Martial Arts and Vegetarianism

Buddhist monks with their bowl

It is more and more common for athletes and generally people to follow a vegetarian diet. Some might ask if it this a good idea to do. But if you, according to your beliefs or health, want to go this path then there are plenty of good examples of that.


As many people know, Kung Fu, came out of the Shaolin temple. Since it is a Buddhist temple the monks there were restricted to a Vegetarian diet.  So how is it possible that they were and are practicing Kung Fu at least eight hours a day without eating meat? Well their diet was simple and peaceful and this was done not just because of health reasons but also as a spiritual source. In the temple they mostly eat rice, vegetables and fruits. Most of the vegetables were prepared simple, that means either raw or steamed. As protein sources, they used mainly soybeans and soy products, like tofu or seitan and of course nuts.


In their monastic life, members of the Shaolin sect, have been eating a diet similar to Chinese food with one main ingredient: rice, boiled, steamed or as rice flour for noodles and so on. It is everywhere in Chinese cuisine. The most typical Chinese vegetables are: bok choy, sprouts, taro and a variety of beans. They were generally steamed or boiled, sometimes raw. Fruits, like bananas, apples or figs are also common and were eaten raw or dried for long-term storage.


It is obvious that Shaolin monks decided to leave the commodity of a normal life for a stricter and simpler life which includes the diet. In their monastic vows, they agree to protect every being from being harmed or of suffering.


Buddhism and Vegetarianism


It might be a surprise but not all streams of Buddhism prohibit the consumption of animal meat. In the Theravada school monks are allowed to eat pork, chicken and fish. This comes with the restriction, that the monk or nun has to be aware that the animal wasn’t killed on their behalf. The Mahayana schools, which are mostly practiced in China and Japan, are stricter about the consumption of meat and think that every scenting being once was your mother, sister, father or brother which prohibits to eat them. In the last school, the Vajrayana, which is mainly practiced in Tibet, it is a bit more complicated. So, it might be strange but the actual 14th Dalai Lama isn’t a vegetarian. Since Tibet doesn’t provide with much vegetables, the Tibetan Buddhism was always a bit more flexible when it came to the diet. They don’t just allow to eat food but also to drink alcohol. However, a lot of leading monks, including the Dalai Lama, are encouraging vegetarianism.


To get more information about that, check out the page of the Buddhist organization Shakbar who is dedicated to vegetarianism as a Buddhist way of life.


Since I am not a nutritionist I won’t tell you how to design your diet. But the first step to eat right is to inform yourself, to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. To do so you can get a million books or search your way through the internet. Pages like nomeatathletes or vegkitchen can definitely help a bit. I got the book “The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook” and feel much better ever since getting through its recipes. All I can say is, that you should have an eye on your level of vitamins (especially B12 and D), calcium, protein, omega-3, carbo-hydrates, fat and iron. But just looking at the list you can imagine that this is not an easy task.



Buddhist diet

Shaolin- Meaning and History

There are many myths about the Shaolin temple and its martial arts. Movies, TV shows and media has done its part to mix up truth, legends and stories. 

Shaolin Temple

There is a big myth about Shaolin, its temple and its martial arts. Shaolin Kung Fu is a very wide system with endless subcategories. According to the legend Martial arts were brought from India in the person of Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (in Chinese known as Do MA) around 525 AD or during the Liang dynasty.

When Bodhidharma came from India to China Buddhism was already spreading and there were monasteries popping up. One of them was the Shaolin monastery, named after Shaoshi mountain, a forest and peak of Song mountains. According to legends which were published for the first time in the 17th century, Bodhidharma came to the monastery and found the monks not strong enough to meditate sufficient. He taught them the 18 Lohan or “18 hands exercises” which are thought to be the first official martial arts system. These exercises were meant to improve their health and strength and can been seen as a type of Qigong. Furthermore, he is the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As historians have lined out that in China during the time of Bodhidharma, there existed already a healing and a martial arts system and a lot of the weapons which were included in the Shaolin style can be traced back to farmers. 


The different monasteries

The Siu Lum aka Shaolin Order had more than monastery as it is thought. The most famous one is located in Henan province. That one is well known in TV and the movies at least since the 1970s through the ABC-show “Kung Fu”. After its destruction in the 1920s as a late result of the Boxer Rebellion, it was rebuilt from the Chinese government, not until the 1980s or 1990s. Even though most of the monks left the temple during the Cultural Revolution. The Henan temple, near Luoyang, was built in 477 AD and was most of the time the seat of the senior monks.

Although this temple nowadays is the most popular and recognized Shaolin temple, there are more Shaolin temples which turned up during the history. One other important temple was located in Fukien and was probably built around the same time as the Henan temple. The remains of the temple were discovered in the 1980s and burned down during the Boxer Rebellion. It seems like this temple was a more mainstream Buddhist monastery until the 1600s but was integrated into the Siu Lum order around 1650. This temple is important because of two things. First at all, it was way bigger then the Henan monastery and served as a headquarter when the main temple was under threat. Secondly, a lot famous and important styles, known today, were developed in the temple or by some of the masters who came out of it. Known Southern styles like praying mantis, snake, dragon, and Wing Chun are a product of this temple.

Another temple of the Southern style is Kwangtung where many great warriors were taught. The “snake temple” was built in the late 1700s near the city of Canton in Canton province. It was built in a mountain next to the ocean but shelled. From here styles like Choy Li Fut and ragon styles were developed. Another still active and famous monasteries was and is the Wutang or Tiger monastery which is located near the city of Wutang. Since it was built in a very unstable area this monastery was constantly under attack. It was built near Manchuria and the Korean peninsula. Several armies came in and out and destroyed the temple. A lot of mercenary monks, like Bok Lei or Bok Mei, came from that temple. The temple was incorporated into Shaolin around AD 800. The last important temple was the O Mei Shan, the Northern Monastery which served as library and medial institution. It was located in the Szechuan province and worked like a research institution. This old monastery, probably a Taoist temple, was integrated into the Shaolin order around AD 1500. The crane temple was very close to Tibet in an inaccessible area and was a major medical school. Today it serves as a headquarter for the conservation of the bamboo forests and as a research center for pandas.

At the time of writing this article the Shaolin order has around eight temples.



Ranks in the monastery

The Siu Lum or Shaolin monastery had a class structure which was divided in three major levels. We can identify masters, disciples and students. The biggest quantity occupied the student class who also did all the labour around the monastery such as preparing the meals, cleaning and washing, cultivating plants. The basic tasks were established to make the monastery working but also to teach the students humility and respect. It gave the masters also a momentum to observe the students to decide who will be a good disciple and has the ability to learn martial arts. The disciples showed that they were worthy to learn martial arts skills. Since the had received their basic philosophical and ethical training as students, as disciples they spent at least two and up to four years to study exclusively what we can call the Shaolin arts (martial arts, medicine and healing). As disciples, they had to live the philosophy and ethics they were taught as students and pose as example to others. Masters were full monks and received this title after completing the study of a whole system, which they perfected. Besides masters had understood enough of the philosophy of the temple to teach it to students.

Who wants to find out about the old (modern) masters of Shaolin and who they were can find a good overview on the page of the Shaolin Xinyiba school in China.

Shaolin Temple Statue

Modern History

The history of the Shaolin order is very much about who and when tried successful or not to conquer or destroy the temple. China had a troubled history of empires and dynasties and the Shaolin temple played its role in it. The detailed history and how the different styles grew will be the topic of other blogs. The last big destruction the main Shaolin temple in Henan had to get through was in 1928, when warlord Shi Yousan burned down 90 % of the temple. Then the communist party under the leadership of Mao Tze Tung took over. At the beginning, they didn’t care too much since the temple was already decimated. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist party wanted to get rid of all traditional and religious overweight. For this reason, they beaten up, imprisoned, killed or humiliated publicly monks from Shaolin. A few fled into the surrounding mountains or to other countries where they opened their schools. After the success of films like “The Shaolin Temple” in 1982 and the taking over of power through Deng Xiaoping, Shaolin temple was slowly but steadily rebuilt and some old monks were invited to come back. Even though a lot of knowledge is lost. Today China is supporting to establish a modern sport approach to Chinese martial arts called “Wushu”, within that they established competition forms with open hand or weapon, but also Taiji forms. Another new form of promoting China is the modern Sanshou or Sanda which is a mix of Muay Thai, Kickboxing and Judo, and wants to help China to get into the Olympic Games. Since the raising of popularity of kung fu many martial arts schools have opened around the Shaolin temple and in China to make business out of it. 

Today the temple is a huge commercial empire which attracts millions of tourists every year to visit the temple and thousands of young people to get there to study “Wushu”. It is a huge controversy in the kung fu- martial arts world if the modern wushu has something to do with traditional kung fu or not. On one side the temple could gain a bit more freedom and independence from the Central government and do a lot to promote Chan Buddhism in and outside of China but at the same time the abbot Shi Yongxin (also called “Shaolin CEO”) is member of the Communist party and allows and allowed all kind of business with the temple, even a reality show. Most of the modern forms and representations are focussed on exhibition and lost the element of application. Also, it is often forgotten that a lot of styles were practiced within families and given from father to his children or wealthy families paid monks or other martial artists to teach their children. This was the case of GM Ark Yuey Wong and many other great masters. 


Meaning of Kung Fu

Many don't know where the term "kung fu" comes from. In this short blog I want to explain a bit more about it and deconstruct the confusion about all the definitions of Chinese martial arts.


Kung Fu

Kung Fu

It is important to know where terms and concepts come from. Also should you know what you are practicing when you do a martial art and where it comes from.

Everybody know that kung fu is referred to a martial arts which was developed in China. Either way the term came up during the 20th century. Before that kung fu or gongfu meant and still means to achieve knowledge or a skill through hard work and practice. If you want to talk about martial arts in Chinese you would refer to “wushu” and a lot of modern Chinese martial arts is called wushu nowadays. Another term you can find is “chuan fa” meaning fist fighting. According to Sifu Douglas Wong the term Gong Fu was first used by Chinese who migrated to the US and North America in the 19th century.

Kung fu compounds two words: kung (gong) which means work or achievement and fu meaning simply man or, in a more complex understanding, practice. So it could be translated as “achievement of man”. So since it is not really meaning martial arts it is referred to strength of body and mind. It’s the self-mastery of something on a high level.

One important ingredient in this concept is a basic rule for a lot of martial arts: patience. Since mastering something, could be a move, a weapon or a form, needs repetition and consistency. So it is more important to learn one thing good then many just average.


Long history

Kung fu has been practiced for over 4.000 years in China. This might happened under another name or term but doesn't underestimate the power of it. We also have to think about the arriving of oriental martial arts in the West and how they transformed there. In fact, a lot of grandmasters had to leave China and the East during the cultural revolution and brought there wisdom and knowledge to Hongkong, North America or Europe and found new places to teach their art. It is obvious that the style of teaching had to change too. So in modern days we actually can discuss which martial arts is more traditional: the one taught from old grandmasters without an interruption of lineage in the west or the ones nowadays taught in China with new masters who's lineage is interrupted or broken and are teaching now "wushu". As always the "truth" is to find somewhere in between and each one who wants take the path of studying martial arts and especially kung fu has to find his or her own way of doing so. 

That said you should follow your heart and study with a master who you feel capable of guiding you in your progress and your skills. 

“Kung fu is a philosophy; it’s an integral part of the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, the ideals of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and then spring up stronger than before, to have patience in all things, to profit by one’s mistakes and lessons in life. These are the many-sided aspects of the art of kung fu; it teaches the way to live, as well as the way to protect oneself.” —Bruce Lee

Since Kung Fu comes, according to legends and historians, from Shaolin (temple) it is an important next to enter the world of Shaolin. In the next weeks we will deepen the meaning and history of Shaolin and the Shaolin temple.


Martial Arts, Authenticity or how to choose the right school

Sifu Matthias teaching kung fu

At least since the uprising of Bruce Lee and lately Brazilian Jiu Jujutsu or the popularity of MMA people are wondering about which martial arts and martial artists are authentic and which are not. Or even worst which is more effective and which one is the strongest. The authenticity question is not only coming from the lineage a martial artist represents but also how long the style already exists. In a global world where people move more often from city to city or country to country I think it is important to provide your students the support in finding new schools or teachers at their new home.

Even though, this question is not just a common discussion in the martial arts tribe, I think more importantly, it also matters for people who think about starting to learn a martial art and how to choose a school and a teacher. In Traditional martial arts, which I know better, you are not just looking for a coach or teacher. What we call Sifu in Kung Fu or Sensei in Karate is more likely to be a mentor who guides you or offers you guidance in all the difficulties in life. So, it is kind of important to choose well. If we take me as an example: I still have my Sifu, who lives in another country. But he encouraged me to find new things to learn with the right person. 

This said, it is also good to say that of course, it can change from style to style and person to person. Everyone has to first think about why to enter a martial arts school and what outcome is wanted. If you just want to learn how to fight or you like to perform forms/ katas, then it might go along with the essentials. But here a list of things you should be aware of to find authentic traditional martial arts school.

First, a traditional martial arts school has a lineage. If your teacher can’t tell you about his or her master than something is wrong. At Immortal Dragon, we can track back our style almost to Kwan Kung. My Sifu has a graphic lineage where he can trace back to our Grandmaster Ark Yuey Wong, from there you can dig deeper and trace his masters, and so on. Nowadays it can get complicated since a lot of documents were destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, but still kung fu can be traced back to several lineages and masters. Same actually with Karate where it should be easier to find a lineage which starts from a Grandmaster from the Island of Okinawa.

Second, when you get into the school and see the master sitting, and even if it’s a bit superficial, with a big belly, you don’t want to train there. Keep it like this: if a martial arts teacher can’t do the same class better then you and with more power you should think about changing.

Third, check out the other students. How disciplined are they? Is someone using cursed language or even bullying other students? That are things you don’t want to see in a martial arts school. You want to find a place where students support each other and cheer when someone surpass oneself.

All this said, I want to close this article with a more optimistic view. Most of martial artist are legit and want to help and train their students properly. Even though, some think more about money then the development of their students. At the end you have to feel comfortable with the person you train with. 

Can I learn Kung Fu online?

There is a lot of folk out there trying to sell online courses for certain martial arts. On YouTube you can even find videos where you are supposed to learn forms. Beside that, there are also tons of books and ebooks which even round up a whole style system. The question many people asked themselves and me is: How effective can it be to learn martial arts through videos or a book? I am not the first one to answer that, but I hope I can give it another point of view with a specific kung fu focus.

Well the answer is pretty simple: You can´t! And you shouldn´t. But let´s break the answer a bit down and make it more clear. First let´s take a look at the videos. To do so we have to divide the ocean of videos and online-courses you can find. One is teachers showing how to exercise certain movements or stretching. That is different to intend teaching martial arts online. Of course it is possible to do a fitness online course or even maybe a yoga- exercise. Everything where you can´t make much wrong doing it on your own is good. Getting some new stretching through videos is a good idea, if you don´t know them.

But if you are not experienced in a style or system or worst not exercising at all, it can actually be dangerous to do so. My Sifu always told us that a martial art can´t be learned without a classical student-teacher-connection. The other question is also why would you?

In traditional martial arts the relationship between a master and his or her student is more profound than just demanding to do this or that movement. A Sifu, Sensei or however you want to call it, is someone you can call for advice when needed. My Sifu helped me in situations I didn't expect from him. Every once in awhile he would sit down with you and talk about your life and spick the conversations with helpful advises. An online video can´t give that to you.

Some people just want to defend themselves and don't care about their spiritual development. And that is totally valid. So let's say you learn a fancy move from a video like a lock or throw. How do you know that you do it right? And how often would you need to repeat it to get into your body memory so you can actually apply it in a situation of self-defense?

A teacher, at least a good one, would make you repeating important movements again and again, until your body will do this as a reflex. That moment is when you really can defend yourself with martial arts. You won´t be able to do so, if you did the technique just a few times or imitated it from a video. Same for kicks, punches and blocks. Of course you could learn general things about this sort of techniques but application is one of the most important parts you need to learn for a proper understanding. I have no idea how often I trained a simple front kick. You are never done to improve. At the beginning you need someone to correct your stance, the power you use, the flow, the intention, the technique, your guard, and so much more. You get my point. Worst case scenario here is to think you learned something in that videos and trying it outside. Don´t!

Learning forms or katas online is a growing market, especially when it comes to Kung Fu and Tai Chi. A lot of movements in forms are very subtile and have a specific meaning and application. Every form will require a specific preparation a master would provide you in a class. Of course it's possible to learn a choreography through videos but not a Kung Fu form. The difference will be visible, because here again you need someone to show you the correct movements, rhythm, stances, and so on.


All that said, we have to have two things or situations in mind: first people who are living remote and want to learn a certain style. And secondly, martial artists with experience. If you live in a small village with no martial arts school around or not the style you want to learn. Well then you might have to try it online. But at least pay a teacher regularly to Skype or talk with him and get corrections. Try to meet at least once every month or so.

People who have experience in martial arts might be more suited to learn movements from a video but I still doubt it, and I know a lot of them doubt it too, that the learning effect is very big. Maybe some techniques can be learned, but a whole style is not possible. Won´t be! Never, without contact to a master of that particular style.

Finally, that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch this videos. Most of them are fun and you can learn a lot about the theoretical part of martial arts. You can observe which style does an emphasis on what kind of stances, techniques and so on. As a martial artist it is good to open your mind to other styles and enjoy watching people who know what they are doing. Personally, I admire all the people who are trying to promote traditional martial arts in this times. So support them!