Shaolin Monk

May 1, 2010

   

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Master Yuan Zhen Wu is short-five feet six-with a stocky build. He has a shaved head and a broad, expressive face. This morning, wearing a loose white tunic and blue pants, he's teaching a beginners' kung fu class at his training studio-the Shaolin Martial Arts Academy-around the corner from Lansdowne Park Mall in Richmond. He started teaching kung fu out of a school gym soon after arriving in Vancouver, in 2002, but he still speaks little English. He addresses his students in Mandarin, putting them in proper position, then stands back to offer encouragement.

Yuan, 35, is a Buddhist warrior monk from the famed 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple near Zhengzhou City, China. A master of 72 skills and 18 weapons, he has honed his body and his mind to the point that he feels no pain when stabbed. (Practitioners learn to protect their body through special stances, herbs, and qi gong; many lie on a stump or rest stone tablets of granite on their chest to toughen up.) The story of how Yuan went from a tiny mountain village in China's Henan province to a strip mall in Richmond parallels Shaolin's transformation from an ancient, esoteric Buddhist discipline to a sort of global spiritual franchise.

In 1982, Yuan-one of 12 children-turned eight. His parents, who could not afford to feed him, took him to the Shaolin Temple, where the monks take in the area's orphans. The Shaolin order was founded in the late fifth century. In 527, the Indian prince Bodhidharma arrived at the temple to find the order's monks in poor physical shape. Bodhidharma added an exercise component to the monks' regime of studies and prayer. They eventually developed these exercises into the martial art now known as kung fu.

Yuan lived among the monks for 20 years. Each morning at 4, he woke to study and memorize Buddhist texts, to pray, and to meditate. He ran up and down the steep mountainside before starting kung fu training. To rest, he and the others cleaned the temple from top to bottom, a task that involved polishing 2,000 small statues. Then came more prayer. A vegetarian lunch, often cabbage, was the last meal of the day. The afternoon brought six more hours of kung fu training.

"It was not complicated," Yuan recalls over tea in his small office. "It was a simple, direct life."

Life in North America is a more complex proposition. At his first proper studio's grand opening last spring, Yuan donned his monk's orange robe to move through a crowd that included MP Ujjal Dosanjh, though most of the time he wears jeans and a T-shirt. He begins most days with exercises and a jog (from his West Side home to his Richmond studio), including a weekly scramble up the Grouse Grind, a reminder of his mornings at Shaolin. He takes English lessons and says he does not have time for much else. His goal is to spread Buddhism and kung fu, to help people keep their bodies and minds healthy. To that end he aggressively markets his business, with a website, press photos, and his own professionally made DVD. Movie posters of himself-Soul of Shaolin-line the walls of his studio. Indeed, while he chose Vancouver partly because his Shaolin brothers told him the city was "a suitable place for a human," he also knew there were no other Shaolin warrior monks here, giving him a brand monopoly.

Yuan-whose Buddhist name is Shi Xin Wu, the "Xin" signifying that he's a 32nd-generation warrior monk-sees no way to live in this part of the world without westernizing, including softening the monk's vow of poverty. "Here, if you fly somewhere, you have to pay for it. To eat in restaurants, you need to pay. You need money to live. This world is different."

According to Victor Chan, cofounder and director of Vancouver's Dalai Lama Centre, the city's laid-back and healthy lifestyle makes for a better place than most to practise Buddhism, but it is still an urban centre with constant distractions: "There is just too much temptation around us. We live in an embarrassment of riches." Chan, who has also spent time in monasteries, says that such experiences can be transformative. But who could be expected to pause their lives to move into a mountain redoubt? Instead, he says, we can explore this with whatever time we find amidst everything else. "There's very little dogma involved."

Shaolin Temple has had to adapt as well. By the 1970s, before Yuan arrived, the temple had fallen into disrepair. Assaults by warlords in the 1920s, by the Japanese in the 1940s, and by the Communists in the 1950s had all taken their toll. Then the Communist government, looking to cash in on its cultural assets, invited a young Jet Li to make a film there. The Shaolin Temple, released in 1982, became a worldwide blockbuster just after Yuan's arrival. This led to a resurgence in Shaolin kung fu. Performance teams, made up of the top students at the temple, were sent out on the international circuit. For 12 years, starting at age 15, Yuan performed in 30 countries around the world. Television shows and films like David Carradine's Kung Fu also popularized Shaolin.

Today, the original temple has 200 members and students. The region around it has dozens of schools and 60,000 students, and attracts millions of visitors a year. There are dozens of Shaolin centres around the world, even a line of Shaolin Temple merchandise. A remake of Shaolin Temple, starring Jackie Chan, is expected to be released next year.

All this has led critics to say that the ancient beliefs and traditions of Shaolin have become little more than the stuff of marketing, that standards at the temple are slipping, that the new generation of monks is more interested in fame and fortune than in Buddhism. Many people lie about having attended Shaolin Temple. Because there is no master Shaolin record to validate or refute their claims, these fraudsters cast suspicion on everyone.

It was in this turbulent environment that Yuan came of age. He dislikes the changes to Shaolin in recent years, but he also embodies them. He drives a car, uses a cellphone, and has learned to use the Internet. Still, he says he follows the Buddhist monk's five tenets: remain celibate, do not drink, do not steal, do not kill, do not lie. Being a warrior monk and living in the West need not conflict: "I try to live simple, like in a temple." He feels his core beliefs have remained unchanged since the days before he started performing and encountering the temptations of the West. "Buddhism is my mind and my soul, kung fu is my body," he says, touching his head with one hand, his chest with the other. "I will not change, no matter where I go." VM

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