Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Kung Fu Monks! China's Shaolin Monastery Has Withstood Foreign Invaders, Political Oppressions, and Fickle Warlords to Remain a Place of Meditation and Martial Arts

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Kung Fu Monks! China's Shaolin Monastery Has Withstood Foreign Invaders, Political Oppressions, and Fickle Warlords to Remain a Place of Meditation and Martial Arts

Article excerpt

IN order to hear "the sound of one hand clapping," Buddhist monk Shi Yongpan makes an uncanny noise all his own. A soft thud comes from within a darkened hall painted in red lacquer.

Inside, Mr. Shi is bracing himself for long bouts of Chan (Zen) meditation by springing off the crown of his head in quick flips across a worn slate floor. He uses no hands.

A callous on Mr. Shi's head - a tuft rising beneath black bristles of hair - is the most unusual token of the devotion of the 80 monks at the Shaolin monastery, the founding place of China's most famous school of martial arts.

For more than 14 centuries the monks have sustained the Chan sect of Buddhism despite political oppression, foreign invaders, and the attacks of fickle warlords. Today, after decades of repression, the monastery maintains a shaky peace with communist officials.

The single-minded drive of monks like Shi explains why the monastery still stands.

Shi's father, a martial-arts expert, began drilling his son in the kicks and punches of martial arts in 1980. Shi Yongpan was just six. After two years of training, he took his wife and son away from their home in western Hunan Province to a center of martial arts training in neighboring Jiangxi Province.

Dissatisfied with the instructors in Jiangxi, Shi's father led his family straight to the monastery gates. There, for several months, they maintained a vigil for the chance to thrust Shi Yongpan among the Chan Buddhist elite.

"My father told me, `You will fail in everything but kung fu (martial arts) - you must drill in kung fu to survive,"' says Shi Yongpan in the cracking, high-pitched voice of a 16-year-old just getting a grip on manhood.

"My father had tried many ways to make a living - as a barber, watch repairman, carpenter, driver, cook, and bike repairman - but he failed in everything," says Shi. "So he has devoted his life to making me a master of kung fu."

During his family's hungry wait outside the monastery gate, Shi hitchhiked into the nearby town of Dengfeng and wangled handouts on the street by performing the jumps, swordplay, and flips of kung fu.

Soon after spring festival in 1983, the monastery opened its gate to Shi, one of eight novices selected each year from among 2,000 applicants.

Shaolin monks say that the monastery attracts so many followers because its ancient folklore and Buddhist tradition are a relief from the modern atheism laid down by Beijing. It also offers youths the prospect of carrying on what is possibly the most advanced and prestigious martial art.

The monastery was founded in AD 496 and is said to have been a residence of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who founded the Chan sect of Buddhism, known in Japan as Zen.

The sect upholds introspection above all else, rejecting Buddhist doctrines and texts as impediments to enlightenment. …

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