One of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve met traveling: Shaolin Master Hu Zhengsheng
Like many other people I’ve met along the way, when I set out to a life of traveling I was seeking to uncover the mysteries of the world, but also to uncover the mysteries of myself. Every journey for me is a spiritual one, every new experience teaches me something. However, in my travels I have been a bit more aggressive in seeking internal enlightenment. I sought out holy men and martial arts masters hoping that some of their wisdom, even just a sliver, could be imbued in me. The first master I encountered on my journeys was Master Hu Zhengsheng, or as I called him, Shifu Hu. Shifu means teacher, and that is exactly what Shifu Hu was to me.
I caught a train deep into the Henan province of China to Dengfeng, the home of the Shaolin temple. Since I was a boy my dream was to train and live with the famous Shaolin monks, and that is exactly what I did for one week. It would be the most grueling, intense, and enlightening week of my entire life.
Shifu Hu is a Shaolin master; he is the disciple of Master Yang Guiwu, one of the most famous masters in the lineage of Shaolin. At his school the Shaolin Temple Traditional Wushu Institute I awoke every morning at before dawn with the other 200 students and ran through the darkness of early morning into the holy Song Mountains where my training would begin. Thousands of kicks, knuckle push ups, and kung fu forms later my week was suddenly over. In just a week my body had been destroyed and rebuilt, I had lost over 10 lbs., and I had found within myself the will to do more than I ever thought possible. As Shifu Hu would say, “I learned to eat bitter.”
Before I left the school, only a few miles from the original Shaolin Temple, I asked Shifu if I could interview him about Shaolin and his school, about his ideas on kung fu and Zen Buddhism, and about his many students. Sitting next to a wall of scrolls over 600 years old containing the private thoughts on kung fu and Buddhism of all his masters before him Shifu Hu and I began our conversation:
Me: Shifu, what are some of your concerns on the state of Shaolin kung fu and your students?
Shifu Hu: I’m worried my students are becoming focused on money, I teach them the Buddhist way and Buddhism is not about money. I’m not your master if your focused on money, I teach them don’t take money from foreigners, don’t cheat foreigners out of their money, I told two students today to leave for taking (cheating foreigners out of their money), they were trying to teach them our art, our kung fu, for 2 to 3 times the price, they have lived here since they were boys, I’m not angry at them, they should be angry at themselves, I feel now I have to rearrange my teaching strategy so students understand materialism isn’t the way of Shaolin kung fu, it isn’t the way of Buddhism and to becoming a good person and having good character.
Me: Where do many of your students come from, what circumstances bring them to you? What type of families do they come from? Are they orphans?
Shifu Hu: When I started the school I wanted to spread kung fu and teach it, that was my only goal. Henan is the farming capital of China, most families here are farmers, they have no money, but the have many, many kids, their only way out of farming and poverty, and their only chance at an education is by training kung fu. I have a few orphans and many children have just been brought here and dropped off by their parents. Most times it’s because their parents have nothing and are just hoping to give their kids a chance. Sometimes the kids are orphans, sometimes they are fat or lazy or delinquent, but it is not a business, I’m here to spread kung fu, Kung Fu is about life, about mastering life, everyone here is a big family, I’m here to support the community.
Me: What major costs do you incur from your students? Do you charge the young boys or their families?
Shifu Hu: Some kids do pay, but most kids don’t pay. Their parents show up once a year or so and give the master a gift, it’s all they can give, I understand the families don’t have money. It’s not about class, it’s not about lower class or upper class, Kung Fu is Chinas and its entitled to every Chinese person, every person, and every foreigner who wants to learn it. Kung Fu belongs to the world.
Me: How do you pay for the boys’ clothes, food, and shelter? How many pairs of clothes does
each boy have?
Shifu Hu: When each boy arrives he is given a traditional kung fu monk uniform, and (master laughs and shakes his head), but if you see now all their clothes are all ripped up, many have holes in their pants and t-shirts, but it’s what we have. All their other clothes are given to them from people in the community, which is very little. In summer time it is too hot for monk clothes, so they either wear a t-shirt or no shirt at all, most kids have only a t-shirt and one pair of pants and it is the rule of this school that the kids have to remain clean and are expected to look so, so they do their own laundry and maintain their cleanliness, it’s tough.
Me: Do you receive outside support from the Shaolin Temple or the government?
Shifu Hu: There is a small amount of help, but the main Shaolin Temple takes most of the money and all my best students, I’ve had friends donate phones, only one person has ever helped give clothes along with a few local people. The (Shaolin) Temple doesn’t want to help because my kung fu is different than their masters, more traditional, and he cannot claim it if it becomes popular or famous, so most times I’m left out.
Me: What has kung fu given to you that you are now giving these boys to help forge their character into being good men?
Shifu Hu: Here is scared, this place is sacred, I want to create a place where it’s all about Kung Fu. I’m scared my kung fu is like the act of throwing a pebble into the water of a bucket. The water will ripple and then end at the edge of the bucket, but if you put the water outside the wind will spread the water like waves and the ripple will continue on forever. My fear is that my Kung Fu will die out, all the real masters are dead and my master is dead. I want to create an environment where martial artists from all over the world can come over and learn, but the Shaolin Temple prevents it most times and cuts in and takes all the students. I have no help to run anything but myself, it’s just me.
Me: What values are these boys learning?
Shifu Hu: The most important thing is to build character, to make a good person. For these kids I have to be a dad and a mom with my small group of coaches, (all of whom are former students). It’s more than Kung Fu, it’s life, and the most important thing you have to teach them is how to live a good life, to be happy, to make the most of what they have, and to have a rich life. True kung fu is much more than physique and building a strong body, it is building a strong life.
Me: Do you feel like the school becomes less of an institute and more of a family after a period of time, do you feel like a father with 200 sons?
Shifu Hu: The reason it’s so important to help these kids is to spread the true Shaolin culture, which is being lost due to competitions, forms, commercialization, and schools popping up, scams and lies about the art. There is an Old kung fu saying that the house cat taught the tiger how to fight, before then the tiger was useless. The house cat taught the tiger everything it knew and eventually one day the tiger became more powerful than its master the house cat and it turned on him. The house cat ran up a tree, which the tiger could not do, because it is not as agile as the cat. The cat never taught the tiger the agility to run up the tree, because one day he knew he could betray and overpower him. But I don’t do that, I teach everything, all my knowledge of Kung Fu, for I fear it will die out and it could be the last chance.
These kids here have no future, no escape from poverty, these kids don’t have the opportunity to adapt, they don’t have good schools or any schools at all, some don’t even have families. They don’t have to be alone in life. If don’t help these kids no else will and every little bit helps. Shaolin makes the kids strong, gives them strong character, and makes them strong-minded. I teach them studies and educate them along with their training. They can overcome anything for the rest of their life if they remember their rigorous training to push forward through any hardship and succeed. They now have the ability to approach any hardship in life and look back and think nothing will ever be as challenging as my Shaolin training and they will overcome it. Simply, kung fu translates to life.
Me: Shifu, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and thank you for everything you’ve taught me.
Shifu Hu: It is my pleasure, someday you will have to learn Mandarin and come back to the school. I would like to have many more conversations.
In my time as his student, Shifu taught me to “eat bitter.” In all of his students Shifu looks for the ability to “eat bitterness.” What this means is that a person must welcome and endure obstacles presented in life, and use them to strengthen their discipline and forge their character. Shifu taught me that the spiritual body must be equal or greater to the material body. Shifu is a Shaolin Kung Fu master, but he is also a Buddhist master. Shifu told me there is nothing greater than honor and doing the right thing. A few years back he was offered the starring role in a Hong Kong kung fu movie. The notoriety of the movie would’ve offered him the ability to spread awareness of his traditional style of kung fu. Even more than that the money garnered from the movie would allow him some much needed support for his students and school. However, Shifu’s Buddhist teachings engrained in him the idea of humility. His master, Master Yang, would tell Shifu, one his most talented students, always to remain humble. “Humility defeats pride, pride defeats man,” Master Yang would say. This news came to him as Master Yang lay dying. After heavy consideration Shifu Hu decided not to do the movie. He would find another way to provide for his 200 students; after all, he is Shaolin.
If you would like to learn more about Master Hu Zhengsheng or his school, or you wish to visit and train under Shifu, here is a link to his website: http://www.shaolinwushuchina.com/index.aspx
Or you can email me at stephen(at)shamelesstraveler.com
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