Damo, Hui Ke, and the Elevator

Four Wells

When I first greeted Shi Yan Ming, at the USA Shaolin Temple in NYC, I reached out to shake his hand hello. He just sort of looked at me, then lifted his hand and brought it close to his chest, perpendicular to his heart. I still held mine out awkwardly until he eventually shook it. I thought it was curious, but what did I know? I didn’t know if I was supposed to salute him back that way, some other way say perhaps from one of my other schools, or what. My brain was practically fried from the day’s events so I wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer at that point in time. It had basically taken us a better part of a day to find the Temple, and we had done a lot of leg work. I don’t exactly live a stone’s throw from the city either for that matter, and what with all the traveling and searching I was a little wiped out.

I had gotten up early that morning, taken a 2 hour train ride into Manhattan and then with my younger brother, pounded the pavement hoping to find and visit Shi Yan Ming. We wanted to learn what was going on with him and his temple, and if things worked out, hopefully join it. To be honest, I was feeling a little overwhelmed at it all. This had the possibility of being the culmination of a long and arduous spiritual quest. We had gotten into Manhattan in the morning, and it was now late in the afternoon. We felt as if we had walked EVERYWHERE, which we probably had. Did I mention how much walking we did? Eventually, with some luck, we had found the Temple. We were buzzed in and got in the elevator. It was one of those old classic jobs with the manual slide doors. We pushed the button marked 3 and with a clicking and clacking noise the elevator lurched into motion. We started getting a little nervous. I couldn’t really say why. Like I said, this could be the culmination of a lot of different things, so the air was sort of heavy. We got to the third floor and took a deep breath, just staring at the handle on the sliding door. This was it. A Shaolin Temple. And we were finally here. I pulled on the door and...


Wouldn’t budge. Try as hard as we might, we couldn’t get the door to open! Without smashing it like a battering ram, it just would not budge. For a long time we just stared at it, silently. Jedi mindtricks were to no avail. Talk about blue balls. Then we noticed the sign posted with detailed instructions as to how to open the door if it was stuck shut- you had to push the button for ‘1’, and just as the elevator began to move, open the door. What? Is this some kind of joke? Is this even a temple? We figured it was some kind of test. Figure out how to get past the Temple door and everything’s cool...if you can’t get past it- see ya. Like in a movie, right? Don’t these master guys always have tests? I was half prepared for spears to come jutting out of the elevator walls. Well, all we could do was try it. My brother pushed ‘1’ and I got ready to open the door.

So after the elevator took us for a ride up and down several times, and feeling like utter and complete idiots for failing the ‘test’, we finally decided to take the stairs. Frankly, at this point we were now beyond a little nervous. Whoever was inside the temple must have seen or at least heard the elevator go up and down without anybody coming out of it like ten times. And when we show up at the door it will be obvious that we were the knuckleheads who were inside it and taken for a ride. When we got to the top of the stairs, again we just stood there in front of the door, steeling ourselves. Okay, now this was really it. Lots of thoughts were racing through our heads, and we were feeling a little embarrassed. The whole experience was just getting more and more surreal. We almost turned around and left. Something held us though. Instead of splitting we knocked on the door. We did not realize then the profound nudging that would occur to the seeds that were deeply entrenched within our hearts, nor did we realize the glorious empowerment that would eventually flood over our spirits, nor how beautiful the continual process of this flowering would be.

One of the first things that struck me was that in the whirlwind of that first meeting, and the awkward fumbling of my mind trying to get the questions I wanted to ask out of my lips, I noticed that Shi Yan Ming had one hand over his heart almost the whole time, not only when we first greeted him. I was familiar with most martial arts bows, but not this one. It must be some Buddhist thing, I thought, but every other Buddhist monk I had ever seen used both hands, palm to palm, over their hearts, not just the one. It wasn’t until my first class in Ch’an did I understand any of it really. Every deep and philosophical question (at least in my mind) I asked him that day, he had only one reply- ‘Come to class. Train.’

Enigmatic, to say the least. And when my brother and I eventually were able to attend our first class at the Temple several months later, he had another reply when he first saw us- “Finally.” I realized then that everything is a conversation, spoken or not. Just by living we are conversing with everything around us. You may have noticed in some versions of the Heart Sutra, for example, it starts off with the word ‘Therefore...’ but that doesn’t make any sense at all, and in fat many translators translate that right out of the text. After all, there must be something that precedes a ‘therefore’ or it doesn’t make any sense at all, logically. Well, there IS something that precedes it, but it’s not spoken.

That one word, ‘Finally,’ was like a switch flipping in my head. What had taken us so long? It had been several months since we had first visited. And now, everything just sort of washed over me. As class began, we followed along as best we could, repeating the ‘Amitabha,’ the bow with one hand vertical and the other one horizontal, the warmups, and then the first basic movement, gong bu. Gong bu for about 1.5 hrs. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. The next class we could make was on Saturday and I could barely walk! I was seriously going to go and call an ambulance to take me to a hospital to remove my legs. All of my previous martial arts or sports training was incomparable in intensity. Snowboarding and skateboarding, the two things I thought were the hardest or most painful things to learn on the face of this planet were now shelved someplace in the back of my mind next to Badminton and Bocce ball. Kung Fu now held preeminence. So this is ‘eating bitter’ I thought. After the Saturday morning class, which this time was devoted towards a kick called Lunbi Caijiao, several tendons and muscle groups previously unknown to me decided they should alert me to their existence and protest their new involvement in my life- there was Ch’an Buddhism.

There are many people who seek to split Shaolin Temple Ch’an Buddhism from Shaolin Temple Martial Arts. I’ve heard some of the arguments. But how can you split them? They are both the same thing. Try and split them, all you are doing is a massive disservice to yourself. They are one and the same. You just have to understand that. And it’s not something you can describe very well in words. You can not split them apart. All you can do is pretend to ignore one aspect over another, but they are inseparable, intrinsic to one another. By trying to split them, it’s like you are building a huge bonfire but you have nothing to light it with. Ch’an is the match that lights the martial arts and begins to imbue them with meaning, and vice versa.

Shi Yan Ming began by welcoming the new students and invited everyone to sit in a semicircle around him. He asked us if we knew why we said ‘Amitabha’ 3 times, or why we bowed and showed respect with one hand. Obviously, we didn’t really know. We are still coming to know.

I have listened to and told the story that we next heard from sifu often since that first class. Near our altar, when you first enter the temple, there is a wall hanging. It depicts Damo crossing the Yang Tze river on a reed which has five branches, and each of these branches leads to a single flower. It is a symbolic expression of the division which occurred in Ch’an, but that all of these branches led to the same thing- enlightenment, the flower. The story of Damo, Hui Ke, and the early Temple really is a very beautiful story and like the reed Damo rides, it too unfolds much as a flower does, a little at first, and soon at many different levels. It’s beauty can be enjoyed by those who wish to partake of it’s fragrance, or sadly, you can shut your heart to it and dismiss it. When that happens it is very sad. The story is a tool. I’ve told it to friends and family, and to some whom I hardly knew on our long train rides home, and some have taken it for what it is, and others have let the words drop, dead. Like all good stories, during each telling, or each listening, new understandings open up, and new insights develop. A good story is dynamic, like life- it evolves and changes depending on what is needed from it. It can help us to find and imbue meaning to what might otherwise seem like pure chaos.

To understand the symbolism of the one handed bow, we must go back deep into Shaolin Temple’s early history. Sifu began the story with the founding of the Temple by an Indian monk named Bato in the year 495. Bato was given land in front of Shao Shi mountain, in the Song Shan range, and he began to teach a form of Buddhism there that came to be known as Shao Shing Buddhism. His was not the first Buddhist temple in China, however, Bei Ma, White Horse Temple, preceded Shao Lin. In China there are five holy mountain ranges, Song Shan being in the center, and made up of 72 smaller mountains. Now, here I must apologize in advance if any of these names are spelled incorrectly- this tradition is an oral one, and I do not speak Chinese, nor have I really taken any notes during class- I can only spell and say things as I remember them, so these spellings are like my own kind of pinyin I guess...

Bato’s Shao Shing Buddhism was very focused, very rigid, it is my understanding that it means ‘small mind’- it demanded the following of many rules, many of which may seem very drastic and strange- don’t look right or left, don’t look more than 3 feet in front, don’t drink wine, things like that. Needless to say, in China of 495, Bato’s Buddhism was not very popular. In fact, his lineage, one of the three which makes up Shaolin Temple’s 3 major lineages, ended with him. But he did have two disciples, and these two men had been great warriors, who had slain many in battle. Chin Chou, and Wei Wong. Eventually they came to recognize that what they were doing was wrong, that they were committing grave sins, and they felt as though they should atone for their past deeds, and they became Buddhist monks under Bato’s tutelage. They were the first to bring martial arts to Shaolin Temple, they were the first to practice martial arts at Shaolin Temple.

At this same time, in India, there lived a man named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was one of the sons of the King of India. He also had several older brothers. His brothers were very jealous of him, as he was wise, good natured, and favored by their father, the King. Eventually, his brothers began to plot against him, fearing that the King would brush them aside and pass the throne to Bodhidharma instead of to them. They tried to kill him, and they tried to poison their father against him. Seeing these actions, and recognizing that the driving force behind them was ego and ambition for material gain, Bodhidharma decided he wanted to have no part of it, he didn’t like the effect it was having on his brothers. To him, it just seemed not worth it, not that important. He felt like there was something more. He withdrew from the political intrigues over the secession, and he became a Buddhist monk.

He was very intelligent and quickly his understanding of Buddhism grew very deep. One day Bodhidharma asked his master, who was very old, “Master, when you die, what should I do?” And his master replied, “When I die, go to Jen Dong.” Jen Dong at that time was the name people used for China.

Eventually, Bodhidharma’s master passed, and Bodhidharma knew it was time for him to fulfill his destiny. He began to make preparations to leave India. By this time his nephew had ascended to the throne of India, and his nephew sought to make up for his father’s actions. The King wanted to make amends with his uncle Bodhidharma for he loved him very much, and he felt very bad for the ways in which his father and other uncle had treated him. He attempted, to no avail, to persuade Bodhidharma to stay in India, and to help India. But Bodhidharma knew what his destiny held for him and that it was not in India, and prevailed upon his nephew the importance of what he had to do. So his nephew decided that if he couldn’t keep his uncle in India, then he would help him on his way to China, and he released hundreds of carrier pigeons along the route that Bodhidharma was to take, announcing his arrival, and to help prepare his way for him. And so it was that Bodhidharma came into China in the year 527, 32 years after Bato had founded the original Shaolin Temple.

Upon his arrival in Southern China he reached a small town. Many people had come to see him, for fame of him had spread throughout the countryside because of the messages carried by the pigeons, and so they were waiting in the place where they most likely had expected him to make his crossing. Many had come to see and to hear this famous Buddhist monk, to see what made him so special. With all the fanfare and the hoopla, surely something significant and profound was to happen. Bodhidharma entered the town, came to the square in which everyone gathered around him, and he proceeded to sit down and meditate. He did this all day. Not a word fell from his lips. After many hours had passed, he simply got up, and he walked away. Needless to say, people were besides themselves.

Can you imagine that? Many who had come looking to be enlightened or to learn something were upset. They were expecting something extraordinary and this is what he does? What was the point of all these pigeons? What a farce! He’s a fake! What kind of monk is this? Many laughed. Some were very upset. Most were confused. Some nodded their heads, thinking and feeling like they understood, and others shook their fists and complained, after all they had sat and waited all day, and this so called master had said nothing to them at all. Not a single word. Without saying anything though, Damo, as he was called in China, had indeed taught everyone something very important- by just being himself, Damo had shown them all what was inside themselves.

Because of these events, Damo’s fame grew even greater than it had been because of the pigeons, so much so that the emperor of Southern China, the Emperor Leeung, heard about him and wanted to meet him. He invited Damo for an audience. Emperor Leeung was Buddhist, and had done much to spread Buddhism in his lands and he wanted to see what this famous monk was all about. When Damo arrived the Emperor began to show Damo all the wonderful things that he had done to support and spread Buddhism. He showed Damo all the statues he had had built, and told him about all the monasteries and monks he supported, and all the nuns. And he talked and talked and talked about how wonderful all these things were, and how wonderful he was for doing them, and he soon grew uncomfortable because despite everything he was saying, all the stuff he was showing off, Damo had said nothing so far. Not a single word. Finally, the Emperor broke down and confronted Damo.

“I don’t understand, aren’t these things good things to do?” said the Emperor.

“No,” replied Damo.

The Emperor was quite confused now. “I don’t understand,” he said, “look at all these good works I have done! Is there not Buddha in these things?”

“No,” said Damo. No? thought the Emperor. Now the Emperor was growing very impatient. He didn’t understand this at all. Any fool could plainly see the merit in what he was doing! What does this monk mean by this? Why was he being so insulting? Here he was showing off his pride and joy and instead of receiving Damo’s blessing, rather than getting a pat on the back for doing such good works, he was being rebuffed. The Emperor did not expect these responses from Damo. He was expecting Damo to praise his efforts, not trash them. What kind of a Buddhist was Damo anyway? Finally the Emperor asked one more question.

“Is there Buddha in this world or not?” demanded the Emperor.

And Damo said, “No.”

At this the Emperor grew quite wrathful, and had Damo expelled from the audience. He did not understand Damo’s meaning at all, and he had grown quite frustrated with him. Damo saw that the Emperor’s heart was not pure in his actions. He did all his good works out of pride and out of desire to satisfy his ego, he was looking for praise from doing good things that it was his job to do as Emperor, and this desire for praise and self aggrandizement tainted his good works. He should be doing these works for themselves, not for fame or glory. That is why Damo responded by saying, “No.” And when the Emperor had to ask if there was Buddha in the world, Damo saw that the Emperor really didn’t understand the Buddha’s teachings, and that there could be no Buddha in the Emperor’s world, because the fact that he asked the question pointed out the emperor’s doubt in Buddha. If the emperor knew that Buddha existed in the world then he would not have needed to ask. If you need to ask, then you don’t know- if you believe in Buddha then there is no need to ask if he exists, you already know. So all his works were reduced to nothing.

And so Damo began to travel north, and he entered into Nanjing. In Nanjing there is a place where people come to gather, called the Flower Rain Pavilion. At this time there was another Buddhist monk who was giving a talk, many had come to hear him speak for he was famous for having very strong chi, also he had a reputation for being a very powerful speaker. Formerly he had been a great warrior. His name was Chen Wong, and before he became a Buddhist monk he had been a very famous fighter and martial artist, just like Bato’s two disciples. And also like Chin Chou and Wei Wong one day he came to realize that all the men he had killed in battle had families and people who loved or depended on them, and that perhaps one day they would come and seek revenge against him, and he began to look inwards and he realized that killing and fighting was not the way, that he had been committing grave sins his whole life. He turned his back on his former self and opened his heart to Buddha. So he had become very famous for his talks, and a great many people had gathered to hear him speak. As he was speaking, he noticed a man approaching, another monk, it was Damo. And Damo was sometimes nodding his head in approval of what was being said but other times he was shaking his head no. Chen Wong still had a lot of fire in his heart, and this man shaking his head yes and no started to infuriate him. Damo continued forward, alternately agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing, until finally Chen Wong couldn’t take it anymore. He snapped two prayer beads from around his neck and flung them with great force at Damo, and the beads struck Damo in the mouth knocking out two of his front teeth.

Damo showed no reaction at all. He just kept on walking, shaking his head. This amazed Chen Wong. He did not expect that reaction at all, after all, he had just knocked out this fellow’s front teeth. He must be in an extraordinary amount of pain, and yet he kept walking as if nothing had happened. Chen Wong could not reconcile this behavior, he had expected some kind of reaction, and so he determined to find out who this man was and he started to follow Damo.

Damo was heading towards the Yang Tze river, which divided the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. He came to the river’s banks and saw there an old woman who had a bundle of reeds. He asked the old woman if he could have one, which he placed on the surface of the water and proceeded to ride across, his chi was so strong that he was able to cross the Yang Tze in this manner, on a single reed.

Seeing this, Chen Wong was amazed, and he grabbed a handful of the reeds from the old woman and threw them into the river. He jumped on them and quickly sank, and he began to drown because he couldn’t swim. The old woman fished him out of the river and admonished him.

“Do you know why you sank?”

Chen Wong didn’t answer. I imagine he was fuming.

“By not asking me for my reeds you showed me disrespect. By disrespecting me you disrespect yourself. That is why you could not cross.” This woman is often considered to be a bodhisatva, and she also told Chen Wong that he had been looking for something for a long time, and that he needed a master. She told him that that master was Damo, and that he should follow him. By virtue of this woman’s chi, Chen Wong then crossed the Yang Tze river on a bundle of reeds.

Eventually he caught up to Damo, who at this time was heading towards the Shaolin Temple. When they got to the Temple the monks came out to greet him, as they had been expecting him. But Damo did not go to the Temple proper, instead he climbed up into the mountain behind the Temple, Five Breast Mountain, and there he entered into a cave. He immediately began to meditate there. Needless to say, the monks were a little confused, but they knew Damo to be a great master, and so it was that they left him there to meditate. He stayed there for many years. He meditated in that cave for 9 years. 9 years! And all this time Chen Wong looked after him, making sure no harm came to him, protecting him from wild animals, taking care of his needs, and asking Damo to teach him, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Many people I know come unglued if they have to wait more than 5 minutes, like for a late train, or for a long red light, much less wait for 9 whole years! Damo never responded to Chen Wong. He just kept on meditating, and so strong was his concentration and so focused was his mind that his chi burned his image into the stone wall, like a photograph.

So many years went by. Every so often the monks would come to visit Damo, and they would beseech him to come down into the temple where he would be more comfortable. Finally, they built a special room for him, called the Damo Ting, and once again they went and implored Damo to come into the Temple. Finally he agreed. Damo left the cave, and went and stayed in the room they had prepared for him, and Chen Wong followed, still waiting to be taught.

Another 3 years passed in this manner, and Chen Wong finally had come to his limits. For 13 years he had watched over this man and for what? Not a single word had he ever said to him, and after all the things he had done for Damo, he wouldn’t even acknowledge his presence! He grew enraged. It was winter time, and in his anger and frustration he gathered up a huge armful of snow and ice and he crashed into Damo’s room like a tiger crashing down a mountainside and he threw down the snow and ice, “When will you teach me!” he yelled.

And Damo, hearing the crashing noise, came out of his meditation, and looking at Chen Wong he said, “I will teach you when red snow falls from the sky.”

Chen Wong was crushed. All his hopes were destroyed, and all these many years waiting for Damo he felt had been wasted. For he knew now that Damo would never teach him. And at this point something inside Chen Wong changed. He withdrew his sword from it’s sheathe and with great purpose he cut off his left arm. He took the limb and he waved it about his head and the air was so cold that the drops of blood coming from the severed limb froze in the air and the drops fell to the ground as snow, and legend has it that they fell in the pattern of a dharma wheel.

Red snow had fallen from the sky. At this, Damo saw that something inside Chen Wong had changed. He agreed to teach him.

He took a monk’s spade and they went to Drum mountain. In front of Shaolin Temple are 5 smaller mountains, there is a Bell, Drum, Sword, Stamp, and Flag mountain, so named because they look like these things. So Damo took Chen Wong up into Drum mountain. There he dug a well, and he instructed Chen Wong to use this well for all his needs, and to come and see him in a year’s time. The water in this well was very bitter, and Chen Wong used it for everything- to cook with, to drink, to bathe with, everything. Chen Wong didn’t understand why he was doing this, he had sacrificed his arm and now he was living alone on a mountain, but at least now there was some interaction, at least Damo had agreed to teach him!

After a year’s time went by, Chen Wong came down from Drum mountain and he asked Damo to please teach him. And so Damo took the spade and brought him back to Drum mountain and dug another well. And the water from this well was very spicy. And Damo told Chen Wong that he should use this well for everything. Chen Wong was confused. Didn’t he just do this? Why do it again? He grew a little angry. But he did as Damo bade him and used the spicy water for all his needs, and stayed there for one year’s time.

After another year had passed, Chen Wong came to see Damo, saying, “Master, please teach me.” And so Damo took the spade and again they returned to Drum mountain, where Damo dug a third well. The water in this well was very sour. Chen Wong used this water for everything. He used it to cook, to clean, and to bathe. He just could not understand what Damo was doing. Maybe he was joking with him. He began to feel disillusioned.

And so after another year’s time, he came to see Damo, and again he asked him to teach him. And for a fourth time, Damo took the spade and brought Chen Wong up into Drum mountain, and there he dug a fourth well, and he told Chen Wong to use the water from this well for all his needs. And the water from this well was sweet.

And like a wave crashing against the shore, realization washed over Chen Wong. Suddenly he realized that Damo had been teaching him all along, without really saying anything, but through his actions, and that these wells that he had been using were symbols for his life. Just like the waters in the wells he used, sometimes his life would be bitter, and at other times spicy, sometimes it would be sour, and sometimes it would be sweet. All things come to pass, and all things change, like the seasons. And he realized that Damo had brought him to Drum mountain because it was flat on top, and even. Chen Wong realized he had to have an even heart, that life contained all these things, and that he should remain calm in understanding this, he had to accept them and not let them rule him. And Chen Wong became enlightened. Damo then changed Chen Wong’s name to Hui Ke.

It is in honor of Hui Ke’s sacrifice that Shaolin Temple monks and Shaolin Temple disciples pay their respects to one another by bowing with only one hand, unique amongst all the world’s Buddhists, and that is why Shi Yan Ming held his hand over his chest, perpendicular to his heart when he greeted us that first day, and every day since...


Richard Sloan is a disciple of Shi Yan Ming, in New York City, and, under a secret name, known only to me and my dogs, posts quite frequently (and quite intelligently) on the Discussion Forum.