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
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.
Yet, 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 showed 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.