“You can find him here at the Shaolin Temple LA, on Ventura Blvd., over the Hollywood Hills.”
And that’s what we did.
“Nobody is a master, everybody is a disciple.”
This was how my conversation with Shi Yan Fan – a 34th Generation Shaolin Warrior Monk, disciple of His Holiness Abbot Shi Yongxin, the spiritual leader of 200 million Chan Buddhists of Shaolin Temple in China – started. An imposing figure in the spiritual world. A gentle, kind, simple, reassuring man among his peers. His name is Franco Testini. He is italian and the first Westerner ever, besides the first monk 300 years ago, to receive Jieba – the Buddhist brand marks that symbolize high status in Shaolin culture – an extremely painful ancient ritual that, at its best, consists of two Masters lighting nine little incense sticks on top of your head, letting them burn for five minutes, while another one keeps your head very still.
Shi Yan Fan was ordained in 2007. Out of the 800 monks present, only 100 were chosen to receive Jieba, and only 43 actually made it until the end.
“The last two minutes are very painful because the fire burns through your skin. You need to be strong. I stayed calm, on my knees, looking at the Tamo statue, the Zen master Bodhidharma. It was a very happy moment, there was so much positive energy all around me, all the monks were chanting, smiling, and supportive. The Jieba is a symbol of your commitment to Shaolin.”
Each mark represents a promise to one of the Rules & Regulations that govern the Shaolin philosophy: do not lie, help others, neither deceive nor judge, never steal, remain celibate, don’t drink alcohol, don’t use drugs, don’t eat meat and don’t kill or abuse animals.
I have to admit, I am curious… you being Italian, how did all this start?
“I was born in Brindisi in 1966. My mother Angela still lives there. I come from a very large family, 5 brothers and 2 sisters. I discovered martial arts at seven years old when my older brother gave me an old manual about Shaolin Qi Energy. I was excited by the Shaolin spirit. Shaolin can do amazing things! When you believe in Qi, you can brake anything, become a sort of superhuman. At that young age, I didn’t really understand any of the words in the book, but my brother tried to explain to me some of the meanings of the sketches & drawings, and the importance of practicing those poses. At the same time, after learning some moves, I would street fight against other kids in order to earn some money to help support my family. Shaolin Qi Energy is like a universe where human beings create their own longevity. The Qi controls your balance, your strength, your flexibility, so, while I was tending my cousin’s sheep in the mountains I would practice the movements illustrated in the book.”
Then he met Kim Wong Feng, a martial monk from Chi Ri temple in South Korea, who took him under his wings as a student. At 9 he began to compete, and in his teens he won most of the competitions. At 19 - he realized fighting wasn’t enough and it was not the life he imagined -Testini left for South Korea where he then spent two years and three months living a monastic life in the Chi Ri Temple. At age 21, he took vows to become a monk.
“Shaolin is a blend of Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism, a practice that is over 1500 years old. The first Shaolin Monastery Abbot was Batuo or Buddhabhadra, a Dhyana Master who came to China from India in 464 A.D. to spread Buddhist teachings. Ultimately, he spent 9 years meditating and learning to be as immobile and stationary as a tree.”
“The real Shaolin is not only about fighting. It’s a medicine, and if you want to learn how to live longer you need to learn about our philosophy. It’s not the physical workout, but the way you live your life, how you eat and sleep. You learn Buddhism, how to pray, chant, contemplate, be compassionate, be humble, how to follow the rules of Buddha. The training involves meditation, contemplation, and prayer, but Shaolin meditation is also about movement, controlling the Qi and steaming the heart as a reaction.”
After a few years in Italy he decided to come to Los Angeles to spread Buddhism and the practice of Shaolin medicine in California. He arrived in 1994, the day after the strong, 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake.
“I had no money, no friends, no place to stay, everything was new and confusing. Everything was a disaster. Buildings were broken, people were lying injured in the streets. People needed help everywhere, so I assisted as many people as I could. There were times when I had no place to spend the night, I would sleep on the sands of Redondo Beach or in abandoned cars. But I trained every day, and welcomed all the people who wanted to practice with me. Some started to give me little donations for my training. In 2004 I went back to China to pay respects to the temple and trained with the monks, where Abbot Shi Yongxin named me Shi Yan Fan, which means Powerful Sky”.
Then he got official permission to open Shaolin Temple Los Angeles where his mission is to continue to spread the teachings of Shaolin. “I teach every aspect of the ancient traditions. Shaolin is a way of life….it is not just about weapons – not just an Hollywood fantasy even if some movies are good to make the childrens dream – is about the combination of meditation, Qi Gong, martial arts, Chan Buddhism, Tai Chi, tea and philosophy. My mission is not to teach, is to help you, when you understand this concept, then you can help yourself and other people.”
“As a kid I played soccer, here in Los Angeles I also teach sports and history, without knowing history you cannot go forward…When you create your Qi, you can learn everything to become a better person, to sit with your back straight, how to say hello, goodbye, all important steps to be a complete human being, spiritual and phisically strong, trying to live as long as you can. I want to be the first westerner to connect the East and the West together… an ambassador, like Marco Polo. Yeah, Marco Polo, the Italian trader and explorer, only difference is I want to introduce Shaolin to Americans.”
Anything italian which you still incorporate in your Shaolin way-of-life?
“When you became a good person, maybe you can get another chance of living another life, even if we don’t decide where we come from, we can build our own nature, a better one. Even in THAT other LIFE, I will be an italian. Can’t give up Italian food. My favorite pasta is aglio e olio, is part of my culture. I still love risotto ai funghi and pasta puttanesca.”
Shaolin training is open to all ages and athletic abilities, anyone can practice Shaolin.