“We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” ~Anias Nin
We create the experience of our world. From how we view it, to our state of being in it, to how others view and treat us. This creation is simply the reflection of how we view ourselves. We alone create the context of our lives. Yet, even knowing this I’m constantly catching myself limiting the boundaries of who I am and what I am capable of in this lifetime. In truth, we are boundless beings that are powerful and extraordinary, and capable of anything. There are no levels of beings higher than others, we are all connected and divine. It took the burp of a monk to remind of this lesson.
Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated with the martial arts, I guess I can blame the TV show Kung Fu, in my humble opinion the best show of all time. I wanted to be Kwai Chang Caine. I wanted to live at the Shaolin Monastery and train and learn from the monks. I loved everything about it. The path of physically training and defending others who could not defend themselves. The path of looking within and bettering self. The path of humility and love for all creatures.
As I grew older I gravitated toward martial arts training and immersing myself in the arts. I watched movies and have trained most of my life in one form or another. Then the philosophy pulled me in. Every time I visited a book store I was leaving with some form of Buddhist or eastern philosophy book. Finally through a series of events I let go of other’s judgements and expectations and I lived from my heart, authentic and filled with love. I was on a spiritual path, and now more than ever the Shaolin Temple beckoned me. It was a someday trip that I had to take. I mentioned my wish to travel with a fellow writer friend of mine, Bill Porter. Bill is an extraordinary individual. He was one of the first westerners allowed into China in the early 70’s reporting for the BBC. He eventually traveled the country in search of wandering monks and wrote about this experience in his books Zen Baggage and Road to Heaven. He also translates ancient Chinese texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the poetry of Buddhist monks. His book under his translation pen name Red Pine titled The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain is one of my favorites. Bill knows the Abbott at the Shaolin Temple and had previously taken friends on a tour of the area. When I told him of my desire to go to the temple he simply stated, “Thomas when you go I will send you a gift so the Abbott will have an audience with you.” In reading his words my mind shifted from a someday possibility to a I have to create this trip mentality. I needed to go. It’s funny how often words from another plant a seed and change your perspective.
I immediately researched staying at the temple and found I could stay in an International hostel near the monastery and train with the monks. I booked my trip and was off to China 6 months later. The Shaolin Temple was important for me to visit not because of the TV show, but because this is the place the Indian monk Bodhidharma settled in around 500 A.D. Bodhidharma (called Damo in China) is credited for founding Zen Buddhism and for the creation of most modern day martial arts. You see, the Shaolin Temple was my Mecca. There was a source of energy here that I needed to experience.
I had four goals on my trip, first I wanted to experience and follow in the footsteps of Damo. I did this, I visited the cave he supposedly meditated in for 9 straight years, and I extensively explored the temple having almost unlimited access behind normally closed doors as a student. Second, I wanted to climb and visit Songshan (Mt. Song) one of the 5 sacred mountains in China. This mountain looks down upon the temple and juts into the sky after a steep trail along granite cliffs. A generous and eccentric individual from Latvia named Carlos offered to take myself and Asbjorn (who I dubbed the Viking monk as he was this stout individual, with a shaved head and big red beard from Norway). We climbed and slept at the top of the mountain where Carlos showed us this secret path that led to an opening to view the sunset looking down on the granite cliffs below. This trip was majestic and a great bonding experience with my fellow travelers. Third on my list was to train Kung Fu with the monks. The Shaolin monks are legendary for their amazing skills (trust me on this just YouTube Shaolin monks). I trained for 5 hours a day at the temple and had the opportunity to watch their demonstration team put on a show for a visiting dignitary. I cannot describe in words what I saw as you wouldn’t believe it. These monks train from the time they walk, endless hours each day until they can do these incredible physical feats. I saw a monk do two finger pushups, another flip high into the air and then land flat on his back on the hard granite floor and then pop straight back up to his feet, and finally I saw a monk do a handstand with one finger on each hand. These experiences were amazing, but I wanted more, I wanted the inner monk, the inner journey. This led to my fourth goal on this trip, I wanted to sit and meditate with the Shaolin monks. This one was a bit tougher as these monks are on a personal spiritual journey and not bucket list fulfillment from a guy visiting from Seattle in the USA. Carlos and I put in a request to the monastery and were accepted to meditate for one session with the monks.
I had to purchase a special long robe as the traditional Kung Fu outfit was not sufficient for this experience and was told where to go in a private part of the temple. The temple was broken into the public area where tourists would visit during the day and then on one side of the temple were the warrior monks and the Kung Fu training. The warrior monks took certain vows but were allowed to eat meat and marry outside the temple if they wanted to. My experience with them was mixed, these monks were not Kwai Chang Caine. They seemed pulled into the illusion of the material world. I saw them like any other being on this planet on their iPhone and even saw one in a BMW. They treated the children with strict discipline and even violence. I saw two young boys, roughly 9 or 10 forced to grab one of their legs above their head in a standing split position and stand there without moving. I watched them stand in this position for an hour until I had to leave. Who knows how much longer they were forced to stand there. However, on the other side of the temple there was the private section where the fully ordained monks lived and meditated for most of the day. These monks took extreme vows in their practice and in my mind were the real deal. To me they were on a whole other level has beings on this planet.
Carlos and I walked the dirt road into the private area of the temple and then into a maze of darkened corridors and finally into a building with an adjoining outside courtyard. The building was the meditation center for the monks who would had 2-3 hour meditation sessions continuously throughout the day. Outside the room were tables with various snacks such as bananas, and nuts to keep the energy up for the monks during the day and outside the hallway was a grass courtyard that innocently held a small clothesline holding one brown monks robe blowing in the breeze. Carlos and I waited patiently outside meditation hall for our turn to enter and join the monks in the session and straight at our schedule time of 5:30 in the evening a bell rang in the complex and the doors opened. Out sprung 5-6 monks in various colored robes. One of them spoke and in Chinese and waived for us to come in. Carlos and I snapped to attention and entered the roughly 50 x 30 foot room. Upon entering we quickly noticed the benches around the edges of the room holding cushions for sitting in meditation but our attention was drawn to the center where there was a large statue of Buddha enclosed in glass case. A monk pointed to us and then to the other monks who were quickly walking as fast as they could around the Buddha statue. Carlos and I put our heads down and followed behind as quickly as we could. This spiritual whirlpool quickly branched out into the very fast, Formula 1 lane immediately next to the statue, followed by a very fast but sustainable lane and then finally a third lane reserved for the elder and hobbled monks. Carlos and I settled into the second lane and walked as fast as we could. It reminded me of the times as a child we would walk around the edge of the swimming pool to create a whirlpool. I noticed if I looked up I would get slightly knocked off my circle and would have to lean in toward the center to keep my balance. The monks had these long sleeves on their robes and they would whip these up and down in a snap to match their fast pace like the snapping of a towel. As we traveled around and around in our circle of Buddha a smaller monk traveled the outside of the rectangle with a long stick about 6 feet long. As he walked every few steps he would bring down the stick and beat the floor. Faster and faster he would beat the floor as this was our tempo to march around Buddha. Finally after 15 minutes or so of racing with the monks another bell rang and all the monks immediately stopped and took seats along the outside of the room. Another monk shuttled us to specific seats and motioned for us to watch the other monks. I noticed none of the monks took off their shoes or crossed their legs so I wondered what was to take place next on this journey. Finally the smaller monk who was our tempo guide came around with small cups. He handed out one cup per monk (roughly 30-35 in the room) and then came around with a large kettle of tea. He poured our cups full and I watched intently what to do next. First I noticed to hold the cup on the top and bottom but not around the edges. Then I noticed the monks immediately began to drink quickly. They didn’t waste any time. In this I followed their lead. However, I quickly learned why they held the cup on the top and bottom as the tea was extremely hot. It burned my throat. I started to gasp and my throat gurgled but I held it in. The solitude in the room overwhelmed my desire to gasp. I didn’t want to be the guy who disrupted the Shaolin monks. As I was trying to swallow and contain my gasp the tea monk came by again for round two. I didn’t know what to do as if I refused was this improper protocol. The monk I was supposed to follow sitting next to me nodded for another pour of tea so I did the same. This time I took 2-3 sips versus the one gulp in trying to monitor the steaming beverage. Immediately after he gulped his tea the monk next to me place the cup on the floor in front of him. I reached out and did the same thinking nothing of it until he nodded to me with a quiet grunt and pointed to the line on the floor. In looking back at his cup he had place exactly above a line on the slab floor. I adjusted mine so it was in proper order and then in quick time the small monk came by and collected all of the cups. As soon as this was complete the monks rose and immediately went back to speed walking around the glassed case Buddha. Carlos and I went back to our routine and after another 10 minutes or so and an active sweat another bell rang and all the monks rushed out the door of the room.
Carlos and I stood frozen not know what was next, or if the session was over. Our guardian monks however, came over and nudged us out of the room to follow the herd. Carlos and I quickly walked out the door and down the corridor and into another room. Once we walked in I got the message as I saw six monks holding up their robes with one hand and peeing with the other into individual holes in the ground. I tried not to laugh or smile as I was not expecting this, and I turned and walked out of the room. I didn’t need to relieve myself. Carlos and I waited until the monks began to head back to the meditation room that I wanted to rename in mind the speed walking room. Once inside we took a few more laps getting our heart beat up until they directed us to what looked like the guest meditation seats in the room. It looked like each individual had their own seat based on seniority in the room and we were place on the south end furthest away from the oldest and brightly colored robe of the senior monk.
Once seated each monk took their shoes off, pulled in pillows around their body to get comfortable for a long meditation session. Having a daily practice of an hour to 2.5 hours a day meditating I wasn’t too concerned about this session outside of my throat. I couldn’t shake the urge to gurgle or burp after that hot tea had scalded me. I pulled in pillows underneath my knees as I knew how gravity pulled at the body after 2 hours of sitting in one place. I was worried about making sounds as I heard about these sessions. Apparently an individual monk would walk around the hall with a wooden sword and if you were out of line or fell asleep he would bonk you with the sword. My entire goal of the session was to avoid the wooden sword. The monks didn’t waste time or any ritual in meditating. Immediately you could hear deep breaths taking place and in sneaking a quick glance around the room the monks were fast into their practice. I closed my eyes and followed suit. I still felt this sense of intimidation as if I didn’t belong. I viewed the monks above me and I just wanted to fly under the radar and fit in. I never considered myself at an equal. In closing my eyes I started to get frustrated as I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t relax. I was tense and my throat wouldn’t let go. Instead of focusing on my breathing and my mantra I was focused on not burping. It became all I could think about. It consumed me. Five, ten, even fifteen minutes went by and I couldn’t relax. If something didn’t change I was going to get bonked by the sword guy, and it was going to be the longest two hours of my life. And then as if on cue a monk from across the room spoke to me in a way I would never have expected. He burped loudly. I smiled inside as a burp had never meant so much to me. Then another monk burped and another until 7-8 monks were burping like frogs in a pond. I let out my gurgle and all of my tension. In this one moment I was enlightened from a monk’s burp. It spoke volumes to me. It spoke that we were the same, that we were equal. It spoke that there is no right or wrong or certain way of doing things. That there was just this moment and it was perfect exactly how it was. I let go and I meditated with vivid colors and could feel the energy of the monks. It was an amazing session, calm but filled with connection across the room. I sat with an inner smile at peace and happy in this moment of NOW.
Carlos sitting next to me struggled. He told me before going in he hadn’t meditated much so this session was a struggle for him. He hadn’t placed pillows below his knees and gravity got the best of him. He audibly groaned in pain and tried to wrap his arms around his knees to hold them up. The small monk who was our speed walking timekeeper, our cup bearer and tea master was also the wooden sword guy. I could feel him walking around the room and every time Carlos would make a sound he would stand in front of him. Carlos must have heard him too as he would stop groaning for a moment and settle until the monk left and then he would start in again. I didn’t know if Carlos was going to make it to the end as he was in great pain. Finally after a few hours the bell sounded and without circumstance the monks put on their shoes and shuffled out of the room. I was filled with energy after this amazing session and quickly put on my shoes and bounced up. The guardian monk pointed at me to follow the herd and I began to do so but kept pointing back at Carlos who was not moving. I think his legs were asleep as he just sat there moaning in his eastern European accent. The monks persisted and shuffled me out of the room leaving only Carlos. I guess they figured he would eventually make it out of there or they forgot about him. They kept shooing me down the hall to some unknown area and each time I kept pointing back to the room to get Carlos but because everything was in silence and we had a language barrier we couldn’t understand each other, in turn they kept shooing me on. Finally I motioned for one of the monks to come with me back to the room and pointed to Carlos who had finally made it to his feet and was slowly putting on his shoes. The monk smiled I guess in appreciation for his pain and waited for him to finish and then waived for him to follow as well. Carlos could barely walk so we went slow until we finally entered a large hall filled with rows of long tables and in the front was a huge black pot of hot soup and a table of condiments to add additional flavor. Another monk came up and handed us a bowl and chopsticks and pointed to where we should sit after we got our food. From my view, each monk had their own eating spot with individual bowls and chopsticks for each meal. The room was completely silent filled with intentional eating and smiles in their eyes. This is hard to describe in words but there was a peace and happiness in the eyes of these monks. They eased this sense of compassion and kindness to Carlos and I. I was very aware that this was an incredible honor to be asked to dine with them and I took it all in one bite of the vegetarian noodle soup at a time. After we finished, we were led into the kitchen where we washed our own bowls, bowed in Namaste to the monks in the room and left back to our dirt road and our International Hostel. This walk took extra long as Carlos couldn’t shake his legs from hurting. He couldn’t wake them. Myself on the other hand I was awake as I had ever been all from the echoes of the burp of a Shaolin monk.
Thomas D. Craig
Love. Inspire. Unite