Escaping Buddha's Grasp
by Gene Ching (with Gigi Oh)
In Journey to the West, the Monkey King seized the Jade Emperor's throne, only to be challenged by the Buddha himself. Ever the pacifist, the Buddha offered Monkey a wager instead of a war. He bet Monkey that he could not escape from Buddha's palm. Monkey, who could cover thirty-six thousand miles in a single somersault, accepted without hesitation. Buddha's palm was as small as a lotus leaf. Starting from there, Monkey instantly travelled to the farthest point in Heaven where the five pillars supported the sky. To mock Buddha, he left some graffiti on the central pillar that read "The Great Sage equaling Heaven was Here" ('Great Sage' was a nickname given to Monkey by the Devil Kings). Monkey peed on the pillar too, for good measure. Upon returning, Monkey gloated at Buddha, but Buddha pointed to his middle finger, which bore Monkey's graffiti above a pool of monkey pee. When Monkey realized his entire trip had been a delusion, he tried to flee. Buddha gently turned his hand over and Buddha's five fingers became a chain of mountains, each belonging to the five elements of metal, wood, fire, water and earth, all to hold Monkey down.
Foshou, or Buddha's hand (佛手), is a fundamental concept in the Shaolin style of Fohanquan (佛汉拳). Since the establishment of China's Open Door Policy in the seventies, the Shaolin Temple of China has rebuilt, restored and renewed itself from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution. Shaolin Temple has reformed a core curriculum of traditional kung fu forms through the dedication and sacrifice of countless masters and monks. These are quite different than the leaping acrobatic forms that monks might perform for theatrical shows and wushu demonstrations today. Xiaohongquan (小洪拳), Qixingquan (七星拳), Taizu Changquan (太祖长拳) and dozens more embody all the traditional Shaolin principles, sans aerials and 540º kicks. As part of his campaign to restore Shaolin's traditional arts, Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin has been lobbying to have this curriculum recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Such acceptance would elevate Shaolin kung fu to the level of acupuncture, calligraphy, traditional music and over two dozen other examples of precious Chinese culture now under the protection of UNESCO. It would be the world's first martial art to achieve such recognition.
With Shaolin Temple's 1500+ year history, there are countless traditional variations of Shaolin kung fu. Prior to the influx of Shaolin monks and disciples over the last two decades, the dominant Shaolin style in America was completely different. Known by the Cantonese term, Bak Sil Lum (Mandarin Beishaolin, or "North Shaolin" 北少林) is a complete traditional curriculum of kung fu with dozens of forms that came to the states via immigrant masters from Hong Kong and Southern China. While proponents of Bak Sil Lum have yet to secure any significant ties to the Shaolin Temple, upon examination monks and masters generally agree that there's an obvious connection in the methods between the two systems.
Fohanquan is another style of authentic traditional Shaolin kung fu that is gaining ground internationally, with a few Shaolin disciples propounding this teaching. But like anything involving Shaolin, it's complicated, for even a Great Sage can't escape Buddha's grasp.
Seizing the Jade Emperor's Throne
China has one of the longest recorded histories of any nation in the world. Accordingly, it is a world leader in the number of UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites, Geoparks and Intangible Cultural Heritages. In August of last year, Shaolin Temple was declared a Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO along with ten other historic sites in the surrounding area. The collection of sites is called "The Center of Heaven and Earth" and the declaration brought fruition to one of Abbot Yongxin's hard fought-goals. China currently has 40 World Heritage Sites, second only to Italy, which has 45. Songshan, the mountain range where Shaolin is located, was declared a UNESCO Geopark back in 2003. China currently holds 24 Geoparks, followed by Italy and the United Kingdom, both with 7 (the United States doesn't participate in UNESCO's Geopark system as it already has a National Park system under its own governance). For China, having so many Cultural Heritage Sites is a matter of national pride.
Within China, the government has established its own national cultural heritage system. On May 17, 2010, the state council proclaimed the third group of National Intangible Cultural Heritage recipients. Five styles made the cut: Nanshoumen ("blocking hand gate" 拦手门), Tongbei chan quan ("through-the-back winding fist" 通背缠拳), Dishuquan ("ground fighting fist" 地术拳), Sun Bin quan (named for the ancient military strategist Sun Bin 孙膑拳) and Fohanquan.
The Fo in Fohanquan means Buddha. Han refers to the Han people of China, named after the formative Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Fohanquan originated in Dongming City in Shandong Province (山东省东明县). Dongming is a geographically significant passage, called the Three Province Passageway (三省通衢), and was one of the first places to be named as a "National Martial Arts Village" by the Chinese Martial Arts Administration Center. Fohanquan traces its roots back to Shaolin Temple through several creation myths. In one myth (which is surely apocryphal), the creation of Fohanquan is attributed to Bodhidharma himself, during the Datong period of the Southern Liang Dynasty (527 CE). It was passed down secretly through a chain of eminent monks, who combined all the best fighting techniques of Shaolin martial arts. It was used primarily to protect the temple and was called "Shaolin's hidden door" (Shaolin ancang men 少林暗藏门). A Fohanquan poem states, "Fohan is the hidden door, Rooted in the year of Datong, Brought to Shaolin Temple, Concealed Buddhist method known to few people" (佛汉本是暗藏门，大通年间留下根，绘图带到少林寺，暗藏佛法少人闻). For any literate student of the martial arts, this story is egregiously similar to so many other creation stories from different styles.
And like many styles, a more succinct history begins during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE). Fohanquan attributes a Qing Dynasty Buddhist monk named Xu Xiuwen (徐修文) as its founder. The first layman disciple, and the second in the lineage, was Jia Yunlu (贾云露). Like many Chinese, Jia had several names. He also went by Pingxi (字平西) and adopted the Buddhist name Guangming (bright light 光明).
There are several legends about the relationship of Xu and Jia. In one, Jia was an aficionado of swordplay and Chinese martial arts who came from Jia Village in Hebei Province. He went to Shaolin Temple to study, but was refused because he was not a Buddhist disciple. So Jia kneeled outside of Shaolin Temple's gate for two weeks straight. Xu saw his sincerity and taught him personally for three years. Jia mastered all of Shaolin's skills by the end of the Qing Dynasty, so he left the temple for Dongming where he defeated many famous masters. With his growing reputation, Jia attracted many followers, and Fohanquan spread among the people of Dongming.
In another similar legend, Monk Xu was touring Dongming in the Daoguang period of the Qing Dynasty (1833 CE). The citizens of Dongming were avid martial artists; Hongquan (红拳) was very popular there. Jia challenged Xu and was soundly defeated, so he bowed to Xu to become his disciple. Jia followed Xu back to Shaolin Temple to study for three years, and then returned to Dongming to spread the teachings.
Shi Yongyao (释永耀), President of International Shaolin Fohan Center and sixth generation lineage holder, tells yet another story. According to Yongyao, Fohanquan emerged from Shaolin during the late Ming and early Qing after the oft-cited burning of the temple. Refugee monks fled to Dongming, which was part of Henan Province at that time. Monk Xu stayed in Dongming for three years before returning to Shaolin Temple. When he returned, Shaolin was divided into four halls. The southern hall was called Luohantang (Arhat Hall 羅漢堂). The western hall was called Xi Shifang Tongyuan (西四方通院). The northern and eastern halls had no special name. Xu became the Abbot of Luohantang. Every year thereafter, the four halls held a competition. Xu had absorbed fighting methods from Dongming, fused them with Shaolin methods, and the Luohantang was consistently victorious. Jia was the first student to learn this new method and returned to Dongming with it. It soon spread across Shandong and throughout ten more provinces. As it was a secular Shaolin teaching, few practiced it at Shaolin. It was used primarily to defend the inner courtyards of Shaolin Temple.
Yongyao states that today Fohanquan has emerged from China and is growing in Australia, Canada, England, Singapore and Russia. This represents eleven generations of practitioners going back nearly two centuries to Monk Xu's teachings. Yongyao is now in America, where Fohanquan is just starting to take root.
Thirty-six Thousand Miles in a Single Somersault
As a practice, Fohanquan looks nothing like the curriculum propounded at Shaolin Temple today. Bak Sil Lum is much closer in character and techniques. The movements of Fohanquan are soft and simple. Upon observation, the forms appear more akin to taijiquan than to an external style. The forms don't cover much distance, obeying that classic Shaolin principle which states that forms should be compact enough to be recited in an area no bigger than what it takes to "lay down an ox." Most Shaolin Temple forms defy this principle, as does Bak Sil Lum. Fohanquan emphasizes iron palm and iron claw techniques. It prefers close-range combat and the joint locks of qinna (擒拿). Fohanquan has a guiding principles poem that states, "Three sections go hand in hand, Four sections have one cause (三节相随, 四节一致)." The "three" are the hands, body and legs. The "four" are the hands, eyes, body and footwork. Palm strikes are delivered in a linear path. The hands are also divided into lead and following hands. Attack and defense, and upper and lower hand techniques, are delivered relentlessly. Fohanquan has an explosive power wrapped with soft energy and deploys short power, or cunjing (寸勁), which is similar to Bruce Lee's one-inch punch. The footwork always presses the opponent. Hands are held close to the chest with the elbows by the ribs. It is said "The body is like a bow, the hands are like arrows, hawk's eyes, cat's waist, ghostly pulls and shifts (身似弓, 手似箭, 鹰眼, 猫腰, 鬼拉转)." Training is divided into five methods: basic training (attacking high and low targets), solo forms, sparring forms, qinna hard qigong methods, and fist techniques.
Shi Yongyao is quite familiar with the Shaolin Temple curriculum today and is quick to point out that Fohanquan is a completely different system. Some forms do share the same name, such as 18 Luohan and yinshougun (shadow hand staff 阴手棍 ), but the forms have no relationship beyond the name. Yongyao states that the yinshougun of Fohanquan originates with Zhao Kuangyin (趙匡胤), also known as Taizu (太祖 ), the founder of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). It's worthy of note that this is the same Taizu from which Taizu Changquan derives its name. All told, Fohanquan has some 70 forms, with 24 sparring forms and a total of 108 movements. Outstanding forms include sanshou huanyuan (hands return to origin散手還原) and fo shou (the aforementioned Buddha's Hand). Yongyao states that Fohanquan has both internal and external aspects. It uses internal cultivation to strengthen the five organs and six vessels, and qi to wash the marrow like the fundamental Shaolin qigong method yijinjing (易筋经). The footwork always uses hooks to trap the opponent's legs. The attitude is that of a twisting dragon. The practitioner must remain relaxed, generating power from the spine and mingmen (literally "gate of life" - a point on the midline of the lower back, in the depression below the spinous process of the second lumbar vertebra 命门).
Yongyao was born as Liu Weidong (劉衛東) in Dongming in 1965. He was a disciple of Du Zhiquan, who was a monk but returned to civilian life during the Cultural Revolution. In 1982, Yongyao went to train at Shaolin. A year later, he bowed to Shi Xingzhen (释行正 ). This was the same year that Shaolin's Abbot Shi Yongxin also bowed to Xingzhen. In 1986, Xingzhen became the 29th Abbot of Shaolin Temple. For the 28th Abbot, one must go back to the Qing Dynasty to Venerable Faramita Haikuan (彼岸海宽).
Most of the leading Shaolin monks now are of the Yan(延) generation. They are often disciples of the Abbot. Yan is 34th generation. Each generation of Shaolin disciples takes on a particular name for the first part of their given name. This is extracted from an ancient Shaolin poem in order. Prior to Xing (行32nd generation), there are still some De (德31st generation) and Su (素30th generation) living. Since Abbot Yongxin was inaugurated, less and less is heard about the generations above Yan. There are only a handful of Yong generation monks that are prominent in the public eye now, even less so for those earlier. Yongyao is in his late forties, which is more than a decade older than most monks representing Shaolin today.
One of the first things an astute martial artist will observe about Shi Yongyao is his hands. His right hand is considerably thicker than his left, the result of years of iron palm training. Fohanquan uses a four-strike iron palm training pattern that is very similar to what is used by Bak Sil Lum (北少林). Yongyao also boasts of two other rare Shaolin skills: Golden Finger (where he asks you to pull his finger and then escapes any lock you attempt) and Iron Crotch (enough said about that). He is also very skilled at qinna, although anyone who can demonstrate Golden Finger usually is.
Shi Yongyao began travelling the world as a senior monk for a Shaolin performance troupe. Initially, he let his disciples perform, but began performing himself in 2000. Yongyao laughs about it now because he has taken on many disciples since 1978 - "too many to remember," he claims in Mandarin. He toured Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, and ended up settling in America in 2004.
Peeing on Buddha's Finger
It was in America where Yongyao became embroiled in a disgraceful Shaolin scandal. Shi Yongyao was associated with the China Songshan Shaolin Temple, which was led by Shi Guosong (释果松). Guosong was recognized at Shaolin Temple as one of the Ten Famous Arhats, a prestigious title amongst the brotherhood, and was one of the Chief Coaches of the Shaolin Warrior Monk Group. Guosong's contingent of Shaolin representatives were sponsored by Stephan and Dennis Ho, father-and-son entrepreneurial partners who hosted Abbot Shi Yongxin for his second American visit in 2004. The Hos planned to erect an American Shaolin Temple near San Francisco, and established a non-profit organization which took sizable donations with the blessing of the Abbot. Through their political connections, they established "Songshan Shaolin Temple Day" on March 21, 2004, to coincide with the Abbot's visit. Songshan Shaolin Temple Day is still observed by Shaolin aficionados every year in California.
Regrettably, the Hos reneged on their commitment. In 2005, they announced another appearance of the Abbot at an upcoming show, but the Abbot claimed he had no intention of participating, partly because he was never compensated for his expenses for the previous show. Regardless, the show went on as advertised. As the eldest monk in the show, Yongyao was promoted by the Hos as an Abbot in their advertising. This drew a quick response from Shaolin. A lawyer from Shaolin Temple contacted media agencies to discredit the show, stating unequivocally, "Ho said there was a new abbot in his tour, Shi Yongyao. There is no Shaolin monk named Yongyao."
The situation got worse. By 2007, six separate clusters of Shaolin warrior monks were operating schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, none of which had official recognition from Shaolin Temple, since the Cultural Centers were yet to be established. Guosong's group was involved with Long River, High Sky, an unprecedented collaboration of modern dance and martial arts orchestrated by the critically-acclaimed, award-winning choreographer Alonzo King. Unfortunately, five days after the show closed, Guosong had a public break with the Hos that made the front page of the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Hos abandoned their Shaolin project and disappeared from the scene. Guosong was left without sponsorship and dubious citizenship. In 2008, King staged Long River, High Sky again; however, a new Shaolin group took over the Shaolin monk roles. The group was overseen by Shi Yanran (釋延然), who currently oversees three of the Abbot-blessed official Shaolin Temple Cultural Centers in San Francisco and Fremont CA, and in Herndon VA.
Today, Yongyao still teaches quietly both publicly as well as privately to some select students. Publicly, he is associated with Shi Guosong's Shaolin Buddhist Temple and Education Foundation, which teaches out of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. According to their website, the Foundation still clings to the ultimate hope of establishing "a Shaolin Cultural and Buddhist Center to help preserve the 1,500-year-old tradition of Shaolin for the larger San Francisco Bay Area community." Ironically, Yongyao has taken up residence in Fremont too, about four miles from Yanran's Cultural Center. Yongyao still wears Buddhist robes and shaves his head. He insists that all Shaolin monks must obey all the rules of Buddhist renunciation and abstinence. He also believes that Abbot Shi Yongxin still gives Fohanquan special attention as a unique and esoteric curriculum of Shaolin Temple.
Regardless of Yongyao's issues with the Shaolin Temple, Fohanquan is a recognized traditional Shaolin style. Whether or not Yongyao is endorsed by the Abbot, Fohanquan is gaining followers both inside and outside of China. Martial artists are quick to judge between real (my style) and fake (other people's style) and this attitude spills over to Shaolin disciples like a punctured bladder. There are undoubtedly fake monks just as there are false prophets, and Buddhism is quick to point out that it is all about the distinction between reality and delusion. Surely Yongyao's situation serves as a caveat to anyone bearing an official status of Shaolin hagiocracy. Such status can be revoked due to another's shortsightedness in a heartbeat. While Yongyao ran afoul of the politics of modern Shaolin, he still retains his kung fu and his lineage. Because of the scandals, it's convenient to label Yongyao as fake, but that's clearly not accurate. When it comes to accusations of fakery, one must be clear whether they are peeing on the pillar of heaven of Buddha's golden finger.
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|September / October 2011|
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About Gene Ching (with Gigi Oh):