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

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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

For What is Life

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mountain sunriseFor What is Life

For what is life if we have not bowed to a sunrise on top of a mountain
or climbed a tree because it was there
or breathed the dew off a honeysuckle like a newborn
or felt the tears of a cloud as we danced in the rain

For what is life if we have not given our heart fully, without condition
or cried all night with a loved one
or laughed at the insignificance of it all
or stared at a child in wonder and awe at the beauty of a human being

For what is life if we do not live on the edge, far away from ordinary
or let go of fear, and words like CAN’T and NORMAL
or live with love, completely without boundaries
or find grace and humbleness in every action that we take

For what is life if we do not live as if each breath was our last
or come to the realization that we are all divine
or awakened to our connection to all living beings as brothers and sisters
or that our greatest gift, our purpose is realizing that we are here to serve others

For what is life if we are not sucking the marrow out of it with every drop, every breath, every heartbeat, until it beats no more.

The Other Side

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other side One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”?

The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side”.

As human beings it seems as though we are constantly trying to get somewhere. More stuff, better job, next vacation, I think we can all relate to the young Buddhist in this Zen story about the other side. It is almost as if we are shouting to the world, How do I get OVER THERE? Or more implicit, right HERE is not enough so how do I get over THERE?

Therein lies the beautiful message of the story. We are already there. There is nowhere to get to.

Life is beautiful right where we are at. This moment is perfect exactly how it is. Life unfolds the way it unfolds. Our context, our view of this world will be our experience. Einstein said our greatest question is whether we view the Universe as kind or as evil?

When I hear someone express frustration in where they are at in life, I always ask a simple question- And then what?

For example:

person: ‘if only I could get a different job.’

me: ‘and then what?’

person: ‘then I will make more money’

me: ‘and then what?’

person: ‘then I can buy that house/vacation/car’

me: ‘and then what?’

person: ‘then I will be happy?’

The actor Jim Carrey once said “I wish everyone could experience being rich and famous, so they’d see it wasn’t the answer to anything.”

The other side is not the answer. Once we stop striving to GET SOMEWEHRE, we get off the hamster wheel and we find peace in this moment because it is all we have.

Call to Action:

  • Stop. Breathe. Get that there is nowhere to get to. This moment right now is perfect.
  • Get off the hamster wheel, take note when you are on this never-ending wheel and take gratitude for this moment.
  • Be LOVE

Be well. Be Love.

Thomas D. Craig

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

writer. seeker. Zen warrior

Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

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is that so cover final croppedYou can’t hide in life, Riley! Life is joy; it’s beautiful…every moment. It’s filled with challenges that remind us to find grace in even the smallest moments. Think of life as a bell. If you take a passive approach to it, you’ll give it a tiny ping. In return, you will get a tiny ping back. That’s what victims do in life. Then they wonder why their world isn’t filled with music.

Willy from Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening

 Is That So? A Modern Fable of Awakening: Now Available!

Many years ago I came across the Zen story called Is that so? I was fascinated with the simplicity and the core message of choosing life no matter the circumstance. Everyone on this planet is going through something. Some more than others, however, it is our context of what life brings our way that creates our being. Buddha tells us that life is suffering. His meaning is not that life is miserable but if we stay attached to life and the past or the way life is supposed to be in our minds then we suffer. It is flowing exactly in the NOW that we create freedom and happiness.

This was the story I wanted to tell in my new book, Is that so? A Modern Fable of Awakening that I am releasing April 16th 2014, choosing life no matter the circumstances. The central character is named Riley Porter. Riley means valiance and Porter means carrying, so he is someone carry valiance. It takes courage to live a life with authenticity, truth and love. Yet, this life is available to all of us. There is a Riley Porter in every being on this planet. We have the courage to walk a path of love, this is our home. Let us all walk the path of Riley.

Enjoy the book, I look forward to your feedback.

Here is the Zen story that the book is loosely based – Is that so?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

Call to Action:

  • Choose life no matter the circumstance. Life is beautiful in every moment.
  • Create your life, your context is decisive. You choose your state of being.
  • Be love

Thomas D. Craig

writer. seeker. Zen warrior

Author of A Cup of Buddha and Is That So?

 

 

I Fight Myself

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fight of my lifeEach day I fight.

I fight the fear that grips all of us. The fear that keeps us ordinary, keeps us safe. The fear that shadows our every move telling us we are small, telling us we are not good enough, telling us someone else will take care of it.

I fight the voices of others telling me who I am, who I should be, or what I cannot do. I fight the judgment and preconceived ideas of the status quo. I fight a world putting me in a box based on my status, my race, my preferences, or my sex.

I fight the safety and security in staying the same. I fight the resistance in not wanting to change. I fight the yearning of being complacent, of being satisfied. I fight the voice that says enough, stay where you are.

I fight the whispers asking Why you? and telling me I can’t. I fight a world filled with white picket fences, 2.5 kids, and 9 to 5 jobs. I fight a world that seems to already know what is best, a world that is closed to the question what if?

I fight my mind that wants to bring forward every disappointment, every heartache, every moment of suffering to protect me. I fight the want to close myself, to keep my emotions within, to stay at the surface, to stay safe.

I fight a world that fights for the individual self, for the ordinary. I fight a world that is resistant to change, that creates boundaries in what is possible, in what can be done. I fight a world that wants me to conform.

I fight because….

The word CAN’T does not exist.

Pain is only temporary.

I am THE ONE.

I am capable of anything.

Every door that closes a new one opens.

The sun rises new every day.

There is no tomorrow, there is only this moment RIGHT NOW.

I am connected to every living being on this planet.

I am here for a purpose.

I am LOVE.

This is the fight.

I fight myself. Every moment of everyday.

When I step onto the mat, or climb a mountain I fight not the opponent or life itself, I fight the complacency for ordinary. I fight to suck the marrow out of life, to have an extraordinary life filled with love and abundance. I fight to live fully, with vulnerability, with integrity, expressing all of my emotions, giving all of self at every moment to the world around me. I fight for this at every moment and I am at peace because I know that when darkness comes in this body I have put it all out there, no lies, just truth. I have nothing to hide, I have lived on the edge. I have lived with LOVE.

Call to Action:

  • Write down where fear has stopped you, where you have placed the word CAN”T.
  • Write down what you are committed to in this lifetime. Fight for this.
  • Be LOVE

Thomas D. Craig

writer. seeker. Zen Warrior

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

All Oppression Creates a State of War

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oppressed womanAll oppression creates a state of war.” Simone de Beauvoir

The voice of oppression is the voice of fear.

Human history is littered with static beliefs rooted in fear oppressing those who have different beliefs, color of skin, and sex. Many lives have fought and died for unconventional beliefs such as the world was round, that the earth rotated around the sun, the belief in a different God, the right to be free, to vote, to have equal rights, or gays to marry. Human beings have tried to control those that were perceived different. Voices were raised in hate aimed to alienate and oppress one target for the benefit of another. Status quo beliefs created rationalization that justified oppressing groups of people with slavery, with sexism, and other forms of control.

I wish I could look at this oppression as history, as the past and that human beings have evolved beyond this fear and hate. Yet, I cannot.

I have watched this in my lifetime over confrontations about equality for women, equality in race, mixed marriages, and the treatment of gays. Just this past week, I stood proud as I watched fellow Seattleites Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sing about same love at the Grammys as some same-sex couples were married. Then I read some of the responses:

“Total mockery of God on the Grammy’s tonight! The world has gone gay-mad! And it is sickening!” Buster Wilson

“I’ve never seen such a display of intolerance, bigotry and hatred.” Todd Starnes

At first thought, I got angry and frustrated at the intolerance in the world, at the static, black and white thinking generated by fear. Yet, I looked at this closer and realized that anger is not the weapon to fight oppression, it is LOVE. Love is the greatest power in the universe.

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Trying to fight oppression with oppression is a no gain proposal. Fear walks hand in hand with human evolution, trying to kill off this black plague takes calm persistence, an unshakable persistence in standing for what you believe rooted with LOVE and with understanding. If we seek to understand we have no enemies. Love the oppressor, love the hater, love the small-minded.

The poet Rumi stated “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

This is the battle, look within, be the change you want to see. Remove any barriers within yourself that keep you from love. It is through gratitude and compassion and love that we will forge ahead in our emotional evolution as human beings. It is here that we will guide those in the darkness.

It takes courage to take this stand to be this example. It takes pioneers in forging light in this darkness of preconceived thought. It takes courage to stand in the face of no agreement around you.

Mia st johnI was fortunate enough to spend time with one of these pioneers last week with World Champion boxer Mia St. John. Mia has been talked at her entire career with comments such as “women do not belong in the ring, it’s a man’s sport.” She has been called a prop for her beauty, like many women have in business and sports. Yet, she still forged ahead, driven by her passion, driven by her will to be the best. She stands and fights for her beliefs and her passion in the face of no agreement around her.

This is courage. This is passion. This is living with purpose. This is a Zen Warrior and I applaud you Mia St. John. Stand proud in who you are, stand in your passion and in your commitment.

Out of each darkness, the world was led by a pioneer, one willing to die for their beliefs, one willing to stand against unconventional thought. To do this with a smile, with love and compassion like that of Mahatma Gandhi, one can change the course of an entire nation, even an entire world.

As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently stated “where there is love, there is life.”

Call to Action:

  • What are the barriers to love in your life? Find and remove all of these barriers for all that we are is love.
  • Where are you compromising your stand for living beings on this planet? Where are you NOT a stand for compassion, and love?
  • BE LOVE

Thomas D. Craig

Author A Cup of Buddha and soon to be released Is that so?

writer. seeker. Zen Warrior