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The importance of ritual objects to the Shaolin is shown in how they react to the supernatural appearance of an incense burner. When the survivors of the massacre woke up the next day, they saw on the surface of the water a white incense burner made of greenstone, which had two ears and three feet and weighed 52 "catties, thirteen ounces"; on the bottom of the incense burner, the four words Fan-Qing fu-Ming had been inscribed. The brothers immediately secured the incense burner and placed it in the third field in front of the temple gate (Baoqi & Murray 206). In this regard, the Shaolin monks of the day embraced the popular belief that Heaven could manifest its support of claimants to the Chinese throne or of founders of religious cults through the bestowal of precious objects, such as these incense burners, swords, or books. "The incense burner, as it appears in the Tiandihui creation myth, the Xi Lu Legend, functions in this way by bringing Heaven's support to the monks in their endeavor to escape from the destruction of the Shaolin Monastery and to 'overthrow the Quing and restore the Ming'" (Baoqi & Murray 1994:30).
This practice is shown again later, when a monk named Chen Jinnan, mentioned the Ming dynasty to the surviving brothers who then followed him as their new master. "The monks inserted grass or straw as incense, and took two pieces of tile to serve as holy tallies or divining blocks to cast and let fall together" (Baoqi & Murray 1994:32). The monks then knelt and prayed to the gods of Heaven and Earth, the sun, moon, and stars, to all the spirits in the sky, and to Guanyin, Buddha, as well as the two old immortals, Zhu Guang and Zhu Kai, in an attempt to bless their righteous loyalty as they vowed revenge (Baoqi & Murray 1994).
Baoqi and Murray report that the monks agreed that should the two tiles fall three times without breaking, they would then have a sign that the Ming dynasty would be restored; the tiles were cast three times and remained unbroken. As a result, the monks respectfully requested the two immortals, Zhu Guang and Zhu Kai, to testify to the unbroken tiles as an indication of the restoration of the Ming. "After reaching the Baozhu monastery and notifying Qian Hong Da Sui, the monks hung up their righteous banner and summoned [those who were] heroes under Heaven [to their cause]; all together they obtained 118" (Baoqi & Murray 1994:32). The monks used their own blood to write this poem:
Five individuals separate [with] a poem; no one else knows of their heroic achievement.
This affair is to be passed down to other brothers; let them join together through this poem.
The training required of Shaolin monks was a lifelong endeavor, and was never truly "completed." In an excerpt from the treatise, "The Secrets of Pugilistic Combat of Shaolin Monastery" by Shaolin Master Lam Sai Wing (1943), monks would hold bricks in their left hand, and stroke at it with their right hand; the brick would then break into two halves with a crack. "Some easily broke solid stones into pieces with their 'iron' fists and twisted around their waist iron rods as if those rods were strings; they looked like the Eight Wizards crossing the sea, because each of them was permeated with divine spiritual power" (Wing 1943:17). All Shoalin monks were required to rigorously train and the regimen was grueling: "Sweat was running on their backs, some had bleeding broken fingers, but nevertheless they went on training themselves with resolution and eagerness" (Wing 1943:18). As a result of such persistent and incessant training, after 10 years, a Shaolin monk could punch a hole through a wall; after 20 years, adepts could break a brick with their hand; 30-year practitioners were as "strong as metal and they could break a stone into small pieces" (Wing 1943:18). Even as the Shaolin monks advanced in age, they continued this rigorous level of training and became enormously powerful and long-lived as a result. "Even at sixty, seventy or eighty they trained each day. First, they tempered their body to resist diseases and, second, until extreme old age they enjoyed health and viability, put off senility and prolonged their life" (Wing 1943:19).
Ancient and Contemporary Influences on Shaolin Training and Religions Practices. As noted above, the life of a Shaolin monk was a demanding one but the sect did enjoy the favor of the imperial palace from time to time in its history. For instance, the reign of Chinese Emperor Xiaowen and his son and successor, Emperor Xuanwu (r. 499-515) represented a brief period of concentration of state resources on construction projects and military campaigns from 494 up to the time of his Xuanwu's in 499 may explain the lack of material on Buddhism during these years. Earlier in his reign, during the lifetime of Dowager Empress Wenming, Xuanwu was recorded to have sponsored Buddhist activity, but later he appears to have reduced support and to have tried to curb abuses by the Buddhist clergy.
According to Katherine R. Tsiang (2002), Emperor Xiaowen maintained an active interest in Buddhist teachings, however, supporting the activities of learned monks and some temple-building projects for them in and around the new capital. "For example," she says, "the Shilao zhi records that Xiaowen frequently had the monk Daodeng discuss Buddhist teachings in the palace. When the monk died in 496, he made generous gifts of cloth to the Buddhist church and sponsored maigre (vegetarian) feasts and Buddhist observances in his honor. He also admired the monk Batuo or Bhadra and built the Shaolin Temple for him" (Tsiang 223).
Regrettably, it would seem that even the venerable old ways of the Shaolin have succumbed to the advances and demands of the 21st century, causing shifts in values that not even the combined military forces of old could achieve. According to Hoh (2002), "The Shaolin monks are learning to cope with the increasing attention of tourists and movie buffs. Despite its reluctance to embrace the limelight, the order has not been slow to realise the potential of the myth surrounding its warriors" (26). Since 2000, Shaolin monks have been performing a stage show, entitled "Wheel of Life," a production that has been approved by the fangzhang, or first abbot, of the temple. "The colorful, action-packed performance represents not only a celebration of the monks' history, but a showcase for their lethal power" (Hoh 27). One visitor to this compound reported his results in a recent article in the New Statesman. According to Stephen Smith (2001), "I found myself on a remote island reached by boat from Hong Kong. It was dominated by a great golden Buddha, and the only accommodation available to weary travelers was provided by Shaolin monks. But callers at their gate had to pass an exacting initiation test" (Smith 47). Unlike the sect's ancient practices, admission to the Shaolin facilities today required only the price of admission: "Demonstrating humility and candor, we had to prove that we had the price of a bunk bed and buffet-style breakfast on us. It was my destiny to fulfill the task without error" (48). When he entered the 21st century version of the Shaolin temple compound, Smith reports that he could sense the monks thinking: "This young man has everything it takes to live among our elite brotherhood. When he takes his wallet out, his quicksilver hands speak for themselves. He is a natural in the ancient western art of parting with money on holiday" (Smith 48). When this author attempted to wander into the Shaolin compound later than night to gain even more "insights" into the sect's practices, though, he was barred by a pack of fierce dogs and quickly returned to his room.
However, other observers report that although the Chinese authorities maintain a close watch on their religious activities, they are "more than happy with the money the temple complex generates as a place of pilgrimage for tourists and budding Bruce Lees" (Martial Arts, Now and Zen; Popular Kung Fu Movies Kick Up Exposure for Shaolin Monks 2002:A16). Despite these seeming erosive forces, the Shaolin monks have apparently maintained the rigorous training practices that have always characterized their sect. In fact, Shaolin temples are becoming increasingly popular in China today, and each year, thousands of boys are sent by their fathers to one of the more than 20 Shaolin temples that have sprung up around the country to learn kung fu (Martial Arts, Now and Zen 2002).
The discipline continues to be military-oriented, with four rigorous training sessions conducted each day, six days a week. "The pupils sleep in large dormitories and do their laundry by hand in the courtyard. Food is served outdoors all year, even when the temperature is below…[continue]
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