Shi Wen Heng, and Shi Su Xi included), had returned to private lives and had disappeared into the masses. Those fourteen monks revived the centuries old tradition of the Shaolin Temple, and started again, to take in students. Those monks of the Yan and De generations were the ones who started at the Temple anew after the Revolution. Over the years, Buddhist teachings and gong fu training again took place inside the Temple walls (see Shi Xing Hong, for a description of daily life inside the Temple during these years).
In the late 1980's the Chinese government, after realizing that the controlled revival of old traditions were good for the people, built what is now known as the Shaolin Temple wushu guan. Prior to this, a wushu guan down the street from the Temple, owned by an ex-monk, Chen Tongshan, taught gong fu to outside students. Since then, and at present, ex-monks, and others claiming to be experts in wu shu, have opened their own private schools in gong fu. The government has a school, or, used to have a school (it is in the process of being privatized, as is many government facilities nowadays) at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Guan. Since it's inception in the 1989, students were sent there to learn gong fu. Those that were very good at it were given the opportunity, at age 18, to become monks (or disciples of their masters), and to officially declare themselves "Shaolin Temple monks". Some of them then retreated to live at the Temple proper (and others, who were not trained in gong fu, had moved directly to the Temple to study Buddhism solely, and some continue to do so). As I've said elsewhere in the site, the Chinese government started to spend a lot of money rebuilding the previously destroyed areas of the Temple (predominantly the entrance area buildings), and tourism increased. As tourism increased, and demand for gong fu training increased, some of the monks, predominantly the martial monks, were moved out to live at the wushu guan, where they trained new students. As time went by, more and more of these monks were moved to the wushu guan, and subsequently, seeing economic opportunities, left the wushu guan to enter private lives. The move to private lives entailed predominantly martial arts training, as they had a love and devotion to the spreading of Shaolin gong fu, but some left to private lives that were more consistent with the general population. For example, one of my qi gong masters, is a bank teller at nearby DengFeng. He left the Temple in his mid twenties, married, and started a family, though he still teaches more advanced methods of qi gong to those who can find him. He is now referred to as a "su jia ditz a", or, custom monk. This is the term that is used for those few foreigners who become disciples of a Shaolin monk and of the Temple. He still retains his standing with the Temple, but continues on with his life outside of it.
Another two of my masters, Shi De Cheng and Shi Xing Hong, find themselves teaching Shaolin gong fu in other countries. They still have strong ties to the Temple, still study Buddhism, and still uphold a standard of moral ethics that they learned while at the Temple, but now, they live in other countries, speak other languages, and more than likely, partake of those commodities that we in the outside world have come to take for granted. But in my mind, and in the abbot's mind, they are still Shaolin Temple monks. Actually, if you look historically at the travels of the Shaolin monks, this is really no different than what many monks have done in the past few centuries. It is wrong to belittle these dedicated people who travel to spread their sacred traditions to other countries, as some have here in the US. Teaching gong fu does not make them any less of a monk. As Shi Xing Hong told me, what makes one a monk is found in the heart.
To become a monk is a different question. And it is not the same procedure as it once historically was. No longer does the Temple take young children into it's walls to any significant degree. No longer does the Temple take outsiders into it's surroundings to teach them gong fu and Buddhism. People in China who are interested in this tradition (and, truthfully, most seem to be interested in just learning gong fu, for purely economic reasons and future employment) stay at the various private schools in the valley. Occasionally, monks of the Temple will search these schools looking for the best quality students, with respect to honor, abilities, honesty, and other important ethical and moral qualities. They then give these students the opportunities to join with the Temple, form bonds with the existing monks, and become disciples (monks) themselves. Some of these might end up at the wushu guan teaching other students, some might end up in the Temple itself. But the days of entering the monk hood by knocking on the Temple doors in the middle of the night are basically over. And I predict, the close association of the wushu guan with the Shaolin Temple is limited, and probably doomed in the future. Which leaves a question that I fear, and cannot answer. What will happen to the "monk tradition" of the Shaolin Temple in the future?
So to answer the topic of discussion here, I would respond with another question. Why would you want to be a monk?
Just a few more thoughts, before we move onward. There is no "belt" system in China to denote levels of abilities in gong fu. To the monks, the "belts" or sashes that they wear are basically to keep their robes from "flowing in the wind" and getting into their way when they practice their gong fu. The concept of colored belts to denote ability is absurd to them. There seems to be four levels of ability delineated here, though, I tend to think that this is probably more Americanized than it should be. A student, which is someone who wants to learn gong fu, trains, and ends up at some sort of expertise in gong fu; a disciple, which is someone who has taken the vows to Buddha, the Temple, and one's master, has developed a mutual bond, trust, and level of devotion with one's master, and who has achieved a certain level of expertise in gong fu; a master, which denotes the "teacher" of what we would call the "student-teacher" relationship (or in this case, the "master-disciple" relationship); and a grandmaster, which denotes a monk who has achieved a certain excellence in gong fu, who is a certain age (usually over 70), and who has been responsible for the training of many of the Temple's masters. However, I think that the term "grandmaster" is one which we have imparted to them. To most monks, one is either a master or a disciple. A master will take one as a disciple once one proves himself, and once both have agreed to have a certain level of mutual trust, discipline, devotion and dedication; at that time, the master will then teach the disciple all of the art. (As opposed to what the masters teach the "students", for lack of a better word, just basic gong fu maneuvers, without applications, or the "secrets" of the art). In the monk's minds, the concept of a student probably doesn't really exist then; if someone wants to be his disciple, and be privileged to learn all that the master has to offer, then he goes through the process. All others are basically people that the monk just shows off his stuff to, and therefore, do not "exist" as a student. As Shi Xing Xi said to me and my associates when they visited Las Vegas (February 2000), there is only master and disciple. This concept was inadvertently demonstrated when we discussed exactly what the limits were when it came to a monk teaching a foreigner gong fu. "I will teach you everything", he said, looking at me. The implications of this, with the knowledge that the Chinese will not say anything that another might find offensive or condescending (no one ever causes another to "lose face") are obvious.
So, the finish, the way to become a "monk", is to find a Shaolin monk, and become his disciple. Does it cost money? No. One needs to be accepted, and one also needs to undergo a ceremony at the Temple (usually held at the Temple), in which one takes vows to the Temple, to Buddha, and to one's master. the important thing here, is the bond and level of devotion that both mutually decide to engage in. This is a more prevalent occurrence in China that one could imagine. But many of these "monks" do not live in the Temple proper. There are a small number of monks who live in the Temple, but as I alluded to before, the days of the Shaolin Temple monk living at the Temple, training at the Temple, defending the populace, growing food, etc, as we have envisioned them in our minds and in our movies, are basically over.