Happy Fifteenth Anniversary, Shaolin Kung Fu Training Center! By Joseph A. Bondy

I was deeply honored when Shifu and Shimu asked if I would write a piece to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the Shaolin Kung Fu Training Center (SKFTC). The school has been a large part of my family’s life for nearly a decade, and I can only hope to express in words what it means to us, and to all of my kung fu sisters and brothers.

Fifteen years ago, on June 23, 2001, the Shaolin Kung Fu Training Center opened its doors. The school was located at 440 Lafayette Street, in a mixed-use dance studio space. That first day, Shifu Hengxin and Shimu Arlene had taken a leap of faith that students would come, renting the space and distributing fliers announcing their new school. A student came, and Shifu taught the SKFTC’s first class. A second student came, then a third, and soon a small and dedicated core of students emerged. With time, a teen and youth and adult program developed under Shimu’s careful executive directorship.

After about five years at the Lafayette Street mixed-use studio, with the help and support of their students, Shifu and Shimu set out to find and rent a space that the SKFTC could call home. They found the school’s current location, in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, and focused on training and developing their student-practitioners in both Shaolin kung fu and qi gong.

Today, Shifu Hengxin and Shimu Arlene are hard at work preparing for the Fifth Annual Summer Intensive Program, during which Shifu will be teaching the classic kung fu form, Lohan Quan. The school currently has approximately fifty dedicated students, ranging from ages 6 to 65, and from a variety of different backgrounds and places. Our common ground is our training, and the willingness to apply the pure effort and perseverance necessary to succeed.

My family’s history with the school began in February 2007, when our oldest daughter, Rachel, was 6, and our son, David, was 4. My wife, Meeka, and I began to look for a school in Manhattan that would best teach the values we believed were inherent in martial arts. To us, these were primarily discipline, focus, perseverance, humility, and respect. It was Shimu Arlene’s strength of presence and kind manner that persuaded us to bring Rachel and David for a trial class. There, Meeka and I met Shifu Hengxin. The kids loved the class, and we loved the school. Shifu and Shimu were tough and exacting, but supportive and inspiring. In 2011, our youngest daughter, Sarah, Meeka and I, became students. Today, Shaolin kung fu is a very special family affair.

Indeed, the SKFTC is a special place for every one of the students, who come from far and wide to study with Shifu and Shimu. It is a place where we engage in a deeply personal practice of self-illumination, through intense focus and repeated overcoming of adversity, to achieve physical and mental strengths in ourselves that we had not thought were possible. In this sense, our relentless practice is a metaphor for our lives, and Shifu provides an outstanding example to which we can aspire.

In training, we are asked simply to do our own best and not compare ourselves to others. We repeat movements thousands of times, trying to build speed and power while
developing perfect stances and balance, breaking through fear of not being able to finish, and conquering exhaustion. We are asked to jump higher and higher, over and over again, to stretch more, sink more, spring more, and to always push our movements. Shifu reminds us that we have, “Eyes like lightning,” “fists like shooting stars,” and that our “Chi is the leader of our bodies.”

What Shifu is helping us to understand, through directing our personal efforts at self improvement, is that we are intrinsically capable of achieving great good. As has been the practice of Shaolin since its origin, Shifu provides us the means to see this original nature through patterns of strenuous movement.

Bodhidharma, the mythical founder of Shaolin Kung Fu and Ch’an Buddhism, taught, quite simply, that our original nature is the same as that of buddha:

To find a buddha all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the buddha…If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a buddha.

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Translated by Red Pine.

Buddha had previously taught that this nature involved only a few cardinal tenets:

Commit no evil. Do only good. Purify your heart and mind. This is what all buddhas do.

The verse of admonishment of the seven Buddhas.

Thus, in transcending the physical, our kung fu and qi gong practice involves penetrating to the emotional core, and facing ourselves, as we attempt to better our hearts and minds.

Seeking our true nature, doing only good and ceasing all evil isn't easy. It does not occur without dedication and patience. Doing so in the face of adversity requires even greater strength and courage. Continuing to try improving requires constant effort. This is what Shifu demonstrates to us repeatedly, through the eloquence of his example.

When Shimu met Shifu, he was a “very serious person, intense, no smiles, scary, but with a beautiful inner sense and a pure heart.” She explains that:

When Shifu smiles, it melts my heart. Just to be here, the training, took discipline and sacrifice. But he’s like a superhero from a movie—he makes it look effortless. Just imagine, leaving your home as a boy, training all day every day. It was real sacrifice and hard work, beyond most of our imaginations.

Personally, I frequently reflect upon how Shifu has never relented. He has never quit. He has never stopped trying his best. He and Shimu took the leap of faith of opening our school without a single student, and through pure force of will they have cultivated it into its present stature. Through injuries, sweltering heat and freezing cold, Shifu and Shimu have been there to help us gain strength, face our own challenges, and learn never to give up in anything that we set out to do. Indeed, the only way the hero ever loses, is by quitting. I must say, this is very helpful to think about while holding the horse stance!

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddha taught that there were many buddhas before him and there would be many buddhas in the future. One thousand years later, Bodhidharma continued to teach that we all have an original buddha nature. Fifteen hundred years later, Shifu teaches each of us to work towards seeing this nature by embodying the same ritualized movements as our predecessors, and to find our own special hero within.

For all these lessons, we are eternally thankful to Shifu and Shimu. The power of their example has travelled far beyond the walls of our very special school, and it lives in the hearts and minds of those who have been fortunate enough to have been touched by the SKFTC. May we celebrate many, many more anniversaries, as we share this path together. Amituofo. Joseph A. Bondy June 23, 2016

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