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

 

 

 

 

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.

Shaolin Reflections II: Training in Kung Fu

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“If you train just the exercises then it is Wushu, if you bring all of it to your life then it is KUNG FU.” – Words from a Shaolin Monk

I’ve been in martial arts for most of my life. Over ten years as a wrestler, a year in Tae Kwon Do, and many years in Wing Chun/Jeet Kune Do and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Yet, there was something different about the first day of training Kung Fu with the Shaolin monks. It wasn’t fear or anxiety. It was a heightened expectation, like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time. I mean, this was the source of all modern-day martial arts. This was the home of the mythical Shaolin warriors and their extreme physical talents that match a mystical spiritual connection. I was committed to experiencing all of it over the two weeks I was at the temple. Twice a day for 5 hours a day we were to train with the monks. After meeting the teacher I was ready.

shaolin doorsThe teacher took us out into the core of the temple past the tourists and led us to a door with a red sign in Chinese that must have said private or no entry as no tourists entered this part of the temple. The Shaolin temple was large covering over 57,000 square meters. The central complex consisted of a main temple area with 7 core halls that stretched across the 360 meters in length of the complex. This core area was enclosed and open to tourists throughout the day. On the outside of this ran a stone, paved road that separated two additional areas of the complex. Looking at the temple from the front gate, to the left side was known (at least to us foreigners) as the Warrior Monk side of the complex and to the right were the Traditional Monk quarters. I was told that the Warrior Monks did not have as many commitments as the traditional monks. Some lived outside the complex, were allowed to eat meat and get married if they chose. The Traditional Monks held deeper commitments and vows and stayed true to the life of a Buddhist monk.

shaolin training hall

Shaolin Training Hall

Our teacher led us to the Warrior Monk side of the complex, and in crossing through the no entry door we made our way up an inclined stone road about 50 meters to the training center. We passed by the Warrior Monk living quarters, some additional training facilities and temple courtyards that were used to teach and train students both in the classroom and in Kung Fu. The main training hall was large, roughly 40 x 20 meters. In the center was a huge stage draped in a huge Shaolin backdrop used  to train and practice performances.

Gold Statues at Shaolin Training Hall

Gold Statues at Shaolin Training Hall

At the far end were old, very used and dirty pads for gymnastics, and a huge wooden carved chair. To the left were more pads on the ground for practice, in the center of the room was a long red carpet used for traction and off to the right were 3 huge, gold statues watching over the training center. The center was simplistic, almost rustic. There seemed to be a purpose for this. This hall was about training – sweat, work and training. It didn’t matter if there was dust and dirty mats, this was a training center. This I learned quickly.

Part of the Shaolin International Crew

Mingling about outside the practice area were young students all dressed alike in their black pants and matching Shaolin t-shirts. Some older, teen students were preparing to train as well. They were not as matched, I guess the discipline had been engrained in them as children and they were now free to express themselves in their attire. The rest of the International crew were also prepping to train, stretching their legs on nearby rock ledges. There were no belts here for students. The Chinese students were simply grouped with their age and skill level and the international students were primarily broken into experience, 3 months and under in one group and 3 months and above in another where they received individual instruction with forms and training. In looking at the situation it looked like this was the beginning group of students for the monks to train. The advanced monks were only seen as teachers in this setting. There wasn’t much time for reflection as the teacher quickly said, “run.” I followed the path of the other students and we ran up and down the 100+ meter stone hill 5 times. It was around 95 degrees and as humid as I have ever felt which is saying something because I have lived in Florida before. Within minutes my shirt was soaked, and the sweat poured out of me. The Shaolin boot camp had begun.

Each day blended with the next, training from 8:30-11 each morning, we would walk the 1/2 mile or so back to the Kung Fu village and our living quarters to eat lunch and then we would relax and nap out of exhaustion from the training. Then, we would find a dry shirt and off to train again from 2:30-5, then dinner and rest.

Shaolin trainingThe training had a structure. Most days were running to warm up, stretching, kicking and punching exercises and then practicing forms. We varied our warm up of running the stone hill with running laps around the temple which included a trek through the throngs of tourists inside the main area of the complex. This became a game for us as the Chinese tourists were fascinated with a group of foreigners and the thought of non-Chinese training Kung Fu with the monks. The selfie sticks were on high alert when we ran through the temple. Picture after picture was snapped. A contingent of our crew (all three of my roommates included) shaved their heads, not as a monk declaration but as a way to deal with the heat and the intensity of the training. It was here thatShaolin form the Viking Monk- Asbjorn became a cult like figure around the complex with his shaved head and full, red Viking beard. He was quite the sight in his green, five-finger shoes, his shaved head, red beard and Kung Fu pants. As we came into view with the tourists you could see them slap each other to look at us while grabbing for their cameras. The Viking monk would make a game with them in quickly altering his course and running right at them. This caused more than one to startle, and trip backwards, all the while laughing in the exchange. This made me deeply laugh in watching the Viking monk try to scare the tourists. This was very entertaining and a break from the training.

Some of the days were mixed with gymnastic training in doing cart wheels and flips. Our group would attempt to flip and kip up from the ground. The experienced students would come in and we would stop in amazement to watch. The young kids would flip, jump and fly in the air, yet when the older kids came in they were like Olympic gymnasts, flipping in the air, landing on their back and jumping straight up. The athleticism and skill were astounding. They would mix this with kicks and punches in the air to bring these spectacular Kung Fu exchanges that were right out of the movies, yet this was real. Raw and real. The skill set of these kids 15-16 years old made me wonder what the older, Shaolin demonstration team was like. What more could they bring in fusing the body, the mind and the spirit into a Zen warrior.

kung fu armyThe skill level of the children and young adults amazed me. I watched this around the village and in the city of Deng Feng while I was in town. These two places were filled with Kung Fu training centers. The buildings in the city rose like huge dormitories, and seemed to be individual villages with their own gates, multiple apartment like living quarters and expansive open, dirt or sand covered courtyards for training. Thousands of uniformed, soldier like, kids marched about all day training in Kung Fu. From my view China was building a Kung Fu army, it still baffles my mind in multitude of the students. The biggest training center has a large complex in Deng Feng and one outside of the Shaolin Temple. I was told they have over 75,000 students alone in this one training club. The magnitude is staggering, and this was just one training center. Everywhere you looked were marching Kung Fu students training all day. They would get up at 5 am and I could hear them yelling out in the streets counting their punches and kicks, or running in cadence. They marched to breakfast, all with a purpose and chores led by older students and then marched back to train some more, this happened all day long into the evening. I talked to one parent who spoke English and was told some of these kids were here all year, in a sports like camp for students, and some were here for months, perhaps during their summer break. I would see a parent visit on the weekend and have lunch or dinner with the student and then they would leave. I don’t know how frequent these visits were, however, I do know these students were primarily on their own in their new Kung Fu family. The city of Deng Feng was a myriad of Kung Fu schools, street after street of schools and masses of students. I joked that Deng Feng was the last place you wanted to get into a fight. This was not the place to speak back or engage in a testosterone fueled dance over trivial matters. This was the place to learn respect and humility with self and others.

Kung Fu DisciplineYet, from my view, most things in China were not everything as they seemed on the surface. China was a dichotomy. There seemed to be a presentation for the public, a surface level to convey a certain image, yet below this there was something else. It was evident when you arrived in the country. On the walls at the airport were huge, beautiful pictures of majestic locations in China. These places alone were amazing, yet these pictures were Photoshopped to add a rainbow, and birds flying to create this surreal, yet fake scene. This was my experience in China with this amazing, epic adventure yet underneath the face of it, there was this dichotomy. I found this with the kids training in Kung Fu. I would marvel in their skill set, yet at the same time I would watch in amazement in how they were trained. There was a discipline and treatment of children that you would not see in the west. I do not speak to whether this is right or wrong, it was simply quite astonishing for a westerner to watch. These tiny children were ordered around like soldiers, yelled at, even poked with sticks and poles all the while without empathy or compassion. I watched these 5-6 year olds frog jump up and down the stone hill 50 meters at a time, over and over again and then run up and down the hill to the point of exhaustion. This was followed by stretching and more stretching. One small child screamed in the pain of his legs, I watched the instructor go over to him thinking he would comfort and encourage him, yet he grabbed his leg and pulled it higher into a full split as the child screamed louder. Finally he let go and the child dropped to the ground screaming in agony. He was left to deal with this on his own. This was the training. Push beyond the physical comfort and build discipline. I watched two kids probably around 9 or 10 stand on one leg and grab the other above their head in a standing split. They were put here in punishment. At first I watched in amazement at the difficulty in this and then the minutes ticked by, first 5 and then 10 minutes. My heart began to beat faster wanting this to end. I was in pain watching. Yet these kids calmly stood there, 15 minutes, and then 20. I finally left after 30 minutes. I don’t know how long they stood like that, my guess was close to an hour. This was my dichotomy as I couldn’t understand how a monk could treat other human beings this way. I came to realize that there were monk-monks and simply Warrior monks. The latter were astounding in their physical feats, yet their spiritual depth was limited in comparison to the other monks. There were traditional monks with deep Kung Fu training who were also teachers. You could tell the difference as their seemed to be a gentleness, and warmth to them. They seemed to look at other living beings with love and empathy.

Shaolin kettle bellsOutside of the normal routine of training, one day a week was typically for developing power. We would do monk style kettle bells made out of concrete, followed by hundreds of strikes to a sandbag. Saturdays were also a change-up to the schedule. These were single training sessions and then we had Sundays off. Saturdays were considered a conditioning day and most of the students around the area, including our group, ran up the mountain to the statue of Damo- 1300+ steps straight up. Steps to DamoLines of Kung Fu students climbed the mountain as if it were an outdoor gym. The heat, the unevenness of the steps and the incline made this quite a challenge and we were spent at the end of the run.

After two weeks of training I had lost 10 lbs, was far more flexible and could complete two forms. The physical components were not my focus, I wanted to reflect on the connection between mind, body and spirit. In practicing just the exercises the movements became lifeless, like going to the gym. No depth, or spiritual connection simply a workout. It was in deeper reflection, in moving from the source that I found the unified connection. My instructor would constantly say in his limited English “more power”. As a beginning Wushu Kung Fu student it was often difficult to see. I would see glimpses in my training, yet I saw flashes of it from masters. At one point my teacher was showing me a move in deflecting a punch, countering with a punch to the opponents throat. As I mindlessly went through the movements he pulled me aside and said, “it is here….with power.” With this he deflected my punch and in a flash punched at my throat, grazing my Adam’s apple. It took me a moment to get past the “he almost killed me”, I mean really a half-inch more and my throat was crushed. Yet, I got it. His power that came from within his energy. It happened in a flash, without effort as if from his root, his being.

Shaolin Monk headstandOn my last day in China I had the opportunity to see this full connection further as I  was given the chance of a lifetime in seeing the Shaolin performance team give a demonstration in front of the Abbott and a dignitary from Iran. Without warning on my last day, our training was canceled and our group was shuttled into a closed off building within the temple for a performance. It was determined that 3-4 International students would perform as well to show the expansion of Shaolin Kung Fu across the globe. My friend Erika was asked to perform and after a few moments to gather her thoughts she reveled in this incredible opportunity. Our group was brought into the room where 20-30 of us lined the walls next to the performing space to watch the show. After a few moments the Abbott and the dignitary came in and sat down and on cue 16 monks marched out to the center of the stone floor in four by four rows. I was excited beyond belief. I had heard of the incredible skills of the monks. I had already seen my instructor do 2 finger push ups, I was anxious to see more. All at once the monks screamed to start their form. They flowed with grace and power across the floor. I could feel the power from their kicks and punches 15 feet away as if the Chi energy slapped me in the face. The energy was palpable. Then in unison the form was over. From the back one of the monks screamed and sprinted 20 meters straight at the Abbott, just prior reaching him he leapt as high as he could in the air, flipped and landed flat on his back on the stone floor. The room echoed with the slap of his body on the hard floor but he was not fazed. He bounced his head off the floor and jumped back up into a fighting stance, did some more acrobatics and then bowed. Another monk immediately leapt out front like a Kung Fu riff off, each out to top the next. The monks would leap in the air and land in the splits, lift themselves up with one hand and jump in power and speed. Finally, to close out the ceremony two monks came out with one dropping into a handstand while the other held his feet. Immediately he extended one finger on each hand into a one finger handstand with no waiver in his fingers or arms. I struggled to maintain a calm presence as I watched the magnitude of these amazing feats. Erika came on with the International students and completed her form with power and intensity. Such a proud moment in watching her perform well and for the gratitude in her opportunity.

Example of Shaolin monks performing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DV5AB317oBs .

In reflection in my Kung Fu training, I was blessed to have had this opportunity and to have experienced the training and being in the presence of such incredible martial artists and individuals on a spiritual quest. The term epic adventure doesn’t do this justice as it was more than training, it was the relationships and the experiences. This is what I will remember most. I feel as though I have life long friends from this trip, ones that jointly experienced a life altering event together. In this we are now joined as brothers and sisters along our path in life, no longer able to view it the same. We are all Zen warriors in quest of bettering ourselves and those around us. This is the essence of Damo. This is Kung Fu.

Be well. Be love.

Thomas D. Craig

Author of A Cup of Buddha and Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

writer. seeker. Zen warrior

Shaolin Reflections: The Journey to Damo

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Shaolin Reflections: The Journey to Damo

“When the student is ready the master appears.”

I’ve wanted to go to the Shaolin Temple for as long as I can remember.

Thomas Craig in monk robe

Thomas Craig in monk robe

I can initially point to David Carradine and his character Kwai Chang Caine in the epic TV series Kung Fu for this. Kwai Chang Caine was a monk from the Shaolin Temple who wandered the old west of America, seeking each day like a child, unbiased and with love, yet protecting those around him who could not protect themselves with grace and power in his Kung Fu. His bald head and branded arms of a tiger and a dragon are still seared in my mind. For a young kid from a small, mill town in America the world created by Kwai Chang Caine couldn’t have been more different. I wanted to learn more.

After I graduated from college it seemed like the East was calling me. Every book I seemed to pick up at the bookstore was filled with thoughts from the east- from martial arts, to Buddhism, to Taoism, to meditation and stories and maps of places and people across Asia. My protestant, American upbringing was becoming a distant memory. A new path was calling me.

BodhidharmaYet, Shaolin was still a distant thing, a someday bucket list. As I learned more about Zen Buddhism and martial arts I learned the Shaolin Temple was the birthplace of both my desire to visit the temple amplified. I learned that a monk from India by the name of Bodhidharma traveled to China in roughly 480 A.D. and settled in the Henan province of China just outside of the Shaolin Temple. Upon arriving he found a cave on a mountain and meditated for 9 straight years. It is said that his shadow became encased into the rock walls of the cave after so many years of sitting and that in frustration in his falling asleep while meditating he cut off his eyelids in dedication. Upon finding enlightenment Bodhidharma (called Damo in China) taught at the temple. He is credited with the formation of the Zen (called Chan in China) style of Buddhism and the formation of modern-day martial arts. Monks began exercising to increase their internal energy flow in Qigong and this lead to additional moves for self-defense. This man Damo became the root for Zen and all martial arts as you know them today. Yes, this was a bucket list.

Shaolin moved from bucket list to one of consciousness for me when my writer friend Red Pine (Bill Porter) said to me in an email “Thomas when you go to Shaolin I will connect you with the Abbott.” It wasn’t said as a what if, it was said as this was inevitable and would happen soon. It was said with intent as in, what was I waiting for. Like so many things in life we create reasons in why not to do something versus creating actions in actually doing these things. On this day Shaolin became a different context to me. It moved from a someday into an inevitable that needed an action plan.

I did some research and found the Temple offered a training, education and accommodation package for roughly $300 a week in American dollars. The promise of Kung Fu training, calligraphy, learning Chinese, massage and even bone setting was too much. I signed up and booked my ticket for two weeks.

The Shaolin Temple is located in central China roughly 395 miles southwest of Beijing near a small town (for China) called Dengfeng. This was a LONG way from Seattle Washington in America. Four planes, an overnight layover and 37 hours later I was on the ground in Zhengzhou awaiting my hour drive to the temple. I had traveled to many countries in the past, yet this was my first solo trip to a foreign country. There was a certain excitement in entering a country where you didn’t not speak the language, or know the customs or lifestyle of the people. It was as if I was a child and everything was new again. It seemed okay to not know everything and to ask questions, every little thing was fascinating from the dress of the people, to the food, to even the street signs. I took this on completely and sat in wonder, the mind of a seeker, the mind of a child. I took in the music in the car, the chaotic and craziness of the Chinese drivers where the driving laws and lanes were only suggestions. I took in the scenery and became entranced as the mountains grew around me. Mountains have always represented spiritual journeys throughout history, from Moses to Greek and Hindu Gods living at the summit of sacred peaks. Mountains represented one’s spirit climbing to overcome worldly matters to find the inner self. As the mountains rose around me I knew I was in the right place.

The Shaolin Temple is located at the base of Mt Song (Songshan) one of the 5 sacred mountains in China. Its history is over 2000 years old and the powers of the monks are legendary. As the complex came into view I was filled with excitement and tension in what was next for me. My driver, Levi, was the assistant to the International Relations Director at the temple Mr. Wang (pronounced Mr. Wong), and he immediately led me into the temple to sign some papers. I drug my oversized duffle behind me, dogging tourists as we made our way to the side security gate off the temple. Here I dropped my bag off with 3 monks acting as security for the entrance entombed in a small, stone room with a single bed and a toilet on the floor. They were all smiles, pure and simple in their monk robes and bald heads. Levi kept ploughing ahead clearly wanting to end this chore in his schedule. We passed a small, old man covered with dirt and soot managing the coal and fires from the back of some side chimneys in the temple. We passed through a mob of tourists with their selfie sticks and tour groups and made our way into Mr. Wangs office. The office was part of the main temple complex, dark, old and rich in history. There were old pictures on the wall of Vladimir Putin and the Abbott of the temple, an image they are clearly proud of, like a stamp of approval to the world as I saw it frequently during my visit. Across the room was a brightly painted gold statue of Damo. The interior was simple with a couch to the left and a small table for drinking tea with guests and a few desks for Mr. Wang and Levi to attend to all the International affairs of the temple. Mr. Wang rose and greeted me with a handshake. He was a shorter man with large bushy, dark eyebrows and seemed to be in his mid-forties. He spoke good English and got right to the point about signing papers and told me to report to his office at 8:30 the next morning to meet the teacher.

From here I was shuttled off the temple up the road to a small village that housed the International students some 400-500 meters away from the temple. From the outside the building looked run down and cluttered with junk around the property. At first sight this was disturbing but when I looked around there was junk and litter everywhere. This became a theme on my trip in China, even in the most sacred places I was surrounded by garbage. One of the first English phrases I heard when I got to China came to mind, “welcome to China.” This became the mantra of the trip and a reminder to not be surprised in what we were experiencing.

The woman who took care of the International Hostel beamed in her smile and she Shaolin International Student Hostelshowed me to my room where I met Kong (pronounced Gong), a young student from Thailand staying for a month training at the temple. He was ridiculous fit and resembled a young Bruce Lee so I went on to call him Bruce for the remainder of the trip. The hostel housed about 35 students from around the close. When I first arrived there were only 11 but soon filled with capacity from all over the globe, I counted 14-15 different countries from Taiwan, to Norway, Latvia, Germany, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, along with a large contingent from France and the western part of Africa. Some of them had been there for 2-3 years living and training with the monks. I was the only American on site at the time and graciously they all spoke English as a second language and this became the universal way of speaking around the complex. Soon after my arrival another younger guy named Asbjorn arrived from Norway. He had a thick head of red hair and a huge, curly Viking like beard. He immediately shaved his head and from this moment I called him the Viking monk. Last to fill our four person room out we added Jay from Australia. He was also in the IT industry and was a little older than the others in his mid-thirties so we hit it off immediately.

My first question to the group was “what’s the schedule?” I was expecting a detailed schedule of learning all day. First there was one laugh and then more and they all said, “yeah, we saw the website too and expected a full day of training.” Turned out the only training each day was a morning and afternoon session of Kung Fu training for a total of 5 hours. My initial reaction was of being angry. I trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and I really didn’t care if I trained in Kung Fu at all; I was here to experience Damo, to experience the historical and spiritual significance of the Shaolin Temple.

I let this go. This trip was about the journey not the destination and in this I was here to experience every moment that was brought my way. This was how I would take on the trip, with the eyes of a child, with the essence of wonder, it is said what we are seeking is seeking us. I was seeking 4 things on this trip- I wanted to experience Bodhidharma-Damo, Mt Song, meeting the Abbott, and experiencing the temple including meditating with the monks. This is what I was seeking. I went to sleep with this intention.

The next morning as we sat having tea with Mr. Wang he explained we were to formally meet our teacher. This was the formal method of beginning training in martial arts. I couldn’t get out of my mind the phrase “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Just as this thought passed my mind our teacher appeared in his monk robe and mala beads as he bowed with his hands in Namaste position in respect. We bowed back and followed him out of the tourist area of the temple to the training area of the warrior monks.

My transformation and journey were underway.

Kissed by God

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kissed by godYesterday I saw someone who had been kissed by God.

I sat in a coffee shop listening to a young singer Sawyer Fredericks, all of 16 years old, sing from the depths of the Universe. He sang from a sacred place, a place that was not learned or from training, a place touched by the divine.

I found myself moved to tears in knowing the grace in this connection, a harmony in all that is possible in living beings. One connection, one voice, one blend of vibration that inspires and unifies all of humanity. It was as if the voice of God was speaking directly to me.

This is and isn’t about Sawyer. I don’t know him and my guess is that as a 16-year-old he would think I was truly OUT THERE. This is about the blessing that we as living beings are in this Universe. This connection that Sawyer has is an idea of what is possible in all living beings. It is a representation of the divine within each of us. It is a kiss from God.

This moment exists everywhere. Look around. Let go of all of the busy thoughts in your mind or the thoughts of what should be. In this present moment around you is a moment that itself has been kissed by God. The smile of a small child, the hug of a reunion, the inspiration of a young man realizing his potential in life, a poem, a photograph, a novel, a movie. Human beings are amazing and we don’t even know this. The person next to you right now is incredible. When we take time to look and see life in a context that is beautiful and that anything is possible then the world appears this way to us. It becomes a gift, a miracle in every moment. It brings tears and happiness and LOVE at all times.

We have all been kissed by God.

We are each divine within, and we all have our own gift. We have the ability to connect and inspire. The moment we realize that we are a gift, and divine and are here to love, inspire and unite all living beings then we understand our divine presence on this planet.

The poet Hafiz said

When

No one is looking

I swallow deserts and clouds

And chew on mountains knowing

They are sweet

Bones!

When no one is looking and I want

To kiss

God

I just lift my own hand

To

My

Mouth.

 

I told my daughter I was moved to tears in listening to a song. I told her this young man had been kissed by God and she said, “wait, you don’t believe in God.”

I told her just because I don’t follow a Christian path or the absolute word of the bible does not mean I don’t believe in something bigger than myself. God is a word. No, I don’t believe in a white-robed, white-haired, bearded man granting wishes above the clouds. When describing things such as the Divine, or Unconditional LOVE words do not represent as once they are spoken or written they have context from others. I speak of God as the Divine, the Great Spirit, as LOVE, choose whatever word represents this for you. I speak from a place where we are all connected across race, sex, age…across cultures. We are vibrating energy that is connected to everything in the Universe.

I am grateful in finding these moments that remind me of this, that bring me to tears, that make me laugh, that has me realize the unlimited potential of human beings. These moments that remove any constraints in my heart and fill my space with boundless LOVE.

This is the kiss from God. For this I am eternally grateful.

Call to Action:

  • Let go of your thoughts and be present. Look around and see the beauty in the Universe in front of you.
  • Move beyond the superficial, find the passion and inspiration in those around you. There are amazing people in front of you at this very moment.
  • Remove any barriers that you have to love. Connect to this place. This is your root.

Thomas D. Craig

Author of A Cup of Buddha, and Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

writer. seeker. Zen warrior

 

The Perfect Gift

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perfect giftI have found the perfect gift.

It is priceless and it is available to all of us.

It’s easy to find. It’s past the holiday crowds, beyond the aisles filled with things, and the trees stacked with gifts. It’s above people’s judgments and that constant voice of fear that is so prevalent inside all of us. It sits beneath the masks that we wear. The masks that we believe will shield us from pain, from suffering, the masks that we hide the utter truths of life, deep within us for no one to see, a thick armor we use to keep life and people at a distance. The gift is below this, beyond any of this superficiality. It is within us. A light that shines beyond any darkness. It is the greatest power in the universe.

The perfect gift is love.

There is no greater gift than to strip away everything, leaving nothing but your vulnerable self, raw, and exposed with only your heart to give completely and unconditionally.

At our core, beyond our fears, beyond our judgments and all of these masks stripped away, we are love. All of us. I am you, you are me. We are love. There is no separation, there is no ‘I’ and ‘You’. We are a string of vibrating energy deeply connected, mirrored in our experiences. Your moments are my moments. My experiences are your experiences. Beyond the egos’ veil of illusion we are one heartbeat, one pulse of energy that shines far beyond this lifetime. There is no greater power than this connected energy, this universal love. I have no other word to describe this but to use the word LOVE. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.

We throw the word love around for many things. I love ice cream, or I love summer days. I speak not of things but of a love much deeper than this. A love without barriers, vulnerable, filled with compassion and without condition. This is who we are at our core. Everything else is a mask of fear keeping us from our home. Love binds us, connects us. It is universal, beyond words, and languages and borders.

It is easy this time of the year to get caught up in the conversation of superficiality and things. This conversation keeps us ordinary, it roots us to this body, this luggage that carriers our connected energy, our universal love. We are beyond this. We are bigger than things, bigger than this body.

We are love.

And love is the perfect gift. A gift we must give to ourselves. Strip away all barriers that hold you against love. Every moment. This is your journey home. This is the path. The more you find love within the more connected you become to all living beings. Every being becomes your brother and sister. The thought of harm or violence or anger dissipates as we realize we could not damage our own family. Our frustrations and suffering melt into a sea of universal love.

This is the perfect gift – LOVE. Give it away freely.

Call to Action:

  • Strip away all of your barriers, become vulnerable and open your heart.
  • Find and remove all barriers to love that you have in your life.
  • BE LOVE….

 

Thomas D. Craig

Author of A Cup of Buddha and Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

writer. seeker. warrior.

 

 

 

 

The Obstacle is the Path

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obstacle is the pathWe fight.

We fight against change, resisting the flow of life to stay in our status quo, our cocoon filled with illusions of security and happiness. We live in a world of ‘if then’. If I only had more money then I would be happy. If I had the right job then life would be good. If only I was loved then life would be meaningful.

We fight to hold onto the past, to hold onto only the positive moments in our lives. We build this illusion that our lives would be different, and happy if we only it were different, or like it used to be.

Yet, life flows. Pain and death are inevitable just as the seasons change.

We suffer in missing this flow of life. We suffer trying to hold onto the attachment of an ‘if then’ world. A world of yesterdays and should have beens. We suffer in resisting change.

Yet, what we do not realize in our suffering is that the obstacle is the path.

This is our journey.

How can we know light if we do not also know darkness? How can we know love if we do not also know hate? Joy without sadness?

There is no destination on our journey. There is no end point. Our path is not straight it has ups and downs, birth and death, pain and happiness, joy and sadness. When we fight the flow of life we try to change nature and the universe itself.

Life happens. Pain is inevitable, we cannot change this no more than stopping time itself. The Dalai Lama stated “True change is within, leave the outside as it is.”

The obstacle is the path. Embrace it, don’t fight it. Give gratitude for these moments, these moments are what make you. There is beauty in every step along the journey, gratitude in our experiences. Give thanks and gratitude for the ability to experience these moments no matter how painful they may be.

This is growth. This expands our circle of compassion and our connection to all living beings. This is putting our heart out, fully open and vulnerable.

This is life, beautiful with all of its warts and changes. When we remove the cocoon of illusion life transforms, and we are free to fly in all its beauty, the concept of good or bad dissipates and we are simply left with this present moment.

Let it rain, feel it, embrace it, and dance.

Call to Action:

  • Stop resisting, let life flow.
  • If you feel yourself resisting, find gratitude in the moment no matter how difficult this may be.
  • Be Love.

Thomas D. Craig

Author of A Cup of Buddha and Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

writer. seeker. Zen warrior