A Diamond of the Fruitful Forest
Shaolin Temple Overseas and Monk Shi Guolin

By Gene Ching

Who looks my form
Who listens my sound
Is perverted on the path
And cannot perceive the Tathagata.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 26

Buddhism and martial arts are one. If you find this paradoxical, it is only your preconceptions that make it so. On the surface, the peaceful bliss associated with Buddhism seems incongruent to the art of killing. But the martial arts are not just about killing. And Buddhism penetrates all arts, including the martial ones. Consider the fact that the two most prominent founders of Buddhism, Buddha and Ta Mo (Bodhidharma), both arose from the warrior class. This unity of Buddhism and martial arts is the heart of Shaolin Temple, and perhaps the reason why Shaolin is so beloved and significant to Buddhists and warriors alike.

Today, the Shaolin Temple of China has an open door policy. Shaolin monks and masters are preaching the gospel of Buddhism and kungfu to the whole world now via demonstration tours, VCDs and videos. Leading the brotherhood is New York's Shaolin monk Shi Guolin. He has disseminated his teachings through his unprecedented twelve-volume video series (the most comprehensive so far) and just recently, has opened the largest official Shaolin Temple overseas yet (see this issue.) Due to Shaolin's notoriety as the cradle of martial arts, most people only focus upon the kungfu. Shi Guolin hopes that through the practice of Shaolin kungfu, his followers come to understand the ultimate source of enlightenment, Buddhism.

What is called Buddhadharma is everything that is not Buddhadharma.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 8

Behind every Shaolin monk is unique life story. Shi Guolin's personal journey is heroic with the promise of even greater things to come. He was born into a martial family in Henan in 1965. He has a strong heritage of Shaolin kungfu from his mother's side and began his martial training under his family at the age of seven. Guolin's family was Buddhist too, so he was raised vegetarian from childhood. However, as a youth, Guolin was troubled. He felt as if he were being watched by phantoms and was never comfortable practicing alone. He dreamed of being like the warriors of legend with such awesome kungfu skills that he could fly. At age 15, he decided to follow his dream and become a Buddhist monk.

Under the guidance of a Shaolin monk named Hua Lai, Guolin went to Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and became a monk at Yunmushan Temple (Cloud admiring temple.) As soon as he entered the temple, he was at peace. He had come home. At last, within the shelter of the Buddhist sanctuary, he felt comfortable and could practice freely. Once he "left the world" and entered monastic life, he had no desire to ever return. Still dreaming of flying, he practiced light skill kungfu in Suzhou and studied Chan Buddhism from Hua Lai.

One year later, he left Suzhou for Shaolin Temple. The 16-year-old initiate made this pilgrimage of over 300 miles across China by walking and begging. Buddhism espouses non-attachment so many Buddhists will take a vow of poverty. This is a traditional Buddhist practice called Kuxingseng (bitter walk monk.) Many monks will make such pilgrimages, with nothing more than their monk robes and the grace of Buddha to provide for them on their journey.

All teachings must be abandoned, how much more so all non-teachings.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 26

Shi Guolin's initial stay at Shaolin Temple was brief. In 1982, on a freezing cold morning, he made the grievous error and overslept. His senior monk, Shi Yongxin caught him and had him expelled from Shaolin Temple for one year. Guolin found consolation in the Diamond Sutra (known in Sanskrit as the Vajrachchedika-prajnaparamita-sutra, "the diamond cutter of wisdom that reaches the other shore.") He dedicated himself to the study of this venerated Buddhist scripture. Even now, as he studies many other sutras, he is always sure to chant the Diamond Sutra at least once each day. Later, when Guolin returned to Shaolin Temple, he and Yongxin became good friends. They were kungfu brothers, learning from some of the older monks and each other. In fact, Guolin's maternal grandfather even taught Yongxin and was instrumental in introducing them.

Another significant event in Guolin's life occurred around 1982. He burned himself. Chinese Buddhists traditionally burned their foreheads with incense in a ritual known as Jie Bu. This practice was banned in China, but has slowly and subtly re-emerged amongst monastic circles. These burns symbolize a vow. Guolin vowed to penetrate one of Shaolin's deepest principles, Chan Quan Yi Ti (see sidebar) and spread this teaching all over the world. Since ritual burning was frowned upon, Guolin tried to burn himself secretly. For over an hour, he painstakingly burned on twelve points on his arm. He had to burn some of the points twice to make them bigger. Immediately after, his arm swelled up for several weeks (Guolin mentions that if you burn your head, it will swell up too.) He tried to hide it from his master, resting his painful arm by the side of his stomach, but was eventually discovered. Although he has kept his vow, his self-inflicted burns weren't quite right and he wound up burning a nerve. To this day, it still itches.

If you hold on to the idea that there is a dharma, you are caught in the notion of an ego, a self, a personality and a separated individuality. If you hold on to the idea that there is no dharma, you are caught in the notion of an ego, a self, a personality and a separated individuality.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 6

In the following two years, the headmaster of Shaolin Temple, Shi Xingzhen was feeling the weight of his seven decades of hardship. Although Xingzhen was recognized as Shaolin's leader, his failing health limited his ability. By 1984, Shi Yongxin had already assumed many of the administrative duties. Xingzhen was officially inaugurated as Shaolin's 29th abbot in December of 1986, but he passed away in the following August. Meanwhile, Guolin had become a disciple of Yongxin. Although Guolin usually goes by his Buddhist name Guolin (fruitful forest) Yongxin gave him the Shaolin generation name Yansi. Yan designates him as 34th generation; si means "inherit" or "heir." Yongxin has accepted many disciples, but Guolin became very special. In 1985, Yongxin appointed Guolin as his Dharma heir. Over a lifetime, a Buddhist master may designate several Dharma heirs, but at this time, Guolin is the only one under Yongxin. In August of last year, Venerable Shi Yongxin was inaugurated as the 30th abbot of Shaolin Temple. This means that since Guolin is Yongxin's sole Dharma heir, Guolin is the only candidate for abbacy. If something, Lord forbid, were to happen to Shi Yongxin, it would be Shi Guolin's Dharma to return to Shaolin Temple and assume abbacy.

If an arhat gives rise to the thought that he has attained arhatship he is still caught in the notion of an ego, a self, a personality and a separated individuality.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 9

In 1988, the Chinese government erected the Shaolin Wushuguan. This facility was designed to disseminate Shaolin kungfu to the public. It remains the world's largest martial arts training complex. Upon opening, the government requested that the Shaolin monks teach at the Wushuguan and Guolin was one of the first monks to respond. In due course, he was asked to teach full time, but he declined. He told them, "Shaolin Temple is my home." Before this governmental support, Shaolin Temple was in a bad state of disrepair. Opening the Wushuguan was one part of the government's program to increase tourism and finance the restoration Shaolin, but Guolin is careful to point out that Shaolin Temple and the Shaolin Wushuguan are separate entities. Some of the monks have taught there, Guolin included, but now most of the instructors are no longer monks, just martial arts masters and layman disciples.

From 1989 to 1991, Shi Guolin earned the highest level award at China's National Shaolin Kungfu Festival and served as head instructor of the kungfu monks. He was dubbed the "Iron Arhat" due to his phenomenal Iron Shirt Qigong and declared as a "Shaolin Hero," a title reserved for Shaolin's finest. Aside from participating in a few demonstration tours to Thailand and Japan, he never left Shaolin. The temple has always been where he felt most at home. Then, in 1992, he went on the first official Shaolin Monk tour to the United States. That tour finished in San Francisco in June. There, Shi Guolin defected.

Yet when innumerable, immeasurable and infinite numbers of beings have been liberated, no being has been liberated. Why is this? Because no real bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego entity, a personality, a being or a separated individuality.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 3

This pivotal tour consisted of seven members. Accompanying Shi Guolin was Shi Suyi, Shi Deqian, Shi Xingkong, Shi Xingmin and Shi Yanming. However, according to Guolin, only two were authentic Shaolin monks while the other five were sent under the auspices of the Chinese Government. "Some who come can't count as monk, only martial artists. Even though they shave their heads and wear robes, not all are real." Here lies the incense smoke and feng shui mirrors of Shaolin Temple and the heart of a brewing controversy. Beyond the fully indoctrinated monks, Shaolin is also comprised of laymen disciples (called su jia di za) and warrior monks (wu seng.) Laymen disciples and warrior monks do not necessarily take all ten Buddhist vows, so despite their loyalty to Shaolin, they are not full-fledged monks. It is worthy of note that among the non-monk performers in this troupe were two of the world's most prominent Shaolin masters - Suyi and Deqian. Suyi's secular name is Liang Yiquan and he is certified as one of the top ten masters in all of China. Deqian is Shaolin's most prolific modern scholar, having compiled over 50 works on Shaolin kungfu, including the monumental four-volume Shaolin encyclopedia. So despite not being full monks, the participation of these noted Shaolin masters made this troupe highly significant.

According to Guolin, only he and Yanming were fully ordained Shaolin monks on that fated tour. At the end of this tour, they both defected, but they went their separate ways. Guolin was in contact with a monk from Shaolin, the first one to immigrate to the United States, Shi Yancheng. Yancheng brought Guolin to New York. Once there, Guolin did not travel much more, preferring to stay in his newly found American-Chinese temple. He can count all his trips away from New York on one hand, and this includes three trips back to China. Despite illegally immigrating, he maintained strong connections in China that always assured his safe passage. He found an old Buddhist master in New York and continued his studies under him for two years. In 1994, he was ready to begin teaching again. By the next year, he had accumulated a few hundred students and decided the time was right to open his own temple. It was an auspicious moment, since it coincided with the 1500th anniversary of Shaolin Temple.

Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free of ideas
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 14

Today, Shi Guolin adopts a jovial view of the world. He enjoys his freedom in the United States and finds the people (even New Yorkers) to be very kind. To him, this is a good place to spread Buddhism. And with the opening of his new temple in Flushing, he is well positioned to transmit Buddhism to an eager following. Guolin's new Shaolin temple is outstanding amongst all of the Shaolin temples that have spread across the globe in recent years. Since his master, Shi Yongxin, assumed abbacy, he has only recognized two official Shaolin Temples overseas. One is under Guolin and the other is under another of the abbot's disciples, Shi Yanzi in Great Britain. According to Guolin, his master has vested in him the authority to oversee more temples in the future and plans to send him more monks. Currently, Guolin is grooming his disciple Hengxin to be indoctrinated.

But beyond this responsibility, someday as Yongxin's Dharma Heir, his calling may be even greater. Will he be the 31st abbot of Shaolin? When asked, Shi Guolin replies with his characteristic cherubic smile. "My master is very young," he says softly. Perhaps when the time comes, Shi Yongxin will have appointed more Dharma Heirs and Shi Guolin can remain in America. Guolin is unattached to what his karma may present in the future. He is content to study the sutras, do Buddha's work and honor Shaolin. Wherever fate may take him, he will surely follow his calling.

All things in this fleeting world
are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightening,
thus meditate upon them
thus observe them.
-The Diamond Sutra: verse 32

The Way of Shaolin -- Chan Quan Yi Ti
The Chinese language is rich with special proverbs called Chengyu. This is a special idiomatic phrase, typically limited to only four characters, which imparts profound wisdom. One of the most important Shaolin Chengyu is Chan Quan Yi Ti (literally Zen fist one body.) After Shi Guolin heard this Chengyu, he made a wish - that he would fully penetrate the meaning of Chan Quan Yi Ti and bring it to the world. He sealed his wish by ritually burning himself twelve times. Shi Guolin wants everyone to understand the real Shaolin kungfu. Many people believe that Shaolin is just a martial arts center and overlook the deep meaning of Chan Buddhism. Shaolin Temple is a Buddhist Temple, first and foremost.

According to Guolin, Chan Quan Yi Ti means "Buddhism and martial arts are one." Martial arts are used to practice Chan. It is a vehicle for Chan. This is a different approach to Buddhism and part of Shaolin's unique character. Although some followers dogmatically practice Buddhism, it is not necessarily a religion. In fact, Ta Mo preached against dogmatism, and this has been a fundamental tenet of the Chan/Zen schools. Buddhism is more akin to a philosophical approach to life.

There are many ways that this Chan philosophy may be expressed and practiced, particularly in the arts. Painting, music, sculpture, even esoteric practices such as flower arranging, may all be Chan. Shaolin Temple uses the martial art way. Chinese martial arts are deeply embedded in Chinese culture and basic to learning Chan. Chinese culture is used to show Chan.

A student asked an old monk, "What is Chan?"
"It is the name of your heart."
"What is your heart?"
"Heart is your Chan body."
Chan, or Zen, is you heart's name. Your heart is still your Chan. That's how to start, how to spread Chan. Shi Guolin spent so many years to understand this Chengyu. This is how he understands sutras. Everyday he thinks about what it is and uses it to deepen his understanding.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

About Gene Ching :
The Venerable Shi Guolin and Shaolin Temple Overseas Headquarters can be contacted at: 132-11 41st Ave, Flushing, NY 11355; tel: (718) 359-1791; e-mail: guolin@juno.com; web: www.shaolin-overseas.org

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