Shaolin Awesome
November 27, 2007 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Over the past eight years, photographer Jus­tin Guariglia has slowly but surely won the trust of the notoriously secretive warrior monks of the Shaolin Temple. Shamelessly taken from, because this is some amazing photography and video.

"With the blessing of the main abbot, Shi Yong Xin, Guariglia has earned the full collaboration of the monks to create an astonishing, empathic record of the Shaolin art forms and the individuals who consider themselves the keepers of these traditions. It is the first time the monks have allowed such extensive documentation of these masters and their centuries-old art forms-from Buddhist mudras to classical kung fu-in their original setting, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist temple."

Additionally: Yes, the single finger handstand is real.
posted by lazaruslong (34 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Cool Shaolin Beans, thanks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:57 PM on November 27, 2007

If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous!
posted by basicchannel at 7:03 PM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well I don't know about you guys, but as for me...
posted by mullingitover at 7:06 PM on November 27, 2007

Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:07 PM on November 27, 2007

Neat stuff! The Shaolin temple is crawling with tourists these days, but it's nice to see the monks are still at it.
posted by pravit at 7:12 PM on November 27, 2007

I curse photographers and their no-working flash interfaces from here to eternity!
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:27 PM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think we broke it. I keep trying to purchase the book, and the site goes down.

Apparently, our Meta style is stronger than their Shaolin Fist.
posted by fnord at 8:00 PM on November 27, 2007

Heh. They mystic-looking writing on the bamboo in that last picture is actually the Chinese equivalent of "Kilroy was 'ere" scratched by a couple of tourists.
posted by Abiezer at 8:52 PM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

We laughed at Star Wars Kid, but he was actually performing the yue ya cha. Who knew?
posted by blacklite at 9:12 PM on November 27, 2007

fnord - lol
posted by janetplanet at 9:27 PM on November 27, 2007

hold still grasshopper, we're gonna peddle our cultural heritage to jaded internet voyeurs!
posted by bruce at 10:42 PM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

The question remains... did he learn the five point palm exploding heart technique?
posted by eitan at 11:29 PM on November 27, 2007

It took this guy 16 years. They're a quieter sort of monk, though.
posted by stavrogin at 1:21 AM on November 28, 2007

Save your energy, you'll need it for... the tournament.
posted by fuq at 7:02 AM on November 28, 2007

Secretive until the 36th chamber was opened.
posted by iamck at 7:29 AM on November 28, 2007

I am going to call bullshit on this. Shaolin Temple is a tourist trap, the monks are actors, and their kung fu is for demonstration only. As they say in Chinese, huaquan xiutui - flower fist, silk leg. It looks pretty, but that is all.
posted by alexwoods at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2007

Beautiful, whether real or not.
posted by malaprohibita at 8:58 AM on November 28, 2007

alexwoods: What exactly are you "calling bullshit" on? Are you suggesting that for the last 1,500 years, the Temple has existed solely to generate tourist revenue, and the monks have always been indoctrinated as actors for a profit motive? That Shaolin kung-fu has always been used for "demonstration" only?
posted by lazaruslong at 9:09 AM on November 28, 2007

I think he said what he's calling bullshit on. Shaolin Temple is a tourist trap. I didn't hear him say anything about the last 1500 years. (Altho there's an awful lot of historical bullshit, too, to be sure...)
posted by It ain't over yet at 9:50 AM on November 28, 2007

alexwoods: calling bullshit on what you probably don't know much about is easy. I'm gonna repost part of what I already posted elsewhere.

(disclaimer: I'm indirectly associated with Shaolin Temple through my teacher Shi Yan Fan, a disciple of Abbot Shi Yong Xin and fully ordained monk of Shaolin Temple Song Shan, as well as our own organization Shaolin Temple LA. We travel to the temple every other year).


I think it is important to distinguish between the outward appearance and presentation of the temple and its inner life. The path of Shaolin Chan is not external and what is presented to the outside is created to serve different purposes such as promoting and securing the temple, keeping it financially well off, and giving people glimpses of the energy found inside. Anyone looking to explore the spiritual and physical reality of Shaolin Chan must turn away from the buildings and the demonstrations and the publicity and actually simply find a teacher and begin to practice. This is still happening at the temple but it's not very visible to anyone on the outside.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:10 PM on November 28, 2007

I once went trekking up in the mountains in a Bai area in Yunnan. We cam across a tumbledown temple and could hear the sound of hammering coming from inside. We went to investigate and turned out it was a monk carving names onto a 功德碑, a list of donors who'd given money to the temple restoration. He stopped and invited us to join him for tea. He told us he'd studied at Shaolin but had gone there because the temple needed restoring and local people appreciated his pastoral services. he was doing a lot of the building worl himslef, it seemed. There was a homemade punch-bag hanging up in one of the half-repaired halls. We got to talking about taichi which I was studying at the time and he gave me a run through of some of the forms I was learning in a very impressive fashion. he might have been making it all up I suppose, but he seemed like the real thing to me.
posted by Abiezer at 12:48 PM on November 28, 2007

Real ultimate yadda.
posted by JHarris at 1:03 PM on November 28, 2007

To be fair, the kung fu timeline on the site does state that Shaolin monks were known to tourists by 23 and were regularly performing kung fu for tourists by 1673. I don't think in that light it is fair to say that the temple has recently sold out. They are only continuing to do what they have done for centuries.

Also, the designer of that website is apparently master of the Hidden Lotus Mystery Meat Navigation technique.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:33 PM on November 28, 2007

lazaruslong: To clarify, I am "calling bullshit" (starting to regret having used that term) for the current state of Shaolin Temple and the touring groups of monks that represent it. It is a huge, huge tourist trap, the people who live there are monks in name only, and real martial artists (of which I am not one) can beat them silly. I am not in any way impugning Bodhidharma, but allow me to observe that if he came back I don't think he would spend much time at Shaolin. And yes, I can't imagine anyone using "Shaolin kung fu" in an actual fight, and it would surprise me if anyone has in the last couple hundred years.

Hairy: I'm sorry if I offended you, but I am not exactly totally uninformed. Disclaimer: I think esoteric buddhism is a con, and that it permits all sorts of charlatans who are supposedly official representatives of official lineages to prosper. The great buddhist teachers of the past all put their teaching out in the open for everyone to see, and there is no reason why modern teachers should not do the same. You should be someone's disciple based only on their teaching, and not because they claim to be the sixth patriarch's dharma heir. I am not impressed by claimed credentials or by people who do more pushups than me or burn incense on their skin, and I think trying to distinguish between teachings based on which is more official is worse than a waste of time. I hope you have a good teacher and that you are developing in your study, and that it's not costing you too much money.

Abiezer: All I'm saying w/r/t kung fu is that it is no more than tai chi - it is good exercise and it looks pretty. Try using it to fight a good boxer sometime. By the way, I love your posts - I have a separate bookmark for them.

posted by alexwoods at 2:35 PM on November 28, 2007

I could probably go along with a fair chunk of that alexwoods, without knowing the particular ins and outs of Shaolin beyond various paper gossip.
I meant with then monk I mentioned that he seemed to be a serious Buddhist living the dharma life - which is more impressive to me than martial arts. (btw I have boxed, Western and kick, but that was before I did the taichi. I reckon there were a few things in it might come in handy.) Commerce is running riot in China at the moment and all sorts of traditions now have the fresh assault of money added to tight state control. But I have met a number of religious figures operating within the official Buddhist organisations (in Tibetan and Chinese traditions) who seemed to be balancing practical worldly demands with serious practice.
When I visited Shaolin itself back in the 90s it was certainly a pretty obvious tourist trap to the casual observer - they had this giant plastic Maitreya for kids to run around in and lots of stalls selling shoddy weaponry. But then I thought, the temple fairs were possibly very similar way back in the high days of the Tang and Song.
posted by Abiezer at 2:58 PM on November 28, 2007

lazaruslong: To clarify, I am "calling bullshit" (starting to regret having used that term) for the current state of Shaolin Temple and the touring groups of monks that represent it.

I see what you are saying here, though I also would question the turn of phrase.

There are lots of commodities in this world sold for money. To me personally, the experience of seeing ancient art forms demonstrated in front of you in a gorgeous setting steeped in tradition seems like one of the least offensive forms of capitalism.

If we are comparing "purity values" to various cultures though, count me out, because I am too ignorant to contribute.

I still don't think that Shaolin temples making money off of tourists (as they have been for 400 years) means that they are "bullshit".
posted by lazaruslong at 3:31 PM on November 28, 2007

It means they are "profitable" while still, to me, via photography and video, "beautiful".
posted by lazaruslong at 3:32 PM on November 28, 2007

Abiezer - all good points. As to religious figures operating within the official organizations, it's not clear that they always have other options. There is a fascinating book about modern Chinese hermits called Road to Heaven that has a lot to say about this tension. It's by Bill Porter a/k/a Red Pine, who is for my money the greatest living translator of the Chinese language - no offense, I haven't seen your work. He spent a fair amount of time trekking around the mountains looking for the remnants of the great Chinese tradition of renouncing the world and sitting in a hut in the mountains all day. The people he interviews are honest-to-god buddhists and taoists, but can't become hermits, or even live in a monastery, without official permission. In other words, to do a certain sort of Buddhist practice, Chinese people have no choice but to work through the official hierarchy.
posted by alexwoods at 3:33 PM on November 28, 2007

It means they are "profitable" while still, to me, via photography and video, "beautiful".

True, and sorry to attack your interesting and thought-provoking post.
posted by alexwoods at 3:34 PM on November 28, 2007

No worries mate, I didn't really see it as an attack on the post, but more was confused and worried I may have missed something! Seems like you and others here are more informed on the subject itself, I just really enjoyed the photos and video.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:40 PM on November 28, 2007

alexwoods - you might enjoy this recent article from JIATS on Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai shan, including the return of certain Han teachers after the Cultural Revolution. I thought it was an excellent read, but maybe a bit esoteric for a MeFi post.
I'd seen that Porter book reviewed and almost bought it last time I was in HK. Regret that I didn't now.
posted by Abiezer at 4:00 PM on November 28, 2007

alexwoods: you haven't offended me... sometimes I just get defensive of Shaolin because there's always the same reaction of "it's all bs". The front the temple puts up has virtually nothing to do with the practice of Shaolin Chan inside. Of course that means that everyone who isn't actually involved in the practice usually ends up confusing the external appearance with the internal reality.

As far as your assessment is concerned:

"All I'm saying w/r/t kung fu is that it is no more than tai chi - it is good exercise and it looks pretty."

First of all Kung Fu is not the martial art (Wu Shu is, though the use of that word has been corrupted and it's now generally applied to showy acrobatics). Kung Fu can be interpreted as referring both to the hard work, dedication and discipline put into acquiring and perfecting any skill (not just martial skills) as well as to the state this kind of discipline leads to of becoming a meritable person.

The majority of physical exercises practiced when studying Shaolin do not look pretty at all. It's simply hours and hours of grueling conditioning to develop flexibility, power and endurance as well as endless hours of Qi Gong. The "pretty" forms are practiced to develop coordination, fluidity and mental concentration. Usually, besides the conditioning, a person will focus on a single form for the rest of their lives in an attempt to perfect it. There really is no real-world fighting "application" purpose to them, only the goal to perfect your mental discipline. Without many years of conditioning (not 3 or 5 but 20 or 30 years) these forms remain empty and devoid of power. Of course forms are what is presented to the rest of the world because they're interesting.
Whether or not someone trained in Shaolin martial arts will beat a boxer or not is completely besides the point of Shaolin training. Your only true opponent in Shaolin martial arts is yourself. And the only fight is in challenging yourself and nature. To see what is possible and what is not, to discover how your own mind operates and what life is like when you understand your own mental processes better. To find out your own true nature and to live a long and peaceful life in top mental and physical health.

That said Shaolin conditioning practiced for many years can very well put someone in a state where it becomes very difficult to hurt them or incapacitate them. Extreme flexibility, pain resistance and good bone/muscle conditioning go a long way when it comes to protecting yourself.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:13 PM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

you might enjoy this recent article from JIATS on Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai shan, including the return of certain Han teachers after the Cultural Revolution. I thought it was an excellent read, but maybe a bit esoteric for a MeFi post.

Good link, thanks. Here's a recent post about Wutai Shan.
posted by homunculus at 6:39 PM on November 28, 2007

In search of China's Shaolin soul
posted by homunculus at 12:54 PM on December 25, 2007

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