The Shaolin temple in China is 1,500 years old and one of the nation's most ancient sacred treasures, the source of all martial arts. The Shaolin temple in Los Angeles is 3 years old and is located in a Sherman Oaks storefront next to a pet store. It is, however, no less sacred to those who seek refuge here from the modern world. Here, the warrior monk known as master Shi Yan Fan, or "Powerful Sky," teaches Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu. "Shaolin means young forest. Shao for young. Lin for trees. It means you can live forever," he'll say to those who wander in.
The temple wasn't always there, at least not in the physical sense. When the master first came to Los Angeles from China, he would train students in community centers, gyms, parks and forests. Eventually, the students got tired of carrying their weapons everywhere. They opened the temple, donating its rent, furnishings and upkeep.
Master Shi Yan Fan wasn't always a kung fu master. Actually, he wasn't always Shi Yan Fan. For all of his youth he was Italian-born Franco Testini. Though he has trained his entire life, only recently did he become an official Shaolin warrior monk, the first to do so in 300 years. He was branded on the head with nine incense sticks for five minutes. The last two minutes, when the incense burns through your skin, he says, "are very painful."
The ceremony was performed in 2007 at the Shaolin Temple in China when the Chinese government lifted its centuries-old ban on the practice. There was much fanfare. Preparations lasted a month. There were arduous training sessions and equally arduous lectures. Knees and foreheads became bruised from bowing for five hours a day. Some monks fainted from exhaustion. In the end, 100 monks were scheduled to receive the burn marks, but only 43 went through with it. "They got scared," Testini shrugs.
Testini has given his life to Shaolin. His mission is to share it with as many people as he can, and by share he means teach them compassion (a noble endeavor), to exercise every day (preaching to the choir) and to be happy without material possessions (good luck with that).
Testini speaks quickly and with a thick Italian accent. His assistant, Cindy, occasionally serves as unofficial interpreter. She also has given her life to Shaolin and, by extension, to her master, or as she calls him in Chinese, shifu. Training in Shaolin, the master taught her, isn't about tournaments and color belt systems and trophies. It's about learning to be Zen. It is daily exercise turned into martial arts.
"This was the first dojo I'd seen that wasn't about competition," Cindy says. "It was about longevity." Her long black hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Like her master, she has a round, pleasant face. "Before I came here, I had three jobs," she says. "All I wanted to do was make money. The more I lived like that, the harder it was. I was working so hard to pay for the things I never used because I was always working." Wanting less made life easier, she says.
She gave up bartending. She gave up her apartment. She moved in with her sister and gave up all her worldly possessions -- except for her car. (This is L.A. Cindy is Buddhist, not insane.)
Now she takes care of Testini's meetings calendar, coordinates his trips overseas, cleans and organizes. She volunteers and is not paid. This might seem unfair, but she views the arrangement as a worthy trade for peace and enlightenment. It is a symbiotic relationship. The master takes care of his students' spiritual sustenance and the students take care of his physical requirements. Every day, for instance, they bring him food. "It's our way of showing respect," Cindy says. "If you want something from the master, you need to give something. He doesn't have a car or an iPod. But he still needs money to pay for razors to shave his head."
When the warrior monk was a child growing up in Brindisi, a small port town in Southern Italy, his dad wanted to teach him to become a boxer "because my father is famous Italian boxer," he says. Testini was derailed from that career by age 7, when he found a booklet containing illustrations of a Shaolin monk moving like an animal. The monk in the booklet would move like a tiger or a dragon, say, and text at the bottom of the illustration explained what benefit such movement confers. The master can't remember now where he found the booklet, only that he carried it around with him everywhere: to the fields while tending his family's flock of sheep, to class -- when he'd go, that is. He would distract the other kids with it, to his teacher's everlasting consternation.
"The spirit of children this age ... lot of energy, lot of chi," he recalls with a smile and a shake of the head. He was, he says, an "agitated" child. Agitated?
"What's the word," says Cindy. "It starts with an M. He was mischievous."
His classmates refused to believe that he was a shepherd, for example. So one day, as proof, he brought in a live sheep. "It started to eat book," he recalls.
It wasn't until a cousin introduced him to a Shaolin monk that Testini's mischievous energy finally found an outlet. The cousin had a job delivering fresh milk and cheese to a nearby U.S. military base, where a Korean monk was teaching the troops self-defense. Under that monk's tutelage, Testini began to study martial arts and "started to create the energy."
Testini went to Korea to train. From there he went to China. Years passed. His skills grew. In China he was inducted into the Shaolin Temple at Song Han Mountain in Henan province, where the abbot renamed him Powerful Sky.
"Hollywood has blown this whole kung fu thing out of proportion," Cindy says. "People like to see monks kicking and punching. There are monks who leave the temple and go to Hollywood. They say they want to be Jet Li or Jackie Chan. This is against the rules."
Testini could have sold out to Hollywood, but instead he "spends years and years, suffering day by day" to understand Qigong, the system for cultivating and manipulating the vital force within all living beings. Qigong makes you able to break iron bars over your head and bricks with your bare hand, he explains.
"I break many rocks and stick over years in my head and with my body because I save my chi."
"You see him bending an iron rebar with his throat," Cindy says. She slips a DVD into the player and a documentary springs to life on the TV. The footage shows him outside on Ventura Boulevard pushing a car with an iron bar pinned against his windpipe. "Without the concentration, that could easily pierce his throat."
The master's cellphone beeps from somewhere deep inside his robes and he steps out to answer it. He has the abbot on speed dial.
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Every day is the same. Testini wakes at 5 a.m., exercises for an hour, takes a cold shower. Then he performs a tea ceremony, goes to the temple to cultivate students at Dharma, then a bit of meditation, chanting and paying respect to Buddha. He contemplates philosophy, then teaches martial arts, including endurance, twisting, jumping and "how to make a fist." Then lunch. Then kids come in to train, then teenagers, then adults.
"Sometimes we forget we are human being," the master says. "We have heart, blood, ligament."
People come in to remember. They disappear back into the world, re-energized.
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