Shaolin Kung Fu - Ancestors-in-practice.
A performance reviewed by Françoise Herrmann
Recently I was kindly invited to see a one-night-only, exclusive US première, Shaolin kung fu performance. The martial arts and the mystique of one of China's most ancient Buddhist traditions intrigued me, but my interest was increased a thousandfold when I found out the following.
The Shaolin monks, perched on the Song Mountain (one of the five sacred Mountains of Northern China), were translators of Sanskrit texts, commissioned by the Emperor, 1500 years ago in the year 540 AD. Thereabouts, Dharma, an Indian Buddhist priest, came to visit the Shaolin temple in China, and he was appalled at seeing the monks' physical condition. The monks spent long hours hunched over tables, where they translated ancient Sanskrit texts into Chinese. They suffered from all kinds of physical ailments because of their lack of physical activity, and did not have the stamina to engage in even the most basic Buddhist meditation practices. The venerable priest from India then set out to teach them a series of movements derived from Indian yoga practices and based on the movement of the 18 animals of the Indo-Chinese iconography, such as the "cat's walk", or the "frog's leap", or the "lion's prowl", so they would remember the movements, practice them, and improve their physical conditions. Today, it seems that the Shaolin have given up translation while they have developed one of the most advanced forms of martial arts called Kung-Fu. Although there are many hypotheses as to exactly when the transition occurred between movement and martial art.
The performance at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, on March 21st 2004, was spectacular. Even if some critiques disapproved of the entertainment aura of the performance, the monks still demonstrated some of their awesome prowess. They stood on their fingers, chopped metal bars with their foreheads, jumped to unbelievable heights, fought like dancers, and moved in inextricably complicated ways.
For me, however, this story, which is history, was simply marvelous because 1500 years later, in the year 2004, perhaps quite like the ancient Shaolin, I also sit all day long translating. And my body most likely would have told the same aching story had I not decided to run everyday, rain or shine, at least six miles. However, and unlike the Shaolin of today, I have not given up translating for the marathons I now run. Instead, 1500 years later, I feel as though I have found my ancestors in practice! Thus, the next time you see a kung fu demonstration, or a kung fu martial arts studio, you should smile, knowing that these are also your ancestors-in-practice, even if they no longer fly with words, battle with punctuation, and break the frontiers of linguistic terminology. Enjoy!