Martial Arts at the Shao Lin Temple
By: Elaine Cen
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Alvarez, a fellow Texas Longhorn and an avid practitioner of Wushu. Mike has dedicated the past 11 years to training in this sacred and artistic form of Chinese martial arts. This summer will be my interviewee’s second time visiting the temple to improve his kung fu abilities.
Download and listen to the 10 minute interview.
Elaine: How did you find out martial arts was your passion?
Mike: I guess like most people, it was kind of the movies. It was Bruce Lee, Hidden Dragon, and Jackie Chan’s earlier work.
Elaine: What was the most memorable experience you had during your trip?
Mike: There are five sacred mountains in China. One of them is Song Mountain. There’s this big hike you can take along the mountain and stairs upon stairs upon stairs upon stairs to get to the top. At the top there is a statue of the Bodhidharma. A lot of the times for training, we’d run up. Just running up and seeing where the dharma meditated for nine years, it’s a great feeling when you finally make it. You just get to the top and the view is amazing.
Elaine: How did you guys convince them to let you train with them?
Mike: My master here in America is actually a Shaolin monk from China and he came to America to teach. He arranged everything.
Elaine: Were you treated just the same as other young monks?
Mike: I’m definitely still a foreigner. In terms of training, I’m just like another monk. They’re definitely more careful [with foreigners]. They don’t want you to get sick and go to a Chinese hospital. I had a friend who was there and got pneumonia. She had to cut her training time short, so she’s already come back to [America]. They kind of baby you in a sense compared to your Chinese counterpart. The Chinese counterpart will be sent through the ringer. So if I misbehave and mess up, it’s not too bad. If one of the other students messes up, [the older students] will usually discipline them.
Elaine: What was an average day like for you?
Mike: An average day would be that we’d wake up at 5 AM. We’d go for a pre-workout and running for two to three hours. There’d be some other strength training exercises. We’d go back to eat breakfast and then go back to training. The master will assign senior students to train us. They would show us forms, jumps, the usual. We’d take a break and go for lunch. We’d take about a two hour rest. At 4 PM, we’d go back to training, the same stances and forms. Each training session is about two hours. Break for dinner. Training for two more hours. And then, we’d go to sleep.
Elaine: Did you get disciplined?
Mike: If we’d get disciplined, they’d make us do physical exercise. They’ll make you go through your forms a dozen times if you mess up. As for the other monks…let me pick a tame punishment. One of the monks might fool around, and there’s this staff. I see them make the students lie down and hit them on the back of the legs with the staff.
The worst punishment, to me at least, was when the master came to train us. It’s very rare for him to actually come and train you. Some of the students were talking and being silly, I guess. When the master left, the senior students got really mad at the others and made about a dozen of them stare at the sun. The head up, eyes to the sun for a good twenty minutes. That’s just one of the worst. They can get pretty extreme, so it’s definitely a bad one. Of course, the master would never do something like that. It’s just the senior students who feel like they should enact that kind of discipline.
Elaine: And how was the culture shock?
Mike: Despite the language barrier it wasn’t that bad. There were some things to get used to. Lots of people just spit on the street. Like in the restaurants, you’ll see that. And on my first time going [to China], there was an eight hour train ride where I had to sit on my luggage and sleep.
Elaine: What is the best thing about martial arts to you?
Mike: There’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment when you finally get something down that you’ve been working on. For the longest time, backflips, just could not do them. I probably fell on my head probably two dozen times. When I finally got it, it was awesome. I started really trying to do a backflip about two months before my first trip to China. When I went to China, they kind of forced me to do it, and do it, do it, and do it. Every time I’d fall, I’d have to get up and try again. About a month into my first trip, I finally got it.
Elaine: Did you achieve what you wanted from this unique experience?
Mike: Yeah. You see [the monks] do their thing, and you can see what you can achieve if you keep practicing.
Elaine: What were your key takeaways?
Mike: My key takeaway was that practice makes perfect. Literally, you won’t get something right away. That was something the master stressed a lot. You have to keep practicing and giving it your all if you really want to improve, and you will improve.
Elaine: Do you plan on becoming a monk?
Mike: You can definitely become a warrior monk or Buddhist monk even as a foreigner. There was a French individual I saw who had been training there for 2-3 years and he was on his way to being a Buddhist monk. It’s not something that I would want to do. I want to progress martial arts wise, but as far as becoming a Buddhist monk, that’s just not my thing. The vows are kind of intense, like priest vows. Warrior monks take a few vows, but chastity isn’t one of them and you can still eat meat, for example.
Elaine: What would you do differently if you had the chance to go again?
Mike: Definitely would want to learn Chinese. The translator helped. The first time I went when there was no translator, we’d use nonverbal communication and the little Chinese I knew. I want to be able to converse with my friends in China who I still communicate with. I want to be able to talk to them on a deeper level. I actually have the Shaolin Temple master’s number.
Elaine: Any last advice for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Mike: Learn Chinese. That’s a big one if you’re going to China.
Don’t drink the water. Nothing bad happened to me, but I had friends who had some pretty bad stories. So if you go to China, drink bottled water. I ran out of bottled water, so I drank out of the faucet. That was totally bad, but I was really thirsty.
Keep yourself healthy. This is the most important one. And don’t be afraid to embrace the culture.
Want to find out more about Wushu and the Shaolin Temple? Check out these recommended links:
Shaolin Temple: http://www.shaolin.org.cn/en/
International Shaolin Wushu Center: http://www.internationalshaolinaustin.com/
Texas Wushu (UT organization): http://www.texaswushu.org/