The International Writers Magazine: Extract from Antonio Graceffo's
book set in China
Monk From Brooklyn
...an American at the Shaolin Temple
(From the book, the Monk from Brooklyn)
The Shaolin Temple,
the birthplace of Kung Fu and modern Chinese Buddhism, is the oldest
and most mysterious kung fu school in the world. It is an exotic and
mythical destination of daydreams to millions of people. In the history
of the temple, very few foreigners have ever had a chance to study there.
Foreigners have been allowed to study in many of the Shaolin schools,
near the temple, which have taken the Shaolin name as a marketing ploy,
but less than fifty foreigners have studied at the original Shaolin
Temple. Antonio was lucky enough to be one of the few, he has twenty-five
years of experience with martial arts, so it is with a knowing eye that
he observed the training at the temple. But it is his background that
gives him a very unique perspective. An Italian American from Brooklyn,
New York, and a former investment banker, he was educated in some of
the best universities, which Europe and Asia have to offer.
title says it all. Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American, from Brooklyn
in the holiest of Buddhist temples, and watch the racial harmony flow.
One reviewer of his articles said, "Now I know why there are no
ambassadors from Brooklyn."
Deng Feng Village, Shaolin Temple I stared out the window of the
taxi, and took in the sights of the rural Chinese countryside. For
hours I saw nothing but primitive houses, mud and brick huts, and
people toiling in fields. It was like the opening scene in 'Monty
Python and the Holly Grail.'
"Denis, there is some lovely filth over here."
A horse-drawn wagon went by with three or four poorly dressed passengers,
and I suddenly realized I wasn't in Brooklyn anymore. I wasn't even
in Taiwan, my home for the last two years. I was in China, Big China,
Communist China, and it was a little scary.Spending time in Taiwan
first gave me a chance to acclimatize and learn the language. No
one spoke English here at all. The shock of moving directly from
New York to rural China would have killed me. It would have been
like flying from base camp to the summit of Mount Everest. I'd be
dead within seconds of landing.On the way to the train station,
the taxi driver asked me why I was in China. I told him I wanted
to study Kung Fu, and showed him the information I had grabbed off
Photo: Antonio Graceffo with the monks
I was planning
to go to the Shaolin Wu Su and Civil Institute in the Shaolin Village,
in Deng Feng. He said that he would take me all the way to Shaolin village
for 300 RMB (About $36 US). This seemed easier than taking a train.
So, I agreed. Next, he said. "My brother is a Kung Fu teacher.
Let's go get him." Against my protestations, we drove an hour out
of the way, and picked up his brother. The brother had two other friends
who were Kung Fu teachers and they wanted to come with us too. Our twosome
became a fivesome, and we pressed on.
I saw healthy looking boys limping, I knew we were close.
It reminded me of my Kung Fu team back in Taiwan. They were some of
the most gifted athletes I had ever seen, but they were always injured.
As we drove through Deng Feng Village, I could not believe how many
Kung Fu schools there were. I learned later that there were nearly 40,000
Kung Fu students living at the 40 or so schools.
By the time we got to the temple, it was after 8:00 Pm, and the temple
was closed. I figured that they just wanted to show it to me before
they took me to the Kung Fu school I had found on the internet. The
driver leaned out the window and spoke with the ghostly figure of a
cloaked monk. A few minutes later, the gates opened, and we drove inside.
I couldn't believe it! I was here, the Shaolin Temple. It looked exactly
like it did in the movies. I kept expecting David Carradine, Kwai Chang
Kain, to come walking around the corner. The monks, wearing their hooded
robes, were a scene right out of 'The Name of the Rose.' Our new monk
friend took us to his room. Some older monks joined us. With long gray
beards and shaved heads, they looked like ZZ Tops Hari Krishna cousins.They
asked me millions of questions about Taiwan and the US. I steered clear
of the Taiwan independence issue as much as I could. They also wanted
to see my boxing and my Tae Kwan Do. It amazed me that even at the Shaolin
Temple they thought boxing was such an interesting and exotic sport.
In Chinese they often refer to boxing as 'American Kung Fu.' They particularly
enjoyed seeing my signature feat, 180 punches in one minute. I read
somewhere that Bruce Lee could do more than double that number.
It was getting late, and we were all hungry, so the first monk took
us all out for dinner. I thought monks were supposed to take a vow of
poverty, but when the bill came he whipped out a wad of cash that would
have gotten him rolled in a second back home in Williamsburg. I made
a mental note to teach him how to play cards later.
One of the
many Chinese specialties, which I had, was dog meat. Monks are
vegetarians. So, they didn't have to eat any of Old Yeller. I
ate some, just to be one of the guys, and as a sort of nonspecific
revenge for the existence of French poodles. It wasn't bad. It
tasted like any other meat, a little gamier than manatee, and
a bit greasier than koala or panda.
When we went back to the temple one of the taxi driver's friends,
a former student at the Shaolin Temple, took me outside, and handed
me a Buddhist prayer book."Put $200 US in this book."
He said. "Go inside, prostrate before the monk three times,
and then hand him the book. If you do that you will be in."
In? You mean I could
study at the Shaolin Temple? I had been planning to study at one of
the commercial schools in the village. Studying at the actual Shaolin
Temple was beyond my wildest dreams. But what was this issue with the
money? Was this a case of 'Our philosophies are Eastern, but our payment
methods are Western?' Put the money in the book and hand it to the monk?
This is one of the oldest scams in the world. They get you to put money
in the book then they switch books, and you loose your money. The Taxi
driver's friend was getting impatient. He kept up a constant barrage
of fast Chinese, explaining and re-explaining what he wanted me to do,
as if the issue were that I didn't understand. I understood just fine.
I just didn't want to do what he was asking me.
In between explanations, he was alternately pushing my shoulder, and
throwing kicks in the air. I was certain that one of those kicks could
have broken my leg. But he was still standing close enough for me to
knock him out with a punch. But then what? If I hit him I probably wouldn't
get to study at the Shaolin Temple. The others would still rob me, and
I would loose my money anyway.
Suddenly I found myself in one of those situations only I can find myself
in. I was in Mainland China. I wasn't registered with the US Embassy.
I wasn't at the school I had told my family and friends I was going
to. Nobody knew where I was. I had no friends. These guys could have
killed me, and no one would have asked about the body. In the US or
Taiwan I always get a little tough with people when I don't get my way.
I know that if worse came to worst I could fight my way out of most
rooms. But here I would be fighting my way out of a room full of Kung
Fu monks. A quick mental call to Atlantic City said the bookmakers were
giving 5000 to one against my survival if I refused to give up my money.
I did as he told me, and put the money in the book, but as a compromise,
I made sure to keep control of the book. If I was going to pay a bribe
to get into the Shaolin Temple, I at least wanted the bribe to get to
the right person. If bribing a holly man was like God's payola, I wanted
to make sure Cesar got every penny I rendered unto him. In a very ham-handed
and laughable way, the guy tried to pull the old switcheroo. "Give
me the book." He said, kneeling down. " I will show you how
to hand it to the monk."
"Yeah, I got a better idea, Momo, how about I show you where you
can stick your head." I thought. I laughed. If he tried running
a scam this stupid in New York, he'd be left under the boardwalk somewhere
with his pockets turned inside out. Once my money was inside, he'd have
had to use a crowbar to get that book out of my hands.
With apparent resignation in his face, he lead me back to the monk's
quarters, and just before I went inside he tried to grab the book out
of my hand again. God! Had this guy never heard of Brooklyn? I handed
him my diary, instead. "Hold this for me." I said.I went in,
prostrated three times, and gave the book to the monk. He nodded approvingly.
I saw him exchange a look with the one who had taken me outside. Had
they prearranged to steal my money? The other passengers and the driver
all stared at the friend questioningly. I guess everyone had been promised
a share for their trouble.
"What is your religion?" The monk asked.
"Catholic." I answered.
"To be a monk you have to be Buddhist." He explained.
"No problem." I answered.
When my friend Herschel's little brother had his Barmitzva I went to
temple with his family. Isn't this sort of the same thing? Anyway I
am not looking at it as a conversion. It is more like an advanced field
experiment in theology. It had been so long since I had been in Church
I think Father Carmine would have just shaken his head and said. "At
least he is attending services."
"Wait here." Said the monk.
He went outside and wacked up my bribe money with the taxi driver and
Before they left, the taxi driver had the balls to come and ask me to
pay the fare. "Why don't you just take it out of your commission?"
I wanted to ask. But I had become a monk, so I wasn't able to feel anger
at anyone anymore, not even some jerk-face moron who tried to steal
my money. I felt pity instead. After everyone had gone, the monk returned
and said. "Put your things here." Apparently I would be sharing
the room with him, and his novice monk. The novice and I hit it off
right away. He was twenty-five years old, and a good guy. Also, in the
couple of hours I had been there he hadn't tried to steal from me.
It is frigin cold in China, and there is no heating in the temple. I
would later find out that even homes are not heated. The monks live
in relative squalor. The chambers were just tiny, concrete rooms, about
twice the size of a deluxe suite at Attica, with absolutely nothing
in them apart from a bed and a desk. The only things the monks seemed
to own, apart from my $200, was the clothes on their backs. The Chinese
are rather dirty in general, and throw trash and litter out the window.
The temple grounds, at least the part where the monks lived, were strewn
with refuse. The novice led me through a labyrinth of out door alleyways
to the communal toilet. There was no electric light, and in addition
to being ice-cold, the night was pitch dark. The toilet was just a hole
in the ground, overflowing with human waste. There wasn't even a privacy
screen or anything, so everyone could see you poop.
We returned to the room, where the monk and novice shared their hot
water with me. I would learn later that hot water was a rare commodity.
The novice would carry a single, one-liter thermos jug to the kitchen
every morning at 5:30 AM, and fill it with boiling water. That was the
hot water ration for the two of them for the day.
I put on thermals, sweats, thick woolen socks, and my Navy watch cap.
I crawled into bed, and wrapped up in the blankets they had given me.
"Tomorrow you will have your head shaved. Then we will begin."
Said the monk.
The story continues.
book, The Monk From Brooklyn, is available at barnesandnoble.com
Contact the author at email@example.com
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