Shaolin Training: Living like a Shaolin Monk – by Fabio Zambelli
Definition of Art. Art is to me synonymous of “infinite practice for the attainment of perfection”. Applied to Martial Arts, this term actualizes into harsh, never ending, and sometimes mentally unacceptable workouts. In this regard I will bring my personal experience of monastery-like lifestyle that I decided to embrace since 2006, when I travelled to a Shaolin Academy in China for the first time in my life.
A Shaolin Martial Arts Academy just looks like one of the hundreds schools a student can decide to travel to, but different from a common “martial arts school” because of the Monastery-based training style we, as overseas students, were subjected to, and the reason is first and foremost for being on the top of a hill, far away from the distractions of the industrialized world.
Why going through such experience? It’s extremely important to specify that the reason why I decided to have such a journey was because I needed a direct experience with Shaolin Martial Arts, in order to offer my Students a type of training that could be as close as possible to the one that Shaolin Monks do. In the end, I think it’s not real Martial Arts if you don’t go to the roots of the source you are studying: in my case it was Shaolin Kungfu, but I am sure that you would travel to Japan if you are a Karate Practitioner. Same criteria applies to other styles.
Living like a Monk
My room at the Academy was a nine square meter based cube, white walls, with just a panel of wood, a bag of rice as a pillow, and a towel – that was my bed. Morning bell at 5:00, delay not justified, and for those who were not convinced by the loud bell, the door of their room just “magically” opened for them: everybody was required to line-up. More than six hours of workouts each day, obviously ”plus work”, since winter offered us 8°C in our resting rooms and -15°C outside. It was clear to us that in order to guarantee that our food could be brought to us by a tiny van from the city, we had to clear the snow out of the hill which led to the Academy, every day and several times, as new snow was ready to promptly fall down.
Training like a Monk
Extremely demanding exercises, just like the Shaolin Way states: Master Shi Xing Long pushed all my weight on my stretched legs whilst three other students were holding me until I opened them completely. Screaming was the only solution at hand.
Be prepared. All Martial Artists, just like me, wishing to experience such a hard journey for the first time, should be prepared to be treated like less than a freshman. Extremely hard training is the only thing you are in control of if you want to prepare yourself beforehand: I went there after ten years of insane training, and I can say it was awfully hard.
No matter how many years of training you have on your shoulders, Monks just do not care.
They show you a technique, super fast, and that’s all you have for the day. Then it’s up to you to perform that technique “times infinite” (which is basically the purpose of “kungfu”) and show it back to them infinite times only to be told “it’s just wrong”. In the end, I realized that real training is just this – win over your mind and frustration, then, and only then, you can be given more attention and consequently more respect. Only now I understand that we all have to fight for things in life, and nothing comes from nothing.
Dedication: The First Rule in Shaolin Training
We were forty students and only me and my room mate, Thomas Richard Young (who is now a Master as well), managed to survive without ever skipping a single day. Masters really take your effort in consideration if you show them that you are committed, as there is no space for exhibitionists and people who want easy things.
I went back to the Academy in 2008, 2010, 2012 and still personally go to my Master to learn more and improve my techniques, although I swear that my first thought when I was leaving the Academy was “I will never come back again.” I do not know why, but after the first day back home I was finding myself already saving enough money to go back.
Your Mind as your Friend, not your Enemy
In China, we had nothing. We lived in conditions far from the luxury of western lifestyle, but we were happy. One of the greatest mental tests we were asked to perform was the week of silence, to resist without speaking for seven days, with an extra day for every word that came from your uncontrolled mind. I did it in eight days – I admit it – but the feeling of peace I felt when I started to talk after such a long time was something comparable I can only imagine to seeing after a year of blindness.
Change is possible. Beyond the type of style I chose to study in China, and beyond the amount of training I went through, one thing was certain; the result was, once I returned back to Italy, that I appreciated everything, starting from the carpet I stood on when entering my house. Everything just looked superfluous, as all senses were finely tuned. I realized that you don’t need too much to be happy. In the end, all moments of discomfort I faced in Italy due to life’s challenges seemed nothing compared to Shaolin Training.
This, in the end, is the ultimate, easy to guess but hard to understand, meaning of Martial Arts.