A SHAOLIN HERO IN AMERICA
June 1, 1996
Kung Fu Magazine, reprinted by permission
Approximately 1500 years ago, the famed Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, known also as DaMo by the Chinese, arrived in China at a time when the nation was divided into the Northern Wei and Liu Sung dynasties. Though Buddhism had existed in China by the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival (approximately 2,000 Buddhist temples existed in the South and 6,500 temples in the North), Bodhidharma brought with him a more popular form of Mahayana Buddhism which came to be called Chan Buddhism in China, and has achieved popularity in the contemporary West under its Japanese incarnation called Zen. In addition to his significant religious contribution, Bodhidharma has also been distinctly credited with founding Shaolin martial arts at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song, located in Henan province in Northern China. I was curious about the link between the Indian yoga – which I assumed Bodhidharma used as the basis for developing the internal kung fu he taught his Shaolin disciples – and any internal Chinese kung fu that preceded instruction.
To advance my understanding, I approached my teacher, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming (pronounced “Sher Yen Ming”), a 34th Generation Shaolin Fighting Monk of the Northern Shaolin Temple founded by Bodhidharma, and posed a series of questions about Shaolin chi kung and its relationship to Indian yoga, other Chinese internal martial arts, Buddhism, Chinese external martial arts, and traditional Chinese healing methods. With Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s permission, I now share the results of this personal interview with you, to unshroud the veil of mystery, myth, and misunderstanding that has surrounded writings and discourse on Chinese chi kung history, theory, and practice, throughout the centuries.
Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming began his twenty-five year study of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu within the walls of the world-famous Northern Shaolin Temple at the age of five. Among his martial arts specialties are Lohan Chuan, Magic staff and other Shaolin weapons, fighting, and hard chi kung, just to name a few. In 1985, Monk Shi Yan-Ming won the 65 kg (147 lb.) championship in the Xian National Sparring Competition. He also won the championship in the annual Shaolin Disciples Competition three years in a row (1988-1990) and was vice-coach of the Shaolin Temple Fighting Monks at Henan.
In addition to wearing the yellow and red robes of a high-ranking Shaolin Monk, Monk Shi Yan-Ming was one of a select group of Shaolin Fighting Monks recognized in the recently published “The Real Shaolin Gongfu of China,” which commemorates the 1,500 year anniversary of the Henan Shaolin Temple, as a “Shaolin Hero.” a term used for only the Shaolin Temple’s most distinguished fighting monks. And near the Shaolin Temple today, four giant posters hang over the entrance to the modern Anhui Guoyang Chudian Branch of the Shaolin Wushu Center that feature Monk Shi Yan-Ming performing various styles of kung fu.
In 1992, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming came to the United States as a member of a select group of Shaolin Fighting Monks invited to the United States by the American Kung Fu Association and other Chinese American martial arts and cultural organizations to spread the knowledge of authentic Shaolin martial arts. In many respects, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming’s decision to remain in America was similar to Bodhidharma’s decision 1,500 years ago to leave his native land of India and travel to China. Like Bodhidharma’s call to remain in China, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming felt a special call to remain in the United States at the conclusion of his American Shaolin Monk tour to spread Shaolin martial arts, Buddhism, and Chinese culture.
Monk Shi Yan-Ming still maintains close contact with his fellow Henan Shaolin Temple monks. In June of 1995, for example, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming traveled to Toronto, Canada to perform martial arts with a second delegation of his brother Shaolin monks who were sent to tour Canada and were headed by Great Master Shi Yongxin one of the highest ranked monks of the Shaolin Temple and my teacher’s kung fu uncle. In December 1994, Monk Shi Yan-Ming opened a small temple called the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan, where he teaches Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts. His long-term goal in the United States is to build a large, authentic Shaolin martial arts temple and set up a cultural exchange with China’s famed Northern Shaolin Temple that will allow his fellow Shaolin monks to come to America and teach Shaolin martial arts and Buddhism.
Was Shaolin Chi Kung First?
One of the first questions I asked Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming concerning chi kung history was if Shaolin chi kung was the first chi kung in existence, and if so, if it derived from an older form of yoga that Bodhidharma brought with him from India. According to Monk Shi Yan Ming, the idea that Bodhidharma invented chi kung is a common misconception among Western and even Eastern practitioners of Chinese martial arts. The form of chi kung that Damo invented during his nine year meditation in a natural rock cave located behind the Shaolin Temple is called Yijinjing (meaning “Muscle Tendon Changing Sutra”). And though Damo certainly must have drawn upon Indian yoga in inventing Yijinjing, what he actually did was combine his own internal kung fu theory to the already existing Chinese theory of chi kung, while taking the differences in Chinese physiology and physical environment into account. According to Monk Shi Yan-Ming, Chinese chi kung was actually invented independently approximately 3,000 years ago, curiously enough also by a religious leader, Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism.
What is Yijinjing?
Asked what Shaolin Yijinjing was and whether it was the only form of Shaolin chi kung practiced, Monk Shi Yan-Ming replied that Yijinjing was a very important part of chi kung, but that there are other forms of Shaolin chi kung in existence. Yijinjing is an internal exercise that makes the body almost indestructible, capable of withstanding tremendous physical force and even injury from knife stabbing. In addition to Yijinjing, Damo invented another type of chi kung called Xi Shui Jing or “Bone Marrow Washing Sutra,” an internal exercise designed to cleanse the body. A later Shaolin Monk called Fu Yu Chan Shi invented two other forms of Shaolin chi kung: Ba Duan Jin, meaning “Eight Section Brocade,” an internal exercise practiced to make the body as soft and flexible as cotton to increase healthiness, rejuvenation, and longevity, and Shi Da Gong Fa, meaning “Ten Great Skills,” an internal exercise to make the body as hard as iron, and a very important skill in developing hard chi kung breaking skills.
What Yijinjing and the other forms of chi kung have in common is chi. Chi is usually translated as “breath,” “life principle” or “power,” and though all of these terms are partially correct, none alone conveys chi’s true essence. As a typical Westerner accustomed to view the world in scientific categories, I was still puzzled by my teacher’s definition of chi, and questioned him further. Monk Shi Yan-Ming added that chi is the essence of life itself and is the internal force or energy that burns within each of us from the moment of birth. Chi kung allows us to combine the external forces of life through physical movements, such as respiration and different bodily postures, with the internal force called chi, thus transforming the practitioner’s body and the mind to a higher plane of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
What is also apparent in chi kung practice, especially when viewing the physical movements of Yijinjing form, is the martial arts application of many of the chi kung movements within the form. In the position called “withdrawing the cattle tail,” for instance, the chi kung practitioner stands in a Gong Bu (bow stance) position with one arm extended behind him and one before him, and there is a movement with the hands that accompanies deep chi-building breathing that resembles a grab, twist, and pull into the body by both arms, as though one were grabbing and neutralizing two foes in one combined movement. I asked Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming if my perception of the direct martial arts utility of some of the Yijinjing moves was correct. He gently smiled and said that chi kung and Shaolin martial arts are inseparable. All is kung fu.
When I started learning kung fu sixteen years ago, I studied under a different grandmaster who allegedly also knew Yijinjing, but unlike the mobile movements that Monk Shi Yan-Ming taught me that sent me into various stances and other bodily movements, the previous set of “Yijinjing” exercises I was taught were relatively stationary. When I asked Monk Shi Yan-Ming about this, he was very modest and reluctant to answer, but I impressed upon him the great difference between the Yijinjing I was learning from him and the Yijinjing I learned before. Quietly and with much reservation, Monk Shi Yan Ming explained that though there is room for some slight deviation in form to complement different physiologies and the changes that occurred in time as Yijinjing was practiced by Shaolin lay disciples and monks from the Southern Fujian branch of the Northern Shaolin Temple, the disparity of movements should not be that large for healthy practitioners – if the form of Yijinjing is authentically Shaolin Yijinjing and not a derivative of Taoist chi kung or an inauthentic representation of Shaolin Yijinjing.
Picking up on Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s reluctance to state his point more explicitly and thus criticize another, I continued my queries. Monk Shi Yan-Ming quickly added that Shaolin Temple martial arts is based on “Chan” (i.e. Zen) theory, and since all actions are considered to be Zen (such as sitting, walking, eating, or sleeping), one can consider all actions as chi kung, since all action contains the interchange between internal and external forces. In this impressive reply, he had avoided speaking ill through his Buddhist perspective, which enables him to reconcile what to others would be irreconcilable inconsistencies. He also added that he has himself radically altered the Yijinjing movements when teaching the severely disabled, such as his student Wen Se, who has been stricken with polio, since he must compensate for their radically different chi flow.
Monk Shi Yan-Ming notes that Fu Yu Chan Shi, a Northern Shaolin priest and the creator of Ba Duan Gin and Shi Da Gong Fa, was also the founder of the Southern Fujian Shaolin Temple in the Song Dynasty. Fu Yu Chan Shi encouraged his disciples to spread the knowledge of martial arts and Buddhism throughout Southern China, and his disciples quickly spread Shaolin chi kung theory and practice to Shanxi, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere. In addition, the Shaolin Temple’s reputation as the pinnacle of martial arts achievement led many army generals and royal family members – including various emperors – to study chi kung and external Shaolin martial arts styles at the Shaolin Temple. According to Monk Shi Yan-Ming, the current commanding general of China’s military has studied martial arts and chi kung at the Northern Shaolin Temple.
This reply led me to ask him if one could not in fact develop chi strictly through the heavy practice of external Shaolin martial arts training, since as he had mentioned previously, all actions combine internal and external forces, and the Shaolin martial arts styles were certainly grueling enough. Monk Shi Yan-Ming mentioned that external and internal martial arts did in fact have something very important in common, namely chi-building capacity. For example, when a martial artist does a push-up or sits MaBu (horse stance), he tires because he loses the ability to adjust his chi. The longer one practices these activities, the longer and better one can readjust one’s chi, and vice versa. Nevertheless, chi kung is a very important part of Shaolin kung fu, without which the martial artist cannot achieve the highest level of Shaolin skills. The genuine Shaolin master must command a knowledge of both internal and external kung fu; otherwise his skill would be superficial, like an actor who plays a Shaolin Monk but has only been taught a few external movements to pull off the cinematic illusion of authenticity. There are no shortcuts in building genuine Shaolin skills.
Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming then started to explain chi kung’s benefits to overall health and the connection of external and internal forces which Shaolin chi kung facilitates. First, he mentioned that when Lao Zi first invented Chinese chi kung, he did so to improve his health and therefore mental and spiritual well-being. It was only later that people applied chi kung to martial arts and war, since the added power of chi kung training was clearly advantageous in preparing martial arts fighters and military troops. According to Monk Shi Yan-Ming, there are six key combinations in Shaolin chi kung theory: three external combinations and three internal combinations. The three external combinations are: hands with feet, elbows with knees, and shoulders with hips. The three internal combinations are: heart and mind, mind with breath (chi), and breath with power/force. All six combinations must be employed in the practice of chi kung training in order to lead to a higher level of kung fu and Buddhism.
Asked about real-world applications of chi in curing diseases, Monk Shi Yan-Ming distinguished between hard chi kung and soft chi kung. Hard chi kung is the chi kung used to break objects such as bricks and stone and in martial arts strikes and kicks. Soft chi kung is the form of chi kung in which the practitioner cures illnesses by passing on chi to the diseased person and readjusting his own chi flow through the six combinations mentioned above. Soft chi kung, however, can also be extremely deadly, and just as the practitioner may use it to cure, he or she may also use it to destroy an opponent’s internal organs without leaving a sign on the surface of the victim’s body and sometimes without even touching the victim. For this reason, soft chi kung is taught to very few lay students by Shaolin Temple monks.
Personal testimony attests to Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s account of chi kung’s power to improve or heal acute and chronic illness. Wen Se, who studies at the USA Shaolin Temple in New York City, was paralyzed at the age of three, and his thin, polio-stricken legs could not support the weight of his body. The only sensation Wen Se felt below the waist prior to coming to Monk Shi Yan-Ming was a very deep cold that hinted at poor chi circulation. Monk Shi Yan-Ming adapted Yijinjing movements to suit Wen Se’s physiological limitations. As he explained, there are different kinds of meditation. If you cannot sit in a double meditation posture, you can sit in a single meditation posture; if you cannot sit in a single meditation posture, then you can just sit naturally or even stand. One must work around limitations.
About six months after commencing chi kung practice, Wen Se’s legs had gained noticeable weight and he started to feel a sensation of warmth below his waist. He can also now stand for brief periods without his walking canes. When I asked Monk Shi Yan Ming if Wen Se will eventually be cured of his polio through continued chi kung practice, he told me he was optimistic, but that it would take time, since he has had the disease for over thirty years. Also, since chi kung combines internal and external forces, a complete cure is sometimes hindered or prevented because of the limited employment of one’s external force to the internal force. He added that Wen Se has come a long way already, and that all the chi kung practitioner suffering from an acute and chronic illness can do is to practice and remain hopeful. Chi kung practice has often produced seemingly miraculous health improvements, but such improvements sometimes take much practice and patience.
Unhealthy Chi Practice
I asked Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming if there was ever a time when chi kung practice was unhealthy for a particular student and not recommended. He replied that everyone can practice chi kung, but that there are instances when one must be cautious and temporarily refrain from practicing. For example, after childbirth a woman should not practice chi kung for awhile because of the tremendous loss of chi a woman experiences. Also, a man should wait twenty-four hours after intercourse before practicing chi kung, because of the loss of chi he experiences.
Is All Chi Alike?
Curious about the relationship between chi kung and other forms of traditional Chinese healing, I asked Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming to explain the difference between chi kung and other nei gong (internal kung fu), acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal therapy. Were all of these forms of therapy based on chi theory? Monk Shi Yan-Ming replied that nei gung is the umbrella term for Chinese internal kung fu, but that the term itself does not capture the difference between chi kung as practiced and the forms of internal kung fu usually referred to by the term nei gong. For instance, unlike chi kung, which can be used to damage as well as cure, nei gong cannot be used to damage or cure someone’s inner organs without physically touching them. This is just one example, but generally, the term nei gong is used as a generic term for all internal martial arts. All of the other forms of traditional Chinese healing-acupuncture, acupressure, herbal therapy, etc.- are based on the theory of chi, since chi is the very life principle Chinese medical practitioners seek to strengthen and prolong in patients.
Returning to the question of the connection between external martial arts training and chi kung training, I asked Monk Shi Yan-Ming if chi was the main reason some martial artists – e.g. iron palm practitioners-were able to perform their skills, or whether some other factors were equally as important, for example, the Dit Da Jou liniment used to toughen the iron palmist’s skin and bones. He replied that chi was the main reason the iron palmist was able to break hard objects, but that other factors came into play. Breaking technique was certainly one factor, but another is the preparation of the hands. The iron palm practitioner should apply a liquid made of special herbs and insects to the hands for approximately three months before commencing actual iron palm practice, using this liquid ten to fifteen minutes before and after iron palm practice or performance. He must practice twice daily (morning and evening) and must refrain from sex for one hundred days during his initial practice.
Despite these other considerations however, without the basic skills in chi kung, one cannot attain a high level of iron palm skill. If a martial artist practices chi kung to a very high level, he can develop chi to the extent that the body becomes as hard as iron, while maintaining the suppleness of soft cotton. His ability to react rapidly and naturally to protect himself is also greatly improved. The ability to transmit one’s chi allows the genuine Shaolin martial artist to do amazing things. At the Shaolin Monk Exhibition in Toronto, Canada, for example, one of Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s Shaolin brothers stood before an audience of thousands and withstood direct kicks to his testicles and groin area, as well as direct punches to the throat. The kicks and punches were thunderously loud to the audience, but the monk remained impervious to pain.
I asked Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming if one had to practice chi kung every day, and how long without practice it would be before one’s skills would completely dissipate. He replied that just as a singer sings everyday, so should the chi kung practitioner practice every day. If one skips one day of chi kung practice, one feels a three-day loss. If one doesn’t practice for three days. one feels even weaker. After about ten days of non-practice, the chi kung practitioner feels empty. He then added a saying he learned while I was teaching him English: Stressing the importance of daily practice, however arduous to one’s daily schedule, Monk Shi Yan-Ming said: “As they say in America-, no pain, no gain!” Showing the Buddhist master’s adaptability to the ever-changing environment of his new world, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming certainly epitomized and exemplified the Chinese belief that one must adapt old lessons to new, situations.
Seek the Right Teacher
Asked if he had any further points to make concerning chi kung, or any other related aspect of Shaolin training. Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming stressed that it was very important for students to seek out a legitimate teacher of chi kung, whether it be Shaolin chi kung or another time proven form such as Taoist chi kung, since one could damage one’s internal organs permanently if chi kung is not performed properly. Another point Monk Shi Yan Ming stressed was that he didn’t think it was possible for someone to learn chi kung properly from a book. and that there is no substitute for a good teacher to guide a student safely through the necessary, physical, mental and spiritual steps that are all important in developing genuine kung fu and a good mind and spirit. Beware of the many teachers who claim to know chi kung and other Shaolin martial arts, but only reveal the surface of the art.
In addition, Shaolin Fighting Monk Shi Yan-Ming noted that he hopes others will share in his dream of building a large USA Shaolin Temple similar to the Northern Shaolin Temple in China. but tailored to the American way of life. He hopes that Americans will help to build the USA Shaolin Temple by contributing, even if just in prayer, towards its construction. At this temple, both American Shaolin monks and lay disciples would be taught, as is the current practice at the Northern Shaolin Temple in Henan China. Monk Shi Yan-Ming also added that both he and his only other Shaolin monk brother living in America, Shi Guolin, who presently teaches in Flushing, New York, look forward to contributing to the spread of Chinese martial arts, Buddhism, and Chinese culture in America.
Shaolin Fighting Monk Shi Yan-Ming concluded our interview by saying “I am very glad to answer these questions, since chi kung and Shaolin martial arts should be the property of everyone. I am at home in America, since I am a Buddhist monk, and the world is my home. We are all the same in the eyes of Buddha. Amituofo (Buddha bless you!)” It was with the last phrase that the interview began-the same phrase which begins and ends classes at the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan. His final words pressed home Shaolin Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s often-repeated point that Shaolin martial arts and Chinese philosophy are inseparable. One must combine the external and the internal; the physical and the mental; the visceral and the spiritual. And so we must.
Ervin Nieves is one of Shaolin Fighting Monk Shi Yan-Ming’s disciples and a freelance writer who recently relocated to Iowa to pursue Ph. D. studies in English.