Why Martial Monks Are Like Waiters

The author at practice in the Wushu Center training hall in 1992

China is so busy replacing old buildings with new ones, there is little energy for renovations. The Wushu Center is the first place I’ve been to that has kept the same exterior structure but received a Queer Eye makeover. The courtyard, which is filled with traditional kung fu training equipment, now has marble pathways that lead to stone stools around stone tables that have Chinese checkerboards carved into their surface. It’s darling. And inside the main building, I have to stop for a moment. Marble has replaced the cracked linoleum floors and the concrete pillars. The staircases have wooden (wooden!) banisters. A family of four used to live beneath this staircase. Now it looks like a staircase you’d find in a Park Avenue duplex.

The biggest change is the performance hall. Before, it was basically a training hall: one big red mat, surrounded by rows of wooden chairs like you find in middle-school auditoriums. Now it’s gone Broadway. Stadium seating, a raised stage, and the set backdrop, which is a life-size version of the Shaolin Temple’s gate

I slip in on an afternoon performance for about 10 tourists. I don’t recognize any of the martial monks. But they are as good as they used to be, perhaps even a bit more professional. No doubt the Dolby Surround sound music timed to the sophisticated stage lighting helps. The old team, my team, thought of themselves as martial monks first, performers a necessary second. Like actors waiting tables, they were doing it to support their art. The group performing today seems to take their performing job much more seriously. They are breaking bricks over their heads and wooden staffs over their arms with precision and a dearth of emotion. They whip through their forms (drunken sword, monkey, Shaolin luohan) with brio.

Afterward, I wander back to the training hall, my training hall, where I spilled sweat and blood for two years, and blissfully it is exactly the same: the same tattered green mat, the same cracked wall of mirrors, the same hand- and footprint-stained white walls (we used to punch and kick it to harden our feet and hands).

One of the teams of martial monks is beginning practice. Their coach is sitting, his foot in a cast. I introduce myself, somewhat wishfully thinking he’ll recognize the name, my legend having lived on (the challenge matches, the tournaments), but he doesn’t. And I find myself telling him these stories, about how I trained here from 1992-94 and fought in this international tournament, where I placed second, and then there was this big challenge match, and he’s nodding politely.

I can hear a voice in the back of my head say, “You are now officially the sad, old alumnus back on campus to bore the current class with stories of your glory years.” It takes a minute or so of internal wrestling, but I finally manage to stop my ego trip down nostalgia lane and ask some questions about him and his team.

It is as I had suspected: This new breed has very little connection to the temple. They are extraordinarily skilled martial artists who have basically tried out and won parts in the play Shaolin’s Martial Monks. Shaolin was always unique in having two types of monks: the cultural or Buddhist monks (wensheng) and the martial monks (wusheng). It seems they now have a third type: the performance monks (biaoyan sheng).

At the back of the Wushu Center, where there are apartments for employees, I run into two of the martial monks who used to be on my team, Little Wang and Baotung. They are married with children and running their own kung fu schools in Deng Feng, the nearby town where all the schools displaced from Shaolin have now set up shop. I ask about Coach Cheng, who was my kickboxing coach for over a year and my master. We had lost contact with each other, and I was hoping to find him. Little Wang tells me that Coach Cheng is working for his older brother, Big Wang, at their new school in Deng Feng, which is holding a traditional forms competition tomorrow. I can find him there.

The author (second from right) with friends in front of the famous Shaolin Temple gate

The most famous aspect of the Shaolin Temple is its gate. Those doors and the sign above it spelling “Shaolin Temple” in Chinese have served as backdrops in countless chop socky flicks. Asian film crews show up throughout the year for a day or two filming in front of those doors and that sign. As for the rest of the temple, it is fairly modest: some courtyards, some larger-than-life Buddha statues, some prayer rooms, some wooden statues of martial monks in various kung fu poses. Shaolin doesn’t make the cut in most American package tours; the only reason to visit is if you have a special connection to the martial arts and want to see where it all began.

I run into the Tall One, the only monk in Shaolin over 6 feet tall, in the courtyard in front of the temple. He is the only member of the original performance team to remain a monk. We talk about the changes to Shaolin as we wander through the temple. It is near dinnertime, so the day-tripping tourists are mostly gone. Inside, I discover that a group of Buddhist monks have gathered for evening prayers. Many of them are from other monasteries, because the Shaolin is hosting a Buddhism conference. Because of all the tourism, there was not a great deal of Buddhism practiced at the temple a decade ago. But, according to the Tall One, who is Abbot Yongxin’s assistant, the abbot has invested a great deal of time and money to rebuild a community of Buddhist monks, a welcome change.

The Tall One jokingly asks if I want to run up to Damo’s cave to take some pictures for this article. I don’t. It is a steep haul up the mountain behind the temple: The coaches assigned runs to Damo’s cave as punishment. We used to joke that Damo stayed meditating in the cave so long because he was exhausted from his hike up to it.

Coach Cheng’s flying sidekick inside the Shaolin Temple

The background for the joke goes something like this: An Indian Buddhist missionary named Damo (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit) arrived at the Shaolin Temple in the sixth century and went up to the cave, which is just big enough for a couple of men to sit inside it, and vowed not to leave until he achieved enlightenment. According to the hagiography, he stayed for nine years, meditating with such focus that his image was burned onto a stone in the cave, before he achieved his goal. When he descended, he taught the Shaolin monks that sitting meditation was the key to enlightenment. This was the beginning of Chan Buddhism. The problem he later discovered was that the monks’ muscles went soft from sitting all day (something familiar to many writers), so he introduced a series of 18 callisthenic exercises. From these exercises, Shaolin kung fu eventually evolved.

I return to the Wushu Center’s motel. They are planning to replace it next year, and they need to. It hasn’t been cleaned since I left. As the darkness descends, the memory of just how lonely and isolated I felt when I first arrived here in 1992 thumps me in the chest. How did I manage to stay for so long? I wonder. And then I remember: It was the kung fu, the glorious kung fu.