by Heng Cheng
It’s 7:30 in the morning at the Shaolin Temple Summer Camp when the breakfast bell rings. The students, however, do not come tumbling out of their cabins; they’ve been awake for half an hour already and are busy drilling cartwheels after their morning jog. The sound of the bell gets their attention, but they finish their calisthenics and wait to be dismissed before going to the dining hall for breakfast. Scarcely an hour later finds them spread back out on the same training field for an hour of tai chi. The quiet flow of their movements belies the sweat that you see when you get up close. A short break and they are back for chi gong, practicing one of the original action meditation sutras taught at the Shaolin temple over 1500 years ago. They are focused and silent as they go through the movements, the beautiful morning sun of the Catskills pouring over the mountain. Another bell rings, and it is time for lunch; it’s not even noon, and there is still more to come.
So began every day for the campers at the USA Shaolin Temple summer camp. It’s a vigorous way to start the day, but not as vigorous as the three hours of kung fu practice that followed every day’s lunch encompassing a myriad of explosive moments and kicks, jumps and stances and intensive group stretching. Basic movements were followed by more complex combinations until students were learning an entire form, built upon the elements they had learned.
Each moment of each day the campers lived and breathed the life of Shaolin warrior monks. Mind and body trained together as they pushed themselves physically and mentally: stretching farther, jumping higher and moving faster than they ever had.
“It’s an amazing transformation,” remarked one counselor. “Some of the students thought they weren’t going to make it through the first day, and by the end of two weeks they were training the hardest of everyone.”
But it wasn’t just the physical challenge that made the experience so dynamic for the participants. Each day’s training ended with a lesson in Chan philosophy and Shaolin history, where the campers learned the story behind the training they were receiving and the philosophy with which it developed. Each student was able to engage in the conversation, ask questions and offer perspectives that enriched the practice for everyone involved.
One student shared, “I train kung fu at another school, and it’s really good, but we don’t learn so much about the philosophy or the history, and it really makes it different.”
At the end of camp, as families arrived, students excitedly introduced them to the counselors who had taught them, proudly displayed the beautification projects they had helped with, and couldn’t wait to the final demonstration to begin showing the different movements and techniques they had learned. In this demo by the campers and staff, families were treated to a “day-in-the-life” performance of everything that had been learned over the two weeks. It was finished with each student receiving a certificate of completion from Shifu Shi Yan Ming. There were hugs and even tears from campers and instructors alike, who after two weeks of living and training together, were reluctant to get in their cars and drive away. All were discussing how they would continue their training until they could return to camp next year, taking away the message of Shifu’s closing statements, “Train harder. Life is precious. There’s no time to waste it.”