Sifu Shi Yan Ming, a 34th-generation Shaolin Warrior monk, is respected not only in the martial arts world, but also in the entertainment world by stars like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Wesley Snipes and the Wu-Tang clan. His kung fu classes have been featured in USA Today, the New York Times, New York Daily News, and Entertainment Weekly. Brian Gray of Inside Kung Fu magazine has called him a “living treasure of China.” He lives in New York City.
Early Life (from “Background Story”, USA Shaolin Temple)
I was born in Zhumadian Village in Henan Province in the center of China on Chinese New Year’s in 1964, the year of the Dragon. Very Lucky! But when I was two or three I was very, very sick – I almost died. My parents thought they were going to lose their fourth child and spent all their money on numerous doctors to try and save my life. My father even had to sell his special calligraphy pen.
When none of the doctors could help me they finally had to give up. My body was cold and my eyes could not open, everybody took me for dead. My parents wrapped me in blankets to throw me away (they were too poor to provide me with a proper burial). On their way to go throw me away outside the village they were stopped by a man who asked them why they were so unhappy and crying. They told him that their son was dead. The man said that he was an acupuncturist and that he wanted to try and save me. Right there in the street he unwrapped me from my blankets, pulled out his needles and performed acupuncture on me. He brought me right back to life. I believe he was a Boddhisattva sent by Buddha to save my life.
When I was five my parents, being Buddhists, took me to the Shaolin Temple because they were worried that I had been so sick. It wasn’t anything like the movies or what you imagine. It was right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and Mao had outlawed all religion. There was no abbot wearing the red and yellow robes with the shaved head and the long white beard. Nobody wore the monk’s uniform until around 1980 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The Temple had been destroyed not only by the current government but also throughout history by many warring dynasties. Only the foundation and some walls survived – but it was never completely demolished! The Temple as we see it now has been largely reconstructed in the last ten years.
They took me to see the head monk, Shi Xing Zheng. At that time there hadn’t been an abbot in three hundred years. He was eventually appointed abbot in 1986 but died only seven months later and there has not been one since his death. I called him Shigong, my Grandmaster; he was my Shifu’s Shifu (master’s master). It was he who accepted me. I didn’t have to do any Kung Fu, he just had a look at me and he knew. When you are at a very high spiritual level you can read people’s faces and know them immediately. The Chinese say “yuan fen”; in English you say “destiny”. My parents were very happy to leave me in the hands of Buddha.
My name was changed as soon as I entered the Temple. My name at birth was “Duan Gen Shan”. Once I entered the Temple my Grandmaster and masters renamed me Shi Yan Ming. All Buddhist monks take the family name “Shi” as in Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, because we follow Buddha. “Yan” means “34th generation” at Shaolin Temple. “Ming” means “perpetual” like the cycle of the sun or moon, or infinite, like the Dharma wheel, which never stops.
There were only 16 or 17 monks at the Temple at the time and I was by far the youngest monk there. Most of the other monks were in their seventies. Five is very young for some people to be away from their parents but not everybody is the same. My grandmaster, masters, and kung fu uncles took care of me like parents. They loved me very much and I loved them very much. Also, it was not safe to stay at the Temple all the time because Mao’s Red Guard had absolute power and they could do anything they wanted anywhere at anytime. Therefore none of the monks could live there all the time and I got to see my parents quite often even though they lived about 200 miles (approx. 300 km) from the Temple. Sometimes I even had to go back and live with them because the Temple was so dangerous.
My masters were Liu Xin Yi and Shen Ping An. They taught me different styles – kung fu and acupuncture. They were Shaolin disciples, not monks, that lived outside the Temple. At that time because there were no walls, the Temple was completely open – many people came and went. I lived at the Temple but all my masters didn’t always live with us. I had other masters outside the Temple that taught me how to read faces and palms.
Inside the Temple I began learning forms, fighting, and Chan Buddhism right away because I was living there. It’s very normal: you are there, you just do it. It’s like you’re here in America; you have to speak English. We all practiced together, me and the older monks. There are no rules, you just learn everything naturally. I developed everything early.
The Chinese say if you are poor, like Shaolin Temple and my family were poor, you develop everything early. I started to understand a lot and all my masters recognized that I was so smart but so bad. I was like a little monkey, I always played tricks on people. For instance, I would dig a hole in the ground, put something on top of it and stay and wait for someone to walk on it and fall in. I even played tricks on my masters but I don’t have to tell you about that. They almost always knew it was me. If I got caught I would have to do horse stance until my legs were numb and swollen or I would have to do headstands until all the blood went to my head and I felt like my eyes were going to pop out. Or my masters would hit me, which is very normal for China, not like America.
What is “Action Meditation”? (from “Chan Buddhism”, USA Shaolin Temple)
Action meditation, or “dong chan” in Chinese, can be everything and anything we do. Play some music, speak, eat, go swimming, go climb a tree, go climb a mountain, walk upside-down, play basketball, make dinner, make love – any action you can think of that you can express in your beautiful life – that’s action meditation. There are a million different doors for a million different people to walk through in their lives, and a million different ways for a million different people to meditate in their lives.
Sitting meditation probably may not be good for some people, just like everyone likes different food and has different tastes. I can just sit there watching TV, and without warming up kiss my foot. It feels so good, so fresh and so clean – that’s my action meditation. Maybe you’ll never be able to do this kind of action meditation, or maybe you can. That’s why you have to be yourself. You can’t copy other people. You can borrow somebody else’s philosophy to use in your life, but you can’t live completely like somebody else.
Even now, in the 21st century, there are many monks, masters, or instructors who still just use one way to teach many people, to cross their legs and sit in the lotus position doing sitting meditation. Not everybody is flexible enough to put their legs together and sit there like that. They sit there for 15-20 minutes and their joints begin to ache, their knees, ankles, lower back, and neck get tired and uncomfortable. Why do you want to do sitting meditation when you’re torturing yourself, creating a problem for your life?
You can extend your leg to meditate, you can do splits if you want to. You can do Luohan Sleeping style to meditate, you can do headstands to meditate. Try different ways. Find yourself.
Why are Shaolin Monks allowed to eat meat and drink wine? (from “Chan Buddhism”, USA Shaolin Temple)
Shaolin Monks have been highly respected in their exploits outside the Temple, but no more so than at the end of the Sui Dynasty (581- 618), when the king of the Qin State, Li Shimin, needed to protect himself from the emperor of a rival state. Thirteen Shaolin monks rescued the nephew of the Emperor Li, and in the process, obtained the seal of the rival emperor. Later, Li became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and in gratitude to Shaolin, he granted the monks there the privilege of eating meat and drinking wine.
Shaolin Temple is unique among Buddhist temples throughout the world. Shaolin Temple monks practice physical as well as mental philosophy every day for many hours, and need protein to maintain their strong minds and strong bodies. Everything has life, everything has chi. In the last few hundred years, technology has helped scientists, doctors, and professors find out many things, what’s real, and what isn’t real. When you eat vegetables, you are also taking life. When you drink water, you kill many lives just from one sip. When you walk down the street, many little creatures walk all over your body, upside-down or horizontally. You don’t realize every day how many lives you kill just from doing these simple things! If you have a lovely heart and peaceful mind, you have to use them to help other people, yourself, and the world. That’s why I made the simple rules for my followers now in the modern world – “Only do good things, don’t do bad. Do whatever you can to help others. In these ways, you help yourself. Help yourself, and you help the world.” Whatever you eat or drink, it doesn’t matter. Understand yourself.
Do I have to change religions to train? (from “Chan Buddhism”, USA Shaolin Temple)
You don’t need to change anything. Stay believing whatever you believe, whether it’s in God, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad or anyone else. I believe in them all. I believe in all of the religion’s special leaders, they all teach people to be good people, to only do good things, not to do bad, and to help other people. All of them just have different names, I believe in them all, love them all, and I believe they love us too. When you come to the Temple, you don’t need to change what you believe, change religions, shave your head, or become a vegetarian. I do not teach Chinese philosophy, I teach International philosophy. I encourage my students, disciples, and followers to go to church, go to monasteries, go to mosques, to open their minds and open their hearts. Learn all of the philosophies and combine them together – that’s your philosophy. Just like in the martial arts world, there are many styles, karate, tae kwon do, jiu jitsu, muay thai, and hundreds more. Whatever style you practice, it doesn’t matter – learn all of the styles, combine them together, and that’s your style. That way, you can get the knowledge for yourself, and share it with other people.
For more information about Shaolin, see Sifu Shi Yan Ming’s books including The Shaolin Workout: 28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.