We’ve all seen the Kung Fu movies of Ip Man, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero to name a few. Years growing up watching the Big Big Movie on Saturday nights entailed parking up on the couch with popcorn wincing at Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee tore through foes. I always found myself fascinated by martial arts and put myself in imaginary fight situations where I was a bad ass Kung Fu master taking names and kicking ass.
However, now I’m a person who has found an addiction to breathwork and meditation. In my search for meditation, Zen and similar retreats in China, I spoke to anyone who would listen to see if they knew anything. After reaching out to several temples, monasteries and even monks on LinkedIn (Yup, even they’re on it), all my leads led to dead ends. Eventually, a tip off from a fellow traveller of a monastery high in the mountains near the Ancient Town of Dali in South West China that takes pupils came across my path. I looked into it and found another traveller who had blogged his experience here and it seemed right up my alley.
Things you need know before you go to Wu Wei Si:
*Go on Friday evening to get the start of the training week which begins on Saturday morning.
*The cost is 500 Yuan for the week, non refundable if you feel you can’t hack it and want to wimp out.
*Lights out is 9:30pm so that means you are in bed at that time and not getting ready for bed.
*You’ll need a scarf or towel for balancing boulders on your head. It’ll be rather painful without one.
*You have the option of Tai Chi or Kung Fu. One in internal and one is external. DO NOT mistake Tai Chi as the easy option.
*Do your laundry before as hot water isn’t really available in large amounts. You’ll also use most of your free time sleeping.
*Have good shoes for training as the training field can get rather slippery when it rains.
*Bring plenty of toilet paper, you’re going to need it.
*It’s colder up in the mountains than below in Dali so bring some warmer clothes.
*Unless you really want to test your dietary discipline, bring some dried fruit, nuts and biscuits in a hard lunchbox for snacking on.
*There is a small library here but bring your own as you’ll have a few breaks to fill.
*There is no fruit served so vitamin intake is low. Bring a few multivitamins.
*There is no washing machine so all washing is done by hand. Have plenty of socks with you.
*If you want to sleep through morning prayer and the night time prayer closing the day, I advise bringing some ear plugs. I actually liked the singing so usually stayed up to listen to it but it’s not for everyone.
*Bring a torch. Dear god bring one, moving about in the dark is treacherous. Each doorway has a lip at the bottom that *I fell over a few times. Luckily avoiding anyone catching this rather embarrassing debacle.
*Bring some tea bags, at night before bed you can enjoy a hot cuppa before hitting bed. Go for herbal teas though. *Caffeine will keep you awake and when you’re up at 5:30am every morning to the sounds of bells, singing, gongs, bowls and drums, you’ll really need every bit of sleep you can get.
While in Yangshou cycling through the thundering rains in nothing but a sweat vest and a pair of swimming shorts (it really was that rainy, imagine brown river water bursting its banks and cycling knee deep through water hoping you are on a path and you are somewhere close), I slipped from my bike landing onto my camera smashing its lens and putting my back into serious disarray. When I arrived in Dali, I contemplated giving up on my dream of finding this temple in the clouds to let my shoulder heal. Not to be beaten, I waited 7 days in the old town with no improvement yet deciding to make my way up the mountain anyway. Upon packing up my bag and saying goodbye to my new found friends, I started on my way.
I arrived into a gravelled area with a small monk, wearing a jade encrusted garment and prayer beads, with a whispy black beard crawling out from his chin, standing at the top of an immaculately clean footpath. Confused as to whether I walked up further towards the large leering Buddhas or otherwise, I approached the monk and said Wu Wei Si while making some “Kung Fu Gestures”. I now realise how ridiculous that was as this was the Shifu (master). I walked down the path that was lined with flowers, giant trees, squirrels and bamboo to arrive in a courtyard that hosted a small group of Chinese people sheltering under a tree. I wandered around the temple grounds, through the various chambers for anyone who would see me and know why I was there. Eventually, I approached one of the group who miraculously spoke very broken english. She went wandering for me only to return with the message “Not today, you come back tomorrow”. Disheartened I waited for another two hours until I turned tail and headed back to town.
I woke up at 4:30am next morning, brought my friend Anja with me and made my way back up to the monastery. This time I could hear the thump of drums banging, gongs roaring and bells ringing in the distance. Following the noise, we stumbled upon a Ukrainian man who beckoned us in and told us that the person we needed to talk to would be along any minute. After the formalities of passport checking, I was asked as to whether or not I wanted to do Tai Chi or Kung Fu. I went for Tai Chi or ‘internal Kung Fu’ to further my meditative research.
Before beginning, I was made read two sheets of rules that I was to abide by. Failure to comply with these rules as set out by the master would result in being expelled. You can see the rules below which are a little outdated the schedule has seemingly changed a lot.
My room was a small 3×5 meter space with two wooden beds. I scavenged a few blankets, pillows and other pieces from nearby empty rooms to make a comfortable nest. I noticed a rat running out the door as I began putting my sheets on. This wasn’t the first time Speedy Gonzales made himself known to me or his many brothers and sisters. In the middle of the night when the scrabble and squeaking would begin I’d sit bolt upright and begin clapping like a mad man to scare them away and let them know I was watching. I’m sure the monks and my neighbours thought I was mad. I did learn however that you dare not leave anything edible in your room and if you did, leave it in plain sight….if it’s in your bag, that’s the fastest way to put a hole in it.
My room with no light. You can see my food bowl and chop sticks. A bigger bowl is used on days where we were served noodles. There is no power or light in any of the rooms.
My room with a view. You can see my food bowl and chop sticks. A bigger bowl is used on days where we were served noodles. There is no power or light in any of the rooms.
Some times I’d return from training to find a few solid raisin looking pieces of rat shit on my bed. You simply flick it off and go to sleep. Monk life! Each day went as follows:
One of the monks (with a lovely voice mind you), begins singing prayer and slamming a bell larger than a Ford Fiesta with a very large log. Every part of your body wants to stay in your wooden monastic bed, but when this bell is merely 10 meters from your ear, you’re soon lying there wide awake staring in the dark. Oh that’s right, no electricity and no light. I fell in love with the singing and the bell really helps you focus your way into the day. Click below to hear him in action.
Prayer in the temple begins. I have no idea what they are saying as I haven’t a word of Chinese but I kneel there facing large painted statues of Buddha while my hands stay in prayer position and I try and stay awake. Now and again, I follow suit and bow down or walking in a conga line like fashion while everyone else chants the prayers. You hear the prayers so much that after a while you almost learn the words, but yet you’ve no idea what they mean. Kind of like learning essays for leaving cert Irish.
I gather with the other pupils and take a short run around the mountain to the river where we pick a stone, place it on our head and go back to the monastery. The view over the valley is amazing. Every day when you wake up and your back is aching, as soon as you put that boulder on your head and your posture straightens up, you’re ready for the day of training ahead. Each day, I tried to get a bigger and bigger rock. Being slightly competitive, I try to get back first. As you walk back, as with the buddhist way, you walk left around things including statues and staircases. Making your way round the mountain and down the 100 or so steps past a 1200 year old tree, older than any of the buildings that have been ravaged by communist bandits or warring states, you get a real sense of ancient wisdom in this place.
Getting back quicker gives me time to practice my form and do some stretching before training starts.
Tai Chi is essentially the art of squatting. Everything we did involved moving from squat to squat, stretching in squats and holding positions in squats…often as punishment. The fucking burn can kill and then you’ll hear… “lower….LOWER”. With so much squatting it’s important to stretch and lord god did we stretch and then stretch some more.
The clanging bell rings out over the training fields. This bell is not like the others and it’s a bell tone I fell in love with. It means food. In this case it’s breakfast. More often than not it’s rice noodles, wheat noodles or stuffed buns that all comes with a large bowl of rice porridge. It may not sound glorious when I’m explaining it here but trust me, hunger is the best sauce. Everything is vegetarian here and the old women who work there honestly make eating vegetarian an absolute joy. I’d nearly go as far as to say it’s the highlight of the place and that’s saying a lot. So you get a bowl and chopsticks. These are yours for the entire time you are here. You clean them and keep them safe in your room. When walking into the dining hall, it is mandatory to approach the table where the master sits and to say “Amitofu”. It took me four days before I realised what it actually meant. It basically means a multitude of things, depending on how it is used. It can be a greeting, a salutation, a blessing, or it can mean “please”. When the master chanted Amitofu, we held a silence with hands together until he ate. When he did, we dived in. There are chop sticks on the table for putting food into your bowl but you daren’t eat with these….you have your own. Eating is done in silence and you are to sit up straight to work on your posture. Eating is seen as a meditative exercise almost. When you leave your table you leave your bowl and chopsticks down, greet every table with Amitofu in 2’s or 3’s and then grab your shit and leave. The master usually left before me but he had a special cushion, towel for his face and a large black bowl (ours was the size of a small white sugar bowl).
Afterwards, the master and a few others gather in the courtyard and practice prayers with the master correcting the monks and others on how they are sung, to what rhythm and the pace. I sit in the outer circle listening but more watching how the master is. On one occasion he answered his phone mid practice and on another occasion he saw someone he recognised and started shouting to them across the courtyard while the rest were still singing. Not sure how mindful he was but he was certainly an entertaining character to witness. It turns out that the director of Kung Fu Panda spent some time here for inspiration…
Training starts. That’s right, more stretching, holding kung fu poses and stretching each other. We spend 20 minutes massaging the muscle in each others backs and ripping the arms off each other. After this is done, we gather in groups of threes. To rip the legs off each other. This is painful but I learnt to love it as I became more flexible than I have ever been before. They show no mercy.
Next, now that our legs feel like jelly we move onto the basics. These are the movements that make up the forms of Tai Chi. They are simple but to get them right with breathing I had sweat beating down my face. Even in the rain we would continue training. After running through the basics we would add new parts to our form. To those of you who aren’t too familiar with Tai Chi, to the untrained eye it looks like a slow dance but in actuality you are fighting multiple opponents in very slow motion. There is theory to the movement and there is a lot to be learnt from every stroke of your hand or lift of your leg.
After three hours of training, the bell for lunch rings out again. This time, we’re ravenous. Usually after finishing everything on our table, the left overs from other tables that the deciples or monks haven’t finished get moved to our table where we sit like vultures waiting for the scraps to land. Again the monks gather to pray and sing in the courtyard. I went the first few days.
This is the free time we have for the day between training session. At the beginning, I would spend every minute of it sleeping setting my alarm to get up and begin the grind all over again. Then I moved to exploring the grounds, speed reading through books with a focus I’ve never had before and discovering the other areas of the monastery. Wandering and climbing behind the walls of the temple I found a lonely grave. No idea who it belonged to but it seemed rather important.
I also found a walkway up the mountain to a new temple they were building that was to become a meditation centre. Insanely huge and impressive, you are left jaw dropped when looking around. It was very clear that there is money coming into this place. I was told before coming to the monastery by some practicing buddhists who have had some experience to be wary of temples charging lots of money for training etc. However, in the time I was there I did see people counting bags of money by candle light on the floor in one room on enight, special guests who would attend dinner with the master and other ways they seemed to raise funds. They seemed to be expanding and adding to the monastery all the time. Either way, the place looked very impressive and it worked out €75/week including all meals (three per day), accommodation and training so I was pretty delighted with myself.
Training resumed with more leg ripping torture, practicing form and going over the basics.
Dinner with all the usual bells and whistles. As was normal, not a scrap was left on the table. Anything that fell from your bowl had to be eaten. There were occasions where a scrap of spinach or a few grains of rice would fall from my bowl and I’d have to pick it up with my chop sticks and shove it down. Eating had to be done with the bowl in your hand and even if you are spoken to by another person at your table, you most definitely should not reply. Now, I’m a chatter box so I nearly broke this rule all the time. That didn’t go down to well. There are a few people who have been there a while either teaching or staying there who make a good deal to point out if you do anything wrong at dinner time. Almost to show you how in tune with monastery life they are. When really, others and often the master doesn’t mind all that much. We were told that we can fill our bowls but not eat before the master gives his blessing. As I began to do so, one woman began in a loud voice that it was only rice that this was allowed for only for her to be shushed by the master and for her to blush. Now these are really really lovely people and I miss them all but it’s just interesting to witness.
Evening prayer begins with a large smack of the bell and everyone making their way to the temple. After trying this out a few times, I decided to stop attending and using the free time to practice my form, do some breathing exercises and chat with the other pupils. While it’s still bright and before I’m left feeling my way around in the dark, I try to get my teeth washed and fill my food bowl with hot water to clean myself with an old t-shirt. I soon learnt there were showers I could use. After seeing the showers, I continued to use my bowl and even found a basin after a few days.
Their new meditation centre higher up the mountain isn’t open to outsiders yet as far as I know but you can catch a glimpse of the beauty. I snook around to get a glimpse through a gap in the door. Simply stunning
On one occasion I was sitting in a pagoda in my evening free time just outside the temple doing some stretches and breath-work on my own when three Chinese tourists popped along. As is usual, they all wanted pictures…something you get rather used to in China. If you say no, they take them anyway so you just get used to being pleasant about it. Two wandered away and one woman asked could she copy what I was doing. I started doing my breathing exercises and when finished she was about to go on her merry way when the Master came out of the side entrance making an angry face and shouting at me. I never understand what he’s saying so I do the usual “Amitofu” you have to say every time you see him. He walks around storms up the steps and begins shouting at me in Chinese. Still confused I just stand there with a smacked look on my face. The woman begins saying sorry and starts trying to get my WeChat details while at the same time he begins dragging me back into the temple courtyard.
A few moments later, I’m joined by my English speaking trainer (who is absolutely incredible) who essentially says that I shouldn’t have been alone with a woman. You see, the accommodation there is split into female/male and never the two shall meet. A man and woman can’t be alone together but I think what really irked him was the fact I was doing Pranayama with the woman, something the temple doesn’t teach and was possibly and embarrassment for monastery? I don’t know really. I found the whole thing rather entertaining but I was told that if anything like that happened again (sitting with a woman), that I’d be kicked out for good. Apparently this is the first time this had happened with the master in the entire 2.5 years my English speaking trainer had been there. Typical.
You can gather some hot water in a thermos for your room. A bell sounds and the singing begins again just as it did in the morning with the clambering and chanting. You can wander around a little but it’s so dark you won’t even see the statues of Buddha you are to bow to. I try get to the spring that gives water from the mountain. All natural springs have been privatised in China so this is the last one and often there are cars that pull up to the two bamboo pipes that peep out from a rock engraved with Chinese characters, filling huge containers and every bottle they have in their possession. I drank mountain water everyday, sometimes with grit in it but man it was fresh and cooling.
Lights out and everyone is to make their way to bed. Pitch black, complete silence and the muscles aching in every part of your body make a great tonic for sleep. If in the middle of the night you need to go to the toilet, you are in for a real treat. If you are lucky enough to have any battery in your phone for torch or a light source, good for you. Mine had all gone so I was left playing the role of a blind man leaving the temple and walking down the path to the toilet building. I say toilet but I really mean, gutter. You squat over a tiled gutter, do your business and make your way back. With literally no light, you can imagine how much of a nightmare this was. Close your eyes….do it, right now and keep them closed….now imagine going to the toilet with ease. Exactly…