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The warrior monks of Shaolin have gained a worldwide reputation for their devoted study and impressive displays of traditional kung fu. The feats of athletic prowess and martial arts skill are the result of intense daily study, morning to night. Every aspect of daily life, including diet, conforms to the monastic life, lived in pursuit of Buddhism and the martial arts.

Dietary Basics

Vegetables in wok
Vegetables in wok

The dietary habits of Shaolin monks have been relatively unchanged during the hundreds of years since the Shaolin sect was formed. Like every aspect of the monastic life, this diet is centered around Buddhist ideals of pacifism, purity and simplicity. It is essential to remember that the life of a Shaolin monk is one focused on spirituality, not athleticism or pleasure.

The traditional diet of the Shaolin consists primarily of rice, vegetables and fruits. Rice has been a staple food in China for centuries. Rice can be boiled or steamed, rice flour is used in making noodles, and other rice-based dishes are common. Rice comes in many varieties, with varying textures and nutritional properties.

Vegetables common to China include bok choy, sprouts, taro and several varieties of beans. While Chinese cuisine might prepare these foods in numerous ways, Buddhist monks, such as those of the Shaolin Temple, will generally boil or steam them, or merely eat them raw. Fruits such as bananas, apples, and figs, are all common to China. These may be eaten raw or dried for long-term storage.

Simplicity and Food Preparation

Vegetables in a wok
Vegetables in a wok

In taking up the life of a monk, adherents to Shaolin’s form of Buddhism leave behind many of the niceties of their former lives, choosing instead to live a life of humble simplicity. This simplicity also extends to their daily eating, and foods are prepared simply. The extensive preparations of modern Chinese food are eschewed in favor of basic preparations, leaving the Shaolin diet basic and bland.

Pacifism and Vegetarianism

Shaolin monk
Shaolin monk

One of the tenets of Buddhism is strict pacifism--to inflict no harm or suffering upon other living things. As an extension of these teachings, many Buddhist sects, including the Shaolin, practice strict vegetarianism. As a general rule, meat is not eaten and the use of eggs and dairy products is generally avoided as well, though the specifics may vary from one group to the next.

Because daily kung fu training can be strenuous, it is important for students to properly nourish themselves. Protein intake is thus an important facet of the Shaolin diet, as there are no sources of animal protein. This dietary gap is overcome by including non-animal protein sources into dishes. Soybeans and soy products like tofu are an important part of most meals in the monastery. Nuts such as peanuts and almonds also may be incorporated into some dishes. A vegetarian meat substitute, called seitan, is also used. Seitan can be made from wheat gluten or soy protein in a variety of textures and flavors.

Purity and Foods

Monk praying
Monk praying

Alcohol and drug use is strictly forbidden, as these substances affect both body and mind, disrupting concentration and throwing you out of balance. Spicy foods such as garlic, ginger and onions are also avoided. The pungent flavors of these spices are considered disruptive, stirring up emotions that can cloud the mind and spirit of the warrior.