The Odyssey of Shi Yan Ming
September 1, 1999
Inside Kung Fu Magazine, by Gene Ching
An old Zen Koan ponders, “What is the meaning of the Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Bodhidharma was the 5th-century Buddhist monk who founded Zen (known as Chan Buddhism in Chinese) and Shaolin kung-fu. He came from India (west of China) and sat for nine years straight, meditating at Shaolin Temple. Sitting for such a long time elicited a crucial turning point. A radical transformation emerged, one that would revolutionize philosophy worldwide and have tremendous impact on the martial arts. These Chan teachings of Bodhidharma may seem incomprehensible, even paradoxical, to many Westerners. For example, the easy answer for that Koan would be “to spread Buddhism.” But this would not be the Chan answer. Correspondingly, the fighting monks from Shaolin Temple appear contradictory without a sound understanding of Chan.
Seven years ago, the first Shaolin Temple monk came from the East. Shi Yan Ming was a member of the very first delgation of seven Shaolin Temple monks to come to the United States. I met Shi Yan Ming, although fleetingly, during the last stop of this historic tour. Like many, it was the first time I had come face-to-face with a real Shaolin Temple monk. Soon after that meeting, I was astonished to hear Yan Ming had decided to stay. In a courageous and unprecedented move, Yan Ming defected to the United States. Instead of taking his seat on the airplane home, he secretly took a cab to San Francisco’s Chinatown. He, along with fellow troupe member Shi Guo Lin, was the first Shaolin Temple monk to escape China.
Since Yan Ming’s defection, I have traveled to Shaolin Temple in China a few times myself to train and study. I have even had the food fortune of being indoctrinated as a layman disciple. So when <i>Inside Kung-Fu asked me to visit Shi Yan Ming and compare his Shaolin Temple to the original Shaolin Temple of China, I was honored to be of service. It was like a warrior’s Koan — “What was the meaning of Shi Yan Ming coming to the West?”
Shaolin in the Big Apple
From the young forest of Holy Mount Song to the concrete jungle of New York, Shaolin seems like a big move for a lone monk. But for a Buddhist monk, everywhere is home, so Shi Yan Ming remains unmoved. Gone are the mystic mountains and the ancient ginkgo and cypress trees. In its place are skyscrapers, asphalt and honking taxicabs. And yet, he blends seamlessly amid the pandemonium of Manhattan.
Dressed casually, Yan Ming weaves his way through the anarchy of the city streets to his humble temple established on Broadway in the village. It is a modest space, a century-old building with peeling paint, a hardwood floor and a well-used carpet, marked by a well-worn banner on the third story. A beautiful altar to Buddha is near the entrance, but beyond that, the casual observer might see it as just another studio.
There are no halls of wooden men, nor floors covered with clinging rice paper, those are the fantasies of the movies. But to anyone who has been to the real Shaolin Temple, this is exactly like the training halls there. There is an ancient saying that states, “Shaolin can be practiced in the space it takes to lay down an ox.” Many of the actual classes at Shaolin Temple of China are held in dirt fields, a far cry from some of our affluent Western studios. There, all that is needed is a space to work out. The spirit of Shaolin can adapt to fit any space.
Most Americans have a distorted view of the actual Shaolin Temple of China. We have formed our opinions on what we think Shaolin Temple should be based upon through movies, videogames and hearsay. With so loittle direct experience, Westerners over-idealize Buddhist Temples and monks. Not only do these misconceptions fail to describe the actual facts, they are especially misleading when regarding the Shaolin Temple.
In reality, Shaolin Temple is unorthodox among Buddhist orders, stemming from its history as the root of Chan and kung-fu. The unconventionality of Shaolin Temple is intrinsic to its unique character. While some Buddhist orders are strict about diet, even banning such stimulating foods as onions, peppers, and garlic, the order of Shaolin Temple is permitted to eat meat and drink liquor by an ancient command of the first Tang Dynasty emperor.
Furthermore, as part of the Cultural Revolution, the Communists compelled religious monks to behave more like civilians. This pressured them to forsake some other vows, such as chastity. Although it is not public, some monks have wives and families. Shi Yan Ming was training at Shaolin Temple during this time. Like a few other monks of his generation, he has a family that remains in China.During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Shaolin Temple was in ruins from the Cultural Revolution. The monks had to practice in secret or risk punishment from the Red Guard. They faced unimaginable horrors just to preserve their precious teachings. But few Westerners realize the magnitude of the atrocities that occured during that horrible period and how it affected everything Chinese. Most of us learned about Shaolin Temple by watching movies set in periods prior to this catastrophe. We have not kept up with the changes. If you are expecting a Shaolin Temple monk to be like “Grasshopper” from “Kung Fu” television fame, you will be sorely disappointed.
Shi Yan Ming is open and friendly, eager to recieve guests and visitors, and quick to exclaim, “Wonderful! Beautiful! Fabulous!” It is easy to see why part of his monastic name means “bright” or “brilliant”. For one of Shaolin Temple’s champion fighters, he appears as a gentle man, full of contagious optimism. His genuine smile spreads easily. But as soon as his class begins, the years of stern martial discipline surface. After three pious recitations of “Amituofo” (a Buddhist blessing), Yan Ming explodes with intensity.
For the next few hours, his students are subjected to a brutal regime of running, jumping, stretching, kicking, punching, and form recitation – all while Yan Ming is commanding “Faster! Higher! More power! MORE CHI!” It is the same curriculum you would find from any of the monks at the Shaolin Temoke, tried and true. No one sits to rest. If you sit, your classmates pull you into splits. And Yan Ming does not just coach from the sideline. This is his practice, too. He practices right along with his students, harder than anyone else in the room. It seems that for every single kick of his students, Yan Ming executes three. It is quickly apparant why he won the Shaolin Disciple’s competition three years in a row. Shi Yan Ming has chi to spare. “MORE CHI!” is his motto.
Shi Yan Ming offers a wide curriculum of Shaolin skills, traditional hand forms such as lohan fist and xiaohong fist, tai chi, chi kung, weapons, and free sparring. His emphasis, however, is upon the basic training. Most of the time is spent repeating basic kicks and strikes, coupled with stance work. These fundamentals are monotonous hard work, but as any martial artist knows, they are crucial. Only monotonous hard work can build the solid foundation necessary for authentic kung fu.
Many students lack the stamina and sheer force of will to see it through. But he rejects the idea of making his classes easier for the sake of increased enrollment. He incessantly encourages his students to “Train Harder!” He is a strict master. Not every student can persevere, but those who do quickly earn the fruits of their effort. Many of his students are uncommonly powerful after only a few months of training in the manner of the Shaolin Temple.
Probably the most intriguing aspect of Yan Ming’s teaching is his Buddhism and meditation classes. Most every Shaolin Temple monk offers some instruction in Buddhism, but Yan Ming presents it in a way that is distinctly American. He teaches in fluent English. Between classes, his students gather to sit on the carpet and listen. Even non-Buddhist students attend Shi Yan Ming’s Dharma talks. He takes the time to explain the complexities of Chinese characters and what they represent. Despite his Mandarin accent, he shares his teachings in a clear and concise manner, even adding the occasional street vernacular of New York City. For many Americans, it is their first exposure to these philosophies. Although he does lead some chanting, Yan Ming believes that chanting sutras is meaningless if you cannot understand what you are saying. He stresses that transmitting the heart of Buddhism is most important, more so than the Chinese sutras, especially since only a small portion of his students are fluent in Chinese.
The Manhattan Monk
Shi Yan Ming has a dream, one that is probably shared by every Shaolin Temple monk who has left the original temple following him. Just like the hero San Te from the movie 36 Chambers of Shaolin, he wants to build a new Shaolin Temple. Through the teachings of Shaolin, he longs to advance the progress of world peace. Strictly speaking, any school run by a Shaolin Temple monk can be considered a subsidiary Shaolin Temple, but this one would be special. He wants to replicate the actual halls of the original Shaolin Temple here in America. Yan Ming is actively engaging a wide range of projects to raise funds for this massive undertaking. Just like the Dalai Lama’s association with Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys, Shi Yan Ming is attracting a hip assortment of celevrities that are supporting his vision. Wesley Snipes, RZA of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, Academy-Award nominee Rosie Perez, and starts like Bokeem Woodbine, John Leguizamo and Kadeem Hardison, have become both students and spokespersons. His partner, Sophia Chang, is exploring many novel strategies for fundraising. Using modern methods such as their web site at www.usashaolintemple.org to network the New York scene, Chang’s previous work in the music industry adds some new twists to how martial arts is publicized. She is making great efforts to promote Shi Yan Ming’s Shaolin Temple project outside the martial community through an ever-evolving approach to getting the word out. Together, they have established the USA Shaolin Temple Capital Campaign to generate funds for this aspiring project.
The USA Shaolin Temple is an ambitious goal, one that is meeting with unexpected challenges. Strangely, it has been other martial artists who have caused the most problems. Some critics have claimed that Shaolin Temple monks are not “real”. Because Shi Yan Ming is the first defector and very flamboyant, many of these criticisms have been leveled directly at him. Personal attacks about his lifestyle and his non-observance of abstinance have been the making of tabloid-like gossip. This fault-finding is full of petty jealosy, prejudice, and a general lack of understanding about things Chinese. A little research into the history of the Shaolin Temple and the recent history of China reveals that Buddhist abstinence does not define a contemporary Shaolin Temple monk.
One thing is certain – Shi Yan Ming is authentic. He learned Shaolin kung fu at Shaolin Temple from childhood under his Shaolin Temple monk master Shi Yong Qian and two lay masters Liu Xin Yi and Shen Ping An. His generation of monks faced tremendous hardships, not only from the rigors of training, but also from the oppression of Communist rule. Before Shaolin Temple’s recent restoration, Yan Ming was one of the noble monks who fought to preserve Shaolin’s legacy despite Communist persecution. After what he has sacrificed for Shaolin, one wonders why anyone would question his legitimacy.
Shi Yan Ming holds the heritage and the skills to have an earnest claim to his venerated title. If you would rather fantasize about Kwai Chang Caine, well, the manifestations of Buddhism are infinite, so you may find your way there. Most, however, would rather learn what the real Shaolin Temple monks have to offer.
Today, several Shaolin Temple monks have followed Shi Yan Ming’s example and left Shaolin Temple to teach the outside world. These disciples of Shaolin Temple have spread across China so that now most every province can boast their own Shaolin Temple school. This has historical precedent, the same thing occured during peak periods throughout the Shaolin Temple’s extensive history. This is how Shaolin kung fu became so famous and influential. Now is an exciting moment in the history of martial arts because, for the first time, the monks of Shaolin are beginning to spread to the West. At this very moment, there are a few monks scattered across Europe and America opening schools. They have forsaken their home upon the beautiful Holy Mount Song to share the heritage of an illustrious tradition with all of us. But is the West ready to listen?
It is our nature to perceive Chan as paradoxical. However, if we reject such notions because they contradict our assumptions, we deny ourselves the enlightenment of a great tradition. These paradoxes are only a result of our delusions. Many Chan disciplines, such as the asking of Koans or even the practice of kung fu, seek to intentionally jam our reasoning as a means to break the bonds of these delusions and evoke our direct expreience. Like in Chan Koans, the answers may be unexpected, but they are pregnant with meaning and underlying truth. Perhaps the answers to the Koan “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma from the West?” and “What was the meaning of Shi Yan Ming coming to the West?” are one, but you need to know a little Chan to understand it. A long time ago, the great Buddhist master Xiang Lin asnwered by saying “Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome.”
Donations may be sent to the USA Shaolin Temple Capital Campaign, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, established to build a Shaolin Temple in the United States. For more information about this project, contact the USA Shaolin Temple, 446 Broadway, 2nd Floor, New York, NY, 100012, 212-358-7876 or http://www.usashaolintemple.org .
Gene Ching last wrote “The 8 Truths About Shaolin” in the July, 1999 issue.