Shaolin: Temple of Zen

Joyce and I went to a lecture tonight at the National Geographic Society about the Shaolin Temple. The lecture was presented by Justin Guariglia, a photographer who just released a book entitled Shaolin: Temple of Zen. The book is a photo collage and essay about the temple. Guariglia shared photos from the book as well as other movies and photos he has collected over the years relating to the temple.

The lecture started out with a monk from the temple, Shi De Chao, taking the stage and demonstrating a form for the audience. This was followed by Guariglia taking the stage to share his experience learning about the Shaolin Temple. Guariglia’s lecture was accompanied, and often centered around, photos and movies that he had taken over the years at the temple. And a few more times Shi De Chao took the stage to demonstrate forms.

We were asked not to take photos or video during the lecture. A quick search of the web, though, and I did manage to find video of Shi De Chao demonstrating the same forms he shared with us.

Through the course of the lecture we learned that the purpose of the forms are not to learn how to fight, but to learn how to meditate. Rote activity serves as a means to help clear the mind and expose a person to further enlightenment.

Guariglia’s story about meeting and befriending the monks is an interesting one, but alas it is not shared in the book. This is not an oversight, however, since the book is about the temple and the monks, not Guariglia. Still, it’s something that would make for an interesting companion piece. Some highlights as I remember them:

  • Guariglia was studying in China. He said he got bored with learning Chinese in school and decided to take a break and learn about China by going out and seeing the country. While he was out and about someone suggested he visit the temple. Guariglia said he hadn’t heard of the temple before, but was intrigued and so made the trip. On this first trip to the temple he met one of the monks and began to learn about the temple. Guariglia continued to travel, but often returned to the temple so that he could learn more about it. Over the course of a few years he managed to befriend the monks.
  • Guariglia spent some time at the large martial arts schools (some of the largest in the world) that were at the time set up near the temple. These were, apparently, not associated with the temple. Boys join these schools at an early age, the goal often to become famous as a martial arts start (similar to Jet Li). On occasion, though, the monks of the temple would invite a student to train in the ways of Shaolin.
  • The area around the temple became quite a spectacle for a while, some might even say a tourist trap. Martial arts displays and gaudy stores lined the streets of the city. The Shaolin monks, according to Guariglia, rarely practice their forms in public. He says sometimes they will even practice at night just to avoid the attention.
  • Guariglia also shared one story that just made me sad. After showing a shot of one of the buildings of the temple he said he was glad he took it, because that building no longer existed. Apparently the abbot of the temple was interested in seeking certification of the temple as a UN World Heritage site. He apparently pursued a misguided effort to spruce up the temple, obtaining significant sums of money to replace some of the buildings. When he approached the U.N. about the certification he was denied because of the new construction.

Otis College has posted a video of Guariglia talking about the book and the temple. This covers much of what he talked about during the lecture.

At the end of the lecture Shi De Chao took the stage again. This time he chose volunteers from the audience to join him. The monk appeared quite embarrassed at the prospect of having to choose members of the audience. He chose nine audience members to join him on stage. Shi De Chao asked them to each make three wishes (for others not for themselves), one at a time, and transfer the energy of each wish to him so that he could capture that energy in Shaolin Calligraphy. The transfer of energy was done by slapping the top of the monk’s hand … hard. After all nine people had transferred their energy, Shi De Chao then gathered the energy of the room and the earth, by slamming his hand onto the stage three times. He then created the calligraphy on large sheets of paper on the stage. It was a very impressive display.

After the lecture Guariglia and Shi De Chao had a book signing. I purchased a book and had it signed for Neela. “Keep on kickin'” … it’s like he knows her. I also tried the patience of the monk by getting him to pose for a picture. He looks quite stoic. But me … well, I was a bit nervous and look like a total nerd.

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