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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Weapons of Flesh and Steel

March 23. I started the morning with another glorious session of bell ringing and chanting. I curled up in the sanctuary of my covers and blasted music through my headphones in the hope of drowning out the noise. However, it was in vain. I could still feel the bell’s vibrations in my chest and it distracted me from my sleep. Groaning, I stood up and was immediately hit by a wave of pain. Every muscle in my body ached. They protested my slightest movements and I was forced to sit back down and massage the will to move into my body. I tried for a second time and to my relief the pain had receded slightly, yet was still ever present.
My morning run went well enough until, due to the urging of my Master, I carried a larger rock on my head than yesterday. It made my neck muscles burn more than ever and my head throbbed when I finally lay down the small boulder. Then, during the 30 minutes before breakfast, we were taught new segments of Kong Fu. It all seems to come together after a while and I become confused at times between one position and the next. Though, with plenty of practice, I’m sure I’ll be able to memorize them.
I devoured the breakfast of noodles, onions, carrots, and tofu. Again, I wasn’t disappointed, mainly due to the replacement of meat with tofu. I’m sure if the tofu was anything less than the quality it is now, I would be praying to Buddha to send me a steak. After breakfast we performed our stretches and various exercises. Even after one day I am able to remember most of the exercising positions, although I couldn’t execute them as vigorously as before. My muscles still shot a jolt of pain through my body during kicks and cartwheels. During this session I kept glancing over at one of the monk children who stood resolutely still with a 30 pound rock on his head. He constantly looked forward and his eyes never wandered. He stood as still as a statue for the entire 3 hours. I asked one of the other children what he was doing and his answer was short and contained copious amounts of disapproval. “His punishment for insulting Master.” He said. I didn’t inquire further on the subject.
Lunch was short today because I was still full from breakfast, but I still sat and waited for at least one person to finish their meal. Ella, a foreigner of about 21 years old, was the first to be finished and, following the rules of etiquette, we said “R Me Tofo.” to the Master and left together. After washing our bowls, Ella asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the temple. “There’s more than just this?” I asked as I gestured to our surroundings. Nodding, she led me outside and we walked about the property. There were several paths leading in almost every direction and she led me down the first one on the right. We came to a pond with a large blank, white wall except for a border of decorations and a single picture in the middle. Then we walked to a field for practicing Tai Chi and Kong Fu in the summer. From there she led me to the Master’s house, which was exceptionally decorated with gardens of beautiful spring flowers. Finally, we came to the main temple. I had suspected that the temple we resided in was the main one, but apparently not. The golden characters labeled it as such and the enormous golden statue that resided inside reinforced the fact. It was a gorgeous area. Even the temples shown in movies couldn’t compare with this one.
We passed the time talking and comparing stories of our travels until it was time to continue our training. I learned several more positions of Kong Fu. I wondered how many more positions were involved in it, because if there are several more than I doubt I will be able to memorize it in 5 days. The ones we had learned now almost took 5 minutes to complete. I politely asked Master to perform this segment of Kong Fu. He completed it in roughly a minute with incredibly fluid, yet powerful movements. I couldn’t even keep track of which positions he was doing, but it seemed as if we weren’t too far away from the end. Then we finished our training with stretches and push-ups (which they do with their fists here).
I was ravenous during dinner and ate everything in my bowl including all the leftovers on the table. Afterwards, Ella and her family had to leave for the next leg of their journey and I said my farewells to them all. Then, as I wandered around aimlessly for something to do, I ran into several of the monk children and they brought me into their room to talk about America. I was surprised to learn that they knew of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Transformers, and most every other superhero or action character I had grown up with. Hit with a spark of inspiration, I ran to my room and grabbed my iphone, some chocolate, and the ninja star. I first handed them the chocolate (although, just to make sure, I asked if they were vegans and they stated that they ate meat), which they loved and ate with a gleam of pleasure in their eyes. Then I gave them my ninja star, insisting that they keep it. It wasn’t very sharp and it could probably be of more use here. I also witness them practicing with swords so I think they can be cautious with the star. Then I let them play a racing game on my iphone. Taking turns, they played for almost 2 hours and refused to stop until my battery had burned out. I don’t mind however, it’s probably better that I don’t have it here. When darkness fell and they were forced to perform their ceremonies, I headed back to my room where I am now. Reflecting on the day, I decided it was definitely one of the top 10 days of my life, despite my aching muscles and the guilt of giving a weapon to a few 13 year olds.

Through the Halls of Buddha

March 22. *Dong* I jolted upright, delirious and alarmed. *Dong* Then the singing started and I looked out my window. *Dong* A monk garbed in blue robes was chanting and hammering a large bell with a log. *Dong* This must be the wakeup call I thought. *Dong*But as I looked outside, I reasoned that it must still be early. *Dong* Looking at my watch I saw that it was 5am! *Dong* Our morning run didn’t start until 6:30am. I crawled back into bed wanting another hours rest. *Dong*I never got back to sleep.
After counting down the seconds until 6:30, I finally stumbled out into the courtyard for the run. It was still indistinctly dark and I required a flashlight to get around this early. Dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, we began our run out into the road. Most of the monks were running today, though I noticed several other foreigners running with us. All were women and their ages varied from around 21 to 55, yet they were all impressively agile. The run wasn’t an arduous one. We jogged for possibly 5 minutes before coming to a dried out river. A monk I had been running with picked up a large boulder and, with great, unexpected strength, put it atop his head where it balanced there. Without hesitation, he began to walk back up the road towards the temple. I was left gaping at the back of him. I chose my own rock, although it was smaller than his neck breaking bolder, and began to walk back to the temple as well. I slipped a few times, but generally the rock stayed balanced during its journey. I followed the line of monks balancing rocks atop their heads until they came to the temple, then they veered downhill to a neatly made rock path. They placed their heavy rocks in a precise pattern in order to form a walkway down the hill. I tried to place mine, but one monk took it from me, though not unkindly, and placed it himself. Then, stretching my neck muscles, I ran back up to the temple.
At the temple’s large front doors, we met the Master of Kong Fu and Tai Chi. He bowed and said “R Me Tofo.” We all responded with a bow and returned his “R Me Tofo.” (This was stated in the etiquette guide). He introduced himself as “Master” and we haven’t received a name beyond that. Speaking in decent English, he asked if we would rather practice Kong Fu or Tai Chi during our stay. The 3 of us chose Kong Fu. So he began teaching us the first movements of the martial art. We started with painful slowness and Master concentrated on perfecting the form of one movement before we began the next one. As to be expected in Kong Fu, there were several punching and pushing motions, but the most taxing positions required squats and lunges. I had not done either since I had left school and my muscles burned before long. Soon a layer of cool sweat soon coated us all as we practiced. The foreign Tai Chi students and the younger monk boys practiced alongside us. The monk children performed aerial kicks and flips with ease, and I was beyond impressed by their humility when it came to their abilities. No one competed with one another; on the contrary, most helped the less competent children to Master their practice. It made me feel slightly foolish remembering all I had done in high school when I had constantly tried to outstrip everyone in classwork and practices.
Suddenly Master called out that it was breakfast time. Starving, I ran to the kitchen. The cook handed the three of us bowls of our own, which we must wash and clean after every meal, as well as keep safe in our rooms. We sat down with Ella, one foreigner of about 21 who would be practicing Kong Fu with us. As explained in the etiquette, the Master must start eating before we could start. Our cook handed out 2 separate plates of giant dumplings and a bowl of what looked like rice porridge. It all smelled tantalizingly delicious. When the Master had exclaimed “R Me Tofo!” and bit into his food, I grabbed the first dumpling I set my eyes upon. The first was slightly salty with veggies and tofu inside, and the second was sweeter with crushed nuts and honey oozing from the dough. I ate at least 5, which was no easy feat due to their abnormal size.
After breakfast there was another round of lessons. We first stretched with our Master in a separate atrium that held several statues of different Masters and Buddhist guardians. Our Master shamed us all by stretching to the limits of the human body. He formed 200 degree angles with his splits and could put his head through his legs. Then we performed diverse exercises involving jump kicks, deliberate punches, cartwheels, and handsprings. Not wanting to offend our Master, who was very kind yet strict, we participated in all of the exercises, even if our backs smacked hard against the stone floor. The speed, agility, and stamina of the younger Buddhists astounded me. At one point a boy of 10 years old performed a no handed cartwheel flip! It was beyond anything I could have expected. The process of the exercises took longer than I thought because Master needed to show us the proper technique.
Too soon, 3 hours had passed and it was time for lunch. It was another delicious meal of tofu, rice, and various vegetables. I was beyond thirsty however, and resorted to drinking the steaming hot water they passed around, not caring weather my mouth burned or not. I left the table with David (you must leave the table in 2s and 3s) and said “R Me Tofo.” to each table. After cleaning our bowls and stowing them away safely, we played tag with a few of the monk children and I showed them a ninja star that I had kept in my bag. They took turns throwing it and each excited kid possessed deadly precision, though it was not unexpected.
While I was walking back to the room, Master called me to join him for some tea. It didn’t occur to me to refuse his request and I sat down with him at once. He drew out a large wooden wheel and smacked one side of it on the table. A part of the wheel shattered and he put a large chunk of the wood into a steaming pot of water. Only then did I realize that the wheel was made of compacted tea leaves. It wasn’t a strong or tasteful brew, but it filled you with immense energy. I felt like running a few miles afterwards. We talked of my Chinese lessons, his life at the temple, and my travels of the world. He spoke more English than I expected and was much more willing to converse in a friendly manner than during lessons. Then he clapped his hands and said “Lessons now.”
We finished up with a review of our Kong Fu positions and learned a new series of moves. Then came dinner, which was tofu bacon, rice, carrots, and peppermint soup. Immediately after dinner I dragged my feet up to my room. I only have the energy to type this post until I fall asleep, but hopefully I will be able to find a way to post these days while I am here.