The Art of War

A monk lies on a bed of nails. A second monk lies on top of him on a bed of swords, and a third is at the top of the pile with a large rock on his stomach. Then a fourth swings a large hammer and breaks the rock.

How do they do it? "Practice," shrugs Xiuqin Wang, spokesman and interpreter for the Shaolin Warriors. The acclaimed troupe of kung fu monks performs Tuesday, March 19, at ASU's Gammage Auditorium.

Practice certainly helps, but 1,500 years of kung fu experience doesn't hurt, either. The Shaolin Warriors are monks from Shaolin Temple, the legendary seat of Chinese martial arts. As the ancient story goes, Ta Mo, a Buddhist monk from India, decided to settle at Shaoshi Mountain in what is now China's Henan province. He gathered many followers during his long years of meditation there and is credited with founding the Ch'an (Chinese for Zen) movement.

Various explanations are given for Ta Mo's development of kung fu. Perhaps he felt the monks were getting out of shape on a regimen of meditation alone. Or maybe the monks needed to defend themselves against animal or human attack. Ta Mo may even have been adapting yoga poses from his native India. For whatever reason, he imitated the actions of fighting animals and developed a form of active meditation that today is called kung fu.

During their performance, the Shaolin Warriors demonstrate many of these animal-inspired techniques, including the tiger, duck, monkey and snake forms. They also make use of some of the 18 traditional weapons of kung fu, including broad sword, long sword, spears and whips. Acrobatics, displays of strength, and downright amazing feats -- such as the stunt with the beds of swords and nails -- are also included. More than a simple demonstration of martial arts, the show provides an inside look at everyday life in the temple, exploring how the monks practice, meditate and celebrate.

Shaolin Temple did not escape the cultural upheaval of China in the 20th century. It was nearly destroyed in 1928, and was attacked again during the Cultural Revolution in the '70s. Mindful of the historical importance and commercial success of kung fu, the Communist government has since rebuilt the temple. The Shaolin Warriors are the ambassadors of its latest incarnation.

There are two kinds of monks at Shaolin Temple today. "While [some] merely dedicate themselves to prayer and meditation and the study of Buddhism, the others dedicate themselves to the study of martial arts," Wang explains. And while it may seem incongruent to Westerners that peaceful Buddhist monks would spend their days engaged in kung fu, he adds, for the monks, kung fu is not aggression -- it is meditation. "We believe that the practice of martial arts is a way to enlightenment."

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Sage Dillon