What is a Sifu?

I would like to dedicate this piece to the many confused individuals/tourists/westerners/people I see randomly calling everyone they see in a monk suit a “sifu”, which in direct translation means (teacher/master/craftsman).

So who do you call a sifu? Well to be honest, it’s like the word “kungfu”. Just like how you can have “kungfu” or skill developed over time, in any art, activity, or skill. You can literally be a “sifu” in anything. In China, it is mainly directed at those who uses their hands and body to perform a certain skill, for instance, a plumber, a chef, a handyman are all referred to by the term of respect called “sifu”.

Now enter into the martial arts world and a sifu is basically someone who commands enough respect from those around him, that he has been able to have many disciples study and train under him. But nowadays, you lose this type of respect and culture due to the growing commercialized, modernized, and westernized culture, and you get people who are basically just coaches being called a “sifu”. So yes, the word has lost some of its meaning in today’s world.

So what do you call monks? well nowadays with amazon and the internet, it is very easy to get your hands on some monk robes, which means the possibility of you meeting a “not-real monk” is rather high. But if you do meet a real monk, the proper term call be “sifu” for those who are working on the pass to enlightenment, and for those already established you can call them big monk or “da heshang” or just “sifu” cause most of them would not care. Those who really care about these things, probably aren’t that “real”.

Life @ Shaolin: What I Actually Do

With the backdrop of an rapidly advancing China led its new open-minded leaders and the rise of the commercialized enterprise called “Shaolin Temple” lead by its political minded abbot Yongxin, I think it is important to talk about why I am here and what I really do.

I came to Shaolin, not because of the flashy kungfu so often wrongly portrayed as voilence in action movies, but because of the “spirit of shaolin”; it’s essence of a peaceful mind centered around three parts the chan ( Zen Meditation), wu (martial arts), and yi (Chinese herbal medicine). These are the reasons why I came to Shaolin, and these are the principles that, many say, have been neglected in preference for tourists dollars, commercial deals, and personal indulgence in the name of spreading the Shaolin name. But just because many say it isn’t here, doesn’t mean I will just pack my bags up and leave (the thought never crossed my mind), and now after months of work and working my connections, I ended up with my own version of the “Chan, Wu, Yi”.

A typical day looks a little like this:
5:30-6:30 am: Morning Prayer Class with the few monks that actually wake up early enough for this, most tend to sleep in till much later.
7:30am: Breakfast at my current residence, a flat I rented on a nearby hill just beyond the temple’s view.

9:00-12:00pm: Traditional kungfu training with my master in the mountains behind the temple, away from the swarming tourists.

12:30pm: Lunch back at my place, follow by meditation then a nap till 2:00pm.

2:30-5:30pm: Training in the mountains, sometimes we train among the thousand yr old buildings in the temple to get a bit more feel.

6:30pm: Dinner.

7:00-9:00: Tea time at my master’s tea lounge, where I meet and learn from all kinds of people from Chinese medicine experts to martial arts film directors, it is truly one of the most enriching experiences of the day, even after all the training.

9:30: Usually when I go to sleep, once a wk, I will take time to reply to all my emails, fb msg, and etc. But most nights ends in me sleeping soundly.

This happens to me Monday through Friday, sometimes I have more Zen-centered conversations with my master during training, so I have to train more on my own time, but this is a rough sketch of my life here. On Saturdays, I head down to the Shaolin Orphanage a couple miles down the mountain to spend some time with the kids, they are just the cutest, weirdest, most awesome-part of my week. I play basketball with them, teach them how to rap to Tupac songs, educate them in the art of sarcasm, occasionally some formal English classes when the head of the orphanage is looking, but en general just spreading that “Jerry Wisdom”. On Sundays, I wash my cloth and myself included, clean the uncleaned, unwrinkled the wrinkled, write the unwritten, blog the un-blogged, and check usually send a call to my mother telling her that I am still alive and well and that I hope she knows how lucky and unlucky she is to be living in Amurica.

Surely, I did not expect to experience 90% of the troubles I have met so far, but life has a way of circling back to where it begins, so eventually I did end up with the Shaolin spirit of (chan, wu, yi), just in my own unplanned, unexpected, and unique way. And I made a whole bunch of friends along the ways, who are all in some way connected to my past.

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A New Breed of “Monks”

Long story short, a long long time ago, like 495 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty when the Shaolin Temple was first built, there was only one kind of monk, the monk. These monks read scriptures, had prayers in the morning, and spent most of their time sitting down with a scroll in front of them (similar to the hard-working modern desktop cubicle fanatics). So as a result, they had similar problems to those who sit in front of their laptop all day; back pains, shoulder issues, flabby skin, weak physical health, and lethargic attitudes. A few yrs later, an Indian monk named Damo came to the temple and saw this, and he thought to himself “nah man, if y’all ain’t even physically fit, how can y’all carry out the road to enlightenment and spread the practices of Buddhism with passion and diligence.”  So he decided to teach them meditative physical exercises similar to yoga, which concentrates on breathing and increasing the internal movements within your body, this combined with the physical labors of farming and cleaning the temple helped the monk greatly. As the centuries went on, it slowly developed into two groups of monks who both studied Buddhism, but one spends more time dealing with the scholarly and the academic called the Wen Sen, and the other group spends more time keeping their bodies strong and fit to protect the safety of the temple from bandits, called the Wu Sen.

And those have been the two groups of monks ever since, until recently. Nowadays, there’s a new breed of monks in town called the performance monks or the Biao-yan Sen. These people are more actors and super-skilled martial artists than actual monks, most of them don’t even have deep connections with the Shaolin Temple.  But the deceptive part of this for tourists and non-insiders is that these performance monks  dresses the same and has the same bald head as all the other real monks, and when they partake in activities such as drinking “gatorade”, consuming large amounts of red protein,  going to KTVs and nightclubs, spending time with beautiful woman (materialistic activities that they have the right to partake in), it often sheds a bad light on the temple and the name of Shaolin. This is not to say that ALL the real monks don’t partake in these activities as well, some do, but at least they are very discrete and private about it and won’t do it within the vicinity of the respected temple. Most of these performance monks start out in small private martial arts schools all over the country or in Deng Feng, and after a few yrs of fundamentals, the super-skilled and athletically gifted ones with connection to people around/in the temple,  are brought to Shaolin to try-out for the performance team, if they make it, they will practice and eventually travel the world and perform with real martial monks and fellow secular but “I am really good at martial arts and acting, so I made the team” counterparts like themselves, but to the foreign eye they are all monks.

The reason for the creation of this new breed of “monks” is the exponentially expanding popularity of Shaolin kungfu that just took off the late 1980s and is still going strong today. Skilled martial monks are scarce in numbers to begin with, and as the demand for more performances, shows, and martial arts schools increase all around the world, so does the demand for more martial monks. But skilled martial monks, well-educated in the culture and history of Shaolin, aren’t made in a year or even years. So to supply the demand for all these newly needed bodies, the Shaolin temple used it’s allure of a “better life” with opportunities to go overseas and perform to attract the athletically skilled and mentally tough and  hardworking young men of rural China, who through martial arts are seeking not only a better life for themselves but also for their families back home. With the influx of the new performances monks, Shaolin has been able to spread its influence all over the world today from Europe to Australia, South America to Singapore, it is literally everywhere. Before this “Shaolin Fever”, neither kungfu nor Buddhism has attracted this much popularity in this many places around the world at this rate, it has truly helped to spread the Shaolin culture and sell the Shaolin Franchise as one of the most well-ran associations in the world, right up there with the NBA and the NFL (without the unions and the lockouts). And this is how we come to have a new breed of monks, and there is really nothing wrong with it, China has got to catch up and adjust to the world, and so does Shaolin. That is a fact. The End.

PS: Please note that what I write is purely my opinion and a projection of what I perceive to be the truth; a collection of fragmented personal observations, blurry interviews, and self-connected dots. So seriously, take this with a grain of salt, as you should with all things written by people with a mind of their own.

Finding a Home

I am alive and well, sorry for going missing for the last two months or so. I know you all must have missed me greatly or not. But hey, I am back now and better than ever. Still training 8+ hrs a day, still cracking inappropriate jokes at inappropriate moments, still living strong with the veggie monk diet, and still trying to find stable internet connection that lasts for more than 2 minutes.

During the last few months, I have really adjusted to the monk life over here and in return they have come to accept me as their own, I can walk anywhere in and out of the temple around without permission and participate in all of their activities without death glares destined for outsiders. I kinda don’t want to leave anymore, but my departure in June is inevitable. Plus my master always tell me that I be doing a great disservice to the woman of this world if I were to become a monk at this moment in my life, he suggest I do it when I am older, like really old.

I recall an article I wrote in the first few weeks of creating this blog, called ” A Horse is Not a Home”. It was about how I feel like I do not have a home because I have lived in so many places in only 17 years, but only to discovered that in reality I actually have lots of homes and places where people love and accept me. Now I would like to add Shaolin Temple to that list of places I can call home.

Stay tune for many more articles to come in the following week, like (18), even though I haven’t been publishing stuff online cause I ain’t got no internet, i didn’t stop writing.

Parkour is like Cat Style Kung-Fu

Some days when it gets just too cold to move, I tend to stare directly in-front  for a prolonged period of time. Yesterday while I was “freezing” outside, I observed a stray cat moving with lightning fast speed through the rocks and plants in the ravine, it was something like D-wade in the 05-06 season before the hurt shoulder, back, arm, knee. etc. But further observation of the way the cat accelerated every time it got past an obstacle  reminded me more of Parkour, the modern urban-sport built upon the idea of getting from point A to point B in the shortest time with the utmost athletic skills and “balls of steel”.

So for all the parkour-loving folks out there, it won’t do you too much harm to watch some action-packed cat videos once in awhile or just observe those living around you. But  do NOT emulate the way them fall, because unlike cats, when humans fall we don’t always land on our feet.

Midnight in Paris…..

Remember I told y’all that there was a French dude who is staying here to “experience our lives” for a week, well apparently after translating for him, I not only improved my French by miles, but I also made a great friend. I mean the guy just brought out the best of me, and to me that’s what a friend is for. His name is Michael, a dude of 29 working in Paris, who is also extremely interested in Buddhism ideals. He has been practicing martial arts for 3 yrs, and is now coming to Shaolin Temple to learn more traditional techniques. I don’t know why, but we always seems to have these conversations about race and society. It is only after he has left, did I begin to recall our talks.

I taught him about Mexican gangs and Korean BBQs in socal, he taught me about the different Muslims and Algerians in Paris. He told me that though Australian chicks are hot, they are also “bitchy af”, I told him that though all the monks here are Chinese, not all Chinese know martial arts. I complained about the Christian faith’s need to “convert” and he complained about his Muslim co-workers’s “selectively permeable interpretation” of their holy book. We did agree upon Buddhism’s intelligence in remaining inquisitive and always seeking out answers instead of followers. Our talks went on and on into the night (I normally sleep at 9:00pm, but we spoke till midnight) I spoke with my mix of 5th grade French and 11th grade English( cause I didn’t learn anything senior yr academically) and he responded with his flashy French and unfathomable English.

After some compassionate babbling  we reached this point of lucid pity for the first world nations of today (US, FR, GB), especially the youth of those nations. Because we realize that society today is too comfortable, too nonchalant, and sometimes even too care-free. And that impression of comfort and stability on the outside helps hides hideous and dangerous problems within. The problem? The problem is that there hasn’t been a big enough problem or disaster yet to make people realize just what’s wrong with themselves and our society. Back in the 70s, we had the grueling war in Vietnam that dragged on for yrs as a constant reminder of what’s wrong, in the 60s we had the struggles for civil rights that continuously screamed out what’s wrong, and in each of those cases, whether you like to call them “liberals”, “black-lovers”, or “hippies”, the youth or young people were extremely demonstrative and vocal in their protest of what they thought was wrong and in demanding answers and action from their government. But sadly, the youth of today seems overly concerned with watching the last part of Twilight, getting a higher SAT score, observing their favorite college football team, or getting $2 chipotle on Halloween than to actually perceive whats happening in their society and to take action in attempt to better it. Yes, some do act, but it is not enough. Individual actions matter and have a possibility of changing the world, but that possibly is rather low in comparison to what generational actions can do.

We are called the “Internet Generation”, or “iphone generation”, but whatever it is that we are called, it is about time we start making use of the “vast array of technology” in our hands to do more than to facebook stalk that girl you have a crush on. It is about time for us to use our iphones and macbooks, facebook and instagram, for more than ourselves. It is about time to clean your lenses and see the world for what it is. Well, at least that is what I think, for now.

Transcending Limits: 1st Time Sneaking Meat

Today my friend, who is also the leader of our group, went down to the town to get some heavy cloth for the winter cause it’s really cold here in the winter (like NYC cold with more wind) and we have no heating. Luckily for me, on his way back, he was able to get some delicious roasted chicken and sneak it up here to the temple for me. I consider this to be a transcending moment, because according to my master and his master before him, a very high level of Buddhist behavior is “To have meat and alcohol pass through your intestines, while always having Buddha in your heart”. (it sounds much better in Chinese than translated though) I humbly believe after today, I am a bit closer to that level hahaha. But then it might not be so transcending, because my actions really didn’t break any rules, because we just don’t “have” any meat here, there is no strict prohibition saying we can’t eat meat. It was my first time eating meat in month, and I am again reminded of why there are so few vegetarians in this world (excluding my Indian friends).

Doesn’t that chicken just look so attractive though?