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  • Writer's pictureBen Jacoby

Life as a monk

Life as a monk at the Shaolin Temple in China

The man who changed the course of my journey in Asia was not your typical mentor. He wore a loose shirt, gaudy rings full of gems and had his hair slicked back with gel.

While backpacking through Southeast Asia, I happened to sit by him on a bus in Laos.

We talked for 8 hours.

He had been traveling for 10 years and had a Master’s Degree in science, math and political science. At that point, he was living completely vegan and spending long hours in nature fasting. Oh, and he had been Romania’s top model for two years.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the eclectic mix of contradictions in his story. But this is the nature of people I often meet traveling. They don’t fit in our typical boxes.

He told me about how he had spent a year and a half in a temple in China studying Thai Chi.

Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head.

I was supposed to move to the states a few weeks later, but when the thought entered my mind, I couldn’t turn back. My new mission was to find a temple in China and become a monk.

When our bus arrived at its destination, I happened upon a woman who looked Chinese and asked her if she knew about a temple where I could train in Thai Chi or Kung Fu. She said no.

The next day as I was walking down the street, I ran into the lady again. This time she pulled out a note that had “Zhengzhou” written on it, and said,"This is the temple you should go to .... GO!"

I did a little research and found that it was The Shaolin Temple, which is a monastery in the Henan province of China where monks train in martial arts and Buddhism. From everything I read, I figured it could not get more authentic than this, so I wrote them a letter asking to come train there.

They replied that they weren’t taking any foreign students at that time.

This didn’t deter me. In fact, it spurred me on. I wrote a three-page letter telling them how I would do whatever it takes. I would eat whatever and sleep wherever and pay whatever. I just needed to go there.

I guess my persistence struck a nerve, so they agreed.

It turns out that my acceptance into the school wouldn’t be my only hurdle.When I went to get a visa, the embassy wanted proof of a return plane ticket, which I didn’t have. I ran downstairs and found a clerk, who I paid to fake me a return ticket.

I returned to the embassy with my Photoshopped ticket just as the flights were about to close for a holiday. A clerk in the office turned me away, saying I couldn’t get a visa today. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I stuck my head under the glass and begged, throwing out words like “Shaolin temple” and “kung fu.”

She laughed and relented in the face of my sheer determination.

That night I celebrated in BangKok with a freshly-minted visa and more bucket drinks - a cocktail of soda, red bull and liquor served in a bucket with straws - than was probably wise.

The journey to the temple took two planes, a bus, a train and a cab. I felt like I was traveling into the depths of unfamiliar territory. I was surrounded by people there, but I was alone.

My first night, I was placed in a house with 10 African students who had come for five years to study Shaolin and Buddhist culture.

Between the hangover I was still nursing, the foreign surroundings and the fact I had just talked to people who had been there for three years, I felt myself slipping into paranoia and losing my sense of logic. Delusional scenarios began running through my mind. What had I just gotten myself into?

I slept with a knife under a pillow that night ready to fight if needed.

The next morning, the sunlight seemed to wash away my fears and my roommates were welcoming and friendly. They would become my friends during my nearly month-long stay.

Africans and Ben outside the Shaolin Temple

My first order of business was to have my head shaved so I could immerse myself into the training process.

My head shaved in preparation for training as a monk

It became evident only after a few days how famous this place was. Many tourists flock there each day. It held a respected heritage as the first Zen Buddhist temple in China.

Every day at 5 a.m. on my walk to the temple, I’d see thousands of young kids training, flipping, yelling and doing back flips. There was an intensity that you don’t see at 5 a.m. anywhere else.

Kids training at the Shaolin Monastery

During my time there, I studied under three different Shifu, or masters, all of whom had different styles of training.

Our training included everything from doing Thai Chi in the forest to tea ceremonies to working with a staff to running up 2,000 stairs and climbing down on all fours. We also did three-hour meditation sessions where we would start by standing, then walking, then running, then lying down.

Sometimes we would train for 11 hours a day.

Crawling down the stairs during training at the Shaolin Monetary

They would whip me with pieces of wood if I didn’t run fast enough or stretch my legs until pain shot through my body.

Ben stretching during training as a monk in China

Having a background in the military earned me a certain respect in a place that the military was glorified. But that respect didn’t stop them from playing a prank on me.

One evening, the monks were drinking beer, which I thought was strange. They beckoned me to sit with them and drink with them. In broken English and with hand motions, they asked how we drink in America, so I showed them how to shotgun a beer. We drank five beers in 15 minutes.

As I was finishing my last beer, one of the Shifu suddenly ordered me to run. This began an hour and a half of intense training while I was drunk.

Training with the monks was hard work that required my full attention and dedication. But it began to pay off, and I started adapting to the rigorous lifestyle.

Ben flying through the air during his training as a monk
Ben picking apricots as a monk at the temple in China

I got access to places that no tourists or even locals get to go and learned about customs and history shrouded in mystery. I felt like I was stepping behind a curtain that most Westerners don’t even know exists.

Ben in training at the Shaolin Temple

Ben posing with other monks at a temple in China

Although it was a fascinating and unique experience, it was hard. It was lonely. There was no Internet. No one spoke English. I was the only one from my culture.

A couple weeks in, my shoulder, which I’d injured in the military years before, began to nag me. This brought on doubts about what I was doing and if this impulsive idea to become a monk would cause permanent damage.

Still, after weeks of intense physical and mental exercise, I felt myself growing stronger and steadier.

Ben holding staff at the Shaolin Temple

Though it was a short stint, some of the things I learned there have stayed with me. It brought extra mobility and stability into learning other things like snowboarding or how to dance. The intensity gave me a better understanding of my physical limitations. It gave me a mental focus and ability to be still.

But even more, I walked away with a magical and spiritual experience that shaped my views of independence, adulthood and a testing of my own mindset. It made me stronger for life.


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