Misha's Journal, 2001
My name is Misha Goussev. I had been studying philosophical and spiritual aspects of ancient cultures, particularly from China and Tibet, over the course of my life, but more intensely in the past five-six years. I am particularly interested in exploring and applying the time-tested modalities born in those cultures towards achieving a sense of well being, vitality, and, more importantly, development of human potential at large.
I was fortunate to complement my practical training in martial arts, Qigong, Tai Chi and meditation by substantial course work and individual studies with contemporary scholars, philosophers and Masters of various disciplines, many of whom become my dear friends and guides in life.
I frequently travel around the world, often with the purpose of visiting the places, from which many of the disciplines I study originated. My brief meeting with his Holiness Dalai Lama prompted me to visit Tibet and its many sacred Temples and pilgrimages. My interest in martial arts and Eastern religions made me go to the great length and visit such legendary places as Shaolin Temple and Wudan Mountain in the mainland of China. Finally, I completed a course in professional massage at the Thailand oldest school of massage at the Wat Pho Temple.
Sometimes I attempt to reflect on my experience by writing short essays and taking photos, some of which you can find on this site. Hope you’ll find them of interest to you.
Spirit of Shaolin
There are many legends associated with the Shaolin Order, which originated from one of most famous temples in China and perhaps in the world over fifteen hundred years ago – The Shaolin Temple. The superhuman Kungfu powers of Shaolin monks are surrounded by clouds of mystery, particularly in the light of a non-violent nature of their Buddhist philosophy. Unlike most remnants of the distant historical past the Temple still exists and functions nowadays, feeding imagination of the millions of followers. But can the same be said about its spirit and tradition?
My personal connection with Shaolin goes far back to the times when I was a Moscow teenager (who knows, maybe even further if you believe in reincarnation?). I always had a limited passion for organized sports and for the most part my participation in them had very limited success – I simply never seemed to do the right thing. This changed when I started to practice Kungfu. I was first in school. I still vividly remember the exhausting classes with the long-awaited closing mediations. Soaked in my own sweat and nearly fainting from exhaustion, with my eyes closed I was absorbed in my teacher’s slow paced voice narrating a stories about distant Shaolin and its traditions.
A visit to Shaolin was at the very top of my to do list ever since, but the actual decision to finally go there was fueled by a recent performance of the Shaolin Warriors on Penn Camps in Philadelphia. The monks, dressed in bright orange uniforms, reminded me of some semi-Gods performing a magical dance of vitality, grace and power. It was truly “a celebration of life itself”, as the playbill announced.
Despite the worldwide popularity of Shaolin Kungfu, few people are aware of the true significance of the Temple in the human history – birth of the Zen Buddhism. The sect essentially came into existence when an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhi Dharma visited the Temple around 500 A.D. and taught there the concepts of Zen. In reality, Bodhi Dharma was initially refused to enter the Temple and had to find a refuge in a cave up on a mountain nearby. Nine (!) years later he was finally allowed to come in.
“There are many roads that lead to the Way, but these contain but two common features: recognition and practice”, taught Bodhi Dharma. By recognition is meant that all living things share a common nature, concealed by the veils of illusion.” The "many roads" indicate that self-realization is reached by different souls in different ways through “practice”, which may include the various seated and moving meditations, yoga, Kungfu, sudden self-realization etc. However, all of the possible routes share the common themes of recognition of the fact that all of life is connected spiritually, which is essential to reaching self-awareness” .
On the hot and sunny day in June of 2001 I arrived to the entrance of Shaolin. I was greeted by a huge stature of a Shaolin monk with his palms locked in front of him in the Kungfu greeting. The change of the environment, beyond the entrance was quite dramatic. The atmosphere was somewhat similar to the opening scene of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hundreds of people dressed in timeless clothes or monastic robes of different colors (primarily bright orange or gray) made me think of medieval China. I was quickly brought back to the 21st century, however, when I faced the need to buy a fairly expensive and contemporary looking ticket to continue further. The herds of tourists also helped to fill the time gap.
Jumping right to the end of my story, I would like to say that I restrict my narration to just a few episodes and observations in the interest of space. It’s also worth mentioning that I did not have a plan for the visit, but rather intended to spontaneous and in the flow.
Everything in this town screamed Kungfu. The air was filled with joint yells of young monks practicing the art on virtually every open space. Various shops on both sides of the main road were selling martial arts gear and suspicious food, while countless numbers of non-Kungfu looking people approached me offering training services, which would make me a next Bruce Lee in a week time. Despite all this for some reason I felt very comfortable.
My first personal contact with Shaolin monks happened a few minutes after my arrival. In a state of elated haze I started to punch a sand bag for Kungfu practice hanging on the side of the road. I was absorbed in the exercised for a while until I noticed that I was surrounded by a few dozens of young monks watching me curiously. Shaved heads and similar robes made them look very much alike and certainly made me look very different. I did sense, however, a warm and friendly curiosity radiating from their smiling faces, which made our initial communication easy despite the language barrier.
I was up for an adventure, as I mentioned earlier, and I did not have to wait for too long. Instead of following all normal tourists’ path the next day I found myself in a dark basement of one of the Temple’s buildings (Shifung Monastery). I am still not sure how I ended up there, but without hesitation I decided to step into the complete darkness using my camcorder’s night vision to navigate. What I saw made my skin cover with goose bumps. The entire room was filled with statures of various monsters each about nine feet tall, which could contribute to any horror movie in Hollywood productions. I am still not clear on the significance of those figures, but I did spend quite a bit of time inside the room fighting over the desire to get the hell (literally) out of there. That place had a lot of strange power and energy though.
Having visited what I would call a Shaolin underground world, my natural desire was to move in the opposite direction, which I did – I decided to climb a sacred mountain where Bodhi Dharma spent nine years in the cave. The trip appeared particularly attractive since on the way up I had to pass a women’s monastery. In reality the feminine monastery housed only two old nuns, who lived there, I think, since the times it was built. I remembered, however, that one of the deadliest Shaolin Kungfu styles was developed by an old nun, so I was very particular about paying all proper respects. Once I made it to the cave, I understood immediately why Bodhi Dharma chose it as his residence - the view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking.
I did not get a chance to enjoy the view for too long. The peaceful picture was invaded by a group of western looking visitors struggling to make it to the top, but with relative success. A few of them never made it and I got a chance to chat with them only on the way back. I quickly discovered that the group was on the mission to make a movie about life at Shaolin in the old days. What happened next was beyond my imagination. The producer of the future blockbuster, a tall Austrian man in his forties, for some strange reason liked me almost immediately and within ten minutes offered me to work with them on production of Shaolin shows around the world. He also made a phone call (I wonder if Bodhi Dharma would ever trade his telepathic abilities for the wonders of the mobile technology) to introduce me to a Dean of the second largest Kungfu School at Shaolin so I could take personal lessons in Qigong , since I expressed such a wish. Still in some disbelief, I’ve decided to follow the invisible hand of the Spirit backed up by my gut feeling (probably the same thing) and meet with the Dean next morning.
Shaolin Kungfu (often referred to as Wushu) emphasizes real combat ability and implies mastery of various weapons combined with astonishing control of Chi(or Qi) – the life force energy. A brief saying “Shaolin monks are like virgins in defense and like tigers in the offence” captures some of its essence. The exceptional combat skills played a key role in promoting the status of the Order. During the early years of the Tang dynasty thirteen Shaolin monks defeated numerous troops of a rebel genera. In reward, the Emperor personally proclaimed Shaolin “The Number One Temple under Heaven”.
The morning after my strange encounter on the sacred mountain I was on my way to the Kungfu School. I would like to take an opportunity to say that no words can capture all complexities of my travels in rural China. For the most part I had to rely one a few handwritten Chinese characters inscribed for me by some kind Chinese soul (I met a few, enough to survive). The rest was pure magic – I would show the precious piece of paper to a taxi driver or a conductor and they would know exactly what to do. It was only the matter of price. Later on I became more sophisticated and learnt how to count and negotiate in Chinese, which made me very proud. I did have to resort to a more traditional method of using fingers as a back up after an episode when I had to pay forty instead of four Chinese dollars as a result of misunderstanding.
Upon my arrival the magic continued. I was already expected and was met personally by the Dean with an English interpreter. To make the short story long, the Dean personally selected a Qigong teacher with a personal interpreter for me and refused to take any money. I have to say that as nice as it sounds, I don’t think it was done from pure charity point of view. The Austrian producer seemed to have a lot of clout here since Shaolin shows provided a steady flow of hard currency.
Judging from the amount of attention I received from the second of my arrival, I think I was thought of being a celebrity, but when everybody witnessed the attention I received from the Dean, I was immediately promoted into the rank of Bodhisattva or something close. It did not prevent my teacher, a young and handsome monk, however, to treat me as if I was a first grader. He only asked me once whether I really wanted to learn Qigong, to which I answered “yes”. That, apparently, was equal to a written consent form waiving any liabilities and transferring full control over my body, mind and spirit to my new teacher. Speaking of which, tall and skinny, he did remind me of myself in my teen years and my dreams of being born as a Shaolin monk. Who know how this reincarnation thing works…
The training at the Temple was severe and continued for many long years, during which each monk was tested for its ability to retain and guard the order’s secrets and knowledge before being taught more refined skills. Shaolin Temples (there were few in different parts of China, with the main one located in Henan) were in a way analogous to the concept of contemporary universities. Rigorous studies in philosophy, medicine, music, poetry and writing, history, calligraphy, math, natural and other sciences were at the heart of Shaolin training and focused on achieving human and spiritual potentials of the monks. Just like in the contemporary Universities, each student had to pass proficiency exams on all subjects taught at Shaolin in order to graduate from the Temple with a title of a Master.
Young Shaolin monks train from 5AM until 9PM with a few hours for a break, so compared to this my training was a vacation. I only trained from 8AM to 6PM with three hours for lunch. I suspect that the whole thing probably looked very exotic – a tall foreigner dressed in white silk Tai Chi uniform accompanied by a young monk in the orange robe with a long wooden stick the interpreter (English teacher at the school, but his English still needed some work). Once in a while my “coach” Feng Min used his stick on my legs to ensure that I perform exercises properly.
I’ll skip the details of my training for another occasion, to say only that each day there for me felt like winning a battle with myself. I had to perform a Qigong form for a group of other coaches in order to “graduate” and was greeted with applauds at the end. I guess it meant that I passed.
Throughout my short stay at Shaolin I had witnessed many feats the young monks demonstrated to countless tourists coming to pay a visit. Most Shaolin Qigong demonstrations start ed with a few smooth but very powerful hand and body movements reminding of magical passes. Various demonstrations, which followed such preparations, included breaking of a solid metal or wooden stick over the monk’s head or other parts of the body. More graceful exercises included bending a spear being stock into a monk’s throat with a sharp end and into the ground with the dull end etc. The most impressive, in my mind, demonstration was the ability to penetrate a glass with a needle thrown from a short distance. The needle went straight through the glass making a tiny hole.
A sober spectator might ask a question about the point in practicing for many years just to be able to survive these self-tortures or demonstrate magical feats. I view this as a simple demonstration of very powerful and still not accepted by the west innate abilities of humans to harness Chi and transcend the limitations of the physical body. The physical superpower was a key to a survival in a battle back then, which is of course not the case any longer. On of the most powerful applications for the Qigong practice nowadays is the ability to heal yourself and others.
The last exam for the Master’s degree could easily cost the student his life. According to a legend, each Master candidate had to pass through a tunnel filled with mechanical dolls and various traps. The monk had to defend his life against the mechanical dolls, which were designed to deliver brutal blows from a variety of angles. Sort of like in Star Wars episodes in the battles against robots. Only one thing separated those who made it to the end from graduation – a gate with an iron ball in front of it sitting on fire. The ball had two engravings on opposite sides – of a dragon and a tiger. To open the gate the monk had to lift up the ball using his forearms. The two burnt marks on each arm would forever mark a new Shaolin Master, who often had to simply raise his arms to reveal the signs and make the enemies flee in fear.
Things changed a bit since 500AD and my departure from the Temple was less dramatic. Having finished my training I had an official parting ceremony with my teacher and the Dean. Nobody was going to burn any marks on my forearms, not even give me a tattoo, but I was given an official red-covered diploma with the Dean’s signature, which I intend on showing to my enemies when needed.
What about the spirit of Shaolin? Is it still alive and well in the hectic pace of contemporary and rapidly commercializing China? This is the question that each of us has to answer individually. Bodhi Dharma and Buddhism in general teach that the Buddha nature is eternal and within all of us, which means that each of us has access to it if we chose to discover it. I think that just like in any great tradition, the Shaolin spirit has to come from within, transcending the time and space. It is there if you need it. Go and see for yourself….
By Misha Goussev
Qigong is an ancient Chinese modality deeply rooted in both martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Qigong practice is a powerful means to maintaining good health, healing others and achieving extraordinary physical states for fighting applications.
Bodhisattva is semi-enlightened being in Buddhism hierarchy, whose mission is to help all other sentient beings to become enlightened.