- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

SHAOLIN, China Empty Forever does not look like Jean-Claude Van Damme. He appears frail and reticent, almost androgynous. That is, until he crouches into the eagle posture for an all-points defense.

The 36-year-old is transformed instantly into a kung fu warrior. The lightning speed of his movements makes one wonder if Mr. Van Damme, for all his brawn and flashy kicks, would stand a chance.

His parents named him Shi Yongchuan. Empty Forever was the name he took as a Buddhist monk. He is one of about 80 monks at the Shaolin temple, about 40 miles south of the ancient Chinese capital, Luoyang, in Henan province.

Empty Forever lives in a small room just outside the temple compound, where some workers are busy laying pipes for hot water. It was here, among the cypresses on Songshan mountain, that the two seemingly incompatible disciplines of Zen Buddhism and kung fu were born some 1,500 years ago.

Through the centuries, the two often have taken separate paths, but for a true Shaolin monk, Zen and kung fu remain one.

Empty Forever came to the temple as a boy in the early years of Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He remembers the dilapidated, deserted temple buildings engulfed by high grass. At that time, only three monks lived at Shaolin.

Now some 30 years later, the temple complex is thriving and bustling. Shaolin kung fu movies, with stars like Jet Li and Zhao Wen Zhuo, have made the temple famous all over the world.

After a morning of meditation, kung fu exercises and reading the sacred Buddhist texts, Empty Forever and his fellow monks reluctantly but dutifully take turns as tourist props manning the souvenir shop and collecting admission tickets from the thousands of visitors each day.

The Chinese authorities keep a close eye on religious activities, but are more than happy with the money the temple complex generates as a place of pilgrimage for tourists and budding Bruce Lees. Every year, thousands of boys from all over China are sent by their fathers to Shaolin to learn kung fu at one of the 20 schools that have sprung up around the temple.

The discipline is military: four training sessions a day, six days a week. The pupils sleep in large dormitories and do their laundry by hand in the courtyard. Food is served outdoors all year, even when the temperature is below freezing.

A movie, often a kung fu flick, is shown once a week on a large, open-air screen. Between training sessions, the boys attend some classes in Mandarin Chinese and mathematics, but nothing to distract them from the main subject: kung fu.

One of the foreigners who has traveled to Shaolin is Gert-Jan von Kanel, 21, a Swiss Thai-boxing champion with professional fights in Thailand on his resume. Now he wants to learn kung fu at the place of its invention.

The training would focus on the basic Shaolin kung fu styles, which according to legend were devised at Shaolin by the Indian monk Bodhidharma. Each style mimics the movements and strategy used by a certain animal the tiger, eagle, snake, bear and dragon to attack and to defend itself.

"Defend yourself like a virgin, attack like a tiger," is a well-known kung fu proverb from Shaolin.

According to tradition, Bodhidharma came to China from India early in the sixth century A.D. to spread Buddhism. At Shaolin, he founded the Zen sect, with its emphasis on introspection and solitary meditation. What distinguishes Zen from other forms of Buddhism is the belief that enlightenment can be instantaneous and unexpected.

For nine years, it is said, Bodhidharma sat in meditation, in a cave on the mountain above the Shaolin temple. His shadow, the story goes, has made a permanent imprint on the rock wall, and today that piece of rock is on display on the temple grounds.

When Emperor Wen Di of the Sui dynasty (581-618), a fervent Buddhist, donated a large tract of land to Shaolin, the temple's wealth began to grow. A guard of monks trained in the arts of Shaolin kung fu was formed, and soon became famous for its fighting skills.

In the subsequent centuries, Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu both spread to Japan and other parts of Asia. At the zenith of the Shaolin temple's fame during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1369), when Genghis Khan and his Mongols ruled China, more than 20,000 monks meditated and trained at Shaolin.

The temple's fortunes later began to wane, and declined gently through the Ming and Qing dynasties. In 1928, Shaolin was looted and burned down. After the revolution in 1949, the few remaining buildings continued to decay, as the new communist regime suppressed Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Today, all the important temple buildings have been rebuilt and the monks are allowed to practice their religion in relative peace.

Each morning, the grounds surrounding the temple are a humming sea of boys kicking heavy sandbags, training in kung fu with swords and other weapons, and hardening their bodies with all manner of exercise.

The little street leading down to the temple is lined with small shops selling kung fu equipment. In the alleys between the dormitories of the kung fu schools, long lines of brightly colored clothes and newly washed sneakers hang in the sun to dry.

Mr. von Kanel's dream is to train with one of the monks inside the temple compound. For the time being, he is training at the Ta Gou Wushu school, the largest in Shaolin. He plans to stay one year.

Getting a chance to learn directly from a monk is not easy, however. Most are withdrawn, well aware of the myths spread by movies about the Shaolin monks' incredible strength and fighting skills.

To train with a monk, you first must befriend him and earn his trust, something only a handful of outsiders have ever managed to do.

If and when Mr. von Kanel is accepted as a disciple, he will have to awaken every day at 4 a.m., which is when the monks rise to meditate and practice kung fu.

The purpose of Zen meditation is to pacify one's soul in order to be able to help other people carry the burdens of life, and eventually to be liberated from this world, explained Empty Forever. He has been to Tibet and would like to travel to other temples and Buddhist holy places in China, but lack of money makes it difficult.

Buddhist countries like Thailand and Laos have a tradition among people to take good care of monks on pilgrimages, but that custom is a thing of the past in China.

Empty Forever is not complaining. After all, this winter he slept in a radiator-heated room for the first time in his life.

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