Shaolin Warrior Monk Shi Yan Fan Operates From an L.A. Storefront
The Shaolin temple in China is 1,500 years old and one of the nation's most ancient sacred treasures, the source of all martial arts. The Shaolin temple in Los Angeles is 3 years old and is located in a Sherman Oaks storefront next to a pet store. It is, however, no less sacred to those who seek refuge here from the modern world. Here, the warrior monk known as master Shi Yan Fan, or "Powerful Sky," teaches Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu. "Shaolin means young forest. Shao for young. Lin for trees. It means you can live forever," he'll say to those who wander in.
Simone Paz Master Shi Yan Fan, Shaolin Warrior Monk
The temple wasn't always there, at least not in the physical sense. When the master first came to Los Angeles from China, he would train students in community centers, gyms, parks and forests. Eventually, the students got tired of carrying their weapons everywhere. They opened the temple, donating its rent, furnishings and upkeep.
Master Shi Yan Fan wasn't always a kung fu master. Actually, he wasn't always Shi Yan Fan. For all of his youth he was Italian-born Franco Testini. Though he has trained his entire life, only recently did he become an official Shaolin warrior monk, the first to do so in 300 years. He was branded on the head with nine incense sticks for five minutes. The last two minutes, when the incense burns through your skin, he says, "are very painful."
The ceremony was performed in 2007 at the Shaolin Temple in China when the Chinese government lifted its centuries-old ban on the practice. There was much fanfare. Preparations lasted a month. There were arduous training sessions and equally arduous lectures. Knees and foreheads became bruised from bowing for five hours a day. Some monks fainted from exhaustion. In the end, 100 monks were scheduled to receive the burn marks, but only 43 went through with it. "They got scared," Testini shrugs.
Testini has given his life to Shaolin. His mission is to share it with as many people as he can, and by share he means teach them compassion (a noble endeavor), to exercise every day (preaching to the choir) and to be happy without material possessions (good luck with that).
Testini speaks quickly and with a thick Italian accent. His assistant, Cindy, occasionally serves as unofficial interpreter. She also has given her life to Shaolin and, by extension, to her master, or as she calls him in Chinese, shifu. Training in Shaolin, the master taught her, isn't about tournaments and color belt systems and trophies. It's about learning to be Zen. It is daily exercise turned into martial arts.
"This was the first dojo I'd seen that wasn't about competition," Cindy says. "It was about longevity." Her long black hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Like her master, she has a round, pleasant face. "Before I came here, I had three jobs," she says. "All I wanted to do was make money. The more I lived like that, the harder it was. I was working so hard to pay for the things I never used because I was always working." Wanting less made life easier, she says.
She gave up bartending. She gave up her apartment. She moved in with her sister and gave up all her worldly possessions -- except for her car. (This is L.A. Cindy is Buddhist, not insane.)