Master Shi Yan Fan, Shaolin warrior monk (Simone Paz/Laweekly.com)
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.
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).
Training American disciples in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles