When I first joined the temple, the leading monks at the monastery worried that I had come to Shaolin too late in life. Being a kid, I thought I could prove them wrong with earnest dedication, and as far as the warrior monks were concerned, I did. My peers accepted me in that first week of training, and I quickly rose to the top of the martial hierarchy when we held internal sparring tournaments. Shifu De Yang had been wrong about me.
But Abbot Xingzhan had been right to have reservations in 1996. Shaolin was more than kung fu, more than a test of will, more than a community of brothers. As a weak orphan from the States, that was all I wanted; but Shaolin was also Chinese nationalism, Chinese tradition, and Chinese religion. I excelled in Shaolin Kung Fu for one very important reason: I wanted it. I did not want the rest of it.
Monastic life was not all about training our bodies. We were also expected to train our minds, and in Shaolin, that means studying their version of Buddhism. After our morning routine, we ate a bowl of rice together in the cafeteria and then retired to our cells to meditate. The first Shaolin Monastery abbot was a man called Batuo, a dhyana master from India who came to China to spread Buddhist teachings.
I respect Buddhism. Its humanist precepts, the ethical principles it calls Śīla, are some of the simplest and most important ideas humanity has ever had. Dhyāna meditation teaches us self-restraint, self-awareness, and encourages us to stamp out our delusions.
Buddhists believe that with enough meditation, they can extinguish all desire, aversion, and delusion within themselves, reaching what they call Nirvana—becoming the blown out candle.
This idea seemed incongruous to me. My desires had led me here, and they were the only reason I had made it this far in my training. How could they be a bad thing? The monks take vows of celibacy and poverty to honor their ideal of restraint, but what did self-denial have to do with living a moral life? How was swearing off the company of women going to make the world a better place? They were the delusional ones, I thought, and their obsession with mythical figures like Buddha and supernatural powers like the Cinnabar Palm only proved it.
It was easier for the other monks. Most of them had grown up in hovels in China, and had come to the monastery so early that they could barely remember their previous lives. Why should they have desires when they knew nothing of the world outside the monastery? Why should they feel aversion when the only people they know are brothers who look and act almost exactly as they do?
But I was not like them, and we were all reminded of this fact when the Communist Party of China booked us on a Shaolin tour in Seattle’s Mercer Center, not far from the Space Needle.
We were greeted like celebrities. Green Day was blasting from giant speakers as we walked down the aisle, hundreds of people rose from their seats and cheered for us, and New Years’ confetti rained from the rafters.
Bao was ecstatic. He had never been outside of Henan province, never heard rock music, seen this many lights, or heard this many cheers. With a mad grin on his face, he grabbed me by the shoulder, leaned close and shouted, “I never want to go back to China!”
It was a heat-of-the-moment comment, not meant to be taken literally, but simply to express his elation with being at the center of such a huge crowd. “Me neither,” I answered him in the same manner. Then I looked around the arena, into the faces of cheering Americans, and I wondered if it might be true.
We took the stage and performed a basic Tongzigong routine for the crowd, starting with Buddhist Child Showing the Way to Golden Tortoise, then into a handstand for Upside Down Loaded Monument, onto our bellies for Green Dragon Coiling in the Nest, then Green Dragon Hugging its Tail. We flowed through the postures in a graceful dance, just as we had done thousands of times over the years. Every time we kicked our legs into the air in what had been designed as a simple ligament stretching exercise, the crowd cheered as if we were Grandmasters.
After Tongzigong, Shifu De Yeng took the stage in his traditional orange robe, carrying a Qiang—the Chinese bladed spear. He danced through a routine we had rehearsed back in China, and we all took turns throwing melons at him from every angle. De Yang had promised a whole cheese pizza to any initiate who managed to hit him with a melon. Bao and I tried to cheat; we spread out, and with a conspiratorial nod, hurled our melons at the same time, one at De Yang’s back, one at his front.
He must have seen us nod at each other. Deafened by a roaring crowd, in the middle of a highly stressful routine with the monastery’s reputation at stake, he somehow knew. With a single sidestep, he dodged both our melons, then slashed out with his spear, perfectly bisected Bao’s, then twisted and smashed the other melon back in my direction.
Years of trained reflexes kicked in. Without conscious thought, I dove to intercept it, caught it in one hand, twisted in a one-handed somersault and came to my feet with the melon raised victoriously overhead. The crowd went wild, and I went wild with them. On instinct, I turned to face them, waved the melon in an exaggerated circle, then tossed it into the crowd.
Like most acts of fate, the most important moment in my life was born from sheer luck and whimsy. My honeydew melon hit a girl in the face and exploded, showering her with melon guts and soaking her clothes with juice.
Her name was Anya.