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China Adventure

An early start to a long day

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hello everyone today was a very extreme day that was incredibly different from any day so far. Wake up was at 4:30 in the morning and we started our day with the Shaolin Monks. We arrived at the Temple at 5:00 and were given instructions on how the morning was going to work. Our group was going to experience a day in the life of a monk. We prayed, ate, and cleaned with the Shaolin Monks. We were the only non-monks in the temple which made it an even more interesting experience because of the exclusivity. The first thing we did was lined up in two line, one for guys and one for girls, outside of the Grand Hall. This hall is where the monks of Shaolin pray daily.

We entered and stepped over the thresh hold with our left foot and formed a single line of guys to the left of Buddha’s statue and girls to the right. The room was home to 7 statues, three of them were very large gold sculptures of Buddha in different positions and the others were smaller gold figures. What was interesting about the sculptures was that the Buddha was not the fat male version that we are familiar with, rather, it was a very physically fit and almost female version of Buddha. It was interesting to see that there are these very different views of Buddha. After glancing around the room and observing the decoration it was time to pray. The monks entered dressed in gold robes and a few of them had a brown cloth draped over them. Two of the monks were actually wearing black robes. The monks filled in the three rows in front of us and it was silent.

I was very surprised about the size of the temple and the number of monks. I expected the "Great Hall" to be a lot larger but it was only four rows of benched and there were only about 25 monks at prayer with us. Throughout the entire prayer service (about 50 minutes) we had to remain standing and still except for the occasional bowing and one occasion when we walked around the hall in circles. One of the monks in a black robe struck a drum and the service began. The prayer was done in sanscript, an ancient Indian language. We did not understand it and could not have our interpreter translate but we hummed along with the prayer. During the entire service there were monks banging on hollow drum-like instruments to embrace the prayer. We just stood in the back trying to take in this religious paradigm shift. I, coming from a Jewish background and participating in three weeks of Jewish learning immediately prior to this trip, was very interested in the service. I saw a lot of parallels between my normal services and this one along with a lot of differences.

The Buddhist service had a strong focus on communal prayer like at home and had a very defined order of prayer and actions such as bowing. Another interesting thing to note was that the Buddha faced south toward India and everyone faced that way to pray and at in Judaism we face west toward Israel. There were so many interesting things to notice during the prayer service that I cannot point them all out but I hope that gave you a little insight. After the prayer service the monks exited and we followed directly behind them into the dining hall. When we entered there was a gold statue of Puti Dama, the builder of the Shaolin Temple and said "Ar Me Toa Fua" which is a statement of greeting and respect. We entered and sat down in the back of the room awaiting our food. Breakfast was eaten in silence which created a very weird feeling in the room. The monks-in-training, wearing gray robes, served the meal to us. The monks all have a vegetarian diet so it was veggies for our meal. Breakfast consisted of fried bread which was delicious and some sort of Chinese cole slaw and an onion dish in a weird sauce.

We were told that you must eat whatever you get in your bowl because of those who have none so everyone was sure to signal the servers not to give us a lot. The vegetable dishes did not taste very good but I had to fight through the taste to digest it. Thankfully they also were serving sugar so I chased down the bad vegetable taste with the sugar and bread but it was still very difficult to swallow.A short while later, breakfast was over and it was time to help clean the temple. Everyone was given a broom and we swept the courtyard. The brooms were not like home, the handle was bamboo and the brush part was numerous twigs tied together on the end of the stick. As foreign as it was, they got the job done and we were able to give the monks a day off from their usual chores. When the courtyard was clean it was about 7 o'clock and we made our way back to the inn for a little bit.

We had some time to change and freshen up before another Kung Fu lesson. We arrived at the Small Dragon Kung Fu school again to have our first of two lessons for today. Today we would begin learning with sticks and swords. Before that, however, it was time to run some more laps. We ran in circles around the room for a few minutes and then had a little bit of review from yesterday. The masters went through all of the positions we had learned yesterday and somehow we improved greatly. After some review it was time for the long awaited weapons. We split into two groups and my group got the bamboo sticks. These sticks were about 5 foot tall and made of about one inch thick wood. It was somewhat like baton twirling, martial arts style. The master taught us two methods of how to spin the stick and then a routine with it. The spinning was incredibly confusing but I tried really hard and almost got it. Maybe with a little more practice I will become a master. When the spinning practice was done the real master taught us a Kung Fu routine with the stick.

The routine was more like the positions we originally learned and was much easier. My favorite part of the routine was at the end we whipped the stick onto the ground. It was a great anger releaser and it was quite empowering. After our new lesson our group came back together and did one last review of the original routine we learned yesterday. Tomorrow we will be doing this routine for the Warrior Monks at the Shaolin Temple to get our Kung Fu certificate so we need to perfect it. We left the school and had lunch at a local restaurant. One of the dishes was a chicken dish with the chicken cut into bite sized pieces. At first look it looked like delicious boneless chicken, however, upon closer examination, it was definitely not boneless. The chicken was still on the bone and it was a very interesting task to eat around the bones and still enjoy the tasty, but spicy, meat.

When our group finished lunch we had some time to rest at our inn and then it was back to the Small Dragon Kung Fu School. We were brought into a presentation room and all took a seat. The students of the school, some of them who had been teaching us, preformed in one of the most amazing martial arts presentations I have ever seen. The show included moves, flips, and stunts that were phenomenal. One of the kids in the show looked about 7 years old, for his part he suctioned a metal bowl on his stomach. All of the other tried to pull it off and were not successful. Then the boy laid down and they attached a wire to the bowl and stuck a pole through the wire. Two other performers then lifted the boy up with the pole by only the bowl. It was amazing to see it stay. Other stunts included lifting people by spears placed at their arms, legs, and throat. It looked excruciatingly painful, but, somehow the men that got lifted did not seem phased by it.

I really felt as if I was at the Chinese circus while watching these amazing acts. Other parts included people jumping and flipping and combating with swords. In one section, each of the men took on the role of a different animal and it was incredible how they moved their body in ways very similar to those animals. The show came to an end eventually and we had faces of amazement from the talent of the performers. Who knows, maybe if we continue with Kung Fu we will see someone from our group be the next Jet Lee in 10 years. After the show our teachers gathered us together and brought us upstairs to a practice room for part two of today's lesson. In this part we mainly practiced our routine which we will be presenting to the Shaolin monks tomorrow. The change that our group made in just one day was remarkable. We still were not good but we were no longer bad so I say that is progress. We went through the routine enough times until we started to memorize it and we kept speeding it up. At first he would do one more and we would repeat it, now we were doing five at a time. We would go forward, push right, right leg out, punch left, squat down, cross fists, etc. The routine had a definite science and we are beginning to conquer it.

At the end of our lesson our travel managers explained how tomorrow we would be going to the Shaolin Temple to have Kung Fu lessons with the warrior monks and then present our routine to them. We were all excited and gained some extra motivation to continue practicing and before we knew it our lesson was over. When the lesson ended we had a chance to go to stores down the street which sold the kung fu school uniforms and shoes and the Kung Fu master's uniform. I bought two pairs of the shoes for the equivalent of $8 US and I bought a Kung Fu master uniform which I plan on wearing to our duck dinner on the last night in China. When our little "shoppertunity" was over we all boarded the bus and were on our way to dinner. It is interesting how after 10 days of experiencing the local cuisine three meals a day I can know what dishes I do or don't like and what it tastes like. The emergence of culture here has occurred in every aspect from the language to religion to recreation and fun to food and of course accommodations.

Talking about that, it is about time to get tucked in to my bed under the China stars and get to bed because wake up is early again tomorrow for the warrior monks. Good night!

P.S.In response to a recent comment, on behalf of the entire New Jersey delegation we would like to reinforce that the purpose of this adventure is to learn about and experience the culture and share it with you and the rest of the world. Because of that, we would love to help you gather information from us in any way possible to bring our experiences into your living rooms or class rooms. If you are interested in setting up any interviews, webinars, or anything else that you feel could benefit other please feel free to contact me directly at Thank you for helping us share our experiences!

Posted on behalf of Cory.


Changing Connections said...

Your use of the word "exclusivity" gave me the elusive descriptor I was searching for to pinpoint specifically what your Discovery Student Adventures provided, and from what I have been reading, it works. Your team had an exclusive first (Discovery Education is famous for them) and how I wish I were with your group in a non-vicarious non-digital experience. A day in the life of a monk--the only non-monks in the monastary (correct word? or temple?).

I mentioned in a comment to Daniel that I had so much unlearning regarding my China perspectives. Perhaps it is a product of my history teachers and texts, or possibly a generational mindset of post-war American culture. Living is unlearning if we are to grow, and through your posts, I am un/learning and repositioning myself as I deliberate on what it means to acquire global citizenship. A classic unlearning opportunity: the differing representations of Buddha--just the tipping point.

I am not surprised at the number of monks, considering China's past history toward religion, the Dali Lama, and monks, but perhaps that is the old China. Many religions utilize silence and standing; does it bring us closer to that piece of heaven that is in all of our hearts, to nirvana within our own religious framework.

I am glad that you see the parallels; I too noticed them. Seemed so much like davining, but in an orthodox / Mea Sharim atmosphere. At what point does the religious paradigm actually shift for you?

Is the vegetarian/vegan diet connected to sustaining religious beliefs? I sense a culture of sharing so all equally participate, even in consuming food.

It seems that "Master" is a word not used lightly in China, a recognition of a life's goal attained in order to pass skills and training to the next generation. Makes me rethink "mastery" in a broader sense. So, you will be leaving with a Kung Fu certificate--another exclusive first from Discovery.

Even with your precise descriptions, it boggles the mind to imagine the presentation you discuss, but I can believe the amount of pain that could be associated with the execution of these skill sets.

The science of routine, practice, practice, practice--sounds like practice did make for perfection.

Your comments about food remind me of how closely cuisine defines culture. It is interesting that in 10 days you know foods, have cultivated a dis-/like for certain dishes, and recognize them by name and association.

Warrior monks--what an interesting (I would be tempted to say oxymoron, but after 10 days and mamy blog posts later, I know better) duality that is to essential China.

I will definitely be in touch with you, Ms. Sullivan, and the NJ contingent because I do want to bring you into my classroom. Thank you for sharing.

RJ Stangherlin
PA DEN LC Blog Coordinator

Karen Wells said...

Why were some of the monks wearing a brown cloth draped over them and others wearing black robes?

Isn't it a bit ironic that you got to experience such diverse religious experiences within the span of a month? Do you find that the monks have a simplier approach (diet, silence, etc) to religion than the Jewish faith does? If so, how much of this simplicity is because of the history of China?

I noticed the word "empowering" found its way into your blog. There really is no other way to describe these activities is there?

When you perform in front of the warrior monks, something tells me they will not be lenient with those who aren't perfect. I think this will definitely be a test of your mental and physical stamina.

Karen Wells DSA South Africa

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Essential Programs Details

Duration 15 days
When August 1st - 14th, 2009
Focus History/Culture
Martial Arts
Modern/Ancient Architecture