Like all ancient religions still clinging to life in the modern age, there was a conflict burning in the heart of Shaolin as the 90s came to a close. Mankind’s traditional understanding of the natural world has always given way to scientific thinking, and Shaolin is no different. Just as the Catholic Church had to acknowledge that diseases are caused by pathogens following predictable, avoidable patterns of behavior, so too was Shaolin forced to consider the true nature of their legendary techniques.
Shifu Xingzhan retired as abbot of the Shaolin Temple in 1999, making way for his successor, the 34 year old Shifu Yangxin. Shifu Xingzhan’s retirement marked the end of an era; in my eyes, his reign was the final chapter in the long history of eastern mysticism, for his successor could not have been more worldly.
I do not wish to speak ill of Shifu Yangxin. He was a great mentor to me, and remains a great friend almost two decades later. But he was also the first Shaolin abbot to earn an MBA, and his mind for business was immediately apparent in his restructuring of the monastery’s priorities. He clearly understood Shaolin’s emergent role in Chinese culture: we were to be China’s cultural representatives to the world. In other words, we were to be living, breathing advertisements for international tourism.
There are 72 conditioning techniques in traditional Shaolin. The techniques vary widely, reflecting the internal dissonance in modern Shaolin. Consider Zhūshā zhǎng, the Cinnabar Palm. One of the oldest warrior monks at the temple, Shifu Xinping, had been practicing this skill for a decade when I arrived in 1996. Day after day, he would fill a vessel with sand and wave his hands over it for hours. The idea was to move the sand with his Qi, the mystical energy Shaolin monks credit with empowering their supernatural abilities.
Once a practitioner of Cinnabar Palm mastered the early stages, the sand was replaced with heavy iron balls. When he could move the iron balls without touching them, he was said to have mastered the skill. Manuscripts in the temple speak of Shaolin masters so skilled that they could kill men with a single slap of the Cinnabar palm.
But for all his training, the only time old Xinping ever moved the sand was with sleight of hand, because Qi is not magic, and Xinping was not a wizard.
Not all of Shaolin’s techniques involve mysticism. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Iron Body training. No magical thinking required here; the techniques are ancient, but they based on a relatively recent medical theory developed by the 19th century German physician, Julius Wolff. Wolff’s Law states that the bones in a healthy person will remodel themselves to resist continuous pressures placed on them. It is a basic tenet of physical fitness, harder and more demanding, but not fundamentally different from building muscle. The Shaolin have been taking that principle to the furthest extremes of human potential for almost five hundred years.
Iron Body training refers to more than a dozen conditioning exercises based on Wolff’s Law. When mastered, they turn the bones of every major striking surface into armor strong enough to repel blunt trauma and in some cases, even slashing and piercing attacks from bladed weapons.
Abbot Yangxin was an enthusiastic supporter of Iron Body mastery; the techniques are easy to exhibit while on tour, and perfect for demonstrating the rewards of our devotion to spectators.
We gave him what he wanted. I began my Iron Palm in 1998, when I was fourteen. Every day, after warm-ups and Tongzigong stretches, my friend Bao and I went to our spot in the courtyard and punched the wall for hours. Shifu De Yang had us hang burlap bags filled with shredded paper on the wall to soften the impact. For a quick example of just how much this helped, try holding a sweatshirt in front of a stone wall and punch it as hard as you can—or just take my word for it. The first thing we did after every session was massage our hands with medicine and cry. Yes, the medicine stung, too.
When we recovered from Iron Palm, Bao and I moved on to Iron Skull. This was especially hard right after Iron Palm, because it involved striking each other on the crown of the skull for an hour with hands that felt like steaks someone forgot on the grill. I actually preferred being hit on the head to hitting Bao. It hurt less.
Months passed like this, until the paper in our bags disintegrated into a fine white dust that slowly worked its way out through the bags’ pores. Before we knew it, we were painlessly punching empty burlap.
The early stages of Iron Skull had also become painless, so we moved on to the next phase of training. For this, we were joined by a third monk, a wiry orphan from Sichuan named Feng. Together we lifted Bao and swung him head first into a dogwood sapling, like we were crusaders trying to breach a castle with a battering ram. We did this for half an hour, then traded places.
My bag was in tatters by the time the west celebrated their new millennium. When it finally fell from the wall, it revealed two fist-shaped indentations, three centimeters deep. There are many such imprints on the walls of Shaolin Temple, but these were mine. I stared at them for a long time, thinking about the implausible series of events that had led me to this moment—the moment when I could reach out and touch a tangible symbol of my Kung Fu mastery.
Bao laid a hand on my shoulder. “You should thank Buddha.”
There we knelt, together on the dusty flagstones, and prayed to Buddha. I was sixteen years old, and had been living with Buddhists for four years, but this was my first attempt at spirituality.
I prayed, and I felt… nothing.