The most important relationship at the Shaolin Temple is between master and disciple. The master looks after the disciple’s martial arts and Buddhism training. The disciple obeys his master’s requests. My master is the Shaolin Temple’s abbot, Yongxin.
When I was at Shaolin, the master/disciple bond usually started informally and only after time was made official with an induction ceremony. On the morning of my initiation, Yongxin and I discussed many topics, but the conversation inevitably returned to the importance of promoting the Shaolin Temple and its art to the rest of the world. This was 1994 and the Temple was still in the slow, painful process of rebuilding its infrastructure and community twenty years after the Cultural Revolution, which had destroyed both. The Abbot was single-minded in his determination to make Shaolin great again. One part of his grand plan was to spread Shaolin culture beyond China’s borders.
“I think of myself as a farmer tossing seeds into the wind. One seed drops in this country. Another seed drops in that country. Soon Shaolin flowers are everywhere,” Yongxin said, looking directly at me. “You are an American, correct?”
I nodded. It was a rhetorical question.
“America is a great country. It is very strong and powerful. We have spread many seeds in Europe, especially France, Italy, and Spain. Almost every European knows about the Shaolin Temple and its kungfu. But the soil in America is difficult to plow. There are so many other flowers competing for attention,” the abbot continued. “When you go back to America, perhaps you could write about the Shaolin Temple. Tell your countrymen what you have seen. Tell them what life is like here in modern times. It would help spread the fame of Shaolin to your country.”
A Shaolin induction ceremony involves a great deal of bell ringing, incense burning, and Buddhist scripture reading. The most exciting moment comes at the very end when the disciple, kowtowing before a statue of the Buddha, takes three vows: first to honor Buddhism, second to honor the Shaolin Temple, and third to honor his master.
Soon after my initiation, I returned home. And ever since I have been writing about the Shaolin Temple. It was my master’s request, and I have sought to honor it.