A Visit to Shaolin Temple… 25 Years Ago!

Shaolin Temple

A visit to Shaolin Temple… 25 years ago was not like going there today. Not only has life around the temple changed since we visited but most of China has also changed. The city of Zhengzhou in Henan province, is the first stop on the way to the legendary Shaolin Temple.

It was a dull gray day as my assistant Genie and I made our way to the Zhengzhou bus station and I briefly thought of my home town in the north of England.  It was early morning and China had no Starbucks and no iPhone that could find a good place for coffee … how did we survive those bleak years! Just as bad, we faced a three hour ride on local roads which were in a terrible state of repair.

Shaolin Temple

Decades ago most tourists at the Shaolin Temple were Chinese

Journey to Shaolin Temple

As soon as the bus lurched forward with a clash of grinding gears, the Chinese passengers, almost entirely male, started smoking. In five minutes the air inside the bus was thick with acrid blue smoke. At the front of the bus a small television came to life playing old kung fu movies. The chain-smoking passengers glued their eyes toward the small screen. I was coughing and wiping tears from my eyes.

A Chinese man in baseball cap and a leather flying jacket, who was seated behind me on the back seat suddenly stood up and walked calmly toward the middle of the bus. On the back of his jacket was a large embroidered gold dragon with Shao-Lin lettering underneath. He barked out in Chinese, gesturing to the passengers menacingly.

Immediately cigarettes were being extinguished and windows slid open even though it was cold outside. It was clear to me what the other passengers already knew… that standing in the middle of the bus was a Shaolin monk of high rank. As he walked back to his seat he snatched a smoking cigarette from a passenger and with a deft flick sent it sailing through the window.  I thanked him as he went past and in perfect english he replied “smoking is a terrible habit.”

Shaolin Temple

Kung fu students of Shaolin monk Shi De Yang in a gravity defying performance

I complimented our benefactor on his English and he introduced himself as Shaolin monk Shi De Ru and that he was now living in America where he had established a martial arts school. “I am on my way to see my Shaolin brother.” he said. I asked who this was and he replied, “Shi De Yang.” My mouth stayed wide open in recognition. Shi De Yang, a 31st generation Shaolin warrior monk, had risen to international fame as the most powerful and skilled Shaolin grandmaster in the world, even though he rarely leaves the temple. Shi De Ru continued, “His school outside the temple is performing a demonstration this afternoon.  Would you like to join me?”

I could not believe this stroke of luck! To think that cigarette smoke enabled such an introduction! The anticipation of joining Shaolin monk Shi De Ru and Shi De Yang made the long bus journey bearable and soon the bus came to an unsolicited stop on a quiet road surrounded by fields and mountains. He motioned for us to get off and pointed across the road to a wide path, telling us this led Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Temple

31st generation Grandmaster Shaolin monk Shi De Ru and Shaolin monk Shi De Yang

Kung Fu School of Shaolin Monk Shi De Yang

We walked through a brick archway into a large yard. Young shaven-headed children were lined up in groups all wearing a dark red tracksuit. Some looked as young as four years old. Some children were busy setting up tables and chairs and unfolding large banners. Everyone seemed to know what to do. A large red floor covering with enormous yellow calligraphy was installed as the demonstration floor.

The tension was high and we were racing to get the camera set up and on a tripod and into position. Then a loud drumbeat filled the air and a dozen young Shaolin monks marched on to the demonstration floor. A group of officials were seated at a table and then monk Shi De Yang and monk Shi De Ru, now wearing a bright saffron colored robe. What followed was a spectacular choreography of Shaolin animal forms in perfect synchronization with the thumping beat of the drums.

Shaolin Temple

A cast-iron steel bar is broken over the shaved head of a young Shaolin warrior

The demonstration culminated in a display of ‘Iron-body’. During regular wushu practice, Shaolin monks and trainees are subjected to strikes with wood or steel to toughen the body. Hands are repeatedly plunged into gravel to condition the fingertips and strengthen gripping. After Iron-body training, a herbal balm is rubbed on the body and hands. Monk Shi De Yang is said to have turned his head into a weapon through Iron-body training and can split wood and stone with his forehead. As the drums silenced for dramatic effect, a young student raised a flat metal bar and slammed it down on top of his shaved head, splintering the iron bar into two pieces. In an even more painful looking exercise, a young monk is hoisted into the air and suspended on the tip of six spears.

Later, as I inspected one of the spears to see if the points were really sharp, Monk Shi De Yang approached. Suddenly he hoisted a spear above his head and with a mighty lob, embedded the spear into a wooden door with a loud thwack!

Shaolin Temple

Shaolin monk Shi De Yang throws a punch toward our cameras

Some students brought out hot tea and with my camera rolling I asked Monk Shi De Ru to explain what we had just seen. “In traditional Kungfu, we call it Wushu, we emphasize the mind, the body and the spirit. We try to understand who we are, not just Chinese or Japanese or American and not even as a human being but as a being. As a being that is part of the universe, a microcosm of the universe. The movements in Shaolin are universal and represent the energy of the universe.”

Shaolin Temple

Jon Braeley and assistant Genie with monk Shi De Ru and monk Shi De Yang

The Shaolin Temple

As we entered the Shaolin Temple the next morning Monk Shi De Ru pointed to a series of large Chinese characters painted on the temple wall… “the birthplace of martial arts” he translated. What followed was a unique tour of the Shaolin Temple with Monk Shi De Yang and Monk Shi De Ru as our personal guides. At the rear of the temple is the Pagoda Forest, which is really an ancient cemetary. “Each pagoda represents the master of each Shaolin generation” said Shi De Ru. I looked across the hillside at a vast army of tall stone pagodas. In the ground before us was a large 3 meter tall stone pillar covered in characters. “This is written by Monk Shi De Yang” said Shi De Ru as he pointed to his Shaolin brother. “He wrote all this and it is a poem about our teacher, about Kungfu and Zen Buddhism (Chan) and its really about the spiritual line of the Buddha.” Shi De Ru stopped near a large stone monument with warrior monks carved along the frieze, “This is our family tomb” he said with a casual wave of his hand.

Shaolin Temple

The Pagoda Forest at Shaolin where generations of monks are entombed.

At the end of our tour of Shaolin Temple we walked toward a small building to drink tea.  However, I was much more interested on what was happening elsewhere in the large temple. In the middle of the hall a monk was painting an enormous character on paper that lay across the floor. He wielded a large heavy brush with both hands as he spread the thick black ink in strong sweeping movements. I began filming. At the end, I asked Shi De Ru to explain the calligraphy. “It means the original. As a being, we represent the universe but sometimes we identify ourselves as a person, as a human being but over here put that aside and understand ourself as everything else. But it’s nothing. Emptiness.”

Later that evening as I transferred the video footage to a hard drive at my hotel room in nearby Dengfeng, I pictured the painting of the calligraphy as the perfect opening for my movie. Then it struck me as I thought about Shi De Ru’s words and I made an important decision. This will be the name of my film company…. Empty Mind! And this move will be titled The Empty Mind.

Shaolin Temple

Shaolin monk brushes a large calligraphy of “Empty Mind”