Thoughts on Discipleship

Discipleship ceremony, October 1997, with Shi De Cheng and Buddhist monks in Shaolin Temple

It's quite the common question, far more so than you could ever imagine. And it presents in all sorts of ways, from "How do I become a monk" to "What does it mean to be a disciple"? And after getting barraged with emails and requests about this very issue, I finally decided to do something about it. But, you've read enough dribble from me on this site. It's time you read other people's dribble. And, good dribble it is.

Because, instead of me droning on and on about what I think all of this means, I decided to open it up to some of the experts out there. And they've responded. As time goes on, I'll get more and more responses back, which I'll eventually post here. So, without further ado, Thoughts on Discipleship.

The following was written in 1998, 1999.


Dominic has been practicing martial arts for many years now, ten of which have been devoted to Shaolin gong fu. He has trained with senior instructors that have trained directly with Shi Yan Ming, and has made a few trips to Shaolin; actually, it was during one of these trips that we had first met. Because of various academic appointments in Canada, he has had extensive opportunity to perform research on various aspects of the martial arts, including Shaolin gong fu. Dominic presents his ideas on discipleship as follows:

Personally, I find discipleship restrictive and conducive to heuristic claustrophobia. But that's just me. There are three points I wish to address here:

1) Becoming the disciple of a Gong fu (or any martial art) lineage.

2) Becoming the disciple of a Buddhist lineage

3) And finally, becoming a Shaolin disciple (which in effect combines 1) and 2).

To become the disciple of a Gong fu lineage, the aspiring practitioner must first locate a master and prove his worth to him. This is done through months, and sometimes years of intensive training. It also requires genuine devotion and an uncompromised sense of loyalty. After the master is convinced of your ability to carry out his teachings a ceremony is undertaken in which the disciple will do the usual incense burning, bowing and prostrations. In Chinese culture, Gong fu has traditionally been a family affair, passed on from father to son. While the father-son transmission is often overlooked in contemporary Gong fu culture, the Confucian-based emphasis on family (jia) remains. This signifies that when you become some master's disciple, you become part of his extended family and must swear unadulterated devotion to his family and ancestors. It becomes your duty to uphold his family's and his Gong fu style's honor to the point of overzealous fanaticism.

This is where I have a problem with discipleship: first of all family lineage and Gong fu lineage are superimposed, which consequently restricts the disciple to one style and makes him or her disown his biological family. I've been offered the opportunity to become the disciple of a master, and I respectfully turned the occasion down. If I hadn't, I could not have trained in grappling, muay thai, and hung gar, all of which contributed to the maturation of my martial skills (which incidentally are a long way from perfection). I have a friend who is going to undergo the discipleship ceremony at the end of the month. He's been training with us (Shaolin) while also attending his master's classes (ba ji and northern mantis), but after his ceremony, he'll have to renounce his Shaolin training. The point I'm trying to make is simply the following; discipleship is restrictive, and it ultimately leads to political factionalism and premenstrual (as doc would put it) bickering.

The same goes for becoming the disciple of a particular Buddhist lineage. A few months ago, I considered "taking refuge" in the monastic tradition of a local Hua-Yen temple. I really didn't mind the stringent regulations that were implied (no women, no alcohol, no meat, no killing--that's a tough one, I was planning on murdering my girlfriend who recently dumped me), since monastic Buddhism presupposes the rules will be broken any way. In fact, they exist for the sole purpose of being transgressed, thus collapsing dualisms and oppositions in accordance with the doctrine of upaya (skilful means) or Two Truths. But that's beside the point. Adhering to one specific tradition of Buddhism (or Gong fu), be it Hua-Yen, Tian Tai, or the ever-popular Chan (Zen) precludes the validity of any outside source of knowledge, be it from another Buddhist lineage or another system of thought altogether. Besides, saying that you choose this lineage over that one implies that the chosen lineage is superior to others (since discipleship commands exclusive devotion to one lineage or master) and is the ONLY one worth devoting oneself to. In other words, it is exclusive, elitist, and restrictive, all of which are qualities that go against Buddhist teachings and the spirit of Gong fu. Some might argue that Chinese Buddhism is syncretic and that any one branch or lineage combines aspects and elements of all others. Chan emphasizes sitting meditation, but it also incorporates Tian Tai cultivation. But then I ask you, if all lineages are essentially the same, what's the point of belonging to a particular one and making a statement about it?

Mahayana Buddhism (of which Shaolin Temple is a representative branch of) was originally intended to de-emphasize formalism, ritualism, and institutionalism. However, subsequent to centuries of Confucian and Imperial culture influence, Mahayana Buddhism (and Chan in particular), has lost much of its original luster, and has degenerated into a collection of antagonistic power-hungry schools.

In light of this, discipleship makes absolutely no sense to me. Becoming a disciple of Shaolin combines the negative elements of both outlined aforementioned situations. No, I'm not bitter and resentful because I was never offered the chance of becoming one because in fact I was. It just goes against what I believe in, and against what Chan Buddhism and Gong fu are originally about. Please remember that this is a subjective opinion based on personal experience. Maybe doc, or Gene Ching, both whom are layman disciples of Shaolin (Su jia di zi) could write a response to this article in order to share the experience and validity of their decision.

Becoming a disciple of Shaolin involves a ceremony that compounds elements from the Buddhist and Confucian (family) discipleship rituals. After finding a monk who agrees to take you under his wing granted you have proven your worth (as a martial artist and a human being), a ceremony is held in which the practitioner burns incense, bows a couple of times and "takes refuge" (i.e. becomes a Buddhist). By doing this, the disciple concedes the possibility of ever attending Church, going to the Mosque, or praying to Siva or whatever it is that you do. The new disciple perpetuates and disseminates a religious hegemony (which is the exact opposite of what "original" Indian Buddhism had set out to do). He also perpetuates and disseminates a martial hegemony, effectively precluding him from learning any other style, under any other master. Furthermore, the newly inducted Shaolin disciple must defend (violently if necessary) Shaolin's honor as if it was his family's honor, for he or she has accepted generations of Shaolin abbots as his\her forefathers. Aside from causing unnecessary rivalries and laying the groundwork for "family feuds" and excessive zeal, some abbots (which are now part of the disciple's family) were less than exemplary. According to my research, a recent abbot is known to have killed (murdered) more than seventy people!!!

My strong opinions might be a result of living in Canada for so long (mosaic vs. melting pot, diversity vs. assimilation), but if anybody can show me a clearer, less cynical way of viewing things, please be my guest and try to convince me I'm wrong.

Mr Heming

Mr Heming is currently living and training at Shaolin, under the tutelage of Shi Heng Jun, at the Shaolin Secular Disciple's Union. He has many interesting and educated ideas about all things Shaolin, and to start, he submits this brief, early discussion on being a disciple. No doubt there will be more to come from our dear Mr. Heming. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the "becoming a disciple" topic, I wish to know more about the question. Masters do accept foreigner students here as kung fu students and let them to train with the training teams, or even giving personal instruction to some of them who they like, but anyway masters here are not selling their kung fu for money so it is not that everyone can come here with dollars and become a Shaolin disciple.  They can train as a student but they won't gain the discipleship.  So never promise everybody that they are bound to have something they are expecting to have here. As a matter of fact, you also know that Shaolin Temple changed a lot in these 10 years, more commercial and more business, but I can tell you that the real Shaolin masters won't be washed by golden lure. So to become a disciple of Shaolin Temple is a very serious thing and must be separate with the student enrollment things of those Shaolin kung fu school.

Generally speaking, the meaning of discipleship (not only Shaolin Discipleship) actually is simply the identification of the people who practicing kung fu and the philosophy of their master (Buddhism here in Shaolin). Disciple, in Chinese pronounced as Di Zi, means student and son, so it is very clear that when you decide to follow the way of your master (in Chinese Shi Fu, teacher and father), and after he or she accepted you, you will get his or her heritage of kung fu, thought transference and philosophy if you dedicate with your choice. I saw a friend on this page said he was given a chance to become a Shaolin disciple, but he didn't take. Cool, I appreciate this, seems he knows what is he want. It is just like to become a student of a university, what you will study will be the life achievement and experience. Also, before you study it, you only have a basic understanding about what the kung fu and Buddhism is, how to make the decision about the life choice? if you don't have a sweet tooth, don't open THIS box of life chocolate.

There are many ways to realize your dream, choose the right one to be your master and your teacher, just like choose the right college and the correct instructor for you to continue your education and when the time of fulfillment of your study comes with a fruitful result, you should pass this treasure and heritage on to your next generation. Then, after some years, we will discuss about the topic of "Mastership" instead what we are talking now, hehehe ; -)

Master Shi Heng Jun said, the thing more difficult than finding a good master is---finding a good disciple People came to Shaolin with different aims, for kung fu, for becoming famous, for a brand name of Shaolin Disciple and for money.  And monks nowadays get used with it and they would like to accept and save those sufferers from get lured with an un-awaken heart, to open their eyes... Their goal is Promote and preach the Buddhism, rescue those who are suffering¨.

Björn Javefors

Björn Javefors has been a student of Shi Xing Xue in Scandinavia for the past few years, and as such, has had a tremendous opportunity to not only experience Shaolin gong fu directly from a master, but also, experience the cultural and educational differences that such a relationship can offer. He therefore is able to present to us a unique interpretation as to the meaning of "being a disciple".

As Dominic Steavu explained, discipleship has in many ways as much to do about Chinese customs as with Buddhism. Custom demands respect, respect promotes discipline, discipline promotes learning. For me this means that obeying the customs is in many ways as important as understanding (or trying to understand) Buddhism. I believe that here in the west, we need to learn to respect a master in a different way than one has to China though, just as a master from Shaolin needs to learn how to discipline a western student (If you've been to Shaolin you'll know the difference). Having being the "employer" of Shaolin monk, as well as a student and "guide to the western mind" I've seen (and been caught up in) many of the problems surrounding cultural differences. Be sure however that Shaolin is evolving, just as it always has, to suit new people. The monks teaching students outside China are living proof of that.

Steavu asked the question: what's the point of belonging to a particular one (linage) and making a statement about it? Well, I'm not a disciple yet, although I hope to be, and I've earned this some serious thought. First of all I believe (or rather; trust) in Buddhism. According to Buddhism (especially Chan) different people require different methods of enlightenment. Having finally found that Chan and Shaolin Gong Fu is the method that appeals to me most I choose to dedicate myself to it. It is (for me) the best method. However, Shotokan Karate and Christianity may be the better method for someone else, and from a Buddhist point of view I feel that is what they should be doing. My own heart will always be seated in Chan and Shaolin though, and I will always associate to them and try to help spread what good I've learnt through their methods.

The title of disciple or monk are superficial titles in a superficial world. They are there to help us motivate ourselves by worldly means, but they are also there to help others put a label on us, and treat us in a way that further helps us to live according to our beliefs. For example, a monk is supposed to be humble, hence we try not to push monks into situations where they have trouble with bragging (Believe me, it can be downright hard to get a Shaolin monk to tell you how famous and skilled he really is. Enervating when you're responsible for advertising him!).

So, why would I want to become a disciple? After some soul-searching I've come to the conclusion that I know don't want it to enhance my ego. I want it because it is an expedient way for me to continue my personal evolution. Should I "want" it? No, not really. Wanting things often just causes problems. But I am after all only human, and I know that a disciple ceremony, be it the worldly mirage that it is, in fact will help me to reinforce my values, and put a name on the place I've chosen to take next to my other fellow Shaolin brothers and sisters.

As for striking a balance between western and Chinese culture, we'll have to wait and see where the future takes us...