Words by Samantha Yardley
Photography by Matt Doyle
Shaolin monks human better than you.
Whatever monastic wizardry they’re subjected to allows them to transcend humancentric idiosyncrasies to become devoid of self-consciousness, narcissism, and all the other pesky homosapien ﬂaws that give our species a bad name.
Shaolin monks aren’t driven by a need for external validation like us mere mortals, and why would they be when they can take down a small army with their little ﬁnger and bend a spoon with savant-like physic ability? (Maybe not the telekinesis, but you catch my drift).
What’s more, experiencing phenomenal levels of enlightenment appears to be achieved with a very nonchalant implementation of breathwork, movement, and being present. Urgh. My inferiority complex… the irony.
Alright, so, our guy can break bricks with his bare hands and lay on a bed of nails while having concrete smashed on his chest with a sledgehammer too, but whatever.
The hip-hop Shaolin Monk…
Shifu Shi Yan Ming is no ordinary monk (not that mediocre and monk are two words that ever belong together, delicious alliteration aside). He’s affectionally known as the hip hip monk, having gloriously fused the cultural divides of NYC hip hop and Buddhist philosophy and martial arts, collecting celebrity disciples like the Wu-Tang Clan, Wesley Snipes, Bjork, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard along the way.
A 34th-generation Shaolin warrior monk, Shi Yan Ming is largely credited for bringing Shaolin kung fu to American soil. Acculturating the Ch’an philosophy of martial arts and Buddhist spirituality with Western society, he founded
“ It doesn’t matter that Shaolin temples, Ch’an philosophy, or martial arts are in China; they belong to the world.”
USA Shaolin Temple is an educational mecca for all wishing to integrate a kung fu school of thought into their slice of the Big Apple.
The archetype of a survivor, Shifu, weathered a life-threatening illness as a young child and the Chinese cultural revolution of the ‘60s. It caused political unrest so dire that he was forced to ﬂee his home and seek solace across the other side of the world in the unfamiliar territory of the US.
“I was born during the Chinese cultural revolution, an extraordinary time,” begins Shifu with an infectious energy as he recalls narrowly escaping death from contracting a serious childhood illness.
“When I was an infant, I was very sick. My parents tried to save my life, but unfortunately, they couldn’t. At the age of ﬁve, my parents took me to the Shaolin temple. From that day until today, the 21st century, I never got seriously sick again.”
The elation of overcoming impoverished beginnings and near-fatal sickness was short-lived as political unrest spread through communist China.
“At that time, it was hard to stay in the Shaolin temple because Mao’s army, the Red Guards, did everything they could to get the temples, not only Shaolin temples but different cultures too including Taoist, Buddhist, all the religions. They came to the temple and destroyed a lot of statues, including pagodas.”
Impervious to such life-changing adversity, Shifu remained at the temple for 25 years, continuing his arduous martial arts training and heightening his spirituality through Buddhist meditation. He slept on wooden planks and got up at 4 a.m. every day. Shifu mastered his skills and won several national martial arts titles until 1992 when an opportunity presented itself to share the Shaolin philosophy with the rest of the world.
“I was invited to the United States with the brother monks to perform,” explains Shifu. “After the performance, I stayed in the States to share the fantastic, wonderful things I learned with more people. It doesn’t matter that Shaolin temples, Ch’an philosophy, or martial arts are in China; they belong to the world.
“I chose New York City to start the USA Shaolin Temple because it’s a very unique and diverse city, and people come from all around the world. When I founded it back in 1994, I didn’t have enough money for rent or to pay the utilities. I used a ﬂashlight in class that I turned off when I ﬁnished. At that time, the winter in New York was pretty cold and I didn’t have hot water to take showers or to wash my clothes,” he recalls.
Taking Shaolin teaching to New York…
Unperturbed by not speaking the native tongue and unaccustomed to the culturally diverse bustle of NYC, Shifu threw himself into passing on his Shaolin teachings, a practice so profound it surpasses the boundaries of language and culture.
“A culture shock doesn’t matter to me,” Shifu explains. “I use different ways to share my knowledge, I use action, so you don’t have to speak. When I practice martial arts, I understand I’m also practicing philosophy, a spiritual practice. Shaolin temple martial arts, especially, are different from others. In history, only Shaolin temple monks are allowed to prac- tice martial arts.”
“Like the sharp blade, that becomes rusty without training or exercise. You must keep sharpening yourself. Challenge yourself, discipline yourself, master yourself.”
“Everyone’s different, everyone’s beautiful. That’s why I have to use different ways to approach individually different people. I teach different people, from actors and lawyers to the homeless.”
The Origins of Buddhism…
Deriving from “budhi” meaning “to awaken,” Buddhism is the religion that’s eclipsed the conﬁnes of religion itself. Its non-theistic nature is now widely also accepted as a philosophy and discipline that’s become the archetype of modern mindfulness.
“Buddhism, especially Shaolin temple Buddhism, that we call Ch’an, means life, it means everything, and it means nothing,” says Shifu. “In the Western world, we call it Zen philosophy. I teach quite differently, though, I consider myself a philosopher and believe all religions are beautiful.”
“Every single religion’s culture is fantastic. Whatever you believe, Jesus Christ, God, Mohammed, Allah, Buddha. They’re all beautiful. They all teach us to be good people, do good things, and don’t do bad. They try to spread peace, love, and respect for others and encourage you to help yourself so you can help the rest of the world.”
“People come to me, wanting to study, to get something from me; mentally, physically, spiritually, but I explain how to open their own mind and heart. Nobody can change you; you change yourself.”
If you aren’t feeling suitably benighted over our hip-hop monk’s egregious personiﬁcation of wisdom and spirituality, then consider he can also smash stones with his head, lick red hot metal, and, uh, dangle a 50-pound weight from his testicles.
“I have to discipline myself to practice every day,” he explains. “Doesn’t matter, hot, cold, windy, snowy, rainy; life has everything. I say this all the time to people: ‘Stop making excuses for yourself’. When you start to make excuses, they never go away. You have to discipline yourself. Every day get up, do something. Life is living; it’s exercising, and you have to exercise your precious life. It’s just like the sharp blade, that becomes rusty without training or exercise. You must keep sharpening yourself. Challenge yourself, discipline yourself, master yourself.
“You have to fully express yourself. When striking, you cannot strike halfway; you have to go all the way, extending your body and extending your mind,” he muses wisely.
“Every moment is precious. Every day is precious. Touch it, grab it, don’t let it go, do something meaningful. Understand that life has a purpose.”
The joy of being grateful…
Is there any hope for those of us who like the concept of meditative divine enlightenment and/ or swinging 50 pounds from their balls but manifest too many ADHD tendencies to keep still for long periods?
“When I physically practice martial arts, I also practice what I call action mediation. It’s a science, not just a physical move; the brain works too,” Shifu reveals. “You don’t have to sit there to meditate, we’re speaking, and we feel good; that’s meditation. You can walk for meditation. Go, cook, swim, play tennis, play golf. Find yourself, be yourself, ﬁnd which way is best for you in your life.”
“Be mindful, understand you want to meditate to cleanse out internally. Then, you take a shower, wash away, turn the process externally and become so fresh and so clean. That’s the point. You don’t have to cross your legs to sit still; you can meditate upside-down in a handstand, you can space out stretching, or talk to people and hang out with your friends. Everything in life can be used as a meditation.
“You think and worry too much about tomorrow, but tomorrow hasn’t come yet. Don’t think about the past.”
“Even a couple of minutes ago is already in the past. Enjoy the present. Be mindful, and believe me, we have a bright future. You think and worry too much about tomorrow, but tomorrow hasn’t come yet. As long as there’s life, tomorrow is always coming. Cherish every moment because how many years can we live life? How many hours do we have in our lives? They’re very short.
“That’s why we need to speak out. Let people hear your voice, and celebrate precious life every day. Stand tall, be proud you’re here, and ﬁght. Don’t go to the dark side; stay on the bright side, and fully enjoy yourself.
“You already knock yourself out by saying ‘Oh, I cannot do this.’ You can do it. Believe in yourself, trust in yourself. Other people can be successful; you can be successful too,” he says. “Conﬁdence takes ﬁrst place. Stand tall in front of the mirror, look at yourself, and say: ‘I’m beautiful, I’m handsome, I’m a brilliant person. I can do a lot of amazing things in the future.’ Believe it.
“Life is choices. You choose happiness. Be happy, and you can kick out a lot of negativity in your life. You choose to be sad, and you choose to be happy. You hold it in your hand.”
“Every day is a new life; every day is newborn,” he explains. “That’s why I say ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’ year-round. Why do we only celebrate two days a year? We should celebrate every day. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, friends, families and loved ones gather together to celebrate precious life. Put that happiness and joy in the mind and in the heart. Every day is Christmas. Live a happy life and enjoy every moment.”