The answer to the question are there female Shaolin monks is not a simple yes or no. Just like in any other religion, Buddhism separates men and women and each has separate places of worship.
The world-famous Shaolin temple located in the Henan province in China is a male monastery; women are not allowed in as religious devotees. The English word for a female monk is a nun and even though it comes from Catholicism, it’s widely used for female monks in different religions as well.
With that said, women are allowed in the Shaolin temple and even welcomed to train Kung Fu there.
All the warrior monk trainers are men, but the monastery advertises itself as being an open training environment for everyone willing to dedicate themselves regardless of age or gender. Everyone is welcome to experience the culture of the home of Zen Buddhism and Chinese martial arts as long as they respect them.
What is the Shaolin temple?
The Shaolin temple, meaning “small forest” in translation, was the main Buddhist temple in China for centuries.
Located near Dengfeng City in Henan province, the temple was built around 495 AD by a Buddhist monk from India with the permission of Emperor Xiaowen, who liked the monk’s Buddhist teachings.
Thirty years later another Indian monk called Bodhidharma went to China and started teaching what is now called “Zen” Buddhism. After he entered the Shaolin temple he developed a set of physical training exercises to keep the monks fit, which were later combined with traditional Chinese martial arts and Zen meditation, giving birth to Shaolin Kung Fu.
This style of Zen Buddhism became extremely influential in East Asia and many of the Japanese and Korean martial arts and Buddhist practices originate from the Shaolin Temple.
The Temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times, and nowadays it’s an active practicing Buddhist temple. There, an adapted version of the original Kung Fu is taught, called Wu Shu, which is a less aggressive version of the traditional martial art used by the warrior monks in the past.
The temple has become a very popular tourist attraction, but at the same time it’s still a place of learning and there are many Shaolin Kung Fu schools built near the monastery that practice and teach the essence of Kung Fu to every willing person.
Why are there no women in the monastery?
The main Shaolin monastery is for male monks only, just like Christian monasteries separate monks and nuns from each other.
Although historians are certain there have been nuns at the monastery at some points, they had more of a housekeeping role and were not part of the rituals, and they were certainly not taught martial arts; they were considered lesser monks at the time.
This does not mean that there are no Kung Fu nuns. There are separate monasteries called nunneries that have passed down the knowledge and tradition of Shaolin Kung Fu to women. We’ll take a look at a couple of them.
The Shaolin Nunnery
The Yongtai monastery was the first imperial Buddhist nunnery built in China followed by the arrival of Zen Buddhism. It is built on a mountain side facing the Shaolin Temple.
The monastery was named after Princess Yongtai, who abandoned her high position in court and decided to dedicate her life to spreading Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and became a nun in, what was originally called the Mingling monastery.
In her time, she earned a reputation of kindness and generosity to the common people using her imperial position to provide for them. For her immense merits, the monastery was named after her.
The Yongtai monastery and main Shaolin Temple have a very long and close relationship from the very beginning. Shaolin Kung Fu has always been a part of the daily practices of the nuns at Yongtai. Even princess Yongtai is said to have been a master of martial arts.
Today the monastery is home to the only all-female Shaolin Wushu school in China. All the participants and teachers are female and they travel around the world to spread culture and awareness of female involvement in Shaolin Kung Fu and Buddhist traditions.
The Kung Fu Nuns
Much more well known are the Kung Fu nuns of Nepal. There are more than 800 nuns at the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery in Kathmandu valley. Although thousands of miles away from the home of Kung Fu, the martial arts tradition is blooming under the Drukpa nuns.
Their peculiar story began in 2008 when the head of the Drukpa school saw nuns training in martial arts in Vietnam and got inspired by their tremendous strength and self-confidence. After returning he started to break the tradition and put nuns in leading positions to break the very male dominated hierarchy in Buddhism in the Himalayas.
The Kung Fu nuns have come a long way since they started training and have very successfully used martial arts in combination with the traditional Buddhist meditation practices to build inner and outer strength that they believe enables them to work even harder to help others.
The nuns document their work and have been a tremendous help to nearby communities, including some heavy labor like wood cutting, rock removal, and bricklaying.
A highlight of their devotion and kindness to their community has been the tragic 7.9 earthquake in Nepal in 2015. The Kung Fu nuns were some of the first to respond in areas deemed “too dangerous” by NGOs.
The nuns credit their resilience and ability to help so much to their Kung Fu training, which has developed their physical and mental endurance to overcome hardships that would have been impossible without their martial arts training.
How do women practice kung fu?
Shaolin martial arts is an external style, which means it’s physical, but the use of correct technique and principles allows smaller practitioners to overcome much physically stronger opponents.
The focus of Kung Fu is to use the entire body to generate power in the explosive movements. This ensures that people of different builds and definitely both men and women can learn and use it effectively.
The physical practices have many aspects and the nuns train for balance, flexibility, and strength. They are also proficient with weapons such as the Chinese sword, machete, and nunchaku.
The Kung Fu nuns from Nepal and Yongtai monastery have demonstrated very clearly that they are capable of replicating the grueling training regimen of their famous male Shaolin counterparts and reach the same levels of extraordinary skills.
When do girls enter the nunnery?
There is no specific age at which girls can enter Buddhist nunneries to begin their training, but most often start at a young age. Some of the nuns in training start as early as 8 years old. But this doesn’t mean women cannot begin their path to enlightenment later in her life.
A couple of years ago an interesting case in Thailand saw a procession of 21 women become ordained despite the law in Thailand that prohibits women becoming Buddhist nuns and some of them were well into their senior years.
But most often young girls from age 10 to 12 enter the nunneries in search of a better life of purpose and enlightenment. In the temples where martial arts are practiced every nun a takes part in the practices.
They rise up early at around 3 am. and mediate, just like all other Buddhist monks. But the two hours of kung fu daily makes a huge difference in all their other monastic disciplines.
Every age gets immense benefits from the physical exercise involved in Kung Fu, but the young girls naturally progress faster and once they reach their early twenties they can become very adept at the martial art.
This allows them to work hard in helping their local communities and spreading Buddhism. In countries where assaults on women and rapes are common like India, the need for women to have self-defense skills is self-evident.
The Kung Fu nuns from Nepal go from village to village and teach self-defense to other women, arming them with the necessary skills to help them against assaults.
Benefits of Kung Fu training for women
The health benefits of physical training are well documented and without any doubt. So there is no need to persuade you that it’s good for your health to exercise. But training in Shaolin Kung Fu may lead to some unexpected benefits in addition to the obvious physical ones.
Self-defense is a topic that is never outdated, and particularly important for the nun who often work in remote locations. Chinese martial arts styles like Kung Fu have been developed precisely to help women defend against physically stronger men. Aside from the techniques themselves, even more important is the development of self-confidence and awareness to act in a dire situation.
Physical training also immensely benefits mental strength. An increase in physical ability sharpens the ability to meditate and focus and this has been demonstrated time and time again by male monks and nuns alike.