Combining the inherent contradiction of “Warrior Buddhists” with the legendary grand scale of Chinese military history, Shaolin monks have gotten some very interesting stories associated with them since the emperor of China made the order official circa 496 A.D. Some of which are so interesting you just know they’re not quite true, but can’t resist the urge to hear them. Here are ten of our favorites.
10. Much of the Combat Technique was Derived from Indian Animals
The kung fu combat techniques favored in China are actually reported by scholars to have been Indian in origin. A mystic was supposed to have gone into the area of the Shaolin Temple and introduced fighting techniques he had modeled off the movements of animals as if to give the organization a more benign, naturalistic air. As reported by National Geographic, though, it’s believed by historians that in fact the Shaolin tradition comes from something a little less enlightened. The organization started out essentially as someone’s private army, and the combat techniques came from within the group itself. A bit less pleasant to imagine them as probably a bunch of mercenaries in the beginning that took on a religious angle, but at least it’s a bit more grounded and relatable.
9. Thirteen Monks Save an Emperor
One of the earlier (and thus more far-fetched) legends relates to an event purported to have happened circa 621. Emperor Tang Taizong was besieging a rebel city when another rebel army of 300,000 arrived. He asked the Shaolins for help and received thirteen warriors. These thirteen were credited with making a key attack at a crucial moment in the subsequent battle and saved the army from destruction. In a battle that involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, it’s hard to imagine thirteen being the key to the whole battle without picturing something out of a cartoon.
8. The Training Trap Maze, i.e. “Wooden Men Lane”
The rigors of training for the organization naturally had to have exaggerated stories, especially for the final exam. A myth arose that beneath the temple, there was a maze of wooden dummies that trainees had to get through. By that is meant spinning wooden poles with smaller poles branching from them at varying lengths and heights that meant using different techniques to get through. This maze was supposed to have 36 different dummies that you had to get through, and they were equipped with deadly blades.
7. The God Vaprapni Hates Bullying & Vegetarianism
Vaprapni was a Hindu war god who was incorporated into Shaolin worship and the focus of a particularly odd story from seventh century A.D. There was a monk named Shengchou that was a living punching bag in his monastery. He begged to Vaprapni for help for six days. Vaprapni appeared, and then forced him to eat meat, an act which was taboo for a monk. From there it’s a typical nerd revenge fantasy where Shengchou demonstrates his great strength to his former tormentors and they beg his mercy. Why the Shaolin tradition would want a story of someone being rewarded for betraying their vows solely out of petty self-interest is really curious.
6. Ji Nau Lou’s Exploit
In the mid-sixth century, the Shaolin monks were dealing with an uprising from a group called the Red Turbans. At one point, the main body of monks had been called away from their temple, which was then attacked with only a small number of less distinguished personnel. One of them was a cook named Ji Nau Lou who’d been studying Shaolin tactics in secret. His method of saving the day was to grab a large flaming log from a fire (not a torch or anything so safe to handle, mind you) and use the staff techniques to scare the enemy away. Some versions bothered embellishing it by having him grow into a giant, which sounds like it would actually be slightly less cool to see than a normal-sized man.
5. The Unusual Way to Join
Speaking of the sixth century, here’s another legend from that period that’s quite impressive but for roughly the opposite reason. An Indian prince named Bodhidharma (changed to Damo) emigrated to China and was disgusted by the state he found the Shaolin Temple in and let it be known. After predictably alienating everyone in and related to the temple, he went to a nearby cave and began a meditation session. According to some legends, it stretched out for nine lunar cycles. In others, it was nine years. Whatever it was, it impressed the monastery enough that he was not only allowed into the order but he got his own room, although you’d imagine by then the cave probably would have felt like home by then anyway.
4. How to Escape With Style
In the mid-sixteenth century, the monastery was called upon to defend China from raids by Japanese pirates. Providing 120 warriors, they fought the Japanese in four battles armed with thirty-five pound staves and for the first three inflicted sound, one-sided defeats, suffering at most four casualties a fight. Then in the fourth one they were almost wiped out with three exceptions, though history has blamed that on bad military leadership from unrelated to the monks themselves. The story of the three is that they took reeds and buried themselves for a night, and then snuck away. It seems far-fetched and implausible, but also so undignified and specific that you have to wonder why anyone would make that up.
3. The Dashanmen (i.e., How to Leave the Order)
Leaving the monastery on honorable terms was, for obvious reasons, not easy. In fact a system was instituted that basically illustrated how those leaving had an unusually good grasp of the combat methods. Three monks would group together, and then face off in combat against eighteen others. You’d think word of this would never be allowed out for fear of how every time any three monks left it meant that very likely they’d just lost by far the very best fighters and the other eighteen must have been pretty badly humiliated. Nevertheless, stage reenactments of this myth are part of the Shaolin performing repertoire today.
2. The Strange Origin of Tea Bushes
This relates to the same event that happened in myth #5, but it’s so strange that it deserves a separate entry. You’ll recall it was said that the Indian prince immigrant spent nine years in meditation in a cave to contemplate the failings of the Shaolin monastery? Apparently those were nine very hard years, for in year seven, he fell unacceptably asleep. So he cut his own eyelids off to prevent any more of that unacceptable. When his amputated eyelids hit the soil, they changed into the first tea bushes. Presumably as nature’s way of honoring his sacrifice which would very blind him in real life. Probably the real reason this was concocted was because they thought an unappetizing legend would make monks a bit less eager to use up the tea supply.
1. The Needle through Glass
Probably the most widely publicized single myth in the Shaolin legacy (except of course for Kung Fu Panda) is this video of a monk throwing a needle through a piece of glass like his arm has converted it into a bullet. Controversially, this myth was “busted” on, well, Mythbusters. Where else? Shaolin fans claim that the trick shown in the video involves a combination of using a stronger needle than the one used to test the myth and a thinner pane of glass. In fact, Wired reported that a German TV show years before Mythbusters had replicated the demonstration. Whatever the truth, make sure to skip the first minute of that video anytime you try to show it to anybody.