Real versus Fake
Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng on What Makes a Monk

By Gene Ching

Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng In days of old, graduation from Shaolin Temple required more than just snatching a pebble from the master's hand. Every Shaolin aspirant had to pass the exit examination - a brutal rite of passage where he had to fight his way through the senior Shaolin monks - known as Dashanmen (literally "fighting mountain gate"). It's not clear when Shaolin stopped implementing Dashanmen, but there?s evidence of one as recent as the 1920's or 1930's. Around that time, a novice named Xu Shiyou failed a Dashanmen. Xu resorted to sneaking out and, despite never becoming a real Shaolin monk, went on to become a great fighter and a personal bodyguard for Mao Zedong. Since then, so many movies have dramatized Dashanmen that it seems more like fantasy than fact. Today Dashanmen only exists as a modern group-sparring form - a standard finale in many Shaolin shows. In the absence of an actual Dashanmen ritual, what constitutes a real Shaolin monk has become somewhat ambiguous.

In the last twenty years, Shaolin Temple has gone from ruins to riches in a sudden, volatile rebirth. On the road back to its former glory, Shaolin faces a horde of new challenges. Exponential growth, political intrigue, commercial exploitation and cultural misunderstanding has raised some complex questions about Shaolin's latest incarnation, confusing many aficionados about what it means to be a real Shaolin monk. Currently, several Shaolin kung fu shows are touring the world. Some of these pop tours spotlight bald, robe-clad athletes who, despite their spectacular martial skill, might or might not be real monks. This has elicited more than a few accusations of fakery. There's no denying the existence of fake monks. Right now, there are some in America claiming to be an "ordained priest of Shaolin" who don't even speak Chinese (and might not have ever even been to China.) Charlatans pervade all martial arts, not just Shaolin, but it becomes more charged when it's a man of the cloth.

But once you get past the fakes, there are real authentic monks at Shaolin too. Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng grew up at Shaolin Temple and has been one of Shaolin's leading martial emissaries around the world for a decade and a half. He's been an eyewitness to the changes brought to Shaolin following China's political upheavals and newfound religious freedom. He?s also traveled all over the world on cultural exchange missions, personally contributing to the worldwide impact of Shaolin today. Decheng is unperturbed by Shaolin's growing pains. For him, the more people that wear Shaolin robes, the better. With a keen dedication to the practice and a joyful heart, Decheng sees them all as vehicles for Shaolin culture and the essence of Zen to be passed on.

The Monks After Mao
Each Shaolin monk has a unique tale of indoctrination. Like most, Decheng loved martial arts from childhood. He was born in nearby Kaifeng to a martial family, descendents of a warrior clan that had passed ancient military examinations set by the emperors. Born as Chen Qingzhen, Decheng's initiation to the martial arts came from within his own family.

Mao Zedong discouraged religion, but Deng Xiaopeng's Open Door policy of the late '70s permitted free religious practice again. It was then that Decheng first ventured to Shaolin in hopes of becoming a monk. When he arrived, the temple was in a dilapidated state. It had been burned down to its foundations by a warlord in 1928. There was some restoration during the Kuomintang period, but most of that came down again with Mao's Cultural Revolution of the late '60s. Shaolin wasn't the only temple in bad shape. After Mao, almost every temple in China was in ruins.

Despite the hardships, a few monks did live at Shaolin Temple through those dark periods of China's history, specifically Great Masters Shi Suxi and Shi Suyun. Both of these venerated monks grew up at Shaolin and lived their entire lives there, with no home but the temple. After the Open Door policy, a few other old monks were invited to join them, and the process of rebuilding the temple began. But for many years, there was little left but faith to sustain the lineage.

Decheng was part of the first generation of new, post-Cultural Revolution initiates at Shaolin. At the time, there were only about ten to twenty monks at Shaolin. A lot of students came, but only a few of them stayed on. Religious freedom meant people could come and go as they pleased. Only a few endured the difficulties to become monks.

At first, Shi Suyun refused to take on disciples. He had lived a hard life and wanted to retire in peace. But Decheng was persistent and sincere, so Suyun accepted him along with some others. Suyun was a Shaolin monk that mastered both the scholarly (wen) and the martial (wu) aspects of Shaolin. As a Buddhist, Suyun was very humble. He never fought for authority or had any attachment to material gain. Even in his final years, after Shaolin had regained its prosperity, Suyun remained in a tiny room in the temple which he kept very simple until his passing in 1999. As a fighter, Suyun was renowned for his Xiaohongquan (small red fist) and Tongzigong (child exercises). Suyun defended the temple on many occasions. One of his most famous matches involved a large group of Japanese challengers. Alone, Suyun met their challenge, beat down every single challenger and defended Shaolin?s reputation. Even in his seventies, Suyun practiced Tongzigong and was most comfortable sitting in full lotus position.

Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng's MabuAccording to Decheng, Suyun was a strict master. "Mabu (horse stance practice) was not like today," recalls Decheng. "It wasn't three minutes, then five minutes, then ten minutes, progressively adding up. If you were instructed to stand in mabu, you just had to stand for the full duration. It was very hard." Despite his rigorousness, several dedicated students followed Suyun. Everyone lived and trained in Shaolin Temple together. Times were simpler then.

Scholar Monks and Warrior Monks
One of the most unique legacies of Shaolin Temple is the existence of two kinds of monks, wenseng (scholar monks) and wuseng (martial monks). Of course, there are monks like Shi Suyun who are qualified as both. In fact, the distinction between wenseng and wuseng doesn't really exist within the temple walls. Every monk living in the temple is required to follow the rules, such as vegetarianism and abstinence from liquor. But outside the temple it's more of a personal choice, and the difference is more evident. Since the wenseng focus on Buddhist study, they typically adhere to the rules. Despite being "real" Shaolin monks, some wenseng do not possess extraordinary kung fu skills, since that is not their focus. Some wuseng might be more lax, especially with vegetarianism. "It's not as rigid as stone," comments Decheng. "When you come to other countries, you need to adapt." Upon leaving the temple, Decheng was carnivorous for a while too, but has since returned to vegetarianism.

Most martial artists only ever meet wuseng. "A wuseng is a person that has the ability to guard and protect the way," states Decheng. "They must understand Buddhism to protect it. They had to guard against robbers - there were a lot of precious sutras and artifacts - and also protect the gaoseng (senior monks), the ones without martial ability. By definition, wuseng must be Buddhist. No matter what, all monks must still have Zen. If you're Christian, you can learn Shaolin, but you cannot be a Shaolin monk. You don't have to be Buddhist to practice, but you need to be Buddhist to be a disciple."

For Decheng and many of his generation, the master certified the next generation of monks. Decheng was indoctrinated directly by Shi Suyun. Decheng reflects on certification without Dashanmen. "In the old days, you had to fight all the way through the guard. If you win, then that?s your certification. If you can make it, then they recognize you. Now, your master tests you to be recognized. Certification is given by the master. You are tested on your understanding of both the scholarly and martial aspects of Shaolin and are graded. They say if you?re the best of the class. They say if you pass or not."

"In general, all Buddhist temples have a similar certification process. They all have similar certificates. The student must take refuge [in the three treasures - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha]. But there are specific requirements for each temple - Shaolin Temple, Baimasi (White Horse temple - the first Buddhist Temple in China near to Shaolin), wherever."

"For Shaolin wuseng, we don't really have a grading system. There's been talk about some sort of system, like yellow belts to black belts. But because Shaolin martial arts are so broad, so deep and so endless, how can you ever get a black belt?"

Warrior Monks, the Wushuguan and the World
As Shaolin prepared to enter the 21st century, reconstruction was foremost on everyone's mind. Shaolin received newfound popularity after Jet Li's debut movie, Shaolin Temple (1982), bringing tourists, students and a much-needed economic boost. Suddenly, there was a budget to rebuild the ancient halls. It's an ongoing process that continues today. By 1988, the temple cooperated with the government to create the Songshan Shaolin Temple Wushuguan, a facility designed to share Shaolin kung fu with the world. When it was founded, the Wushuguan was the largest facility devoted exclusively to kung fu in China, possibly the world. And it was staffed with a teaching faculty of Shaolin wuseng. Shi Decheng was part of the first generation of monks that taught at the Wushuguan, accepting the position as Chief Coach. "Inside the temple is kind of rough and poor," Decheng observes. "It's not easy for foreigners. The government built the Wushuguan for foreigners. It's a window to spread Shaolin culture. It has more modern conveniences so foreign students could stay and learn."

The Wushuguan wuseng were housed in the Wushuguan, although at first some monks still stayed at the temple. "It's not that far," notes Decheng. "In the beginning, I went back and forth. During the slow periods, I went back and stayed at the temple." But eventually, separation between the Wushuguan and the temple grew. "When I lived in Shaolin Temple, there was chanting in the morning and evening," recalls Decheng. "In between, there was training and farming. At the Wushuguan, there was no Buddhism hall, so the chanting was skipped. In the morning and evening, we trained students in the martial arts. We had some classes to teach Buddhism too."

One year after the Wushuguan opened, Decheng was part of the very first delegation of Shaolin monks to visit a foreign country on a friendship mission. Decheng journeyed to France alongside his martial brothers, Shi Deyu, Shi Yanzi and Shi Yongshou, for 17 days. This pioneered a new movement for Shaolin - wuseng spreading Shaolin dharma overseas through the martial arts. Now students didn?t have to go to Song Mountain. The mountain came to them. For Decheng, it was the start of a continuing mission, one that has taken him to dozens of countries across the globe. Other Wushuguan monks did likewise. Shi Deyu is still at the Wushuguan, but he continues to travel abroad regularly. Shi Yanzi immigrated to England where he opened a Shaolin school. Shi Yongshou is now in Guangdong. In fact, almost all of the Shaolin monks currently teaching in America once taught at the Wushuguan.

Donning Robes and Shaving Heads
Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng Alongside the Wushuguan, private martial arts schools began to rise at an alarming rate. The valley surrounding Shaolin Temple became inundated with privately-run schools, mostly catering to Chinese students. And with those schools came restaurants, tourist shops and sundry stores, not only for the two million tourists sightseeing at Shaolin each year, but also for the tens of thousands of students and their visiting families. It became so chaotic that the local government and the temple combined forces to purge the valley in a controversial forced relocation program. Only the Wushuguan was allowed to remain. Some schools collapsed. Others moved to nearby Dengfeng City in the foothills of Mount Song, about seven miles from Shaolin Temple.

In February of 2001, Shi Decheng left the Wushuguan to open his own private school in Dengfeng. The Shi Decheng Wushu Center of Songshan Shaolin is modest by Dengfeng proportions, only a few hundred students. It is situated conveniently at the northwest corner of Dengfeng, close to the road to Shaolin Temple. He opened his school because of popular demand. His travels brought him an international reputation and many students sought him out. They still go to the Wushuguan looking for him. Having his own school allowed Decheng more flexibility and to be more charitable. "There are some poor students that I give a discount [on tuition] in case they really want to learn," smiles Decheng. "It gives them some more opportunities."

Currently, there are about eighty registered martial arts schools in Dengfeng. Only about thirty of these schools are actually run by Shaolin monks. The other fifty are run by folk masters - kung fu experts who never entered the clergy. The biggest school, the Shaolin Temple Taguo Martial Arts Academy, has a student body of 13,000 students. Taguo's headmaster, Grandmaster Liu Baoshan, is not a monk at all. In fact, he?s not even Buddhist; he's a communist and has been for over half a century. However, like all of the other eighty schools near Shaolin, Taguo has a demonstration team. Almost all Shaolin demonstration teams will don robes and shave their heads, whether they are monks or not. Some might even go on international demonstration tours posing as monks.

This is where what is real and what is "fake" becomes grey as a disciple robe. The performance tours complicate the issue; some are "official" and some are not. Some of the unofficial tours use private school non-monk demo teams. Some of them use monks that have left the temple for the Wushuguan or their own private school. Some are not even from Shaolin. There have even been a few shows by non-Chinese students who have trained under Shaolin monks abroad; they might not have even been to Shaolin, or even China, ever. But it?s a double-edged sword. Some of the "official" tours have certified monks that trained at Shaolin for only a year or two and were then granted a wuseng title, just for the tour. So unofficial tours can be a mixed bag of real or fake, but official tours may have some performers that are only marginally real too.

Since China began reconstruction, Buddhism has worked towards organizing all Chinese monks under such bodies as the National Buddhist Association of China (where Shaolin Abbot Shi Yongxin holds a seat as vice-chairman). Strictly speaking, they have the authority to certify any real Buddhist monk. Buddhist monks sometimes travel from temple to temple, so some of the fully certified Shaolin monks were actually trained at different monasteries. It's also worthy of note that some monks who took their vows prior to the formation of this organization have yet to be "grandfathered" into the program. And of course, wuseng don't necessarily fall under their jurisdiction since it is secular to Shaolin.

Lately, all over the world, students don robes as their official uniform, despite not being monks or even Buddhist. While some critics deride these robe-wearers as "fakes," Decheng views it as a blessing. "It proves people like to wear the robes," smiles Decheng. "People want to know more about Shaolin and dress like it. It?s a way of promotion - the more people wear it, the more impressions. Actually, it's great, because in the old days we never thought it could spread so much overseas." One of the basic precepts of Buddhism is not to be possessive of the teachings, so the monks certainly aren't possessive of their fashion.

Spreading Shaolin culture is more involved than just teaching kung fu. Intrinsic to Shaolin kung fu is Zen Buddhism, and that's the real teaching. "Some students complained that there were no statues of Buddha for worship [at the Wushuguan]," reflects Decheng. "But Buddha is in your heart. If you think Buddha is in front of you, it's in front of you. If you chant without using your heart, it's useless. Better not to chant." To identify a real monk from a fake, don't look at the robes. Don't look at the shaved head. Don't look at the kung fu skill. That's just skin, flesh and bones. Look at the heart. That's the marrow. And marrow is the essence of Shaolin Zen.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2004 .

Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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