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.

Happiness in A Sieve

Preface: I haven’t really wrote about Buddhism on this blog, but it is also a big component of my time here. This is a little snippet about it.

One of the most important “goal” in Mahayana Buddhism is to escape from the continuum of the Six Realms of Existence (God, Titans, Ghosts, Hell, Animal, and Human), in street lingo, when your ass dies your soul leaves your current body and enters another realm where you will live again in another body as a different being, and this all depends on your “street cred” in the current life, so if you did lots of good shit in this life, you will live well in the next life, if you did lots of shady stuff you will have to suffer in the next life, if you really didn’t do much, then you follow the natural order and continue to not do much, in the next life.

So how do you escape this never-ending cycle? There are countless ways and each individual needs to attain enlightenment through personal expressions of insights from Buddhism teaching, basically you can’t just read them books, you also have to actually go out and do things and through personal experience, obtain knowledge that is purely original to you. Kinda like research in college, or not. One of the main doctrines in this quest for enlightenment is understanding that “Happiness lies in a Sieve” (pls don’t confuse this with Nectar in a Sieve, different audience, different meaning). No matter how happy you feel at the moment or throughout your life, it is ephemeral as it is literally slipping through a sieve as we are speaking. Sadness also lies in a sieve, it too slips gently through the holes without a moment of rest. What this means to the Buddhist trying to gain enlightenment is that “emotions” are just products of our thoughts meant to trick us into feeling a certain way or reacting in a specific manner, the tricking begins with the mind and ends with the body and our actions. What regular normal folks can learn from this, is that we can’t place too much weight on things in life, lighten up a bit, don’t stress too much on things, if things don’t go our way “oh well then, no biggie”, if things do go our way “oh well then, no biggie”. You know this makes sense, cause people nowadays can be a little “exaggerated”, and over time that exaggeration becomes a habit and it becomes real.

Now why do we need to escape this continuous cycle of the 6 realms? Well you don’t need to, no one will force you, and you will live a perfectly awesome life without doing so. That’s the chill part about Buddhism is there ain’t nobody telling you to believe this or that, or this is the ultimate truth, this is the creator, this is why we are created, this is what you have to do. No, there ain’t none of that. They has something called “yuanfen” which is basically similar to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, it literally means that what we experience and do in this life is influence by our actions in all of our previous lives. And only when the time is right, the person is willing,  and the “yuanfen” there, may you be on the pass to learning Buddhism.

Personally, there are still way too many awesome things in this life that I haven’t experienced or learned (you know what I am saying?), so I ain’t really interested in enlightenment at the moment, but maybe when I am older and have seen this world, maybe then will the “yuanfen” be there and the timing be right.

Coldest When it’s About to get Warm

This is an idea that is much easily understood when it is “self-experienced” rather than being explained to or told about. But I am a very stubborn person, so I am going to try the impossible.

It’s actually a very universal idea, in regards that it can be applied to almost anything and would fit right in. Let’s start with the seasons and the changing of the planetary weather on earth. The hottest time of the year is around summer solstice (which is June 13th this yr), it’s “official definition” is that it occurs exactly when the axial tilt of a planet’s semi-axis in a given hemisphere is most inclined towards the star that it orbits, basically when earth looks at the sun and says “what’s up”. Summer solstice is also the exact same time that the earth starts to “get cold”, this occurrence is not manifested in temps above ground, but the earth itself is actually getting colder by the day as it continues to turn. Basically the idea is that the start of any conversation is the when the conversation begins to end. I hope you don’t think I am a dumbo for stating the obvious.

How can this be applied to other things? Well let’s talk about my training at shaolin, using the logic establish above, the most painful and hardest moments of training is actually the beginning of my success and the good times. So if we can add this layer of understanding to our thinking, we can definitely introduce a new color to our spectrum of life. However, it can also offer a harsh dose of reality, using this logic, when you are reaching the apex of your success in life, it is also when you begin the downfall of your failures. It is true, we see this in athletes that play more years than they should, and than their body allow them to. AKA Shaq.

Overall, this little fact of nature here shows us that there exists cycles in life that we are unable to change. But by understanding these cycles we can view our current lives with a more accurate perspective, and take out some of the “stubbornness”, “over-confidence”, and “ostensible bliss” that can sometimes cloud our judgement.

PS: The above is written by a Chinese dude training at a temple in china, so it’s completely normal if you don’t understand, if you are an Aussie,  sorry just know that I didn’t write this for y’all.

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.

What is Kungfu?

When I say the word kungfu, most of my White friends would start inmitating Bruce Lee sounds and pretending to be a martial arts master. But the word kungfu is not directly connected to martial arts in any way, as most tend to misuse it. The word “kungfu” in Chinese simply means “time spent (practicing something)” or “a learned skill”, most of the time it is use to desribed an amount of time/effort or to compliment someone’s skill in an area.

The word “kungfu” ‘s written form is very symbolic of its meaning, the writting is comprised of two horinzontal lines and two diagnol lines coming through them. It examplies the idea that it is simple to practice something, but to master it takes years upon years of dedication and creative ingenuity. People aren’t seperated by what form or techniques they use, they are seperated by their kungfu, their time spent in one area and their skills acquired in that area.

One can have kungfu in almost anything; writing, cooking, singing, even skills like chopping vegetables can be considered kungfu. More modern activites like skating or basketball are areas as well, most of the time kungfu is used to described mastery of “physical activities” (yes writing is a physical activity, a manifestation of mental thoughts).