AT THE CHURCH O’ THE PINES THIS MORNING, we defer to my recent trip to China, and to an extraordinary visit to another sort of church—the legendary Shaolin Temple over the Yellow River in the mountains near Zhengzhou. Made famous by Hollywood and the David Carradine Kung Fu series, this home of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism (precursor of Zen) dates back almost 1,500 years, and is indeed the foundational home of oriental martial arts. Here the ‘warrior monks’ perfected mental and physical disciplines and learned to defend their temple from roving bands of thieves and pirates and even armies. Many of the old stories are apocryphal but tales of their exploits go back many centuries, and there is no doubt of the extraordinary capabilities nurtured here. The grounds are peaceful and meditative, an impression enhanced by a nearby 4,500 year old cypress tree. Other trees lining a walkway are pockmarked by hundreds of approximately half-inch sized holes. Why? From the fingers of long-gone monks practicing… finger punching.
In the evening we attended a remarkable concert-demonstration on an open-air mountainside, with ravishing music accompanying other-worldly displays of martial arts routines, with hundreds of monks and students catapulting off the mountain into air-kicks and double-flips, landing on a narrow ledge below, and moving into a Kung fu ritual or simulated battle. All the while five older monks sat in the foreground, each on his own boulder, faces impassively beautiful, never moving a muscle for two hours. Memorable.
Now back home at the Church O’ The Pines, in my writing office under the big trees, I gaze at a beautiful traditional Chinese landscape painting scroll, made for me by a sixth grade (!!!) artist at one of my school-visits, an elegant reminder of my visit to the far side of the world.