Special Disciple Ceremony Coincides with New Temple Construction

The weekend of May 7th was an exciting one for students and disciples of both the USA Shaolin Temple and the Zen Dragon School of Martial Arts. In addition to being the first weekend teams were going to help with construction of the new Shaolin Temple in upstate New York, a disciple ceremony was held for the master of the Zen Dragon School, David Bowers, now known by the dharma name Shi Heng Ji.

The weekend started on Friday evening when Master Bowers arrived at the upstate temple with 26 of his students. They set up their tents and headed right to bed as they knew they’d be training hard the next day. On Saturday morning, as the Zen Dragon group woke up and had breakfast, preparing to start work, students and diciples of the USA Shaolin Temple gathered outside the Temple’s Manhattan location to begin the trip together. By the time they arrived, work was full underway with the Zen Dragon group engaged on multiple fronts – demolishing the bath house’s interior, preparing the Temple garden, and digging holes for the posts of the Buddha Pavillion. Upon arrival, the first thing the Temple students noticed was the beautiful landscaping that had been done around the Buddha statue. The tulips they’d planted in the fall had sprouted, and others had arranged flat stones and moss of varying shades around the statue, creating a beautiful, peaceful space. After reflecting and unpacking, the Temple group got right to work, joining the Zen Dragon team as well as beginning to gut the interior of the disciple house. Others ventured into the woods to find the perfect trees to be used as posts for the Buddha Pavillion.

With over 50 people engaged on projects across the temple, a huge amount was accomplished over the course of the day. 4 trees had been felled and skinned to use as posts, the disciple house’s ceilings were completely removed, the temple garden was tilled and prepared, the bath house had been completely gutted, and more work had been done installing windows and doors in the guest lodges. One disciple with no previous experience in carpentry even built and raised an entire wall frame from scratch.

Around 6, Shifu arrived, having left after teaching the morning class in Manhattan. Heng Zhi gave him a tour of the property, showing him all that had been accomplished over the previous week since the core team began working, and in that day. Soon, everybody hung up their tools for the day and prepared for the special event that they’d come for.

Master David Bowers of the Zen Dragon School, who has hosted Shifu for many seminars over the years and visited the Temple in Manhattan numerous times, had written a letter to Shifu asking to enter the Shaolin family and become his disciple. Normally, there is one ceremony a year, where all of the new disciples are ordained together, but Shifu had decided to hold a special ceremony just for Master Bowers.

Shifu began by blessing the land and attendees, and continued by reminding everyone that all beliefs and religions are fantastic, all teach people to do good and help others, just go by different names. Next was a recitation of the Heart Sutra, the most important text in Buddhism – very short, it cuts right to the heart of Chan philosophy by reminding us that there is no beginning and no ending, no positive and no negative, no pure and no impure. After reciting the first half of the sutra, Shifu had two disciples who knew the Sutra, in Chinese, by heart, continue the leading of the recitation. Shifu then led the group through the rest of the ceremony in Chinese, explaining the meaning of all the vows in English. Respects were paid to Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, Amituofo, Guan Yin Bodhisattva, Bodhidharma, and all of the Shaolin ancestors who had come before and were worthy of bearing the weight of the title “Shaolin Monk”. Shifu emphasized how it’s a misconception that being a Shaolin Monk only entails fighting and martial arts skills, and that the martial arts is Chan philosophy, and Chan philosophy is martial arts.

Finally, the big moment came. After reciting the main vows of the ceremony, David Bowers received the Dharma name Shi Heng Ji. All Buddhist monks and disciples take the last name Shi, as in Shijiamouni Fo, Shakyamuni Buddha, to show that they are all part of the extended family. “Heng” is the first part of the given name for all disciples of the 35th generation in the Shaolin Temple. The second part of the surname came from the 88 Buddhas Sutra, determined by the order of discipleship.  As everyone welcomed Ji to the new family, he quickly came up to Shifu and requested that the ceremony be completed with another Shaolin tradition – the haircut for new disciples! Shaving one’s head is never manditory, one can be a monk and still have any kind of hairstyle, and just because one’s head is shaved doesn’t mean one is a monk.

When Shifu finished shaving Ji’s head, Ji remarked how it felt like he was being reborn, letting go of all of the past negative things in his life, letting them fade away with the beautiful sunset. After hugs and welcomes from his older brothers (traditionally in the Shaolin Temple both male and female monks and disciples are referred to as brothers), he received a similar reception from his students.

The bonfire was prepared and burgers were soon cooking – everyone was quite hungry from the long day! Everyone spent the next few hours together eating and talking not as two seperate schools, but as one family, one heart, one mind. When the food had been finished, flutes and electric guitars appeared and were trained and meditated upon, sending beautiful music into the crystal clear night sky.

The next morning, the Zen Dragon group packed up early, getting ready for the long trip back to Pennsylvania. Some of the Temple students left early as well – it was mother’s day after all! – while others stayed for a few more hours to continue working on the temple.

It was an extraordinary weekend. The roots of the Shaolin family tree grow deeper and deeper, and the foundation of the temple keeps being built stronger and stronger. At this rate, with everyone’s love and support, the New Temple will be finished in no time.