Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, June 24, 2005

Shaolin Temple 

Took the bus to the Shaolin Temple yesterday. It's located in a beautiful forest of juniper about 80 kilometers west of here. But if you're looking for a lonely, secluded outpost where the faithful go to seek quiet contemplation and the meaning of life, get it out of your mind. It's a tourist trap. I guess one should not be too surprised, in the new, new China. The temptation to capitalize on the fame of this place is certainly understandable, if not a bit frustrating, as one sees the growing commercialization of almost anything.

The fascination with Shaolin Gong Fu is certainly not limited to China. A Shaolin priest in an old Western movie is an object of awe and respect. During the years that I was in the trucking industry, the fascination with things eastern never ceased to amaze me. But these endless movies with martial arts themes all had a similar line, that was monotonously predictable. They all started out emphasizing the importance of inner strength. But in the end, the "bad guys" were very human, and the approach to these "bad guys" was very physical and very violent. Truck drivers love "macho" flicks, so these movies were always popular, and that didn't surprise me. People who are living defeated lives like to experience some measure of victory vicariously through a character they admire. But life isn't like that. You don't get a dozen takes to get it right. And the Book says, "we wrestle not against flesh and blood."

And there is no greater testimony to the spiritual emptiness of Buddhism than the extent to which it has become commercialized. But I suppose you could say the same thing about the gospel music industry in America. I am thinking about writing a book about the commercialization of religion. I think it would probably be a good seller. Seriously, I don't want to pick on one religion, because the tendency for that which is supposed to be "holy" to deteriorate into a racket seems to be universal among the religions of men. As a Christian, I would like to believe that Christians are immune to this sickness, because they have the truth, but it sometimes seems to me that Christians are almost more susceptible to this moral deterioration. Anyway, I am not an expert in what Buddhists believe. But I know one thing for sure. The Buddhists at the Shaolin temple believe in money.

That having been said, there is something the Shaolin Buddhists have developed, and it is very much in demand. That is the ability to use the human body as a weapon. People (mostly young men) come here from all over the world for a few days or a few months to learn the skills that will land them a job with a security agency, or maybe even a spot in a martial arts movie. There is something unique about the way super concentration can maximize the force of the human frame. The presentation we saw is a traveling performance. They travel throughout Asia presenting the most visible of Shaolin skill. One of the best illustrations of this concentrated energy is when the Shaolin martial arts master pokes a needle through a pane of glass to break a balloon. His assistant carries this pane of glass around to show everyone in the audience what it is. It is a solid sheet of glass about a quarter of an inch thick. Then he holds this pane of glass up, with a balloon right behind it, and the Shaolin master takes what looks like a sharp nail or needle and stabs it through the pane of glass, popping the balloon. It is really kind of eerie to see this tiny hole in the pane of glass. If it were me, I would have popped the balloon alright, but the glass would have been shattered. This pane of glass was clear. Not a crack of any kind. Just one small hole in the center.

There's nothing miraculous about it. Force equals mass times velocity squared, so theoretically, if you can do anything fast enough, you can create the force needed to, well, put a hole in a sheet of glass with a needle. It's a lesson in the power of concentration. I don't really fancy myself the next Jackie Chan, but the stuff those young men are able to do with their bodies really did inspire me. When I got back to my hotel, I got down and did ten push-ups. Well, OK...eight-and-a-half.

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