I'm enjoying the book American Shaolin more than any book in a long time. Matthew Polly spent two years at the Shaolin Temple as one of the only Westerners living at the Temple and practicing with the monks.
The book is a lesson in the Chinese culture--and an entertaining one. Among my favorite parts is when he's watching kung fu videos with the monks. In traditional Chinese kung-fu movies the hero always dies. Matthew brought some Seagal and VanDamme movies and showed them. The youngest monk asked at one point, "When is the hero going to die?" Matthew explained that VanDamme wasn't going to die because he's the hero.
The monks were confused. How can he be a hero if he doesn't die?
Matthew asked the young monk to explain why he felt that the hero had to die. An older monk spoke up and said (paraphrasing), "It doesn't take courage to fight when you know you can win. Real courage is when you fight on even though all hope is gone."
I thought that was really cool, and also an interesting insight into the mindset of some Chinese, who strive on despite living in extreme poverty.
The living conditions of the monks is pretty tough. They believe that the poorest Americans have it better than they do. And they believe most Americans are rich, fat, loud-mouthed, and don't listen to people from other cultures.
Matthew also discusses the fantastic feats of "chi" that the monks display in performances. Those who practice "iron head kung fu" for example, and break bricks and concrete blocks with their heads, have huge knots on their heads of often speak with stutters. In other words, the monks pay a heavy price for this type of "power." Others train their hands to become like iron, and their hands are deformed, twice the size of normal hands. Nothing natural about it at all, and it has nothing to do with chi -- just people deforming parts of their bodies to withstand tremendous pain and trauma.
If you haven't read this book, I can't recommend it highly enough.