I wrote a research paper based on the 2011 film, Shaolin. It’s such a beautiful film with so much in it. There is so much we can learn from Shaolin about the nature of humanity itself. We can learn about life after loss, becoming a better person despite and because of the pain of loss, starting over a new life and redeeming yourself, how winning a war is not really winning, kung fu, and Jackie Chan. This film has it all.
Shaolin is set in the Republican Era of China. These were bleak times for the nation. To put it this way: China boasts 5000 years of history. Yet, a Chinese Buddhist scholar once told me that this 37-year period of time was the worst era in Chinese history.
You can tell from the war and the poverty that the villagers suffered. The main character is a Republican warlord who turns into a Buddhist monk due to a family tragedy. He is not readily accepted by the other monks due to his past, but, because Buddhists believe that we’re all learning to be better people and not to punish people for their pasts, they allow him to take refuge in the three jewels and be ordained as a monk after a while.
Taking refuge in the three jewels is a lot like registering with a school. It’s the first step toward becoming a Buddhist. You take refuge in the teacher, the teachings, and the monastic community. These are reasonable translations of the three jewels from Sanskrit or Pali. Different schools of Buddhism use a different language. Mahayana Buddhism uses Sanskrit, and Theravada Buddhism uses Pali, so it’s better to use the English translation for the purposes of this article. It’s more inclusive.
Back to Shaolin. The last ten minutes in particular were breath-taking in that they really give the viewer so many good messages all at once. First, the reformed monk lies down in a Buddha statue’s hands and is healed; then you see that winning a war does not feel like winning at all; then the reformed monk’s ex-wife tells him she likes who he has become, but they can never be together again; and finally, the famous Shaolin temple is destroyed and the monastic children cry and ask the cook what they will do. The cook, Jackie Chan, says that they will have to just keep going on, find a new place to live.
Shaolin manages to send good messages without being preachy. You don’t have to be a Buddhist scholar to enjoy this film. You just have to be able to watch kung fu violence and tear-jerking moments.