Kung Fu Monks!

China's Shaolin monastery has withstood foreign invaders, political oppressions, and fickle warlords to remain a place of meditation and martial arts

IN order to hear ``the sound of one hand clapping,'' Buddhist monk Shi Yongpan makes an uncanny noise all his own. A soft thud comes from within a darkened hall painted in red lacquer. Inside, Mr. Shi is bracing himself for long bouts of Chan (Zen) meditation by springing off the crown of his head in quick flips across a worn slate floor. He uses no hands.

A callous on Mr. Shi's head - a tuft rising beneath black bristles of hair - is the most unusual token of the devotion of the 80 monks at the Shaolin monastery, the founding place of China's most famous school of martial arts.

For more than 14 centuries the monks have sustained the Chan sect of Buddhism despite political oppression, foreign invaders, and the attacks of fickle warlords. Today, after decades of repression, the monastery maintains a shaky peace with communist officials.

The single-minded drive of monks like Shi explains why the monastery still stands.

Shi's father, a martial-arts expert, began drilling his son in the kicks and punches of martial arts in 1980. Shi Yongpan was just six. After two years of training, he took his wife and son away from their home in western Hunan Province to a center of martial arts training in neighboring Jiangxi Province.

Dissatisfied with the instructors in Jiangxi, Shi's father led his family straight to the monastery gates. There, for several months, they maintained a vigil for the chance to thrust Shi Yongpan among the Chan Buddhist elite.

``My father told me, `You will fail in everything but kung fu [martial arts] - you must drill in kung fu to survive,''' says Shi Yongpan in the cracking, high-pitched voice of a 16-year-old just getting a grip on manhood.

``My father had tried many ways to make a living - as a barber, watch repairman, carpenter, driver, cook, and bike repairman - but he failed in everything,'' says Shi. ``So he has devoted his life to making me a master of kung fu.''

During his family's hungry wait outside the monastery gate, Shi hitchhiked into the nearby town of Dengfeng and wangled handouts on the street by performing the jumps, swordplay, and flips of kung fu.

Soon after spring festival in 1983, the monastery opened its gate to Shi, one of eight novices selected each year from among 2,000 applicants.

Shaolin monks say that the monastery attracts so many followers because its ancient folklore and Buddhist tradition are a relief from the modern atheism laid down by Beijing. It also offers youths the prospect of carrying on what is possibly the most advanced and prestigious martial art.

The monastery was founded in AD 496 and is said to have been a residence of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who founded the Chan sect of Buddhism, known in Japan as Zen.

The sect upholds introspection above all else, rejecting Buddhist doctrines and texts as impediments to enlightenment.

BODHIDHARMA is said to have spent nine years sitting motionless before a Shaolin monastery wall in a state of illumination. The monks developed martial arts as a way to forestall the cramps and other strains from such meditation.

In boxing the Shaolin way, monks advance and withdraw, strike and parry, and leap and flip in a single line. They try to prevent limited space from limiting their dexterity. The monks drill their precise movements by sparring on the tops of ``plum blossom piles,'' several randomly arranged wooden stakes six inches in diameter and six feet tall.

Throughout the centuries, Shaolin monks have often fought for the state. From the Sung to the Ming dynasties, the monastery fielded a special detachment for the Imperial Army.

Frequently, however, the monks have felt the bite of official aggression, particularly this century.

A local warlord, suspicious of the monks, burned down most of the monastery in 1927. Japanese invaders turned the remaining buildings into a secondary school in 1941. And seven years later, communist rebels seized the monastery's vast fields and orchards, expropriating all but five of its 13,176 acres of land.

The monastery suffered most under the excesses of Mao Zedong. Political persecution cut the number of brethren to fewer than 10 by the late 1950s.

The remaining monks nearly starved during the famine that followed Mao's quixotic economic program known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60). They abandoned their martial-arts skills and fled when fanatical Red Guards, Mao's ultra-radical shock troops, stormed into the monastery at the start of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Today, despite the decades of repression, the monks remain defiant.

``Everyone who enters the monastery as a novice must not believe in communism; if he does, he will not be allowed in,'' says abbot Shi Yongxin, looking toward the palisade of rocky white peaks ringing the monastery.

Nevertheless, the monks bow to various forms of state ``support,'' says Shi Yongxin. Henan Province officials, eager to maintain a leading tourist spot and their own political control, supervise the finances and recruiting of the monastery and require classes in socialism, he says.

By testing the limited political tolerance during the past 12 years, the monastery has tentatively revived Chan meditation and Shaolin boxing and enabled monks like Shi Yongpan to grow in wisdom.

``When I first entered the monastery, I found the kung fu training very difficult and I wanted to quit,'' says Shi Yongpan. ``My master used to beat me all the time,'' he says, clenching one hand into a fist and squeezing his forearm with the other hand.

``But now I find it easier: I can meditate much longer, and my master no longer beats me - everything become easier with hard work,'' he says.

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