Shifu’s Background Story
This is an edited version of an interview Shifu gave to the press in the 1993 which provides a detailed background story on Shifu’s life and youth. If you would like a short or modern day biography for press, please click here.
“Before there are branches, there are roots. Therefore, to tell the story of my life I must start by talking about my parents. My father grew up in an extremely poor family. They were basically homeless; they had to go door to door and beg for food and he never went to school. He had to sleep under a wood burning stove or burrow a hole in a stack of wheat to keep warm.
Despite the hardship he was self-taught; he was extremely literate and a great writer and excellent calligrapher. My mother’s family was better off, but not much. She, like most other girls in China at the time, was not educated and raised solely to be a mother and housewife. She also had her feet bound, as was the common practice of the time. My parents eventually got jobs for the Chinese government under Mao Zedong. They worked underground as telex operators.
I was the seventh child of nine. Before I was born two of my older brothers and one older sister died of starvation in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950’s. This is when everybody said “everything is great, there is lot’s of food” but it wasn’t true. Yes, it’s sad but it’s like the weather: you can’t change it. That’s why everybody has to try to be better and understand and help others.
I was born in Zhumadian Village in Henan Province in the center of China on Chinese New Year’s in 1964, the year of the Dragon. Very Lucky! But when I was two or three I was very, very sick – I almost died. My parents thought they were going to lose their fourth child and spent all their money on numerous doctors to try and save my life. My father even had to sell his special calligraphy pen.
When none of the doctors could help me they finally had to give up. My body was cold and my eyes could not open, everybody took me for dead. My parents wrapped me in blankets to throw me away (they were too poor to provide me with a proper burial). On their way to go throw me away outside the village they were stopped by a man who asked them why they were so unhappy and crying. They told him that their son was dead. The man said that he was an acupuncturist and that he wanted to try and save me. Right there in the street he unwrapped me from my blankets, pulled out his needles and performed acupuncture on me. He brought me right back to life. I believe he was a Boddhisattva sent by Buddha to save my life.
When I was five my parents, being Buddhists, took me to the Shaolin Temple because they were worried that I had been so sick. It wasn’t anything like the movies or what you imagine. It was right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and Mao had outlawed all religion. There was no abbot wearing the red and yellow robes with the shaved head and the long white beard. Nobody wore the monk’s uniform until around 1980 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The Temple had been destroyed not only by the current government but also throughout history by many warring dynasties. Only the foundation and some walls survived – but it was never completely demolished! The Temple as we see it now has been largely reconstructed in the last ten years.
They took me to see the head monk, Shi Xing Zheng. At that time there hadn’t been an abbot in three hundred years. He was eventually appointed abbot in 1986 but died only seven months later and there has not been one since his death. I called him Shigong, my Grandmaster; he was my Shifu’s Shifu (master’s master). It was he who accepted me. I didn’t have to do any Kung Fu, he just had a look at me and he knew. When you are at a very high spiritual level you can read people’s faces and know them immediately. The Chinese say “yuan fen“; in English you say “destiny”. My parents were very happy to leave me in the hands of Buddha.
My name was changed as soon as I entered the Temple. My name at birth was “Duan Gen Shan”. Once I entered the Temple my Grandmaster and masters renamed me Shi Yan Ming. All Buddhist monks take the family name “Shi” as in Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, because we follow Buddha. “Yan” means “34th generation” at Shaolin Temple. “Ming” means “perpetual” like the cycle of the sun or moon, or infinite, like the Dharma wheel, which never stops.
There were only 16 or 17 monks at the Temple at the time and I was by far the youngest monk there. Most of the other monks were in their seventies. Five is very young for some people to be away from their parents but not everybody is the same. My grandmaster, masters, and kung fu uncles took care of me like parents. They loved me very much and I loved them very much. Also, it was not safe to stay at the Temple all the time because Mao’s Red Guard had absolute power and they could do anything they wanted anywhere at anytime. Therefore none of the monks could live there all the time and I got to see my parents quite often even though they lived about 200 miles (approx. 300 km) from the Temple. Sometimes I even had to go back and live with them because the Temple was so dangerous.
My masters were Liu Xin Yi and Shen Ping An. They taught me different styles – kung fu and acupuncture. They were Shaolin disciples, not monks, that lived outside the Temple. At that time because there were no walls, the Temple was completely open – many people came and went. I lived at the Temple but all my masters didn’t always live with us. I had other masters outside the Temple that taught me how to read faces and palms.
Inside the Temple I began learning forms, fighting, and Chan Buddhism right away because I was living there. It’s very normal: you are there, you just do it. It’s like you’re here in America; you have to speak English. We all practiced together, me and the older monks. There are no rules, you just learn everything naturally. I developed everything early.
The Chinese say if you are poor, like Shaolin Temple and my family were poor, you develop everything early. I started to understand a lot and all my masters recognized that I was so smart but so bad. I was like a little monkey, I always played tricks on people. For instance, I would dig a hole in the ground, put something on top of it and stay and wait for someone to walk on it and fall in. I even played tricks on my masters but I don’t have to tell you about that. They almost always knew it was me. If I got caught I would have to do horse stance until my legs were numb and swollen or I would have to do headstands until all the blood went to my head and I felt like my eyes were going to pop out. Or my masters would hit me, which is very normal for China, not like America.
I also used to give my brothers a lot of trouble. If they talked while we were practicing it made me mad. I used to say,”We’re practicing, why are you talking?” If they would keep talking, once, twice, I would hit them with a staff very often. I started doing this very young, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old and I kept doing it when I was older. I learned I couldn’t do the same to my students now!
Even when I was a child I never wanted to lose; I was very competitive. My brothers and I would be doing Chin Na or fighting and when we would fall down at the same time I had to be on top of them. Even if we were tired after hours and hours of fighting I didn’t want to stop. Sometimes I went too far and hurt my brothers and of course they would get mad at me but it’s always like that when you practice martial arts. They would only be mad for a short time – we were family.
I met my Buddhism Shifu, Shi Yong Qian, almost immediately after I entered the Temple but didn’t begin seriously studying with him until I was about 14 or 15. Learning the sutras was natural. Everybody was praying and you hear it a lot and you learn it. I understood Chan and reached enlightenment very early. I don’t remember it being a sudden moment but it was very early. Things became so clear, everything was deep but simple.
Just like life at the Temple, it sounds like a hard life but it was so simple. You have to love what you do. We got up at 4:30 in the morning and practiced for two hours. At 6:30am we ate breakfast – mostly steamed tofu and vegetables. Since I can remember I ate a lot. Still eat a lot. From 7 to 8am we would pray, read, meditate, or relax. From 8:00 to 11:30am practice again, pray, or study Buddhism, clean, or do work for the Temple. At 11:30am we ate lunch, sometimes noodles, rice, mantau. Most monks don’t eat past noon but Shaolin Temple monks are different. But many monks would visit from other temples so out of respect we would have lunch at 11:30am so they could eat. From noon to 1:00pm we would relax. From 1 to 5:30pm we would practice, pray. From 5:30 to 6:00pm we would have dinner; noodles, rice, soup. From 6 to 7pm relax. From 7 to 10pm practice or pray again. From 10pm to 1am some brothers walk around the Temple and check the incense and make sure it’s still burning. From 1 to 4am they switch and another shift walks around.
We slept on a piece of wood with a blanket on it. Sometimes we would use our clothes for a pillow. It was very comfortable and very good for your back. In America beds are too soft.
There was no electricity at the Temple until 1981 or ’82 and no running water until 1986. Before we got running water we had to get it from the rivers in the mountains just outside the Temple, or we collected rainwater or drew it from a well. Most of the monks were unhappy when they brought in the running water because the Chinese believe in Feng Shui and digging up the ground and putting pipes underground is like cutting your veins out.
During the summer we would shower often because the cold water was no problem in the heat, but in winter sometimes it would be a couple of months between showers. We would wash our face and our underarms but we wouldn’t jump completely under the cold water. Sometimes we would even use our sweat to wash ourselves.
Before the Temple opened up in the early 80’s we could eat meat inside. After it was reconstructed there were other monks visiting so we didn’t eat meat indoors. Shaolin Temple monks are different from other Buddhist monks, we are allowed to eat meat and drink alcohol. During the Tang Dynasty the Shaolin monks helped the Emperor Li Shi Min. He decreed thereafter that they could eat meat and drink alcohol. This is the story depicted in Jet Li’s first movie Shaolin Temple.
Shaolin Temple was the movie that changed everything. After that movie came out many tourists started visiting the Temple. Our daily routine changed because we had to take time to take care of the tourists. It might seem bad but it was good too. More people visit the Temple, more people know about the Shaolin Temple Martial Arts, Ch’an Buddhism, and China. You have to be happy for that.
Right around the same time Shaolin Temple came out both of my parents died of lung cancer within 6 months of each other. Their jobs were very stressful and they were heavy smokers. I was 16. Even when my parents died, I don’t think they died. I think they are still with me all the time.
After they passed away I took care of my younger brother and my older brothers took care of the younger siblings. I still keep in contact with them. They can call me, I can call them. People have to appreciate and understand now. A hundred years ago you had to take a boat from America to China, now you can take a plane. You have to understand yourself and love and appreciate everything we have right now; you have to bring yourself to a higher level.
I hope this story helps people learn more about Shaolin Temple and China. Shaolin Temple Martial Arts and Ch’an Buddhism are very powerful. They helped me through hard times and can help anybody. I encourage anybody who is interested to go visit the Temple in China or come see me here in New York. If you get to the Temple in China and see all the tourists and see all the things for sale, or if you come here to New York and I do not have a Temple surrounded by mountains and a forest, don’t be surprised or disappointed.
Open your mind and your heart. Believe in yourself, trust yourself and you will find all the answers to all your questions.”
Amituofo (Buddha Bless You)
Read more about the History of the Shaolin Temple