IN PROFILE: SHI YAN MING – Lifestyle and Travel
January 1, 2001
IN PROFILE: SHI YAN MING
Shaolin fighting monk and martial arts master shares the stuff of a balanced life
Shaolin Fighting Monk Shi Yan Ming’s daring defection to America is already the stuff of martial arts legend. He’s added to that mystique by quickly establishing the USA Shaolin Temple, and through the many demonstrations of his amazing feats of physical mastery. But it’s the movie roles and shoulder rubbing with celebrities like Jackie Chan and members of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan that’s put him on the fast track. So how has this humble monk shifted so smoothly from provincial China to cosmopolitan New York City? “Balance is very important,” he told me when we spoke recently at the Shaolin Temple in downtown New York. “I enjoy a beautiful life. For me balance means everyday is New Year. Every day, Merry Christmas!”
Eight years ago, Shi Yan Ming was the main attraction when the Shaolin monks visited San Francisco, for a first-ever demonstration of their renowned technique. It was an historic event for the martial arts world. On the last night of the tour, Shi Yan Ming, slipped out of the hotel under the guise of taking some last-minute photographs. Instead, speaking no English and carrying only his passport and a few newspaper clippings, he hailed a cab. The driver couldn’t make out the monk’s directions, so he finally dropped him in Chinatown at the first Chinese restaurant he could find. There, Shi Yan Ming managed to contact a friend in New York, who had a friend in San Francisco. And from there he went underground–literally–hiding out in a basement for ten days meditating and watching kung fu videos.
Less a defection than a spiritual quest, Shi Yan Ming’s decision to stay was born of a desire to continue sharing his wisdom. “Keep your eyes open,” he told me, regarding this sudden opportunity. “Keep your heart open. You can accomplish anything.” And indeed, arrangements were made and Shi Yan Ming found himself with a one-way ticket to New York.
With the help of supporters, he opened the USA Shaolin Temple above a brothel in Chinatown. He paid his rent by teaching Chan Buddhism, meditation, tai chi, chi kung and kung fu. In a few short years, the temple moved twice and now occupies an airy loft space on busy lower Broadway. Shi Yan Ming, who has adopted a fluid English, mixed with Buddhist catch phrases and street vernacular, nearly overflows with optimism. For him, the reason for coming to New York is very simple: yuan fen. “Destiny,” he translates. “But you have to catch your destiny.” Shi Yan Ming sees that destiny confirmed every day in his students. “I smile from the bottom of my heart and welcome them to the temple” His warmth is truly genuine. “I try to give them a beautiful message already in their heart. Very positive. Some people’s lives change just in that moment. They come here and we believe in destiny.”
The seventh of nine children, Shi Yan Ming was born into an extremely poor family in 1964. His father was a self-taught calligrapher, his mother was a traditional Chinese housewife, foot-bound and uneducated. By the time Shi Yan Ming was born, his parents had already lost two sons and a daughter to starvation in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s.
Born on New Year’s day in the year of the dragon, Shi Yan Ming says his birth was “very lucky!” It would take a while for that luck to catch up with him. As a toddler he became gravely ill. His parents spent everything they had to save the child, but Shi Yan Ming grew worse and his parents took him for dead. On their way out of the village to dispose of the body, his parents were stopped by a man who asked why they were crying so. They showed him their lifeless son. Right in the middle of the road, the man unswaddled the child and performed acupuncture. Almost immediately, the child began to revive. “You have to know how to use the energy”, he explained. “How to use your chi.” Shi Yan Ming says he is sure the man was a Boddhisattva sent by Buddha to save his life that day.
The key principle of Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu is balancing physical strength, breathing and mind control in order to harness the body’s chi. Usually translated as “life force;’ “breath” or “power,” chi goes beyond these definitions to mean a person’s essence, the force within us that burns from the moment of life. By focusing his chi, Shifu Shi Yan Ming can shatter rock with his head or hand, break a pole across his windpipe or take a direct kick to his groin. But chi can also be redirected to cure illness. Or, as I witnessed. to simply share a quiet message of peace.
In his early teens, the young monk began seriously studying with his Buddhism master, Shi Yong Qian. At five, he had been brought by his parents to the monks at the Shaolin Temple because they could no longer care for him. He learned the sutras and reached enlightenment very early. Chan Buddhists believe that people can attain sudden enlightenment. Shi Yan Ming wrote in a brief memoir published last year: “I don’t remember it being a sudden moment but it was very early. Things became so clear, everything was so deep and simple.”
Shortly after this, both his parents died of lung cancer within 6 months of each other. He and his older brothers took care of the family while he maintained his training. As he told me, “Buddha gave me beautiful talents. And my parents gave me a beautiful life, beautiful body. If I don’t use, if I don’t develop, I embarrass them. I embarrass myself.”
And develop those talents he did. By mastering the 72 skills of Shaolin Kung Fu as well as the 18 different weapons styles, he gained the title “Shifu” or master. These abilities have made him one of the most accomplished martial arts masters in the world. In 1985 he won the Xian National Sparring Competition in his weight class. For three years in a row (1988-90) he won the championship in the annual Shaolin Disciples Competition and became the vice-coach of the Shaolin Temple Fighting Monks at a young 26. At the 1,500-year commemoration of the Henan Shaolin Temple, Shifu Shi Yan Ming was acknowledged as a “Shaolin Hero,” a sobriquet reserved for only the most distinguished of fighting monks and tagged as a “Chinese Living Treasure.”
So what does a living treasure transplanted to America do? Set about spread- ing the word of Shaolin Kung Fu, Chan Buddhism and world peace. “Everybody want to have peace”, he says. “Peace is good for everybody.” In spreading this simple message, he’s collected a who’s who of students from the entertainment world. In particular, he’s been embraced by hip-hop culture including De La Soul, a Tribe Called Quest, Jeru the Damaja, British trip-hop artists Tricky and Rap impresarios The RZA and 0l’ Dirty Bastard of The Wu-Tang Clan. Lining the walls of the Temple are signed photographs of Shifu Shi Yan Ming with various celebrities; the message scrawled on a photo with The RZA and director John Woo says, “To Shifu Shi Yan Ming: there are not many men in which I can or will call ‘master.’ I say it to you with the utmost respect. All art is now martial to me. Your friend and student, The RZA, Wu-Tang.”
And in case you think that being a Shaolin Monk must signify abstinence from life’s more earthly pleasures, Shi Yan Ming is quick to correct, “I enjoy food very much. You want to eat, your body needs. Go eat! You want to drink, drink!” Beer is his drink of choice, which he calls “special water.” He especially enjoys wine and French champagne (“very special water!”). He’s big on martial arts movies and an ace on his Sega Dreamcast. And if you were wondering about any vows of chastity, Shi Yan Ming and his partner (and manager) Korean-American music publicist Sofia Chang are expecting their first child any day now.
If any of this seems contradictory, Shi Yan Ming is quick to point out that it’s all in the balance. “Do the positive things”, he admonishes. “Do the beautiful things. There are many beautiful things.” He exudes warmth, humor and sincerity in his simple message: “Understand yourself, respect yourself, respect others. Represent peace and love. Appreciate your beautiful life. And train hard!” His dream is to build a Temple outside of New York City modeled on his home temple in China.”We try to create the biggest Shaolin Temple, here in America,” he explains. “Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Chan Buddhism belongs to everybody.” The temple would include the “wood diamond” training poles, grueling upside down abdominal training stations and the full set of weapon forms. But it would also be a place where people will come to stay, study Buddhism, meditate and learn acupuncture. “If you can help yourself, you can help everybody, the world. One hand has power. A hundred hands, much better. A thousand hands, we move the mountain. We can change everything.”
Balancing his humble dreams and his grandiose schemes, his kung fu mastery with his wish for world peace and his growing celebrity with a simple message of appreciation may require the focus of all of Shifu Shi Yan Ming’s chi. But the hip-hop monk who’s at home where ever he goes seems perfectly suited to New York. “Remember, Buddha bless you,” he says. “Buddha bless America.” Enlighten up.