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It sounds like a reality show: Five young men, aged 19 to 31, are dispatched from the storied Shaolin Temple in China’s Henan Province to San Francisco’s Inner Richmond, where they live together in an apartment. Then...they fight. More accurately, the monks—who left their homeland to serve as ambassadors of Chan Buddhism—practice Shaolin kung fu, an intensive, full-body form of martial arts that they’ve been learning since their youths.
From their temple’s culture center on Geary Boulevard (one of only three in the United States; another is in Fremont), the men train for two hours a day, teach classes to the public, perform at events, and attend English language classes. Though they’re skilled with an arsenal of swords, spears, and sabers, the purpose of Shaolin kung fu, they say, is to build character, not face down enemies. (Kids caught roughhousing in Shaolin classes may be tasked with 100 push-ups.) “It’s a very profound, complicated system,” says master monk Shi Yanran, lacing up his traditional elastic leg bands. “Only those who have gone through the training fully understand the union of Buddhism and kung fu.” His craft, says Yanran, is above all a spiritual pursuit. “There’s a saying: All martial arts under the sun originated from Shaolin.”
Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco