Shaolin Temple Welcomes the Year of the Dragon with a Roar
With thundering drums, intense kung fu, and a variety of musical performances as diverse as the temple itself, the USA Shaolin Temple welcomed the year of the Dragon and celebrated Shifu Shi Yan Ming's birthday, which falls on the lunar new year.
After a long day of preparation, the party guests began pouring in, bringing homemade food, drinks, presents, and love. Two huge dragons, made of chains blue lanterns to symbolize the year of the water dragon, coiled from the ceiling of the temple down around the performance area, welcoming the guests. As they anticipated Shifu's arrival, the demo team continued rehearsing and the student performers made sure everything was ready. Finally, the big moment came, and the temple welcomed Shifu with a loud "Amituofo!" and round of applause. He made his way to his seat in the center of the audience, and the show began.
The demo team started the evening off with a high-intensity performance, with the large temple drum keeping everyone's heart racing.The team performed several forms, including tiger, staff, broadsword, and even surprised the audience with a double chain whip routine. An special highlight was the performance from members of the Temple's children's class, who had choreographed their own fight set, complete with a funny script. The audience's oohs and aahs changed to hearty laughter as the children acted out the scene and fought each other with a great slapstick style.
After the demo team's performance, temple student and tap dancer Christopher Erk shared with Shifu and the Temple a wonderful improvised dance expressing the feeling of the moment and the coming year. After the improv piece, he performed along with a recording of Shifu reciting the Heart Sutra, what Shifu considers to be the most important text in Buddhism, over music. Chris tapped in time with Shifu reciting the words of the sutra, then as Shifu's recitation increased speed, Chris kept up the pace with a fast beat. The audience roared, and many temple students and disciples who know the Heart Sutra well were especially impressed.
Next up was temple student Pedro Vallejos, who moved the audience with his wonderful viola performances of Telemann's Fantasia VII, and Bach's Courante from the 2nd cello suite. The fantasia is marked “dolcezza”, which means “sweetness” in Italian. Though one student remarked after that it sounded sad, to Pedro, this reflected that there can be sadness in sweetness and sweetness in sadness. The courante was a much more intense piece, which Pedro chose for the “icy fast” rhythm reflecting the time of year, but that it is also fiery - to melt the snow away. Full of dualities within each other - just like Chan philosophy.
Heng Long aka Josh Tufano was next, quite an appropriate person to perform, as his dharma name means Dragon! He spit a dope self-written rap titled “Birthday Giftwrap” containing a wealth of philosophy. The incredibly tight lyrics ranged from the poem of Hui Neng to verses from the Dao De Jing to referencing Greek legendary figures. In addition to the beautifully written rhymes, His delivery was even more on point then the previous year, when he also performed at Shifu’s birthday - you could tell he's been training harder.
The final performance came from temple student and concert pianist Elaine Kwon. She wrote an amazingly special piece, mapping the words "Shifu" and "Dragon" to the musical scale and composing a piece around those melodies. She also incorporated a number of Shifu's favorite songs, from Wu Tang to Katy Perry, Michael Jackson to Sade. The piece was paired with a special cocktail her and her husband Kevin had prepared called “Red Dragon”. Cups were passed around - with a non-alcoholic version available for those who didn’t drink - and Kevin toasted the year of the Dragon with a loud roar of “Fireball!”
After a thunderous applause for Elaine, the projector turned on and the face of Heng Zhi appeared on the screen. While he couldn’t make it to the event, he had something very important to share as his gift to Shifu. He presented, with the help of Heng De, who was present at the party, a book for Shifu that will be given to him on May 5th, the date of the Opening Ceremony of the New Temple in Fleischmanns, NY. The book will contain the thoughts, messages, and wishes of the entire temple community - the 35th Generation of Fu Yu’s lineage - that of the Chinese character “Heng”. Zhi went on to explain:
This book is a dedication from the Heng generation to Shifu as evinced by all the volunteers who spent time working upstate on the new temple, no matter whether they are students, disciples, or just friends who stopped by to lend a hand.... each person who did anything at the upstate temple is a part of the Heng generation, and should sign the book with a few words to Shifu...anyone who trained at the city temple has taken part in the process of building the temple...any former student who ever did anything at any of the temples is a part of the Heng generation and may sign the book...
After explaining the meaning, he told how he had asked Heng De to write the first inscription for him, translated into Chinese. Heng De read Heng Zhi’s inscription aloud in Chinese to Shifu. Zhi’s words were:
we were not there in the beginning, nor will we be there at the end
yet without us dawn would not meet night
we are the ones who connect the past to the future
we are the generation of Heng
The “Heng” character is the 35th word in the 70-word poem written by Fu Yu, the first abbot of the current lineage at the Shaolin Temple, placing those of this generation right in the center. The meaning of the character, “permanent, constant, to carry on”, reflects Shifu and the Temple’s path of preserving the 1500 year old traditions of Shaolin philosophy and sharing them with the world.
With Zhi still on the line, it was time for the main toast of the evening. Bottles of champagne were brought out, and when it was sure everyone had a cup, no matter what was in it, the temple toasted Shifu and the Year of the Dragon.
The next part of the party was probably the most anticipated - the food! The temple community had prepared a feast of wonderful dishes of all styles and flavors - collard greens, ginger braised beef, Thai red chicken curry, stir fried bok choy with garlic, vegetable curries, scallion pancakes, coconut rice, chicken parmesan, kale salad, several types of pastas, and even more! One especially big hit was Chris Erk’s home made dill dip - his grandmother’s recipe - that was enjoyed with bread as a fantastic late night snack by the last group of party goers later in the evening.
After enjoying the food and music spun by DJ Heng Fa, it was time to present Shifu with his gifts. First, he was presented with his card - a large posterboard with a picture of his face and the words “So handsome, can’t help it!” in Austin Powers style font that had been designed by Heng Dong, and signed by everyone in attendance. The temple community had pitched in to buy three much needed new stretching machines, and Shifu was delighted. “Now you have no excuse - come on people!” He proclaimed, only half-jokingly! Many in attendance also presented Shifu their own gifts, including a framed photograph, an Italian Football club jersey with the name “Handsome Shifu” on the back, a beautiful drawing, and of course many bottles of special water! Once all the gifts had been given, a cake was brought out, which Shifu cut with his usual intensity. Pieces were passed around and enjoyed by all.
The rest of the night was enjoyed by dancing, conversing, and spending time with good friends and family. At one point, a freestyle rap cypher popped up in the corner of the temple behind the bar. Over 10 people got in on it, from Heng Long to Kevin, and a diverse range of other people whose skills were quite unexpected! But there were no battles, instead, everyone let out their hearts - their life experiences, philosophy, and all kinds of beautiful things that popped into their heads.
The year of the Dragon promises to be a fantastic one, full of beautiful change and growth. We look forward to celebrating the opening of the new temple on May 5th, and will keep celebrating life every moment of every day. Remember to do the same!