Reflections on Return to China 2010

Students and Disciples from the US, Austria, Mexico, and China training together

By Shi Hengde

There are certain experiences that can define and shape the rest of one’s life. For 14 disciples and students of the USA Shaolin Temple, the Return to Shaolin 2010 trip was one of them. The group spent 18 days in China’s Henan province, visiting the Shaolin Temple and training martial arts at the Shaolin Wenwu School.

Late in the evening on August 9th, the group arrived at the Shaolin International Hotel in Dengfeng, a city just South of Mount Song. They were immediately greeted by their Shishu, kung fu uncle, Shi Yan Xiao, who is Shifu Shi Yan Ming’s younger brother both in the Temple and by blood. Additionally, there were 5 students from the Shaolin Temple Austria who had already been training with Shishu for some time. As exhausted as everyone was from the long journey, they were all excited to meet Shishu, and noted how much he resembled his older brother. After checking in, most went straight to train sleeping meditation, while the hungrier ones ventured out into the city to find the night market for some late-night Chinese street food.

The next morning, the group set out together to visit the Shaolin Temple. Upon arrival, some were surprised at the 100 yuan (About $15) ticket price to the temple grounds, and the abundance of stores around the entrance. After passing through the first turnstile, there was a 10 minute walk to the temple itself. For an extra fee, minibuses were available to take those who didn’t want to walk. Along the sides of this newly-paved road was land owned by the Ta Gou school, the largest martial arts academy in China with over 20,000 students. The group watched as hundreds of students in red t-shirts and black pants practiced various forms and basics in the open fields.

Soon everyone arrived at the iconic front entrance of the Temple itself. Everyone was joyful to have finally arrived, but at the same time the picture made their hearts heavy. Instead of a pristine Temple in the mountains with monks training or reading sutras, they saw hundreds of tourists and vendors trying to sell them various trinkets and souvenirs.

Inside the Shaolin TempleAfter taking a photo together in front of the Temple entrance, the group passed through another turnstile, actually inside the entrance itself, into the main courtyard. Looking past the current state of the Temple, the group could feel the weight of history from looking at the trees with finger-sized holes from iron finger training and steles with ancient texts lining the path. A set of two large steles on the right told the story of how 13 Shaolin monks helped the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin, thus gaining the favor of the rest of the Dynasty. They marvelled at the grandeur and detail of the various towers and buildings. However, many of the buildings in the temple were fairly new, having been rebuilt after the originals were destroyed in the 40-day fire of 1928 or the cultural revolution.

The group continued through the temple, paying respects in the various halls, taking in the various sights, and reflecting on the condition of the temple. Soon, it was time for a very special visit. Passing through an unmarked doorway on the West side of the Temple, up a wide empty road, and into a set of buildings, everyone found themselves in a small open courtyard with their Shiye, or grandmaster, Shi Yong Qian, standing to greet them. Any feelings of sadness about the temple the group had were quickly washed away as everyone could feel the immense peacefulness and kindness emanating from Shiye. They were reminded that although many things have changed in the Temple over the last hundred years, the temple doesn’t really consist of walls or buildings or statues, but is in the heart of each person following the way.

Group photo with Grandmaster Shi Yong QianShiye invited them into his tiny apartment, where he offered to cook them noodle soup. Shishu quickly responded, “No Shifu, there are too many people, please don’t trouble yourself.” Shiye replied that there weren’t too many people and that it would be no trouble, but Shishu kept protesting. Next, Shiye offered watermelon instead. Again, Shishu strongly protested. So finally, Shiye went behind his altar (which fills up half of his living room) and brought out fozhu, prayer necklaces with 108 beads, for everyone. Then, he went into his bedroom and came back with something even more special – a small baby boy. Shishu explained how Shiye had found the baby abandoned on the side of the road, and thus taken him in. Shiye’s face lit up as he shared the beautiful child with the group.

After spending a few more precious moments with Shiye, the group left the Temple itself and walked west to the Stupa Forest. Before the cultural revolution, there were over 1000 stupas dedicated to the greatest monks in the history of the Temple, there are now less than 200. The highest level monks are commemorated with a stupa of 7 stories. In the Stupa Forest, the group took time to pay respects to some of their Shaolin Ancestors. They first visited the pagoda of their Shitai, or Great-Grandmaster, Shi Xing Zheng, who was the Abbot of the temple until he passed in 1987. Next to his stupa was a stele recording the names of his disciples, and even his disciples’ disciples. The group was able to find both their Shiye and Shifu Shi Yan Ming’s names inscribed upon it.

Next, they found the stupa of Fu Yu, who wrote the generational poem that all Shaolin monks and disciples of the Caodong lineage derive their names from. He also invited all of the great martial artists in China to Shaolin 3 times, each time for a period of 3 years, to exchange philosophy and styles, thus making the Shaolin Temple almost synonymous with martial arts in China. Finally, everyone came to the newest stupa in the forest, that of Shi Su Xi. Although Su Xi is not part of the same lineage, he was one of the few masters who stayed at the Temple during the cultural revolution enduring the abuses of the red guard, and who also helped raise Shifu Shi Yan Ming. His stupa, the first constructed in the 21st century, depicts all of the amazing technological advances he witnessed in his lifetime – from bullet trains and cell phones to laptop computers and airplanes.

Every Saturday at the USA Shaolin Temple, there is a class where Chan philosophy and the history of the Temple is discussed in detail. Often told during this time is the story of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who came to China and founded Chan Buddhism at the Shaolin Temple. There are two places very important to the story near Shaolin – a cave behind the temple, on one of the “5 Breast Peaks” (Wu Ru Feng), where Bodhidharma meditated for 9 years, and Drum Mountain, where Bodhidharma’s disciple Hui Ke lived for 4 years and eventually attained enlightenment. On the second day of the trip, the group visited these places.

The peak behind the Shaolin Temple where the Damo Cave is locatedThe first stop was the Damo cave. The path began between the Stupa Forest and the Temple itself. A few minutes on the way up, the group discovered the Chuzu (First Ancestor) Nunnery. They stopped for a brief time, admiring the main Buddha hall, which has survived since 1125. But there was a lot of mountain left to climb, and they soon continued. From then on, everyone ascended at their own pace. Like the mental mountains in our lives, some take longer than others to climb, but all can be overcome through perseverance. While some ran up the trail and quickly arrived at the summit, and others took a bit longer, eventually all made it to the top. The cave itself is quite small, and has a statue of Bodhidharma meditating cloaked in a robe. As the members of the temple group entered one by one to pay their respects, a nun sat reciting a sutra, and rang a bell every time one kowtowed. There was still just a little bit further to go before reaching the very top of the mountain, and after everyone got to see the cave, they all headed up. On top was a small pavilion on one side, with a huge stone statue of Bodhidharma on the other. The group rested here for a while, enjoying the 360 degree panoramic mountain views, then finally returned down the mountain, some stopping to enjoy fresh cucumbers and special water from a vendor on the way down.

After a delicious lunch at a restaurant further to the West of the Stupa forest, it was time to head to Drum Mountain. After the big hike of the morning, everyone opted to take the cable cars up. At the top of the mountain was Erzu (Second Ancestor) Temple, built around the four wells Hui Ke dug while he trained under Damo. Damo told Hui Ke to live on Drum Mountain for a year four times, digging a well each year and using only the water from that well to live. Each of the four wells had a different flavor, bitter, spicy, sour, or sweet, reflecting the changes in Hui Ke as he understood more. Just like our lives, we can’t have spicy all the time or sweet all the time, but need sour and bitter as well to balance. Some of the more adventurous ones sampled the water from the four wells, and concluded that each one did indeed taste different, but didn’t taste too strongly of the flavor the well represented.

On top of one of the Wuru PeaksContinuing on the path past the Temple, the group found their way to a rocky outcropping. They climbed up to the top and were treated to another beautiful 360 degree view of the Song mountain range. The Shaolin Temple and Pagoda Forest could be seen below, while more mountains surrounded them on the other sides. The group relaxed here for a while, feeling as if they were resting in the clouds.

For their final day in Dengfeng, Shishu arranged for the group to visit a local martial arts store with discounted pricing. Everyone excitedly entered the store, amazed by the wide selection of merchandise not available in the US. Especially popular were the kungfu shoes; at the equivalent of about $3 each, everyone brought several pairs and more for friends back home. Other hot items included shirts, training shorts, training socks, monk handbags, and various kinds of weapons.

After everyone was satisfied with their purchases, the group split in two – a few went back to the Shaolin Temple to climb another mountain even further away, while the others stayed in town and had a lunch of noodle soup with Shishu. Although most didn’t speak Chinese, and Shishu spoke no English, not many words were needed to understand each other. Just like Chan philosophy, they communicated mind to mind, heart to heart. If you understand yourself, other people can understand you and you can understand others just from being with each other, reading each others faces and eyes.

After 3 days in Dengfeng, it was time to head to Shishu’s school, the Shaolin Wenwu School, in Xincai and start training. In Chinese, “Wen” is short for “Wenhua”, and means education. “Wu” is from “Wushu” meaning martial arts. After a long morning bus ride, the group pulled into the Shaolin Wenwu School and were greeted by the many children who live, study, and train there. The group had a delicious home cooked meal at the school, then shortly after prepared to train. Shishu asked one of Shi Yan Ming’s disciples from New York, Shi Heng De, to lead the first class, to see what training in New York City was like. Everyone was impressed with the stamina and chi that the group trained with – even the Chinese instructors who trained with them were out of breath!

Training with the SwordFor the next 12 days, everyone trained for 5 hours every day. The first class was an hour long and started at 6 am – not a time the New Yorkers were used to waking up at! But after a few minutes into class, everyone was always awake and ready to train harder. Breakfast was at 7:30 and usually consisted of congee – Chinese rice porridge, hard-boiled eggs, breads, winter melon, and bean sprouts, which gave everyone enough fuel to start the day. The next class was two hours long, starting at 9 AM. In the first half, students would do basic drills and stretching. For the second hour, they split into groups to learn forms from the various instructors of the school.

After everyone ate lunch at 12, most people would take a nap for several hours, exhausted from the strenuous training. For the first few days, some of the students didn’t know how they would last training like that even for a week. But the instructors assured them that although it hurts at first, day by day it would hurt less and less and that they would become stronger and stronger. The final class of the day would usually be from 4-6 PM, but if it was an especially hot day (and there were many of those), training would start at 5 and end at 7 instead. This class would consist of more basic drills and stretching, followed by reviewing the form they’d been learning.

Training staff formsEmphasis was especially placed on building explosive power and muscle strength, as well as getting lower in the stances and kicking higher and faster. Many of the drills particularly involved building the calf muscles, either by jumping, hopping, or walking low and slow to the ground. While the training was tough, the bitterness was often quickly followed with sweetness. Shishu often made sure that watermelons and even popsicles were readily available after class, sweet relief from the hot, dry weather. The food prepared by the school was also always delicious and enough to satisfy even the biggest appetites. On several nights though, the group went out to dinner to celebrate life even harder. During meals the group bonded with each other even more, although nothing brings people together as much as sweating and pushing yourself to your limits together for hours a day.

During the stretching part of class, the Chinese instructors would have the students get into groups of three to help push each other. Like Shifu Shi Yan Ming often says, when you stretch, you don’t just stretch one part of your body, you stretch your whole body. You stretch your mind and spirit as well. While stretching, students would often scream, cry, or even start laughing hysterically as they pushed themselves to their physical limits while simultaneously facing their mental and spiritual blocks.

At the Longmen GrottoesAfter just over a week of training, the group got a much needed one day break and took a trip to the nearby city of Luoyang. There, they visited the first Buddhist temple in China, the Baima (White Horse) Si. While still somewhat commercialized, the group still found it quite tranquil inside. There were also two newly constructed Temples just West of the main complex, one with Indian architecture and another with Thai. All of them were quite beautiful. After lunch at a nearby restaurant, the group headed to the Longmen Grottoes. While the sight of thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, some over 50 feet tall, carved into the rocky cliffs was truly awe-inspiring, at the same time it was a shame to see how many had been destroyed or stolen over the centuries or during the cultural revolution.

The next day, it was back to training. The day off had given everyone ample time to recover from their various aches and soreness, and everyone felt stronger, faster, sharper, and more flexible. They also noticed that they needed much less sleep than before, and spent the free hours hanging out with the children living at the school, playing Chinese Chess or cards, or going shopping in town. By the end of the trip, everyone could see reflected in each other the improvements in both others and themselves. Not only had many lost weight, their figures becoming more defined and sharp, but many had grown more confident and more expressive of who they really were. For some people, others noticed in them a complete change in personality, even more beautiful and even more handsome than ever.

Fireworks on the last nightThe Heart Sutra explains that there is no beginning and no ending to all things, and that we are all connected. But soon it would be time for everyone to return home to New York. On the last two days, Shishu took the group out for delicious meals at a nearby restaurant, again accompanied by plenty of special water and great friends. On the last night, Shishu had a special surprise for everyone. After coming home to the school from dinner, the group gathered on the steps of the main training hall and dorms. Some of the young children from the school emerged with small boxes, carrying them out into the courtyard. Moments later, BOOM! A dazzling display of fireworks roared and lit up the night sky directly overhead – China style. Most of the group had never experienced fireworks this close before. It was truly a moment that will last in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

The next morning, Shishu accompanied the group on the bus ride to Zhengzhou, where they would board the first airplane on their long journey home. Neither the students nor Shishu wanted to leave each other, as they’d grown so very close during their time together. But as tears came to everyone’s eyes, Shishu quickly said a final “Amituofo!” and turned to head back to the bus. Some of the students yelled in unison, “Wo ai ni, I love you, Shishu!” as they all thought about the next time their paths would meet.

Enjoying dinner at a local restaurant - To Family!