The Shaolin Family Grows Again at the 2011 Disciple Ceremony

On a beautiful clear, crisp day in the early fall, a group gathered at the USA Shaolin Temple to celebrate life in a most fantastic way. It was the day of the annual Disciple Ceremony, known in Chinese as the Guiyi Fo, Guiyi Fa, Guiyi Seng (Follow Buddha, Follow Dharma, Follow Sangha) or Sanbao Dizi (Disciples of the Three Treasures). Shifu Shi Yan Ming welcomes new disciples into the Shaolin family every year at this time – every year the roots of the USA Shaolin Temple tree grow deeper and stronger, the branches spreading and growing more beautiful all the time.

The ceremony began as always with a short blessing. Shifu walked around his disciples, both new and old, sprinkling water on them with a yellow rose. Shifu explained how each day, each second, and every moment is a new life, a new beginning, a new opportunity to understand and express yourself. “Life is so beautiful, and so precious. Truly appreciate every moment.”

Next, the group payed respect to Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Shifu reminded everyone to continue believing in whatever they believe – whether it be in Jesus, Mohamed, Moses, Buddha, or God. “All of the religions’ special leaders are beautiful, all of them are fantastic. Nobody changes you, you change yourself; you make your own destiny,” reminded Shifu.

Amituofo, Guan Yin Bodhisattva, and Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, were all next. Shifu spoke of Bodhidharma and what “rules” he has for his followers. “Life is simple”, he explained. “We don’t need to limit ourselves. That’s why I have the simple rules for my followers – Do good, don’t do bad, help others. Understand yourself, and everyone will understand you. Respect yourself, and everyone will respect you. If you don’t understand or respect yourself, how can other people understand or respect you?”

The group payed tribute to all of the great Shaolin Monks in history who had been worthy of bearing the title “Monk”. “What does the word ‘monk’ mean?”, Shifu asked. “It means someone of the highest level – someone who can make wonderful relationships with everybody. Like the Chinese charter ‘He’ from ‘Heshang’ – the right side of the character is a mouth. Your mouth isn’t just for eating, for kissing and making love, you also have to know how to speak, how to express yourself and how to help people.” Shifu continued “Having a shaved head and wearing the robes doesn’t mean you are a monk. If you see a homeless person with long hair, dirty, and needs to take a shower, probably they are a monk and understand themselves.” Finally, the group also payed respect to their grandmaster, Shifu’s Shifu, Shi Yong QIan, who still lives at the Shaolin Temple in China.

The ceremony continued with the recitation of the Heart Sutra. Shifu explained, “The heart sutra is the most important sutra in Buddhism. Xin qi xin luo, everything begins and ends from the heart.”  But instead of reciting the sutra himself and having everyone repeat, he asked, “How many people can recite the sutra?” His disciples had been practicing – about a third of the group raised their hands, and Shifu was impressed. “Good, that’s how it should be.” The disciples who could took turns reciting from the sutra – including some of those who had yet to complete taking their vows. For some, it was their first time having people repeat after them, instead of practicing on their own – and they lost the rhythm they were used to. But Shifu and the other disciples kept encouraging them to keep going, and they made it through beautifully.

Soon it was time for the most exciting part of the ceremony – when the new disciples receive their dharma names. All Buddhist monks and disciples in the Chan tradition take the surname “Shi” as in “Shijiamouni Buddha”, to show they are part of the Buddha’s extended family. The first part of the disciples’ names, “Heng”, comes from the 70-character lineage poem written by Fu Yu. Each next generation of disciples in the temple takes on the next word in the poem, “Heng” is the 35th word in the poem. Shifu gives his disciples names based on the order they enter the temple, based on different sutras. The first sutra used was the heart sutra, and once all of the characters in it were given, he started using the 88 Buddhas Sutra. Before each new disciple received their name, their letter was read. To become his disciple, Shifu asks those interested to write a letter from their heart explaining why they wish to do so. All of them were beautiful and touching in their own ways, expressing each persons unique path to understanding themselves and bringing them to the temple. Through laughter and tears of joy, hearing each others’ most heartfelt expressions of their understanding and paths brought the family closer as nothing else can.

Finally, it was time for the heart of the ceremony – when everyone took vows to follow the Fo, Fa, and Seng. Fo means Buddha – depending on your understanding, we have millions and billions of different Buddhas to help people walk through their lives. Everyone has the potential to reach the highest level. Dharma means the way and the philosophy, the beautiful understanding of life to understand yourself, express yourself, and help others. Seng means the Sangha, the community of monks and disciples that make up the Shaolin family, and also represents one’s master, or mastery of oneself.

The ceremony ended the way it began – by paying respects to Shijiamouni Buddha, Amituofo, Guan Yin, Bodhidharma, The Shaolin Ancestors, Shifu’s Shifu, and of course Shifu himself. With a heartfelt toast, the next phase of the celebration began. The group enjoyed some delicious food that some disciples had cooked and some from their favorite restaurants in the neighborhood. One new disciple, Heng Yin, shared a beautiful dance performance expressing Shijiamouni Buddha’s path to understanding himself. Blindfolded, he gracefully moved to the peaceful, searching rhythms. As everyone enjoyed their meals, they watched mesmerized as Yin shared his spirit with his new family. When the performance was over, everyone gave a hearty round of applause. “Amazing!”, shouted Shifu.

After the food, cake, and more special water had been enjoyed, it was time for another important part of the ceremony – the haircuts! While completely optional, cutting ones hair is representative of the new life and new beginning the disciples were entering in to. A good number of the new disciples this year actually already were used to having shaved heads, but many of those who didn’t tried it for the first time – including one who had taken their vows several years ago but decided not to shave at that time. Another new disciple asked Shifu for a mohawk – which Shifu was happy to provide.

With the last cut, and a few more hours of celebrating together, the Shaolin family had grown once again. Amituofo!