Day 8 Shaolin Temple

I woke up this morning at 5am completely stiff and sore.  I did not sleep as deeply as I would have liked.  I was not entirely sure I should do the morning run but made myself get up and stretch anyway.  I made my way downstairs and noticed that not all of the members of my group who ran with us the previous day were there.  Many were still too sore,  slightly injured, or tired and had decided not to join us.  We were met, however, by two of the gentlemen we had met in class the day before who had decided to run with us.  We walked through the school to the road and the air was very chill this morning.  The sun had not yet climbed over the mountains but it was not far off.  Already the children were running in formation.  We started our run, but for me the pace that the two Englishmen had set was too fast and I could not keep up.  They had spent several months training here at Tagou and were in very good physical condition.  Most of those that stay for a long period of time tend to skip the early morning run to the Shaolin Temple for warming up before breakfast and only train at the morning and afternoon practices.  Some might do some working out in the evening practice but most forego that training session as well.  I became very winded very quickly as I tried at first to keep up, but ultimately could not.  I traded between jogging and walking until I made it to the Shaolin Temple courtyard.

Once everyone arrived, we started going through more warm up exercises like usual.  With running in the cool mountain air my sinuses were not doing so well making it more difficult to breathe.  I still was not recovered from the run so my performance with the warm up drills was pretty poor.  After that we practiced the form we had been learning Lián Huán Quán (連環拳) each on our own.  I asked some questions and tried to refine my form.  The two Englishmen were each working on different forms that they had been working on recently.  My back began to ache quite a bit and felt uncomfortable.  The coach asked me what was wrong and I told him.  He had me lace my fingers together and rest them palms down on my neck.  With my elbows resting on my chest, the coach wrapped his arms around me from behind pinning my elbows to my chest and lifted.  This action compressed my elbows in forcing my spine to round out and lifting allowed my bodyweight to be used as traction and most of my thoracic and lumbar vertebrae cracked.  It felt wonderful!  My whole spine was loose again and I was able to go back to my practice.  After a bit the whole group ran through the form together a few times under the supervision of the coach to make sure we were doing well.  Then we walked back to Tagou Academy for breakfast.

I had trouble eating breakfast.  The day before at breakfast I had eaten a spicy egg dish.  It was mostly scrambled egg with what appeared to be red and green bell peppers in it.  However, those peppers must have been different they were some of the hottest things I have ever eaten.  I kept tasting them again and again throughout the day yesterday and all through the night as well.  I was very hungry but the taste of the spicy eggs in my throat kept me from eating very much and what I did eat was mostly bland starches, thinly sliced potatoes, rice and mán tou (饅頭) a type of thick steamed roll.  When breakfast was done I went upstairs to start running and stretching again since the stiffness was already starting to set it again.

We did our warm up exercises as usual and by then end of them my body was loose and warmed up and I was ready to train.  I began to realize why these warm up exercises were so important and why they did them before every session.  The students at Tagou train six days a week and push their bodies very hard.  If I was feeling this sore after one day, doing this day after day would be extremely difficult.  These exercises make sure that your body is warm and loose so that you can continue to practice every day and also to prevent injury when muscles are so cold and tight.  I will have to make sure that I use these exercises to warm up when I am training on my own.

After the warm up we continued on with learning Lián Huán Quán (連環拳).  The coach wanted to run through the next series of information quickly and try to wrap up this form.  I liked the faster pace it is more like what I am used to, but the others could not keep up. The coach could see we were already fairly worn out from the day before and soon went back to a slower pace.  This was a frustrating but somewhat a relief to my tired body.  By the end of our 3 hour practice we still had not finished the form.  As we were stretching and catching our breath in the training hall before lunch, our guide Karen came over to me.  The coach had spoken to her and asked her if she could ask me if I would be interested in learning more from him privately away from the group.  I told her that I would love to and that I would make any schedule he wanted me to.  He decided that we would do it at the evening practice after we had finished up the last few movements of the form.  I was very honored that he would take his personal time to teach me on my own.  He said that this stuff was too easy for me and that he wanted to teach me some more challenging things.  I was very excited and this gave me a lot of motivation for my flagging strength.

We went to lunch were I ate almost nothing.  I started to feel pretty bad and during our break before we left to tour the Shaolin Temple.  Some had decided to go shopping again and pick up more weapons and trinkets and I decided to go to bed.  I went to bed and slept for an hour or so.  I think the combination of physical exertion and lack of any real sustenance for the past couple of meals had really broken my body down.  Norman woke me up just before time to leave for the tour.  I felt better though had a light headache for a little while.

Shaolin Temple Kung Fu ShowWe walked down the road to the Shaolin Temple.  We stopped first to watch a kung fu show put on by some of the performing monks that are not really monks at all.   The theater is in a small cluster of buildings that houses a small school, the Shaolin Temple Forge which is famous for its weaponry, and other buildings in a small, government created, tourist annex.  The theater was well designed but they do not worry about seating capacity or fire laws in China so there were people everywhere.  Every seat was filled every spot of the stairs, people stood in the doorway trying to see through.  Many people even sat on the stairs leading to the central stage that was in front of a small faux gate that looked like the main gate to the Shaolin Temple.  Eventually these people were forced to move so that the performers could actually get to the stage.  I would think that these people would have been able to figure out they were in the way.  It sometimes amazes me that the Chinese can justify their presence, purpose, or right to do anything such that they are oblivious to everything else around them.  The show finally started.  It was a good show with impressive wu shu that was very fast.  The performed a very stylized version of Bā Duàn Jǐn (八段錦) the eight pieces of brocade.  They did various animal forms including Tiger, Frog, Scorpion, and Monkey.  Most of the time the monks were great at the acrobatics, but in their effort to show speed the rushed everything and made it very sloppy.  This was supposed to show their power but there was no real power there.  It makes for a great show but to a trained observer is almost worthless otherwise.  Often the monks will shout as the perform this helps take your eye off of their flashy but sloppy hand work.  Near the end they randomly picked out three members of the audience to come up and try to mimic what three of the performance monks were doing.  They picked two Chinese gentlemen and a foreigner from the U.S. that spoke very good Chinese.  It was funny to watch these three try to mimic the Tiger, Monkey, and Scorpion styles that these monks performed in small chunks.  At the end they had the audience cheer for their favorite to decide who had won.  The American won hands down.  The crowd always loves seeing a foreigner do kung fu and to be honest he was not half bad he kept up very well rolling and jumping and landing in some difficult postures so common in the Scorpion style.  At the end we all filed out and I happened to see the man that had won.  I told him, “Bù cuò lǎo wài,” Not bad foreigner.

Performing Monks Playing BasketballWe waited outside while some members of our group went in to get some photos taken with the performing monks.  We sat outside somewhere fairly near a restroom by the smell.  We watched as a group of young performing monks played basketball in the courtyard near a statue of Da Mo.  Once everyone was there we started back down the road to the Shaolin Temple proper.  My excitement mounted as I started nearing the front gate.  In the early morning when we train there the gate is closed so you cannot see inside.  Now it was open for all of the tourists to come through.  I had already visited the cave of Da Mo, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and now I was going to enter the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kung fu.

Shaolin Temple

Main Gate of the Shaolin TempleThe Shaolin Temple (Shàolínsì 少林寺) is a Zen Buddhist temple. The monastery was built by the Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty in AD 477, and the first abbot of Shaolin was Batuo, an Indian dhyana master who came to China in AD 464 to spread Buddhist teachings.

We entered the main gate and immediately the walkway was lined with large stone plaques.  These were created and set to honor those who had donated large sums of money for the restoration of the temple.  Some of them are quite beautiful, but immediately I knew that this temple was no longer what it was to me in my heart.  The government has helped to restore this wonderful place so that it can remain an important icon for kung fu and the martial arts, but in doing so have made it a more commercial tourist attraction.  Less than 50 real monks live and study at the Shaolin Temple and most of those are rarely seen by the public.  Many people working at the temple tending to the grounds, or assisting tourists with lighting incense and prayer are not real monks at all.

Martial Monks PracticingThe temple is beautiful and most of it has been restored.  One section was closed off but peeking through the doors I saw a dilapidated courtyard where two people were practicing staff.  I found our guide Karen and the two of us wandered through the temple together.  I wondered aloud how many of the monks we were seeing were really monks.  She said we should ask.  I told her that I did not think that was a good idea that it would be rude, but she persisted and walked up to one and asked pointedly if he was a real monk.  He was a little shocked by the question but said that he was not.  When asked how many of the monks we saw around the grounds were real he said not many but only they could tell who was and who was not.  We left and made our way back towards the entrance of the temple.  We came across another monk in the robes of a warrior monk and saw several other warrior monks practicing various weapons.  She asked this monk if he was a real martial monk (武僧 wǔ sēng).  He said that he was and the two talked for a moment and she then informed me that he was the head coach of the Shaolin Temple School.  He went off to find a business card for us.  We continued watching the monks practice and even saw some foreigners training behind a building.  These monks, though considered martial monks, do not practice much Buddhism at all and only show proper deference.  These monks were much better than those in the show we had seen previously.  The head coach appeared to be ignoring us as he watched over the students practice so Karen walked up to him and asked again for the business cards.  He finally had someone retrieve them for us and explained that to gain entry into the school you had to go through an interview with him and he had to agree to take you on as a disciple.  I have read that the conditions in the temple are even more bare than those at the Tagou Academy but I am curious to know what the training is like and how it compares.

View of the Pagoda ForestWe met up with our group and with our guide to the temple the manager of the Tagou Academy.  George, Karen and myself wanted to visit the Pagoda Forest and he agreed to take us while the others made their way back to the school.  Evening was coming as we walked to the Pagoda Forest.  The sun was slowly descending into the mountains as we made our way through the tombs.  Each pagoda in the forest was erected as a marker for the tomb of one of the abbots of the Shaolin Temple.  Some are large and others small with the size indicating the importance or impact that the abbot had during his time as the abbot.  The pagodas seem to be scattered randomly and there are literally hundreds of them around.  It is an impressive sight.  The largest one we found was for the latest abbot.  Often the pagoda is decorated with words or carvings of things that have occurred in the world during the time the abbot was alive.  On this largest of the pagodas were carved scenes of monks training at the temple coupled with scenes of cars, bullet trains, computers, and cell phones.  It was a wonderful place and I wish that I could have experienced it without the other tourists so that I could enjoy it in solitude and quiet reflection as I feel that this is how the Pagoda Forest was meant to be enjoyed.  The sun finally dropped below the crest of the mountains and it was time to return to the school for dinner.  We took our time and walked back to the school and Karen and I spoke and learned a lot about each other.  The guides on this trip have been wonderful and I feel I have made some very good friends on this trip.

I did not eat very much for dinner even though I was very hungry.  Still the spicy eggs were giving me trouble.  After dinner I was very tired and the stiffness and soreness had once again set in to my muscles.  I wanted very much to take the evening off and relax and pack since we leave tomorrow morning.  My desire to finish Lián Huán Quán (連環拳) and the promise of learning more brought me upstairs to stretch and warm up.  I was very excited to learn more from the coach and so I tried my best. I did not want to disappoint the coach after he had extended such a gracious offer to teach me privately.  The warm up exercises started slowly and involved lots of stretching.  We even did a new one where we crossed our arms and pointed one arm at the ground while bent over.  he then spun us in a circle and when we were dizzy made us run to the opposite wall and touch it and run back.  By focusing on a point on the far wall and only running to it I only wavered a little as I ran.  The others were not so lucky and it was very funny watching every one veer off course as they ran.  When we were done we worked on wrapping up the form.  It was slow going even though there were only a few movements left.  I think the exhaustion was finally getting to everyone and their brains just could not get around the last few movements.  After I had practiced it for a while the coach decided that I was doing well enough and asked me to work with one of the other students.  I worked with her from beginning to end on the form and by the end she was doing very well and had improved a lot.  The evening training session is shot and only two hours long.  We wrapped everything up and I knew that I was not going to be able to learn more from the coach.  He asked when we could get together tomorrow to begin working together and I had to tell him that our group was leaving in the morning.  I think we were both disappointed that I had to go.  Perhaps I can get the chance to go back again and train with him.  He is a great coach and we get along very well.  I think there is  a lot that I can learn from him.

After class I stumbled back to my room and took an almost warm shower in a tub I was sure would collapse under my weight at any moment.  Then I packed up everything in preparation for leaving in the morning.  My body was thankful that I would not have to get up and run again for the early morning training session, but I was already sad that it was time to leave.  I felt very at peace here.  The conditions are rough, but the scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly and encouraging and I was able to train kung fu all day.  And for all of the soreness and pain in my muscles and complaining in my head, I was never happier.


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