Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin Martial Arts .

By Ervin Nieves

Shaolin Temple Fighting Monk Shi Guolin with me for the following interview in the summer of 1996, before my pilgrimage to the 1,500 year-old Henan, China Shaolin Temple in June 1997. At the time, I was troubled about the rising controversy and confusion concerning the authenticity of today's Shaolin monks at the Shaolin Temple, and so I asked my Chinese wife, Li, to help me interview the venerable monk. Shi Guolin, a 34th generation Shaolin Temple fighting monk, currently resides in Flushing, New York and founded The Shaolin Meditation & Martial Arts Center there in July of 1995. The idea to interview Monk Shi Guolin came to me spontaneously as I was driving around New York City on a hot summer afternoon. I called Monk Shi Guolin from a pay phone on the corner of a Korean grocery store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and explained my desire to gain a better understanding about the state of Buddhism at the Shaolin Temple today and in Shaolin martial arts in general. After a few more words of self-introduction, I asked if I could arrange a meeting. With some rearrangement of his busy schedule, Monk Shi Guolin granted me this exclusive interview.

It was about three in the afternoon when my wife Li and I arrived a bit early at Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin's temple. The reverend had not yet arrived from eating his late afternoon vegetarian meal. Upon entering the temple door, Li and I were greeted by a friendly young man with a shaved head and a prancing Scottish terrier called Bubbly with Buddhist beads around its neck. Adjacent to the entrance to the temple's kung fu school section, where we were received, was a separate room with an immense Buddha. On the north side of the building, a huge bookshelf with free literature on Buddhism was also clearly visible. The sounds of a little fountain of cool, flowing water, set on a table, gingerly carried visitors away from the hustle and bustle of New York traffic.

I was excited that Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin granted me an audience on such short notice. He met us shortly after our arrival, and during the course of the interview made it very clear in passing conversation that he had declined article requests from numerous other martial arts magazines. He had only agreed to be interviewed in Wushu Kungfu because of its established reputation as a magazine dedicated to spreading genuine Chinese martial arts and culture. Unconsciously underscoring this point, Monk Shi Guolin went to his small office adjacent to the kung fu practice floor and returned with an old copy of Qigong magazine that featured Master Adam Hsu on the cover. "Is this the magazine your article will appear in?" he questioned. "Yes," I replied. "Only now it's called Wushu Kungfu and it's run by Gigi Oh." He seemed pleased to hear this and revealed that this article would be the first authorized published interview in a martial arts magazine in America, though he has occasionally granted shorter television, radio, and newspaper interviews to international media. What especially pleased him was the chance to help clear the reputation of the Shaolin Temple from recent charges of inauthenticity. Monk Shi Guolin was very aware of the controversy and appreciated the opportunity to spread a more genuine understanding of the role of Ch'an Buddhism at the Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Background
Shaolin Temple Monk Shi Guolin's 34th generation monk name is actually Shi Yan Si (pronounced Shuh Yen Tsuh). He took the Dharma name Guo Lin, which means fruitful forest, to symbolize his mission to spread the fruits of Buddhism throughout the world.

In China, the venerable monk Shi Guolin has had a distinguished record of spreading the true Shaolin principles. At the Shaolin Temple, for example, monk Shi Guolin earned the distinguished title of "Iron Arhat," which reflects his profound commitment to and growing understanding of Ch'an Buddhist and Shaolin martial arts teachings. He served as head coach of the Shaolin Temple martial arts monks, won numerous national awards for his mastery of martial arts, served as the Executive Secretary of the Zhong Yuan Qi Gong Research Association, Honorary Director of the Shaolin Martial Arts Research Institute, and has also served on the Board Committees of the Henan Buddhist Association and the Shaolin Chuan Fa Research Association.

This diverse background in Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts prompted 33rd generation Shaolin Temple Great Master Shi Yongxin (pronounced Shur Yong Shin) to appoint Shi Guolin as one of the Shaolin Temple's ambassadors to the United States. Great Master Shi Yongxin is the current chief manager (Zhu Chi) of the Shaolin Temple and is reportedly destined to become the first abbot (Fang Zhang) of Shaolin since the late 32nd generation Shaolin Temple monk Shi Xingzheng (one of the four original monks who faithfully remained at the Shaolin Temple during the 1970s Red Guards attack).

Prior to Great Master Shi Yongxin's appointment of the venerable Monk Shi Guolin, only the venerable 34th generation Shaolin Temple Monk Shi Yanchang, one of the Shaolin Temple's most highly-regarded Buddhist and martial arts monks, has held full Shaolin Temple ambassadorial status in the United States. Shaolin Temple Monk Shi Yanchang was also the first Shaolin monk to permanently reside in the United States. (Monk Shi Yanchang currently worships and teaches Ch'an at a Buddhist temple in New York's Chinatown area, but does not presently teach martial arts to lay students despite possessing impeccable internal and external kung fu.)

I first met Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin about three years ago when a Shaolin kung fu teacher introduced me to him. Then, in June of 1995 at a Shaolin Monk exhibition in Toronto, Canada, I volunteered during Monk Shi Guolin's Iron Jacket Chi Kung exhibition. I tried, quite unsuccessfully, to make Monk Shi Guolin wince while I punched him a few dozen times in the stomach. My fists bounced off his stomach and he looked at me unfazed. Several large bricks and a large slab of stone also failed to disturb Monk Shi Guolin's calm as they were slammed against his head by fellow Shaolin monks in a multiple exhibition of "Iron Head" chi kung.

Although Monk Shi Guolin is well known for his mastery of Ying Chi Kung, a Shaolin system of breathing and energy development that renders the body impervious to attacks, he has also mastered several external styles and weapons of Shaolin Temple Kung Fu. Included in his skills are Shaolin Eagle Claw, Drunkard Fist, Heart-Mind Boxing (Hsing I), Cannonball Fist, Praying Mantis, Kwandao, Wind-Devil Staff, Broadswords, Double Tiger Hooks, and a large variety of other Shaolin Kung Fu styles and weapons.

To promote authentic Shaolin martial arts, Monk Shi Guolin and his students have performed in many states, and Monk Shi Guolin is preparing and distributing a series of bilingual videotapes to expose audiences to the physical and spiritual dimensions of real Shaolin Kung Fu and Buddhist Meditation and philosophy. Proceeds gathered through the sales are used to expand the mission of the Shaolin Meditation and Martial Arts Center in publishing and spreading Ch'an Buddhist materials and teachings throughout the United States and other countries.

Buddhism and Shaolin
Ervin Nieves: Monk Guolin, first of all, I would like to thank you for kindly granting me this interview, especially on such short notice. I would like to begin by asking you when and how were you selected to start training at the famous Northern Shaolin Temple.

Monk Guolin: When I entered Shaolin, it wasn't a matter of selection, so much as a matter of destiny. Prior to entering Shaolin, I was raised a very devout Buddhist from infancy, as well as a vegetarian.

Buddhism and Chinese martial arts were my family's two contributions to my early education. At age fifteen, when I was already an accomplished martial artist, my maternal grandfather took me to Shaolin, where I met my sifu (teacher), Great Master Shi Yongxin.

EN: Did you have to pass any stringent initiatory tests prior to being allowed to study Shaolin martial arts and Buddhism at Shaolin?

Monk Guolin: At the Shaolin Temple, a potential student sometimes has to wait up to three years, during which he is tested to see if he is of the ethical fiber to become a monk. After these three years, the successful monk candidate undergoes a ritual ceremony in which his hair is shaved, and he enters upon a new life.

EN: Why is there so much confusion about who is and isn't a real monk; is some of the confusion due to the fact that there are different levels of monks who actually reside at Shaolin today?

Monk Guolin: [On the] exterior, even authentic Shaolin monks who are on different levels of monkhood appear the same. Initially, monks enter a novice and probationary stage of monkhood in which they follow fewer Buddhist precepts than ordinary monks called Sha Mi Jie (pronounced Shah Me Jyeh, and called Shramenera in Sanskrit), to see if the young monks really want to live the life of a monk. This probationary period has no time limit. A novice monk who feels he is ready to take on more rules of prohibitions need only go to his sifu to learn more Buddhist rules. At the minimum age of twenty, if the novice monk is deemed ready, he is then allowed to take the full vows of a fully ordained monk, which consists in following approximately 250 religious precepts/rules called Bi Chiu (pronounced Bee Chew, and called Bhikshu in Sanskrit).

Two examples of prohibitions include an avoidance of lying and stealing. In addition to rules of prohibition, there are rules designed to foster the spiritual elements of Shaolin Kung Fu. Among these principles are those that form the bedrock of Buddhist teachings at the Shaolin Temple in China and at the Shaolin Meditation and Martial Arts Center in the United States, namely, The Noble Eightfold Path, which are usually grouped according to the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: 1) ethical conduct (sila): right speech, right action, and right livelihood; 2) mental discipline (samadhi): right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration; and 3) wisdom (prajna): right thoughts and right understanding.

EN: But isn't there an inherent or at least seeming contradiction between a Buddhist life of contemplation and Shaolin martial arts?

Monk Guolin: That's a good question and one that is frequently asked. Even from its inception, the practice of Shaolin martial arts was inseparable from the Buddhist way of living and thinking. One must only bear in mind that Da Mo, the founder of Ch'an Buddhism was a very important figure in the development of Shaolin martial arts.

[Monk Shi Guolin paused reflectively and briefly]
A quote from Ch'an-Lu, a magazine of China's Shaolin monastery sums up everything very well: Shaolin Kung Fu is a form or manifestation of Ch'an. For those entering the realm of Wu (martial arts) with a mind on Ch'an, the silent smile awaits them. When Ch'an and Wu are in harmony, Ch'an and Chuan (Fist, i.e. an outward display of martial arts) is nowhere to be found. Shaolin martial arts then, is a part of spiritual practice from China's Shaolin Monastery. The idea is that by following a strict martial arts discipline, the gap between the body and mind is bridged. If the Buddhist teachings are adhered to, something magical happens, namely, the martial arts discipline is transformed into a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment. Martial arts, which is meant for fighting and defense, merge with the compassion, loving kindness, and wisdom of the Buddhist teachings.

EN: Can you supply a concrete martial arts example to highlight how this union between Shaolin martial arts and Buddhism takes place?

Monk Guolin: The Shaolin system has its own characteristics in terms of breathing and mobilizing chi. The Shaolin boxing manual says, "The fist depends all on the strength but strength emerges through chi. The hand must move gradually when mobilizing chi. However, swiftness is required in releasing chi. Gradual or hasty movement depends on the technique but is controlled by the breathing. In breathing in and out, the chi should return to the dantien. The mind and body are bridged abiding to the principles of the Three External Harmonies (shoulders and hip, elbows and knees, hands and feet) and the Three Internal Harmonies (mind and intent, intent and chi, chi and power). Gradually, the internal and external are merged into one.

[Shaolin monk Shi Guolin further highlighted this principle of the linkage between mind and body even more explicitly when he spoke of the characteristic movements of the body in martial arts movements].

The movements of rising, falling and traversing are executed with smoothness and rotation in nimbleness, or agility. Thus the body does not lean forward nor backward and attention is paid to grasping the center of gravity to maintain balance. According to the Shaolin boxing manual, one's body is likened to five "bows" consisting of two arms, two legs, and the body's trunk. The body is the master of the five. When in combat, one must draw in the chest so that the shoulders are relaxed and the power stored in the posture. The power is stored released through the "bows" via the waist. The principles in a Shaolin training formula say: center your practice around the mind; there does not exist fixed rules in bodily techniques; the key is to use these accordingly. When engaged in the movements of rising and falling, advancing and retreating, moves of opposing nature, releasing or contracting power, the center of gravity must be grasped. Movements come into existence when everything is aligned. It is difficult to describe the form of the body since there are thousands of variations. Only through the integration of mind and body can one show the capability of the body.

EN: I'm amazed and delighted by your replies Sifu, but can you give me an example of how these deeper Ch'an principles are actually taught at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China?

Monk Guolin: Yes, I'll give you an example. Before at the Shaolin Temple, there was a sifu designated to teach all Shaolin Tu Di (pupils) Ch'an philosophy, but at the Shaolin Temple today, every teacher instructs his own pupils in both Ch'an philosophy and Shaolin martial arts on a one-to-one basis. One must not think of Ch'an and Shaolin martial arts as separate. Genuine Shaolin isn't merely external form. The form is just a medium with which the monk practitioner can exercise the union between body and mind. It is a time in which all of these dichotomies dissolve.

EN: In Western culture since the ancient Greeks, there has existed what philosophers call a "metaphysical split," in which the mind and body are viewed as separate, and the body as inferior or a prison-house to the mind or spirit. Is there such a split in Ch'an Buddhism, and if so, how is that split reconciled?

[Monk Shi Guolin paused briefly]
Monk Guolin: Although the mind does have a higher relation to the body in Buddhist teachings, the body nevertheless should not be deemed inferior to the mind, insofar as the body is needed to support the mind in the process of cultivation. So though it may appear that Shaolin monks use mainly the body during martial arts practice, monks actually use the mind to move the body, while the body supports the mind in spiritual cultivation. Thus, both mind and body work together in harmony and form an integral whole.

EN: Can you give me a concrete example of this act of integration during actual kung fu practice?

Monk Guolin: Yes. Let me give you a very basic example of this. When practicing Kung Bow Chong Chuan (Bow Stance Charging Fist), for example, your chi movement from the beginning should be moved from the dantien, then to the unities of the bodies, e.g. to the muscles, then to the chuan. The result is the energy or power. This example is analogous to the Buddhist doctrine of Yin Yuen Guo (Cause, Condition, and Effect). So when one throws a punch, Yin (Cause) refers to one's intent to execute the punching movement, Yuen (Condition) corresponds to the initiation of movement and chi that travels through the body to produce the punch, and Guo (Result) equates to the perfectly executed movement produced, i.e. the punch itself. This is just one example to highlight the key point that martial arts movements must be accomplished with one's mind in total clarity and awareness, and that this clarity and awareness is brought about by applying Buddhist principles to one's martial arts. The mind does not abide on anything else other than the present moment when one is executing a movement. So when one is able to maintain complete mindfulness during physical kung fu practice, then one begins to experience the unity of mind and body.

EN: I'm very grateful for your enlightening teachings on the connection between mind and body, and Shaolin martial arts and Buddhism.

On another topic, what about all of the negative press about the lack of many real Shaolin monks at the Shaolin temple today as well as reports of the temple's commercialization as a major source of subversion of traditional Shaolin values?

Monk Guolin: Yes, the Shaolin Temple has changed a lot because of tourism. Before, nobody but Shaolin monks were at the Shaolin Temple to study martial arts and Ch'an. But now, it's become a tourist trap. But it depends. Some monks still have a very deep belief, very great kung fu, and a deep commitment to preserve Shaolin Temple traditions. These monks cannot be affected adversely by tourism. But some of the younger monks are affected adversely.

Shaolin versus Wushu
EN: Can you tell me something about the Shaolin Wushu Center that exists a couple of miles from the 1,500 year-old Shaolin Temple? Is it possible that the creation of this Wushu center is in fact an inventive government ploy to accomplish what several Shaolin Temple fires and a mid-1970s Red Guards' storming failed to do, namely, destroy the tradition of training Shaolin Temple Buddhist monks at the renowned Northern Shaolin Temple?

Monk Guolin: There isn't only one Wushu school near Shaolin, there are many. These schools have absolutely nothing to do with the Shaolin Temple, except for the fact that some real Shaolin monks have sometimes taught lay disciples martial arts there upon request by government officials or local kung fu masters. It's not real Shaolin Temple martial arts since they don't have Ch'an. The external movements of the forms appear the same and there are some people who dress up as monks to give the Wushu Center an air of tradition, but they are not real Shaolin Temple monks. But these people are not evil by any means. In their own way, the kung fu masters who teach at the Wushu Center are contributing to Chinese culture by spreading an appreciation of at least the external aspects of Shaolin. My hope is that those who are attracted to this very appealing external and surface dimension to Shaolin will be attracted to the deeper Buddhist foundation of Shaolin martial arts later.

EN: That leads me to another question, Sifu. Are candidates still travelling to the Northern Shaolin Temple to become monks; if not, is the national sport of Wushu and the Wushu Center then replacing the Shaolin temple in its traditional role of leader in Shaolin martial arts in China today?

Monk Guolin: Yes, monks are still being trained at the Shaolin Temple. And though it does appear that Shaolin Wushu has gained a great ascendancy in China-here I am using the term Wushu to mean martial arts without Buddhism and not just martial arts in general, as the term is usually employed-I am confident that real Shaolin martial arts will continue to exist at the Shaolin Temple. From appearance, Shaolin Wushu is the same as Shaolin martial arts, but the real difference is that in genuine Shaolin, the mind and body are united in harmony via Buddhism. An observer cannot tell the difference between real Shaolin monks and Shaolin practitioners who help popularize the physical aspects of Shaolin, since the Kung Fu forms appear the same as in Wushu. The key difference is that Wushu practitioners just practice the external forms, but monks use Kung Fu as an entry into Ch'an. Genuine Shaolin martial arts has the overriding principle that one must use Ch'an to enter martial arts and martial arts to express Ch'an."

Asia and America
EN: Sifu, could you please describe the difference between Ch'an and Zen (the Japanese word for Ch'an and the more familiar of the two terms), as they are practiced in those countries today?

Monk Guolin: Ch'an was created in India, then it was brought to China by Da Mo. The Japanese developed it further. There is a Chinese saying: Ch'an was created in India, blossomed in China, and gained fruit in Japan. When Ch'an came to China, China was divided into different people. The Japanese learned Ch'an and used it in their real lives, while the Chinese for the most part didn't. The Chinese contributed to the development of Ch'an theory in the temples and mountains, but not everyone embraced it.

EN: What are your plans to further Buddhism and Shaolin Temple Kung Fu in the United States while you're here? Do you wish to build a large Shaolin Temple in America similar to the one in China?

Monk Guolin: Large or small, the size of the temple doesn't matter. What's important is that the real principles of Shaolin, which are the teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, are known by the people.

EN: What made you come to and remain in the United States?

Monk Guolin: When I thought about living in the United States and opening up the Shaolin Meditation & Martial Arts Center I pictured the United States as an ideal environment because of its tradition of religious tolerance. I chose to found this mission in Flushing, New York, because of the diversified ethnicities present in the area, and the relative absence of Buddhist temples. In Manhattan's Chinatown, teaching Buddhism would be like teaching in China. I wanted to come where there would be many different kinds of people. There is a need for Buddhism in America. America needs Buddhism because of the way America is; people are so busy in contemporary society. Buddhism, the true doctrine of the human realm, will help bring harmony to America's heterogeneous population.

EN: Can you tell me something about your students and teaching in America?

Monk Guolin: Yes. Although most of my students were initially drawn to this temple because of the Shaolin martial arts they've seen on television and in the movies, many have given up their initial superficial motivation for becoming members of the center, and have begun to embrace and practice Buddhist teachings.

Shaolin Monk Shi Guolin uttered his closing words about his American students and their embrace and practice of Buddhist teachings with an obvious joy, as his temple began to fill up with students waiting to start class. As the students trickled into the main practice room where the interview was taking place, the little Scottish terrier with Buddhist beads rattling around its neck pranced around everyone's feet, testing the balance of all of Monk Shi Guolin's students.

On that joyous note, my wife Li and I thanked the reverend Shi Guolin for imparting his enriching Shaolin Buddhist teachings to us and we wistfully departed. My previous anxiety about the state of Buddhism at the Northern Shaolin Temple in Henan, China was buried beneath a larger consolation. Although the back door advent of commercial capitalism may have begun to bring changes even before the gates of the Northern Shaolin Temple, the genuine spirit of Shaolin Temple martial arts (which is Ch'an Buddhism) is indeed very much alive today. Undoubtedly, it will survive this latest threat to the integrity of the 1,500-year-old Northern Shaolin Temple.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1997 .

About Ervin Nieves :
Ervin Nieves is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Iowa and a freelance writer. He was assisted by his wife Li Nieves, Mr. Kevin Ma, and Mr. Harry Leong of The Shaolin Meditation & Martial Arts Center, by their translations and editorial contributions. In an upcoming issue of Wushu Kungfu, he will explore behind the scenes of the Henan Shaolin Temple today.

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