Shaolin Trips - Episode One
Open Two Doors
by Gene Ching (Xing Long)
Real Authentic Shaolin
Today, real authentic Shaolin is under the shadow of the gun. Zhang Lipeng, the ex-monk who went by the Shaolin moniker Shi Xingpeng, once told me this: "There are two ways to practice real kungfu. One is after someone kills your wife. Two after is someone kills your whole family. Either way, you practice one set, every day, for ten years. Then you are ready to take revenge. Today, nobody practices like this. It makes no sense. Just get a gun." Modern firearms limit the combat practicality kungfu on the streets. Now one can easily pose the question: is Shaolin kungfu still valid? How can we know for sure? Some say that Shaolin kungfu was originally developed for spiritual cultivation and still has value in this realm, but spiritual cultivation is intrinsically immeasurable, at least by us mere mortals. So what now is Shaolin's acid test? Bullets aside, the art of war is the life-blood of Shaolin. Nothing tests your Shaolin skills like coming face-to-face with death. And Shaolin teachings prepare you for any such moments of truth, whether martial or spiritual, life threatening or symbolic. How you pass through those moments is a true test, beyond any black belt exam. Submitted for your approval, the first installment of my eZine column, Shaolin Trips Episode One, Open Two Doors, two personal moments of Shaolin truth. The first came from the stillness of sitting; the second from chaos of combat.
Doors of Enlightenment
But before we get to a climatic "fight scene," let's begin with that other measure of Shaolin authenticity - spirituality. I know, I know, why muddle a good kungfu movie with plot? It's the storyteller in me. Allow me my signature storytelling affectation (which will make more sense as you read on) a quote from the book of the Dead, the Grateful Dead. . .
While the storyteller speaks
a door within the fire creaks
suddenly flies open?
One of the doctrines of Zen, or its Chinese progenitor Chan, is sudden enlightenment. In an inspired moment, a door "suddenly flies open." Sometimes enlightenment can be achieved through prolonged meditation. Other times, it comes suddenly after a transformational experience. Especially in the martial world, it can be the result a sound blow to the head.
According to one legend, the second Patriarch of Zen, Huike, achieved sudden enlightenment. But it was after he dealt such a blow, and to his master no less. The story goes that Huike once fought with his master-to-be, Zen founder Bodhidharma (Puti Tamo in Mandarin, or just Tamo for short.) Huike was already a Dharma Master prior to meeting Tamo, teaching under his prior name Shenguang. Tamo went to one of Shenguang's Dharma talks in Nanjing. Of course, Tamo was far more enlightened than Shenguang, and following the talk, he brought up some of Shenguang's unresolved issues, specifically the end to the cycle of birth and death. Shenguang was very offended. He mistook his future master for a demon and struck Tamo in the head with his iron "demon-quelling" beads, breaking two of his teeth. Since an ancient superstitious belief held that wherever a sage's teeth fell, the land would have a three-year drought, Tamo just swallowed his teeth and left. This is the origin of an ancient proverb about enduring hardship "swallow your broken teeth, blood and all." Soon after, the Phantom Impermanence came to Shenguang and invited him to have tea with Yama. Such an invitation doesn't bode well. Yama is the King of Buddhist Hell.
Shenguang protested. "My dharma talks are good. Why must I die?"
The Specter replied. "Your dharma talks are good, but you have not ended the cycle of birth and death."
Shenguang pleaded. "Who escapes Yama's rule?"
The Specter replied again. "There is one. The monk whose teeth you broke. When Lord Yama sees him, even he bows down."
Shenguang asked for a stay of execution to find Tamo, which the Phantom granted. Tamo accepted Shenguang as his disciple, dubbing him with the name Huike. Yet Huike was still not satisfied.
He asked Tamo, "My mind is not at peace. Please silence it for me."
Tamo replied, "Show me your mind and I will silence it."
Huike thought, then responded, "I've searched but I cannot find my mind anywhere."
Tamo answered, "I have silenced it for you already." Huike was suddenly enlightened.
In Zen, there are actually two terms for enlightenment satori and kensho. The word Satori derives the word "to know." Kensho means "seeing nature" and while often synonymous with Satori, Kensho can also be used to refer to smaller enlightenment experiences that require more deepening. Kensho can be a glimmer of light through the crack under the door within the fire. Satori is the total extinction of the crack, the door and the fire. Those little Kenshos, those tiny peeks through the cracks, are what a good Shaolin trip is all about.
But sometimes you have to stare at a wall for a long time before you see any light. Tamo had to stare for nine years. Zennists call this Menpaki, meaning "facing the wall." Sitting practice or Zazen (Zuochan in Mandarin) is essential to Zen, Chan and Shaolin training. It is a simple practice that produces profound results. But they aren't as obvious as the same time spent sitting in horse stance, so it is often overlooked by Western Shaolin advocates.
Several years ago, I participated in a work/study retreat at Tassajara Zen Mind Temple (Zenshin-ji). Once a sacred place for the Esselen Indians, Tassajara was a spa resort from the 1860's because of it therapeutic natural hot springs. In 1966, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, one of the most influential Zen masters on the West and author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, transformed Tassajara into a Zen Mountain Center, the first training hall for Zen monks ever established in the United States. Well, contrary to the perception of many martial artists, Zen practice is not so lofty or romantic. A real work/study at a Zen Temple is nothing like how it is depicted in the kungfu movies. In fact, it can be rather mundane. This work/study consisted of chores done in mindful silence such as cooking and cleaning with voluntary opportunities for sitting practice. No chopping wood, no carrying water uphill with knives under our arms, no walking rice paper, all we did was work common chores and sit. And the sitting was optional.
After a few days, the serene natural beauty of Tassajara and its magical hot springs (not to mention the gourmet vegetarian cuisine) had produced a state of profound relaxation. When the predawn bell rang, the desire to get out of my warm bed and shuffle to the chilly Zendo just to sit and stare at a dark wall for an hour began to seriously wane. But I went dutifully and groggily, far as could be from any sort of state of awakening. Peering with bleary eyes upon the dark wall, sweet slumber seduced my ebbing consciousness. My head was slumping and jerking back like in those early morning lecture halls of my college daze. This did not seem at all like a potential moment for a kensho. Sleep is the enemy of meditation. Allegedly, Tamo cut off his own eyelids when sleep broke his practice. According to myth, those eyelids fell to the ground and sprouted the first tea plants. Tea is the meditator's friend and I sure wished I had some then. I was losing this battle, and like losing any fight, I feared the embarrassing thud of my head hitting the floor. You never want to hear that sound from the inside.
Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. This time for me, instead of a glimmer, it was a shadow. My shadow. Formed by the first faint glow of morning light, my shadow was cast on the Zendo wall before me. It was a perfect Daruma. In Japan, Bodhidharma is called Bodaidaruma, or like Tamo, Daruma for short. Daruma is honored by a Japanese folk craft, a little red eye-less egg-shaped figurine. You are supposed to fill in one eye when you make a vow, the fill in the other when that vow is actualized. Today, Daruma incarnates as dolls, key chains, bumper stickers, tea pots, just about anything. In Japan, Daruma merchandizing is as a bad as Hello Kitty. Nevertheless, beyond the kitsch, Daruma dolls convey the essence of sitting practice and Zen minimalism. Without arms or legs, it always sits upright. Without eyes, it is always attentive.
It is said that Tamo developed Shaolin just so monks would be able to endure prolonged meditation. Suddenly I realized that if I couldn't sit still for a long meditation, my years of practice were meaningless. Here was my application of Shaolin my "Shaolin acid test." Suddenly, for fleeting instant an ephemeral kensho all came into place. By all, I mean the big ALL. Words fail me. If I could describe that trip, I could be the next Thoreau. And unfortunately, it was impermanent. The visions slipped away from me leaving only the wisdom that it such mental states do exist, and they war well worth striving towards. I can say this: I have never again felt that Shaolin so prepared me to face a moment such as that and I have been trying to get back there ever since.
Doors of Perception
While my sitting shadow kensho was personally profound, I'm sure martial readers prefer something with a little more action. So the other Shaolin trip I'll share here has more martial mayhem - fighting with a drug-crazed opponent on a leitai platform that was 30 feet in the air while thousands of people watched. This is my second Shaolin acid test, but I wasn't the one on acid. After this, you?ll understand my affectation of quoting the Grateful Dead.
You see, I used to work for that band. I was on their payroll as a "consultant" for the last five years of their touring career, ending when lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died of heart failure in 1995. Consultant is a title for employees whose jobs defy description. What I really did for the Dead was talk people down from bad drug trips. I hold a seat on the Advisory Board of the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic's unique division known as Rock Medicine My specialties are crises management, combative patients, and intense psychedelic reactions, better known as bad trips. Volunteering is a great passion of mine, and an integral part of my kungfu - real world applications. Beyond street combat situations of talk down, the psychiatric aspect fascinates me. As a Buddhist, altered states of consciousness are very intriguing. It's like the Exorcist sometimes trippers seem possessed by demons, complete with supernatural powers. Only that demon is LSD and I never seem to have my demon quelling beads handy.
Now, there is no certification program trains you how to help people through bad trips. I fell into it through my martial practice. Often, the martial path takes to you into unexpected realms and that's what I love about it most. By chance, I studied Iaido (Japanese blade drawing) with one of Rock Med's founding members, Steve Anderson. He is a psychiatric technician by trade and showed me a whole new application of my skills, managing combative patients. It's a real challenge, how do you take some one down without harming them? After all, the point is to heal and taking down your patient with a kick to the gonads won't be at all beneficial towards that end. Rock Med is a volunteer organization that raises public awareness and donations for the Free Clinic by providing first aid at concerts and events. Since Anderson sensei showed me the light, this is where I do the bulk of my charity work. If you're not doing any charity work, you're not practicing true Shaolin. That is my personal acid test of Shaolin authenticity, compassion and charity.
But back to the Dead. I was asked to go on that final Dead tour to "consult" although we didn?t know it would be the last at the time. By coincidence, it was the same year as the 1500th Anniversary of Shaolin Temple. It was also the year I was to be married. My wife and I planned to take our Buddhist vows at Green Dragon Temple for our wedding ceremony. But before our knot was tied, I planned to make my first pilgrimage to Shaolin Temple. And before Shaolin was the Dead tour. It was a summer of transformation and it began on the early West coast leg of Dead tour, Nevada to Washington to Oregon, then back home to Shoreline Amphitheater near San Francisco.
By my last stop at Shoreline, I was exhausted from the tour yet enthusiastic about my upcoming wedding and pilgrimage. Shoreline was my old stomping grounds where I had worked hundreds of shows before. It was the eye of the storm that was my summer of '95, or so I thought. During the first local show we got a call about a tripper who had climbed to the top of a speaker tower. He was up on top of the roof of a crow's nest-like structure that housed a stage light about 30 feet in the air with some elevated speakers. It was an unacceptable position, no matter what his state of mind. My Rock Med partner Mark Hallett and I were both fresh off the tour and deep in the groove. This was the first big call of the night so we charged in, pumped to save the day. Before we knew it, we were both standing high atop the tower on a tiny platform, a thin 10 x 10 plywood roof meant only to provide shelter from the elements. It was not designed to support the weight of three men. The third person, our patient, was tripping hard on acid. Sometimes acid trippers are severely impaired by the trip incoherent, stumbling fools. Other times, they are amplified. It's these other times that are seldom discussed in the "war on drugs." Sometimes, trippers have such heightened perceptions, it's like they're enlightened. The most frequently cited case of this was Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres for the Pittsburgh Pirates while tripping on acid in 1970. Our patient had this latter mindset. He leered at us as if we'd just entered his playing field and he was about to strike us out.
The patient immediately grabbed Mark and maniacally yelled, "We're going over!" yanking him towards the edge. Grabbing a support pole, I reached for my Mark's belt, fully aware that I wouldn't be able to support the body weight of two falling men. Real fear set in. But at the last moment, the tripper released him. "Just kidding," he said with a wicked prankster grin. Mark retreated immediately. He turned to me and he said "Your turn?"
Now during Grateful Dead shows, they typically played an improvisational interlude during their second set nicknamed "drumz." Drummer Bill Kreutzmann and percussionist Mickey Hart would jam out some intense beat to a dazzling psychedelic light show. Hart is actually a renowned drum authority, author of several books, a leader in the Smithsonian's effort to preserve recorded music and a martial arts champion to boot. Through his connections, he often invited other world-renowned drummers to jam in drumz. That evening, he invited the Gyuto Tantric Monks from Tibet. Each monk of this special Buddhist order can chant a chord. When asked why he was associating with the monks, Hart often quipped something to the effect that they were both in the transportation business, but in truth, it?s their sound he's after. It's one of the most amazing sounds a human voice can make, very trance inducing, like aural acid. Of course, that night, the monks would choose one of my favorite chants, Yamataka. That's the same Yama who invited Huike to tea. It's said amongst Tibetans that when Yamataka approaches, all the gods wet their pants. What a soundtrack for this Shaolin acid test. What a scene. The music was this insane wall of sound that echoed judgment day. The lights were playing over the contorted features of the tripper patient like a depraved house of horrors ghoul. And then there was the smell. The tower crow's nest was the highest roost for many shorebirds and it reeked of seagull excrement. You know what seagulls eat? imagine what their crap smells like. The sights, sounds, smells and situation combined for complete sensory overload.
I tried to size up my patient as he smirked at me from behind blown pupils. He was bigger than me, well built, definitely athletic, with a much longer reach. And he was moving much faster due to the acid. His gestures were extremely chaotic and unpredictable. I could only see where he?d been, not where he was going. I figured my best strategy was to feint high, then take out his legs with a sweep or an ankle pick. I just had to be sure that we didn't fall off the platform. It was a true leitai, lethal and unforgiving.
Then he did one of those freak tripper moves. He stared deep in my eyes, reached into my mind and said, "So we're going to do the Bruce Lee, huh?" Maybe my Asian eyes and crouching stance betrayed my intention. Then again, maybe he just saw through me like he did Mark. He knew what would unnerve me most. He started jumping around making cat noises and flailing his hands, getting closer to me with each poke. I could have taken him when he was unaware, but now he was prepared and dialed in to my every move. That door was closed.
I rethought my tactics. The jumper scenario had been played out in so many movies. Clint Eastwood just knocked the jumper out. Mel Gibson handcuffed himself to the jumper and jumped into an airbag. Those weren't options here. And besides, those were movies delusions on the silver screen. This was reality. An error here could cost me everything - my wife to be, my journey to Shaolin, my life. How the hell did I get here exactly? It all seemed so absurd.
To the patient, this was all some big game. Perhaps he's walked through the fire and penetrated the delusions. Perhaps his mind was so intoxicated, he had no idea of the looming doom. Whatever the case, his Bruce impersonation was getting more and more threatening. I instinctively sank deeper into a fighting stance and raised my hands, trying not to flinch. Forget Clint and Mel - what would Bruce do? What would a Shaolin Monk do? What would Tamo do?
Be true to the moment. Tamo would be true. After all, that's why they're called moments of truth. With that in mind, my path was clear. I had to be honest and admit my fear. I dropped my guard, rose up and said, "Look, friend, you're scaring the hell out of me. Can't we go down and talk about this?" He immediately stopped his bobbing and weaving and replied "Sure." Grinning, we climbed down together where more staff people helped get him to safety and the crowd cheered. It all happened very quickly, seconds of real time. In reality, I was only up there with him short while. But even a fleeting moment in Yama's presence can be an eternity you never forget. It was my Shaolin training that prepared me to face that moment. It was Shaolin dharma that got me through, and I didn't even have to throw a single punch. And it is my Shaolin practice that allows me to continue learning from it, even now.
The last time I saw Garcia play was two nights later at the final show of the Shoreline run. My fianc?e and I got VIP seats for my tower rescue, and ironically they were situated directly between that tower and Garcia. I got off the tour after that and went on to Shaolin. The tour went on to Vermont, where the overwhelming size of the crowd forced promoters to open all the gates or face a riot. Then in New York, there were over 50 arrests. In Washington, three people were struck by lightning. Indiana had that riot where four officers were injured. The deadheads were tear gassed, resulting in the first show cancellation due to rowdiness in 30 years of touring. Then in Missouri, a porch collapsed, injuring about 100 deadheads. It was becoming known as the cursed tour. A few months later when I returned from Shaolin, the truth was revealed. Jerry succumbed to that cycle of birth and death. In the end, we can't say he didn't warn us. It was very strange, as if those Tantric Monks knew it, chanted it, and the only one who could hear them was my patient. But he couldn't say.
The legacy of Shaolin is an unbroken chain of sorrow and pearls. To retain validity today, it just needs to be exercised. How it is exercised is limited only by preconceptions. You can exercise it by sitting, you can exercise it by fighting and you can exercise it by saving the day. Both the shadow of gun and the shadow of the Tamo are just shadows, as impermanent as the light that creates them. While these shadows are formidable, it is the light that matters. The mindset of Shaolin is to perceive that light, free from all attachments, and maybe, just maybe, that door will suddenly fly open.
And yet despite what it might seem, enlightenment is not a goal of Zen. Enlightenment is a result of practice but we don't practice to be enlightened, we practice to practice. The essence of Shaolin practice is to be in the present moment. Consequently, Shaolin's acid test can be a moment of truth. But every moment can be a moment of truth. Whether it is deciding to risk life and limb against the madman atop the tower or wake up early and stare at a wall, every choice is bound by cause and effect. This is karma. It's not necessarily about kicking or punching. In these two stories, I didn't throw a single blow. It's about right action. Shaolin practice builds your character so you can make the right choice with courage and determination. By swallowing your teeth, blood and all, you won't wet your pants when facing Yama. And when this is tempered with a charitable and compassionate heart, enlightenment may be right behind the next door.
The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master
~from the Grateful Dead song, Terrapin Station
Written by Gene Ching (Xing Long) for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM