A Lesson in Humility, Earned in the Shaolin Style
Deep down I knew I didn’t belong there—I wasn’t at the monastery to live an ascetic life, gain a greater spiritual understanding of the world, or to learn Gung Fu (known to us in the West as Kung Fu). I was simply there because I thought it would elicit looks of awe and jealousy when I told my friends back home, “Why yes, I am familiar with the martial arts…I studied the Shaolin style when I was in China.”
I learned of the Buddhist monastery from a girl I met at Tiger Leaping Gorge. “This place,” she told me, “is authentic…” But, she warned, “no one speaks English and it’s, well, kind of rustic.” No electricity or hot water, outdoor toilets full of maggots, and rock hard beds. She said it was a true experience of monastic life, and then came the magic words: “You can study Gung Fu with Shaolin trained monks.”
Located in forested mountains on the outskirts of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province, she told me the Wu Wei temple is the kind of place passed on only by word of mouth. What a find! I could impress my friends back home when I told them, “I had the inside track…hardly anyone knows about the place.” But, I would come to find out, a monastery has no room for egotistic fantasies, especially when they revolve around finding the ultimate cocktail party story.
I arrived in the afternoon. Drizzle from low-hanging clouds softened the boundary between the monastery’s buildings and woodland beyond. I was probably only a handful of miles from town, but it felt as if I was in the middle of nowhere…beyond corn fields that doubled as a cemetery and disconnected from civilization—the monastery had no phone lines, power lines, or a common language. My journey there was fairly easy, certainly less grueling than the others who’d arrived by horseback. I came by cab and since most people in Dali don’t know where the Wu Wei temple is, the effort was all in finding a driver who knew the place.
Those who arrived by horseback were told it was the only way in. Although they were perturbed when learning they actually could have come by taxi instead of riding up mountains on the uncomfortable, slow, and shifting saddles of horses—I wished that I, too, had been swindled into traveling in such a spectacularly old-fashioned way. It would have only complemented the story I had brewing in mind, one full of romantic images that should accompany an arrival to a forgotten monastery in the mountains.
It was everything I imagined a Gung Fu monastery should be, with all the requisite cinematic scenes from movies—a pleasant compound of wooden buildings painted red, with umber tiled rooftops and lanterns hanging from the eaves; decorative designs, painted gold, were carved into blackened doors. The buildings, lined with shadowy rooms, wrapped around a small leafy garden with an old fountain and a stone pathway that led to a temple flanked by huge gong bells. Monks with shaven heads wearing gray pantaloons and tunics with Mandarin collars walked like whispers in the shadows.
It was only later that I let the fantasy image give way to the true appearance of the place: dilapidated, unkempt, and friendless. The garden was overgrown, its stone pathway broken and dangerous; the fountain was broken and jury-rigged with a plastic bottle to keep the water bubbling; and the rooms around the courtyard were filled with dusty, derelict piles of odds-and-ends, from 6-foot swords to broken chairs from decades long forgotten. And the monks…they were disinterested in our presence. They ignored us for hours upon arrival, leaving us alone with our thoughts of neglect as our rears grew numb on the miniature wooden benches we were appointed to with nothing but a thermos of hot water as way of greeting. An uneasy feeling began to blossom in my heart.
I found little in common with the others who joined me in the courtyard that first afternoon: 2 Israeli men who’d been studying Gung Fu elsewhere in China for about a month; a Japanese fellow who spoke little English; and a French man who’d been on the road for more than a year and called himself Peter, although his name was Pierre—he’d come with a Brazilian accomplice who didn’t plan on staying because of his “issues with authority.” He left shortly after he’d arrived, having come only to sightsee.
Stories circulated around the group. Pierre said we wouldn’t be able to bend over to touch our knees by the next day. He’d heard about the rigors of Gung Fu training: 6 hours of exercise every day for one week. I shared what I knew from the girl who told me about the place—that we’d be up at 6:30 a.m. to walk with the monks to a river and return, uphill, carrying rocks on our heads. The Israelis, who had previous experience, looked upon us with the lofty air of those who know something you don’t—they were focused on improving their moves
Suddenly, an American named Chris entered the compound with all the aplomb and commotion of a long lost son. Eventually we learned he’d studied at this monastery before, spoke fluent Mandarin, and knew all the monks on a first name basis. After a while, Chris approached our group, and bestowed upon us an enigmatic warning, “It's a good environment to study Gung Fu,” he said, and then after a cryptic pause, “…I've chosen my words carefully." Although his veiled advice put me on edge, we were lucky that Chris arrived; he spoke English. “They’ll show you to your rooms…eventually,” he offered apologetically, and then disappeared.
Another scene erupted as the Master entered the compound, a man who would come to govern every move we made but with whom we had little contact. When he arrived, a thunderstorm broke overhead. An impressive entrance, I thought, and in this small moment my spirits were lifted with the excitement that surrounded him, as young monks of no more than 8 years bowed and took his hands. A smiling face, a barely discernible nod in our direction, and then he was gone, robes trailing the back of his sandaled feet as he moved beyond us without so much as a word.
Time passed and we continued to be ignored. I drifted off into my own world, contemplating an inconsequential existence at the monastery. Watching dusk approach the curved eaves of the temple, I started to pity myself, feeling alone and isolated and tormented by the thought of the week ahead. The boys were eventually shown to their rooms. I, however, was an afterthought. After the dinner bell was rung and the boys had gathered in the dining hall, I was finally led to a rejected building, and up a rickety ladder to a dim and spartan room with two hard beds and cloudy windows overlooking the garden and temple beyond.
I dropped my backpack and joined the other students in the murky concrete hall that doubled as the kitchen. We crowded around a low wooden table upon tiny stools. And while all the monks were there with us, sitting together at several adjoining tables, we waited in silence, taking our cue not to talk from their soundless and patient example. I looked around at the curious faces of my companions, which quickly faded to compliance—and in that moment, when their expressions changed, it was if we’d been tamed. No longer did we bother to question what was going on because we knew our questions could not easily be answered. After some time, the Master entered and took his seat—the silence broke, and bowls overflowing with rice, boiled cabbage, shredded potatoes, and tofu filled the tables.
Chris initiated us to the complex set of rules and hierarchies that govern the monastery. No one may eat until the Shifu,
or Master, has taken his first bite and everyone must recite the words “Omito-Fu” (which sound like ah-me-to-fu) before and after every meal, and upon every greeting. Chris told us that the monks practice Pure Land Buddhism, a branch of the Mahayana tradition in which believers aspire to occupy a Land of Bliss, where one gains enlightenment rather than in Nirvana. Pure Land combines the discipline of one’s mind with ardent devotion to a Buddha named Amitabha, which explains the repetitive chanting of the phrase, “Omito-Fo,” meaning, “Homage to the Buddha of Boundless Compassion and Wisdom.”
Chris informed us we had to eat everything in our bowl before we could leave the table. This was in response to the monks’ spirited reaction when one of the Israelis attempted to excuse himself with 5 grains of rice left uneaten. Chris told us stories about students from previous years who’d dropped food on the ground and were ordered to eat from the floor, who spilled soup on the table and had to wipe it back into their bowl and finish it, or who’d stood head to head with the Shifu on the matter, only to find themselves sitting in the dining room after hours, long past dark, over a few bites of boiled cabbage.
And going head to head with the Shifu, I might add, is unwise considering he is a master of Gung Fu and, according to Chris, isn’t shy with administering discipline when necessary—even when it concerns Western Gung Fu students and those, like myself, posing as such. I decided to stick to the rules. This was our last piece of advice from Chris—I presume he wanted to put as much distance between our naive group of interlopers and himself, a bona fide, Mandarin-speaking Gung Fu practitioner who hadn’t the time to baby sit a helpless bunch of babies.
After dinner, we were called to a candle lit room to pay for our stay ($50.00 for the week) and sign a document that felt more like a vow than a registration form. A laminated sheet of rules, printed in broken English, was passed out. It stated, “This is not a hotel..." and went on to explain that we have come to a working monastery to study martial arts and work hard every day. We were asked to devote ourselves to this purpose for the full week and it was suggested that if we couldn’t fulfill the obligation, we should leave…immediately. It felt as if this last line was written just for me, or people like me, people who came for the cocktail story rather than a truer purpose…and it troubled me. In addition to the rules Chris told us about, there was an odd collection of admonitions:
- We must store our food bowl and chopsticks in our rooms, and bring them with us to each meal
- There is no smoking, drinking, drugs, or playing cards allowed
- We must keep garbage in our room and take it with us when we leave
- Men and women are not to enter the others’ building and should have no physical contact
- We must stay in the locked temple compound at night
- We should not wear sandals or open shoes at night because of poisonous snakes
The daily schedule was also listed:
6:30 - 8:00 am = morning exercise
8:00 - 9:00 am = breakfast
9:00 - 12:00 pm = training
12:00 - 1:00 pm = lunch
Free time until 4 pm
4:00 - 6:00 pm = training
6:00 - 7:00 pm = dinner
Free time until bedtime (note: with no electricity, bedtime comes just after dinner)
Later, in my room, with nothing but the light from a single, skinny flame from a candle stub left behind by some other inhabitant, I got ready for bed hoping I would not have to make the 5-minute trek to the maggot-ridden toilets in a forest full of poisonous snakes in the middle of the night (the battery in my flash light immediately died on arrival at the monastery). I drifted into a restless sleep to the sound of the monks chanting to a clashing gong, wondering if my choice to come to the monastery was a terrible mistake.
In the morning, one of us was gone.
He departed in the muted light of sunrise without saying goodbye. Like many of the others, I’d woken late, too late to join the monks for their journey to carry river rocks back to the temple on their heads (and I was disappointed for this, because in my mind, this was to be an interesting turning point in the story I would impress my friends with: one where I’d come to recognize the benefits of self-inflicted travail and the ensuing misery that magically turns into an earth-shattering awareness of something bigger than one’s self).
But I rose early enough to see the Japanese student disappear into the cloistering mist that lay like an ocean beyond the walls of the compound. His departure only added to my state of unease. Such departures break the strength of individuals who, having come together by chance, will carry on if only for the sake of appearances—no one likes to be the first when it comes to quitting. His retreat was not a good sign—he made it easier for the rest of us. More specifically, he made it easier for me. I, too, had an impulse to flee. Secretly, I was envious of him.
But it was too early to quit. I’d only spent one night there and training hadn’t even started. Over breakfast, the rest of us discussed his departure with quiet, furtive voices.
“How do you suppose he’s getting back to town?”
“Why do you think he left?”
“Take a look around.”
There were rats scurrying about in the shadows. The only water for showering was freezing cold—not an attractive proposition in the chilly May temperatures…besides that, the communal shower room was devoid of soap and full of huge spiders and muddy floors and walls. The only drinking water available was boiled for tea and steaming hot, and the monks and women who worked at the monastery continued to ignore us.
Several days passed…days full of Gong Fu training punctuated only by a repetitive schedule of increasingly similar meals and the ongoing feeling of being an outsider. My fantasies of cocktail party fodder started to fade—my listeners’ sighs of admiration were no longer audible when I would say, “It was a strict vegetarian diet of cabbage and potatoes, but they used interesting spices and besides, meat was but a tiny sacrifice.”
Even within my small group of compatriots I found no company—there were too many opportunities to do or say something wrong that we often sat together in silence at meals and during free time, stock-still for the fear of performing some faux pas that would fan the monks’ seeming distaste for us—or worse—punishment delivered in the form of an acrobatic, flying kick delivered from the Shifu. We made ourselves invisible and inoffensive, and in doing so, further isolated ourselves from any normal sort of existence.
My memories of Gung Fu instruction consist of this: the training area in a dilapidated temple under the clouds of moody, rainy days; the broken brick floor that pressed painfully into my back in a dozen different directions as I lay upon it breathless and despondent from endless rounds of sit-ups; the walls lined with chipped bigger-than-life-sized statues of Buddha that gazed, serenely, into empty space because they did not have to do Gung Fu; the silhouettes of monks against the huge wooden temple doors that opened to a clinging mist that had come to be so familiar to me in China.
They were bored with us, the monks—we were unable to understand our training that came in the form of a frustrated foreign tongue, or successfully complete the tasks involved. After the first few sessions of faking our way through rotating kicks and flying somersaults (I could barely do one on the ground), the monks began to give us more breaks, and eventually, forgot us altogether after subjecting us to a never-ending “warm up” round of push-ups and lunging squats.
The only thing I could rely upon was the ringing of the dinner bell, meals spent in strained silence, and that at night, I would barely be able to reach my room up the steep flight of stairs, upon which my sore muscles cramped and twitched and seized with each step. I was lonely, especially as the only female in our group, but too tired to talk to anyone even if I’d had a roommate. I wasn’t learning anything, I’d tired of the repetitious vegetarian meals, and I’d become increasingly ambivalent about living in a real monastery—the true travel experience that would make me the interesting person at a party back home. It was worlds apart from the made-for-tourist imitations that I’d always sought to escape, but I wondered what the point of it was—and even if I could discover it, I mused, was the story even worth it? I was disappointed with myself…disappointed that I couldn’t look beyond my discomfort to appreciate the experience. I wondered: what the hell am I doing here?
And then, on a morning like the first, another of us decided to leave. I’d woken to the optimistic songs of birds and the sound of vegetables being chopped; the sun lit the sky for the first time in days; the mellifluous sound of monks chanting morning prayers drifted with the breeze and roosters announced the start of a new day. A new day
, I thought. Perhaps I could carry on. But with the news of another departure, my conviction faltered. I was miserable and dirty and sore; my heart was not in it and after fighting with myself about the principles of self-discipline and commitment, I gave in to weakness; I decided to leave. Once the decision was made, there was no turning back. I didn’t want to fail yet again.
I retreated quietly, embarrassed, hating that I didn’t finish what I started. I hoisted my pack upon my back, wishing I were invisible, with aching muscles quivering under the weight of my pack. I cast my eyes upon a nun—her bald head gleaming under an errant beam of sun, her white robes resting quietly in folds as she sat motionless upon a small wooden bench, the same one I occupied upon arrival. A troop of fat, annoying black flies wheeled around her head, but she took no notice. She was at peace. She looked happy.
As I watched her, time slowed and motion stopped—and then came the “ah ha” moment. The answer to all my questions and discomfort, it seemed, was to not care about them in the first place. Like the nun ignoring the flies in orbit around her face (she didn’t lift a finger to shoo them away), serenity is achieved by just not giving a shit. I smiled at the nun, she nodded her head in reply, and I walked into the wet forest unable to shake her image from my mind. Perhaps I should go back, I mused, and try again with my newfound wisdom…but no, I didn’t belong there.
“There is a measure of wisdom that resides in defeat,” I imagined telling my friends back home, “…and I learned that at the Wu Wei temple, while studying Gung Fu with Shaolin trained monks.”
Gold Award winner for Travel and Sports in Traveler's Tales 4th annual Solas Awards (2010)