By Bjorn Javefors
The basic concept behind training Gong Fu, studying Chan, or doing anything for that matter, is about aiming for, and hopefully achieving, a goal. The most useful aid in reaching a goal is through dedication, which is based on the belief that a goal is a good thing to achieve, and can be achieved through the practiced methods. Both religion and philosophy are about promoting a certain attitude or way of life, by believing (trusting) in the methods taught. One must trust, or believe, in the method to make it work properly.
A child must believe that Santa exists to be able to receive gifts from "Santa" and not from his or her parents. People in general must believe that their method of belief is the one that will bring them to their goal, if they are ever to stand a chance of reaching it.
Chan works in a similar way. One must be enlightened (fully believe/realize that there is no self) to be able to become Buddha (truly without self). Buddhism teaches that although we all contain the essence of Buddha within us, we are kept from embracing it by the self, our ego. The path of Buddhism is about understanding and being able to manipulate one's ego, and through that to become aware of that the ego simply is an illusion. But until one has fully grasped this concept (and become enlightened) one must learn to understand the rules that keep our mind trapped in order to one day set ourselves free. A good example of this is the rule of karma. If one doesn't have total enlightenment (total understanding or belief that everything, including oneself is void), then actions that the perceived "self" feels are "bad" will cause suffering. And one cannot attain Nirvana without first ridding oneself of all suffering. One has to shed every single prejudice, and take the step beyond judging as right or wrong - not only in theory, but in practice. So, before being able to reach Nirvana, one has to take into account how the basic human individual works, psychologically. Why? Because every person has a different starting point from which they can reach Nirvana. While all Buddhists seek to attain Nirvana, they all have to work on their own different flaws in order to avoid suffering and achieve the greater understanding that leads to enlightenment. As the Buddhist sayings go; "Don't try to follow in the master's footsteps. Instead, seek for that which he has achieved.", or "Look at the moon, not at the finger pointing at it.".
This, as I see it, is truly the essence of Buddhist faith. It is why Buddhist monks are known to be tolerant and accepting - the big picture is that different people simply require different methods to reach enlightenment. There is one single goal, but the different stages in, and means of, reaching that goal are very much individualistic. That is also why Chan is diverse, and why Chan meditation is such an important ingredient, which also can be used by members of many other named faiths, such as Christianity.
I was hesitant when doc offered me an insight in the internal troubles of Shaolin because I was afraid that it would disillusion me, make me cynical, make me lose my belief in the ideals I've entrusted myself to. Maybe because I hope the monks are "better" people than me, and therefore not equally human and capable of the same faults and errors as myself. Indeed, this is quite a common problem. Too much respect of an authority, even if it is well earned, can cloud one's mind. Ironically, respect, or face, is an important part of Chinese culture. This problem is discussed in the "discipleship" section of the site.
The realization that Shaolin monks aren't as blameless as Buddha himself is, however, an important lesson for a follower of Shaolin. I find it a shame, though, that this discrepancy is often overemphasized in a way that gives Shaolin a bad reputation, in much the same way as prestige and small talk disturbs the otherwise high moral of the martial arts community in general.
The many monks that obviously don't want to get involved in the arguments over Shaolin's future (also the "real vs fake" and "martial monk vs scholar monk" debates) probably avoid the issue for a good reason. These arguments start through a lack of tolerance, and are based on a judgmental "we're right, you're wrong" attitude, a difference of opinions in which gossip, winnowing of personal flaws, and sometimes even lies are used as ammunition to prove a point, that contrary to the Buddhist ideal enhances ego instead of subduing it. The Shaolin monks that I've had the privilege to train for or just simply talk to have often had two important things to say on this subject. Firstly, making accusations never lead to peace. In time things will sort themselves out anyway. Secondly, dwelling on the faults of others simply enhances one's own shortcomings. They also say that the heart is more important than titles, rules or rituals. You will find Buddha in your heart - look hard enough and you will find all the answers there.
Personally I'm not worried about the future of Shaolin, and I don't really care what master you have, as long as you turn into a kind and tolerant person by trusting him. If his behavior or teachings should make you lose faith in him, you need simply move on. While one may believe that one master can show you the truth, you ultimately come to understand the words of the Buddha: Seek out the truth for yourself.
Only through respect for every individual's own search for truth can we truly practice the ways of Shaolin and se beyond the troubling superficial disturbances of the world, be they real or perceived. Indeed, what's the difference?
- Written by: Bjorn Javefors