Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu

Photo: Fritz Hoffmann

In the past few decades, Shaolin Temple has become famous. Indeed, for many it is synonymous with kung fu. The temple has become an international business empire - it has built martial arts academies, funded touring kung fu troupes, shot film and TV projects.

But as it is gaining in fame, is Shaolin Temple losing its soul? Peter Gwin of National Geographic writes this fascinating article about the lives of a couple of Shaolin disciples:

On the last morning I spend at his retreat, Dejian shows me his private quarters, a tiny stone cupola perched on the tip of a sheer cliff. He leads the way out to a terrace with a view of the deep, bowl-shaped valley carpeted with thick pine forests. A weather front is blowing in, and his thick wool cape flutters behind him.

Without warning he jumps up onto the low wall bordering the lip of the cliff, the wind filling his cape so that it flows out over the void. I suddenly feel guilty, that I somehow prodded him onto the ledge, like a morbid voyeur. I hadn't consciously considered it before, but of course that's why many people come up to see Shi Dejian, to watch him challenge death. Maybe this time death wins. But standing on the ledge, he smiles at me. "You are afraid?" he asks, seeing the look on my face. "Kung fu is not only training the body; it is also about controlling fear." He hops lightly from one foot to the other, lunging, punching, spinning, each step inches from a horrifying fall. His eyes widen as he concentrates. The cape billows and snaps in the cold wind.

"You cannot defeat death," he says, his voice rising over the wind. He kicks a foot out over the abyss, balancing on one of his tree-trunk legs. "But you can defeat your fear of death."

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There are also three in every ten whose aim is to live, but whose
movements tend to the land (or place) of death. And for what reason?
Because of their excessive endeavours to perpetuate life. - Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
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