Iron Body of the Iron Arhat:
A Shaolin Monk Reveals the Heart Under the Iron Shirt
By Venerable Shi Guolin (translation by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching)
As featured in Kungfu Qi Gong Magazine March/April 2003 issue.
Translator’s Introduction: Here’s a dare for you. Stand before an audience of martial arts champions, masters and grandmasters. Then challenge them to line up and hit you, one by one, as hard as they can. Would you do it? Of course not. That would be suicide, unless you’re a true master of Iron Body. For Venerable Shi Guolin, a monk from Shaolin Temple, it’s just another exhibition, something he’s done a hundreds of times before.
Guolin is known as the Iron Arhat. "Iron" refers to his death-defying skills. "Arhat" is a Sanskrit term that means "worthy one," one who has attained the highest level of "small vehicle" Buddhism. An Arhat has extinguished all passions and defilements and will not allow them to ever arise again. Mandarin speakers often translate R’s into L’s, or in this case "lo," and words never end with a "t" sound, so Arhat became Alohan, then eventually just Lohan. Within Chinese Buddhism, there are 18 major Lohan and 500 minor Lohan. Within Chan (Zen,) the Lohan are highly revered for their aversion to deity worship and their emphasis on humanity. This reflects Chan’s special transmission. Within Shaolin Temple, the Lohan are especially venerated because they attained liberation through their own effort. This resonates within all true Shaolin practitioners.
To be dubbed the "Iron Arhat" by the Shaolin order is a grand achievement, one that Guolin earns anew each and every time he lays his body on the line. He greets each challenger with a warm Buddha smile then sends them home with a sore fist. And he lets challengers hit him where most would not – the flank. Most Iron Body masters will take a shot to the stomach since the stomach is easier to harden. Rock hard abs can come from any calisthenics program. Just ask any boxer. But the flank is weaker. While the internal organs are protected by the rib cage, the ribs themselves are protected only by skin, a thin layer of muscle and sinew. Additionally, the floating rib and the armpit are extremely vulnerable targets. Guolin will permit any kind of strike there – a straight blast punch, a penetrating upper cut, even a full power kick. He even allows groups to slam his flank with a ten-foot battering ram log.
In the following article, written by Shi Guolin in his native Mandarin, the Iron Arhat reveals his personal journey of discovery in Iron Body. Since he has an affinity for quoting ancient Chinese sayings, we have gone to great effort to translate these sayings including the Chinese characters and Pinyin Romanization.
The Venerable Shi Guolin on Iron Body:
According to the Chinese martial arts saying you should, "qi sui lian wu, ba sui lian gong" (age seven, practice martial, age eight, practice skill.) So at eight years old, my maternal grandfather taught me wu bu zhui zhong (five parts pursue to the end) – a folk Shaolin technique that traces its roots back to the Ming Dynasty. I practiced every day according to its requirements until I reached the age of 15 when I left home to become a monk. During those eight years, I never once broke or interrupted my practice. My grandfather also taught me a lot of martial theory and wisdom.
Here are a few thoughts that relate to qigong:
Nei lian yi kou qi, wai lian jin gu pi: (Internal practice for qi; external practice for tendon, bones and skin)
Quan da si fen li, li cong qi zhong chu (When you fight with fist, use all your power; all your power is from your qi.)
Lian qi gui hu huan, yong qi gui hu ji (When you practice your qi, go very slow; when you use your qi, go very fast.)
Huan ji shen qi shu, jin zai yi hu xi (To know when to be fast or slow is divine; everything is between your inhalation and exhalation.)
My grandfather had many years of experience practicing and teaching. With me, he emphasized this the most:
Zai hu xi zhong, lian shen zhan - Within your inhalation and exhalation, you practice expansion.
Zai shen zhan zhong, guan dong jin - Within your expansion, observe movement and stillness.
Zai dong jin zhong, bian xu shi - Within your movement and stillness, know what is real and what is empty.
Zai xu shi zhong, xian gang rou - Within reality and emptiness, hard and soft appear.
When my grandfather told me all of this, I couldn’t understand it. But I followed his method strictly, trying to understand and feel it. I remembered all of those wise sayings, even after I became a monk. Gradually, I began to really understand what he meant. These ideas influenced both my martial arts and my Chan Buddhism, especially my qigong practice. I still remember when my grandfather taught me wu bu zhui zhong. Since I was very young, I didn’t really understand its true meaning. I only knew practice, practice, practice. But after eight long years, I noticed that it increased my power and energy. I was very strong and very fast. By age twelve, my power already surpassed a normal adult. Then I remember one time after I became a monk, I was playing around with my shixiong (martial elder brothers.) One of my shixiong accidentally hit me with a staff and the staff broke. It did nothing to my body. Later, I allowed my martial brothers to use their fists and feet to punch and kick me on my chest, ribs, abdomen, and back. The more they punched and kicked, where they struck me I felt more energy, more power, more qi. I didn’t feel hurt at all. Then I realized that wu bu zhui zhong not only increased my energy and power. It was also one of the training methods of Iron Shirt. For a long time, I had really wanted to learn Iron Shirt. When I suddenly found that I had Iron Shirt power, I was very happy. I was really grateful to my shixiong for hitting me with the staff. At that moment, I suddenly understood what the meaning of wu bu zhui zhong was. It is using your qigong breathing techniques to send your internal qi to your four limbs and head – the five parts. Not only is it sending qi to those five parts, but is also causes reactions in every part of your body. Within your body movements, you achieve expansion and contraction. Looseness and tightness, empty and real, movement and stillness, opened and closed – within all of these opposites you increase your internal power.
Within each inhalation and exhalation, you can send your qi to your five parts, then your body will have a lot of power and you will have a lot of qi. After a period of time, every part of your body will feel full of qi. When you have this kind of qi, it’s just like a ball, and you can bounce power back. Then you can prevent others from injuring you since you can bounce back the energy of their blow. So finally I understood the meaning of wu bu zhui zhong. This increased my interest in practicing qigong. I remembered my grandfather’s theories and combined it with my personal experience. This began my study of internal qi. It concludes with kungfu training. Here, any movement initiates the action and is holistic. For instance, in the martial arts, we say:
xin yi dong, er bai ti cong ling jie dong - When your mind moves, all the hundred parts of your body are already there.
xin yi zhan, er si shao jie zhi - When you mind shakes, qi goes to your furthest extremitie
So when you practice kungfu, first you must understand the theory behind the method. Also you have to understand every part of your body within this movement – what it is used for. Only when you understand this, will your practice be effective and efficient. Your studies won’t detour. Now after I studied all the teachings of the ancient masters and combined it with my own personal experience, I am going to share it with all the lovers of martial arts. I truly believe that if you can understand the following information, your kungfu practice will be easier. This is not really a secret. You just have to remember to use this information to double check the conditions of your practice. Then you will have very efficient results.
First of all, if you practice nei gong (internal skills,) you must understand your jingluo (meridians.) If you don’t understand your jingluo, your practice is not going to be beneficial and might even be harmful to you. Jingluo are spread throughout your body. They are the pathways of your qi, blood and fluids. It is also the connection for all of your body’s internal organs, your muscles, skin and bones. Everything depends on the jingluo being connected as one holistic system.
Jingluo contain jing vessels and luo vessels. Jing vessels have zheng jing and qi jing. There are twelve zheng jing vessels including three vessels that go from your chest to your hand on the inside of your arm called shousanyin (literally "arm three yin") and three that go from your hand to your head on the outside of your arm called shousanyang (arm three yang.) There are another three vessels that go from your feet to your head on the outside of your leg called zusanyang (feet three yang) and three from your feet to your abdomen in the inside of your leg called zusanyin (feet three yin.) (Translator’s note: shousanyin: lung, pericardium, heart; shousanyang: large intestine, triple warmer, small intestine; zusanyin: spleen, liver, kidney; zusanyang: stomach, gall bladder, urinary bladder.)
The main purpose of these is to connect your internal organs. There are also eight extra vessels. These are the ren, du, chong, dai, yinqiao, yangqiao, yinwei and yangwei. Within your body, your blood and qi usually flow through the twelve jing vessels and if it overflows, the overflow goes to your extra vessels. You can think of the twelve jing vessels as big rivers and the eight qi vessels as lakes. Among the eight vessels, the ren and du are the most important. The ren vessel is in front of your body and belongs to yin, controlling your yin qi. The du vessel is in back of your body and belongs to yang, controlling your yang qi. They connect your four limbs and all the parts of your body. They also command your joint movements and your tendons. It’s all interconnected like a big web.
When you practice your internal skills, your ren vessel and du vessel are the generals in charge of your body’s yin qi and yang qi. Your qi starts circulating vigorously through your breathing technique. When you inhale, you place your qi in your chest and when you exhale your direct your qi to your dantien (in the center of your abdomen.), and then you express your qi through your weilu point (on your posterior) passing though your mingmen point (on your lower back) and through your back directly up to nirangong (top of your head). Then it goes down to your renzhong point (under your nose) and chijiao (upper palette). Then it goes through your ren vessel and back down to your dantien again. Your qi turns like a circle front and back in these two vessels. The front is descending and the back is rising in a never-ending continuous circle.
After you understand your jingluo, you have to understand your body parts. If you don’t understand your body parts, even if you understand your jingluo it is useless. The body has a lot of parts. In every single movement, every part has its own function. They all share the work like a team. You need to know how you can combine all the functions together to achieve the greatest effect. That’s why the ancient masters divide the body into three sections for each movement. The three sections are shaojie, zhongjie and genjie (tip section, center section and root section.) They define your arm, where you can show your strength, as shaojie. Your upper body, which controls the power, is zhongjie. The fali (explosive power) from your legs is genjie.
Each section is divided into three more little sections. So the whole concept is san jie jiu duan (three sections, nine levels.) For instance, in your arm you have shaoduan (tip part), zhongduan (center part) and genduan (root part). Your hand is your shaoduan, your elbow is your zhongduan and your shoulder is your genduan. Accordingly, in your zhongjie, your head is your shaoduan, your chest is your zhongduan and your abdomen is your genduan. In your genjie, your feet are your shaoduan, your knees, zhongduan and your crotch, genduan. The function of your three jie is qi (initiation), sui (following) and zhui (conventionally translated as pursuit or give chase, but also implies that it will overtake the object pursued.) For example, in a punch, your fist initiates, your elbow follows and your shoulder pursues and overtakes.
From here you can understand the relationships. For beginners, it is very important to understand these relationships. If you understand, you can prevent problems such as your body inappropriately leaning forwards or backwards so your whole body fails to be coordinated. Sometimes some part of your body gets tense and blocks your qi so that it cannot move fluently. This will have a negative influence on your whole movement. It is said in the Shaolin martial books:
Shao jie bu min, wu yi wu zong - Without understanding shaojie, no shadows, no trails
Zhong jie bu min, man qiang si kong - Without understanding zhongjie, full is empty
Gen jie bu min, dian fu bi sheng - Without understanding genjie, all is overthrown.)
So it is very important that the practitioner understands every single section, its function and its effect. It must be completely coordinated.
Shaolin Xi Sui Jing (Tendon-Transformation and Marrow-Purification Classic): Venerable Shi Guolin attributes much of his iron body skill to Shaolin’s venerated qigong forms Yi Jin Jing (Muscle Tendon Change Classic) and Xi Sui Jing. It is said that Xi Sui Jing purges delusion and attachment from the mind and internal pollutants from the body, progressing us toward internal peace and external strength. When mastered, it transforms the flesh and blood body into an unassailable state like rock and iron. Here Guolin shares some basic exercises extracted from Xi Sui Jing.
1A. A Concentration of Calm Energy (yi tuan he qi)
Draw your hands towards your chest, bending your elbows and opening your chest with an inhalation. Your arms and shoulders should be in one line. Your inhalation creates tension to keep your palms apart. Breathe three times, and then continue directly to the next step. Focus the energy in your body.
1B. Double Hands Push the Gate (shuang shou tui men)
Push Forward. Focus the power along a straight line while holding your qi in your lower abdomen. Hold this position for three breaths, allowing your qi to stretch your arms through the bottom of your palms. Focus on opening the energy meridians of your entire body.
2A. Raise Both Arms Upward (shuang shou tuo tian)
Arch your arms over your head and lock them in place while inhaling. Your arms should be slightly bent and your thumbs should face upward. Inhale deeply to fill your chest and stretch your body. Exhale slightly while maintaining this position. Look at your hands for three breaths. Focus on opening your stomach and balancing the yin and yang energy in your body.
2B. Stretch Arms and Open the Meridians (shen gong li mai)
Spread your arms laterally, with your palms facing outward. Breathe three times. Focus on strengthening the energy and opening the meridians.
3A. Hold Arms Level with Palms Facing Upwards (yi zi tong huan) Once more, extend your arms horizontally as you inhale and open your chest; however turn your palms to face upwards right before leveling your arms. Breathe three times and sink your qi.
3B. Hold Arms Level with Palms Facing Downwards (yi zi tong huan)
Exhale and sink the qi to your abdomen. Breathe three times. Focus on opening your three dantien points and completing the cycle of qi movement.
4A. Cross Legs with Arms Level (pan zou hun gong)
Raise your hands upwards so your forearms form a straight line as you inhale. Your palms face upward as if to lift your qi to fill your upper body. Your hands, qi and inhalation are all coordinated.
4B. Triple burner Flows Smoothly (san jiao da li)
Press your hands downward so your fingertips point at each other as you exhale. Your palms face downward as if to push your qi down into your lower abdomen. Again your hands, qi and inhalation are all coordinated. Visualize the qi circulating in your body like the shape of a yin yang, alternating between full and empty, up and down. Repeat this coordinating breathing cycle for three breaths.