From Middlesex school boy to Shaolin monk: Enter the (terribly suburban) dragon
By Amanda Cable
Last updated at 1:24 AM on 15th November 2008
He's the ordinary north London boy who became a Chinese warrior monk. And his story is as astonishing as it is inspiring
Matthew Ahmet is 20 and he's hard - well hard. His head is shaved, and his body bears the ravages of a violent life. A mark on his forehead shows where a metal bar came crashing down on his skull. His forearms have been sliced repeatedly by razor-sharp knives and his left arm has a 'punishment' burn from boiling water.
So when he sits down, flashes a beautiful smile and talks about spreading happiness and peace, it comes as a great surprise. Because Matthew left his home in Enfield, north London, at the age of 17, to become a Shaolin monk in China. In doing so, he renounced all the worldly belongings that are the staple diet of teenage life, and entered a gruelling regime of training, sacrifice - and punishment.
Each mark on his body bears testament to this new and extraordinary life. Matthew says, 'Recently, I went to visit an old schoolfriend of mine, who is at Manchester University. I met him at the digs he shares with his friends and I was stunned.
There were dirty clothes everywhere, unwashed dishes and belongings just thrown around. In China, I wash my own robes in a bucket of cold water, which I also use to bathe in. I sleep on a bunk bed with no mattress, lying directly on a plank of wood.
Everything in my new life is so neat and disciplined that I can't imagine being a typical student now.'
Does this earnest young man, who looks like a feral youth but who is in fact gentle and thoughtful, miss anything about his 'old life'?
He says with a brilliant smile, 'Hot showers. When I do go home, I love the luxury of being able to have hot water running over my body.'
The extraordinary transformation of an ordinary teenager into wannabe monk began nine years ago, when China's famed Shaolin monks performed their extraordinary show of martial arts and physical feats at London's Dominion Theatre.
Matthew says, 'I was 11 and my older brother and cousin took me along to see the show. I was quite interested in martial arts, and I liked watching Jackie Chan films, but nothing could have prepared me for this.
I sat in the audience absolutely mesmerised. The show started just like it still does today, with a candle burning and soft chanting before the monks start demonstrating gentle tai chi moves.
Suddenly, it all explodes into wonderful combat sequences and incredible feats of human endurance. The monks walk up stairways made from razor-sharp knives, lie on beds of knives with concrete slabs on top of them, and break metal bars over their own heads - showing how they can overcome pain.
But it was when I saw a monk do a handstand, supporting himself on just two index fingers, that I thought, "Wow. I want to be that strong." I vowed that one day, I would be on stage with the monks.'
On the way back to the three-bedroom home that he shared with his parents and two brothers, Matthew was strangely quiet. A new dream had been born.
He says, 'People say that there is often a moment in life where everything changes, and for me, it was watching that one performance. I knew immediately that all I wanted to do in life was go to China and join the Shaolin monks. When I got home, I told Mum and Dad, and I think they assumed it was just a passing phase. But they were wrong.
'I found a small local martial arts club and, as I grew better and better, I started training with a private teacher at five every morning, before school.
Meanwhile, I researched everything I could about the monks, and downloaded pictures of them from the internet to plaster all over my bedroom walls. I wanted to wear impressive robes like the orange ones they wear for their performances, so I borrowed the sewing machines at school and made myself some.'
When Matthew was 15, his Turkish-born father, Metin, was diagnosed-with testicular cancer and was admitted to hospital for the first of two major operations. Matthew, his mother, Penny, a professor, and his brothers sat in vigil by the bedside.
Matthew says, 'Watching Dad in so much pain was the most awful time of my life. He was so brave - he became my total inspiration. But watching him lying in his hospital bed, so sick, convinced me that life is too short.
My teachers wanted me to do A-levels and then go to university. I realised that I didn't want to waste any precious time - I wanted to follow my dream.'
When his father had recovered, Matthew, who had passed seven GCSEs, begged his stunned parents to allow him to fly, alone, to China. He says, 'My martial arts master in London had direct links with the Shaolin monks in China and approached them on my behalf. They agreed to give me a one-year trial to see if I could withstand the regime.
Dad wasn't keen at all. He wanted me to carry on studying. But Mum understood that it was something I had trained for years to do. She agreed to pay for my flight and said I could try it for a year.'
In June 2005, the Ahmet family gathered at the airport to wave Matthew off. He says, 'We were all in tears. My martial arts master had arranged for me to travel with an old Chinese man, who could deliver me to the monk's temple.
But when we got on the plane, I realised he didn't speak any English. When we arrived in China, all the signs were in Chinese characters, and I couldn't understand anything. I suddenly felt really alone.
It took 14 hours to reach this man's village by car, and after staying overnight we set off for another nine-hour drive. I sat in the back of a tiny van on top of my case, and I was absolutely terrified. No one wears seatbelts in China, and they all smoke and chat as they drive.'
When Matthew arrived at the Shaolin monastery in remote province of Henan, he was given plain grey robes and shown to a sparse dormitory with a concrete floor, no windows and rows of plain bunk beds.
He said, 'My bed had no mattress, just a thin pillow and a blanket. The next morning, we were woken at five to go running up a mountain. I learned that training each day is the same - after reaching the top, we crawl back down on our hands and feet, like crabs, to build up our muscles.
At the bottom, we stretch and pull our legs for 20 minutes, then, at seven o'clock, we stop for breakfast - boiled vegetables and rice.
'From eight to 11, we continue training, with a 30-minute run to warm us up again. Then, we spend an hour on hard stretches, which include raising our straight leg and putting our foot into our own mouth. At midday it is lunch - vegetables and rice again - and then a two-hour sleep followed by training until nine at night.
'By the second day, my calves and hamstrings were hurting so much I couldn't walk. But I learned that if you stay in bed, you are pulled out onto the floor - and if you don't line up outside quickly, you are whipped around the legs with bamboo canes, which really hurts.
'The first few weeks were incredibly painful and lonely. I wasn't able to ring my mum and I lost over a stone in weight. But my pride just kept me going. I didn't want to admit defeat, and I also saw children aged four and five training alongside us, doing the same punishing exercises.
If they could do it, then so could I. Finally, after about a month, I started to understand the language and I learned to carry on through the pain, and to conquer it.'
Within a year, Matthew was able to join the famed Shaolin monk performing troupe, which had so inspired him as a child. That summer, his mother flew to China to see him. He says, 'I did look different - my head was completely shaved and I had lost so much weight - but she could see that I was happy.'
Did he not miss the teenage temptations of alcohol - and girls? Matthew shrugs. 'I had never drunk alcohol because I didn't like the smell. And even though I had gone out with girls at school, I never wanted to just have casual sex. I felt it was too disrespectful.'
Now, on his tours of the UK with the Shaolin monks, Matthew can be seen on stage performing incredible feats. He says, 'If I do feel pain, and it does hurt, I always think back to my dad lying in his hospital bed and how brave he was. That image helps me rise above the pain.'
Matthew visits schools to talk about the monks and Buddhism. He says, 'I want to teach kids that you can be cool without being violent.
My friends had knives when I was younger, but if I can persuade just one boy to put down a knife and train in a proper discipline like tai chi, my work will be worthwhile.'
And Matthew hasn't completely forsaken girls: he is marrying 20-year-old Chinese student Chang Chun on 25 January - his parents' wedding anniversary. He says, 'I am allowed to marry because I haven't taken my full vows as a monk.
I want to continue as part of the Shaolin monks, perhaps moving back to Britain.'
Matthew sits back and flashes a brilliant smile. 'I see plenty of other lads my age who have shaved heads and scars. But none of them smile the way that I do.'
You can't argue with that.
Shaolin Monks: Wheel Of Life is on at the Hackney Empire, London, until 22 November, www.hackneyempire.co.uk