Return to Shaolin 2008
The USA Shaolin Temple contingent departed New York on September 13, 2008 on Air China flight 981 to Beijing. 21 disciples and students accompanied Shifu on this pilgrimage to China.
Our tour-guide, Andy Liu, met us at Beijing airport – the largest and most modern in existence. Our accommodations were in one of the new 5-star establishments and very upscale. While in Beijing, we visited the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Tomb of the Ming Emperor and the Great Wall. Each historical wonder was worthy of far more time, especially since we not only wanted to understand the history, culture, architecture and mythology surrounding each destination, but also wanted to feel the Feng Shui of the environment and train at each venue.
From Beijing we flew to Xi’an, to the fields of the Terra Cotta warriors. By this stage of the trip, Andy, our tour guide, was saying “Amituofo”, “More Chi’ and even posing flamboyantly for pictures – in Kung Fu poses! At Xi’an we had hand-pulled noodles for lunch. The noodle-maker took a ball of dough and adroitly pulled, pummeled and kneaded it into the finest noodles we had had in our life. The noodle maker and his helpers were astounded by our capacity for La Jiao (chilies).
Next morning, before departing from Xi’an, we visited Zhao Chang Jun Wushu guan. The students put on a demonstration for us. As soon as their demonstration ended, Shifu gave us a surprise – “…do you want to demonstrate?”. Of course, the Temple crew jumped at the challenge and put together a ‘demonstration’ – without any planning or conversation. Heng Han led and Heng Jian carried the vanguard. Heng Jian and his chi were the clear favorite!
We were very pleased by how our ‘line-up’ exercises, finding-our-place-in-line and other aspects of our training had primed us for this no-preparation demonstration. While the Wushu school demonstration team had beautiful forms, speed and killer acrobatics, we had something special. We had the More-Chi spirit, power and extension. These unique attributes not only set us apart, they allowed us to express the embedded philosophy. This theme recurred consistently through our visits at successive schools and at the Shaolin Temple in Henan.
From Xi’an we made our way to Luoyang. Our flight had been taken over by government officials, according to our guide, so we traveled by bus. At this juncture an issue came to head: we were joined together as a group – single tour guide, single bus, single itinerary. However, individuals had very varied expectations regarding what they wanted to get out of the trip. Our spontaneous demonstration at the Wushu guan in Xi’an had cleaned our inner detritus from the past few days of ‘tourism’ and brought us back in sync with ourselves and each other – we came to a turning point, building a group decision-making system which actually worked (imagine trying to herd 21 cats!).
Thereafter, we visited the Buddha grottoes at Luoyang and trained alongside the Yi river. This time we trained with a commitment to represent our Temple in a more prepared fashion. Shifu told us it was time to move forward. Engrossed in our action-meditation, we had lost track of time. Deng Feng city and the Shaolin Temple beckoned.
Dengfeng, Henan (Home to Shaolin Temple)
We had lunch at Deng Feng and then went to Shi Xiao Long wushu guan. The founder and owner of the school, Mr. Chen Tong Shan, was Shifu’s friend and he made arrangements to provide Shifu’s disciples and students the opportunity to learn either Ying Quan (Eagle) or Hu Quan (Tiger). Students split up as per their choice and we started training. Needless to say, this opportunity arrived immediately after we had eaten a huge lunch! Train Harder.
The following morning we took our tour bus on the 20 minute ride to the outskirts of Deng Feng city to visit the Shaolin Temple itself. As was to be expected, our trip to the Shaolin Temple produced a variety of feelings amongst all of us. The focus of our trip to China was “Return to Shaolin”, and not surprisingly, our return to our heritage invoked the most passionate and divergent emotions amongst all of us. There was great sadness at what has been lost, as well as great excitement at what was still there to be found.
The Temple itself sits at the foot of Shaoshi mountain, after which the Temple is named. One can take a gondola ride to the top of Shaoshi mountain, passing Sword Mountain and Drum Mountain along the way. As you may remember from Buddhism class, surrounding the temple are the 5 famous mountains. Drum Mountain was where Hui Ke dug his four wells. The mountain where Damo meditated in a cave for 9 years was also visited, however we were not allowed into the cave to see the image of Damo legendarily burned onto the cave’s walls by reason of Damo’s intense meditation, as it was roped off.
The entrance to the Temple was a Shaolin shopping center, with various stores selling uniforms, swords, training shoes and other paraphernalia. Once we purchased our tickets (approximately $15.00), we walked along a long, well manicured road surrounded by fields where many Kung Fu schools used to operate, but are now gone.
All along the outside of the Temple were various vendors hawking their wares, including scrolls, tee shirts, stamps, and other goods for tourist consumption.
The grounds within the Temple walls were rather small, and densely built upon. We saw many sites depicting Shaolin history, including the Damo Ting (Damo Room) where Damo mediated for 4 years after leaving his cave, the steps to the Damo Ting where Hui Ke cut off his left arm, a stone tablet commemorating the 13 Shaolin monks who saved Emperor Li Shimin’s life, resulting in the special edict from the emperor that Shaolin monks could eat meat and drink special water, as well as the training room where Shaolin monks indented the stone floor with their chi during training. In another room we saw the famous mural which is said to change colors daily (un-confirmed by our group), as well as various other temples on the Temple grounds.
We were not permitted to enter any of the temple rooms. We could only “pay respect” at the door entrance, for which the current monks guarding these rooms insisted on the word “pay” literally. The legendary tree, symbolizing the health and well being of the Temple was apparently cut down to make way for some new buildings. All of us felt the awe of what once was, and the sadness of what is left of the Temple grounds themselves.
There were no more monks training Kung Fu or Chan Buddhism that we could see, as that training appears to have been out-sourced to some of the large Kung Fu schools in the surrounding towns and counties, some of which we visited and trained in.
Our sadness was diverted by a surprise visit to our Grandmaster Shi Yong Qian’s chamber. Upon seeing Shifu, he immediately treated him the way one would expect parent to treat any of his children – he immediately began cooking noodles. All immediately felt his compassion and gracefulness as he prepared food for the entire USA Shaolin Temple group in his small kitchen, with his disciples scurrying back and forth with bowls and supplies. We sat in his two-room apartment located alongside the Temple grounds, ordinarily off limits to the teeming tourists. We all paid our respects upon leaving his home, and felt our connection to the Shaolin Temple.
After leaving our Grandmaster’s chambers, we made our way to the Pagoda forest. We paid our respects at the pagoda of the founder of our lineage – Fu Yu. After that we paid our respects at our great Grandmaster Xing Zheng’s pagoda which had names of two generations of his disciples etched onto it. We recognized Shifu’s name in the list of disciples on the pagoda.
Most of the group split off into smaller groups and began to explore on their own. Here, up in the pristine mountains, left the way they were from the time of Damo (except for the gondolas), many experienced the majesty, mystique, and wonder of the Shaolin Temple. We visited the cave where Damo mediated, and along the way came upon a small Temple on the mountain side currently used by nuns. Without the trappings of tourism, many were able to experience in this small mountain side Temple, on a smaller scale, the way the Shaolin Temple must have felt before its current incarnation. As one sat on this temple’s grounds, surrounded by walls, all one could see, feel, and smell were the surrounding mountains, trees, nature, and serenity of the location.
At the top of Drum Mountain, there is a small temple, seldom visited by tourists, where 4 stone tablets commemorate the location of Hui Ke’s 4 wells. At the end of Drum Mountain there was a small peak where a vista of the entire valley, temples, and mountains could be seen by merely turning one’s head. The climb was long and steep, and with the cable car broken, it was peaceful and serene. Perhaps Buddha was watching out for us on this weekend and caused the cable car to be broken, so that we could enjoy this temple and the stunning views without the trappings of commercialism. The small temple is kept locked, but a young, handsome monk in white robes was nearby, who opened the temple and allowed many of us to pay our respects, without any request for money. Perhaps he realized that only the sincere would climb this mountain on a damp and rainy day.
The spirit of training has been preserved in some of the local schools, and the most touching example was our trip to Shifu’s younger brother’s schools where the Shaolin love was palpable.
From Deng Feng we journeyed to Zhumadian (Shifu’s hometown). Throughout the trip we had been accompanied by our Shishu (Shifu’s younger blood and kung fu brother – Shi Yan Xiao) and now we were at his kung fu school. After another fantastic demonstration, we joined our kungfu brothers and sisters for a joint training session. The chi was tremendous. Local news and TV crews arrived, filmed us training and interviewed Shifu. The government arranged lodging for us to housing in a fancy government hotel and invited all of us for dinner.
A senior government leader, who was also a lady and an artist, made the first toast to Shifu. In attendance were several other government luminaries including judges. She welcomed him and his students ‘home’. Rounds and rounds of Special Water flowed. Every round was preceded by a toast.
Next, we headed to Huang Shan, Yellow Mountain. Spectacular sights awaited us. The Chinese paintings of mist-shrouded mountains with Daoist priests meditating in heavenly pavilions are accurate depictions of the scenery – and we were there. We were energized and soon made grand plans to hike 19 KM the next morning. The following day, some people lounged at the summit while others took the western trail, climbing and descending through narrow crevices, misty ridges and down treacherous ‘climb-backwards’ steps. One of the ascents was over 1200 knee-high steps and the group resorted to Tiger Style walking to summit that stretch.
From Yellow Mountain we made our way to Shanghai on an overnight train. The accommodations were very comfortable and the Temple crew took up half of the car. Innumerable conversations, chess games, practical jokes and snacks later, we arrived in Shanghai.
The group spent two days, again, in very fancy accommodations in Shanghai. We broke up into smaller clusters which explored Shanghai independently.
Checkout, bus to airport, Shanghai to Beijing, Beijing to NYC and, before we knew it, another life experience was over.