As opposed to the usual yearly trip, where I tried to keep some sort of a journal, either by emails or by log, this one was a doozey, and for many different reasons. I won't get into them here. One reason is, I plan on going back. One day.... The other, and probably the more important of the two, I was just too damn busy trying to keep it all together. Between early morning, late afternoon, and evening workouts intermixed with early afternoon and late night research sessions, and of course, the multitude of visits with old friends and the making of far, far too many new ones, it was tough to keep it all together. On top of that, with the usual drought that the region is accustomed to, followed by the ever so occasional sprinkling of rain, the sanitation that normally stays on the ground ended up in the reservoir, at the level where the intake pipes could distribute it ever so properly throughout the city and village water system to all of us. Needless to say, a lot of time was spent by all in some of our most favorite places. It was a hell of a trip in more ways then one. But then again, it always is.
So, instead of trying to piece together exactly what happened where and when, which, with my memory would be absolutely impossible, I've decided to instead devote the time and energy to putting together the responses to the multitudes of questions that I've gotten from a lot of you. And, of course, try to put, in a reasonable and readable fashion, all of the information that I was able to cull from my various sources. It's a better read than "Wednesday: went to bathroom yet again...."
What's going on....
UPDATE (June 2000): Well, it ended up being a more complicated trip than I had imagined, though, many of the predictions and suppositions suggested in the Shaolin FAQ ended up being true. Here's the main points:
- There has been a separation between the wushu guan and the Shaolin temple. At this time, the wushu guan is still government owned, though it is operated by some private individuals (including an ex-monk whose name I do not remember), who lease it directly from the central government. From what I understand, they pay a certain percentage, (around thirty percent?) of the gross to the government as rent. Some of the monks who used to reside at the Shaolin temple, and who were moved on to the wushu guan years ago to teach in this government institution, have continued to stay on there as employees of the new operators. Some reside there, not as employees, but as so-called "free agents". There are some "coaches" who teach at the wushu guan, whose main job is to teach the students of the wushu guan; these people are not monks, nor have they ever been. There are some monks who have left the monk hood (su jia di zi), and there are members of the wushu guan performance team. Apparently, in his efforts to "clean house", Shi Yongxin has decided that not having an association with the wushu guan is in the best interests of the Shaolin temple, especially now that a move more along the lines of increasing the temple's association and recognition with Buddhism is more important.
- There seems to be a "new sheriff in town", and Buddhism is the new law of the land. Some feathers have been ruffled, and many birds have left the coop. Many of the martial monks have retreated to their own schools in the valley and elsewhere, or have left to "travel", or to "visit other temples" throughout China. Some have remained, and have been very cautious as to what they have said about the new world order. To my surprise, some of the older, more established, and apparently, more outspoken, monks have been asked to leave. The temple itself seems to be less gong fu oriented, a fact made obvious by the ever present tables set up in front of each hall or pavilion on the temple grounds, upon which are books for sale; books which highlight the abbot's life and Buddhist teachings. Gong fu books are hard to find there. You have to go to the wushu guan to get those.
- But, the temple grounds are absolutely beautiful. Much work has been done over the past year towards cleaning, repainting, and repairing. It is a shame that one sees few tourists there this year, as compared to the previous years. I asked a few of the monks where all the tourists were, because, at least in my opinion, the difference from year to year was really noticeable. There really appeared to be a significant decrease in the amount of visitors roaming around the temple. The official answer was, "Everybody has already seen the temple, so nobody needs to come anymore". Well, OK, all 1.2 billion of you came through, and got tired of it. I mean, no E ticket rides, so, why come back. Yea, I can see that. The real answer, though, seems to be that the visitors dislike the fact that the temple has shorn most of it's gong fu roots and tradition. They seem to feel that there is no reason to go visit the temple if they can't see the gong fu. Interesting situation. The temple is trying to rebuild itself more along it's Buddhist traditions, which, without a doubt, it most probably needed to do, but along the way, it may have gone a little too far in shirking its gong fu tradition and responsibilities.
- And to confirm the decrease in tourism, one need only to look outside the temple grounds. Economics always talks, and the amount of shop owners, and peasants who ran little tourist shops in the surrounding area have greatly decreased. Not only are their numbers less, but they seem to fight more for business. I can remember one day that I caught the eye of one woman who motioned to me to come over to her shop, which, I eventually did. I found nothing there that I liked, but, went only a few feet away, to buy water from her next door neighbor. Well, one hell of a fight erupted over that. She decided that she didn't like his stand, so it was time to pick it up and toss it over. All sorts of stuff ended up all over the ground. All because of a three Yuan bottle of water. I just never witnessed that sort of competitive aggression there before. Times have changed in Shaolin. Without a doubt.
- And that competitive aggression might not just be from less tourists and less Yuan floating about. No, more than that is happening. Apparently, Shi Yongxin has been making some moves to move all of these peasants out. Apparently, the central government has issued an edict which is supposed to force all shop owners and peasants from their land holdings within 500 meters of the temple, in an effort to increase the size of the temple grounds, and, also, to make it, more "as it was". Rumors of doing the same on the stretch between the wushu guan and the temple abound, but, since there is no official relationship between the temple and the wushu guan, I see no reason for this to occur. Besides, doing so would mean the eviction of the Shaolin Wu Shu academy, a fairly huge wu shu school situated between the two, among others. It would be quite the mess. We're talking about thousands of students. This 500 meter ruling has really gotten the local people in quite the stir, for obvious reasons. But, it hasn't really had an effect. People just haven't moved. They've ignored it. From what I'm told, the government or the abbot can tell them to move, but it just doesn't make any difference. They're going to go where they can make money to survive. Because that is all that is important to them. More feathers are getting ruffled....
- As for the news release, in which the abbot was described as denouncing the martial monks, some monks told me plain and simple, just not to believe everything that is written in the newspaper. Of course, these monks that I spoke with were primarily martial monks, and were therefore, not exactly in the best position to be speaking their mouth off to some foreigner, regardless of how much they trusted him. I truly got the sense that "words were very carefully chosen" where ever I went, for whatever I asked. After a while, I just stopped asking. I decided that is just wasn't worth putting anybody into any sort of, well, danger.
- Other monks have said that they agreed with the news article, stating that the martial monks that had performed overseas were "not real monks" because, well, they weren't. Here we get into another issue, to be discussed at another time (see Identity), but, to be put quite simply, some of these martial monks just have not taken all the vows that the Buddhist monks have. They "branched off" to primarily train in gong fu (with some Buddhist training), while their counterparts, remained on track in Buddhism primarily (with little or no gong fu), and continued on the Buddhist path, with more ceremonies, and vows, to become a more "full fledged Buddhist monk". Thus, the "not a real monk" confusion. It's a topic that you really shouldn't waste a lot of time with.