I was in junior high, when I first saw the majestic Shaolin Monastery in China, in a Hollywood movie. The actions performed by the Chinese actors were nothing like I had seen before. There was no CGI or tricks to the scenes; still their movements appeared incredibly fluid to me. When I discovered it was an ancient martial art called kung fu, and Shaolin is its birthplace, I swore to join Shaolin, learn the skills and become as lightning fast as kung fu practitioners someday.
Years later, I found myself visiting the Shaolin Monastery. I was no kung fu practitioner, but a tourist with a backpack and a smartphone. Shaolin Monastery lies at the foothill of the beautiful Song Valley, which is in Dengfeng city of Henan Province. I reached Shaolin at first light, when the valley was intimately embraced by the morning fog, revealing only a hint of the Shaolin temples at a distance. The sight sent a surge of elation through my veins, as I struggled to believe I was finally at the Shaolin Monastery–the birthplace of kung fu. I couldn’t help but click several pictures of the valley to upload on my instagram page before I started walking towards the monastery.
On my way to the Shaolin temples, I came across Wangzhigou, a small village with a population of a mere thousand. I was surprised to find that the village was inhabited only by saffron-robed teenagers and young adults, who had joined the monastery to learn kung fu. Even as I observed these students, my phone buzzed. I attended to it immediately, hoping it was my instagram feed, but it was just a weather notification. Disappointed, I shoved my phone back into my pocket.
Next to the walkway, I saw young students gearing up for their kung fu classes on the grassy field. After a few rounds of warmup, the students demonstrated their skills in front of the crowd, which was gradually becoming large. It was just like in the movies–students moving with lightning speed, wielding broadswords and spears, breaking wooden logs, and piercing glasses with needles. All the action was quite thrilling, but what dazzled me more was their focus. The other tourists and I were busy clicking photos, and shouting in excitement. But the performing students never lost their focus, not even for a second. I was awestruck by their mindfulness.
These monks were not merely high in rank and status; they were also said to have achieved the highest form of mindfulness at Shaolin.
After Wangzhigou, came Shaolin Si at the mountaintop. A world heritage site, the settlement has various shrines, where monks gather to pray and meditate. Here, I witnessed the quintessential monastic culture of Shaolin–monks draped in orange robes, with beads in hand, eyes closed, and chanting Zen prayers in unison. The sight brought me to a standstill, and I felt an urge to close my eyes and chant with the monks, even though I was not familiar with their language. Soon, I realised I had completely forgotten about my instagram feeds. And in that moment, I couldn’t care less about checking them. Maybe, Shaolin was teaching me how to be mindful like its students.
My last stop was the Pagoda Forest, another world heritage landmark, where pagodas are erected in the memory of 250 monks. Strangely, these pagodas are of different heights–each raised as per the status of the monk it was named after. The higher the monk’s rank in the monastery, the higher the pagoda dedicated to him. These monks were not merely high in rank and status; they were also said to have achieved the highest form of mindfulness at Shaolin. The huge structures erected in their honour got me thinking: given the sense of peace I had begun to feel from not checking my phone every two minutes, mindfulness is indeed something to aspire for. No wonder the Chinese had built large structures to honour the quality.
Before I had the chance to observe the monks and students of Shaolin, I had never crossed paths with anyone who had mastered the art of mindfulness. It is certainly a quality to inculcate, I decided. By the time I headed back, I noticed several unchecked notifications on my phone. There were instagram feeds among them too, but I chose to put my phone away in that moment and stay with the peace I had found in Shaolin.