This Monk is a Boldface Name – NY Times

May 14, 2006

By PETER RITTERShi Yan Ming Kung Fu punch

As a young monk in the legendary Shaolin Temple in China, Sifu Shi Yan Ming learned to break rocks with his skull, deflect blades with his skin, sleep while hanging upside down from a tree branch, and dangle a 50-pound weight from his scrotum.

He was thus ideally prepared for the rigors of Manhattan living.

Since opening the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple in Greenwich Village in 1996, Yan Ming has given the 1,500-year-old martial order of Shaolin an American makeover, attracting numerous celebrity disciples and writing a workout book. With plans to expand the franchise, Yan Ming is having a party on Saturday to raise money for a new, larger temple in upstate New York.

“I want to bring all the traditions and training of Shaolin into the 21st century,” Yan Ming, who is 42, said one afternoon before leading a class of orange-uniformed followers through a grueling kung fu workout of leaps, punches and whirling-dervish kicks.

An expansive man with a shaved head and a smile as quick as his fists, Yan Ming has taken to his role as Shaolin’s leading advocate with gusto. He greets his students by yelling “Merry Christmas!” “I am the most handsome monk in the world,” he likes to say. “I want everybody to be like so-good-looking Sifu.”

The walls of the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple, which occupies a high-ceilinged loft in a nondescript building on Lower Broadway, are covered with photos of Yan Ming with his many famous admirers.

He has trained the actors Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez and Bokeem Woodbine. RZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose affection for kung fu movies is well documented, calls Yan Ming “master.” Another friend, the movie director Jim Jarmusch, gave the monk a small part in his 1999 film, “Ghost Dog.”

“Lots of fun,” Yan Ming said of his screen debut. “They said, ‘Like this, like that.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ ”

Yan Ming, who defected to the United States in 1992 while performing with a troupe of Shaolin kung fu experts, is hardly a typical Buddhist warrior monk. He eats meat, for instance, and he enjoys Champagne, which he calls “very special French water.”

Yan Ming, who has two children with his partner, Sophia Chang, a music promoter and the temple’s manager, also disregards the monk’s traditional vow of celibacy. “I’m too handsome for that,” he explained.

Yan Ming said he decided to leave Shaolin in part because he felt stifled by the monastery’s strictures. “In the temple,” he said, “monks have 250 rules. Two hundred fifty! Just think of that! You cannot drink. You cannot eat spices. You cannot drink bottled water. You cannot look at a woman. That’s just crazy. It’s the 21st century, you know?

“I had American dreams,” he added. “In China, there are too many limitations. Here, you can do a lot of things if you have the ability. You can express yourself. That’s why everybody loves the United States.”

If Yan Ming’s lifestyle raises eyebrows among more conservative monks, his students speak of him with the reverence reserved for a sage. Nor do Shaolin’s American adherents seem bothered by Yan Ming’s celebrity cachet. After kung fu class, a student approached the monk and handed him a screenplay titled “Bionic Monk.”

“Very good,” Yan Ming said, beaming.