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.