Shaolin Trinity
Shaolin Monk Shi Dejian Discusses the Three Treasures

By Gene Ching (Xinglong)

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Shaolin Monk Shi Dejian Shaolin training in America is incomplete. Most go no further than kung fu, but there's far more to Shaolin than the martial arts. Zen, or Chan in Mandarin , was founded at Shaolin, so that's an important facet of the tradition. Although many westerners prefer martial arts to be non-denominational, or at least not an eastern denomination, most serious Shaolin students will pursue Chan too. Then there's the missing piece - yi . Yi means medicine. It is the third treasure of Shaolin culture, but in America, it has been completely overlooked.

"In Shaolin, we have three 'prayers:' chan, wu (martial arts), and yi," recounts Shaolin Monk Shi Dejian in Mandarin. Dejian is one of today's most respected grandmasters of Shaolin. He lives in the right front courtyard of the temple itself, a serene bamboo grove and stele yard that was once open to the public but is now private access only. It's a prominent location, but Dejian is seldom there. He prefers to spend his time in seclusion in the many small hidden temples on Song Mountain. A true renunciate monk, Dejian tends to be reclusive, but he's very forthright when it comes to discussing the importance of Shaolin medicine. According to Dejian, "Chan cultivates the mind. Wu strengthens the body. Yi helps the world. These Three cannot be separated. If you realize the theory of Chan, you can make progress in your medicine and reach the summit. If you can make these two coordinate, your kung fu will increase. At Shaolin, we say san bao hui yi (three treasures are one . According to the rules of Shaolin, all three aspects must increase simultaneously. Some just specialize in one - this is imperfect."

The Farmboy from Black Dragon River
Shi Dejian was born to a poor family of farmers in China's northernmost province, Heilongjiang. Heilongjian borders Mongolia and the former Soviet Union. Its capital city, Harbin, is internationally recognized for an annual Ice Lantern Festival where enormous ice sculptures are carved during -40 C winters. At age fourteen, Dejian started training in kung fu from two local masters, just to stay fit. Recognizing his potential, one of his masters took him aside and said, "If you want to be a good master, you must go to Shaolin to make progress." Shaolin became Dejian's quest, but he worried about his father's reaction. Not only does monastic life mean relinquishing family, a poor farmer relies on his son as a farmhand. When he finally revealed his intentions, his father agreed, but didn't release him until he promised to study medicine to heal those too poor to afford health care.

In 1982, a nineteen-year-old Dejian arrived at Shaolin. A star pupil, he was adopted by three prominent teachers, each a Shaolin disciple and a leading folk grandmaster of his generation. He studied under Grandmaster Yang Guiwu and Grandmaster Chou Huibao, but the bulk of his Shaolin fundamentals were learned from Grandmaster Zhang Qinghe. Zhang was very strict in his transmission of Shaolin medicine. He told Dejian, "Shaolin medicine is an integral part of Shaolin culture. It has a lot to do with kung fu, qigong and Chan. You must pay the utmost attention to study medicine within the Shaolin Temple." Dejian would focus on medicine for over a decade. In 1990, he became a disciple of Venerable Shaolin Monk Shi Suxi; two years later, Shi Dejian took his vows as a full-fledged Buddhist monk of the Shaolin Temple.

Origins of Shaolin Medicine
Medicine has deep roots in Buddhism. In Tibet, the Medicine Buddha is one of the most dominant icons. Tibetan tradition believes that the simple act of meditation upon the Medicine Buddha is healing in itself. It not only increases the healing powers of the meditator, they progress towards the attainment of enlightenment. In Thailand, the art of Thai massage is believed to be a direct transmission of the therapeutic teaching of Jivaka, Buddha's doctor. Just as Thai boxers make devotional bows before bouts, Thai masseurs give offerings to statues of Jivaka as part of their sessions. Dejian attributes the tradition of Shaolin medicine to Shaolin's patriarch Bodhidharma.

"The origin of Shaolin medicine is from Tamo (Bodhidharma)," states Dejian. "When he found the monks were weak after meditation, he began collecting folk remedies to help his followers. It is the cream of folk medicine. These treatments were developed across successive dynasties, peaking in the Ming period (1368-1644 CE). It was during the Ming that Shaolin monks fought off Japanese pirates in Fujian, so the need for good medicine arose. It was also in the Ming when Shaolin Abbot Dao Guang established a huge apothecary at Shaolin for disciples, believers, followers and the poor. This merit has been passed down from that time on - from Abbot Dao Guang."

"At present, Shaolin's traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is grasped by very few. Shi Dechan , Shaolin's honorary Abbot who passed away in 1994, had the deepest understanding. Another great Shaolin medical practitioner was Chuan Chan . Both grandmasters passed their skills to Zhang Qinghe. Dechan was Zhang's Chan master. His kung fu and medicine was from Chuan Chan and Wu Sanlin. These masters are all well recognized in Chinese martial arts circles."

"Grandmaster Wu was talented at both acupuncture and qigong. He transmitted the traditional Shaolin art of Xinyiba (heart mind) to me. Xinyiba has been popularized by Shi Degen, another disciple of Wu Sanlin. But we keep the true teaching secret. We keep it mysterious. We do not demonstrate it out of respect for our master. Grandmaster Zhang never showed it to the public. Xingyiba cannot be described in words. It is the supreme cream of Shaolin."

The Way of Shaolin Healing
The art of healing can be therapeutic in itself. Accordingly, a skilled TCM practitioner must begin from a healthy place, just like the biblical proverb, "Physician heal thyself" (Luke 4:23). According to Dejian, Shaolin self-healing is fostered by quieting your mind, adjusting your body and controlling your diet. His prescription begins with Shaolin qigong, specifically the two methods attributed to Bodhidharma, the Muscle-Tendon Change Classic or Yijinjing and the Marrow-Washing Classic or Xisuijing . "Yijinjing changes the meridians of your body," asserts Dejian. "Xisuijing improves your circulation, fosters qi, makes you strong and adjusts your body physically and psychologically. Without the centuries of practice and wisdom (of these teachings) you cannot reach the spirit of this. It is useless to learn it and then practice for only a few months. Everyone can practice it. Everyone can feel it. Everybody has the merit of Buddha. If enlightened, you become the Buddha. If not enlightened, you're an ordinary person. You can use qi to heal."

Controlling your diet is an important element of healthy living. Buddhism stressed vegetarianism. "Vegetarianism improves your health," states Dejian. "The Shaolin vegetarian diet includes grains and vegetables without spices. We eat fruits but nothing too spicy. No ginger or garlic. Monks do not eat anything from animals, garlic, ginger, or onions - nothing spicy or odiferous. We don't eat eggs but can use milk." Vegetarianism amongst Shaolin monks has been a hotly disputed topic in martial circles since many Shaolin warrior monks are not completely vegetarian. This is because warrior monks are of a special class, an allowance of Shaolin's martial legacy; they do not take all the vows of a typical Buddhist monk. The fully-indoctrinated monks of Shaolin practice vegetarianism.

The Land of Trial
The landscape of Shaolin has changed radically over Dejian's near-quarter-century watch. Ever since Dejian's arrival, Shaolin has been going global. It's been a challenging transition as this medieval monastery struggles to bring its 1500-year-legacy to heal today's wounded world. Dejian reflects upon his calling wistfully. "The first ten years (of my refuge at Shaolin) and what followed have been very different. As a monk of Shaolin, I have no family responsibility. My only responsibility is to research and inherit the Shaolin arts. I put all my effort into this. In my whole life, I know I can only get a little. Shaolin is a land of trial."

The burden of his master's legacy would weigh heavily on any man, but for Dejian, it's a mission of mercy and medicine. "Shaolin's medicinal history and methods do not contradict TCM, but we have many special methodologies for treatment. It's the cream of medicine. Shaolin medicine is Buddha's medicine. It must be brought out so everyone can know it and understand it. Some cancer patients who gave up on clinical treatments have come to Shaolin; most have recovered. Grandmaster Zhang propounded a very special treatment - the qiao (gates treatment. There are seven qiao, the eyes, ears and so on. We use specially-formulated powders, pills and plasters to cure illnesses. These external treatments help to adjust the internal flow of the body. Grandmaster Zhang wished that Shaolin medicine would be popularized to benefit all the people of the world. Due to recent events, Shaolin medicine is encountering a big crisis. It has not been publicized. Anyone interested in promoting Shaolin medicine should pursue it here. This medicine does not belong to Shaolin or TCM. It belongs to the world."

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About Gene Ching (Xinglong) :
The author gratefully acknowledges Wang Yu Min of China International Travel Services (C.I.T.S) for his assistance with this interview. For more information about travel and study in China, visit the C.I.T.S. website at

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