Meeting the Shaolin Monks

Once again, I was very privileged to meet some of the world's martial arts elite. This time, it was an encounter with the Shaolin Monks from China.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the press function of the Shaolin Monks' latest Wheel of Life theatre tour of the UK. They are due to perform in my home town next month, and are building up to it with a whirlwind promo tour of various city centers. Today, they stopped at 3 cities, one of them being Bristol, at the new Cabot Circus shopping center venue.

Half a dozen of the Monks turned up, including Brit-born Matthew Ahmet, aka Shi Yan Wu, the only foreigner having been permitted to receive the title Shaolin Monk. He can speak Chinese, and he was certainly very instrumental on the day, doing most of the directing of what the Monks should do. I recorded an interview with Matthew (see still frame capture, top) which will be uploaded on video shortly. I admire Matthew for his dedication to becoming involved in Shaolin life, but his presence as a foreigner in a very unique group also made me recall the role that many Western students in Korean taekwondo gyms have in that they often become used as marketing puppets for the gym.

Having an invitation to personally meet the Monks was special. It hasn't been since I was able to visit the Korean Tigers' dojang in South Korea that I have been able to meet anyone of note in martial arts' circles. And to think that my opportunity to meet the Monks would come half way around the world from their home, right into my backyard. I wanted to present the Monks something, but what are you supposed to present Buddhist Monks? All the presents I could possibly offer have in themselves originated from China - Buddhist amulets and calligraphy scriptures. Neither did I want to offer them any Western food. I rumaged around, and came up with 3 items to present the Monks: a South Korean embroidered Hapkido dobok (uniform), a 1970s Shaolin martial arts DVD entitled Five Dragon Claws starring Hwang Jang Lee (a Korean taekwondo-ist who ended up in many Hong Kong classic martial arts films including Drunken Master - Jackie Chan's famous debut film, and the villian in Bruce Lee's final movie Tower of Death - perhaps Hwang should be on my list of martial artists to meet - he is still living in Korea, on Jeju-Do island), and finally a postcard (purely coincidentally Korean-themed again) of some meditating monks with an attempted message in Chinese on the back (see above).
The Monks got heavily delayed on some British motorway, and so their stopover was rather curtailed. They were also barred from cracking a whip in the shopping center venue much to the tour manager's dismay. So what other moves could they muster for the public (increasing in number as the consumerists came out in droves) without defaulting on the British obsession with health and safety?
They did a few leaps and somersaults, wielded a few weapons. Two youngsters came out and did their routine putting their feet behind their head routine, to the great Brizzle (=Bristolian accent) murmurs of "Awww, ain't they cute!" Then it was all over.

I presented the Monks with my bag of 3 items, and took a group photo (see above). While doing some interviews for the press, I decided to undertake some enquiries of my own. Firstly, I told them I was a Buddhist. I had to look up the phrase to say this beforehand, and carefully rehearsed it, as I didn't previously know how to say this in Mandarin. The expression is: Wo xin fo. It translates something like: My soul Buddha. Anyway, as usual, I uttered my Mandarin expressions with crap tones (correct tones are critical in Chinese, taking the example of the Chinese word 'Ma', which can mean 'Mother', 'Horse', 'Isn't it?' or 'F***' depending on the tone that you assign to it), that some of the Monks just looked at me with confusion, and it was ironically the group translator that was the only one who managed to recognize what I was saying. Finally, the Monks twigged that I was speaking to them in Mandarin. One of them ran off to fetch something, and came back with a present for me in return - a set of wooden prayer beads with the name Shaolin inscribed into it. Now that the Monks had caught on that I could speak Mandarin, they tried really hard to understand what I was saying to them, although the youngest members concentration waned surprisingly fast. I proceeded to ask the members what they liked most about England. Actually, this was quite a tricky question, and I hadn't deliberately planned to ask this question. The answer was something that I couldn't have guessed. The answer from one of the teenagers in the group was that the thing that they most liked about England was the sky. The sky? I asked puzzled. Yes, the sky is so blue. I pointed up through the glass roof and cried, what do you mean - our sky is always gray and it rains every day!! But, the air is clean was the final response. I then asked the youngest members, who couldn't have been older than 7 years, whether they liked British food. One of them shook their head and the other remained silent.
When all was finished, the Monks then put on their battered and dirty jackets and walked out of the sparkling new shopping center with products aimed at unmeditative consumers who had more money than these youngsters had ever known.

Some people say that it is cruel to make young children perform what look to be excruciating moves. I've still not fathomed out the existence of the Shaolin Temple in relation to the Chinese Government, however, I do believe that genuine monks would not resort to beating human beings to get them to perform feats in this way. I believe the children who join the monastery - many of whom are in fact orphans with little hope of survival if they weren't taken into the monastery - hold their own intrinsic motivation to do what they do. Although they have to endure agonizing endurance exercises, from what I've seen, I think that they feel a sense of self-worth doing it. Overall, the group I met came across as very positive and healthy youngsters, looking not too dissimilar from kids in my English classes overseas.

I was very happy to meet the Monks and wish them success and happiness in all that they do.


Janelle said...

that's really cool. I'm doing a report on the Shaolin Monks for school. Do you know what their diet would be? I can't seem to find it anywhere...I don't necessarily need it but the report is on their culture so I want to have everything I can. That's really cool to have met some of the monks. I wanna go traveling and china is one of the places. :) if you know their diet, could you email me at janelle_love_1993_2006@hotmail.com it would be much appreciated. :)

Baltimore Martial Arts said...

I remember when the Shaolin monks first came to America. I think it was around 1990 or 1991. I was a kung fu student at the time. I saw them preform in Baltimore Maryland. I also remember them going to New York and one monk deciding to request asylum.
I also went to learn from the monk in San Francisco directly.

I have since changed drastically as I am now a Judo, baltimore brazilian jiu jitsu & Mixed Martial artist.

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