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Tiffany's Adventures in China

Monks and Kung Fu Madness

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This morning held a particularly interesting experience for us all. Yes, a day (or, well, perhaps just a morning, yet definitely satisfying enough) in the life of a Buddhist monk.

Waking up at four-thirty in the morning wasn't exactly the part I was looking forward to, but the grogginess was well worth the next part of our adventure. Entering a temple is no mere activity, let alone attend morning chants with the monks of THE Shaolin Monastery. My mind was in pure awe even as we stepped over the threshold of the main hall (which wasn't too fancy, with regards to its size) and into the small kneeling area of the hall. We didn't actually kneel upon the soft benches, but standing up didn't bother me at all as I really took in my surroundings. Three Buddha statues (of course, each one really represented three different people in the history of Buddhism) greeted us right at the door of the hall, their eyes facing south. I stared up at the immense figures while I estimated how old they must be. Shaolin Monastery was actually rebuilt in 1928 after a fire burned it, so I suppose they must have been made around that time. Perhaps not antiqued, I thought, but definitely things of a past that should be remembered, for the monastery had been destroyed and rebuilt several times in its 1500+ year history.

Everyone was silent as the monks began a nonstop chant that lasted for an hour. Though not all of them were chanting/singing altogether at the same time, of course-- that would have been incredibly tiring for them-- some monk would always be picking up the chant if no one else was chanting at the same moment. Their voices echoed and reverberated throughout the hall, which was quite a powerful sound to hear. Harmonious voices, some very clear and some scratchy, filled my ears as I closed my eyes and focused on the moment and my own breathing, which is really most like a Zen Buddhist thing my mom encourages me to do often. The most enchanting part about this "day in the life" was following the monks in a slow procession (more like an organized, single-file walk) around the hall, circling around the statues a few times. It was absolutely compelling and also mysterious, in a way that spoke of long, centuries-old traditions. Unfortunately, we weren't exactly sure when to bow to pay our respects to the statues (which symbolize the spirit of the Buddha and are not idols), so we just attempted to follow along with what the monks were doing.

Breakfast with the monks and laymen was also a new experience, but I didn't find the actual food itself too appealing. Perhaps it was the dim yellow lights-- I like seeing my food in detail before I eat it; it really enhances the consumption of the victuals. But I do know that some found it so delicious that they completely devoured their whole meal. Personally I was slightly afraid of not eating my whole meal, fearing that to do so might have been disrespectful to those that worked so hard to make it.

Today's martial arts lesson was also surely new and more exciting, maybe, than yesterday's. We actually got to use weapons and were taught the basics, but now that I reflect upon today's activities, I somewhat regret not choosing to learn the swords first-- as I noticed, it requires a bit of wristwork, which a pianist may find slightly easier than, well, wielding a pole that is lengthier than its own wielder. That's right, Miss "Barely five feet tall" learned how to use poles today; however, just learning a simple trick took a while with all the strange rotating and shifting of the hand positions. Fortunately, I did get the hang of it after a while-- until we ran out of time to learn something else. Hopefully I'll be able to learn a little more someday (perhaps tomorrow, if I'm lucky). Anyways, I still had lots of fun trying to figure out how to move the pole in a swift and fluid motion-- the challenge was intriguing and enticing.

Tomorrow's a new day. We'll be practicing the most basic Shaolin kung fu routine again-- as I hear, we'll be performing for the entire school to watch tomorrow. I'll try my hardest not to mess up or become unsynchronized with the rest of the group. Until then, I wish you all a happy evening (or morning, whichever you prefer or fits your time zone).

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Changing Connections said...

Interesting opening that adds a different dimension to the Shaolin Temple experience; you note that entering is no mere activity. Ritual and rigor seem embedded in the life of a monk.

No one seemed to like breakfast, and from some of the descriptions I can see why, but I like what you said about wanting to see what you eat. There is also that dimension of eating what's on your plate or signaling for less so all have victuals. Don't you find traditions here so very much different from our culture of consumption?

You are so correct in stating that by participating in something so different and unique you learn more. Hands on and on-site learning in a global environment with Discovery will spoil you for any other kind of travel, I suspect. Guess you can rule out at least one career pathway, right?

How do you think the monks view their daily routine? You may find it monotonous, but clearly they seem fit for the life they chose. What makes the difference?

RJ Stangherlin
PA DEN LC Blog Coordinator

Karen Wells said...

When reading your post, I thought about a ritual students used to do when I was in school. Every morning we said the Pledge of Allegiance and read scripture. I wonder if we need some type of ritual like that in our lives? Maybe we need to take your mother's advice and close our eyes and focus on the moment and on our breathing. That would be a great way to start each school day! Karen Wells DSA South Africa

Martha said...

Are visitors to the temple an every day occurrance? I wonder what the monks thought of your group - a group of teenagers. It sounds like you gave them all due respect and that must really encourage them!

Good for you for eating your food! It is good to know the culture as in some countries, eating all your food means you want more. You are brave - I prefer to know what I am eating ... but not too intimately. (I am thinking of some of the food you ate in Vietnam :) )

Tiffany Lam said...

Actually, in response to your question, Mrs. Widholm, yes. The monastery does have daily visitors, but we actually got to enter far before the temple usually opens on that day. It was really a breathtaking experience to walk into the near-empty grounds of the monastery. Monks and monks-in-training were even rare at those early hours of the morning (about 5:45 AM). Though we had seen the monastery the day before, it was astounding to note the tranquility of a silent temple as we stepped quietly through the courtyard.

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Essential Programs Details

Duration 15 days
When August 4th - 18th, 2009
Focus History/Culture
Martial Arts
Modern/Ancient Architecture