Chinese monks eye Caledon for new temple

By MICHAEL VALPY, Globe and Mail, Oct 25, 2004

Caledon, Canada -- China's famed Shaolin monks are roaming the hills of Caledon these days -- keen on building their first North American temple and believing it's easier to be one's own Buddha in multicultural Canada than in the U.S. melting pot.

Six monks from Shaolin Monastery, the 1,500-year-old birthplace of kung fu, have begun a seven-week pilot project with Toronto Montessori Schools, teaching mind-body well-being, meditation and martial arts on the Montessori group's 111-hectare forest property on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Head of schools Judith Cunningham said the monks and the Montessori board of trustees will decide jointly at the end of the period whether they want the partnership to continue. If the answer is yes, the monks will begin planning a temple and training facility on the site.

What has led the monks to Toronto from their ancient home at the foot of Song Mountain in China's central Henan province is lost serenity and what appears to be shrewd discernment of the differences in Canadian and U.S. culture.

Shaolin Monastery is now overrun annually by between two and three million tourists, mainly from the West -- the result of torrential celebrity attention driven by North Americans' burgeoning interest in Buddhism and the popularity of martial arts films ranging from the cult-works of David Carradine (Kill Bill) and Bruce Lee to a Chinese-language action flick titled "Shaolin Monks Kicking Butt for Buddha."

The monastery has become surrounded by tawdry souvenir stands. It has had to go to court to fend off opportunistic marketers appropriating its name for commercial products. Its senior administrators have been delicately indicating that a satellite temple in North America might ease some of the pressures on their home base.

When Shaolin's 20-monk travelling performance troupe brought their spectacular display of acrobatic feats, choreographed fighting and bare-handed brick-breaking to Toronto for last January's Chinese New Year celebration, they were accompanied by Master Liu, the monastery's second-in-command.

Chinese TV producer and educator Xinping Li, also accompanying the troupe, arranged for a meeting between Master Liu and Ms. Cunningham. The two Chinese, said Ms. Cunningham, were interested in Montessori teacher-training methods and what they saw as an alignment of Montessori and Buddhist philosophies -- the Montessori concept of peace education and the Buddhist idea that no organism must be hurt.

And Master Liu said he had long wanted to open a temple in a serene setting in Toronto. Ms. Cunningham said she replied: "Boy, do we have the real estate for you."

Over the next nine months, the monastery and Toronto Montessori Schools worked out an agreement on the pilot project that formally begins today. Why Toronto? The Shaolin monks have subtly suggested they feel they can be more culturally themselves in Canada than in the United States, according to the principle of everyone being their own Buddha and in charge of their own life.

How would they know about differences in Canadian and U.S. culture? "They're monks. They meditate," Ms. Cunningham said.

She said that as the monks -- specialists in Buddhist philosophy and Chinese medicine -- walked over the Montessori land for the first time, they were very pleased with its peacefulness and beauty.