A rare glimpse of Zen

Times Staff Writer

Never call the practice of classical Shaolin kung fu a "performance," says American photographer Justin Guariglia, whose new book, "Shaolin: Temple of Zen," takes the reader into the cloistered world of the monks who uphold the tradition in China's 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple.

The correct term, says Guariglia, is "demonstration."

"The monks are not entertainers," says the 33-year-old photographer, who spent five years building the trust of the monks to gain access to their life inside the monastery.

Photos from the book, published by Aperture in October, are featured in a traveling exhibition, on display at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design through March 29.

"When the media shows up, they want to be entertained," Guariglia continued in a recent conversation at Otis College, joined by Shaolin monk Shi De Chao, who had flown in from China to demonstrate -- not perform -- kung fu at the gallery recently. "They are overwhelmed and bombarded. A lot of people want to exploit them."

Most pilgrims to the Shaolin Temple, Guariglia says, come looking for the drama of kung fu as seen in movies starring Jackie Chan or Jet Li, or the flying fight scenes of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Jet Li's skill, Guariglia explains, is actually the modern competitive martial art wushu, not traditional Shaolin kung fu.

The "warrior monks" don't fight, Guariglia says. "They did 100 years ago, but there's no warlords running China anymore. If you ask a monk why he practices kung fu, he'll say that kung fu is a vehicle for Zen, meaning it's a form of meditation."

Guariglia's exhibition, which includes stills from the book as well as videos, captures the active and the contemplative sides of the monks' existence, mixing serene black-and-white portraits with vibrant color shots of the monks executing kicks, poses, jumps and spins, practiced out of view to visitors.

The photographer also turns his lens on the tourist's effect on the peaceful surroundings, including a gaggle of visitors paying for a look through binoculars at a stone statue of the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. Another shot shows cartons and plastic bottles strewn outside.

Guariglia's wife, visual artist Zoe Chen, 33, contributed to the project by creating assemblages of photographs of the monks in practice. Formerly a fashion designer for Issey Miyake in Tokyo, Chen has created designs that often involve intricate knit patterns that seem reflected in the photo assemblages.

As explained in the book in an essay by scholar Matthew Polly, an Indian Buddhist missionary named Damo -- Bodhidharma in Sanskrit -- brought to the temple the idea that the key to enlightenment was "not merit (i.e., good works) but a dawn-to-dusk practice of sitting meditation."

Problem was, sitting meditation also resulted in some very flabby monks, so Damo introduced a series of calisthenic exercises much like yoga. The practice, Polly writes, "introduced the idea that action could also be spiritual."

To protect the real monks' practice from exploitation, Guariglia says, Shih Yong Xin, abbot of the Shaolin Temple, often calls upon students from the many nearby martial arts schools to provide a show for the tourists. "The kids dress up as monks and give performances; not many people see anything beyond that," he says.

Though a few schools are run by monks, most are led by folk masters. And, Guariglia adds, "most of the kids have no Zen training at all; they are not trained in Buddhism. At the temple, you have monks that only pray and monks who do kung fu, and some do both -- but all are trained in Buddhism."

It is perhaps telling that, at his gallery demonstration, De Chao spent more time on the meditative than the martial aspects of his practice.

De Chao briefly exhibited his skill at wielding the "monk's spade" or "Bodhidharma spade" -- a pole with two curved blades of hardened steel flashing wickedly on each end. "You might want to stand back," suggested Guariglia with a grin.

But then the massive monk took an unexpectedly passive stance: In the next portion of the presentation, the martial arts master allowed inexperienced visitors to hit him, inviting 18 randomly selected onlookers to make three selfless wishes, then slap the back of his hand as hard as they liked.

As with most actions of a Shaolin monk, there was a spiritual purpose: To channel the qi, or energy, of those who would strike him into a work of calligraphy, another aspect of De Chao's practice.

The blows included the hesitant tap of a preschool child and ringing slaps from strong adults. Through it all, De Chao stood like a stone. Then, still smiling, he crouched and slammed the back of his thick-wristed hand against the gallery's polished concrete floor, a harder strike than any that had been wielded against him by the others. De Chao says that, by hitting the floor, he "is gathering energy from everyone on Earth, and all of their wishes are being transmitted through the brush . . . to be preserved in the calligraphic painting forever."

With the collective qi gained from both, De Chao was ready to set to work on two 4-by-6-foot sheets of white paper, weighted to the floor with smooth river rocks. With large brushes dipped in pots of black ink, he fills one white sheet with the Chinese character "Fo," for Buddha, and the other with "wu," for martial arts.

To the question of how he chooses the characters, De Chao responds through translation from Mandarin by Guariglia: "It comes from my heart."

De Chao and Guariglia both laugh as they note that the three days Guariglia spent as De Chao's kung fu disciple were a dismal failure, but De Chao says -- this time with Chen as the interpreter -- that he believes fate led Guariglia to the Shaolin Temple.

"Everyone has their own kung fu, and his is photography," De Chao says, the heavy prayer beads around his wrist clacking softly as he fingers them. "The photographs show his spiritual side."

diane.haithman@latimes.com

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'Shaolin: Temple of Zen'

Where: Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays

Ends: March 29

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 655-6905

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