The Monk From Brooklyn
...an American at the Shaolin Temple
(From the book, the Monk from Brooklyn)
By Antonio Graceffo
The Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Kung Fu and modern Chinese Buddhism, is the oldest and most mysterious kung fu school in the world. It is an exotic and mythical destination of daydreams to millions of people. In the history of the temple, very few foreigners have ever had a chance to study there. Foreigners have been allowed to study in many of the Shaolin schools, near the temple, which have taken the Shaolin name as a marketing ploy, but less than fifty foreigners have studied at the original Shaolin Temple.
Antonio was lucky enough to be one of the few, he has twenty-five years of experience with martial arts, so it is with a knowing eye that he observed the training at the temple. But it is his background that gives him a very unique perspective. An Italian American from Brooklyn, New York, and a former investment banker, he was educated in some of the best universities, which Europe and Asia have to offer.
The title says it all. Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American, from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples, and watch the racial harmony flow. One reviewer of his articles said, "Now I know why there are no ambassadors from Brooklyn."
Deng Feng Village, Shaolin Temple
I stared out the window of the taxi, and took in the sights of the rural Chinese countryside. For hours I saw nothing but primitive houses, mud and brick huts, and people toiling in fields. It was like the opening scene in 'Monty Python and the Holly Grail.'
"Denis, there is some lovely filth over here."
A horse-drawn wagon went by with three or four poorly dressed passengers, and I suddenly realized I wasn't in Brooklyn anymore. I wasn't even in Taiwan, my home for the last two years. I was in China, Big China, Communist China, and it was a little scary. Spending time in Taiwan first gave me a chance to acclimatize and learn the language. No one spoke English here at all. The shock of moving directly from New York to rural China would have killed me. It would have been like flying from base camp to the summit of Mount Everest. I'd be dead within seconds of landing.On the way to the train station, the taxi driver asked me why I was in China. I told him I wanted to study Kung Fu, and showed him the information I had grabbed off the web. I was planning to go to the Shaolin Wu Su and Civil Institute in the Shaolin Village, in Deng Feng. He said that he would take me all the way to Shaolin village for 300 RMB (About $36 US). This seemed easier than taking a train. So, I agreed. Next, he said. "My brother is a Kung Fu teacher. Let's go get him."
Against my protestations, we drove an hour out of the way, and picked up his brother. The brother had two other friends who were Kung Fu teachers and they wanted to come with us too. Our twosome became a fivesome, and we pressed on. When I saw healthy looking boys limping, I knew we were close. It reminded me of my Kung Fu team back in Taiwan. They were some of the most gifted athletes I had ever seen, but they were always injured. As we drove through Deng Feng Village, I could not believe how many Kung Fu schools there were. I learned later that there were nearly 40,000 Kung Fu students living at the 40 or so schools.
By the time we got to the temple, it was after 8:00 Pm, and the temple was closed. I figured that they just wanted to show it to me before they took me to the Kung Fu school I had found on the internet.
The driver leaned out the window and spoke with the ghostly figure of a cloaked monk. A few minutes later, the gates opened, and we drove inside. I couldn't believe it! I was here, the Shaolin Temple. It looked exactly like it did in the movies. I kept expecting David Carradine, Kwai Chang Kain, to come walking around the corner. The monks, wearing their hooded robes, were a scene right out of 'The Name of the Rose.' Our new monk friend took us to his room. Some older monks joined us. With long gray beards and shaved heads, they looked like ZZ Tops Hari Krishna cousins.They asked me millions of questions about Taiwan and the US. I steered clear of the Taiwan independence issue as much as I could. They also wanted to see my boxing and my Tae Kwan Do. It amazed me that even at the Shaolin Temple they thought boxing was such an interesting and exotic sport. In Chinese they often refer to boxing as 'American Kung Fu.' They particularly enjoyed seeing my signature feat, 180 punches in one minute. I read somewhere that Bruce Lee could do more than double that number.
It was getting late, and we were all hungry, so the first monk took us all out for dinner. I thought monks were supposed to take a vow of poverty, but when the bill came he whipped out a wad of cash that would have gotten him rolled in a second back home in Williamsburg. I made a mental note to teach him how to play cards later.
One of the many Chinese specialties, which had, was dog meat. Monks are vegetarians. So, they didn't have to eat any of Old Yeller. I ate some, just to be one of the guys, and as a sort of nonspecific revenge for the existence of French poodles. It wasn't bad. It tasted like any other meat, a little gamier than manatee, and a bit greasier than koala or panda.
When we went back to the temple one of the taxi driver's friends, a former student at the Shaolin Temple, took me outside, and handed me a Buddhist prayer book."Put $200 US in this book." He said. "Go inside, prostrate before the monk three times, and then hand him the book. If you do that you will be in."
In? You mean I could study at the Shaolin Temple? I had been planning to study at one of the commercial schools in the village. Studying at the actual Shaolin Temple was beyond my wildest dreams. But what was this issue with the money? Was this a case of 'Our philosophies are Eastern, but our payment methods are Western?' Put the money in the book and hand it to the monk? This is one of the oldest scams in the world. They get you to put money in the book then they switch books, and you loose your money.
The Taxi driver's friend was getting impatient. He kept up a constant barrage of fast Chinese, explaining and re-explaining what he wanted me to do, as if the issue were that I didn't understand. I understood just fine. I just didn't want to do what he was asking me.
In between explanations, he was alternately pushing my shoulder, and throwing kicks in the air. I was certain that one of those kicks could have broken my leg. But he was still standing close enough for me to knock him out with a punch. But then what? If I hit him I probably wouldn't get to study at the Shaolin Temple. The others would still rob me, and I would loose my money anyway.
Suddenly I found myself in one of those situations only I can find myself in. I was in Mainland China. I wasn't registered with the US Embassy. I wasn't at the school I had told my family and friends I was going to. Nobody knew where I was. I had no friends. These guys could have killed me, and no one would have asked about the body. In the US or Taiwan I always get a little tough with people when I don't get my way. I know that if worse came to worst I could fight my way out of most rooms. But here I would be fighting my way out of a room full of Kung Fu monks. A quick call to Atlantic City said the bookmakers were giving 5000 to one against my survival if I refused to give up my money.
I did as he told me, and put the money in the book, but as a compromise, I made sure to keep control of the book. If I was going to pay a bribe to get into the Shaolin Temple, I at least wanted the bribe to get to the right person. If bribing a holly man was like God's payola, I wanted to make sure Cesar got every penny I rendered unto him. In a very ham-handed and laughable way, the guy tried to pull the old switcheroo. "Give me the book." He said, kneeling down. " I will show you how to hand it to the monk."
"Yeah, I got a better idea, Momo, how about I show you where you can stick your head." I thought. I laughed.
If he tried running a scam this stupid in New York, he'd be left under the boardwalk somewhere with his pockets turned inside out. Once my money was inside, he'd have had to use a crowbar to get that book out of my hands.
With apparent resignation in his face, he lead me back to the monk's quarters, and just before I went inside he tried to grab the book out of my hand again. God! Had this guy never heard of Brooklyn? I handed him my diary, instead. "Hold this for me." I said.I went in, prostrated three times, and gave the book to the monk. He nodded approvingly. I saw him exchange a look with the one who had taken me outside. Had they prearranged to steal my money? The other passengers and the driver all stared at the friend questioningly. I guess everyone had been promised a share for their trouble.
"What is your religion?" The monk asked.
"Catholic." I answered.
"To be a monk you have to be Buddhist." He explained.
"No problem." I answered.
When my friend Herschel's little brother had his Barmitzva I went to temple with his family. Isn't this sort of the same thing? Anyway I am not looking at it as a conversion. It is more like an advanced field experiment in theology. It had been so long since I had been in Church I think Father Carmine would have just shaken his head and said.
"At least he is attending services."
"Wait here." Said the monk. He went outside and wacked up my bribe money with the taxi driver and his friends.
Before they left, the taxi driver had the balls to come and ask me to pay the fare. "Why don't you just take it out of your commission?" I wanted to ask. But I had become a monk, so I wasn't able to feel anger at anyone anymore, not even some jerk-face moron who tried to steal my money. I felt pity instead.
After everyone had gone, the monk returned and said. "Put your things here." Apparently I would be sharing the room with him, and his novice monk. The novice and I hit it off right away. He was twenty-five years old, and a good guy. Also, in the couple of hours I had been there he hadn't tried to steal from me.
It is frigin cold in China, and there is no heating in the temple. I would later find out that even homes are not heated. The monks live in relative squalor. The chambers were just tiny, concrete rooms, about twice the size of a deluxe suite at Attica, with absolutely nothing in them apart from a bed and a desk. The only things the monks seemed to own, apart from my $200, was the clothes on their backs. The Chinese are rather dirty in general, and throw trash and litter out the window. The temple grounds, at least the part where the monks lived, were strewn with refuse.
The novice led me through a labyrinth of out door alleyways to the communal toilet. There was no electric light, and in addition to being ice-cold, the night was pitch dark. The toilet was just a hole in the ground, overflowing with human waste. There wasn't even a privacy screen or anything, so everyone could see you poop.
We returned to the room, where the monk and novice shared their hot water with me. I would learn later that hot water was a rare commodity. The novice would carry a single, one-liter thermos jug to the kitchen every morning at 5:30 AM, and fill it with boiling water. That was the hot water ration for the two of them for the day.
I put on thermals, sweats, thick woolen socks, and my Navy watch cap. I crawled into bed, and wrapped up in the blankets they had given me.
"Tomorrow you will have your head shaved. Then we will begin." Said the monk.
The story continues.
Antonio's book, The Monk From Brooklyn, is available at barnesandnoble.com
Contact the authro at firstname.lastname@example.org
Antonio Graceffo 2004
Copyright © Antonio Graceffo 2003