Stephen Ho dreamed that he’d be the one to introduce to America an authentic version of one of the world’s most misunderstood religions.
He would build a San Francisco temple to be a branch of the legendary Shaolin Temple in China, where Zen was born and kung fu emerged as its most fabled expression.
The San Francisco businessman and longtime Buddhist went to China and asked the temple’s abbot for his assent. In December 2004, the abbot sent Shi GuoSong, an experienced yet youthful Shaolin monk, to be a true and rare face of the ancient faith.
The culture portrayed by television and movies as exotic violence would be shown in its true form: a message of peace.
Ho established a nonprofit to represent Shaolin culture as a religion, sponsoring visas and shepherding believers such as GuoSong.
GuoSong, through Ho’s connections, dutifully led troupes in performances of Shaolin kung fu at venues ranging from a Sacramento Kings game to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. They just finished a highly celebrated, weeklong collaboration with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco.
But more than two years after their journey began, Ho and GuoSong have become mired in a dispute over what Shaolin is and which one of them represents the authentic faith. They are at fundamental odds over an age-old question: To what extent can a martial art express religion?
Legend says that more than 1,500 years ago, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma sat meditating before a wall for nine years on Mount Songshan in northern China. When he finished, he began teaching at the Shaolin Temple that long periods of seated meditation would lead to enlightenment — the essence of Chan Buddhism, popularly known as Zen.
But the extended meditations also atrophied the monks’ bodies. So Bodhidharma developed a series of calisthenics that evolved into kung fu, a form of martial arts.
Shaolin believe meditation clears the mind, preparing it for purer action. But a weak or sick body hinders clarity of thought. Kung fu, by building the body, complements meditation.
Over the centuries, the Shaolin Temple in Henan province has been razed and resurrected several times. After the communist government’s Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, many of the nation’s religious institutions were purged or destroyed. Only a handful of Shaolin monks in the temple survived.
Then, in 1982, came the Jet Li movie “Shaolin Temple,” inspiring a wave of tourism the Chinese government supported; it even helped rebuild the temple as a tourist destination. There are now about 60 schools associated with the main Shaolin Temple, and they teach an estimated 40,000 full-time martial artists. But those who’ve been accepted and taken vows as Shaolin monks are rare: There are fewer than 200 in the main temple.
From Bruce Lee’s epic 1973 film “Enter the Dragon” to Jackie Chan movies to “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill,” pop culture has long tried to represent elements of Shaolin practice or lore.
But that has skewed understanding of Shaolin culture, said Matthew Polly, the first American disciple of the Shaolin Temple.
“Westerners have this fantasy of what Shaolin is supposed to be — David Carradine and (the 1970s television show) ‘Kung Fu,’ ” said Polly, 35, of New York. “It’s not what you wanted it to be or expected it to be. Shaolin has been, since 1982, trying to figure out what it is again, with a lot of competing pressures. Like China in general, Shaolin is still in the process of coming to terms with modernity.”
Into this vortex came Ho. A retired IBM engineer who says he often travels in China on business, Ho said he studied Buddhism for 40 years in Hong Kong before coming to America.
In recent years, the main temple’s abbot, Shi YongXin, has tried to copyright the Shaolin name. He’s also been criticized for commercializing the faith. YongXin gave his approval to Ho’s venture in San Francisco.
Ho, 60, had never trained at the temple. GuoSong, 34, has trained at the temple since he was 13.
There are roughly a dozen monks in the temple who, like GuoSong, are in their 30s and have trained for two decades, GuoSong and Ho estimate. Scores of other Shaolin monks have come to the United States and set up kung fu studios, but Ho’s nonprofit is believed to be only the second attempt to establish an institution for Shaolin as an American religion. The first temple, run by a former Shaolin monk in Flushing, N.Y., is beset by its own struggles to establish itself. — — —
GuoSong came with a 53-year-old fellow monk and five disciples — 10-year-old triplets and two men in their 20s. His disciples say GuoSong is a “father” to their “family.” Since arriving in San Francisco in 2004, they’ve lived in a series of apartments and now stay in a ramshackle former rooming house near downtown Oakland, their fledgling Shaolin Temple.
Their kung fu performances have been sporadic, generally coming every few weeks. But the Shaolin lifestyle consumes their days in small details. In addition to many explicitly religious rites, the monks wear simple clothing made from rough material and have an array of rituals, including one to ensure the right flavor and temperature for green tea.
A simple morning practice at the Oakland temple illuminates how Shaolin strengthen their bodies, the role of the natural energy force known as qi — or chi — and how physical work can be meditative.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
Shi ChangQiang, 22, repeatedly slapped a canvas sack packed with dried beans he’d put on top of a 3-foot-high stump in the backyard of the Oakland temple. In one minute, he hit it 38 times with his right hand. His pace gradually increased as he hit the bag of beans with his palm, the back of his hand and both sides.
Seated meditations like the 45-minute session every morning are part of the group’s daily routine. But GuoSong can be found meditating in many places, such as in a parked car. The meditations and ChangQiang’s painful ritual are intended to lead to the same mental state — clearing the mind of all thoughts.
“The most important thing is that you must keep your mind quiet without any disturbances,” Shi YongYao, the other monk with GuoSong, said in Mandarin as he explained the sack-smacking.
Despite the ferocity of ChangQiang’s slaps, Shaolin belief holds that breathing with intention to circulate one’s qi prevents pain. It’s a practice called Qigong, and it can be used to toughen many parts of the body.
ChangQiang is working on his hand. YongYao, a Qigong master, is a specialist in the “iron crotch.”
Sometimes at exhibitions, YongYao invites people to kick him repeatedly in the groin. He doesn’t flinch. At a performance at a Tenderloin community center in October, YongYao broke steel bars over his head that this reporter could not bend. At the Sacramento Kings game, a Shaolin trainee took a sledgehammer to YongYao’s arm as it lay across roughly a dozen steel bars, according to a video of the event. The bars broke. His arm was fine.
Qi enters the body just above the belly button, YongYao said. Through Qigong, practitioners learn to move it throughout the body.
“If some part of your body hurts, the qi has not gotten through yet,” YongYao said. “Once the qi gets through, you don’t feel pain there.”
YongYao believes Qigong can help cure heart disease, cancer or diabetes, which he has, but he says it doesn’t work “miracles.” The group uses Western medicine, too.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
ChangQiang stopped hitting the bag of beans after 14 minutes.
Two hours later, ChangQiang inspected his calloused right hand. It was dry, raw and cracked. “It hurts,” he said in English. — — —
Ho sees little that’s religious in these actions. He’s come to believe that GuoSong is more kung fu than Buddhist — possessing rare physical skills but lacking equivalent spiritual depth.
Ho justifies his view by saying GuoSong and his disciples don’t do enough of what Ho thinks defines a Buddhist monk of any sect: seated meditation, study of Buddhist texts and philosophical discussions about Chan.
“They’re really good martial artists, but how much they know about Buddhism, I don’t know,” Ho said.
GuoSong believes there are many equal ways to practice Chan. Walking, sitting or eating can be Chan practices.
“In everything you do, you always have the chance to seek the truth” and free the mind of disturbances, GuoSong said.
But audiences rarely hear GuoSong speak because he speaks only Mandarin. The result is that they are left to interpret through the monks’ bodies a scripture that’s expressed solely through movement. One scene in the recent Lines Ballet performances revealed the challenges.
ChangQiang and Shi ChangJun, 23, acted out a series of punches, sidekicks and a head butt. One kick sent ChangQiang flat onto his chest.
Shaolin monks believe you can never fight to attack, only to defend. But it’s not hard to see why their kung fu has been glorified as violence made beautiful.
GuoSong said it’s reasonable to be drawn to Shaolin for the techniques of combat — as he was at age 13 — and not for any spiritual reason. But he hopes a few people see deeper — and pursue Chan.
“The audience should not pay attention to one or several criteria, but the dialectic of everything,” he said. “If you just pay attention to the speed — you say ‘fast is good’ — that would be wrong. If you say ‘strong is good,’ that is wrong. … The right way to appreciate is the dialectic, the tension between fast and slow, the tension between strong and soft, the tension between agility and stiffness.”
Plus, he said, the fight is fake. Every move is answered with a block. Either of the performers could maim with a real kick or punch. Sparring “is just a way to train their reflexes.” A strong mind, built through Chan meditation, requires a strong body, he said.
“Each movement will make you work your body, from top to bottom, from hand to foot,” he said. “The motivation for practicing is to be flexible, quick on your feet, strong. And your body will be naturally healthy.”
Audiences see many messages in their performances. Their speed and strength inspire awe. Some men wince at displays testing YongYao’s “iron crotch.” Others laugh.
Alonzo King, the ballet choreographer, said believers of any faith interpret religious texts in myriad ways. Movement should be no different, and just as valid as any written scripture or spoken sermon.
“The principle expression of life is movement,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Dancing and martial arts are movement. When it is well done, it is about poise, control, governance, majesty, power and grace. … These qualities are teaching us how to behave.”
Gerard Hoatam, 25, watched the Tenderloin performance but had no idea that it was an expression of faith.
“If your purpose is to go out into the community and tell people about your religion, it’s a lot better than Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on your door,” said Hoatam of Sunnyvale.
Others have come to share Ho’s opinion of GuoSong and his group.
Many of the monks’ performances, including the Lines Ballet series, have been initiated or coordinated by Bernadine Lim, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s liaison to the Chinese American community. She said Ho knows more about Buddhism than GuoSong, who she said barely practices essential elements of the faith.
“I’ve never seen them meditate,” she said, adding that the ballet “has nothing to do with religion.”
But Polly, the former Shaolin Temple disciple who wrote the memoir “American Shaolin,” said Lim and Ho have created a false dichotomy. There’s no distinction, Polly said, between sitting meditation and what can happen while doing kung fu — a meditation through dynamic movement, like yoga.
“If you’re practicing Shaolin kung fu properly, it is a form of meditation,” he said. “It’s just fast and hard meditation, instead of slow or sitting. And that’s why many of those moves seem so strange — because they’re actually moves that were developed for meditation purposes as well as self-defense and not purely self-defense purposes.”
Gene Ching, associate publisher of Fremont-based Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, which has reported on Shaolin practitioners and beliefs for 15 years, believes GuoSong is authentic. Ching was stunned that directors of a Shaolin nonprofit would not understand that kung fu is an expression of Chan, or Zen. For non-Shaolin to define the faith is troubling, he said.
“It’s disturbing in a way,” Ching said. “It’s corporate religion.” — — —
GuoSong declined to discuss Ho, and Ho is an elusive man. But some facts are plain.
More than two years after GuoSong and his disciples arrived, Ho has made little headway on a temple.
GuoSong is a elite teacher of Shaolin kung fu — his martial arts training videos are sold on Chinese Web sites. But in San Francisco, GuoSong had only a handful of students through Ho’s networks.
Instead of living in a monastery dedicated to a life of faith, GuoSong’s group of Shaolin — including young triplets Shi LongHu, Shi HuHu and Shi BaoHu — were crammed into apartments.
Ho said he will sever his sponsorship of GuoSong, a move that would make him an illegal immigrant.
If ChangQiang, ChangJun and YongYao choose to follow GuoSong, Ho said they will “be on their own.”
Ho said he planned to bring 30 more Shaolin to the Bay Area in the future. He said he would interview them himself to make sure they’re more spiritual than GuoSong.
GuoSong, without referring to Ho, said he’s long been aware that others might criticize him. But that’s not the point.
“If you take this mission personally, you can never achieve it,” he said. “Shaolin Buddhism — Shaolin culture — does not belong to any particular person. … Even if I come back empty-handed, maybe there will be other people who will come in the future to continue to promote Shaolin Buddhism.”
If people disparage him, GuoSong said, “the words may affect my career here. However, the words will not affect the goal.”
Chan: The Chinese word for what became known as Zen in Japan. This school of Buddhism teaches that the path to enlightenment is cultivated through long periods of seated meditation.
kung fu: A Shaolin martial art intended to develop the body and mind as one in an expression of Chan.
Qi: A natural energy or force that fills the universe. Also known as chi.
Qigong: An umbrella term for many types of qi-based practices that use breathing with intention. They can use movement, as the Shaolin do.
Shi: A name used by these Shaolin to identify as Buddhists.
Shaolin Temple: Built in 495 on Mount Songshan in Henan, a northern Chinese province. Bodhidharma — whom the Chinese call “Damo” — arrived three decades later and taught Zen for the first time at the temple. Legend says that he meditated before a wall for nine years.
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