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For Shaolin Monks, Mind Over Matter at Eclectic Orange


Some of us are old enough to remember Charles Atlas ads in comic books showing a 98-pound weakling having sand kicked in his face by a muscled bully.

Since we were that 98-pound weakling, we immediately wrote off for the Atlas weight-training program so someday we could give anyone who bullied us the comeuppance he received in the final frame of the ad.

Charles Mattera, a Shaolin Grandmaster (10th degree black belt) and chief executive of United Studios of Self Defense in Lake Forest, grew up as a skinny lad in a tough section of his native Boston.

But he already knew how to handle himself.

"There were always fights in the schoolyard," Mattera said. "I knew how to fight."

Mattera, 50, was speaking from his studios recently on behalf of the "Shaolin Warriors of China," who will appear Saturday at the Performing Arts Center as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society. The program will feature a demonstration of the monks' martial arts prowess.

Founder and CEO of more than 130 United Studios of Self Defense in California and seven other states, Mattera and Steve DeMasco, president of East Coast studio operations, have earned the right to represent the monastery. They are the only two officially ordained Shaolin monks outside China. Both were also adopted by the abbot of the monastery as his sons.

Charles was given a new name in Chinese: Shi Yandeng. "It means, 'Enhancer of the Light,' " Mattera said. "It's such a cool name. I was: 'Wow.' " It was, he said, a crowning moment in his long career.

"I was always fascinated by the physics of the martial arts," Mattera said. "It's very scientific, the fact that a 120-pound man can beat a 250-pound man. That's pretty amazing."

As a kid, he studied various martial arts at the YMCA in downtown Boston, discovered Chinese Kenpo ("the Way of the Fist") by the time he was 16 and avidly read martial arts magazines long before Bruce Lee movies became popular.

"I remember reading magazine articles about Bruce Lee, which ridiculed him and questioned his legitimacy," he said. "Now they capitalize on his reputation."

Mattera wanted to land a government job after college, and he felt martial arts would help him secure a better position. And they did.

After graduating, he worked for a year at the Bureau of Customs in New York City.

"Then I got shot at one day," he said. "This was not what I thought it was. It's not like TV. . . . So I decided to go back to my first love. I moved back to Boston. I opened my first studio in 1970."

After opening a series of studios back East, he moved to Southern California in 1984. It took several years of corresponding with the Shaolin monks in northern China before he and his business associate were allowed to visit and begin training with them.

Instruction included hours of daily meditation as well as perfecting hand-to-hand weapons combat.

They were at the source. Although there are many stories about the origins of martial arts, they all center on the Shaolin Temple, which was built in AD 525.

"The true story of how things really started was that an Indian monk, Ta Mo, came to China to spread Buddhism," Mattera said. "He taught the 18 movements of the [Buddha]. From that arose the system of Kinfu" or Shaolin martial arts.

"Everyone has this pious, stoic image of the monks at that time. Actually, the monks were often renegades who were hiding from the authorities. They were criminals and dropouts. No one talks about that.

"But the monks had this special magic. They took people in and changed their lives, which is what we try to do."

The Magpie and the Snake

Further refinements in the style developed over the centuries. One story has it that Chang San-Feng--generally considered the greatest exponent of Tai Chi Chuan--one day observed a magpie trying to attack a snake.

No matter how the bird attacked, the snake eluded the threat by yielding and moving slightly to the side, all the while maintaining its circular shape.

Chang's epiphany was to realize the relationship between firmness and softness, and he created a martial arts system in which yin and yang--the complementary opposites that form the universal whole--would be maintained in perfect balance.

"It's very graceful and beautiful to watch, but also very deadly," Mattera said. "The movements are copied from the animal kingdom. Monks would watch and copy their movements. It's a very beautiful thing."

Some of what people will see on this first Shaolin international tour will verge on the unbelievable.

"People will see some spectacular things, a lot of sensational things by the monks," Mattera said. "They'll take a metal bar and break it over their heads. One will take a pointed steel bar and try to penetrate his throat with it. Another will lie on a bed of nails. You'll see a monk drill a hole in a piece of concrete with his finger.

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