China – a land of sweeping beauty, timeless history, and landmarks that date back millennia. One of The Middle Kingdom’s most storied and endlessly fascinating such locations is the Shaolin Monastery in the nation’s Henan province, in which the monks that inhabit the temple there train themselves in the parallel teachings of Chan Buddhism and kung fu, with both their discipline and fighting skills being the stuff of global legend.
Take stroll down the streets of Manhattan, and you just might run into Shi Yan Ming, a 34th generation disciple of the Shaolin Monastery, and abbot of New York City’s USA Shaolin Temple. Since establishing the temple in 1992, the likes of Wesley Snipes, Bokeem Woodbine, RZA, Rosie Perez, and John Leguizamo can be counted among those who have had the privilege of addressing him as “Shifu”. Yan Ming himself has also become a lightning rod of attention in the martial arts world, with his Qigong-derived ability to take a hit being featured in countless documentaries and television appearances – to say nothing of his ability to land a punch of Herculean impact from just an inch away!
Today, Shi Yan Ming sits down with KFK to share a look back at his time in the Shaolin Temple, and his years of passing on his vast knowledge of Buddhism and kung fu in the USA Shaolin Temple, along with a glimpse at what the temple’s annual Warrior Monk Retreat (which starts today, 24th _ 27th May) entails.
Greetings Shi Yan Ming. Welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom and thanks so much for taking some time out to share with us. It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks. Very happy to be speaking with Kung Fu Kingdom today.
Awesome! Before we get started, what do you think of our mission, which is to inspire one hundred million people across the world to get into martial arts?
That’s fantastic! In our lifetime, we are trying to help as many people as possible, because life is precious. Especially in the 21st century, its fast-living in the modern world, and people need reminders and good examples for inspiration.
Perspectives on Shaolin martial arts & philosophy
Thank you, Shifu, that’s what we’ve always striven for. Okay, let’s kick off with what are some of your perspectives on martial arts, as a 34th generation Shaolin disciple?
The first discipline is to discipline yourself and help yourself. Open your heart, open your mind and study from others. Life has everything, martial arts have everything, so don’t limit yourself, don’t stop yourself from studying other disciplines of martial arts. Combine them together and it becomes yours. You can help yourself, you can help others, and you can help the world.
That’s powerfuel, Shifu. So, who would you say are some of the martial artists that have inspired you personally the most?
All martial artists are fantastic but Bruce Lee inspired me the most.
On life as a Shaolin monk
Always a popular choice, and rightly so! So, what can you share about your life as a monk at the legendary Shaolin Temple? What is a day in the life of a Shaolin disciple really like and what are some of the most significant philosophical lessons in the life of a Shaolin Temple disciple?
Being a monk at the Shaolin Temple is not what people think. Every day is different, and every one is different. Many people have never experienced living inside the monastery, so they don’t know what it’s like. “Monk” means an intelligent, very knowledgeable and noble person. You have to have a heart to balance life and balance the world around you, and to be a wonderful example for others, to be outstanding, and to speak peace, love and respect.
Before becoming a monk there are different levels, and a lot of people are still confused about what that means. Just because someone is dressed in a robe with a shaved head, doesn’t make them a monk. A true monk doesn’t have to live in a monastery, shave their head, or wear a robe. Just like if you believe in Buddha, there is Buddha. Buddha is inside us, probably next to us. Those who give help to others are extensions of Buddha’s blessings. True Shaolin Temple monks not only understand martial arts, but understand the philosophy and that the philosophy is also martial arts. You cannot separate physical and mental. Martial arts and Ch’an philosophy are one.
Very insightful, Shifu. So, who would you credit as your greatest influence within the Shaolin Temple?
My greatest influence is from the beginning of the Song Dynasty, monk Fu-Yu. He combined all the martial arts together into Shaolin Temple martial arts and spread them across the world.
On establishing the USA Shaolin Temple in New York
On that note, what are some of your most cherished memories from your time spent at the Shaolin Temple?
I have a lot of cherished memories. I wanted to be a hero so I tried to fly – and almost killed myself a few times! I was very mischievous and played tricks on everyone and my kung fu brothers all the time. I cherished my time in the Shaolin Temple, and every piece of land I practised on to sharpen my life there.
So, what motivated you to make the decision to establish the USA Shaolin Temple in New York City?
Shaolin Temple martial arts and philosophy saved my life, it made me who I am. New York City is the capital of the world. If I can spread Shaolin Temple Ch’an philosophy and Shaolin Temple martial arts here in New York, then I can spread it across the world.
Most definitely. So, what were some of the challenges you encountered in establishing the USA Shaolin Temple as a stranger in a strange land?
Life itself was and is always the biggest challenge, it’s a war. You have to fight for it. Everywhere is your home, everywhere is your temple. It’s you who makes the difference.
The annual Warrior Monk Retreat in New York
Got to fight the good fight. And moving right into that, the USA Shaolin Temple holds an annual Warrior Monk Retreat training camp in upstate New York. How did this first come about and what does the training at the retreat involve for students?
The retreat is a way to bring people together, and help people learn that life is for living. Life is exercising, and the Warrior Monk Retreat is about letting them realize that you can exercise your life, you can sharpen your life, you can discipline your life and you can master your life. Everywhere you go, everywhere you travel – it doesn’t matter where you are, because you are the temple.
On his film & documentary appearances
Time out to align to one’s potential is such a worthwhile experience! Looking ahead now, since establishing the USA Shaolin Temple, you’ve been featured in numerous documentaries and television productions. What are some of your personal favourites that you’ve been involved in?
All of them have been fantastic in their own way. I try to use every single opportunity to spread philosophy to help people live a meaningful life, and media is a key part of that mission.
Moving ahead, you also appeared in the 1999 film “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”. How did you become involved and what are a couple of memorable moments from that experience?
It was really simple, they needed an old Chinese kung fu master, so they found me! (Laughs) I loved spending time with everyone on set.
A brief but very memorable appearance! One that note, you were also famously featured in the documentary series “Stan Lee’s Superhumans”, in which you demonstrate such techniques as hard Qigong and the one-inch punch. How did you get onto the show and what memorable moments can you share from it?
The honorable Mr. Stan Lee sent people from the show to the temple to meet me. I’m really happy I had the chance to do that in my lifetime, to have my abilities measured by certified doctors and scientists. Demonstrations like that are a way to use my life to write history, I feel. It’s a way to encourage other people to be honest with themselves, and to teach that martial arts is about self-respect, self-discipline, self-mastery and one- hundred percent expressing themselves.
Shifu’s one-inch punch!
Humbling. That appearance gave the world hard data backing up the efficacy of Shaolin Temple training! Speaking of which, on the show, your one-inch punch was recorded as being capable of generating more destructive power than a 35mph car crash. How did you develop such an extraordinary degree of physical force with this punch? How does a person learn that exactly – is it more about mental, breath or physical conditioning or all three equally?
There’s no secret, it’s just a result of years and years of practising Shaolin Temple martial arts and philosophy. Something people should understand that if you don’t practice for one day, you lose three days. If you don’t practice three days, you lose ten, and so on. Even now, I challenge myself every day and practice with my students. You must understand that mental is physical, physical is mental. You must always challenge yourself, discipline yourself. You can always make your skills better and make your life better.
Such a simple…yet profound answer Shifu. So, in your expert opinion, what are the greatest benefits one gains from training in Shaolin martial arts?
Shaolin Temple martial arts has all the style and the power to bring together the physical and the mental. Shaolin Temple martial arts and Shaolin Temple Ch’an philosophy are one.
So, in your view, what kind of diet is most effective for Shaolin training?
Every one is different, but generally speaking, try to eat as healthy as possible. Don’t eat too much fried food and neither too much meat.
So, what would you say is the most challenging physical thing you’ve ever done?
Everything difficult can become easy. Everything easy can become difficult. It all depends on if you want to do it.
Fun & leisure
Sublime. So, what are some of Shi Yan Ming’s favourite martial-arts movies?
Excellent choices! So moving onto fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky or interesting thing about you that people don’t know?
I’m very playful and youthful in my heart. I’ll never grow up!
And if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to have?
I would always like to just be myself. That’s why I tell people to be honest with themselves, express yourself and respect yourself.
Next projects, reflections & Shifu’s blessings…
Preach! So, what other projects do you have in the works at the moment?
I would like to continue to use my precious life to build authentic Shaolin Temples around the world to spread philosophy and help people as much as I can.
I am also working with my disciples RZA (aka Heng Ch’an) & Bokeem Woodbine (aka Heng Ru) on a TV show, so stay tuned!
We definitely look forward to seeing that! What Shaolin or other warrior-wisdom quote or philosophical phrase has helped you become who you are today?
More chi, train harder! Always challenge yourself, one-hundred percent honestly express yourself.
Emphatic. Well, as we prepare to sign off Shifu, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your students, and followers around the world right now?
Please discipline yourself, challenge yourself, open your mind, and open your heart. Understand that when we say “one world, martial arts”, it means to combine all the disciplines of martial arts together, and make it your own. There are no styles or separations in life or in martial arts. Eat healthy, sleep well, don’t worry too much, and truly, honestly express your present life. Buddha bless you, Amituofo.
Feeling blessed many times over. Thank you so much for the pleasure of speaking today. It’s been a real pleasure to have this interview with you Shi Yan Ming, and we wish you all the best of continued success in 2019! Amituofo!
Thanks Brad – happy to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom today!