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Mind Over Matter

It's a skill the Shaolin kung fu monks have mastered. Now they show the world.

April 02, 1998|BRETT JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the flexibility of a spry feline, 8-year-old Shi Xiaofeng hoisted his left leg skyward, ankle against ear, and tipped over into a split. Clad in an orange robe tucked into midcalf-length leggings, Xiaofeng completed a routine of stretches, headsprings and airborne kicks to rousing applause from the NBC studio audience at "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Though a decade away from qualifying for official monkdom, the young student, or shami in Mandarin, travels, performs and studies under China's Shaolin kung fu monks--world-renowned for their acrobatic martial arts as well as their unmatched levels of concentration based on ancient Buddhist spiritualism.

In 1996, on their first American tour, the Shaolin monks shocked Lollapalooza with their feats of balletic precision. Now, the monks return to Western shores to exhibit their kung fu styles--one part gymnastic flips, one part meditative--hoping to bridge the cultural gap between authentic Chinese culture and American pop sensibilities.

"The Shaolin monastery and Shaolin kung fu is really about Chinese culture. It is sort of like the Vatican in Rome," Honorable Superior Shi Wanheng, the 78-year-old master, said through an interpreter.

Chinese kung fu is more than the action Americans see in the movies, it is a way of life, Wanheng said.

"Monks believe if you want to be successful with your life, then you must be able to do lots with mind training and spiritual training and then combine these things with your body," he said. "It's not just physical movement, not just sport."

As masters of Qi (pronounced chee) Gong, the ability to mentally focus one's energy into a spot on the body, the Shaolin monks can withstand the razor-sharp edges of swords, break metal bars over their heads and do two-finger handstands.

Eight monks participated on this promotional leg of their eight-city North American tour, which included an appearance on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" and at L.A.'s Universal CityWalk. The advance visit was a prelude to Sunday's performance by 20 monks at the Universal Amphitheatre.

These mystical monarchs of martial arts have long intrigued Americans. And the mainstreaming of martial arts is evident, from the comical somersaults of Jackie Chan to the macho vigilantism of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.

Even New York City's "forgotten" borough has been respectfully renamed "Shaolin" by its hip-hop emissaries, the Wu-Tang Clan, who proclaim their own semi-mythic rhyme rituals as creative cousins to the monks' practice of kung fu.

But unlike those entertainers, China's monks have devoted their entire lives to perfecting an intimate relationship between mind, body and spirit in a tradition more than 1,500 years old.

"This is a classic case of somebody who walks is better than somebody who rides," said Jay Leno, after the monks demonstrated their techniques on a recent "Tonight Show" episode.

It all began in AD 495 when the Shaolin temple was built at the foot of Mount Songshan in the northern province of Henan, China. There, the Indian monk Ba Tuo translated the holy Sutra, the Buddhist doctrine, into Chinese.

Thirty years later, another Indian monk whom the Chinese call Ta Mo, arrived at the monastery and founded a new form of Buddhism that involved breathing techniques that allowed him to remain in meditative immobility for hours, even days at a time. According to legend, Ta Mo spent nine years meditating, facing a wall in the temple. His intense concentration and discipline are the basis of Zen Buddhism and today's martial arts.

The original Shaolin monks defended their monastery from the marauding onslaughts of pirates and animals. They copied their kung fu techniques, known as Shaolin boxing, from watching animals fight and defend themselves.

Currently there are 72 hand combat arts of Shaolin and 18 weapons that monks must master as they maintain strict adherence to principles of self-defense and inner peace. That means eight hours of meditation and coordination and strength exercises daily and no meat, alcohol or sex.

Such devotion might be hard to live up to for the typical Westerner. And even the monks get momentarily distracted by American television and Coca-Cola, especially young Xiaofeng.

But Shi Deshan, the monk whose 10 years of studying Qi Gong has enabled him to focus energy to break a metal bar over his head and remain unscathed, said the sights and sounds of Los Angeles might attract the young students but glance off his firm physique like a deflected body blow.

"You must try to keep your mind and body very clear," Deshan said, "and make your mind like steel."

BE THERE

The Shaolin kung fu monks perform Sunday at 5:15 p.m. at the Universal Amphitheatre, $50, $29 and $10. Universal Amphitheatre box office: (818) 622-4440. Ticketmaster: (213) 252-8497.

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