i·den·ti·ty [ déntitee ] (plural i·den·ti·ties) noun
1. what identifies somebody or something: who somebody is or what something is, especially the name somebody or something is known by
2. somebody's essential self: the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life
3. sameness: the fact or condition of being the same or exactly alike 4. Australia, New Zealand celebrity: somebody who is well known in a particular field of activity (informal)
5. MATHEMATICS equation true for all its variables: a mathematical equation that remains valid whatever values are taken by its variables
6. MATHEMATICS See identity element [Late 16th century. From late Latin identitas , from ident- , combining form of Latin idem "same," from id "that."]
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"Everything mom wanted me to be"
We called him Harvard. Actually, he was quite the good surgeon. Not the typical local area University surgeon, who I would absolutely hesitate and shudder to have operate on my dog. Or my hated neighbor's dog. No, Jeff (not his real name), was quite good. And he was fun to be around, both inside and outside the operating room. He had absolutely no problems with maintaining an engaging conversation both in and out of the OR, whether it was in a sushi bar chasing the occasional and unfortunate member of the opposite sex that just happened to come across our path, or in the OR during a rather hazardous and risky procedure that had just completely gone to hell. No, Jeff was quite the fun guy to be around.
But he had one problem, one Achilles' heel, as we all tend to have. He had an ego. Intermixed within all the usual and entertaining conversation that went on during the sometimes long and tedious operative procedures, Jeff would sometimes regress and start discussing his incredible surgical career. Of course it would start with the grades that he got in college. Of course, they were good grades. So good, that his grades were on one end of the alphabet, and I think mine were on the other. And, oh, what a tough college that was. Ivy league. Well, it was Ivy league all the way. There was no second best education for Jeff. And after that best top-notch college, there was the best, top-notch medical school. Of course, the rest of us went to medical school too. Some of us even graduated. And some of us even went to good ones. But none of us went to the best. Jeff did. And after medical school, there was the bane of all of our existences, the internship. Of course we had all hated ours. Working over a hundred hours a week for mere peanuts, taking abuse from attending physicians, other residents, nurses, and janitors, trying to learn medical skills that one day would form the backbone for the rest of our medical careers. It was a major stumbling block for some of us, a small stepping stone for others. The majority of us got through.
"I used to teach the chief of my surgical department a few things in my internship", he used to tell me. "He was sorry to see me go. You know, when I left to do my first residency, at Harvard, in surgery."
Of course he did. Jeff was the best. And Jeff was one of the few that did a "first" residency, meaning that there would be a "second". And, after the "second", a third training period, this time, called a fellowship. Actually, there were two of them, as I recall. Many physicians just didn't bother doing those at all. But Jeff did.
And there was no second place or second best either. Jeff was the absolute best, as were the schools and residencies and fellowships that he trained in. And he made sure that he told it to us. Each and every time that we worked with him. It got to be so damn predictable, that we developed a game over it.
So, whenever we worked with Jeff, there was an unwritten rule, a so-called game plan. Before the procedure would start, a group of us would get together and make bets as to how long it would take Jeff to stop discussing the usual dribble and drabble that occurred during long operative procedures. When exactly would the first mention of Harvard or Yale come forth from the Great One's mouth? The usual time period that people betted upon ranged anywhere from ten to thirty minutes after the procedure started, which, considering that some of these procedures took literally hours, was not a long period of time to start hearing about the wonders of one's education and surgical expertise. Yes, that was one way of finding humor in the unfortunate venting of an individual who was so wrapped up in himself, that he eventually failed to see the other people around him. And of course, after the usual Harvard Yale diatribe, some of the nurses would make a nice little remark about how wonderful he was, and quite possibly, one of the techs, who was not in sterile garb, might get on his knees and bow and prostrate, as if bowing before the Buddha, in a mock moment of forced respect. Yes, the first week or two of that brought laughter, which Jeff did not partake in. But after a year or two, it became tiring, to say the least. We had run out of mechanisms to deal with Jeff's huge and undying ego.
But then one day, while I was struggling with the reality of managing a difficult patient through a difficult and long procedure, during which Jeff, in all of his vain and egocentric glory, was extolling the virtues of his wonderful and unique medical and surgical education to all of us, one of my anesthetic colleagues came into the room to visit. His timing could not have been better. He had also suffered through many of these dialogues, and because he was not personally responsible for that specific patient at the time, as I was, he was unfettered, and could enter and leave the room at will. He listened to Jeff talk about his grades in medical school, and how he had discovered this surgical procedure and how he had made that surgical procedure better, and how this surgical instrument company had asked him to design surgical instruments for surgical procedures that only he knew how to do, because he had designed and perfected them. And my colleague just listened quietly, with just a hint of a mischievous twinkle in his highly experienced eye. And he winked at me; and subsequently leaned over the surgical drapes to say something to Jeff directly, though it was loud enough for all to hear in the surgical OR.
"You know Jeff, you're everything my mother wanted me to be."
And with that, he left the room.
Utter silence. Except for the crash that everyone heard as I fell out of my chair. The hysterics started later, after the case, as word of the famous one line swept the entire medical community.
Jeff never mentioned his medical training again.
"Fleas" and "Blades"
Medical school, and the residency/fellowship training that is associated with it, can really be an oppressive experience. The competition to get into medical school forces aspiring doctors to be to go to the very best colleges that they can get into. But it doesn't end there. Being in the top ten percentile of one's class helps, as grades, and not looks or personality, is the primary factor in the decision as to whether a candidate gets an interview during the application process for medical school. This whole process fosters a competitive atmosphere which is quite intense, and which actually, even starts in high school, where competition for good grades is necessary so that one can get into a good college (so one has a better chance of getting into a medical school, etc). Living in this highly competitive atmosphere starts at a relatively young age.
But it doesn't end there. Some believe that to get into a good residency, or, to get into certain popular residencies, where specialty training takes place, one needs good grades and recommendations from medical school. So, now, after competing with tons of people in college to be in the top ten percentile to try to get into medical school, one now has to compete with those people, who got in, to get the residencies that one desires, or, to get a good residency. Competition for fellowship, which is training after residency, can be intense also, depending upon the fellowship.
Then comes the quest for the good private practice jobs, or, the desirable University positions. You see, competition becomes a way of life for a physician, as it does for people in other walks of life, but, just not to the same degree. But with this ever-present competition, sometimes comes a serious problem of identity. Here's where the issue becomes a little more complex.
Identity, or, "Who am I?", can be quite the question. Some people get on track on their lives early on, maybe because they follow in a parent's footsteps in a family run business, maybe because the educational track that they've chosen helps guide them towards it. Some people never get on the right identity track, and never really discover who they are or what they are capable of. For doctors, the process starts relatively early. But it's a long drawn out process. And it can be, with the personal sacrifices involved along the way, with respect to social life, friends and family, a terribly dehumanizing experience, one which does little to help formulate or initiate the identity discovery process.
While in college, it's tough to develop the "I'm going to be a doctor" identity, because one doesn't know if one will get into medical school. But, the day that acceptance letter comes, that first step is taken. The individual starts getting on a track, and starts training for what he will spend the rest of his life doing. Medical school forms the background and gives all physicians to be an equal footing; the basics, so to speak. Medical school doesn't create the individual as a physician; though it creates the physician. One doesn't really develop one's identity to one's individuality in medical school; one starts to do that in residency training, whereby one starts working and studying within the specialty that one will spend his life in. It's one thing to be a doctor; it's another to be a specialist. All specialists are doctors, but not all doctors are the same specialists. And each and every specialty has a unique lifestyle and set of responsibilities associated with it. It's what makes us truly different.
We used to call them the fleas. The medical residents. During our internship, we all started to struggle with "who we were". Being in a surgical internship, I was in one half of the medical spectrum. The other, the people who were in medical internships, were on a different track. Of course, we had our rivalries, though, they were friendly at all times. Hell, we were all newly made physicians; now it was time to start learning the intricacies of our careers. But being part of the surgical half made us feel as if we were special, just as those who were in the medical half felt as if they were special. We had thought that we were better than the fleas, because we got up earlier to do rounds (see patients), we went to the operating room to cure patients (we "healed with steel"), and we tended to go home late at night, if we went home at all. Yes, we were tough little buggers. To us, surgery was the end all to cure all. No dispensing bullshit medicines for us. We took people to the operating room and removed their disease, all while the medical residents spent a good deal of the day making rounds and discussing the various and sundry aspects of all the little involved minutiae of pathology and disease states. And then they wrote a prescription. We called ourselves the "blades". They were the "fleas". Of course we were better than them. We ripped out disease while they mentally masturbated about it.
But they looked down upon us too. They had looked upon us as being physical brutes who were too stupid to understand all the various little details that concerned disease states. Hell, we couldn't talk about disease, we could only cut people and remove dead tissue. What good were we? No, the fleas understood disease, what it was, why it existed, what caused it, how to prevent it, how to treat it, and more importantly, how to treat the patient. We blades were just impatient boorish stupid individuals who knew how to cut and sew, and who certainly did not have any sort of bedside manner whatsoever.
And the rivalry continued throughout residency. And as we subspecialized more and more into our individual and separate career paths, that rivalry continued, to a degree. As we found ourselves, and discovered our identities, and started to develop who and what we were, and what we, as individuals, were trained to contribute to society, the rivalry became less derogatory, and more friendly. Until it eventually disappeared.
And when we all graduated our residencies, and were full-fledged trained and board-certified specialists, each with a unique and separate identity, that rivalry disappeared. It was then that we all really discovered that not only were we all different, we were all the same. We had the same goals. We all needed to work together. And we definitely needed each other. One group was not whole without the other.
We were physicians.
What is a monk?
monk [mungk ] (plural monks) noun
man living in a religious community: a man who withdraws entirely or in part from society and goes to live in a religious community to devote himself to prayer, solitude, and contemplation
[Old English munuc . Ultimately from a prehistoric Germanic word, from late Latin monachus , from, ultimately, Greek monos "alone" (source of English mono-).]
Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P) 1999-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
dis·ci·ple [di sp'l ] (plural dis·ci·ples) noun
1. follower of person or idea: somebody who strongly believes in the teachings of a leader, a philosophy, or a religion, and tries to act according to them
2. dis·ci·ple or Dis·ci·ple original follower of Jesus Christ: one of the 12 original followers of Jesus Christ, according to the Bible [Pre-12th century.
From Latin discipulus "learner," from discere "to learn." Ultimately from an Indo-European word that is also the ancestor of English doctrine.]
dis·ci·ple·ship noun dis·cip·u·lar [di síppylr ] adjective
Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P) 1999-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
It was sometime in the middle of June of 2000, high up on mountain overlooking the Shaolin temple. Shi De Cheng and I, along with my trusty friend and interpreter, Lu Yong, had retreated to the privacy of a small mountain clearing in which we could work out undisturbed by visitors and onlookers. He was in the middle of showing me the rest of Lohan Chuan, an apparently sacred form to the Shaolin monks for some god forsaken reason. I had learned the first half of Da Lohan (big Lohan, as opposed to a smaller version, called Xiao Lohan, small Lohan) about two years ago. It truly is a great form, incorporating many of the so-called Shaolin basics in various and sundry advanced ways. It apparently is a favorite among many of the monks, and from what I've noticed, and also, from what I'm told, many of the monks will not teach this form in its entirety to foreigners, or, even to Chinese students. I've also heard that occasionally, some monks (one monk in the US, for instance) have taught Lohan Chuan intermixed with Xiao Hong Chuan to give the appearance of an entire form, so that they don't teach the true Lohan in its entirety. The form is made up of one hundred and eight steps, one step each for each Lohan, or monk, that has at some time in the past, attained the so-called "enlightenment".
To watch Shi De Cheng perform this complicated form was truly an experience, to say the least. With each step of the form came absolute precision intermixed with power, flexibility and speed, the likes of which I had just not seen all that much before. Knowing that I had already gotten past the half way point towards understanding the form and its applications, he told me that he had planned on teaching me the rest of it the next time we had gotten together. It was something that I had sincerely looked forward to, as, of all the multitudes of forms that I had known, both gong fu, Seidokan, and Kempo, Lohan just had to be my absolute favorite. It was not just its complexity that had amazed me; for some reason, the maneuvers within had just separated it from the rest of the proverbial pack.
And it was then that I had realized the absolute absurdity of it all. Here I was watching my master do an advanced gong fu form with such ridiculous precision, and he was expecting to teach me the rest of it in the eventual hopes that one day, I would do it as well as he. Or, almost.
Not in this lifetime, I thought. Or the next. I started to think of the relative absurdity of it all. I was a doctor, he was a monk. I had trained in medicine all my life, he had trained in gong fu and Lohan. And now, he eventually expected me to do Lohan like him. One day. It was almost as absurd as my putting him in an operating room and expecting him to save some poor bastard's life.
It was then, that the little wheels started turning in my little head. Wheels about this whole identity thing. About who I was, and especially, about who the monks were. Especially, about who the monks were. It certainly has become quite the issue over the past few years. Real monks versus fake monks. Buddhist monks versus martial monks. An abbot being quoted in the China news as saying that "They're not real monks". Identity. Who were these guys? As it turns out, they were a lot like me. But in very, very different ways.
As we walked down the mountain later that afternoon, Shi De Cheng did what he tended to do best with me. He related. And I still can't figure out how he did it. Call it that master-disciple bond that we have. Call it an ability to read people. Call it an uncanny ability to interpret facial expressions. Call it an ability to read minds.
He said, "It's very difficult to become a doctor", with an obvious air of respect, all aimed at me.
I was a little unnerved at the comment, especially considering all of the thoughts that had gone through my mind on the way down. I still don't know what precipitated the subject. He wanted to know how many years of schooling it took to "train", as he put it. What exactly I did. Why I did it. It ended up being an interesting day. Call it "mutual awe". Two people, with deep mutual respect, for completely different reasons. Both realizing that neither will ever, ever master the other's specialty.
And it was then, that despite the total geographic separation, the complete difference in the two fields, the difference in culture and language, that I started to see similarities between us. Two tremendously different people, yet very much the same. And the similarities go far to really explain what a monk is.
Becoming a monk
Becoming a monk, at least, in the pre-Shi Yongxin abbot days, was quite the process. During that time, (after the Cultural Revolution and before the late 90's), monk wanna-bes, or, usually, just young children, were deposited at the doors of the Shaolin temple. The reasons for leaving children at the temple were many. Some children truly desired to learn gong fu at an early age, and as time passed, developed a strong desire to remain at the temple as a monk. Other children were left there by their families, either because their families could not support them, or, because their families felt that these children would best benefit from the "education" that the temple monks would offer them. It was not uncommon for wayward children to end up at an early age (around ten or so) at the temple. Whatever the reason, the children were taken in, and were placed into "camps" within the temple.
These "camps", or groups, were usually led by a senior monk. The groups of children basically stayed together during their entire existence at the temple; they lived together, ate together, and trained together. They usually lived in one of the pavilions inside the temple complex, and, from what I'm told, didn't usually intermingle much with children from the other groups, as those other groups, had lived and trained in other pavilions (which explains why many of the monks of certain similar generations don't know, or don't know of, each other). Training also took place in some of the courtyards, and outside the temple walls.
There were four courtyards within the temple complex, labeled North, South, East and West, and each courtyard was basically run by one monk master, who, more than likely, also was in charge of one or more of the pavilions with its associated groups of children. Consider the courtyards to be an extension of the pavilion or group concept. Remember, considering that there are almost three hundred different traditional gong fu forms (hand, weapon, and animal), no one monk knows them all (Shi De Cheng and Shi Xing Hong each know about eighty, as an example). Different monks know different forms, and therefore, different "styles". So, each courtyard came to represent a different style, all depending upon which monk master of the time was in charge of it. And, depending upon which monk master a child had all dictated which forms that child, (and possibly, future monk) would know and master. Thus the continuation of tradition.
So, at an early age, we have a separation of the children according to which master that they've been taken by. As they grow older, they start to take on new masters, But, early one, there is only one. And there are only one group of students that this child will associate with, for many years, hence, the term and concept, "gong fu brothers". The real family has been replaced with an artificial one, one which actually has become a stronger unit than the one he has been born into. And there is not much interaction with the other groups over the years, except for some competitions in the various courtyards as time goes on.
But, the different groups undergo other changes. Not only do they have different monk masters, and hence, eventually different forms, some students, after learning the gong fu basics, are chosen, or picked out of the bunch, to be put on a different "track". Whether it be for lack of athletic aptitude, or, an obvious high intellectual ability, some students are placed with monk masters that will primarily teach them Buddhism, instead of a primary focus on gong fu. Other students, because of either an obvious aggressive personality, or relative lack of aptitude necessary for Buddhist studies, will be moved over to the gong fu track.
So, relatively early on, after the monk masters have gone through gong fu basics with the students, and after a certain period of evaluation, decisions are made for these children to move them either towards the "martial monk" career, or the "Buddhist monk" career, a tradition which has been going on for well over a thousand years. "Martial monks" were created quite some time ago, well over a thousand years ago, and their training, and purpose, as well as their garb, has not changed much during that time. The primary purpose of the martial monks is not to teach gong fu (that's a new disease inflicted by external forces); it is, or at least, was, to protect the temple. Therefore, their training and upbringing is altered to reflect that purpose. Martial monk students in training spend about two thirds of their training day (four hours) training in gong fu, and one third (two hours) training in Buddhism. The Buddhist monk students do just the reverse.
Now, when the students reached the age of eighteen, they then had the option, if their gong fu or Buddhist skills were acceptable, and if they were of the correct "mindset", of becoming disciples of their individual masters, and of the Shaolin temple. They then underwent the "Taking refuge" ceremony (which I describe under Shi De Cheng), and are each given a monk name.
But, at this point, technically, they are not monks; they are disciples, regardless of whether they are on the Buddhist or the martial monk track. A period of one or two years must pass, during which studies are undertaken, primarily in Buddhism. It is after this period, that they are tested, evaluated, and if deemed acceptable by the rest of the monks in the temple, are allowed to undergo the next ceremony.
The next ceremony is performed by a high ranking Buddhist master, usually brought in from outside the Shaolin temple. The ceremony usually takes a whole day, and involves a lot of chanting from the sutras. Vows are taken, and after the ceremony, the disciples are then considered to be monks of the Shaolin temple.
It is at this time, that the two groups again separate; the Buddhist monks train predominantly or entirely in Buddhism with their Buddhist masters, and the martial monks train on their own and with different gong fu specialty masters (such as Shi Su Goong), and with some Buddhist masters, such as Shi De Ren. But as far as ceremonies go, the martial monks are done. There are no more ceremonies for them to go through. They are basically finished with their "testing" and "evaluation". Their primary purpose at this time is just to protect and perfect.
The Buddhist monks, on the other hand, have a whole slew of ceremonies ahead of them. The Buddhist religion has within it, much like other religions in which there are priests or other such figures, multitudes of ceremonies that members of its order can go through, as they progress up the veritable ranks. The next ceremony, which is for the Buddhist monks only, takes almost forty-two days, during which again, a high ranking Buddhist priest is brought in to lead a chanting session. Six hour days, for approximately a month and a half, bring the Buddhist monk to his next level.
There are more ceremonies after that, and they are for different things. They are too numerous to mention, and they require a knowledge of Buddhism that I just don't have. But, you get the idea.
(With the advent of the government run wushu guan, a third group of people emerged, which has no doubt caused much confusion to the entire issue: the wushu performance team. These highly skilled individuals are hired by the wushu guan as instructors/performers, and occasionally, they go overseas to do tours. Some of these individuals are actual martial monks (some of the early tours were made up entirely of martial monks, later tours had less martial monks and more team members or local students), other members of the team are not monks, but are just damn good wu shu artists who have risen up through the ranks of the wushu guan school (or other local schools) to work on the team. Also, students of the wushu guan will do performances locally and overseas with the wushu guan performance team; they also are not monks. We won't discuss this third group anymore, and will limit our discussion purely to those individuals who have grown up in the temple as Shaolin monks).
These two groups have completely different purposes; the martial monks are there to protect the temple and the Buddhist monks, the Buddhist monks are there to continue the Buddhist training and tradition. The martial monks continually train in gong fu, the Buddhist monks in Buddhism. Both groups lived in harmony for centuries, each with separate and distinct purpose, each striving towards the same goal, each needing each other. One not really being whole without the other.
So, what you get, just like the fleas and the blades, are a group of people, with similar ideals, goals, and purpose, each specializing in their selected field, yet also studying enough of their colleagues field so as not to be completely illiterate in it. And no doubt, just like the fleas and the blades, each group, as they were growing up and developing their individual identities, had developed rivalries, as separate groups with different ideas tend to do. But, from what I've noticed, the large majority of these monks have "grown up" and have developed their own individual identities, much as most physicians do. The martial monks continue their own self- education of course by training daily in gong fu, but by also, in some cases, educating themselves informally, and occasionally formally, with a Buddhist master, in Buddhism. The Buddhist monks tend to continue strongly with their Buddhist studies, and some return to their gong fu roots to train either with their master or by themselves, to become as accomplished in the martial arts as their martial monk colleagues.
But a lot of this is about to change. Or, shall I say, has changed. No longer do young children get deposited on the doorstep of the Shaolin temple to start a life of gong fu and Buddhist training. The temple has largely become a tourist attraction, and it no longer houses a large majority of the monks that used to live and train there. The days of growing up in one of the pavilions, and training in the North courtyard under a certain master with a certain style, are over. Now, monks live in a building nearby the temple, and train in the mountains nearby. True, there still are monk masters who are teaching traditional gong fu to the younger monk wanna be's, but the old days are definitely past. The movement of the martial monks to the wushu guan in the early 90's to assist the government in it's effort to "make money" training foreigners has had a deleterious effect to some degree on the harmony that once existed between the Buddhist and martial monks. Few martial monks now live with the Buddhist monks, and though some of them still remain friendly with each other, the use of the martial monks at the Wushu Guan to teach and to perform has created a schism between the two groups to some degree. The privatization of the Wushu Guan, and the new movement by the new abbot Shi Yongxin to completely separate the temple from the affairs of the wushu guan, has done nothing but make that schism even larger.
But Shi Yongxin's actions are going to worsen this separation. For a new decree at the temple has now changed a centuries old tradition. No longer will children be accepted at the temple, nor will people, looking for a life as a Shaolin temple monk be taken in directly. If one wants to be a Shaolin temple monk, one now has to apply to, train at, and graduate from the Beijing Buddhist college first. Only graduates of that college are now accepted to be taken in as potential Shaolin monks. Considering the intricacies of Shaolin gong fu, and the necessity of starting its training at a relatively young age to really be able to master it, the potential future effect on Shaolin gong fu by this move is obvious, if not mind-boggling and ominous. Shi Yongxin studied gong fu at the temple in his younger years, but then went to the Buddhist college himself, before returning to the temple (See Update 2000). Taking graduates who no doubt will be in their mid to late twenties before they start their traditional gong fu training will definitely have an adverse effect upon the future transmission of the gong fu tradition. Quite possibly, this might be one of the many reasons why many of the monk masters that I had spoken with had suggested that they were in fear of the gong fu tradition being in harm of not continuing in its proper way. However, if the temple takes the best students from the nearby wu shu schools, sends them to the Buddhist college for Buddhist training, and them takes them in for training as Shaolin temple monks, the gong fu tradition will continue, though it might be a little changed.
It might be more oriented towards competition style wu shu.
Either way, centuries old tradition, and with it, attitudes towards both Buddhist and martial monks, are changing quite rapidly over these past few years.
But, what does this all mean for the monks that are already out there? The ones that grew up in the temple over the past thirty years or so? Well, they are feeling the effects of all of this. These actions by Shi Yongxin, especially when the abbot has been quoted in the Chinese newspaper as stating that "They're not real monks" when asked about the martial monks who were sent to teach and do performances in other countries, have done nothing but hurt the reputations, and more importantly, the feelings of these highly devoted individuals. It's sad, because these martial monks never really asked to leave the temple years ago to teach at the wushu guan; the government, via a committee that ran the Shaolin temple after the then abbot, Shi Xing Zheng, died, had these monks move to the wushu guan to fulfill the government's purpose (Of interest, Shi Yongxin was a member of that six monk governing committee). These same monks laugh at the mention of that newspaper article, in which Shi YongXin was quoted as saying "there is absolutely no connection between Shaolin Temple and these overseas Shaolin monk tours", especially since the article never mentioned the fact that Shi Yongxin went with the martial monks on some of these tours to other countries.
So, what you have here is a situation whereby "the time's they are a changing". The abbot is making the rules, and he's making the rules to suit his purposes. And his purposes seem to be to direct the Shaolin temple in a more Buddhist oriented direction. But change doesn't always come without expense, and this time, the cost is the martial monk's reputations. Betrayal seems to be the key word here. No one will say it. They don't have to. You can feel it.
And I can understand completely what they must be going through. It would be as if some governing authority came into my life and decided that my professional training was not what it should be, or not worth what it used to be worth. That my identity was called into question. Which brings into question one's sense of self worth, one's sense of place in the world, one's sense of value. Just ask any physician that you know what the large influx of HMO medicine over the past few years has done to his identity. And then you'll understand why Jeff just wouldn't stop talking about how wonderful he was.
Reality, Perception, and Paradox
But, before we continue, a little history lesson is probably in order. No doubt recent actions from the governing authority of the temple has caused some confusion here, so it's probably necessary to backtrack a little and discuss a little background. The more information one has, the better one's understanding of the facts. Just remember one thing about this information: it is "third hand", or, as it is more commonly referred to in our wonderful legal system, "hearsay", and as such, would not be considered admissible in the courtroom. The following information was culled from discussions with a multitude of people, people who might have had their own "agendas", so to speak. The veracity of this information should therefore be considered tenuous, and making decisions upon this should be done with equal hesitancy. As I did not get a chance to discuss these things directly with the people involved, there was no way to verify any of this. (Not that discussing any of this with the principal players would have necessarily led me to the truth....) With that in mind, read and enjoy. Accept what you will.
Shi Xing Zheng was the highly respected abbot of the Shaolin temple from the hazardous and chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution, during which he honorably and bravely protected what Shaolin history and icons that he could, at, no doubt, the risk of his own demise. He was also responsible for the reorganization of the monks after the ten year chaos was over, in 1976. Remember that only fourteen or so monks initially survived that period of time; not much considering all the traditional gong fu that had been learned over the previous thousand years. Shi Xing Zheng no doubt is one of the monks who is most responsible for the rebirth of the temple after those hazardous and destructive years.
He had a few highly respected disciples, some of whom I had the honor to meet. They are still living at the temple, in senior positions. Their positions on this topic are not known to me, as I took the liberty of deciding not to discuss this issue with them. The information in this article has been derived from a multitude of people, both Buddhist and martial monks, and, also non-clerical people in the Shaolin village. Because of the nature of the material, and the nature of the country, I've decided to throw all journalistic integrity out the proverbial window to protect my sources. China is not a country in which you can easily claim the right to freedom of speech, unless you want to do it from a jail cell. That point was quickly hammered home upon my arrival into China, when a reliable resource emailed me about one of the monks supposedly being in prison for reasons that I won't get into at this point.
Shi Xing Zheng was highly respected, without a doubt. But there are questions as to whether or not he truly was an abbot, or just an acting abbot. Or, a "head monk". Historically, in China, from what I was told, only the emperor could appoint an abbot to the temple, and since the last emperor left the throne in 1912, the temple has technically been "abbot-less" since then. But, these are semantics, though, as we'll see later, maybe important ones. Regardless of what he was called, Shi Xing Zheng was a most honorable and respected leader of the Shaolin temple.
But, he was also getting old. And in 1989, he started to take ill. It was becoming apparent that he would not survive the year. Now, there were other very highly respected monk masters, who were in there sixties and seventies, who were highly capable of leading the Shaolin temple monks for the next ten years or so (Shi Su Xi and Shi Su Yun, for example; again, two very highly respected monk grandmasters). But, their appointment was not to be. Yong Xin, one of Xing Zheng's disciples, who, at that time must have been in his late teens or early twenties, from what I've been told by multiple sources, apparently was very close to his master. So close, that a proverbial deathbed visit precipitated the formation of something completely new and different for Shaolin: a new governing body for the Shaolin temple, and not an abbot or a "head monk", which was to take place upon the passing of Shi Xing Zheng. This governing body would be made up of six monks, and would include some of the most highly respected leaders that the temple had at the time. The committee would include Shi Su Xi and Shi Su Yun. It would also include Shi Yong Xin. Shi Su Xi was to head the committee.
Shi Su Xi was the perfect choice. He was in his late sixties or early seventies at the time, and was starting to deal with the early ravages of Parkinson's disease. But his personality was also perfect for the management of the committee. He really didn't want the position. He was highly respected by all the monks in the temple because he was regarded as an "ordinary monk"; one who shunned power. He just wanted to live an ordinary monk's life. Over the years, however, Shi Yong Xin started to make his preparations.
As Shi Su Xi started to deteriorate over the years because of the advancing Parkinson's, Shi Yong Xin took good advantage of his position on the committee, both in helping to run the issues and management of the temple, and supposedly to fortify his position. When Shi Su Xi deteriorated to the point of not being able to manage the daily affairs of the temple, Shi Su Yun, in 1998, took over the position on the committee as "head monk". However, Shi Su Yun, himself now in his eighties, really was not in any position himself to be dealing with the management of the temple affairs. I had met Shi Su Yun (he is my master's master) in 1997, and at that time, though he seemed healthy for a man in his eighties, I did not get the impression that he would be desirous of dealing with political and management bullshit. No, it was obvious that there were other forces on the committee that were managing things.
Shi Su Yun's tenure at the "head monk" position was not to last long; he died a year later. It was time for another monk to be moved into the proverbial "head monk" position and lead the managing committee of the Shaolin temple.
But, it was not to be. A decree came from the National Buddhist organization in Beijing, which had decided that Shi Yong Xin was going to be appointed the new abbot of the Shaolin temple. He was in his early thirties at the time. It was a move which came as a surprise to all, yet as a surprise to no one. The leader of the National Buddhist organization, a Mr. Ja Bu Da (spelling?), was rumored to be a childhood friend of Shi Yong Xin; apparently they had grown up together in the same village. And over the years, it had been apparent to everyone that contact, in the form of visits (with other dignitaries also), had been kept up. An abbot had been appointed in China and there was no emperor to appoint him. And he was young. It raised a lot of eyebrows. But, few said anything.
His tenure so far has had some good and some bad points (see Update 2000). And, there have been some very interesting points, one which I got to witness one very humid and hazy late afternoon.
You need to remember that Shaolin village is poor. So poor, that people live in their little wooden shanties that they sell their trinkets and shit out of. Some, the fortunate ones, live in their stores that are made out of brick and concrete. Bathrooms consist of going down to the river; cleaning dishes consists of going down to the river, cleaning clothing consists of going down to the river. Cars just don't exist for these people. In neighboring Dengfeng, a small city by Chinese standards, things are a little different. The most common form of transportation, other than one's feet, or a bicycle, is a one cylinder engine motor scooter (which is, in a way, fortunate, for if these people had engines that were any more powerful than that, they'd be dangerous). The very fortunate had small four cylinder engine cars, either made in China with Volkswagen's help (called Santana), or, these tiny little minivan things that are difficult for big Americans like me to get in and out of, made by Changhe. You get the occasional tiny Suzuki (smaller than the American versions of Suzuki cars), and sometimes, these Chinese made Jeeps. It's not exactly motor vehicle heaven. Beijing is a little different now; this year I noticed more expensive cars on the road. You see the usual Santana's and Changhe's and Suzuki's and Volkswagens, and older Jeep Cherokee's, and occasionally, just occasionally, you might see a Buick, or a Toyota, and maybe even a small, lower end Mercedes, which usually housed some sort of government official. But you just never, ever saw, anywhere in my travels in China over the years, a Mercedes 300 SEL. The big Benz.
Until I walked out of my hotel that one fateful day.
I was actually astonished. I thought I was back in America. It was quite the car, and because I was so shocked at its presence, I started walking up to it. The driver quickly noticed me, and very calmly and professionally, without missing a beat, kept an eye on me through his dark sunglasses as he rolled the electronic windows up. Thick windows, windows with a frame around them. I wondered why this Mercedes had such an odd driver, with apparently reinforced windows. It was obvious that I was not wanted anywhere near the car, so I just stopped, and looked around. Behind the big Benz, at about twenty meters, was a white Santana, with another sun glassed vigilant driver sitting in it, with, interestingly enough, the engine running. Odd. Very odd.
It didn't take long, but the future occupant of the car came out, with a very cautious looking, ever scanning tough looking well dressed Chinese man accompanying him. He opened the door quickly for the occupant, who hurriedly got into the back of the car. The bodyguard quickly shut the door, made one last scan of the area, took special notice of me, and then, almost in the wink of an eye, opened his door in the front, and lithely slid in. His passenger door wasn't yet closed as the scout car in the rear zoomed past the Benz to take the lead. Both cars quickly and hurriedly took off to disappear rudely into the Dengfeng traffic.
The occupant of the Mercedes Benz 300SEL was Shi Yongxin.
I said to my friends who were with me, "What the hell is he doing in that car?" All very odd. All terribly, terribly professional. No one said a word.
At a later date, I made mention of this to a few of my contacts in the village. They were not at all surprised at my sighting, as almost everyone in the village had known this to be a fact. I asked why the abbot of the temple was driving around in a Mercedes Benz.
A very large and expensive Mercedes Benz.
"Because he is rich", was the typical answer, spoken in a way which was almost condescending, in a friendly sort of way, and implied that I was god-awfully stupid, also, in a friendly sort of way.
I found it odd that the abbot of a venerable institution, who was making comments in the press about how his martial monks were "not real monks", could drive around in such opulent extravagance, especially in a village in which people were having difficulty feeding themselves. It didn't strike me as being very "Buddhist" or monk like, to say the least. But, I didn't have all the facts, so I didn't make any judgments.
In his defense, I had started to wonder if the car had been a "gift", from some rich benefactor. Failure to use it properly would definitely have been a cause for this benefactor to "lose face", something that you just don't do to a fellow Chinese, especially one that is willing to give you a Mercedes Benz. Or, two Mercedes Benz. For, we also sighted a second one. A Mercedes Benz 500 SEL. It was used to ferry guests to and from the temple. Who that one belonged to is a mystery to me, but, if you think a 300SEL stands out in traffic full of one cylinder motor scooters, just imagine what a 500SEL looks like parked in front of the Shaolin temple. We never really found out the true origins of the car.
So, regardless of what the reality is, whether the abbot is "rich" and he bought the car, or cars, to suit his own purpose, whatever that may be, or, whether the car, or cars, were gifts from some wealthy benefactor to the abbot or the temple, that remains to be seen, and will probably never be known. Getting the truth on this matter is going to be damn near impossible. People will just say what they will say. As in most things, sometimes the reality just doesn't matter. The perception does. And the perception that we have here, is that of an abbot who is being driven around in a terribly expensive and ostentatious vehicle, far out of the reach of most anyone in the country, and who is guarded by an apparently well-trained security force. And why the security force? Who does he need protection from? Why would a stereotypical poor Buddhist monk, who has devoted his life to the study and teaching of Buddhism, need protection? The situation was confusing, to say the least.
I remember seeing many a Buddhist monk walking the streets of Bangkok late at night, begging for food, not at all afraid of the dangers that lurked in the darkness. Bangkok, the same city that when some of my police friends had gone there on a criminal conference years ago, had all been assigned Bangkok police bodyguards to offer them some sort of protection from the "street elements". Buddhist monks roamed freely, US police roamed shackled to Bangkok police. Shaolin is not Bangkok, by any stretch of the imagination. Again, another oddity. Reinforced windows and a security force in a peaceful village. Very odd indeed. The perception one derives from that tends to lean more towards the sinister, to say the least. The reality? Who knows. I don't think we ever will.
But, the problem as I see it, is the perception that emanates from this whole image. Screw the reality. It doesn't really matter if people don't know what it is. People see what they see, and they make judgments based upon that. And unfortunately, the judgments being passed because of this, and other things, are not good. Some of the elder monks who have left the temple say that the temple is no longer what it was, because it is run by "businessmen". Again, that is their perception. The reality is, the temple is no longer a home to the monks, it is a tourist attraction; so, to many of these older monks who grew up in the temple, bemoaning the loss of their home to tourists is going to be a common phenomena. You can evaluate the quote from either viewpoint.
Another perception which arises from this whole apparently newly money oriented government, is the lack of tourists visiting the temple. The perception being, as I was told by a few people, that the Chinese were getting a little sick of what they were seeing the Shaolin temple turn into. No gong fu, rich Buddhist monks? Who needs that? Tourism was way down. Actually, last year, and the few years before, the place used to be packed. This year, it was absolutely empty. It really raised my curiosity, so I started inquiring as to where the Chinese tourists really were. The "reality" that I was offered, consisted of a few explanations: one, it was only June, and most people were not on vacation yet (like the Chinese workers take significant vacations); two, the students were still in school (with a small percentage of the actual population actually in college, I didn't see how this could really affect the statistics all that much); three, the weather had been bad (we were at the tail end of a six month drought); four, and my favorite, "Everybody has already seen it, so why should they come back?" The perception is, less people are visiting the temple. The reality is, there are less street vendors and merchants scattered around the village and the temple. Screw the verbal reports; economics tells all. Something is going on. You won't get get a detailed answer from most of the monks, but fingers seem to be pointing in one direction.
But one thing that seems to be universal when talking to any of these monks, either Buddhist or martial, is one common theme. And that theme is fear. You can sense it. Few will speak out against what they see, or have seen. Banishment from the temple is not an uncommon occurrence now, as Shi Wan Heng can testify to (apparently, on one of the martial monk's tours, someone asked him who the abbot of the temple was. He jokingly replied that he was, which Shi Yongxin did not appreciate all that much). Rumors of one of the head monks being placed in prison for a few months on trumped up charges for punishment were rampant, and were actually reinforced by the rather humorous and ridiculous attempts at a cover up to "save face" (The rumor was found to be neither true nor false....) Many of the older more established monks left the temple for other temples throughout China, and some have gone on sabbaticals, to "travel" for a while. Overall, there is a general feeling of "uneasiness" that is not too difficult to interpret, despite the language barrier.
So, it seems as the new abbot struggles to develop his own identity, he has successfully contributed to the confusion about the identities of a good deal of the other monks. Whether this has been intentional, in an effort to consolidate power, or, to reinforce his own insecurities, or, as part of some future yet undisclosed master plan, is all not too clear. Whether there are as of yet undisclosed forces which have caused this, is also not too clear. (One might suggest the external influence of some of the government authorities). Regardless of the reasoning, the perception that erupts from all of this maneuvering ends up being a negative one for many people; the end result potentially being a future reality which may be far different than what we all might traditionally expect from this 1500 year old institution.
Thoughts of Mercedes Benz 300SEL's turned to Jeff, as no doubt, I wondered, he would have just loved to drive one of those instead of his Lexus. He would have liked being driven around sitting in the back even better.
Confusion, Leadership, and Epilogue
Yes, Jeff was a smart puppy. He really wasn't trying to tell us all those years how smart he really was. He was reflecting upon the loss of his identity, that he was experiencing, as we all were, from the ever-growing power and diminishing reimbursement of government medical insurance programs, and also, the burgeoning increase in managed care institutions, all of which were basically dictating to physicians all over the country what their reimbursements and work schedules were going to be. Essentially, our identities were being redefined, even though we had been happy with who we all eventually, and painfully, developed into. By reminding us about how well trained he was, he was just reinforcing the identity that he had evolved into over all of those years, an identity that was being whittled away ever so slowly and surely by external forces that he had absolutely no control over.
The martial monks are losing their identity also. The Buddhist monks no doubt are experiencing a change too, but possibly, one for the better? (There is much more money going into the temple, but one needs to question its distribution before making any assumptions). Changes at the temple, brought on by previous increased tourism with its subsequent increased revenues (and subsequent increased desire for more tourism and more revenues), external market forces that require the teaching of foreigners to raise capital, and external and internal political forces that want to see a more Buddhist bent to the Shaolin temple, among possibly other things, have all caused a whittling away at the various identities of the centuries old tradition of the martial monk. Where it will all end, no one knows.
The loss of identity comes from other sources however. Not only is it being lost, it's being changed. There's an old saying, ironically, from China, that says that good leaders lead from the front lines, bad leaders lead from the middle, the worst leaders lead from the rear, and the best leaders are not seen. The implications of the quote are obvious: the best leaders are those that lead without being seen "leading" by their troops, they "lead" by way of the example that they set. The example set so far has not been the best, in the minds of many of the monks that were willing to discuss the issue. It seems that a good deal of the actions taken by the abbot recently, with regard to some foreigners, were primarily performed for one reason, and one reason alone: to promote on an international basis, through the international media, the nature and position of Shi Yongxin. Such actions of self-aggrandizement, go further than the usage of other people and places with their accompanying media circuses; one need only look inside any of the temple pavilions to witness the fair number of books for sale within each pavilion, most dedicated to the subject of the main man himself. Such things don't go unnoticed by the monks inside the temple, but, few will say anything about it. If this is the lead that the others are expected to imitate and follow, I cynically expect the future to hold forth some interesting tidbits for us all. To follow this train of thought to it's logical conclusion, with the ever-increasing wealth of the temple and its inhabitants, I look forward to the day when they build their parking garage. It will be quite the site.
The parallels between the two universes, medical and monk, are, in a way, quite striking, and knowledge of one does help one understand the mechanics and disruption of the other. The similarities are fairly striking. But unlike the physicians, the martial monks are not complaining. They usually keep fairly silent about the whole issue. I attribute this to a difference in culture, and especially to a difference in governments. Freedom of speech means nothing there; one really has to be careful as to what one says. Also, it is very uncommon for a monk to denounce his abbot, or anybody else for that matter; it's just not the proper thing to do, regardless of how poorly one feels about him. Monks, and Chinese in general, just tend not to say bad things about other people. It's that whole "losing face" issue. And "losing freedom" issue.
Which, then causes me to wonder why certain people, the abbot included, make comments about the martial monks, which makes their plight even worse. Here we have a situation whereby external factors are causing stress to a group of highly devoted people; stress which is causing them to "lose face", something which you try to avoid in China. But these people just seem to contribute to the process. It seems to me to be "very un-Chinese" of them to act in such a way, and especially, very "un-monk like". It's not exactly the best example for a leader to be setting for his troops. Even if the leader is trying to change the future character and make up of his army, it's always best not to diminish the stature of the previous warriors who have fought well for the cause.
Well, it all boils down to this. Times are changing. The monks of the future are not going to be like the monks of the past. The monks of the past cannot be what the monks of the future are supposed to be. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, and misapplications of terminology. And more importantly, there is a serious crisis going on. An identity crisis. Among all the players involved. It's just that all the players involved don't really know it. Which, is part of the problem.
Where does this leave us? I'm not quite sure. Abbots will come and go, as will martial and Buddhist monks. The gong fu will change as will the standards associated with it. The temple will no doubt get burned down again, dismantled, rebuilt, and reconstructed. It's a never-ending process. The point being, a lot will change in the future of Shaolin. It always has in the past. But the tradition will live on. There's probably no need to worry about that.
Where does this leave us? Well, no doubt the verbal assaults against some of the monks will continue. I actually expect the bullshit to increase over the next few years, until all of this eventually settles. But until then, we're going to be barraged with this controversy, a controversy which unfortunately is going to be driven and fed by those of us foreigners who are either not educated in the matter, or refuse to try to understand it. I've got lots of opinions on the matter, some of which have been described herein. And I've also got a little advice. The next time you hear somebody extol the virtues of their training and their abilities at the expense of others, just remember to remind them of one thing.
Remind them of what your mother always wanted you to be.
- Written by: doc