What it is....
rhet·o·ric [réttrik ] noun
1. persuasive speech or writing: speech or writing that communicates its point persuasively
2. pretentious words: complex or elaborate language that only succeeds in sounding pretentious
3. empty talk: fine-sounding but insincere or empty language
4. skill with language: the ability to use language effectively, especially to persuade or influence people
5. study of writing or speaking effectively: the study of methods employed to write or speak effectively and persuasively
[14th century. Via Old French rethorique , from, ultimately, Greek rhtorik (tekhn) "(art) of public speaking," from rhtor "speaker."]
People always seem to mistake gong fu to be purely a method or mode of overpowering one's opponent in a physical manner; the so-called "I'm gonna kick your ass" syndrome. But, remember, purely in a physical sense. Of course, if you've read anything here, you've come to the realization that this is a wrong way of viewing this, and one cynical way of looking at this, is that we have our own Americanized viewpoint of what the martial arts really are. But, this is all a different argument, one in which I really don't want to get into right now. There are others, which are far more important, and more worthwhile. Which brings me to the point that I really wanted to discuss. The art of the argument. Or, how to kick someone's ass. Verbally.
Yes, being from New York, one acquires this skill quite rapidly. Usually it starts off with the learning of certain four letter words, that you associate in various ways with your opponent's mother. Then, when you grow up a little, and reach the age of like, six or seven, you start to realize that the words just don't have effect that they used to. You start to run out of various activities that your opponent's mother could have possibly done in her lifetime to any number of humans, animals and objects, in this world or the next, and, after a while, your friends just don't believe it anymore. And with the lack of belief, comes the lack of strength in your assault. The words just don't hurt anymore, and with that, you've lost a major part of your armamentarium. By the time you're eight years old, either the complexity of the words have to increase, or you're going to lose the verbal battles. Of course, complex words only go so far, so after a while, when your friends finally can't understand what your verbal attacks really mean, you have to resort to physical means to get the better of your enemies. "You're a dimwitted anencephalic syphilitic son of a two bit begging crack whore" just doesn't have the same effect as burning a paper bag full of dog shit on your enemy's front porch. No, we definitely had to improve our verbal fighting skills.
That's when we all finally got into high school. And, we all took a class entitled "Rhetoric". The gay monk that taught the class, Brother Henry, in the very Christian top of the line Catholic high school that I went to, described the class as "a way of learning how to talk to people effectively". I viewed it as "a way to verbally kick some ass". Yes, rhetoric, if I was pronouncing it correctly, was going to be fun. And it was most definitely going to be very helpful. Besides, I was getting tired of running around the neighborhood at night putting piles of dog shit into a paper bag.
But, what exactly was this whole rhetoric nonsense? It was a bit different than any way I was used to dealing with arguments before. Usually, when you got into an verbal argument with somebody on the streets of New York, the guy with the biggest stick ball bat won. The loser would walk away, or limp away, depending upon how badly he "lost" the argument, muttering something about how much fun he had visiting the other guy's mother or sister the night before, all the while hoping that the "argument" wouldn't start up again before he could disappear into the traffic or the back alleyways. It was a great way of "arguing", because, regardless of how it turned out, the guy with the stick ball bat could always tell his friends about how he "kicked the other guy's ass", and the guy who felt the stick ball bat, could always tell his friends about the other guy's mother or sister. Everybody always won. It actually was a good system. But, in high school, you start to learn something that you really don't want to learn. You learn that you have to grow up. And stick ball bats and mothers and sisters don't go too far in everyday life. We had to learn how to fight a new and different way. And Brother Henry was going to teach us that. He just didn't know it. We just wished he would stop looking at all of us that way.
Rhetoric is not all that difficult to describe. It's actually a pretty neat process. We had to throw out all the old rules of arguing that we had grown up with and substitute new ones. Gone were the "he who yells loudest wins", and "he who describes the grossest and most demeaning acts with the other guy's sister wins". Now, we had to start using something that Brother Henry called "reason". "Reason" is something that educated and sophisticated people use when they communicate with each other. "Facts" were something that people used in a "reasonable" way when they discussed something. The person that discussed something in the most "reasonable" and convincing way with the most widely accepted "facts", won the discussion. People had to discuss things in a "rational" fashion; that is, they had to have an open mind, and not be biased either by race, creed, religious or philosophical beliefs or sex.
I had started to wonder where the hell in New York I would find people of this nature, so that I could experiment with my new found rhetoric knowledge. Thoughts of roaming the streets at night looking for piles of dog shit started entering my mind. "Sometimes the old way is the best way".
But sometimes it isn't. Rhetoric, if used correctly, can be a pretty powerful device to convince people, or sway people, to your side of an argument. And convincing people, whether it be in a business deal, or on a hot date, is what it's all about. Life is all about communication, and communication is basically all about conveying ideas. And in our competitive world, isn't it in our nature to try to convince people to believe our ideas? So, I took this rhetoric stuff pretty seriously. I had wanted to be a verbal kick ass master.
There are rules to rhetoric, and they're pretty simple. And, like anything else, if you don't have the basics, you don't have the stuff, period. Just like gong fu. One of the basic tenets of rhetoric, that you absolutely need with all the people involved in the so-called "argument" or "discussion", is that there are no common or individual deep down hard core unshakable beliefs. That is, deep down religious ideology, hard to shake philosophical thoughts, respect to some ideological master figure; all of these basically and essentially rule out any possibility of winning in a dialogue. Actually, they even rule out the possibility of having any sort of intelligent discussion. Some examples of the above, to make this concept clearer, might include the decades long conflict in the Middle east, or, if we go back historically, the non-yielding followers of the Nazi regime. People who are too involved sometimes in some very basic beliefs (which, I remind you, are not wrong in themselves), are sometimes very difficult to have effective dialogues with. So, rule number one in rhetoric, and it's the big one, is, make sure that your opponents do not have any strong basic beliefs that are going to get in the way of what you want to discuss. If so, you're wasting your time.
If you're certain that your fellow discussants are of an open and intelligent mindset, then it's time to lay the groundwork. With effective rhetoric, to win at the battle, one must have the facts. Whatever your discussion is going to be, make sure that you get all the facts that you can pertaining to the issue. Facts can be from various sources, either from respected people in that profession, respected literature, or personal experience, if your personal experience is in depth enough in that field to warrant enough respect amongst the discussants. Organizing your facts is important for many reasons, for the presentation of those facts, in a clear and concise, easily understood manner is key; not only so that the other discussants will easily understand what you're saying, but more importantly, so that they will have less opportunity to form a retort against your opinion. Make sure that you have the facts straight in your head, and make damn sure, that whatever facts that you have, will not inadvertently give ammunition to help enforce one of your opponent discussant's positions. It's bad form to help the enemy.
Once you've got the facts organized and put together, it's time to make sure that you know the issue. The issue should be a clear, concise, appropriate and brief as possible. The issue that's going to be discussed needs to be narrowed down from something wide and all-encompassing to a narrow and brief topic. Relevance to the discussants is key, both for an interest sake, and for the ever-important rule number one sake. Trying to convince a bunch of atheists that God lives on Pluto because of the telephone messages that you've picked up on your telephone handset is going to make as much sense as trying to convince the readers of this web site that all the Shaolin monks are real. Make sure that the issue is narrow, clear, relevant, and is appropriate to the discussants. Again, if any of the discussants have deep solidified ingrained beliefs from whatever the source, and are not of an open mind, then don't bother. Nobody wins in those situations, and, more importantly, nobody learns. With closed minds comes no education.
Evaluate the facts that you've accumulated, and make sure that they are all relevant to the issue. Then, make sure that the facts that you've amassed all point towards the "position" that you're going to take in the upcoming discussion. Every discussant needs to take a stance. "Yes, God lives on Pluto because I heard him on my Panasonic telephone". That's my stance, my position. "Here's a recording of the phone call; look, you can tell it's God's voice", and, "Here's a phone bill, that I got from Pluto", and "NASA just called me and told me they heard it too". Make sure you're facts correlate and prove your position. The last thing you want is for your facts to help prove somebody else's position.
To win at this rhetoric game, you first lay down your position in the argument. Make your stance; let the other's make theirs. At this point, it is easy to see if the others are still going to be of an open mind (Remember rule number one. Always.) If it becomes obvious that open minds have gone completely out the proverbial window, it's time to not waste your time and withdraw. Otherwise, be prepared for some highly educational and informative conversation.
Once all have made their stances, the facts are then presented in such a fashion so that each participant, in order, gets to state their position and their supporting factual statements. Opportunity is given so that others can ask questions. If the facts are presented in the proper method and fashion (the true art of rhetoric), then questions will be minimal, as your argument will have been most convincing, and questions will not have been necessary. Questions, and the answers to, can also be helpful to your case, as they offer you the opportunity to see where your opponents are lost and confused; or, they help you see where your opponents "hang ups" (or deep solid beliefs) are. You might have to bring forth more facts, or reissue some of the old ones, to reinforce your position to fight against these "hang ups".
Towards the end, after all the facts have been offered, a closing statement, reissuing your initial stance, and some clear and concise supporting facts, are then made. At this time, you should have won the argument. If you presented your facts correctly, in a neat, organized, step by step fashion, which not only educated your listeners, but convinced them, you should have won the argument. If not, either your facts, or your presentation, was weak. Or, you were fighting against rule number one. In that case, start looking for dog shit.
What we don't want to talk about
Which brings me to the issue that I really didn't want to talk about, but, have to. Are the monks real, or aren't they? Well, it's a tough issue, for many reasons. First, getting the facts. There are many problems in this regard, first and foremost, the language barrier. The fact that the Shaolin temple is on the proverbial other side of the world from where I live also makes it a bit more difficult. But, knowing some trusted translators, and also knowing a good deal of the players, makes getting the facts that much easier.
The issues are well known to me also; I've been reading about them for years, not only here but on other sites, and, on all the emails that I get. And, organizing the facts just wasn't going to be a problem, not with all the years of schooling I had had. No, this was going to be an easy issue to tackle.
Until I started thinking of rule number one.
Yes, that's going to be a problem. Because, regardless of what I said or did, or found out, there were going to be people out there who were just not going have an open mind about anything other than what their masters or friends had told them. Well, that brought to mind rule number two. Which says, "When you encounter rule number one, don't bother". Ignorance is bliss, mom always used to tell me. I now know why. And for all of those years, I had though she was referring to me.
So, when I visited Shi De Yang at the Shaolin temple (on one of my many visits with him, June 2000), I had all of this in mind. There was much for us to discuss, but one of the things that I had wanted to hear from him, being one of the most respected Buddhist and martial monks of the temple, was "just what is a monk?" I had explained to him the whole problem that we were having back in the US with this controversy, especially since it was being fueled not only by some of the monks themselves, but, especially, by of all people, the abbot himself.
He wasn't surprised. But, then again, for the years that I have known him, nothing really surprises or bothers him. Shi De Yang, in his mid-thirties, typifies, what I think, a Shaolin monk should be. Very quiet, reserved, humble, respectable, and respected. And incredibly deadly. You haven't seen gong fu until you've seen this guy. He's famous world-wide, especially in Europe, where he's been seen in performances the most. His performance days are starting to come to an end, as he's now starting to devote more time to his school, just north of the Shaolin temple (on the Shaolin temple's land, which he rents). He knows me fairly well, especially since he's a gong fu brother to many of the other monks that I'm close with. Apparently, even though he and I don't talk as much as we'd like, I come up in conversation at other times. So, we talked. And, remembering Brother Henry in high school, I tried to get facts.
I explained to him the big controversy, and how I wanted to get a bunch of information from him so that I could organize it in an intelligent fashion, easily understood by all, and, with those facts, formulate a position that was pretty hard to denounce. But to do so, I needed to know lots of things. I needed to know what his childhood was like in the temple (I had already known what some of the other monks had gone through). I needed to know what kind of schooling he went through. When he learned Buddhism. When he learned gong fu. How much of the gong fu was traditional and how much was wu shu. Who his masters were and what they specialized in. At what age did he first take his vows to the temple and his master. When did he take his other ceremonies and what were they called. Who performed them and what did they mean. Did he get any certificates which proved that he underwent those ceremonies. How many other monks did these ceremonies with him. Who some of them were. What effect was the new abbot having on all of this. What changes were taking place in the temple with the new power structure. On and on, I explained to him, that if I had the facts, the information, I could then put forth a postulate, and then, with these facts, support it, and make a terribly convincing argument.
Because, I explained, a terribly convincing argument had to be made. The problem was, this word getting out that some of the monks were "real" and that some were "fake", was causing all sorts of confusion. Yes, there were Shaolin monks out there in the world trying to teach Shaolin Buddhism and gong fu. Yes, it was part of their tradition to do so. No, most of them were not doing it to make money; as a matter of fact, most of them were barely surviving. But, that was not the issue; they were happy doing what they were doing. The issue was, with this word of "real versus fake" being bantered about on the streets of America, the monks were starting to get assaulted. People were entering their wushu guans and making statements to the effect that "Why should I train here, you're a fake". Bad shit. I explained to Shi De Yang, that, basically to the American people, one monk looks just like another. A foreigner cannot tell the difference between a Buddhist monk or a martial monk; they all wear orange clothing. Start making the claim that this monk or that monk is "fake", and pretty soon, the Americans and Europeans are going to think that they are all fake.
Yes, this shit was going to get out of hand, and Shi De Yang agreed wholeheartedly with me. He knew that I was concerned, and he respected me for it. So, he agreed to help.
He started by taking a piece of paper from my clipboard, and he wrote something down in Chinese, which, I asked Lu Yong to translate. Basically, it said something to the effect that "We are all Shaolin monks, signed Shi De Yang". Pretty straight and simple. He gave it to me, and told me to publish that. He explained that hat was all that I had needed.
Yes, Brother Henry would have had a cow over that one. Classic rhetoric. "Here, read this you dumb shit! How's that feel?" Yes, that would go over well in the press. I sat there and started thinking about how I was going to fit this little piece of paper in with my whole rhetorical scientific argument, about the "real versus fake" monks issue. It just wasn't going to fly. It went against every bit of rhetorical and scientific bit of training I had ever had, in all of those god damn years I had gone to school.
I said, "This is very nice. Thank you." Yes, it was sure to finalize the entire issue. My work was now finished. I thought, I could go home now.
Shi De Yang smiled, very grateful that he could be so helpful. But he noticed the look on my face, and started to realize that we Americans were a tough bunch to convince. He started to realize that this little document that he had written just wasn't going to cut the proverbial mustard. He knew what I wanted to do, and this piece of paper just wasn't going to do it.
He said to me out of the clear blue, "You are a true Shaolin monk".
Well, if the look on my face from the piece of paper didn't shock him, the one now must have. Because, first of all, I hadn't expected that. Second, it certainly wasn't going to help my cause one bit; if anything, it was going to confuse an issue which was so clouded to hell that publicizing this statement was just going to cause all sorts of bullshit and tyranny, and I certainly didn't want to be part of it. And lastly, I though to myself, "If he only knew". Ha! A "Shaolin monk" chasing women (ok, so, rather unsuccessfully, though, still trying). Driving fast cars. Living in high style. And, even worse, I wondered, as I laughed to myself, if he would have made that comment had he known I sleep in the same bed as two very large and very hairy Golden Retrievers. And sometimes, under the covers (OK, so they like to keep warm in the winter). Yes, he was going to have to rethink this comment.
I told him, "You're out of your mind".
He told me, "No, it is true because it is in your heart". And that's when it started to become clear. Shi Xing Hong had told me the same thing on a previous occasion. But, it hadn't made sense. The message was there, I just wasn't reading it properly. They were talking to me in their typical circuitous Chinese or Buddhist fashion; not the straight New York way in which I was used to.
Shi De Yang hadn't truly meant that I was a true Shaolin warrior monk; no, not at all. That would have been absolutely ridiculous. The vows I took made me a disciple and nothing more. What Shi De Yang was trying to say, to the entire issue, was, that pieces of paper, certificates, ceremonies, and all of that, well, shit, just wasn't important. What was important, was where your heart was. Where your devotion and dedication was. Whether you promoted the ideals and traditions of the Shaolin temple, and of the monks, both as individuals and as a group. Whether you would be there for them when they needed you most. And, most importantly, whether they trusted and accepted you personally. That, was what made you a monk in their eyes. Not some damn ceremony or certificate. It was like going to a doctor who trained at some incredible Ivy league institution, but who still, for one reason or the other, was still totally incompetent in the operating room (yes, they exist). The certificates and diplomas mean nothing. The actions and outcomes, everything. In his own way, with his little piece of paper, and his little one line comment, Shi De Yang had taken Brother Henry's long extensive Rhetoric class, and completely turned it upside down. I had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles to have years of training thrown out the god damn window.
But, what does it all mean? At this point, from a purely rhetorical standpoint, it's uncertain. I'm sure that the issue is not going to go away. I'm sure that there will still be people out there, that despite all the facts in the world about this issue, will still, either because of disbelief or deep rooted ideology, whether from media induced ideas, or from other so-called respected people, will still not let this issue rest. And to that, I find yet another answer in Shi De Yang's incredibly brief response to me.
After spending such an inordinate amount of time explaining to him what I was trying to do with this issue, and then, he takes less than a minute to write down a brief statement and exclaims that this was all I needed. That was it. Move on to the next subject of discussion. Again, the message is clear. The whole issue of "real versus fake" monks, which is being constantly bantered about by people here in the US, became a non-issue in less than a minute. Shi De Yang made his point on the whole topic perfectly clear, as did every other monk that I spoke with in Shaolin. They made it clear in a completely non-rhetorical manner too; with their actions.
They just don't care. They know the truth.
And at this point, neither do I. For, it really doesn't matter.