Build Bridges Not Walls

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build bridges not walls“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Sir Isaac Newton

 

Stand for what you are for not what you are against. Build bridges not walls. Mother Teresa once said she would never go to an anti-war rally, but to invite her if you were to hold a peace rally. This statement may seem trivial but the depth of this statement is profound. We are our thoughts, what we think we become. Our thoughts become actions, in this we create our world. What we seek is seeking us. The focus, the fight needs to shift to what we want to create versus what we oppose.

Human beings take action based on fear. We fight against things that we oppose. Our mind ignites this opposition against that which is different than our self, be it religion, or race, or culture, or sex. This mindset is an inflated version of our EGO standing only with others that have similar ideologies or physical make up. Our minds fight for this thought that our path is the right path, and we are different but justified in our exclusion. This way of thinking misses the universal connection of all living beings. It misses love as the source of our being and that all living beings are on the same journey. Fighting that which we oppose by building walls and using violence and bombs is the easy and ordinary path. It is the path that feeds anger and greed. It feeds vengeance and power. It feeds the voice you were unjust to me therefore I will be unjust to you. This path is a reaction to thoughts, feelings and emotions abstract from our source which is unity and love. This path of US vs THEM is not a spiritually evolved or connected path.

History is littered with examples of oppression and exclusion. Our minds create an US vs. THEM mentality, an illusion that is at the root of war, of castes, and oppression. There is no US vs. THEM, we are all brothers and sisters. There are no borders, or races or sexes. We are vibrating energy that is all connected. When we remove this illusion WALLS are pointless. In fact, walls and bombs are more than pointless they instigate, they inspire an equal opposing force as Sir Isaac Newton spelled out in his Law of Motion – for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. We speak in good faith that we want peace and harmony yet our actions are not consistent with this path. Our intentions and actions are that of violence and control, yet we are still surprised when violence comes back to us. Walls are built out of fear in an attempt to hold onto this illusion that we must protect the GOOD vs. EVIL. Those that are opposed become objects, dehumanized and easy to destroy. Bombs are dropped with the message of freedom yet the only remains are destruction and death.We become an eye for an eye society and as Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently stated “we all go blind.” The violence in the world today is simply the opposite and equal reactions of our existing actions in the world. Yet we continue on our path of using violence and to control. To control through fear and violence is a limited path that does not empower or inspire people. The oppressed eventually rise up in equal fashion to those that control. The path of opposition is an endless path of destruction and death. There is no end, only more control and violence. Fear is used to ignite this flame and money is poured into the stockpile of weapons and exclusion and again we are confounded when others do the same in opposition. Darkness does not eliminate darkness, only light as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us. It took extreme courage for Dr. King to follow a path of peace in the face of violent opposition. This was the light.

It is time to revisit this path of light and non violence. This path takes courage in the face all of the greatest fears in our minds. Yet, what greater fight is there than one of peace and love. Love is the greatest power on this earth, far greater than any bomb or wall. The seeds of love empower, and inspire the world forever changing the footprint that was left before they arrived. The power of love triumphs over fear, over control. The growth may be slow but it is permanent, far more permanent than some ideological wall that represents oppression and fear. Love is the honey that attracts, all living beings crave and want it. Mahatma Gandhi stood for a path of peace and love in the face of violence and control. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied for civil rights under the umbrella of love and peace. The path is of Mother Teresa in fighting for what we are FOR not against. This is spiritual evolution. This path will test our diligence to peace and love. It will push us to our limit, it will strive to take the love out of our hearts, to prod and anger us to join in the realm of chaos and destruction, the realm of anger and violence and death. We must stand for love in the face of the greatest tragedies, like the mother who forgave the man who killed her daughter, or like Gandhi willing to die for his faith in peace and of love. Let no one take away our choice for peace and love, this cannot be taken only given away by us. This is the courage we must have, we must build bridges of love in the midst of the storm. Yet, the more we build, the more we create the more that we inspire and the more that will join in our creation of love far distancing the control in the path of destruction on the alternate path.

We are defined by how we react in our darkest hour.

It is exactly in these moments that we must choose to build bridges and not walls. Every moment, every footprint is our choice. Always remove the barriers to fear and oppression and choose creation and love.

This is leadership. This is spiritual evolution.

Thomas D. Craig

love. inspire. unite

 

 

 

 

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To Express Oneself Honestly

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To Express Oneself Honestly
Why I Train and Follow a Path that I Love

“To express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself- that, my friend, is very hard to do.” -Bruce Lee-

I’m posting these thoughts on August 24, 2017 the day I compete in the Master Senior Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve had so many people question why I train. Comments from some spiritual friends who ask me how I can follow a path of love and peace and yet train in martial arts. They are perplexed by this concept. I have tried to explain in vain that I practice the gentle art, arte suave, the martial art where you can defend and control your opponent without having to strike endlessly to the face or body. I tried to explain that the root of modern day martial arts can be traced back to the Shaolin Temple in China where monks practiced to keep their body in tune with their spirit and enhance their chi energy as well as protect themselves against continuous attacks on the temple. True martial artists would be the last people that would fight, only doing so to protect themselves and those around them from harm but never to inflict unnecessary damage to an individual. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba talked of the Japanese term for Budo which in it’s original Asian concept means to stop or prohibit violence or war. Ueshiba talked of Bu meaning to halt the thrusting blade, and used the term Budo then as a form of love. I was so taken by this thought that I once named my dog Bu, everyone thought he was a ghost but he was love to me. Yet, I am questioned consistently about this apparent dichotomy in following a path of peace and practicing how to defend myself. I also get comments from family members and some friends that question why at my age I still train in such a physical activity. Comments such as “you are too old, and you are going to get hurt.” Last, I get comments asking why I compete as in the mind of the person questioning they wonder how I can practice a path that looks within and works to remove the ego yet competes to beat the opponent and win. Here are 5 reasons why I train and follow a path that I love.
1. Follow a Path that you LOVE
One of the greatest principles you can learn in life is to follow a path that makes your heart sing, one that you jump out of bed in the morning. Human beings are too inclined to follow the herd, the path of an ordinary existence. It takes courage to muffle the voices of judgment and pessimism. We are only free when we are authentic to ourselves. I train because I love Jiu Jitsu. It moves me. One of my training partners, Chris always has a smile on his face and when I ask him why he simply just says “I am training in Jiu Jitsu man, how can I not smile.” Jiu Jitsu is intellectual, like human chess always evolving. It humbles the strongest as you die over and over again on the mats. It encourages you to find the way, to get better. There are no short cuts in Jiu Jitsu only hard work and determination. It typically takes 10-12+ years to get a black belt in the art and there is a saying a black belt is simply a white belt who didn’t quit. This is true. No matter what it is you love dive into this with all of your heart. When we following a path that we love it is not work or difficult as it is part of our way of being.

2. Age is just a number
I am disheartened when people tell me I am too old for something. I am disheartened as I know they live their lives this way. Why would we put a restriction on life because of some arbitrary age limit? Especially if this is a path that you love, as if you have to hang up your dreams, your passion because of your age. This is ridiculous to me. In addition the thought that one might get hurt following their passion is living a life cautious and afraid. It is living in the fear versus living fully on the edge. When you live afraid, you are not living, you are simply existing surrounded by your self created barriers and walls. I know people my age who are  physically broken down because of their diet and lifestyle or too afraid to put themselves out there for fear of failure or what others might say. These barriers are self created. You get to choose your life. You are the actor in your play. You can choose to be fit and healthy and live life to the fullest or you can listen to these voices that tell you that you should or shouldn’t do things because of your age or other circumstances in life like your sex, or race or status in life. Do not listen to the hecklers, they are simply holding you down. Often this comes from family or friends in not encouraging dreams. Their words are typically a reflection of how they view themselves. Let these voices go and follow the path of your dreams.

3. Be Perfect Every Day
The concept of perfection to me is living authentically, acting with integrity to the world and myself and to remove any barriers I have to love. Being perfect is being the best possible being you can be in each moment, in each day. I tell my girls to look in the mirror each day, and truly look at that being starting back. This is the only person that you ever have to answer to. I ask them to look and then ask that person staring back at them three questions. One, are you living an authentic life that is true to yourself and not being influenced by the world and judgement around you? Until you do this you will never be free. Two, are you acting with integrity and honoring your word to yourself and the world around you? All we have is our actions and our word. If we cannot honor this then what are to the world. It is important to be your word. And last is the question, are you acting and being love in every moment to every living being? Our task is to remove any barriers we have within ourselves to love. Everything I do in life comes back to these three questions. Jiu Jitsu is a microcosm of this. I train to be the best I can be in every moment. My opponent is always myself, the person I train or compete with is simply a vehicle to test whether I can be the best that I can be. This is why we bow to our opponent an offering of thanks for allowing us to test ourselves.

4. All we ever have is right NOW
Jiu Jitsu epitomizes this principle in life. When we carry our past or hopes for the future into our present moment we become attached that our life should be different than it actually is. In quieting the mind we realize that all of that is noise, that life is beautiful exactly the way it is right now. When we get present to this principle life becomes very simple, we remove any attachments that keep us from this NOW state of mind. In Jiu Jitsu you have to be in the state of now or you will die. It is this simple. If you bring a heavy mind and are thinking about other things your opponent will submit you. In this way Jiu Jitsu is a form of meditation, a form that amplifies this moment of NOW and refreshes the soul. This is one of the reasons I love Jiu Jitsu so much. No matter the pains going on in my life I can train and I can let all of this go for the present moment. In this I am forever grateful for Jiu Jitsu in allowing me to experience this. Find a passion in your life that also forces you to stay in the present moment. Many monasteries call this walking or working meditation in having you be present in every action. Jiu Jitsu has allowed me to see the value in these actions and I carry this over to everything else that I do be it cooking or mowing the lawn as all we ever have is each moment and there is no guarantee that we will have another.

5. Live on purpose and on the edge
Human beings shy away from their true wants and desires in life. Often this is driven by fear. Fear that we are not capable of the task or fear and worry in what others will think of us. This fear keeps us complacent in life. We live an apathetic life yet deep inside our fire burns for a deeper meaning and purpose. You often hear of people talk of living a live with purpose, yet I suggest living a life ON purpose. The difference to me is that when you live with a purpose it is like carry around a bag with you, almost like a nice to have in your life. I think our purpose is way deeper than this. First and foremost my purpose is to connect to the divine within myself. The body I carry is simply baggage around an incredible, divine light. My ultimate purpose is to connect with this light inside of me. Next, I am not here on this planet, in this body and lifetime for myself. I am here to lift humanity. I am here to connect others to that divine being within themselves to find a path of purpose, peace and love. All of us have something we are here for on this planet, something to provide humanity and all living beings. Find it, live a life that is ON PURPOSE not drifting through an ordinary existence. Finally live on the edge beyond your fear. Fail often as this means you are pushing your edge and expanding. Growth comes from expanding. The edge may be scary to you yet this is the place to live. This is why I compete in Jiu Jitsu. The loneliest walk in the world for a fighter is from the dressing room or edge of the mat to the ring. You see on this walk there is no place to hide, you are simply shrouded in a thin Gi with barely anything underneath. Nearly naked figuratively and metaphorically the mind races and begin to question everything about yourself. The voices shout in the head asking am I good enough? Or can I do this? These voices drown out any other thoughts and question everything about who we are and what we stand for in this life. It takes tremendous courage to take this walk and to stand in this space of the unknown, and the question of am I good enough? With everything, ultimately our fight is always within, to quiet these thoughts and to be in this state of now and be the best that we can be in every moment. Winning or losing is never the quest, it is simply did we honor ourself and be the best that we can be in every moment. This is all we can ever do. This is why I train in Jiu Jitsu to stand in this space, to push me on the edge to answer this question over and over again. It is my training for life as we all have this question for everything that we do. Find your purpose in lifting up humanity, find your edge and constantly push it. Expand, fail, grow and inspire the world around you.

As far as I go, I will continue not to listen to the skeptics or those who judge. I will follow a path that I love and be the best that I can be in every moment.

This is the path of a Zen warrior.

Thomas D. Craig
Love. Inspire. Unite

All Living Beings are Dying

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I am dying.norman cousins death quote

In writing these words I find freedom and power. The resistance and fear of death has been notorious throughout human history. We fight and resist the inevitable as if death is something we can control. The western mindset refuses to talk or even think about death as if we speak the words then we lose power and our mortality becomes imminent. This train of thought binds us in fear and restricts us from truly living our lives. When we resist the action persists. Our mind avoids the topic and our lives build up in a crescendo of fear and anxiety up until the day we die and living a life that is never free.

In this way of thinking we resist a natural transition and the obvious but avoided truth that all living beings are dying . Quantum physics has shown us that below our physical bodies we are vibrating energy. The law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot create or destroy energy; therefore, death is simply a transition of energy. Indifferent to the west, the eastern mind embraces death as a natural part of our existence. It is not to be feared but embraced, a moment to rejoice after a lifetime that has been fully lived. When one is present that all living beings are dying we become united as one. We understand and feel compassion as each living being is simply an expression of ourselves on the same journey that will eventually end and transition. We are connected as brothers and sisters in a blip of time that could end in any moment. The basis of our fears such as greed, or anger, or jealousy dissipate as our ego disappears in this universal connection of oneness. This egotisical view of life is filled with judgement and competitiveness. The “I” versus “we” conversation that you may have in your head. This context comes from a mind that views this body, this ego and this one life as finite. It does not come from a view that all beings are dying and that we are all connected. Until you remove this thought that you are on a solo journey, in one lifetime you will not see what I speak of nor have the compassion and love for all beings. If you understood this connection then every living being would be like your mother on her deathbed. You would kneel, and give your heart and unconditional love to every living being.

As human beings we cannot fully live until we embrace death. When you are present to this lesson not only do you view all living beings with love and compassion but you embrace life. Understanding that each moment could be your last in this lifetime gets you present to the concept of NOW. Not what happened in the past, or what you want to happen in the future, but each moment right now. The moment of now is beyond expectations or attachments and allows one to choose each moment in every breath no matter the circumstance. When we embrace death and this moment of now we can then truly live. Imagine this, in this concept of now and embracing death every interaction  with other beings would be filled with love and compassion. In every moment, we would be very present in how we touched every individual that we came across. In our mind we would ask ourselves, how did we leave them? Did we pull up humanity? Being present to the concept that this may be our last moment, we would ask ourselves, how did we make that person feel?, did we act with integrity? Were we authentic with them? Did we act from our heart with love? We live life as if we have time, as if we can wait for someday to truly live yet this is not embracing death. To truly live we must embrace that every moment is precious that all we have is right now, not tomorrow, not someday. These places do not exist. Every day, every moment becomes an exercise in how do we live life to the fullest, and with gratitude and who can we make a difference with on this planet. This is fully living.

I became a hospice volunteer so I could get present to death, fully living, and each moment of now. This past year I have watched my ex wife and mother of my two children suddenly pass away. I tried to prepare my daughters for this moment and to embrace every moment with their mother before she transitioned from this lifetime, yet this lesson of embracing death is one of the more challenging we have as human beings. We want to resist until it is too late. Waiting until your deathbed that realize that you didn’t fully live is too late. A Zen Warrior embraces death in every moment. Understanding this changes our perspective from fear and resistance to gratitude and love. A human being can create anything with gratitude and love as there is nothing more powerful. Do not live a life in fear and resistance, let this go. Get present to your mortality, embrace it. Get present that all living beings are dying as this will shift your connection to everything in this Universe. Embrace death, get present to it. Spend time with those who do not have much time left as you will begin to understand this lesson. To live we must die and then live again. Living a life in fear is a life asleep. Let go, embrace it, all of it, every moment and be love.

Thomas D. Craig

Zen Warrior

 

Chop Wood Carry Water (revisited)

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Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop wood carry water. – Zen proverb

The concept and the word Zen have transcended beyond chop wood carry waterjust a sect of Buddhist philosophy becoming synonymous with simplicity, peace and love. I have written and spoken about finding the path within for many years and the most searched for phrase every day on my blog is the Zen proverb Chop Wood Carry Water. I have found this phrase is many places, it was used as a marketing slogan by the Edmonton Oiler hockey team, linked to time after time again in articles, and posted all over the Internet. This fascinates me as Zen kōans and proverbs are typically used to ignite inner thought with unanswerable questions. These thoughts or questions were to ponder while you searched for the personal meaning within oneself. Yet, I smile and understand everytime I see this quote as Chop Wood Carry Water is one of my favorites. I have used this in my life many times as a mantra to live from and inspire me to live along my path.

This concept of chopping wood and carrying water before enlightenment and after enlightenment I see in many areas of life. As human beings we think that in our journey there is a final destination to get to, and when we think we arrive we stop doing the things that got us there in the first place. This applies to anything in life be it a spiritual journey, personal relationships or your career. This quote is a reminder that we create the fundamentals for success on our journey, the framework of our path and we must continue doing the basics at all times. There is no mystical place of enlightenment or end destination that we finally get to hang up our robe and do whatever we please as our mind things we have finally made it. We create the intention of our path and the actions for us to attain checkpoints along with path and we do these fundamentals. For myself, this means eating healthy and right so I have the energy to work, to be a single dad and to train in martial arts and to follow my spiritual path. It also means getting to bed by a certain time so I can get up at 5 am and meditate for 2 hours. This is chop wood carry water. Doing the basics as the framework of my journey. There are many days I want to stray from this path, yet I know the path that I have intended to take I must follow these fundamentals. When I stray I am off track. The discipline to continue doing the basic fundamentals for the success of our path is the essence of this proverb. I love the fact the Edmonton Oiler hockey team used this phrase as there slogan as it means they were focused on the basics, the fundamentals to achieve success. It means they understood as a team no one was above another that they must all do the basics along the journey. No one was above this. I have seen many famous ball players, or even entertainers get the big contract and the hunger and actions they took to get on top disappeared because they had made it in their mind. They believe in their mindset that they are above the small things and no longer need to do this. This mindset is far from chop wood and carry water. As individuals, no matter the place on our journey we must create the framework for a successful journey, the basics and do this throughout our lives. We must stay hungry as if we have never arrived at our destination as in truth the journey is never about the destination, it is always about the path.

When I look deeper at Chop Wood Carry Water, I read into it as walking the walk. So often I see people speak words that are not in concert with their actions. When we Chop Wood Carry Water we walk the walk of our thoughts, and our actions. Mahatma Gandhi once said “happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is walking the walk. I see hypocrisy often in life. In truth all we have in this life is our word. Our word to others of course, but most importantly to ourselves. When we shift our thoughts, our intentions to spoken words out loud we have now created destinations along our journey for us to strive for. It is our responsibility to honor these words with action. Chop Wood Carry Water is a mantra to me to walk the walk. My mission in life is to inspire and teach people to look within to find peace and love. If I am not following a path of peace and love and looking within myself then I am not walking the walk. My two daughters find this frustrating at times as I do not drink, smoke or do drugs. I tell them that what I say I do. I create with them honoring their word and following a path where they can look in the mirror and know they did the best they could, authentically and with integrity. A Zen Warrior is one who looks within and walks the walk. They do what they say. They inspire through their actions.

On your journey, honor this way of being, continue to Chop Wood and Carry Water no matter where you are on the journey. Embrace the fundamentals and never stray from this path. Remember what got you to the place that you are and create the path you need to get you to where you are going. There is no end, only destinations along the journey and the basics of chopping wood and carrying water to reach them.

Thomas D. Craig

Zen Warrior – Igniting a Revolution of Love

Enlightened by a Monk’s Burp

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“We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” ~Anias Nin

shaolin monk meditatingWe create the experience of our world. From how we view it, to our state of being in it, to how others view and treat us. This creation is simply the reflection of how we view ourselves. We alone create the context of our lives. Yet, even knowing this I’m constantly catching myself limiting the boundaries of who I am and what I am capable of in this lifetime. In truth, we are boundless beings that are powerful and extraordinary, and capable of anything. There are no levels of beings higher than others, we are all connected and divine. It took the burp of a monk to remind of this lesson.
Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated with the martial arts, I guess I can blame the TV show Kung Fu, in my humble opinion the best show of all time. I wanted to be Kwai Chang Caine. I wanted to live at the Shaolin Monastery and train and learn from the monks. I loved everything about it. The path of physically training and defending others who could not defend themselves. The path of looking within and bettering self. The path of humility and love for all creatures.
As I grew older I gravitated toward martial arts training and immersing myself in the arts. I watched movies and have trained most of my life in one form or another. Then the philosophy pulled me in. Every time I visited a book store I was leaving with some form of Buddhist or eastern philosophy book. Finally through a series of events I let go of other’s judgements and expectations and I lived from my heart, authentic and filled with love. I was on a spiritual path, and now more than ever the Shaolin Temple beckoned me. It was a someday trip that I had to take. I mentioned my wish to travel with a fellow writer friend of mine, Bill Porter. Bill is an extraordinary individual. He was one of the first westerners allowed into China in the early 70’s reporting for the BBC. He eventually traveled the country in search of wandering monks and wrote about this experience in his books Zen Baggage and Road to Heaven. He also translates ancient Chinese texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the poetry of Buddhist monks. His book under his translation pen name Red Pine titled The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain is one of my favorites. Bill knows the Abbott at the Shaolin Temple and had previously taken friends on a tour of the area. When I told him of my desire to go to the temple he simply stated, “Thomas when you go I will send you a gift so the Abbott will have an audience with you.” In reading his words my mind shifted from a someday possibility to a I have to create this trip mentality. I needed to go. It’s funny how often words from another plant a seed and change your perspective.
I immediately researched staying at the temple and found I could stay in an International hostel near the monastery and train with the monks. I booked my trip and was off to China 6 months later. The Shaolin Temple was important for me to visit not because of the TV show, but because this is the place the Indian monk Bodhidharma settled in around 500 A.D. Bodhidharma (called Damo in China) is credited for founding Zen Buddhism and for the creation of most modern day martial arts. You see, the Shaolin Temple was my Mecca. There was a source of energy here that I needed to experience.
I had four goals on my trip, first I wanted to experience and follow in the footsteps of Damo. I did this, I visited the cave he supposedly meditated in for 9 straight years, and I extensively explored the temple having almost unlimited access behind normally closed doors as a student. Second, I wanted to climb and visit Songshan (Mt. Song) one of the 5 sacred mountains in China. This mountain looks down upon the temple and juts into the sky after a steep trail along granite cliffs. A generous and eccentric individual from Latvia named Carlos offered to take myself and Asbjorn (who I dubbed the Viking monk as he was this stout individual, with a shaved head and big red beard from Norway). We climbed and slept at the top of the mountain where Carlos showed us this secret path that led to an opening to view the sunset looking down on the granite cliffs below. This trip was majestic and a great bonding experience with my fellow travelers. Third on my list was to train Kung Fu with the monks. The Shaolin monks are legendary for their amazing skills (trust me on this just YouTube Shaolin monks). I trained for 5 hours a day at the temple and had the opportunity to watch their demonstration team put on a show for a visiting dignitary. I cannot describe in words what I saw as you wouldn’t believe it. These monks train from the time they walk, endless hours each day until they can do these incredible physical feats. I saw a monk do two finger pushups, another flip high into the air and then land flat on his back on the hard granite floor and then pop straight back up to his feet, and finally I saw a monk do a handstand with one finger on each hand. These experiences were amazing, but I wanted more, I wanted the inner monk, the inner journey. This led to my fourth goal on this trip, I wanted to sit and meditate with the Shaolin monks. This one was a bit tougher as these monks are on a personal spiritual journey and not bucket list fulfillment from a guy visiting from Seattle in the USA. Carlos and I put in a request to the monastery and were accepted to meditate for one session with the monks.

I had to purchase a special long robe as the traditional Kung Fu outfit was not sufficient for this experience and was told where to go in a private part of the temple. The temple was broken into the public area where tourists would visit during the day and then on one side of the temple were the warrior monks and the Kung Fu training. The warrior monks took certain vows but were allowed to eat meat and marry outside the temple if they wanted to. My experience with them was mixed, these monks were not Kwai Chang Caine. They seemed pulled into the illusion of the material world. I saw them like any other being on this planet on their iPhone and even saw one in a BMW. They treated the children with strict discipline and even violence. I saw two young boys, roughly 9 or 10 forced to grab one of their legs above their head in a standing split position and stand there without moving. I watched them stand in this position for an hour until I had to leave. Who knows how much longer they were forced to stand there. However, on the other side of the temple there was the private section where the fully ordained monks lived and meditated for most of the day. These monks took extreme vows in their practice and in my mind were the real deal. To me they were on a whole other level has beings on this planet.
Carlos and I walked the dirt road into the private area of the temple and then into a maze of darkened corridors and finally into a building with an adjoining outside courtyard. The building was the meditation center for the monks who would had 2-3 hour meditation sessions continuously throughout the day. Outside the room were tables with various snacks such as bananas, and nuts to keep the energy up for the monks during the day and outside the hallway was a grass courtyard that innocently held a small clothesline holding one brown monks robe blowing in the breeze. Carlos and I waited patiently outside meditation hall for our turn to enter and join the monks in the session and straight at our schedule time of 5:30 in the evening a bell rang in the complex and the doors opened. Out sprung 5-6 monks in various colored robes. One of them spoke and in Chinese and waived for us to come in. Carlos and I snapped to attention and entered the roughly 50 x 30 foot room. Upon entering we quickly noticed the benches around the edges of the room holding cushions for sitting in meditation but our attention was drawn to the center where there was a large statue of Buddha enclosed in glass case. A monk pointed to us and then to the other monks who were quickly walking as fast as they could around the Buddha statue. Carlos and I put our heads down and followed behind as quickly as we could. This spiritual whirlpool quickly branched out into the very fast, Formula 1 lane immediately next to the statue, followed by a very fast but sustainable lane and then finally a third lane reserved for the elder and hobbled monks. Carlos and I settled into the second lane and walked as fast as we could. It reminded me of the times as a child we would walk around the edge of the swimming pool to create a whirlpool. I noticed if I looked up I would get slightly knocked off my circle and would have to lean in toward the center to keep my balance. The monks had these long sleeves on their robes and they would whip these up and down in a snap to match their fast pace like the snapping of a towel. As we traveled around and around in our circle of Buddha a smaller monk traveled the outside of the rectangle with a long stick about 6 feet long. As he walked every few steps he would bring down the stick and beat the floor. Faster and faster he would beat the floor as this was our tempo to march around Buddha. Finally after 15 minutes or so of racing with the monks another bell rang and all the monks immediately stopped and took seats along the outside of the room. Another monk shuttled us to specific seats and motioned for us to watch the other monks. I noticed none of the monks took off their shoes or crossed their legs so I wondered what was to take place next on this journey. Finally the smaller monk who was our tempo guide came around with small cups. He handed out one cup per monk (roughly 30-35 in the room) and then came around with a large kettle of tea. He poured our cups full and I watched intently what to do next. First I noticed to hold the cup on the top and bottom but not around the edges. Then I noticed the monks immediately began to drink quickly. They didn’t waste any time. In this I followed their lead. However, I quickly learned why they held the cup on the top and bottom as the tea was extremely hot. It burned my throat. I started to gasp and my throat gurgled but I held it in. The solitude in the room overwhelmed my desire to gasp. I didn’t want to be the guy who disrupted the Shaolin monks. As I was trying to swallow and contain my gasp the tea monk came by again for round two. I didn’t know what to do as if I refused was this improper protocol. The monk I was supposed to follow sitting next to me nodded for another pour of tea so I did the same. This time I took 2-3 sips versus the one gulp in trying to monitor the steaming beverage. Immediately after he gulped his tea the monk next to me place the cup on the floor in front of him. I reached out and did the same thinking nothing of it until he nodded to me with a quiet grunt and pointed to the line on the floor. In looking back at his cup he had place exactly above a line on the slab floor. I adjusted mine so it was in proper order and then in quick time the small monk came by and collected all of the cups. As soon as this was complete the monks rose and immediately went back to speed walking around the glassed case Buddha. Carlos and I went back to our routine and after another 10 minutes or so and an active sweat another bell rang and all the monks rushed out the door of the room.
Carlos and I stood frozen not know what was next, or if the session was over. Our guardian monks however, came over and nudged us out of the room to follow the herd. Carlos and I quickly walked out the door and down the corridor and into another room. Once we walked in I got the message as I saw six monks holding up their robes with one hand and peeing with the other into individual holes in the ground. I tried not to laugh or smile as I was not expecting this, and I turned and walked out of the room. I didn’t need to relieve myself. Carlos and I waited until the monks began to head back to the meditation room that I wanted to rename in mind the speed walking room. Once inside we took a few more laps getting our heart beat up until they directed us to what looked like the guest meditation seats in the room. It looked like each individual had their own seat based on seniority in the room and we were place on the south end furthest away from the oldest and brightly colored robe of the senior monk.
Once seated each monk took their shoes off, pulled in pillows around their body to get comfortable for a long meditation session. Having a daily practice of an hour to 2.5 hours a day meditating I wasn’t too concerned about this session outside of my throat. I couldn’t shake the urge to gurgle or burp after that hot tea had scalded me. I pulled in pillows underneath my knees as I knew how gravity pulled at the body after 2 hours of sitting in one place. I was worried about making sounds as I heard about these sessions. Apparently an individual monk would walk around the hall with a wooden sword and if you were out of line or fell asleep he would bonk you with the sword. My entire goal of the session was to avoid the wooden sword. The monks didn’t waste time or any ritual in meditating. Immediately you could hear deep breaths taking place and in sneaking a quick glance around the room the monks were fast into their practice. I closed my eyes and followed suit. I still felt this sense of intimidation as if I didn’t belong. I viewed the monks above me and I just wanted to fly under the radar and fit in. I never considered myself at an equal. In closing my eyes I started to get frustrated as I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t relax. I was tense and my throat wouldn’t let go. Instead of focusing on my breathing and my mantra I was focused on not burping. It became all I could think about. It consumed me. Five, ten, even fifteen minutes went by and I couldn’t relax. If something didn’t change I was going to get bonked by the sword guy, and it was going to be the longest two hours of my life. And then as if on cue a monk from across the room spoke to me in a way I would never have expected. He burped loudly. I smiled inside as a burp had never meant so much to me. Then another monk burped and another until 7-8 monks were burping like frogs in a pond. I let out my gurgle and all of my tension. In this one moment I was enlightened from a monk’s burp. It spoke volumes to me. It spoke that we were the same, that we were equal. It spoke that there is no right or wrong or certain way of doing things. That there was just this moment and it was perfect exactly how it was. I let go and I meditated with vivid colors and could feel the energy of the monks. It was an amazing session, calm but filled with connection across the room. I sat with an inner smile at peace and happy in this moment of NOW.

Carlos sitting next to me struggled. He told me before going in he hadn’t meditated much so this session was a struggle for him. He hadn’t placed pillows below his knees and gravity got the best of him. He audibly groaned in pain and tried to wrap his arms around his knees to hold them up. The small monk who was our speed walking timekeeper, our cup bearer and tea master was also the wooden sword guy. I could feel him walking around the room and every time Carlos would make a sound he would stand in front of him. Carlos must have heard him too as he would stop groaning for a moment and settle until the monk left and then he would start in again. I didn’t know if Carlos was going to make it to the end as he was in great pain. Finally after a few hours the bell sounded and without circumstance the monks put on their shoes and shuffled out of the room. I was filled with energy after this amazing session and quickly put on my shoes and bounced up. The guardian monk pointed at me to follow the herd and I began to do so but kept pointing back at Carlos who was not moving. I think his legs were asleep as he just sat there moaning in his eastern European accent. The monks persisted and shuffled me out of the room leaving only Carlos. I guess they figured he would eventually make it out of there or they forgot about him. They kept shooing me down the hall to some unknown area and each time I kept pointing back to the room to get Carlos but because everything was in silence and we had a language barrier we couldn’t understand each other, in turn they kept shooing me on. Finally I motioned for one of the monks to come with me back to the room and pointed to Carlos who had finally made it to his feet and was slowly putting on his shoes. The monk smiled I guess in appreciation for his pain and waited for him to finish and then waived for him to follow as well. Carlos could barely walk so we went slow until we finally entered a large hall filled with rows of long tables and in the front was a huge black pot of hot soup and a table of condiments to add additional flavor. Another monk came up and handed us a bowl and chopsticks and pointed to where we should sit after we got our food. From my view, each monk had their own eating spot with individual bowls and chopsticks for each meal. The room was completely silent filled with intentional eating and smiles in their eyes. This is hard to describe in words but there was a peace and happiness in the eyes of these monks. They eased this sense of compassion and kindness to Carlos and I. I was very aware that this was an incredible honor to be asked to dine with them and I took it all in one bite of the vegetarian noodle soup at a time. After we finished, we were led into the kitchen where we washed our own bowls, bowed in Namaste to the monks in the room and left back to our dirt road and our International Hostel. This walk took extra long as Carlos couldn’t shake his legs from hurting. He couldn’t wake them. Myself on the other hand I was awake as I had ever been all from the echoes of the burp of a Shaolin monk.

Thomas D. Craig

Love. Inspire. Unite

Looking within I Discover Peace

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“Looking behind I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward I am filled with vision. Looking upward I am filled with strength. Looking within I discover peace.”

Q’ero Indians

There is a Zen proverb that states the obstacle is the path. Oh, have I resisted this one along the way. I have fought with every ounce of strength in my body to prove that my problems in life were outside of me. It took me many years, and many lessons to understand that no matter the level of my suffering all of the answers to my suffering were within myself.

Life is challenging, as human beings we suffer. We suffer because we do not accept life exactly the way it is. We suffer because we spend emotional cycles wishing it were different that it is. We do not choose life, and when we do not choose we suffer and then we blame.  This is the easy way out to point fingers outward at our lot in life. We point the blame at our suffering to our circumstances, our financial position, our sex, our race, our social status, or the infamous one on bad luck. When we point our fingers outward to the reason why our lives are not the way they are supposed to be we become a victim in our own play. In this state our lives become a series of disappointments that are directed at us from some known or unforeseen force. We suffer in this disempowered state and pine for a different existence as if wallowing in our own self pity. Never do we point our fingers back toward us and ultimately understand that we alone are accountable for our state of being. The road to self reflection and personal accountability seems from the outside as the bumpy, and difficult road. It feels easier to just point our fingers outward and not take any responsibility, because when we do this we don’t have to own anything. We are miserable in life and our payoff is blaming the world around us leaving us with an unhappy, disempowered and ordinary life.

I speak to this because I know. I resisted in the past. I went through challenges like so many others. Job troubles, divorce, serious financial challenges during the crash in 2008. I know, I have been homeless, slept on couches, lost relationships, thought I had lost my girls in a move to Europe. All this time I resisted and fought it. How many times did I wallow in the mantra of ‘why me?’ I played out this for a very long, painful time. I didn’t let this go until I did the work within and realized that this disempowering state served nothing to me.

fire mirrorWhen I turned the fingers inward and back to me and I took accountability of my entire life then things began to shift. First, I no longer gave power to these outward circumstances. There is a tremendous weight that comes off your shoulders when you let this go. When you understand that your context and state of being in this world is entirely up to you a rush of power comes to you as the victim card dissipates and you realize that you alone create your life. This is such a shift and a relief after spending a life spent pointing fingers outward. Second, I understood that the world to be done was within. I began to schedule time alone, spend time in nature and most importantly to meditate. When we meditate we begin to turn off the thousands upon thousands of thoughts that drain our mind in every moment. We learn to focus and find clarity. We learn to strip away the noise that does not serve us. What is left is our raw, authentic self that is vulnerable and filled with connection and emotion. This is your true being coming out one filled with compassion, gratitude and love. Not the masked illusion you have presented to the world that reacts to judgment and emotion. The deeper I looked within, the more layers I stripped away. The more layers I stripped away the more authentic I became. When you are centered with your true being you are authentic to yourself. As an authentic being filled with love you no longer will tolerate a life as a victim. You understand that choose your life in every moment no matter the circumstance. With this power you become free and filled with peace.

Life is exactly the way it is supposed to be. Stop resisting. Look within and find your authentic self. Choose your state of being in any circumstance. You are extraordinary and more powerful than you could ever image. You are divine, you are love. Look within and find it.

We are here on this planet to pull humanity up, to connect and serve other living beings. You are extraordinary. Change yourself, change the world.

Be well. Be love.

Thomas D. Craig

Igniting a revolution of love, an army of Zen Warriors fighting the ultimate battle within and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.

 

 

A Fathers’ Letter to Donald and All Other Men

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a-letter-to-donaldThis is not a political letter.

This is a letter to Donald, from one man, one father to another. I need you to hear me. I need these words to amplify so loud that the vibration echoes to all other men. I need these words to change men’s conversation of women. I need men to spiritually evolve, to walk a new path, to lead and inspire the next generation. I need men to treat all living beings as equal, with respect and with unconditional love.

You see this is no longer the dark ages, the days of oppression and control. It’s no longer the time where women are considered subordinate to men. It’s no longer a time to objectify women. I cannot idly sit back and listen to this rhetoric any longer. You see, I have two teenage daughters, and Donald words and actions matter. You said your comments about women were just words, and that all men do this, and that you’ve heard worse. You said this is simply “locker room banter” or that “boys will be boys.”

Understand Donald that we create our world. We are our thoughts; we are our actions. Through our words and our actions, we teach the world around us what is acceptable and what is not. Your words and your actions are not inspiring nor are they of a leader. Your words speak of oppression and objectification. These are the words and the ideology of the dark ages. This is the same banter that entitled men have spoken to oppress and control women throughout history.

Understand Donald, I am familiar with the conversation. I grew up in a locker room, was the quarterback in a small town and lived in a fraternity. Believe me I understand locker room banter and I freely participated in the objectification of women for a time in my life. My efforts were encouraged and applauded by the locker room boys around me. My status rose with each notch I marked on my belt. Yet underneath this false bravado, I was a scared, insecure little boy. When I look at you Donald I see a scared little boy who bullies and oppresses. A man who feels entitled, someone that no one stands up to or holds accountable.

Donald, as a father of two daughters I am holding you accountable. The objectification of women is NOT acceptable. Read NOT, as in, “locker room banter” or “boys will be boys” is NOT acceptable.

You see Donald beyond your locker room banter and your words of oppression, there was a time in history that women were worshipped. A woman was seen as the giver and protector of life. The woman was the Divine Goddess. The men bowed and revered the goddess. As I spiritual evolved along my path, and shed the fear I was holding inside I let go of the male stereotype and who society thought I should be. I let go of roles, and of the masks I was wearing and removed any barriers I had to love. As I did this I let go of this little boy, and in viewing women as objects or conquests. Each living being I saw in front of me was a mirror to myself. I saw my equal, a vibrant being filled with compassion and love. I saw the Divine.

I understand Donald this may be too much of a stretch for you right now, so let’s take baby steps. Begin by understanding that all living beings should be treated with respect, equality and compassion. Begin to understand that light and only light removes the darkness, that we need bridges and not walls. Understand that we are both students and teachers in every moment. Understand that the world, that children, that your children are watching.

Donald, I need you to spiritually evolve, beyond a me centric world to a universally connected world that treats all beings with kindness and love.

I need you to understand that I am committed that my daughters live in a world where they are respected, treated as equals and with love by both women AND men.

Donald, and all men hear these words. It’s time to spiritually evolve, to love, to inspire and to unite all living beings. I can no longer sit idly by with indifference. We must be better, we must teach our children to spiritually evolve. Words and actions matter.

This is the way of the Zen warrior, the warrior who fights the ultimate battle in that of conquering ourselves. Yet, the warrior also fights for those that cannot fight for themselves. The warrior fights for peace, and for love.

This is my path. This is what I fight for.

Donald, hear these words.

Thomas D. Craig

Love. Inspire. Unite

Is that so? – The Art of Flowing with Life

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Is that so_ The art of flowing with lifeBuddha taught us that attachment is the root of suffering.

Our attachment comes in the form of not accepting and being present to the reality of our life in each moment. We are attached to having our life be different. We yearn for times of the past, or hope for moments in the future, yet we miss the beauty in each moment of NOW.

Yet life challenges us. It beats us down and confronts us and we look to the sky and shout “why me?”

This is the EGO speaking. This is the EGO, or SELF attached to the concept that our lives should look different for the individual SELF. The suffering comes from thinking that we are separate from the whole. Let’s look further at what this means.

We are not this body that we carry around with us, it is simply luggage carrying our vibrant, divine energy in this lifetime. A placeholder along the path. Yet, we live are lives with a finality for this body and this lifetime. You can see it how we treat the environment, or other people and living beings. Our context, our view of our life comes from a ME centric standpoint in how can we better ourselves and our immediate world. In this context, we miss the connection with all living beings through this Universe and the next. We miss that we are just passing through in this physical body and that nothing is permanent. We are attached to the game of this physical, superficial world. When we do this we do not flow with life. We hold on and grasp to how things should be. We scream “why me?” or oppress others all to benefit our physical self in a lifetime that is simply a blip, a blink from the divine. Our attachment stagnates our growth and keeps us from flowing with life.

When thinking of the concept of flowing, think of a river with the water passing by. The water does not oppose a log in the river, nor the curve in the bank; it passes by indifferent. Every moment in a river is a moment of now, the water flows by and each moment is a snapshot of a moment of NOW, each moment new. If we were to step in a river we have connected in this particular moment, a bridge in time between our relativity of time and the river. Yet, each time we step in the river it is a new river. This is life. It is not static, nor can we control it. We come across our own rocks, and logs and bends in our life, and life flows past, every moment is new. Trying to stop the flow of life is like trying to stop the flow of the river or time itself, an exercise in futility and suffering. Resisting the flow of life is attachment and it is suffering. We cannot find peace and love within ourselves until we understand acceptance, until we understand letting go and flowing with life.

Flowing with life is with all moments. I refrain from calling them good and bad moments as they are just moments. We may be wealthy one day and poor the next. We may have our family one moment and the next they are gone. Grasping at what was, and resisting the flow imprisons us to the physical realm of this body, and an EGO centric world. This is true for times that are difficult but also when we are pleased with our life. Often we want to cling to this time, to these moments and hold on with a death grip even though the life flows past us.

There is no peace in the world of attachment, it’s short sided and creates a world of “not enough”. In the world of not enough we are always searching, always looking for more ways to satisfy the EGO in our minds – more money, more superficial things, more gain for the personal self. The world of not enough is an endless pit where we never find the treasure. The EGO can never be satisfied, it is only in removing the EGO and the illusion of the  individual SELF that we find our universal connection with all living beings. In this unity we find the value of all life, where one life is not prioritized nor more important than the next. In this universal connection the concept of “why me?” does not exist as we are connected to the whole. Events in our life just as in the life of all living beings just happen, there are no directed lightening bolts thrown our way. There is simply a what’s so with all life. Reacting or trying to change it is not going to make a difference as it simply is what’s so in our life at that particular moment. Accepting life’s events as they come to you, positive or negative is flowing with life.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Positive or negative the farmer flowed with life. He stayed in the moment of NOW, he refused to cling or attach himself to events in this life.

This can me challenging as the mind wants to keep us in the world of ME or the EGO. It wants to question why things might be difficult, or why the illusion in why the Universe conspired against only ourselves. I personally have lost jobs, been divorced, lost all of my superficial wealth, been given days notice on the end of a job and become homeless, loved ones with life threatening illnesses, or dying without warning. Yet, as my mind wants to wallow in pity and suffering I understand that this is life and we all go through it with our own challenges. Who are we to judge? Everyone carries pain with them it is what we choose do with this pain. Do we let it go and accept it exactly the way that it is? Or do we hold onto to it and hope for something different. Whenever something challenging in my life happens I simply say “Is that so?” These three words are my salvation from clinging to the way I wish things would be in my life. These words are my art of flowing with life.

These words come from a Zen story titled the same name : Is that so?

It is a story of a well respected Zen master by the name of Hakuin who lived in a small village in Japan. One day a young girl in the village became pregnant and her incensed father insisted she name the father of the child. She named Hakuin as the father and as word spread he lost his reputation. As Hakuin heard the news he simply responded “Is that so?”

When the child was born the girls parents brought the child to Hakuin to take care of him. Hakuin took in the child to raise and simply said “Is that so?” After a year of taking care of the child the mother finally confessed the truth of who the real father was of the child. Her parents came to Hakuin and confessed that they knew he was not the father and took the child back to raise. Hakuin simply said “Is that so?”

Peace and happiness come from flowing with life. Many challenging and horrible things happen to people. Yet these events do not define us, we choose life in every moment. Each moment a step into the river, fresh and new, the past washed away bring a new moment of NOW. A life that flows unattached without resistance, in peace and harmony.

Is that so?

Thomas D. Craig

Love. Inspire. Unite

*Note: I wrote a modern day fable of the Zen story Is that so? called Is that so? A Modern Day Fable of Awakening about a young man forced to choose life in the face of many challenging circumstances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaolin Reflections IV: Meditating with the Monks

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Thomas in monk robe, Shaolin Entrance

Thomas in monk robe, Shaolin Entrance

Our greatest misconception as a human being is our belief that we are not at the level of achieving whatever is possible. We establish barriers and elevate other individuals as more capable or at a higher level than ourselves. Our context of the world is one of looking up when we should be looking out, in unison with all living beings.

This was my context when I traveled to the Shaolin Temple in China. I had been reading about the discipline and the extraordinary powers of the Shaolin Monks for many years so when I actually set foot in the temple I was walking on air, like a child in awe of everyone and everything that I saw along the path. I had four goals in coming to the temple- experience Bodhidharma (Damo), fully explore the temple, climb and experience Mt Song, and finally to meditate and spend time with the Shaolin Monks. Less than a week into my trip I had met the first three of my goals. Now it was time to meditate with the monks.

The temple had set aside one night a week for International students to attend a meditation session with the monks. This was disappointing that it was only once a week but I understood. This was the monk’s practice, the core to what they had dedicated their lives to, and they took it serious. I imagined having tourists come in and disrupt a routine that had been defined over thousands of years was not an ideal situation for them. I was honored to have this opportunity. Mr. Wang who handled the International Student inquiries set up my meditation visit and also suggested I attend the daily morning chanting session at the temple. Done, I would do both.

My friend Erika, a Buddhist and Shaolin Kung Fu teacher out of the Netherlands gave me the details on the morning chanting session. She made a practice of attending this session most of the mornings. As a woman, she was not allowed to attend the weekly meditation practice with the monks. She was disheartened by this as she was allowed to attend this practice back home, but here at the source, at the Shaolin Temple they still held onto outdated cultural beliefs. This was confounding to me as the practice of Zen, of Buddhism at it’s root has no barriers, only love. Our root is love, a place with no race or sexual discrimination, no boundaries at all across cultures or people. In my mind, we meditate to remove any barriers that restrict us from love. Coming into the temple I had idolized the concept of a monk in my mind. In experiencing the temple this deification shifted. I initially would be in stunned silence as my expectation differed from my reality. This happened many times, from the exclusion of women, to the mistreatment of the children in the training of Kung Fu, to a monk killing a bee as it flew next to me, to the monks driving around in BMWs and using their smart phones. Again this was my context that I needed to shift, yet I will never forget seeing an old monk sitting with his fly swatter, waiting to smash his next victim. This was alien to me as I had read from Buddha’s text that all living beings are connected and we should honor every life. I set these feelings aside, and created the possibility of experiencing the journey without preconceptions. In order to attend the chanting and meditation sessions I needed something more than my traditional Kung Fu outfit. I bought the necessary long robe and set my alarm for 4 am so I could dress, and walk to the temple for the 5 am chanting session.

Shaolin Monk CeremonyAt 4:45 the next morning, I slipped in the side door to the temple and made my way to Mahavira Hall in the central area of the temple. The front doors to the hall were open and in entering I came into a magical scene. The hall was roughly 30 meters wide and 15-20 meters deep with high ceilings some 15-20 meters in the air. The back of the hall was lined with these enormous gold painted statues ranging from 3-8 meters high lit from below by hundreds of lit candles. There must have been 20 or more statues lining the hall looking down at me, creating an unworldly space. Interspersed throughout the hall were 5-6 huge red, ornately painted pillars on top of the stone floors that rose to the ceiling. At the base of these beautiful pillars were 2 meter high, carved metal dragons that stood guard to the room. The only lighting was the flicker of the candles across the divided room, spread out into two sections with 6-7 people placed into 5-6 rows on each side of a central aisle. The first 2-3 rows were washed in a sea of Crimson monk robes. As I learned quickly in China when you don’t know you follow. I took a spot in the back row following the rest of the guests until the ceremony began. The 40-50 of us in the room stood in silence until finally 2 small bells clanged followed by the rhythmic beating of a gong over and over again for a few minutes. This transitioned into a series of gongs, bells and drum beats, over and over again. Then the drum took over, a deep, bass beat pounding the flicker of the candles. Finally, one monk began chanting in a slow cadence, until the remaining monks followed in line. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, only the melodic cadence of their voices and the drum beat. Each progression of the chant would pick up in pace with the drum beat until it became a blur of words and sounds. I closed my eyes and drifted off in the vibration of this experience. Finally after about 30 minutes, the monks turned inward to the central aisle and with their hands in Namaste position, they walked in single file around the outside of the hall as they continued their chanting. One by one they filed out of their rows until my row joined in behind them. The line was so long that it almost formed one continuous circle around the outside edges inside the hall. Along the path were candles to light the way and more majestic statues towering above us. Occasionally along the path an older monk sat, too disabled to make the fast paced walk, yet still able to sit and belt out the chorus from their seats in concert with the beat. We circled the hall a few times and then filed back into our rows and finally about an hour into the session the monks finished the chanting, bowed multiple times on their knees with the rest of us joining and then we were quickly escorted out of the hall.

Outside the hall the sun was rising and the faint light touched the carved marble statues across the temple grounds. There were no tourists, no selfie sticks, and the grounds were silent. This was the most magical time I found at the temple. I walked the grounds alone, deep in reflection on the thousands of years of history in every footstep. Mist rose from the temple rooftops as the heat lifted the condensation. I walked past the Thousand-Bodhisattva Hall where the stone floor was engrossed in holes every 5 feet or so from thousands of years of Kung Fu practice. Stone divots left as monuments of self-discipline and persistence.  I walked past stone statues and trees marked with hundreds of small holes from monks practicing finger strikes. The power of human will can overcome anything. I had my evidence, even stone was not a barrier. There was nothing that the mind could not conquer with will and persistence.

Finally my day came to meditate with the monks. I had heard the details from my friend Carlos, the Latvian Mountain Man. I was prepared in my long monk robe, and was told to just follow the rest of the monks in everything that they do. Carlos told me that the beginning of the session was a brisk walking session followed by tea and then meditation. We walked down early to the temple as this was not an event you wanted to be late for. One thing I learned with my time at the temple, the monks were never late, if they said they were starting at 5:30, they started at 5:30. We made our way into the temple as usual but this time we made a right turn into the restricted section where the monks lived and practiced. Similar to our Kung Fu training center this was not an area that was open to tourists. The stone path weaved through dorm like living quarters emptying into a dark hallway inside of a building. Carlos signaled to walk to the right and we made our way to a long hallway filled with a table filled with snacks like bananas, and nuts to keep the monks fueled throughout the day during breaks in their meditation practice. Behind us was a doorway that led outside with a small courtyard and grass. Across the grass was a long clothes line where a few, brown robes were drying in the wind. A single monk in his brown robe and yellow sash was walking the courtyard back and forth while he talked on the phone. Carlos and I stood erect and at attention outside the entrance to the meditation hall. The entrance was a long green drape with insignia on it that I couldn’t decipher held in place by a thin wood plank across the top, stretched by a rope from the ceiling used to close and to lift the drape at the appropriate time outward so traffic could come in and out at ease like the covering of a tent.

Finally, just before our scheduled start at 5:30 the drape opened and 3-4 monks came out. It was clear they had just finished a meditation session and were focused on moving to the next one.  I imagined they did this routine every day, a series of meditation sessions broken up by snack and meal breaks. One of the monks pointed at us to hurry and enter the room. I immediately went to the right to enter and was hushed in a polite “NO” from the monk. He pointed to the other side and directed me to enter from the left. Protocol was important here. This practice had been in place for thousands of years and they had a specific way of doing things. In entering the room, my eyes took it all in. The room was about 10-15 meters deep, and about 15-20 meters long. On the outside of the stone floor were raised seats along the edge of the room with cushions every few feet for individuals to sit and meditate. The seats were open underneath, I imagined to place removed shoes. In the center to the back was an ornate seat, secluded seat clearly reserved for a monk of importance. The rest of the hall was open except for a large statue of Buddha about 2 meters high encased in glass positioned directly in the center of the hall. Like a moth to light I was drawn to the Buddha, transfixed in the reverence of the moment.

I broke out of my trance as a monk dashed past me. I noticed the 30-40 monks in the room were quickly circling the Buddha statue in a brisk clockwise pace. The quickest were in the first lane moving around the statue like sports cars, the next quickest were in the second lane, followed by some older monks circling in the third lane. I chose the middle lane targeting a monk in front of me determined not to lose pace with him. As we sped walked around Buddha, a tiny monk holding up a 2 meter stick alked around the outside of the rectangle of the inner hall. Every half lap to a lap, he would tap the floor 2-3 times and our pace would quicken. It was clear he was our tempo master. The moment became overwhelming as we began to circle faster and faster almost like a whirlpool where if you looked up, or moved slightly wrong the energy pulled you out of the tight circle you were in. The monks picked up the pace to where they were slightly running, whipping the long sleeves on their robes in each step like the crack of a whip. I was having trouble keeping up, it was like being on the edge of a tight turn trying to hold the rail. Our circles were tight, almost shoulder to shoulder with each other in our silent speed walk. Again and again the stick hit the floor and we picked up our pace, now we were running laps around Buddha in our long robes. I looked to my right noticed I was being passed by a monk who must have been in his 70’s with his shaved head and long beard. We circled over and over again for close to 30 minutes until a gong rang outside the hall.

Immediately the monks stopped and Carlos and I followed suit. One of the monks came to us and pointed to a couple of seats for us to sit. Every few feet a monk sat erect with their feet on the floor and hands on their knees. I mimicked to the best of my ability and then noticed the smaller monk with the stick was now passing out tea cups. I watched the monk next to me as there was a very specific way he received the cup and then held it. He reached out with his right hand, took the cup with his thumb on bottom and his forefinger on the top edge, then he took the cup in both hands into his lap. I followed his lead. Finally another monk came by with a huge pot of tea. I watched my counterpart lift his cup with his right hand, again with the thumb and forefinger, received the tea, and then brought both hands near his mouth, and kept the cup there, never lowered, until he quickly drank the tea. Again I followed suit. However, the first thing I noticed was how hot this tea was. I mean scalding hot. I mean, I wanted to scream it was that hot. It was clear why they held the cup on the top and bottom to diffuse the heat, yet these monks were jugging down this tea gulp after gulp. I had to follow suit. I sucked in slowly trying to diffuse the heat but it was no use, I was going to burn my mouth and that was just what was going to happen. I looked to my right and the monk was already finished with his tea. I gave myself an inner pep talk and sucked down the tea until finally I was finished. Yes!!! I was so relieved. Then I noticed the tea guy going for round two….NO! The monk next to me stuck his cup out for round two and I felt obliged to follow his lead. (It wasn’t until my second time meditating with the monks I noticed one of them politely refuse the second trip with this hand which I gladly followed). I received my second cup and again mentally blocked out my scalding mouth and finished my tea. Whew….I made it. Next I noticed the monk next to me take his now empty cup and place it on the stone floor in front of him with his right hand. I watched and mimicked. However, the monk nodded in my direction in a mix of Chinese and an English ‘No’, he pointed to move the cup to the next line on the floor which I did. The small monk now came around and picked up each cup in near silence by squatting to the floor with a straight back and picking up each cup within each other until he made the full circle around the hall. Another gong and we were back on our feet, racing the circle around Buddha again. My mouth burned and my throat gurgled from drinking that tea so fast. We did our silent race around Buddha for another 5 minutes or so until another gong had the group stop in their tracks and all head for the door. I wasn’t expecting this. A few monks ushered Carlos and I out of the room and pointed to follow the rest of the mob. I looked at Carlos and he shrugged, we didn’t know what was going on.

We exited through the green drape and headed out into the courtyard following the line of monks who entered another room. I hurried after them and as I entered the room, I stopped in my tracks and tried not to laugh out loud. A row of monks were standing over individual holes in the ground, with each having pulled their robes to the side with one hand and urinating with the other. We were on a speed rest room break. I will never forget the site of the back of the bald monk heads, with the brown, maroon and gray robes pulled to the side hurrying to urinate prior to meditation. I passed on joining them and waited outside wondering if I had made a bad move as I knew we were going to sit for quite a while.

Next, the monks filed out of the urinal and they ushered us back into the hall where one of them pointed to a few seats on the back wall for Carlos and I to sit. There was a hierarchy in the sitting structure for meditation. On the wall closest to the entrance sat what looked like the most experienced or honored monks. The color of their robes followed suit with this. Brown and Maroon were an elevated color whereas gray and blue seemed to be junior, or in training colors. I was told this was also in relationship to the level of vows they had committed to as monks. Either way, I was on the back row next to some gray and blue robe monks. This was perfect for me. We took our seats, removed our shoes and set them underneath us. There were various cushions to sit on and place on your back and underneath your knees if needed. Upon crossing their legs to sit, I noticed each monk ensured their robe covered their feet and legs. Again I mimicked the action. Then I noticed across the room that the monks had already shut their eyes and were in full meditation mode. I began to follow suit when I noticed one monk walking around inspecting the crew with a wooden sword on his shoulder. I had heard about this. A monk occasionally walked around the hall during meditation to inspect and ensure everyone was awake. If he saw a problem he tapped you on your shoulder to shape up. My entire goal was not to get the wooden sword. I closed my eyes and felt at home. My daily routine was to meditate 2 hours a day so I wasn’t worried about this part, I was ready to sit and be in the presence of this energy. The first 15-20 minutes went great, I relaxed and began my breathing, slow and easy. The room was silent, completely silent. I could barely hear a breath. Then, the scalding tea struck again. My throat began to gurgle. You know the type, the gurgling noise you cannot control and leads to unnecessary swallowing followed by the urge to burp. Yes, this was now my reality with the Shaolin Monks. So much for meditating as now my entire thought was on controlling my swallowing which now seemed so loud that the entire room could hear. I was waiting for the wooden sword to smack me on the shoulder but it never came. Over and over I suppressed my urge to swallow and then burp. I began to curse that tea in my mind. Why was it so hot? Why? Yes, I was out of any construct of Zen and then I heard the sound that equated us all. It was faint at first and a complete surprise. I had been struggling to elevate myself to the level of a monk and with one sound I realized we were all equal. “Burp”…..loudly came from a monk across the room and then another “burp” from a different location. Yes….the monks were human, they were no different than I was. The sound of a monk burping was like a flash of Zen enlightenment. I stopped trying to be something different and relaxed. I didn’t need to impress anyone, we were all one, and there were no spiritual levels.

shaolin meditationFrom here I relaxed and took in the moment. I breathed. The energy was palpable, it was vivid, alive and intense. This moment was beautiful. I took it all in, breath after breath. Over an hour into our meditation session, I heard Carlos next to me start to struggle. If you have ever meditated for any length of time, you understand that it takes some time for your body to get used to the experience. Carlos was clearly struggling. His legs began to get heavy as he wrapped his arms around his legs in one deep hug to end the ache and to keep them elevated. I could feel his pain in every one of his movements. Every few moments he would shift and change his breathing. I wasn’t sure if he would make it. Finally the wooden sword monk walked around again one last time and a few minutes later a loud gong rang outside of the complex. We made it, no wooden sword for us. (I learned later my friend Asbjorn, the Viking Monk, was tapped twice during the session for breathing too loud- I still laugh thinking about the bald, red bearded Norwegian getting tapped for breathing too loud).

Immediately after the gong the monks opened their eyes, put on their shoes and walked out of the meditation hall. They looked over at Carlos and I and waved for us to quickly leave the room. I slapped on my shoes and followed them out of the room, but heard a slight groan from Carlos who wasn’t doing so well. I decided to stand outside of the room and wait for him. One by one the monks rushed past me and out of the hallway. A few of them kept waving for me to follow. I didn’t know what to do, I tried to communicate in English but this wasn’t working. I kept pointing to the inside of the hall, saying ‘my friend is in there still’. They didn’t understand, they only said ‘NO’….and kept waving me along. It was clear they didn’t understand and they didn’t want me there. I didn’t know what to do as I wanted to wait for Carlos AND I didn’t know how to get out of this area of the temple. I had followed Carlos here and was unsure how to get out of this maze we were in. I followed them down the hallway, and realized they were inviting me to eat with them. Wow…what an honor, yet I wanted to make sure Carlos had this opportunity as well. I kept trying to go back to the hall and they kept saying politely ‘NO’. In this I kept pointing toward the meditation hall and kept repeating …’friend’. Finally, out of the green drape came Carlos like a Latvian Frankenstein. His legs were asleep and he was in pain. He tried to walk but he looked like a monk zombie. I waved him forward saying they were inviting us to dinner. He walked the best he could in his stiff legs until we got to the monk dining quarters.

Upon entering they handed us a bowl and pointed to the big pot of food. The room was filled with rows of thin tables, with a chair every few feet. It almost looked like a school cafeteria where hundreds of people could sit and eat. There was a routine here though as most of the seats were reserved for a particular monk. They all had their individual bowls and their chopsticks that they used over and over again to go along with their particular seat. A monk pointed at us to grab the food and to sit at an open spot on the edges of the room. I made my way up to the huge pot of food that had been wheeled into the room. There was a ladle to scoop the vegetarian noodle soup into my bowl where I put in an ample amount. I didn’t want to take too much, nor did I explore the condiment section of spices next to the soup. I wanted to be as discreet as possible. The food was delicious, a rich vegetarian broth, with noodles and vegetables and a surprise pickle or two in the meal. Across the room the monks ate in silence, not a word. I caught the eye of a few of them and they smiled. These are the moments that have me explore and seek places and cultures across the world. A moment in silence with a shared smile. A beautiful meal and a transcendent moment. We finished our food and walked into the kitchen, washed our bowls and chopsticks and bowed goodbye to the monks.

Our ¼ mile walk home was slow and painful for Carlos. His legs would not wake up, he was in pain. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I heard him curse in English with his thick Latvian accent. I slept easy that night at one with my breath and the Shaolin monks forever linked by a smile and a burp.

Shaolin Reflections III: The Mountains of Song Shan

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Shaolin Reflections III: The Mountains of Song Shan

The valley below Song Shan

The valley below Song Shan

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Sir Edmund Hillary

“Why did you come here?”

This was the first question I got when I arrived in China. The easy answer was that I was here to visit the Shaolin Temple, yet this didn’t quite answer the question for me. Yes, I wanted to train and meditate with the monks and visit the temple; yet, there was something deeper for me. I wanted to experience Bodhidharma (Damo). I wanted to experience what he experienced. I wanted to experience the sacredness of this place and the surrounding mountains. This trip was never about a particular destination it was about the journey, about the experiences I would have along the way. My response to this question echoed all of these thoughts “to experience Damo is why I’m here.”

The Sun over Damo

The Sun over Damo

Mountains have held a spiritual significance across cultures and different philosophies from the beginning of human existence. In the Old Testament Moses climbed Mount Sinai to speak to God; Greek and Hindu Gods are believed to have resided on top of mountains. It was as if the mountains were our stairway to the heavens, bridging the mortal world with that of the Gods. Ascending a mountain became a spiritual quest, a journey to look within and connect to the divine.

The Shaolin Temple resides in the shadows of the Song Shan Mountains. Mt Song (Song Shan) is called “the central great mountain”,  and is one of the 5 sacred peaks in China. According to Chinese mythology the 5 great mountains originated from the body of Pangu, the first creator and being of the world. Each mountain represents a different body part of Pangu based on the peaks location. The east mountain Tai Shan represented the head, the south mountain Heng Shan (Hunan) is considered the right arm, the north mountain Heng Shan (Shanxi) the left arm, the west mountain Hua Shan his feet, and the central mountain Song Shan represented the belly. The Shaolin Temple sits at the center of China’s sacred mountains and has become a major pilgrimage site to spiritual seekers across the globe. This is poetic as in Chinese the word pilgrimage is represented in a symbol that is a shortened version of an expression which means “paying respect to a mountain.”

Yes….I was here to pay respect to a mountain.

When my friend and fellow International student Carlos, the mountain man from Latvia, asked me one day in his heavy eastern European accent “So Thomas you vant to climb Song Shan?” I immediately said yes.

Carlos was one of the most interesting characters I have ever met. He was straight out of the woods in his demeanor, tone and tall with a lean body, and a shaved head with a long, thin beard extending from his chin. His accent in speaking English utilized the V’s versus the W’s like Drago from the movie Rocky IV which made everything sound so dramatic. After dinner each evening he would wait impatiently each evening to get street food from a village food cart. His food of choice he called a pancake, a homemade, doughy wrap filled with his favorite grilled meats. He would call out every evening…”I vant a pancake…Is the pancake guy on the street?” Carlos had been at Shaolin for over 3 months and had trained hard. He was a fighter back home and was a warrior at heart. But at his depth, at his core he was a mountain man. He was always out exploring the mountains, mostly alone, as this was his home. He was always anxious to show others his home in the mountains hoping they could experience his love and connection to nature and the outdoors. Carlos told me he grew up in the country in Latvia and as a child would run around naked with his brothers in the woods. He said he knew all the plants and the trees in his country. His idea of fun back home was to hike into the snow laced woods with his friends carrying a kettle bell, where they would train deep into the night, then build a huge fire and then gorge on a post workout feast.

Carlos had recently bought a 4 person tent so he could stay on the mountain versus hiking up and down on his days off. Asbjorn the Viking monk and I were to be his first disciples in camping on Song Shan. This was a golden opportunity for me as one of my primary objectives was to experience Song Shan mountain.

Since our only real day off from training was Sunday we planned to leave on the hike to the top of Mt Song early in the afternoon on Saturday after our morning training, then spend the night and return Sunday evening.

Damo Cave

First I had to get through the training session in the morning which I learned would

Straight up to Damo Cave

Straight up to Damo Cave

be a conditioning session in running up the mountain to Damo Cave. I was both excited and hesitant about this. Excited as I want to see and experience the spot Damo sat and meditated for 9 years when he first arrived at the Shaolin Temple from India, and hesitant in climbing 1300+ steps straight up in the 95 degree heat and humidity. Our core group of six headed out in the morning from the Shaolin temple onto a rock lined path toward the Damo cave and statue. We made our way past a small, open temple along the way and started our run up the hill. At first, it didn’t seem bad, slow and steady and then the stairs appeared. Stone stairs as far as the eye could see straight up. Po from Kung Fu Panda came to my mind when he said he was up against his greatest enemy “stairs.” I fully understood. There’s something about climbing a mountain as the mind has desire and will to ascend and rise within so that we can become the best that we can be; yet, there’s doubt and fear that creep in like anything in life that make us hesitant and small. The pain that we endured in climbing to the top fought with the desire to complete the task and experience the Damo cave. We ran, we walked, as we ascended one step at a time. The eternal question in climbing – How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. Step after step we kept going, past the tents covering the path filled with old t-shirts and trinkets. I was too out of breath to dwell on this irony of shops filled with trinkets and t-shirts along the path to Damo Cave where Bodhidharma let everything go in meditation.

A blessing at Damo's Cave

A blessing at Damo’s Cave

Finally we made it to the top and I stopped to peer into Damo’s cave. There was an older nun managing the site to ensure no one entered or damaged the sacred spot. My tiredness dissipated in the reverence of the moment. This was the spot that the founder of Zen and modern day martial arts sat for nine years and found enlightenment. Outside of the cave entrance was a small stone table set up to light incense and bow in respect. I watched a mother and her two daughters kneel one by one and bow in respect to Damo. Then the youngest daughter who couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 went back to bow again. This moment I will always treasure, it moved my mind past the pain and reflections of Damo and his experiences from 2000 years ago to one of innocence and love.

Damo Statue

Damo Statue

Our crew climbed a bit further to the top of the mountain to sit underneath the 35 foot high statue of Damo. From here we could see the full valley below, the Shaolin Temple, our Kung Fu village and across the other side Mount Song Shan. This was going to be my afternoon. Climb one mountain in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Song Shan

Our crew ran down the mountain finished our training and headed back to our hostel for lunch. Our plan was to eat and rest an hour and then head out on our 5+ hour hike up to the top of Mt. Song. I was exhausted from the morning training, I hadn’t drank enough water and my head was pounding, clearly dehydrated. I pounded down some water and tried to shake it off. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity but climbing a mountain with a throbbing head ache wasn’t going to be pleasurable. I took a nap and still the headache wouldn’t go away. The Viking monk woke me and told me we had to go. I was about to cancel but I knew I needed to honor my word. I had committed to this and this I knew was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was willing to take it on no matter the outcome.

I had 5 minutes to pack which wasn’t difficult as I only had a small pack used for my laptop. I had no sleeping bag and my blanket wouldn’t fit in the bag. I threw in a towel for a blanket, a coat, a hat and some long pants along with some water and snacks. This would have to do. Yet, this was not my norm. Back home in Seattle I hike and climb mountains and I make a point to have the proper gear and supplies. This was my first overnight trip not having the appropriate gear. I was willing to deal with the consequences in exchange for the experience. We set out from the hostel and walked a couple hundred meters down the path and then veered left onto a dirt path that meandered through some farm fields. I was wearing shorts, my hiking shoes and a t-shirt as it was still extremely hot.

About 100 meters into the path, Carlos called out from the lead “Vatch for snakes….”

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Vatch for snakes as they are all over this mountain.” Carlos said again.

Gulp was my only response and my head was now on a swivel. Carlos and Asbjorn both were wearing their long Kung Fu pants and socks. I had made a mistake in not following suit. After a short while we veered left and began our ascent. Just over our head was a tram that most of the tourists took mid-way up the mountain to a temple and scenic view spot. From here they could choose if they wanted to climb further up the mountain.

“Hey, why don’t we catch the tram up the mountain to save some time?” Both Asbjorn and I asked.

“I don’t vant to spend the money or wait in the line,” Carlos said.

Song Shan Cliff

Song Shan Cliff

Asbjorn and I looked at each other, the cost of the tram was about 20 Yuan, roughly $4 American dollars. $4 dollars to save us two hours of climbing, seemed like a logical and easy decision in particular since we had already climbed another mountain earlier in the morning. Carlos wasn’t having it so we kept climbing and after two hours snaking up the mountain we made it to the tram drop spot and temple location. This was a tourist hot spot with drinks and trinkets being sold. The Viking monk and I both overspent on a cold drink but it was worth it. We rested a short bit and kept climbing. As usual we were the target of the Chinese tourist’s cameras. Indifferent to this we kept climbing a small path along the side of the mountain and just after the temple the views became spectacular along the granite cliffs. Slight metal bars kept hikers from a thousand foot fall.

“Vhen it rains, tourists die up here all the time.” Carlos called out.

“Come again,” I said. My heart beating already as I was not fond of heights.

“The granite gets vet and they slip and fall off the mountain.” He said without emotion.

I nodded and just kept climbing. I was profoundly happy it was dry this day and waited to see what was next. It didn’t take long for me to see. The path wound around to the edge of a granite cliff where indiscreet steps had been carved into the ridge in order for us to keep ascending. Alongside were chains pounded into the granite to hold onto so as not to fall the one way trip off the edge. I understood now why not to climb this in the rain. Again I battled this incredible view and experience with the fear in looking off the edge. A bad step or a slip and we would tumble off the mountain. The only approach was to set the eyes forward, and focus on one step at a time. Asbjorn and I became quiet in our concentration at this point in the climb. Having not been up here before I was uncertain in how much worse it was going to become. Asbjorn had done very little hiking and no climbing at all. I could only image what was going through his mind. The higher we got on the climb the less day hikers we found. Most stopped at the temple, and the few that continued didn’t follow the trail very far. After about 3-4 hours into our climb we were on our own. The granite cliffs thankfully shifted into a tree lined path with little to no view other than the path in front of us. We occasionally had to relay our packs ahead to the guy in front of us as we free climbed up a rock face, yet overall it was just a tedious, uneventful path. Finally after about 5 hours we climbed to the crest of the hill we were on and Carlos announced our arrival at the top of Song Shan Mountain. This event was without ceremony as there was no view, and this sacred spot was sprayed with litter as had the entire path up the mountain. I was without words, I was tired, my head still hurt and I was hungry. It’s been said that the root of suffering is expectation and this is where I was at as I had built in my mind what this experience would be like at the top of one of China’s 5 sacred peaks, and here I stood on a hill with some trees and garbage.

“Let’s set up camp, and I vant to show you one of my favorite spots.” Carlos called out.

With this, we set up camp, grabbed a snack and he took us a short way down the

View from the top of Song Shan

View from the top of Song Shan

other side of the mountain and then back up to the edge of a cliff overlooking the other side of Song Shan. We were about an hour from sunset and as we came into view of the opening my heart opened and wept. All of the pain, and suffering and expectation washed away as I sat in one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen. We sat in silence, as if to bow to the sacredness of this spot. We didn’t need words, the wind blew, the birds sang and the sun kissed the sky and the day goodbye. Sometimes in life we must experience pain so that we have gratitude for the beautiful moments in life, and this was one of those times. We must see darkness for us to see light. All I could see was light through the impending darkness. This moment was our reward for pain, and for our persistence.

After the sunset we made our way back to camp and built a huge fire. I was exhausted after this long day and after a small meal laid down in our tent. In getting in the tent it was clear this was NOT a four man tent. Back in the States this was a two man tent, and the three of us were not exactly small, so combined with not having a sleeping bag I knew this was going to be a long night. Even in the middle of summer, the tops of mountains bring in a chill. There was no way around this. I put on my pants, my coat, hat and wrapped myself in my towel. I had never been so underprepared for a camping trip. However, it would have to do. Eventually the guys made their way into the tent and we went head to toe, head to toe with the Viking monk as the sandwich in the middle. He was the only one with a sleeping bag so it was a chance for Carlos and I to try and find a little warmth. With the three of us in the tent there was no room to move. Rolling over took place by spinning in place on one spot.The ground was hard and the thin yoga mat I was using provided little comfort. I knew right away I would not sleep much. Throughout the night, I could hear Carlos try to adjust and get warmth just as I was on the other end of the tent. The Viking monk in his sleeping bag and Norwegian dreams slept through it all, content with his red beard sticking into the air beneath long exhales and an occasionally snore.

Morning couldn’t come fast enough. We ate a quick snack and decided to try a different route to the Kung Fu village. Down we went, ridge after ridge, combined with a few attempts in traversing a dry creek bed (failed), trying to find the lost path (multiple fails), a huge snake crossing directly in front of Carlos (almost major fail), a few ledges overlooking astonishing cliffs and then finally finding our way home. After a replenishing lunch all I could think about was gratitude. Gratitude for Carlos the mountain man and his willingness to take us on this journey. Gratitude for going in the face of not wanting to and gratitude in connecting to the beauty in nature.

I reflected on the sacredness of this place. This energy is created by our experience and could be anywhere we declare it. Anatoli Boukreev declared “mountains are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Yes, I understood. It was in the solitude, in the wind, in the sounds and sights of nature that we feel the sacredness. It was here that we connected to the divine within. It was here that we connected to the divine in everything.

This was the sacredness of Song Shan.

Song Shan Diaoqiao

I had heard about a hike up to a suspension bridge and the Song Shan Diaogiao temple and knew I needed climb this before I left China. Again, my source for all hiking was Carlos the mountain man.

“Of course you should go, this is a beautiful hike. You vill vant to go in the evening so you can sneak past the fence on the bridge as they are doing construction at the temple.” He said.

I wasn’t sure about sneaking under/over a fence on a suspension bridge but he assured me it was a hike I needed to take. I trained in the morning at the temple, quickly ate lunch and headed out on the hike with the plan to skip the afternoon Kung Fu training session. I needed to get in this hike before I left.

Getting to the trailhead was not as simple as it seemed. All of the buses into Shaolin seemed to stop at the temple and the Pagoda forest and you were left on your own to get to where you needed. Occasionally a small cart using a motorcycle engine acted as a taxi around the village, however, for this hike I headed out on my own. It was roughly 2 km up to the trailhead and then a significant hike from there. On the way up I noticed some construction on a tram that was either being built or getting updated that would eventually take the tourists up most of the hike on the mountain. This seemed cheating to me. When you get to the top of a mountain you want to know you experienced all that it had to offer, every step. In this, through the pain you could then be at peace to enjoy every moment as if it were earned.

I started my journey up the trailhead, past some locals selling herbs from the nearby forest and quickly came to a familiar presence – stairs. These steps didn’t seem to stop ascending as far as my eyes could see. There were so many that I decided to play a game and count them. I was hiking on my own so this would be my mental game to take my mind away from the hike as I was already tired from the morning training. Up and up the stairs went. It gave me time to reflect on the amount of effort it must have taken to put in every one of these stone steps. The effort was monumental and on just about every hike I went on in China. Truly astounding. Then about half way up the first set of steep stairs I came across a lady with a small, homemade broom cleaning the trail and emptying the garbage from the cans along the trail. This was her job. I kept moving up the stairs until finally on a count near 1000 the trail reached a tree lined, shady section along a creek and continued on an incline into the mountains.

Trail on the side of a mountain

Trail on the side of a mountain

After some time and considerable more stairs the trail leveled onto a terrace sidelined by a few shops selling cold drinks and food. Just past the shops the trail opened into sharp granite hills. There was no possibility of a climb outside of the steep edges and over the ledge was another 800-1000 foot drop. I gazed across the ravine and noticed a trail alongside the granite wall. It had been constructed jutting out of the wall as if it was an supported staircase again a mountain. All I could think about was do I really trust the engineers who built this? My thoughts amplified as I started down the trail and noticed gaps in the trail, missing mortar that left small holes in the path leaving a window into the drop off the mountain. I wondered out loud as I kept counting the

Stairs up a mountain

Stairs up a mountain

stairs in what was next on the path. The manmade path mirrored the ridge line in and around the mountain ledges making a huge semi-circle, followed by more stairs up, a few tight squeezes on the granite with chain railing until finally you could see the suspension bridge and temple off in the distance. I made my way up the final steps (4000 up and 4000 down total) until I stood on the suspension bridge hovering in the air over hundreds of feet between granite cliffs. All that was left was the simplicity of a stone temple, built high into the side of a mountain to find peace and connection to the God within.

Temple on a mountain

Temple on a mountain

Mountains require discipline, effort. They require persistence in the face of no hope. They require one to transcend something within themselves to overcome what they thought was not possible. The spiritual connection in climbing a mountain is the same path. Persistence, self-discipline, having to overcome something within to find beauty and love along the journey. William Blake stated “Great things are done when mountains and men meet.” It is in nature and the mountains that bring out the best in us, the ability to overcome and keep ascending forward.

5 Dragon Pond

5 Dragon Pond Reflections

5 Dragon Pond Reflections

“Thomas, I have to show you 5 Dragon Pond before you go.” Carlos tells me on my last day in China.

5 Dragon Pond was a secluded spot with five small ponds surrounded by granite walls that many famous pictures had been taken of the Shaolin monks. Carlos told us it was a must see so myself and the core International crew of Kong, Erika, Asbjorn, Suthan followed our Latvian guide out of the Kung Fu village and after a few kilometers and a small hill we took a left onto a little used trail and scrambled down a small hillside. At the end of the trail was a small, discreet pond littered with plastic bottles and garbage. It left our party with no inspiration.

“This can’t be the spot,” I said out loud.

Vait till you get up on the next pond,” Carlos assured us.

The quickest way up was a small swim followed by a slight rock climb with bare feet.

5 Dragon Pose

5 Dragon Pose

We made it up and true to the word of Carlos this pond was bigger and the granite walls were rich in color, enclosing the small creek and the 5 ponds in a mirror. The water was still and reflected all of the colors leaving breathtaking pictures. We all put on our best Shaolin monk poses and took in the moment. This was my last activity before leaving China and it left me with a memory of reflection, of the beauty in nature and of friendship. We represented the Netherlands, Norway, Latvia, Thailand, Australia and the United States on this hike yet for this moment, this trip and now for this lifetime we are all brothers and sisters having shared these experiences.

Life is the journey, it is the experiences. It is up to us to seek them and to experience life to the fullest, on the edge.