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The Threefold Training of Shao-lin

What to Look for In a True Shao-lin Kwoon

In Shao-lin Kung Fu there is a deep relationship between ethics, religion and philosophy. The true purpose of its study is to find the subtle connection between the mind, body and spirit. It is an intensive search into "Who am I?" , "What is my purpose in Life?" and "Where am I going?" To answer these profound questions takes a deep investigation into the self. It requires a change within the human perceptions of life. Only the best of efforts can accomplish this noble breakthrough. Only the three scale training of true Shao-lin offers the solution to the above stated inquiries. Only if your Shao-lin teacher (Sifu) has experienced this type of training will he or she know the true Way1. If these three requirements are not satisfied you will never realize the truth. With this truth Shao-lin takes on a totally different meaning than you may be aware of. When the true meanings become clear and evident to you, there will be a major transformation within you.

grandmaster When the truth of Shao-lin training is seen for what it is, then a whole new meaning emerges from the term Self Defense. We come to learn there are in fact three forms of self defense. The first is defense of the body, the second is defense from the mind and the third is in defense of ones spirit nature. To learn the truth of which we speak you need a guide and teacher who himself has found truth. By knowing the truth the teacher has the potential to point the Way to you. If on the other hand your teacher is not trained in the inner meanings and purpose of Shao-lin Ch‚uan, you will falter the whole of your life only to be caught in the web of body and mind.

Those who are acquainted with the true traditions of the Shao-lin Temple in China know that the Shao-lin monks combine their martial arts training with inner development of both mind and spirit. In the Shao-lin Temple there is the realization that the practice of Ch‚uan Fa can greatly help the monks in their practice of the Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. By the study of "Ch’uan Fa" (Fist Method2) the monks are better able to integrate the body and mind to work together in a harmonious manner. Although, we all like to think we are in control of our selves, the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism exemplify the constant battle and disunity of mind, body and spirit. When we become aware of the haphazard interplay of the three states of being, we gain the ability to deal with this interplay and take the necessary steps to correct this disunion.

The Shao-lin monks profess that although we perceive body, mind, and spirit as separate, they are in fact, all one. The body is that which we perceive ourselves to be with our senses. The fundamental characteristic of the mind is the ability to have beliefs. The spirit is thought to be the vehicle that transports us from existence to existence. In the Shao-lin Temple each of the three states of being are studied separately, then integrated slowly till the three become united in purpose. This integration is accomplished by three methods: Ch‚uan Fa which tempers the body, meditation to observe the workings of the mind, and spiritual studies which nurture the spirit. By the Ch‚uan Fa practice the monks learn about the body‚s weaknesses and strengths, its potentials and limitations. With the methods of Chan meditation the monks gain the insights about the monkey3 mind and how it effects our perceptions of reality. By the spiritual studies the monks learned the true meaning of harmonious living with all of nature and their fellow man. Contrary to what some may believe, fighting just for the sake of fighting was not taught in the Shao-lin Temple. Of course this does not exclude use of the martial arts for defensive purposes only. Under extreme conditions where life and limb were threatened, the fighting skills were used. However, the law of Shao-lin Kung Fu always took president, not to do harm to others.


There are numerous martial arts magazines on the market which deal with the physical aspects of martial arts training. They display countless intricate techniques of defense, however they fail to bring to light the real essence and benefits of training. Few if any publications discuss in any detail the spiritual aspects of Shao-lin training. Without the threefold training in the martial arts it is impossible to see clearly our perfect nature. The inner teachings of Shao-lin focus on the methods of seeing our original nature4. When your real nature is revealed, the importance of the body and mind take on a completely different character. An inner peace is experienced which stems from knowing the real self and its connection to everything else in the universe. You will find how thoughts and emotions lose their control over you. The ego will be lessened in intensity, and less apt to display itself. You will come to know the spiritual connection between you and your fellow human beings. The study of the fighting skills alone cannot achieve this goal. In fact by intensive study of the fighting skills you will risk emersing yourself further into egotism. This in turn can give you more problems than those with which you started. Therefore picking a school that follows the Way of Shao-lin, is of prime importance.

With a thorough search you can find schools which meet the requirements of good Shao-lin training. Look for the schools that combine physical skills with spiritual and value oriented cultivation. Look for a school that emphasizes proper ethics. Look for a school rooted in a rich heritage of past Masters. Look for a school where you see the students happy and content in the training. Look for a teacher who displays love, caring and concern for his students. Look to see if the teachers are humble yet display excellent skills. Look to see if the teachers are interested in your personal needs and growth. When you find such a school you will know you have arrived at the threshold of a great adventure in learning and self transformation. A true school of Shao-lin teaches various methods of Shao-lin Ch‚uan Fa, meditation, and spiritual awareness. When you see this, you know the teacher knows the truth of Shao-lin.

When a teacher knows truth, he or she then has the potential to pass this secret onto you. Sadly there are teachers that do not know truth. How then can they pass anything of lasting value to you? Therein lies the greatest problem, finding the true teacher. Now that we understand these facts we should look at what other qualities compose good teaching.

Teaching can be defined as purposeful imparting of skills or information or both to another individual or group of individuals for the purpose of self cultivation and general awareness. Of course the concept of teaching can be greatly broadened to include the use of textbooks, videos, etc. But nothing compares to a student/teacher relationship. Teaching has within it various method‚s of making learning both enjoyable and informative. There are several essential requirements for teachers, whatever they are teaching.

  1. They must know the material they are to teach.
  2. They must be able to articulate and demonstrate the material as well as maintain student attention on the task of learning.
  3. The teacher must be a shining example of the material to be presented, in this case it is the Shao-lin concepts of which we speak.
  4. The teacher must have the desire to teach, for indeed, to teach a student thoroughly requires enormous patience, understanding, and desire to pass on the arts.
  5. A good teacher is only concerned with the growth of his students and little for his rewards of teachings, whether financial or egocentric.


Finding a good teacher is of major importance to anyone really wanting to learn correctly. Some teachers are very proficient in the physical skills but lack the inner qualities. Some teachers have all the qualities but are really not committed to passing the art on fully. Some teachers are out right frauds and have only limited training. Some teachers have skill but are only concerned with their own advancements in status, reputation or making a great deal of money. In today‚s martial arts world the novice has to be very well informed as to what to look for or surely they may end up with a poor quality teacher. This kind of training will only achieve a loss of your hard earned money and, more important of your precious time.

It won't take a novice long, with any amount of research, to see there is constant ridicule and bickering going on between so called teachers. Just open any Kung Fu magazine and read the insults being traded. The questions and comments always remain the same only the names change: Who is better, Which style is better, I am a higher rank then you, or I learned from a better teacher than you. It goes on forever. This kind of childish uninformed nonsense has no place in real Shao-lin training. This only goes to prove the sad point that as more teachers emerge from the various schools the quality of these new teachers has greatly depreciated in meaningful values. The reasons for this depreciation stems from the quality of training now being offered throughout our country. The focus today is on physical skills and not self transformation. The physical skills are shallow and short termed, with no lasting and beneficial effects. Only when the metamorphosis from novice to master occurs will Shao-lin training reveal its true value. This change is not short lived and without benefits. It will change your very being and will grow continually. It will last not only for this life time, but if you believe in reincarnation, it will follow from you life time to life time. This will continue till you break free of the karmic wheel of life and death and move forever into the unknown, you may know as heaven.

If you but look back into martial arts history you will find meaningful relationships between the true masters and their students. True masters simply understood truth and what was important in life. The old training excluded meaningless egotistical concerns. This can be seen by the amount of material written by the true masters. It was indeed limited and in some cases nonexistent. The true masters are quiet and unassuming. You will never find yelling and bragging. My own teacher Ch‚ang Tung Sheng wrote very little in his own hand his entire life. In fact, one time the government of Taiwan wanted to write the life story of Ch‚ang, but his replay was " my story is already written into martial arts history." He refused the offer. Although Ch‚ang was proud of his art, history, and past teachers he felt no obligation to convince others of his merits as a great teacher. He was fully satisfied with his own development. The same could be said of many other noted masters of Ch‚uan Fa, they were only interested in teaching the art, and remaining in the shadows. I have never met a high-level teacher who spent his time bragging about himself or putting down other noted teachers. This is why a great deal of the classical writing of Shao-lin didn‚t come from the masters. It was students of these masters who put pen to paper about much of what the master taught.

Without knowing what to look for in a true Master the novice can be easily fooled by self proclaimed teachers. Sadly, there is little anyone can do to stop the flood of poor teachers mixing into the real martial arts world. There are no laws that regulate the quality of a teacher. There is no board of examiners which accredits the true master. There is no full governing council of masters to say who is who in the arts. There is no standard certificate that says what degree of skill anyone really has. There is no standard universal test one has to take to achieve a teacher level in the arts. With all these evident facts how then can one be sure he or she is indeed studying with a qualified master? The novice usually falls in the visual trap of becoming overwhelmed and intrigued by the defensive capabilities of the martial arts. Any good teacher of external skills can dazzle a novice with swift kicks or fancy hand techniques. However, most people have the ability to learn the physical skills of the art, but what does this prove? It is by learning the secrets of mind, body and spirit that a true student begins to mature. It is only because the novice has little or no knowledge of the three pillars5 of training that he or she will be deceived by a fast talking teacher.


In a traditional school the outer physical training is intermingled with the inner spiritual training. This is the first major difference between a master teaching and a false teacher. You need only see if the teacher is proclaiming the three levels of training. Learning only the fighting with no emotional or mental controls can in fact be harmful to you as well as other people around you. Imagine a skilled fighter with a bad temper and a dull mind. The purpose of Shao-lin training is not to take revenge upon the world, but rather to live in the world peacefully and in harmony with all of nature. The purpose of Shao-lin is to be victorious in our inner battle with the self. To emerge from this battle as the victor not the loser.

What is this inner battle we are referring to? It is the battle that rages within each of us every moment of our lives. It is the war with our emotions, craving, desires and temperaments that fester deep within each of us. It is our fear, our inadequacies, our desire to excel in life. It is our longing to love and be loved by others. This is where our real problem lies. This real culprit lurks deep within us. Only when this inner emotional storm dissipates will there be a great calm and inner satisfaction that will transform your entire being. This victory over yourself does not come from fighting others. It comes rather by conquering the self. In a true school you will learn hundreds of self defense techniques but most importantly you will learn how to move inward to the real core of being. When this is achieved, the battle will cease, and all the world will open up to you. A connection will be made to your spiritual nature, you will realize your purpose in life and go for it. When you find this connection your life will change from what you know now, to a vast new world of understanding.

It is the lack of values, and ethics that contributes to our own shortcomings. True martial arts help instill the courage, and discipline we need to win the great battle. Because of this lessening of values and ethics, society is paying a hard price. Child pregnancies, drug use, vandalism, cheating, killing, stealing, are all on the increase. The inability to distinguish between right and wrong dilemmas is on the increase. To understand the growing importance of ethics in a technologically-driven world is becoming harder. Fran Wills a teacher in the New York school system said, "The [ethics] issue is particularly timely when resources are scarce and there is greater temptation to ignore ethical considerations." But what are ethics? Webster‚s Dictionary defines ethics in several ways:

  1. A system of moral principles.
  2. Rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group.
  3. Dealing with values related to human conduct, with respect to the rightness or wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.


You would think Webster was a martial artist! The definitions describe much of what Shao-lin ethics demand. A good teacher expects quality conduct while in Shao-lin training. Most students soon learn by their errors what is correct to do and what is not correct. A teacher will often speak Wu-De6 (ethics) in Shao-lin. Usually when a novice joins a school the teacher will tell him about the ethics he must live up to. To break the code of ethics is to disgrace yourself and your teacher. We also spoke of values which Webster defines as: ideals and customs. In a traditional Kwoon customs are followed to the letter. Each kwoon you visit may have somewhat different customs, this determined by the branch of Shao-lin Kung Fu from which they come. But you can be sure as a student you will have to follow your Kwoon customs or face a problem with your teacher. Customs compromise how you enter your kwoon or leave it, what style of dress you wear in training, or the titles you call you fellow students. There are many varying customs and traditions, some may even be particular to certain teachers. In any case a student is usually informed of customs by the teacher or his/her older classmates. To break a custom is considered impolite and must be corrected, It is a sign that you are aware of your mistakes and are correcting them. Thus the Shao-lin transformation process begins. When our ethics change, our values change, and along with it, we also change. This transformation is like the changing of a caterpillar to the butterfly.

The Institute for Global Ethics made a very significant statement: "The immense power of modern technology extends globally. Many hands guide the controls and many decisions move those hands. A good decision can benefit millions-while an unethical one can cripple our future." The Buddha gave us a path to follow, it is called the Eight-Fold Path. Here then is the Eight Fold Path and how I define its meaning:

  1. Right View - To see the workings of life in its proper prospective.
  2. Right Resolve - Never to give up. To be prepared to perform any task at hand.
  3. Right Speech - To know the power of words and use them carefully. Be careful when you speak and what you say.
  4. Right Action - When we decide on a task we do it with careful thought and carefully complete it.
  5. Right Livelihood - To pick the right livelihood and do your best at it.
  6. Right Effort - To never be half-hearted in any effort.
  7. Right Attention - To be mindful of the self. Look inward to see out.
  8. Right Meditation - To be single minded.

All our decisions stem from the mind. The mind is divided into two modes. The first is the mind of the world and second is the mind of the spirit. Both are intricately tied to each other. All of our decisions are made from our ideas of what life is all about. This also includes martial arts and how it should be utilized in the real world. Some may still be confused as to how spiritual and moral ethics affect martial arts ability. Think for a moment about a real life situation of an encounter with a bully in the street. A bully insults you, what do you do? Do you fight over words? Will you fight at the slightest provocation? If the answer is yes, then you fail to see where violence stems from. It stems from within you, from your ego, from your pride. It is still uncontrolled and leads you to unnecessary violence. A Shao-lin monk would not let a bully upset his inner peace. He would simply walk away. Of course if attacked, he would defend, using his skills to ward off the assault. But it would not be a first choice, rather his last choice. If a bully finds no challenge in most cases, he will walk away. If on the other hand a bully finds he can control your emotions, he will proceed to intimidate you.


If you were to ask someone what he feels deep within himself, there is a good chance he would say he feel alone, separate from all else. In reality this is far from the right viewpoint, for we are in fact all connected with everyone else, connected to all of creation. This feeling of aloneness stems from our lack of understanding of who we really are. Ask yourself a few questions. Do you feel your life has true meaning and purpose? Are you really satisfied with the direction of your life? Do you really study the works of the various philosophers and sages? Are you aimlessly trying to overcome the many prejudices you hold? Are you futilely trying to find the sources of your spiritual strength? The true goals of Shao-lin training is to overcome these barriers. It is a voyage into your real self to discover what truly motivates you. The Shao-lin goal is to know yourself and know your fullest abilities. To discover your weak points and thereby eliminate them. To discover your courage and use it to achieve your goals. The true masters of Shao-lin have already found this union with the real self. They have found real courage; a courage so strong that they would be willing to die for what is right. There is no stronger advisory than one who has true conviction and moves thru life undaunted by the perils of life. You can not stop such an individuals; they are strong and fearless, yet loving and giving.

When a new student came to famed Shao-lin Temple it was their character which was tested first. There are numerous stories about potential students coming to the front gate of the Shao-lin Temple hoping to gain entry as a newly picked student. As the story goes the potential students were made to sit outside the Temple gates for weeks before being granted entry. The purpose, of course, was to separate the sincere student from the insincere students. By making them all wait outside the Temple for weeks only the most sincere of the lot would stay there for that period of time. This method saved a great deal of time that would otherwise be spent teaching an insincere student. The newly accepted students into the Temple were then taught the Buddhist precepts. Only when new students gained some degree of spiritual cultivation, would they be allowed to learn the external Shao-lin skills. In this way the monks were assured that the skills they taught would be used only for good.

Complete Shao-lin training changes one completely. The old self is no more and the new self emerges. There is nothing left except a general awareness and the joy of truly being able to experience the moment, and to live in a way that conforms to the harmony of nature. All this comes from the values and ethics that are called Shao-lin.

The final point I must drive home is by far the most important. We must come to understand the reason for all this hard work on transforming the self. Because as time moves on, we will grow old and finally die. If death destroys all we have worked for, why study at all? To understand the answer to this you must start with faith. But faith does not imply really knowing, it‚s only a start. Inner examination will replace faith with fact. The Buddha was once asked by his disciples how they could find Truth? The Buddha replied with one of his most famous quotations, " Be your own light, your own refuge. Believe only that which you test for yourself. Do not accept authority merely because it comes from a great man, or is written in a sacred book, for truth is different for each man and woman." The Buddha implied each of us must look for ourselves, what you need is the incentive to start. Therefore start with faith and believe that there must be something to this thing we call life. By your own looking you will come upon truth.


The greatest sadness in life is when a life is wasted. To live life and not know why or to use it for no real purpose is the greatest of losses. Without this transformation I speak of, the quality of our life will be lessened. Without transformation, death becomes like a proverbial thief in the night, stealing our lives away. Without inner control and self awareness, life rushes by us and very little worthwhile accomplishments will be made. Only when self transformation occurs will life have merit, and the passing of time will not hinder your efforts or aspirations. Only through transformation will life hold quality and design. Then even death loses it frightful appearance. For once we spiritually understand the truth we come to realize only the body dies, the spirit moves on. How and where the spirit moves will be determined by what, you do in the NOW. This is the reason we must make the great effort. Yes, Shao-lin training can be the adventure of your life. It can be all you expect and so much more. It is worth the search to find the right teacher, so you too can start the mystic journey. A Shao-lin warrior can face life or death. A Shao-lin warrior fulfills his life completely and leaves his mark on the world forever. Now is the time for you to make the quantum leap into the truth. Dive in head first, don‚t think about it, it has been this thinking that has delayed you. Move out of necessity, before you lose the chance.

In summary we have provided a list of important signs that reveal a good school .

  1. The true way is a term used in the martial arts to indicate the true path of Shao-lin Ch’uan Fa. In the martial arts the Way is composed of the various teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and their various codes of conduct and ethics.
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  3. Ch’uan Fa is actually the proper term when describing Kung Fu. The real meaning of the term Kung Fu means "workman, or simply- hard work." It was used to describe their activities. This term was popularized by British traders in China. The British would see the Chinese demonstrating their martial arts and when inquiring what is was they were told it was "Kung Fu" hard work. In reality in China this term is rarely used if at all. The proper term is Ch’uan Fa or by saying Shao-lin Ch’uan Fa. If you must use the term Kung Fu, it should be defined as Shao-lin Kung Fu, which is indicative of saying Shao-lin hard work.
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  5. The term monkey mind stems from the Buddha’s description of the human mind. The Buddha felt the mind acted like a monkey jumping from one thought to another, never was the mind quiet and composed. Many of the Buddha’s methods of enlightenment focus on calming the monkey mind so the whirlwind of thoughts may be slowed down and thereby revealing the reality of each passing moment.
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  7. Our original nature is said to be the perfect union of the body, mind and spirit. A body that is both healthy and strong as well as perfectly disciplined to follow the Way. A mind that is clear and focused on proper learning. A spirit that is pure and motivated to achieve perfect harmony with the Tao.
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  9. The three pillars is the combination of mind, body and spiritual training, that compose true training.
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  11. In a traditional Shao-lin Kwoon a Sifu closely observes a students Wu-De (ethics) in order to pick the ones that may succeed him. If a student’s character is lacking he can never be picked, for this trait will carry over to the next generation of students. If a student’s Wu- De is bad and the student makes no effort to correct it, he may be asked to leave the Kwoon. There is a Shao-lin saying: Bad brings forth bad and good brings forth good.
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