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she was allowed to attend this practice back home, but here at the source, at the Shaolin Temple they still held onto outdated cultural beliefs.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.
At 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.
From 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.