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It's now and Zen in the canyon
Latest Updated by 2005-12-01 11:36:06

No theater stage in the world is more compelling than one set in natural surroundings, and nothing can beat watching a show performed by 1,000 Shaolin monks in a canyon deep in the Songshan Mountain in Central China's Henan Province.


An artistic rendition of the Shaolin musical, "Zen Shao, A Music Ritual."

Imagine you're sitting on a Buddhist cattail hassock with the singing of the monks accompanied by the sounds of water tumbling over rocks and winds sighing through the trees.

This is not a dream from a Chinese legend. A team of artists - including Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun - with a 100-million-yuan (US$12.35 million) budget and a 12-month time frame is hard at work on an authentic Zen concert that will burst forth next October.

"I will use rocks as instruments and flowing water as strings to create natural, environment-friendly music through combining advanced digital technology with ancient Chinese culture," says Tan, whose Oscar was for his score for Hollywood-based Taiwanese director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

The concert stage, surrounded by forested mountain peaks, springs and stone bridges, is in a canyon named Daixiangou (The Ditch of Waiting for the Immortals) at the foot of the Shaolin Temple in the heart of the Songshan Mountain.

An audience of some 2,200 can sit on cattail hassocks in a wooden temple to watch the show to be called, "Zen Shaolin, A Music Ritual." About 1,000 monks will recite a Zen chapter, perform with stone instruments and demonstrate Shaolin kung fu while special lighting creates striking and breathtaking scenes.

It was in 1987 that Shaolin's present abbot, Shi Yongxin, put Shaolin kung fu on the world stage. Through the medium of theater, he wanted to popularize the Zen Buddhism that is practiced in the Shaolin Temple, an institution founded in 525 AD by the Indian monk, Bodhidharma.

As a result of the abbot's initiative, Shaolin monks have trodden the stages of theaters in more than 60 countries and made their ancient temple renowned throughout the world. Hundreds of martial arts schools have sprung up around the temple, with the largest one having up to 15,000 students including many overseas kung fu practitioners.

But the actual practice of Zen Buddhism had been neglected both in the previous performances and in the martial arts schools, leaving people with a stereotype that Shaolin kung fu is merely hard, aggressive fighting.

"With a rich history of 1,500 years, Shaolin culture includes Zen Buddhism, Shaolin martial arts, Shaolin medicine, Shaolin music and Shaolin art," says Shi. "Zen is the essence and the source of our ultimate wisdom."

Shi also hopes the temple will be able to rediscover some of the lost Shaolin art of music through the project.

"Shaolin Temple has had not only kung fu monks but also musician monks ever since ancient times," says Shi who has offered to provide Tan with historical material about Shaolin music. "We also have our own instruments and music scores, but they haven't been handed down very well."

If Tan the composer wants to experiment with something completely new and Shi is anxious to reclaim a lost heritage, producer Mei Shuaiyuan is more interested in the business side of the project.

"Market surveys show that travelers usually spend at most one day at Songshan Mountain partly because there's no entertainment at night," says Mei. "This show will be an attraction to get them to stay overnight. We have another budget of 250 million yuan to build a Zen Hotel, vegetarian restaurants and a Zen-themed shopping street near the 'stage canyon.' In the Zen Hotel men and women will live separately, have Zen seminars and classes."

Mei adds that a modified version of the production will be staged in New York and Hong Kong after the Songshan performances.

"The movie 'Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragon' implied that kung fu is a kind of calligraphy while sword art is actually philosophy and beauty," says Tan. "Now I continue this spirit for the Shaolin project. My dream is to make Songshan Mountain an education base for people around the world to learn not only the kung fu of waving swords and spears, but also the beauty of harmony."

About 500 sound speakers will be scattered around the stage, creating a stereophonic sound effect in the canyon. "Although there are lots of speakers, the sound will be completely natural," says Englishman David Sheppard, sound effect designer for the project. "The sound is clear and clean - the water sounds like water. There's no technological problems because I've been trying this out with Tan for five years."

Tan says that a number of sluice gates will control the speed of the water in the springs to create different, magical sounds. Stones, millions of years old, from Songshan Mountain will be used as percussion instruments.

"Tons and tons of water flow from the top of Songshan Mountain every second and through technology it can sound like rocks clashing," Tan says. "I've traveled to museums in New York and London and to villages in Sichuan, Hubei and Hunan provinces to do research. Now I've invented and refined 15 stone instruments, the biggest of which is 10 meters long. We will make a real rock 'n' roll sound."

Well, let's wait and see Zen's big show, the ultimate wisdom of Shaolin combined with humans and their latest technology. Let Zen rock our souls.

About Zen Buddhism

Zen is short for Zen Buddhism, which is sometimes called a religion and sometimes called a philosophy.

The Zen followers meditate to uncover the "meaning of life." Zen has a deep past, due to the fact that it was developed from Buddhism and transformed into a mixture of Taoism, Confucianism, Indian spiritualism, and Buddhism.

To fully understand the meaning of Zen, a Zen practitioner must meditate. There are many ways to meditate, most during which the thinker is seated. To fully understand this philosophy, one must understand its definition, its roots, and strive to understand its deeper meaning.

Historically, Zen Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was a prince in India around 500 BC and the "father" of Zen. At the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he renounced his privileged life to seek understanding. After six years of struggling as an ascetic he finally achieved Enlightenment at the age of 35. After this he was known as the Buddha.

In a nutshell, he realized that everything is subject to change and that suffering and discontentment are the result of attachment to circumstances and things, which, by their nature, are impermanent. By ridding oneself of these attachments, including attachment to the false notion of self or "I," one can be free of suffering.

Many Zen thinkers say that Zen was initiated once Buddha achieved Enlightenment. They say Zen is Enlightenment and its methods of achievement.

Editor: Wing

By: Source:Shanghai Daily web edition
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