Everybody was kung-fu fighting...

...but at the Shaolin Temple they're not exactly fast as lightning. James Rampton settles into monastic life
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The Independent Travel

The Westernisation of China's big cities has been so dramatic that it's a relief to discover that, away from the conurbations, the country's ancient history has not been wiped out in the mad dash to capitalism. At the Shaolin Temple near Zhengzhou, an hour's flightsouth of Beijing, rituals and surroundings have remained unchanged for 1,500 years in the birthplace of both Zen Buddhism and kung fu.

The Westernisation of China's big cities has been so dramatic that it's a relief to discover that, away from the conurbations, the country's ancient history has not been wiped out in the mad dash to capitalism. At the Shaolin Temple near Zhengzhou, an hour's flightsouth of Beijing, rituals and surroundings have remained unchanged for 1,500 years in the birthplace of both Zen Buddhism and kung fu.

On the road to the temple from the nearest village, Dengfeng, you get some impression of the importance of this place to Buddhists. Up to 100 schools, where more than 100,000 youngsters come to study Zen Buddhism and kung fu. More than 3,000 of these are Westerners, many of them inspired by the Shaolin monks' dazzling kung fu stage show. They haveperformed it in more than 30 countries and released a DVD, Kung Fu Masters Live.

Pupils start studying when they are as young as three. Their aim is to attain such expertise by the age of 18 that they will be invited to study with a Master at the neighbouring temple and eventually be admitted as one of its 80 ordained soldier or scholar monks.

As you drive higher into the Shaoshi mountain range, the temple comes into view. Built on nine levels of ascending importance, from the humble entrance at the bottom to the holiest Buddhist shrine at the top, it is an undeniably impressive sight. Each courtyard is filled with the heady scent of incense and flanked by exquisite pagodas adorned with striking red doors and turquoise, cream and gold ceilings. The roofs slope upwards at the edge so that demons trying to land on them will slide up and away.

At the entrance to the felicitously named Meditation Yard For All Directions, is a long gallery presided over by glazed statues of celebrated monks from the past. Count off the statues until you reach the one whose number corresponds with your age: this statue is said to represent you in a previous life.

When I located mine, a large, ruddy-cheeked man with whom, I admit, I share more than a passing resemblance, a sage in flowing orange robes told me that in my previous incarnation I had been a dedicated Buddhist. He went on to ruminate that in my current life I was destined to work hard but never to become a politician. Phew! But perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip was the trek up to Bodhidharma's Cave on the summit of Song Shan, the mountain behind Shaolin Temple and the place where both kung fu and Zen Buddhism were invented.

An Indian monk called Bodhidharma came to the temple AD27, anxious to spread the word about his brand of meditative Buddhism. His theory was that you could achieve enlightenment through deep and prolonged meditation. So he scaled Song Shan and sat in a cave for eight years, voiding his mind of all extraneous material. Legend has it that the sun eventually burnt a "spirit image'' of his face on to the cave wall. Then Bodhidharma came back down to the temple and gave the world Zen Buddhism.

Stretching his muscles in imitation of the animals he saw on the summit of Song Shan, Bodhidharma developed movements that were then named after creatures: the snake, scorpion, eagle and tiger. When the temple was later attacked by rapacious warlords, Bodhidharma and his followers evolved these kinetic exercises into a form of self-defence that became known as kung fu.

Unlike the Hollywood version of the martial art executed by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and any number of Quentin Tarantino's muscular heroes, true kung fu is a deeply spiritual practice. It is inseparable from the rest of Buddhism, another way of manifesting the depth of your faith through rigorous self-discipline.

At various resting points on the way up the mountain, hawkers try to flog you everything from bottled water to mini-Buddhas. One enterprising salesman rents out walking shoes to those who have come in unsuitable high heels.

The climb to the top of Song Shan is demanding, although the monks blithely run up it in 20 minutes every morning. Many then crawl back down on all fours.

Bodhidharma's cave is tiny, dank and unprepossessing; even the smell of incense and the sound of a nun chanting Buddhist prayers inside can do little to cheer up this claustrophobic space. But its very dinginess is a tribute to Bodhidharma's self-sacrifice; Shaolin Temple is still largely cut off from the rest of the world. Two women on top of the mountain had their picture taken with me because they had never seen a Westerner.

On the Tube back from Heathrow, I sat opposite a woman reading a book entitled Why Buddhism? A visit to the Shaolin Temple would provide her with some of the answers.

The new Shaolin monks' show, 'Kung Fu Masters Live', is now on video and DVD

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Air China (020-7630 0919; www.airchina.co.uk) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Zhengzhou via Beijing from around £435. From the airport, a 45-minute taxi ride to Dengfeng costs around £20.

Where to stay

Tianzhong Grand Hotel, 6 Zhongyue Avenue, Dengfeng (00 86 371 289 1678) costs from £50 per night for a double room.

Further information

China National Tourist Office (0900-160 0188; www.cnta.gov.cn). Tourist visas, valid for three months, are required to visit mainland China. Chinese Embassy Visa Information (0900-188 0808).

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