Life in the Mystic East, Part the Third (Not Actually in the East)

I am an unlikely martial artist. In fact, I am not even sure if I can even call myself a martial artist. Over the years since college, I have dabbled here and there where I could, but I never began studying in earnest until around 2003. So, I’ve been working steadily at my martial arts for about fifteen years as of this writing.

Oddly enough, I did not become interested in the martial arts when I lived in Taiwan. Despite having access to, arguably, some of the best fighters in traditional Chinese martial arts, my preferred form of exercise was the East German power lifting team’s off-season volume training routine. I was much healthier back then, too. I was at a good fighting weight of 225lbs, and I walked or biked everywhere. In fact, I lived on the thirteenth floor of my apartment building, and seldom used the elevator. But I did not then devote myself to serious study.

Though even that is not correct; “steadily” is not really how it’s been going. There has been a certain amount of consistency over the years, but my progress has been painfully slow, if existent at all. You would think that after so many years, I might be a gongfu adept, or a shodan karateka. No. During the day, there has been work- demeaning, barely remunerative, soul-destroying work- and depression has played a great role in retarding my progress. I am never going to be a martial arts master. I am, rather, a martial arts Sisyphus, struggling to make the most modest of gains, only to see most of them wiped away when the boulder of depression rolls down on me, like a not-quite-fast-enough Indiana Jones. Oh, well. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “It does not matter how slow your progress, so long as you don’t give up.” All that said, I do still retain an interest in traditional Chinese and Okinawan martial arts systems. It is fun exercise, and it is good to be able to do something useful with my body. It also trains the mind in very specific ways, if you have the right teacher. The moving meditation aspect of my art does in fact help a little with my depression.

I first seriously took up martial arts when I was at university in America, at Rutgers, New Brunswick. I was studying Chinese, and I was interested in exploring as many facets of Chinese culture as I could. One of the inter-campus bus drivers was a practitioner of some kind of Nanquan. I was not sure if it was Yong Chun, or Hung Gar, or a combination of both. He taught on the Livingston campus, two or three nights a week. I had really gotten into it, and had also joined a once-per-week class on College Avenue, led by a student from Taiwan, and who practiced Northern Shaolin. I was really enjoying it, and I grabbed what books of gongfu I could find to study. I even began watching Shaw Brothers films on Saturday afternoon television.

The next time I tried to get back into the martial arts was in the early nineties, not long after graduation. I was looking for a martial arts teacher, and on Sansom Street, in Center City Philadelphia, I found one.

Master Pan was a Vietnamese martial arts master in a system called Thanvodao. Reading the Chinese characters in which it was written, it comes out as “Spirit Fist.” It is an Indo-Chinese system, steeped in Daoist principles, Buddhist beliefs, and Vietnamese folk religion.

Master Pan, more than any other martial artist I’ve ever met, fit the definition of Taoist Immortal. Not only was he superlatively skilled at his art, he was also of a relaxed and mercurial disposition, and he delighted in play. I never saw him without a smile, or a mischievous glint in his eye.

He was also quite down to earth and practical in his martial arts approach. I remember once in class mentioning that I enjoyed lifting weights, that one of the senior students declared, “Oh don’t do that; you’ll ruin your qi meridians!” However, when I once commented to Master Pan that I was feeling weak, he said, “Well, if you think you’re not strong enough, why don’t you lift weights or something?” His religion, however, was quite bound up in his art. He believed that at the higher levels of Thanvodao, the spirits of past masters would enter your soul, to help you fight. A kind of possession, or trance state. Hence the name, “Spirit Fist.”

In 2003, when I had recently moved into my grandparents’ old house in Brookhaven, PA (which I purchased from my mother and aunt when they had inherited it after my grandmother’s death), I began looking for a martial arts school. I was gainfully employed, and had a proper place to live, and so I thought it about time.

I liked the idea of the martial arts, because I always felt that if one was going to train physically at something, it should be something which would be useful to the body. That is, a useful skill, not merely a general conditioning. I had for a long time been interested in two particular “internal” styles of Chinese martial art; Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. And of the two, I was more interested in Bagua. It had taken on an almost mythical status in my mind. But these styles were usually not easy to find in the Northeastern United States at the time. But, through persistent searching, I found a teacher not too far from me, down in Wilmington, Delaware; Master S.Z.K.

Master S. was teaching at the University of Delaware, and was opening his own school. When we met, he took a liking to me, because of my facility with Chinese language, and because of my understanding of Chinese customs and tradition.

Master S.’s family was an old, prestigious martial arts family from Dandong, in Liaoning Province. He was adept at several styles, including Baguazhang, which he learned from Sun Zhijun and Lu Zijian; Xingyiquan, which he learned from Sun Zhijun also; Chen Style Taijiquan, learned from Men Huifeng and Kan Guixing; and his own family style, Luohan Mizongquan. Master S really is written up in China’s guide, Who’s Who in Martial Arts.

At first, Master S. wanted me to concentrate on Xingyi, but when he saw my interest in Bagua, he eventually relented and allowed me to study that.

Now, Master S. had many friends in the martial arts world of China, including many at Shaolin Temple, Wudang Mountain, and even Emei Mountain. Every year, he would lead a tour group of students to China, to meet some of those friends, to sight-see, and to train. And that is where I met my next teacher, Hanshi B.

In 2007, I went with Master S. on my first trip to Mainland China. He was actually conducting a group of karate students of a friend of his to Shaolin for a ceremony honoring those systems that could trace their lineages directly to the Temple. Well, in theory. I went about ten days early, with Master S., so as to spend time up in his hometown, before going down to Beijing to meet the incoming group. Abbot De Li was also to meet us there. This is when I met Hanshi.

Hanshi M. B. can be described in no other terms but as a martial arts tzaddik. Imagine Rabbi Shammai, with the forbearance of Rabbi Hillel, and the words of Takuan Soho. He and his wife N. pretty much saved my life. Hanshi B. is a rarity; he is a martial arts grandmaster of Okinawan Shorinji-ryu, and one of only a handful of foreigners ever to sit on the Old Okinawan Masters’ Council. He practiced a form of Okinawan fighting that was a real fighting system. No trace of wushu contaminated his art. When I first observed it, I thought it ugly, brutal, and effective. It took me some years of study with him before I could see the beauty in the efficient, streamlined movements.

And I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the master who taught me Shaolin White Crane, Abbot Shi DeLi.

Shi DeLi came to Master Sun’s school, introduced as the chief martial abbot of Shaolin. Indeed, DeLi was superlatively skilled at Nanquan- specifically, Yong Chun and White Cran. He was also skilled at Tongzigong, a flexibility exercise. He came to Master Sun’s school to hold a seminar, teaching us three basic forms from Shaolin White Crane, including San Zhan, and the Eight Pieces of Brocade qigong set. The Abbot also mentioned that he had come to help spread Shaolin Culture in America, and Master Sun was one of his contacts. Being fluent-ish in Chinese, I was assigned to act as chauffeur and minder for him. DeLi was a genuinely kind and highly skilled person, and he was utterly unassuming.

DeLi was adept at the actual function of gongfu techniques, and would on occasion demonstrate the difference between the showy wushu forms of a particular taolu, and the actual functional form of that taolu. This skill was something that Hanshi B. appreciated, especially as he could see the similarities in DeLi’s gongfu and his own karate.

Despite the Abbot’s undisputed skill in gongfu, his actual position as an abbot of Shaolin was, shall we say, suspect. He did at all times dress appropriately as an abbot of Shaolin, or at least as a very senior monk. And he had the martial skills and theological knowledge expected of such a high-ranking personage. However, many small things gradually came to light during our trip to China in 2007 that made me doubt that Shi DeLi was quite who he said he was.

First, DeLi seemed to have an enormous amount of political influence. Real guanxi, as they say. Everywhere we went, he was chauffeured around in a classic black Mercedes. He was never without at least two cell phones. And he was always met with great deference and reverence wherever we traveled. However, none of those places was the Shaolin Temple.

That said, he was given a lot of face at the Shaolin Temple’s “performance arena,” a sort of publicity theater for tourists. But I noticed when Shifu took us into the Temple itself, ‘Abbot’ DeLi was nowhere to be seen. We met, and spent the day with, Shi Deyang, the monk who was in charge of gongfu training and the martial monks of Shaolin. -He stars in many instructional videos of Shaolin gongfu. And the actual abbot of the Temple is Shi Yongxin. The situation struck me as very odd.

It was obvious that Deli was a man of genuine skill in gongfu, and he had deep knowledge of Ch’an Buddhist theology, and was politically very well connected. Yet, he did not seem to have a specific position in Shaolin itself.

A few years after our your of 2007, I happened to come upon the Shaolin Temple’s official website. I found a notice on the front page, “below the fold,” as it were. Translating from the Chinese as best I can remember, it read, There is a person going about calling himself “Abbot Shi Deli.” This person is not an abbot. The current abbot of Shaolin is Shi Yongxin. Anyone encountering “Shi Deli” should be aware that he is being deceitful, using the Shaolin name for his own gain. He has no ties to the Shaolin Temple.

I was surprised. But more surprising, I saw that the following week, the notice had disappeared, and no mention of false Shaolin abbots was made again on the website.

Combining this discovery with what I observed in China, the conclusion I came to was that Shi Deli was not a Shaolin abbot, but was a commissar of some kind, watching over various Buddhist institutions in China. Rather like China’s “official” Panchen Lama, as opposed to the real Panchen Lama proclaimed by the current Dalai Lama. My suspicion was confirmed when Master Sun confided to me that Deli was indeed in charge of Buddhist affairs in China. He didn’t tell me about the political and religious implications of such a post; but he didn’t have to.

As an aside, a brief conversation we once had– The Abbot once asked me, “Why do your religions always fight with each other? You know, in China, our religions are all harmonious with one another.” He simply did not understand. Of course, when I turned the question around, and asked how it was that all Chinese religions seemed to get along, he smiled slyly, and said, winking, “Because the government decrees it.”

Yep. Definitely a commissar.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Fangshan district
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