The Chinatown festival this year was wonderfully educational, chaotic, fun and noisy – and then we heard them announce a Shaolin demonstration, and to our surprise, we found we were unable to move, once they began – because every single moment of it was inspiring and vivid.

The group we saw demonstrating were from the Shaolin Temple Quanfa Institute downtown Toronto – located at 393 Dundas St W – a traditional school which displayed the very finest quality of energy, throughout.

The best lesson of all (top photo)

They opened with this group meditation by some of their younger students – and not only was their focus commendable, so too was their natural grace.

it always makes me sad when I see a child using their hands, to get up from a sitting position – those young limbs are still springs, and are so eager to be treated with delight, and made clever by training of all sorts!

Lifelong habits of focus and self-direction are never so easy to build again.

Poise and balance

Several kids did solo demonstrations – and their level of excellence and pride was lovely to behold. Balance is such a profoundly fundamental thing – and yet so few of us learn to work it deliberately, especially over a broad range of vigorous motion.

Every physical thing we do, we do with our muscles, our bones, our balance, our will, our focus and our spirit. Unifying these and making them our allies, builds well-founded confidence, that extends very broadly in life.

Father and sons

This demonstration by a proud dad and his two eager sons was lovely – the idea of making such practise feel like a natural part of their day by making it a family activity is a huge boost, when it comes to giving those lessons staying power (positive emotional associations help all learning).

Plus, it’s always a lot easier to practise building a skill, when those around you already understand the skill you’re working on.

(Kids of musicians have a strange tendency to already find themselves living in places where they can make a bit of noise on something rather funky, now and then – just for an example) ;o)

I also got a huge kick out of the family watching – kid, open-mouthed. Elders charmed, for sure!

Complete breath

The chief instructor for this impressive school is Shi Chang Dao – who studied traditional Shaolin method kung fu, qi gong, and ch’an under a master teacher and genuine monk of the original Shaolin order – Shi Guo Song.

He did a few demonstrations with weapons, which proved the beauty and precision of his respect for the form, and also the clarity of his focus.

But as a (pathetically lapsed, and fairly lousy anyhow) yoga enthusiast, what most impressed me was the preparation phase of his demonstration of qi gong – the famous ability to manipulate energy, and manage what should be impossible pain – not by mere brute-force willpower of denial, but by highly energetic concentration and self-knowledge – as well as the absolute essential, underlying all of the great traditional energy practises – deep connection to universe itself.

The word Yoga is, as Alan Watts often reminded, derived from the same Latin root as “Yoke” – as in overcoming our chattering and distracting self, and harnessing ourselves instead, to everything.

Complete breath continued

Please pardon me for my digressions, and don’t think I’m trying to simplify this – as I say, I know for certain that a wide array of subtle skills and attunements are all in play, here – but even on the crude level that I could perceive, thanks to some pranayama (breathing yoga), the fullness and complete involvement of this breath were staggering.

All to a purpose, of course. Just how powerful and resilient can one make one’s inner peace?

Qi Gong focus

In the case of Master Shi – powerful enough to break solid iron bars on his skull – first one, then two at a time. Pain not denied but passing right through – mastered in seconds – visibly.

Of course some smart alecks will naturally ask (as they often do of trigonometry, in school) “When am I ever going to use this? I don’t break a lot of iron bars on my head, most days.”

But the one certain thing we can say about life is that it will present us with difficulty, including pain that can sometimes be incredibly difficult to master.

Like balance – being fundamentally attuned to our pain and joy, physical and mental both, is a universally applicable skill set – one that comes back to help us again faithfully, even when we doubt it will be of any use.

Gentle Master

Considering the commendable precision of his own demonstration, many would expect to feel some expression of arrogance, to go with this level of proven mastery.

But this is one of the simplest and most powerful tests to discern the real from the pretender. The master who makes you feel uncomfortable, awestruck or unduly reverent toward him personally – has failed, utterly.

Modesty and kindness are the genuine telltales of a master (in all fields, artistic included) – and Shi Chang Dao radiated these qualities, especially when – as here (moments after breaking those bars on his skull) – he was speaking about the spiritual side of his practise – Ch’an – which is more familiar to us in the west from it’s later Japanese expression, Zen

Essentially – mediation borne philosophy – and indeed there is a common wellspring we can all find here with a bit of patient digging and investment in self, to enhance our experience and our range of responses to life.

Very helpful stuff, even if we don’t wish to learn to kick and whirl (not to mention break up any pool-room fight we ever see again, with a speed-blurred and very whooshy demonstration of superior staff-handling). ;o)

In diversity, strength

Young and old – skinny and heavy – light and dark – all were assembled together – and the mutual respect and family feeling among them all was exquisite – this is my Toronto at it’s finest – everyone together!

I would like to sincerely thank Shi Chang Dao and the whole wonderful group of students who gave us such a generous and inspiring demonstration of human capability, and reminded us in such a friendly way about our always available option, to transcend.

Please carry on the wonderful work – this nourishment radiates far, and does powerful good.

And the very best of luck to the whole team at the international Shaolin competition!

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