When I turned six years old, I had already seen more than a dozen martial arts movies. From Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan, to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Dudikoff, I knew them all.

One thing that had always fascinated me, was the relationships the heroes in those movies had with their masters. They were more than just teachers. They were mentors. Inspirational, guiding role models who would not just teach the ways, but more importantly the whys.

It wasn’t until I was ten years old, and after three years of Taekwondo training, that I randomly got sucked into a documentary about the Shaolin monastery one evening, as my mother and I were watching TV. I don’t recall the name of the film, but I was inspired and hooked. I learned that most students in Shaolin would start training at the age of six, some were only four or five. I was ten, which made me feel old. “I should have been there years ago”, I thought to myself. If I wanted to keep up, I had to go now. So I made a plan. All I needed to do was let my parents know and off I went, right? Well, not exactly. I had a reputation for coming up with some crazy ideas, so it took some time for anyone to believe that I actually meant business. In fact, it took me months of determination and not letting go of my crazy idea, before my parents finally realised that something was different. This time, I was serious and would not give up. It was more than yet another crazy idea. It was a dream.

Once I had planted the seed of even just the possibility in my mum’s head, she started asking question after question: “What about school? What if something happens to you? What if you get sick? What if you want to come home after a few weeks?” – The list went on and on. Luckily, I somehow always had a good answer ready. And once it was clear that not going wasn’t an option, we were left with the question of how to make it happen. My once crazy idea had finally been accepted. My dream had become a possibility…

However, in 1994 this wasn’t a trip you’d simply book on Expedia.com. We didn’t have an internet connection back then, but somehow my mom managed to find the phone number of the Shaolin temple. Yes, the Shaolin Temple actually had a phone number! There was one phone for the entire monastery. But even after repeated attempts, my mum realised that it was simply impossible to communicate my crazy idea over the phone with the few words of Chinese my mother knew at the time. Nobody spoke English either. Nobody understood what we were even trying to ask. We needed a change of plans. If the telephone didn’t work, there was only one way to get our point across. We actually had to go to see the monks in person. So, my parents decided to take my little sister and me on a holiday to China, to stop by the legendary Shaolin temple and find out if I would be allowed to stay for a year. It was a huge challenge. The first time we visited, we were welcomed by the friendly monks with big smiles and green tea, but my wish was turned down with a friendly smile. Clearly, it was over. The end of the road. Here we were, having travelled all the way from the other side of the world, and all we got was ‘no’. I was heart-broken and felt guilty to have put my mum through all this effort, just to be turned down.

David in Shaolin – Image: Uli Franz

David in Shaolin – Image: Uli Franz

I thought “we are going back home. Back to life as usual”. “It’s not over yet!”, said my mum, full of hope and with determination written all over her face to make my dream reality. For nearly a week, we returned to the monks, day after day after day. Each time we visited, I noticed a slight change in the air. We were slowly building a relationship. It was absolutely surreal. Each time we would enjoy a cup of green tea together, laugh together – all with almost no Chinese language skills – and each day I felt a little more accepted into the circle. ‘No’ became ‘maybe’, and finally turned to ‘YES’. It suddenly hit me. My dream was no longer just a dream. It was real! I was excited and scared at the same time. I realised that I had reached the point of no return.

I started my training the very next day, and boy, my three years of Taekwondo were nothing compared to my first week of Shaolin Kung Fu. After a few more days of settling in and getting used to the environment, it was time for my parents to leave and go back home. Here I was, by myself, in a foreign country, at the age of ten. I stayed for the entire year and it was an unforgettable experience. Sure, I had many ups and downs, but every day I learned something new. About Kung Fu, Chinese culture, about people, and mostly, about life.

Most people called my parents crazy for leaving me there alone. I, however, couldn’t be more grateful to them. It’s only now, twenty years later, and as a parent myself, that I truly understand the amount of courage and unconditional love it would have taken to trust and let go of your child in such a big way. I feel humbled, proud and forever grateful for having had this opportunity of a lifetime, which has forever changed my life and still, to this day, influences my decision-making.

I would even argue that this single year of living by myself, in a foreign country, immersed in a totally different culture, has given me more than my twelve years of traditional education. I’d like to share five big lessons that I have taken away from my year in Shaolin.

Five life lessons that I learned living with the Shaolin

1. Thoughts become things.

“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” From an idea sparked by a film, I made a conscious decision to make this my new reality. But it was only through persistence that I was able to reach my goal. Your thinking determines your actions and your actions determine your outcome. The right mindset can move you towards everything you desire. The wrong mindset, however, will deprive you from your dreams and result in dispair and frustration. By change your thinking ,you will change your life.

2. Who looks inside, awakens.

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

I followed a strong desire inside me. Nobody asked me to go. It was a decision I made with my heart, not my mind. If I would have been rational, it would have never happened. Don’t be rational but trust your heart to make decisions.

3. No one can walk your path for you.

If you wait for others, so will your opportunities. You have to be the initiator of your own dreams. When you start to follow your heart, doors will open and the right people will show up to support you. True love will always find a way. Stay true to yourself and choose your own path.

4. Don’t believe everything you are told to believe.

Before my journey, not many people believed me when I told them about my plan. Your reality is not my reality. Don’t be discouraged by anyone who tells you that something is not possible. It is simply not part of their reality. You create your own reality. Choose to belief whatever brings you closer to your goals. Discard any beliefs that will lead you away from your goals.

5. Look for peace within yourself & let go of attachment

As a child I had a lot of “stuff”. Toys, games, all sorts of things that we are taught to believe will make you happy. During my time in Shaolin I had a few clothes, a bed, and daily kung fu training. I soon realised that “stuff’ wasn’t contributing to me being happy. It would only distract you from facing the truth. Distract you from looking deep inside you to find out who you really are. What really matters to you. Do not look for peace around you for it originates from within.

Live life on your terms. Live with passion.

Watch the documentary about David’s year in Shaolin:

Mit 11 Allein in China: Der kleine David im Kloster Shaolin

24 replies
  1. Krystle Kincheloe
    Krystle Kincheloe says:

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  2. Martin
    Martin says:

    Hi, David:
    A few weeks ago I sent you a personal email regarding the Shaolin video and a gift for you (book PDF). I have not heard back from you; just wondering if it landed in the spam folder…

  3. Dan
    Dan says:

    If this is what my son would learn if he goes off to the temple, then I’m willing to let him go. He just recently told me about going there and I had told him no. But I have been reading people’s experiences online and this particular one really motivated me. These life lessons are priceless and I don’t think they can be fully learned in traditional education.

    • David Lee-Schneider
      David Lee-Schneider says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Dan. If you support your son in his endeavours, it might be the greatest gift you can give him. All the best.


  4. Miguel Hood
    Miguel Hood says:

    Yeah. The monks can turn down students at first. But I actually noticed that sometimes they do this to see how determined, persistent and interested you are in joining. I’ve seen a lot of people that kept trying their luck got accepted. I’m really happy you got in. It has indeed changed your life and the world can clearly see that..

  5. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    Must have really been a lot for you. Leaving home to go under the tutelage of someone at that age!! I really admire your courage and strength.

    • David Lee-Schneider
      David Lee-Schneider says:

      Thanks Anthony. Appreciate your comment. It’s really been one of the best experiences of my life. Regards, David

  6. Adam
    Adam says:

    With these life lessons, I’m very sure that your parents will be super proud of you. I wish I also had someone to fully support my dreams. It would really mean a lot to me. But I guess things just happen so that other things would fall in place.

  7. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    These life lessons are simply amazing. I had to note down some important points and place them where I can see them and be reminded of it daily.

  8. Francisca
    Francisca says:

    Lol. Taekwondo is not really close to Shaolin Kung-fu! I mean, in my side we actually see the former as a full sport activity. But kung-fu is a lot of things both spiritual and physical.

  9. Bob Barclay
    Bob Barclay says:

    I agree. The things around would definitely not give us that happiness. They are just there as distractions. But when you find that true happiness, all those things would nọ longer take top spots in your life.

  10. Diyana
    Diyana says:

    Gosh. I really admire and respect your parents. That amount of courage and unconditional love that would allow you to trust and let go of your child in such a big way is really not from this world now. They must have seen how great the decision was going to affect you in the future. I totally love that.

  11. Devine
    Devine says:

    I had to read this over and over again. They may look like simple life lessons but trust me, they are deep! If we can live by these I know we will achieve a lot.

  12. Johnny
    Johnny says:

    Wow. Your mum actually went on a holiday to China just to make inquiries about how your plans can be made to come to pass?! Now, that is a very wise decision. I wish a lot of people would go that extra mile to help others achieve their dreams.

  13. Larry Cole
    Larry Cole says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us. If no one has told you, I’ll do that. This has really inspired me to take action and I’m ready to do it not minding what people would say or think about it.

  14. Alfie Chess
    Alfie Chess says:

    I can also relate to having crazy ideas and no one taking me seriously. But it’s all about the determination that will surely take one to that point they need to be.

  15. Seadals
    Seadals says:

    Inner peace, that’s all that matters. For me, getting to that point was a bit of a struggle. But when I found it, I never wanted to look back. Nothing can really be compared with being at peace with yourself.

  16. Billy
    Billy says:

    I was also at the Shaolin temple for some time and honestly, I can totally relate to most of these. Some people may see it as something normal but I feel it’s way deeper than that.

  17. Gabriella
    Gabriella says:

    Oh wow. I can totally understand what it’s like being turned down in a friendly manner. My son also has plans to go to the Shaolin temple but I am not sure it’s a good idea as he is older now and sickly. Just wish if his plans come through, he will last long in the temple.

  18. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Wow. So interesting! A single number for the entire monastery! I’m just wondering how your mum got to get it. I must say that being persistent in something can really open doors for you.

  19. Lilian Snow
    Lilian Snow says:

    I’ll agree that the teachers are not just there to teach you kungfu but to also teach you survival skills, life lessons and a whole lot of other things that will amaze you.

  20. Ajas
    Ajas says:

    True. Reaching that point you realize there’s no return can really be scary but it’s nice that the excitement always overwhelms the negative energy. Getting accepted into the temple was really an amazing turning point for you.

  21. Gina
    Gina says:

    OMG. I love your mum’s determination. I mean, I wish I had someone who would stand up and help me when I also got turned down for a reason I am yet to embrace. In this life, having people support you on your journey makes you feel hopeful.


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