Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Kung Fu School Dropouts

The following should be sung to the tune of 'Beauty School Dropout' from the movie 'Grease'.

Kung Fu school dropouts, nobody told you it would be clean
Kung Fu school dropouts, what on earth were you think-ing?
If you want great pain and suffering, and the smell of sweat and funk...
Why not check yourself into a monastery and work out with some monks!!

--End of Song--

There have been several occasions, on this trip, when I've gotten into a situation that had me asking myself if I shouldn't have thought it thorough a bit more before getting myself into the situation in the first place. In fact, I can think of fewer times in the whole of my life that I've asked myself, literally, "What the hell were you thinking (or not thinking)? You should have thought this thing through before getting yourself into this pickle, my dear girl."

These were my thoughts as I sat in the practice area on 'day 3' at a Buddhist Kung Fu monastery, a rustic place if you're a poet, or a primitive place if you're a realist. It's located in the mountains on the outskirts of Dali, some 20 minutes from the center of town. It's not in the guidebooks... it's the kind of place people know about from word of mouth. I learned of the temple, which offers one week training in Kung Fu by real Kung Fu monks, and accommodation plus meals, from a girl I met on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. She'd just come from there and suggested it upon hearing of our failed attempt to study Kung Fu (one day only) at Shaolin Si, which was way too touristic for our tastes. This place, she told me, was authentic. A monastery trapped in time, without electricity or hot water, a true experience of monastic life.

Day One: Notes from journal

I'm starting to wonder if choosing to check myself into a monastery for one week while undergoing the trials of PMS was a good idea. There's an American here, who has been here before, who told us that, "...it's a good environment to study Kung Fu -- and I've chosen my words carefully." What did he mean by that? Is it that I'll suffer because my desire to be here stems more from the 'coolness factor' or 'good writing material quotient' of staying in a monastery for one week than from a true, passionate desire to learn Kung Fu? While I do want to learn some Kung Fu, it's more of a passing interest than a dedication. I just want to... kind of... try it out. Maybe I shouldn't be here -- the French guy who showed up just now says none of us will probably be able to bend over to touch our knees tomorrow, that's what he's heard, anyway.

So far, I'm the only girl here and even if there were others, I would still, most likely, be the only one with PMS. How will I react to orders of exercise with that nasty beast riding my back? The French guy showed up with a Brazilian who only came to take a look. He's not staying because he has 'issues with authority'. He said this to knowing smiles around the group of guys. But his comment got me thinking about my personal situation. I didn't even bring any chocolate with me.

Right now, I'm sitting in a courtyard with a zillion flies swarming around me. We've been sitting here for almost 3 hours since we arrived... we were shown these benches and given tea, but that's it. No one has told us what to do or what's going on... hell, no one even speaks English and none of us speaks Chinese. Maybe we should just go now, before it's too late, if only there was a way to go... a cab brought us here, up a remote road in the mountains... I'm not even sure how one goes about leaving.

Finally, the boys have been taken to their rooms, but I am still sitting here with my bag, by myself. I'm trying not to feel sorry for myself -- I hate being ignored. This is the PMS talking, I know... but still. Here I am, again, the lone female in the midst of males. It's now been about 4 hours since we arrived and I'm getting comfortable, strangely, on this bench. Wait. The dinner bell has been rung. A change of scenery is in my near future! Hurray! Now, what to do with my backpack?

We just had dinner, good vegetarian food. We cannot eat until the master, or 'Shifu' starts. Everyone says something that sounds like, "Ah mit tofu," before and after the meal. The American guy, his name is Chris, told us it means, 'Buddha'. He informed us that this monastery practices 'Pureland Buddhism' and saying the Buddha's name is a ritual at meals and throughout the day, as greetings and such. I'm not sure why... something to do with getting 'points' so to speak. We've been told we must eat everything in or bowl or we can't leave the table. One guy in our group, an Israeli, had 5 grains of rice in his bowl and was told to finish it. Benjamin read on the internet that one guy who was here in the past was made to eat food he dropped on the floor.

At the end of the meal, Chris told us that our bowls and chopsticks were now ours for the week -- that we should take them with us to our rooms (I finally now have one) and bring them to the dining hall for each meal. We're lucky he's around since no one else is telling us of all these rules.

Just got back from an orientation meeting of sorts... we were called into a dark room (it's now evening and there's no electricity... things are being conducted over the flames of candles at this point). We were given a laminated sheet of rules printed in English to read while a few people from the monastery recorded our passport info and took our fees (300 Y for one week). The first rule states, "This is not a hotel..." and goes on to explain that it's a working monastery and we are here to study martial arts, and work hard for 5 hours a day, etc... The rest of the rules, from what I can remember, are as follows:

- must say 'Ah mit tofu' before meals, when done eating
- must not eat before the Shifu eats
- bring bowls and chopsticks to each meal, store in room at other times
- no smoking, drinking, playing cards
- keep garbage in room and take it with you when you leave
- couples sleep in separate rooms and should have no physical contact
- stay in temple grounds at night
- no sandals at night b/c of poisonous snakes

There are others, but I can't remember them all...

The daily schedule was also listed:

6:30 am = morning exercise
8:00 am = breakfast
9:00 am = training (3 hours)
12:00 pm = lunch
Free time until 4 pm
4:00 pm = training (2 hours)
6:00 pm = dinner
Free time until bed time

The accommodation is pretty basic. I had to crawl up a super steep flight of steps and almost fell over backwards with my pack on. On closer look, I noticed that the steps are not actually right angles -- they're cantilevered out, at 60 degree angles, which is why they are so damn steep. I can't walk up them without hitting my shins on their edges. My room is dark now -- when I first came in with flashlight in hand (I was lucky to have it in my pocket), I was startled by a butterfly pattern on one of the 2 twin beds... at first it looked like a giant black spider. Luckily that was not the bed I'd chosen when I was first shown to my room. Even though it was not a spider, I would still feel creepy sleeping in that bed. I chose the cleaner of the two beds, which were both pretty ragged looking. Not sure when the last time the bedding was changed. Overall, my first impressions of the monastery is that it's a bit run down... but I can get used to that. It's nice, in a 'Little House on the Prarie' sort of way.

As I write this by the light of candle, I feel like I've gone back in time and knowing that I'll be getting up for the 6:30 exercise session, I feel like I'm operating on an 'old west miner's' schedule. My only concern, at this point, is the lack of drinking water... there is water, but it's boiled water. No bottled water for sale here and we only brought a couple of bottles with us. I can't imagine working out with only hot water to guzzle for rehydration.

Actually, I do have another concern... having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night since my flashlight just broke and the bathrooms are a few minute's walk from the main compound... a good thing they are far away, too, as they smell. Seems like they must have been cleaned the last time the sheets were changed... and they are trough style, so it's pretty clear from the sight of things piling up that they won't be cleaned during my stay here.

The monks have stopped chanting, a nice evening lullaby... It's time for bed. I look forward to tomorrow, and also fear the physical rigors of training...

Day Two: Notes from Journal

I didn't sleep very well last night as I did wake up having to go to the bathroom and had to hold it until dawn for lack of a flashlight. I determined that walking out into the rainy darkness with a candle was just asking for trouble. Anyway, it would be hard to hold as I squatted over the trough, trying not to pee on my foot. Plus the possibility of poisonous snakes had me worried, but Benjamin says there's no way snakes would be out at night and in the cool, rainy weather.

I guess the 6:30 a.m. exercise session was 'cancelled' because of the rain, although no one said so. It just didn't happen, so I assume it was. Apparently the 6:30 slot is for walking to a river with the monks and coming back carrying a rock on your head. I'm glad it's raining. We hung around drinking tea: me, Benjamin, and our Israeli friend, Avi, until it was time for breakfast. We had steamed pork buns, which were yummy.

At 9:00 we headed out to the training area, which is actually a temple lined with Buddha statues. Chris told us he's been practicing his Kung Fu here in the past when pilgrims have shown up to light incense and say prayers. We did some stretching and massaged each other to get our muscles warmed up. One of the monks tried to pair me up with another guy in our group, but I explained that Benjamin was my boyfriend and if I was going to rub anyone's back, it had to be his. He's been chiding me over the years for not giving enough massages, so if I was to end up rubbing some other guy, there would be hell to pay, I am sure. Plus, it's the only way we can have physical contact, so I was all fingers.

We did some Kung Fu forms or katas or some such... not really sure what we did -- the teaching is more along the lines of 'monkey see, monkey do'. I learned that Kung Fu is part yoga, part acrobatics, part dance. It takes a lot of coordination and we learned so many different things, some complex maneuvers, that I got a bit frustrated at times. I opted out of the jumping/rotating/revolving kicks and the flips. They're beyond my skill level (none) and a bit dangerous with the brick floor. After several hours, the group split up so those of us who wanted could learn Qigong and Tai Chi -- I was grateful for this. I've seen ancient Chinese people in the park doing Tai Chi (if they could do it, so could I) and it looked much easier than the more physical Kung Fu. I was tired.

Just got back from the afternoon training session. I was disappointed to repeat what we did in the morning. Although I did feel a bit more comfortable with the Kung Fu -- I still don't know what I'm doing or why I'm doing it...

Today's lunch and dinner were good, but I have a tolerance for the amount of Chinese food I eat and it's already wearing thin. I also have to use the shitter after each meal and I've noticed a strange coloration and consistency to what I leave behind... must be all the veggie food. I think I saw a piece of rice down there in the trough, too... which I thought strange, but it wasn't moving. A good thing, I think.

It's been a tiring day. I'm going to sleep.

Day Three: Notes from Journal

I woke up this morning to the sounds of birds chirping, a rooster roostering, a knife chopping away at a cutting board, the gurgling of the fountain outside, the monks praying and chanting... a wonderful way to wake, as the sun's first rays streak across the sky... but then I tried to get out of bed and my entire body screamed at me louder than any of the other, more pleasant, sounds were capable.

Eventually I hobbled out of bed and got ready for the 6:30 session, although I wasn't positive it would happen based on the previous day's events. Although the prospect of carrying a rock on my head for a 25 minute walk wasn't appealing, I figured it would be good to get into the spirit of things. After brushing my teeth (I'm avoiding the cold water only (and dirty) shower), I went back up to my room to put my things away when I saw some people from our group take off... I missed the river walk because I wasn't downstairs waiting. Apparently the monks leave when they're done with their prayers and it's up to each of us to follow them. I wasn't too broken hearted about it. Benjamin and I took the opportunity to take a walk on our own. We discussed our aches and pains and our hopes for a better day of training (i.e. understanding what it is that we are doing).

I wasn't really in the mood to exercise, what with the 5 hours yesterday and the soreness of my muscles... and my PMS was rearing its ugly head again. We did the same routine as the previous day and then things kind of trickled into a period of laziness. We didn't really learn anything new and I still wasn't sure of the purpose behind the things I was 'learning'. I sat on a bench wondering why I was here... what was the point... if it would be possible to do this for another 4 days. The living conditions are along the lines of camping and I can deal with that, as long as I'm getting something out of it... but so far, I've been left feeling empty.

The food is getting to me... I saw maggots in the toilet trough just now... I am certain that I'll have go a week without showering... and I'm not having much fun -- not the kind of fun that makes you laugh out loud, but the kind of fun that comes with having a rewarding experience. I am starting to realize that coming to this place is probably better suited to a person who knows a little Kung Fu already and would like to practice with skilled monks... or at least a person who is totally 'into' Kung Fu. I am neither -- I don't think I belong here...

Benjamin and I just took a walk during 'free time' and discussed all of this upon learning that one of our group was leaving. We are considering the idea of leaving early ourselves... We probably wouldn't have come up with the idea on our own at this (early) stage of the game. It's just easier when someone else does it first.


A cab showed up for the other guy (who ended up walking instead), we seized the opportunity, rather hastily, and parted ways with the monastery -- me with my head down and tail between my legs, I hate to not finish what I start.

I felt a sort of sadness in the truck fashioned as a cab that took us back to town... wondering if we should have stuck it out a little longer... feeling like a bit of a failure... but after a hot shower and a nap, I awoke with the strange feeling of coming out of a restless sleep full of bizarre dreams. I was in a brand new place, a comfortable place... It was so simple to pull myself out of one situation and to so quickly get settled in another. In the end, I am OK with having left although I wonder what might have happened had we stayed. We'll never know if we missed anything, but Benjamin tells me not to play 'time traveler', meaning: cut it out with the shouldas, couldas, maybes, and ifs...

Benjamin plans to continue in his pursuit of Kung Fu lessons in Yanshuo, our next (and nearly final) destination in China. Me? I'll stick to writing... and maybe just getting myself into 'short term' situations where I don't belong.


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