Top 10 Myths about the Shaolin Monks

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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

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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.

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9. Thirteen Monks Save an Emperor

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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.

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8. The Training Trap Maze, i.e. “Wooden Men Lane”

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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.

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7. The God Vaprapni Hates Bullying & Vegetarianism

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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.

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6. Ji Nau Lou’s Exploit

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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.

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5. The Unusual Way to Join

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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.

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4. How to Escape With Style

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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.

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3. The Dashanmen (i.e., How to Leave the Order)

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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.

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2. The Strange Origin of Tea Bushes

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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.

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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.

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11 Comments

  1. #8: in Wing Chun (or Ving Tsun, depending on where you practice the art) they actually do use wooden practise dummies.

    Also, I’m not sure whether or not this is common knowledge, but the Shorinji-ryu school of karate is based on Shaolin kung-fu. Shorin is the Japanese spelling of Shaolin.

    I’m sorry if this information is “too niche” for you, Shell Harris.

      • No, not really. Sorry. I love this site. I wouldn’t read it every day if I didn’t. I was referring to a list that I submitted once that was considered “too niche” to be published. But it’s ok, I’m over it. 😀

  2. #8 You show no proof that the 13 did not change the outcome of the war. Its been noted through out history one or two people changing the course of battle or war. why not 13???

  3. Not a Progressive on

    so you say #1 couldn’t happen because a couple of hipsters on a show “busted” the myth. Yet I suppose you think events like World’s Strongest Man competitions are real (and they’re all filled with Caucasians, what a coincidence) because they’re shown lifting 300 pound stones and tossing them around. I could easily “prove” it’s fake by claiming the stones are nothing more than paper mache. Just because you can’t wrap your one side western centric little mind around something doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

  4. Hmmm.. I was expecting proof that the above mentioned were really myths.
    Instead, we get the scarce details about each single myth with no evidence to refute that it’s not real.

    So it’s like, even if we change the title of the article to “top 10 truths about shaolin”, it wouldn’t make a difference either.

  5. umm... ted. i'll be ted on

    umm… number one. not a myth. I trained in china for a year (not in wudang, where shaolin temple is, but at a northern academy. Dont underestimate how heavy the needle is or how crappy the glass is. It took a long time to be able to do it reliably- reliably is the wrong word. I could stick the needle fairly often. But it does work.

  6. I don’t know how much the author read about history of China, but in some of the “myths”, they were written by the royal court.
    To anyone who has the slightest idea of how China Dynasties operate, they tend to keep their notes about each and every events, like when an emperor went for an expedition, or married who, even about their top officials.

    And the next Dynasty that come after that, tend to keep those documents too, for learning, most likely to learn from the previous Dynasty mistakes.
    That’s why people can trace the history of China for thousands of years.

    So for #9, if the emperor was involved in the war personally and asked for the help of the Shaolin, it will be noted down.

    I have noticed that at the end of some of the myths, the writer said stuffs like

    “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.”

    “It seems far-fetched and implausible, but also so undignified and specific that you have to wonder why anyone would make that up.”

    ” they’d just lost by far the very best fighters and the other eighteen must have been pretty badly humiliated. ”

    The point of Shaolin Temple, they never find the need to hide unglamorous situations. That’s what kept them humble. They follow their religion teachings, they learned from mistakes, they moved on and improved themselves. Maybe that’s why after over a thousand years, they still exist to the present day.

    As for #6.. just because the author was unable to achieve that feat, doesn’t mean that others that trained everyday to master the Shaolin Kung Fu wouldn’t be able to do that.

    FYI, I’m not a Shaolin fan, nor am I religious.

  7. Please upload a video of a successful throw! I tend to believe it’s possible, I would like to see it, I’m leaning towards about 80% that it can be done. There are a few factors that are important, weight, length, sharpness of point, density and hardness of the needle vs the thickness and type of glass, simple!
    It could be tested with a blow gun, scientifically measured, if the speed is plausible, just do it!
    Let’s see it, martial artists!
    R.L. Hamm

  8. Vajrapani was never a Hindu war god. He is a Buddhist Bodhisattva who represents the power aspect of Enlightenment and is one of the few Bodhisattvas mentioned in the Pali Canon. He is the patron Bodhisattva of Shaolin.