Circus of the Spars

During the one karate class I took a couple of years back, one of the first things the teacher said was, "We'd like to think that after practicing a punch a few times we know what to do. Try practicing the same movement a thousand times and perhaps then you will just be beginning." That was the last class I took. I don't want to wait for the superhuman abilities promised by the myth and mystique surrounding the martial arts. I want to be running up walls or even flying tomorrow. Even Daniel-san in the Karate Kid got revenge on the too-good-looking kid who kicked sand in his face by merely painting fences and waxing cars.

But like the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Sure, for weight loss, there's that not-so-secret solution; all you have to do is ingest it before bedtime and--bam--instant beautiful body. The ubiquitous radio ads tell us so. But there is no such magic product available for learning to jump 10 feet in the air while simultaneously kicking two broad sword-wielding bad guys in the face. The truth is much more mundane and day-to-day. Or, in the case of the Shaolin Warriors, century-to-century.

The story goes that, on a summer day in 525 A.D., a Buddhist monk from India named Ta Mo arrived at a place in what is now the Hunan province of China and founded the Shaolin Monastery. The monks there, recognizing their need to protect themselves in battle-torn feudal China, slowly developed a system of defense by meditating on the attack and defense movements of the surrounding wildlife. Called wushu, the style developed over a period of centuries, and the legend (and a little bit of myth) of the Shaolin Warrior was born. Interestingly, though the philosophy of Buddhism and its monks is one of non-violence and non-aggression, around 1620 A.D. a wayward group of monks left the monastery and formed an organization known as "White Lotus" that specialized in assassination. The others, however, kept the training and mastery of such exotic weapons as the halberd, tiger hooks, Bodhidharma staff and black tiger hammer for control and self-discipline exercise only.

Today's less mercenary-minded monks will present their physically demanding style, which is the unity of Zen and martial arts, in a choreographed stage show. The performance is a blend of individual and group movement, gymnastics and martial arts as well as stylized and ritualized actions and physical feats such as stone-breaking, resistance to strikes, contortionism and balancing on spear points. The monks make it look easy, performing in a state of silence and samadhi, or complete mental absorption, but one must realize that the monks train in these activities every day for several hours as well as adhering to a practice of daily meditation over the course of a lifetime. The show is as much a testament to dedication and discipline as it is a showcase of stunts.

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Mark Hughes