SHAOLIN GET-DOWN: RZA MEETS THE MONK
Introduced and Coordinated by Sophia Chang
Shifu SHI YAN-MING came to the US in ’92 on the first-ever Temple Monks’ American Tour. On the last date of the tour, in San Francisco, he snuck out in the middle of the night, eluding the watchful eye of the Chinese government chaperones. He jumped into a cab, speaking no English, with nothing but a little money, a copy of his passport and some newspaper articles that featured him. Once in the cab, he could only signal with his hands which direction to go. The cabbie, realizing that his passenger had no idea what his destination was, pulled over and called the police, who arrived almost immediately. Upon inspecting Shi Yan-Ming’s passport copy and articles, they understood he was trying to defect and ordered the driver to take him to Chinatown. The driver dropped him off at the nearest Chinese restaurant. Shi Yan-Ming was thrilled to see the Chinese writing. Unfortunately, the restaurant owners spoke Cantonese (the Canton/Hong Kong dialect), which is very different from his native Mandarin. They finally communicated with each other through writing (Chinese is a pictorial language and can be understood by people of different dialects because though it may be said differently, it is written the same). Luckily Shi Yan-Ming remembered the number of a friend in New York who in turn called his friend in San Francisco (whose number he had forgotten in the hotel room) who came and picked him up. He stayed underground for a week and then made his way to New York where he lived upstate at a Buddhist temple, then at another temple in Chinatown before opening his own USA Shaolin Temple, where he now teaches Kung Fu, Tai Ji, Qi Gong, Buddhism and meditation. — Sophia Chang
Scheduling an interview with the RZA isn’t as hard as you think – but making it happen is much harder than you could possibly imagine. The Godfather of the Clan only gets busier as the Wu Empire expands, so tracking him down to do this interview is no small feat. 45 minutes on the NJ Turnpike isn’t so bad, but the 45 once we get off the Turnpike is a winding journey in the dark. Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, a 34th generation Shaolin Temple fighting monk sighs, “Ah, trees.” It’s almost 1:00 am by the time we pull up to the formidable Wu Mansion looming grandly in the dark. (Is it really shaped like the Wu logo?) Once summoned to the RZA’s antechamber, Shifu is delighted to see that Tony Starks a.k.a Ghostface Killah has just arrived as well. Shifu, RZA and Ghost sit down on the floor and discuss Chan Buddhism, Islam, the Dao De Jing, meditation, the history of Shaolin Temple and its Qing Dynasty heroes Wong Fei Hong and Fong Sai Yuk (both played often and excellently by actor Jet Li), stretching and Chi Kung, among other subjects. Than comes the RZA’s audio-visual presentation: he plays Shifu five new incredible beats he’s been working on and shares his techniques; he shows Shifu the raw footage from his “Tragedy” video (which is far better than the video itself) and some of his favorite scenes from various kung fu movies. At one point RZA disappears upstairs and redescends with champagne glasses and an extraordinary bottle of ’88 vintage Dom Perignon – “very special water” as Shifu calls it, as opposed to beer, which is simply “special water.” (The second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin, ordained that Shaolin Temple monks could eat meat and drink alcohol – but not on the grounds of the Temple – because they saved his life). They’re left alone with only the music and the bottle of DP…
RZA: Tell ’em about the Zen [Chan in Chinese] Buddhism.
Shifu Shi Yan-Ming: Zen Buddhism, if you talk about Zen Buddhism, you cannot say “this is Zen Buddhism.”
RZA: So, it can’t be described in words.
Shifu: It’s very important: mind to mind and heart to heart. The Zen Buddhism founder, Damo [also known as Bodhidarma], after him until the fifth generation [of disciples chosen to pass on the teachings] never wrote down any words. But the sixth generation, Hui Neng, he wrote different books explaining about Zen. He wanted to let people know about Zen Buddhism.
RZA: But you never could really describe it in writing.
Shifu: Chan can be everything, also can be nothing. This is basic talk.
RZA: So it’s like the great everything but it’s also the small nothing. I understand. Talk about Wu-Tang and how it came from Shaolin. Talk about the Wu-Tang founder.
Shifu: Wu-Tang founder was Zhangsanfeng from the Yuan Dynasty. From the Yuan Dynasty until now [is] like 745 years. He’s a true person, a real person. He studied at Shaolin Temple for ten years. After he did some bad things. Fight a lot. Shaolin Temple Abbot and all the monks said…
RZA: “You got to go.”
Shifu: Yeah. He founded another mountain called Wudang, English say Wu-Tang.
RZA: So he went to the mountain and then he realized that he was doing wrong? Did he ever realize that he was bad and then change himself?
Shifu: He did things because he was young. Everybody at Shaolin Temple doesn’t want to be bad person because they studied philosophy and Zen Buddhism. And master and all the monks, different teachers, learn from Buddha and different Boddhisattvas: Always be a good person, don’t be bad. Maybe he did it on purpose. After he felt he did bad things, he tried to change. After, he found Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province.
RZA: What about Hunggar?
Shifu: Hunggar from Qing Dynasty. Shaolin Temple monks helped the emperor but the emperor fought with the Manchus. The Manchus were angry at the Shaolin Temple monks and thought the Shaolin Temple monks help somebody kill them. They were very angry.
RZA: I saw a movie called Death Chamber that said that the Manchus sent 4,000 men into attack 400 Shaolin men.
Shifu: It’s true. Shaolin Temple monks – one person can fight a lot of different people. Hunggar is from Shaolin disciple Hong Xi Guan, he was Master Zheshan’s disciple. Hunggar has Small Red Fist, Big Red Fist, and Oldest Fist. Now, especially in America, people don’t know Hunggar. Chinese people came to America from Qing Dynasty, from Hong Kong and Canton. Lots of people know a little bit of martial arts; they don’t want to work too hard. They try to do differently, they try to teach. But only know like a small part of martial arts.
RZA: … and fool a lot of people. But you have been in Shaolin from the age of five, studying over 25 years – and not just studying martial arts but also Chan Buddhism and the philosophy and knowin’ how to really live life in all walks of life and how everything is kung fu, everything is a martial art.
Shifu: Exactly. Everywhere you can stay, you don’t have to feel bad. If you want to do something, in the future, if you try your best, you have to be happy. If you can, you be happy. Nothing different. Try keep your heart flat.
RZA: Keep your heart flat, neutral.
RZA: You know, where I come from – New York, Staten Island – we call it Shaolin. I’m representing the Wu-Tang Clan, but you came from the actual Shaolin Temple in Henan Province in China. What was it like to grow up in a place like that? Was it hard training?
Shifu: Before it was, yeah, feel differently. But little by little find out love – Zen Buddhism and Shaolin Temple changed my life. I feel very comfortable.
RZA: Were you doing a lot of rigorous training? Liftin’ a lot of stuff, carryin’ heavy things, readin’ everyday? How was your average day?
Shifu: We woke up at 4:00 in the morning. Some monks meditate and pray, some monks practice martial arts for two hours. At 6:00 stop, rest half an hour. 6:30 we have breakfast. After breakfast at 7:00 we do one hour meditation and read some books and try to do different things – like now there are a lot of tours that come to Shaolin Temple. Shaolin Temple opened to tourists in 1978. At 8:00 we opened the door and let tours come in and have to take care of a lot of tourists, cleaning. Shaolin Temple have a lot of different buildings made of wood; you have to be careful, because a lot of people pray and lot of incense burn. We open door from 8:00 until 11:30. 11:30 lunchtime for half hour. After we change, different monks.
RZA: Change the shifts. Different monks come.
Shifu: Right. They go to have lunch, we go to work. If you work in the morning, you don’t work in the afternoon – you practice, pray and meditation until 6:30 in the evening we have dinner. After, we close the doors and inside we clean and also pray and meditation, reading, practice kung fu. We go to bed, 10:00. From 10:00 we have three sections: 10:00 ’til 1:00 have different monks, like kung fu fighting monks take care of Temple, walk around. Like each group for three hours.
RZA: I seen a movie Masta Killa: 36 Chambers, he had to carry the water. Did you carry water and stuff like that?
Shifu: Yes, we did.
RZA: And then there are a lot of obstacles you gotta go through?
Shifu: We made different kinds of training styles.
RZA: So it’s different training you would do – while you’re workin’, you’re tranin’.
Shifu: Exactly, you walk like wind, you sleep like bow, stand like big tree, and your movements, your footwork, like drunken, someone cannot understand you, and also your head is wavy like the ocean water, end especially your waist.
RZA: Constantly moving, your waist has to be very flexible.
Shifu: Have to. It’s like the center. If your waist is too stiff, it’s not good for you.
RZA: What’s a good way to loosen the waist? Bending, stretching?
Shifu: Bending not enough. Depends. Must see mind – is very important.
RZA: So it’s like year mind must be so much in tune with your body that you can make your body shape anyway you want because your mind controls it. Like I once thought that the same energy you put into sex, that’s a lot of energy, you should be able to put that into any move that you make, do you agree with that? You should be able to put that into anything.
Shifu: Yin and Yang. Men are Yang, women are Yin. Man and woman together very natural, it’s no problem, very good. But if too much, you lose a lot of chi.
RZA: That’s my problem, Shifu. Too much woman.
Shifu: You have to control yourself.
RZA: In the hip-hop world, that’s a hard thing to do. But that’s part of martial art training: you’ve gotta control your desires. You know there’s many people that believe in a lot of myths about Shaolin. Talk about some of the things that can be done, as far as the strength that you can get with that… Like how you broke the bricks on year head.
Shifu: Shaolin Temple has many different kind of styles: empty hands, like 36 internal and 36 external styles. And also have every different weapon. Usually they talk about 18 weapons, but much more than that.
RZA: How many different weapons have you learned to use?
Shifu: I can do all different weapons.
RZA: Is the hands the best?
Shifu: I feel it’s the same.
RZA: That’s great. You know how martial arts movies that they made in the ’70s as we was growing up had a big effect on the music and the hip-hop culture in America. We learned a lot just from watching the movies and trying to see the brotherhood and the loyalty that was there. How does that feel to you to know that your culture was able to influence a culture over here? Do you think that’s something good?
Shifu: Of course it’s good. Some movies they made is very good, some movies they made is so-so. A lot of people don’t understand movies, they think it’s real sometimes, they think it’s true, but it’s not. Like some actors don’t know martial arts but they made a movie look like real.
RZA: Yeah, I just did a video.
Shifu: Excellent. You know first time I saw your video, oh my God, I can’t stop laughing. I love very much. Before I said, “Where is Rakim video? I cannot see!” My god. All the time I check Channel 20 [MTV] and Channel 42 [BET]. “Where’s Rakim?” On the phone I talk to you and it came on. I said “Wow! Now!” So excellent.
RZA: What kind of music are you into? Do you like hip-hop music?
Shifu: In China, all the time I live at Shaolin Temple, different kinds of music for me is no problem. Especially I know you, I like Wu-Tang Clan more I heard, I listen, I like! You know, can give you lot of energy to practice.
RZA: I feel like my music and my lyrics is like kung fu. Like the Wu-Tang style, we came with that because I like the Wu-Tang sword style – and the tongue is like a sword and your words can either kill you or save you in many situations. That’s why with Wu-Tang, we specialize in what we say. And the music that I make is martial arts driven, and that’s why I realize that anything that you could do physically, you could do mentally. And whatever you could do mentally, you should be able to do physically.
Shifu: Very true. Your tongue, just like sword. Can do anything. And also you do music, you have to use your chi and if you don’t have enough chi, you cannot do it. Just like kung fu.
RZA: So he’s saying all you producers who don’t get enough chi energy, you cannot make good music.
Shifu: This is true.
RZA: I remember you were showing me some Chi Kung.
Shifu: Chi is like your life force. Like your born-chi and after-you reborn-outside-chi. try to combine together. Actually, everything – we talk, we walk, we eat, we sleep – everything you have to use your chi. Chi can help your life, can also hurt you.
RZA: … destroy your life. So there’s chi in everything, in every walk of life, in every active force of energy. It’s the principal behind every energy.
Shifu: Depends how you use your chi. Like you have philosophy share with people to help world peace.
RZA: Right. So, do you like it in America?
Shifu: Everywhere for monks is same, nothing different.
RZA: It don’t matter what’s around you, it’s what’s inside you. So you always bring yourself there, you don’t care what’s the environment. That’s great. Me and Ghostface have been doing come of the Chi Kung exercises and stretching. It does build up an internal strength. For me, it made me feel more rooted to the ground, like it made me feel that every step my toes just grabbed the ground. That’s what I got out of it.
Shifu: The roots like the tree?
RZA: Yeah, like the roots of the tree. How about the food, you like the food out here?
Shifu: I think American food, some is good. The fast food is not good for people’s health because all deep-fried, too much oil. Too much sugar, too much cheese.
RZA: What you think is going to be your contribution to America?
Shifu: I give the people my best because I know a lot about Zen Buddhism and philosophy and Shaolin Temple martial arts and also acupressure and medicine, many different kinds. I want to give to everybody, everybody enjoy. If help one people, another people think can help ten people, ten people can help 100 people.
RZA: And it doesn’t matter, you’re not into races and nationalities. You don’t feel that you want to be greater, you just want to share with all.
Shifu: This is my opinion, this is my future. I want world peace and everybody try to think about somebody and take care of somebody. A country has to think about another country, take care of another country. I think if everybody thinks like this, the world is very comfortable.
RZA: If everybody was to help each other it would be more comfortable. But people these days, Shifu, it’s more every man for himself. But with that kind of thought and philosophy.., right now, America is considered by some to be a bad place, ah, they call it Babylon sometimes. Do you think that a man with your ambition and your desires for peace will ever find peace in a place like this?
Shifu: I think it depends, on yourself, everywhere. Like I live New York right now. It you stay here, you have to love here, have to take care of here. And you take care of everybody and everybody respect you and take care of you. And if you stay here and you can do well, you can go anywhere and do well, it’s no problem, no question. And also I have to tell people, if you like to study martial arts with somebody, it’s very good but you have to be careful: go to watch class first, make everything sure, don’t waste your time.
RZA: I’m gonna tell [the GRAND ROYAL readers] this: It you wanna learn true and living Shaolin martial arts, go to the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple located at 678 Broadway, third floor [The temple is now located at 446 Broadway, 2nd floor]. That’s for people who are interested in coming in to learn true Shaolin Kung Fu, not no imitation. This is RZArector from the Wu-Tang Clan with Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, PEACE!
Shifu: AMITUOFO! [pronounced o-mi-to-foh] PEACE! The Wu-Tang, Shaolin [in a voice like the soundbyte from the first Wu-Tang album]
The two emerge as the sun is coming up, still full of energy, warmth end smiles. Shifu Shi Yan-Ming can’t remember the last time he stayed up all night, never mind the last time he drank $200 a bottle champagne end discussed Chan with the #1 hip-hop producer in the world.