Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shaolin Temple Day

It was such an exciting weekend where I was reconnected to my gongfu, or more commonly known as kungfu, past by the visit of Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin from the legendary China Songshan Shaolin Temple. (The abbot is the leading monk who makes the final decisions in important issues at the temple.) Shaolin Temple USA is an official school directly connected to China’s Shaolin Temple that was established in 495 AD and is renowned for their martial arts. These exercises were first developed to promote blood circulation after long periods of meditation.

The Abbot arrived at SFO from Beijing on March 18 and I joined the welcoming party. The two times I went to China’s Shaolin Temple, I didn’t get a chance to meet him. So I felt so honored meeting him up close in person. He is not that tall and has gentle demeanor, unlike the superhuman impression when reading about those legendary warrior monks in the gongfu novels. Although it is not a requirement to the most skilled in gongfu to become an abbot, I would imagine that Abbot Shi Yongxin is highly trained underneath that modest appearance.

On the next day, March 19, there was a Grand Opening celebration at the San Francisco Shaolin Culture Center. There were two parts to this traditional celebration. First portion was the Buddhist ceremony where the eyes of the three new Buddha statues were symbolically dotted. In the light of their eyes, we can feel the presence of the Buddha. During the ceremony, there were recitals of Buddhist sutras, blessing all the visitors with health, peace and happiness. Comparing to Jewish synagogue services where we get to sit and stand during the entire event, the Buddhist services seemed rather “punishing” where we had to stand during the entire ceremony. My recovering ankle was really protesting towards the end. The second portion was the unveiling of the entrance door plaque, marking the official opening of the cultural center.

The Abbot stated the mission of Shaolin Temple USA that in the past 30 years, Shaolin Temple was visited by millions of friends from many different countries, and that he felt obligated to reach out to the world to spread Buddhist teachings, much like when Budhidharma traveled from India to China Songshan in 517 AD and started Chan Buddhism. The Abbot emphasized that the Shaolin Temple is not just about gongfu/martial arts, instead it is a way of life. The cultural centers offer places for people to study Buddhism, to meditate, and to stay healthy by eating well, to exercise their bodies, and to build communities.

Saturday, March 21, was Shaolin Temple Day celebrated at Union Square, SF. There were numerous booths with information on the origin and history of the Temple, a photo gallery meandered on the public square, a display of monastic attire, free books on Buddhist philosophies, video viewing and sales (where I volunteered), vegetarian food sale, weaponry display, T-shirt and magazine sales (by Tiger Claw). The major attraction was the performance stage where the Abbot prayed for peace and harmony for the US and the world, dignitaries gave their speeches, the students and Shaolin monks demonstrated their skills, and free lessons given by the monks. Like many people, I took advantage and tried out the super-easy qi gong (or Chi Kung) form, Baduanjin (sometimes translated as Eight Section Brocade). It is a simplified set of breathing and stretching exercises based on the famous Yijinjing.

Sunday, March 22, was the theater performance, Magnificent Shaolin. The monks displayed their prowess, strength, and flexibility, all choreographed into beautiful sequence of artful, gravity-defying moves. We saw hard chi gong, single and double weapon forms, fist forms, animal techniques (tiger, dragon, snake, eagle, toad, mantis, monkey), drunken forms, bare hands and weapon sparring. Students performed during the intermission. What I really want to learn is their taichi form (which has some similarities to Chen style tai chi YiLou form) and RouQuan, a soft and fluid fist form that combines soft and hard explosive powers. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed so I can’t post any pictures to share.

Now I just wish they will open up another center near me so I can join the fun. Currently, there are only 4 official schools in the US – San Francisco, Fremont, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Each of schools is run by direct disciples of the Abbot. Be sure to go and check them out if you live in those areas because it will be a lot less expensive than going to China to see them. Otherwise, you can see some incredible action photos on their website, or some awe-inspiring videos on YouTube.

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