Grandmaster Shi De Yang: A Warrior Monk's Life
Grandmaster Shi De Yang is a 31st-generation student and teacher of the Shaolin Temple’s ancient traditions, and is one of a few ‘warrior monks’ at the forefront of taking the Temple and its martial arts through the rapidly changing modern landscape to find a secure home in the 21st century. Regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Shaolin kung fu, the young grandmaster has featured in many books and documentaries on the Temple and its martial arts. During a recent visit Down Under to teach at the Brisbane school of Shaolin disciple Sifu Ramesh Patel (or Shi Xing Zhong, as the temple has anointed him), Grandmaster Shi De Yang gave Blitz an insight into a life devoted to Shaolin.
GM Shi De Yang - Shaolin Monk
Sifu De Yang, how did you first come to be a student at Shaolin Temple?
When I was young my family had a good relationship with a Shaolin monk. I was inspired by the stories he told and the presence he commanded. The Shaolin monks were things of legend and with movies being made about them and their amazing history, I was very inspired to go to Shaolin.
Although, when I went to Shaolin, my parents did not share the same views as I had of Shaolin and the monastic life. I was one of the first new monks after the Cultural Revolution and I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a disciple of the late Great Master, my sifu, Shi Su Xi.
Were you enthusiastic about taking up the monastic life of a warrior monk, or did you find it daunting at first?
Many people find monastic life difficult, mentally and physically. A life dedicated to Chan [Buddhism] and its Dharma is not for everyone.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a monk at Shaolin Temple so, my life there, although hard, I enjoyed it a lot…it has shown me many amazing aspects of life, many of which most people will never get to experience.
What were the most difficult parts of temple life to get used to?
During the early days of my life in Shaolin Temple, training and living was very basic. The food and the living conditions were very humble. My sifu and the masters of the temple would train us in Chan, kung fu and medicine intensely and diligently every day. Our sifu was very strict and we were punished if we did not do it correctly. The ji ben gong [fundamentals] were the main focus of our training. Sometimes my master would make me hold a posture or movement for over an hour to make sure that it was correct. We studied in the old ways (he smiles); my master would sometimes have a stick to make sure we remained disciplined; if not, then we would be struck. It was not in the way of causing us harm or as abuse; it was a reminder of what was right and what was not. My master was very gentle and had many students, but was strict and precise, just like his master, the great Shi Zhen Xu.
Although many people see this life as hard or [see] that it seemed like our sifus were harsh, we see that the path of Chan is not one that is easy, physically or mentally. Although tough and what many would consider a desolate lifestyle at times, I enjoyed my life at the temple as it was where I wanted to be. As time has progressed, the temple life has improved, with better living conditions and better facilities for the continued learning of Shaolin culture, skills and philosophies.
For those like yourself who choose to follow kung fu within their study of Chan, what does the daily training involve?
When I arrived in Shaolin Temple, [I found] that kung fu is not a choice but an essential part of Chan and Shaolin culture. The study of kung fu within Shaolin Temple is a decision made by your sifu and he must see that it is for you.
The study of Chan encompasses all elements of physical, mental and spiritual development. Kung fu is a gift that has been given to us by our ancestors and it is part of my daily life, just like cooking or going to work. A normal day will consist of meditation, studying the teachings of the Buddha, martial practice and then the allocated job within the temple, which, depending on what your role in the temple is, will vary in time invested in it, but every monk has a responsibility within the temple. This is to ensure that the temple is maintained and runs well, just like any family household.
Shaolin monks train very hard every day, so how do you avoid and treat injuries? Are there experienced medical practitioners around the temple as well?
Shaolin Temple is known for Chan Buddhism, Shaolin kung fu and Shaolin medicine. Very few are aware that the monks of Shaolin Temple have been practising ancient medicine practices since the temple was started. We have unique herbs found only within the mountain ranges of Song Shan [Song Mountain] that we use in our medicines and treatments we provide and administer. We produce our own medicines from within the region the temple occupies.
The ability to help other people is one that resonates within all monks and that is also why we have been renowned as Chinese medical practitioners in the past. Our specialised treatments and medications have been sought after for centuries due to their effectiveness, especially within the area of martial arts. Obviously with martial arts training there can be injuries, so over time we developed medicines and treatments to aid in recovery and revitalisation of the affected area. Our medicine is slowly spreading out of our temple and we have had many elite sportspeople, such as NBA players, seek out treatments for their knees at Shaolin Temple.
Many Westerners and other foreigners now come to Shaolin wanting to train, or come to you to invite you to do seminars. Has this been a good thing for Shaolin or has it presented problems for the temple and teachers such as you?
As you know, Shaolin Temple’s reputation has grown in recent years due to many things and more and more people are able to come to China now; however, not many foreigners are actually able to study within the temple without the appropriate connection or invitation, and it is even harder to train directly with the senior monks like myself. As one of the senior monks, I also am very busy with duties and other commitments throughout China and the globe, so it is not so easy to achieve this goal.
In the past I did not travel or conduct seminars; it wasn’t until 2007 that my disciple, Sifu Ramesh, who is very dedicated and a great family member of Shaolin Temple, encouraged me for the first time to leave the temple and pass on my knowledge to Shaolin enthusiasts in Australia. I have found that from this experience that it was essential for me and the monks of Shaolin Temple to encourage and share our rich and deep culture outside the temple, just as Shaolin Monks had done in the past.
One of the problems we do encounter, which is not just found in our art but in all arts, is when people have attended a workshop or have just got a photo with me or the monks and then [they] inform others they are our students, disciples or representatives. In recent times some of these people have been found to be engaged in criminal activities, which reflects badly on everyone and discourages me from being more active.
Other problems we find is when people come to the temple and believe it to be like a movie and they are shocked when they are told they cannot train at the temple or train with any monk they like. We welcome all to study Shaolin Temple’s skills, culture and philosophy but it must be conducted in the right way, according to the customs and rules of our temple.
In the West, in martial arts like karate, for example, much of the old-style conditioning such as hitting a makiwara has long ago been abandoned in an attempt to make the arts more popular. Is this likely to happen to Shaolin kung fu as its popularity increases?
The short answer is no. We have been training these skills for centuries and it is what is considered the foundations of our physical and mental conditioning. We are not looking to make things easy or popular just to attract people. We have been renowned for centuries for our intense conditioning so I do not see us changing our traditions.
Since the incorporation of sanshou/sanda (full-contact sport kung fu)practices at the Shaolin Temple, has this had any effect on the focus of the daily kung fu training and how it is done?
Sanshou/sanda has its origins and foundation from Shaolin and many of the world’s greatest sanda fighters originate from the Shaolin region. At the schools in Deng Feng, you will find many schools practising sanda; however, at Shaolin Temple it is not an addition or new concept added to Shaolin Temple, it is just another part of our training — but we train the skills for real combat and not for sport.
Many people are not aware that sanda has three types. The first is for the general populace, like self-defence; the second is the sport that many recognise as sanda; and the third is for the military and real combat, designed for the battlefield. We train for [the latter] usage and not sport, which is why you do not see the monks engaging in bouts outside of the temple.
For me and the monks, the traditional kung fu practice is where the skills of combat can be found and that sparring or combat with single or multiple partners is an essential practice we engage in.
I understand there are more than 300 different forms or styles of kung fu at Shaolin Temple today. Why do so many different styles exist at Shaolin? Would it not make sense for the most experienced Shaolin warrior monks to refine them all into a smaller number of systems using the most effective techniques and training methods?
The Shaolin system is extensive; however, the concept you describe is exactly what the monks of Shaolin Temple have done for centuries and the culmination of this knowledge is what we see today. This is the refinement of the skills from the ancient masters that even today are still useful. In the past, our library of skills was much larger — almost double of what we have today — but a lot has been lost over time. However, what remains is considered the cream of martial arts skills, philosophy and culture.
We have to remember that Shaolin Temple is over 1500 years old and that styles like aikido, karate or taekwondo are very young in comparison. This is why in comparison to their arts Shaolin is so extensive. Please remember that our martial abilities are not just for combat; this also is why we have a very deep knowledge base to draw from. We have been researching and developing the art of combat for centuries and continue to this day.
What are your favourite kung fu styles and in which ones have you specialised?
I enjoy all that Shaolin quan [literally ‘fist’, meaning combat system] has to offer, because it is so diverse there is always something to inspire you. Although I am fortunate to have a very deep and extensive background in Shaolin quan, you find you have different favourites at different times, but at present I enjoy Da Hong quan.
How do you see Shaolin Temple’s kung fu training and the systems themselves changing in the future, if at all? With the increased focus on kung fu for performance since the Warrior Monk theatre shows became such a big part of promoting the temple, do you think this will have any overall influence?
I don’t see the training and the systems found within the temple changing, it is the people practising them that may be different. When I started at Shaolin Temple, television was but a luxury; today we [monks] have mobile phones with videos and TV shows on them. This is what will change but Shaolin itself will move with the times as it has done for its entire life.
In regards to the performance team and the shows, they are separate from daily life at the temple. It is something additional that some of the monks have the opportunity to be a part of, but it is not the main focus. It is just another way that Shaolin is able to touch the lives of people through expression of martial movements and Chan.
Although the kung fu itself is the primary tool for promoting Shaolin Temple, are there other aspects of Shaolin practice besides the arts of self-defence that you think people in modern society could most benefit from?
To slow down. We live in a fast world, which creates stress and a loss of focus, which impacts on our health, our relationships and our mental health. To calm down and to look after our health, be kind to the people in our life and to stay focused is just a small piece of a very large pie [with which] Shaolin can help people in our modern society today.
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