Oathbreakers are not so rare in America, but I am the worst among us. Half of our marriages end in divorce, but what is to be said of a man who enters into a marriage knowing he intends to betray his vows?
I offer no defense and make no justifications. A better man would have found the courage to reject Shifu Yangxin’s proposal. Better men already have.
In 1992, the Shaolin Temple went on their first tour of the United States. Like me, they visited San Franciso and performed in the Mercer center where they were dazzled by the bright lights of modernity. It was their first glimpse of the world beyond the ancient walls of the temple, and it was electrifying. Shifu Yan Ming was a part of that first touring troupe. After the last show was over, he slipped from his hotel and vanished into the night, defecting from China with supernatural boldness.
Yan Ming was twenty eight years old, had never set foot out of China, and did not speak a word of English, but he still managed to make his way to New York City. Two years later, he founded the USA Shaolin Temple and began teaching authentic Shaolin martial arts and Chan Buddhism to New Yorkers. His temple is now a franchise represented all over the world, and the master himself has become the face of Shaolin Kung Fu. When an article or documentary is made about Shaolin Kung Fu, he is usually the subject.
I did not have his courage when my opportunity came in 2000. Instead of facing my fears with the strength and discipline Shaolin had given me, I chose to wed myself to the order the way a young gold digger marries a rich old man. I needed their security and support, and I would have it by any means necessary.
Yangxin was true to his promise. When we returned to the temple in his limousine, I took my oaths before a gathering of my brothers and became a fully ordained Shaolin monk. With Bao and Feng and the rest of my surrogate family looking on, I stood before the ancestors and took vows of poverty and celibacy and obedience to my Abbot.
A part of me hoped something magical would happen during the ceremony, that it would somehow revitalize my connection with the order, but nothing happened. Yangxin stood before me wearing the red sash of office and blessed me in Mandarin while my brothers chanted hymns, but the whole thing was as meaningful to me as getting a bowl of rice from the cafeteria.
By sunset, I had already decided I was going to break all of my vows.
A month later, I found myself in Austin, Texas, sparring with Bao and three other initiates in a sandy arena fit for an ancient Roman gladiator. The sparring was loosely scripted—I had instructed them not to grapple with me—but as far as the Texans were concerned, the stakes were real.
Fighting against four men is harder in real life than it is in the movies, especially when all four of them have been trained as thoroughly as you. I had no chance of winning, but I only intended to fight them to a draw. The sparring match doubled as an Iron Body demonstration, and it ended when Bao broke his bo staff across my face.
The crowd collectively held their breath, waiting for me to fall over, but I just shrugged it off, grabbed my friend by the wrist and raised his arm in victorious celebration.
“Let’s hear it for Bao, the champion of Henan Province!”
We followed the sparring match with wood and cinder block breaking, and ended the show with an Iron Stomach demonstration—I laid face down on the blades of six Dao scimitars and held the pose until the Texans rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
But the demonstration was not the main event for me. Like Yan Ming, what I really wanted was the freedom of the night. As soon as my brothers were settled in their rooms, I slipped down to the hotel lobby, conspicuous as the sun in my bright orange robes.
The opportunities were immediate. Three women and one man—all much too old for me—propositioned me for sex. Their brazenness was surprising, but the most off-putting thing about it was the realization that it had nothing to do with me—any monk would have suited their needs. I turned them away, and declined two reporters requesting interviews. I was here for one thing, and one thing only.
It took almost an hour for the man to show up. He was Slavic looking, his face pock-marked, his hair short, wavy, and blond. He wore cowboy boots, tight jeans, and a big, stupid belt buckle.
“I’ve got a job for you,” he said, with no trace of Texas or Russia in his voice. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I was too young to drink, but I nodded anyway and followed him into the hotel bar. I didn’t order anything, but took a seat away from prying eyes. He ordered a club soda and indicated my scarred hands with his chin. “You Shaolin are hard motherfuckers.”
“We are,” I answered evenly. “The hardest.”
He worked his tongue around in his mouth and looked like he was going to spit on the floor. Not to offer me an insult, but simply because it was a ritual compulsion that he was almost powerless to resist. Instead, he nodded his head. “Yeah. You have that look about you. You want a real fight?”
“If it pays.”
“That it does. If you win. But there are no rules, and this isn’t a sparring match. It’s a real fight. Bareknuckle boxing until one of you taps out.”
I stood and gestured for the door. “That’s what I’m here for. Let’s go.”
The Slavic Texan flashed me a cheerless smile and led the way.