The Scenario has called this my “love letter to a certain dragon-slaying, flying, enlightened man who goes by the name of ‘The German Buddha’.” Although the premise is false, it is indeed a letter, and it’s filled with respect and affection for a very unique friend –– silent, Peter-Pan-ish, and who (I suspect) would befriend a dragon, sted of slaying it, if he ever meets one.
Pakinam Amer is an award-winning investigative journalist and travel writer. She’s currently living in the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Zen Buddhism and martial arts, in Henan province, China. Pakinam trains in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu at Lao Ta Gou, the best martial arts camp in the “Center of Heaven and Earth.” She sends weekly dispatches to CairoScene.com’s The Scenario, and in this mini-series, Shaolin Encounters, she talks about those who have inspired and awed her in China land.
If you meet the German Buddha on the road don’t kill him. Ask him to teach you some Kung Fu. Then kill him.
Everyone in Kung Fu school has something to say about Felix Fechner who, against his will, was forcefully nicknamed the ‘German Buddha’ mainly because of his shaved head, fiercely penetrative gaze, and his cult-like commitment to silence. Most of us here believe he’s thiiiiiiiiisss close to being enlightened.
He doesn’t want this nickname, of course. But we’re not budging either.
Shen Jia, our Ta Gou Shifu and one of the best Kung Fu masters in Shaolin land, holds him in high esteem, sometimes calling him ‘tiger’; a compliment to his Kung Fu form’s agility, swiftness and power. Joan, another classmate and a friend, is firmly convinced that Felix will one day become a monk, that he’s probably asexual or celibate (or both), and is perhaps destined to spend the rest of his life alone. And though when this was at first suggested, I quickly retorted that it’s “not true, Joan. You’re just jealous because he’s hot and you’re not,” I secretly believed Felix is a virgin too (… and that Joan is hot in his own way). Another classmate once said that Felix has a “strange presence” because of how meditative he is.
And finally yours truly likes to waver between unashamedly – perhaps even cheekily– declaring her unconditional fascination with his character and his brand of Kung Fu discipline (so much so that even CairoScene.com is convinced I have a crush on him), and ritualistically bullying him, because, well, you don’t get the chance to pick on a Buddha and make his life difficult every day, so why the hell not?
A Kung Fu and internal martial arts teacher himself in his hometown of Rostock and our group’s master student in China, Felix generally awes his classmates in the training hall. Forms, jumps, sparring, weapon use, acrobatics, you name it, he’s good at it all. And the young man receives the compliments as he would (our non-malicious) poking or sniggering – with a straight face.
He may blush a little at the compliments, sometimes.
OK, OK, maybe Cairoscene.com is right and I do have a crush on him (and sure, if it makes the online magazine happy to know it, I firmly believe he has superpowers too, and can probably kill dragons and fly). But being over 30 automatically qualifies me for non-committal, brash and fearless sweet-talking and compliment-giving. It’s at once a rite of passage and compensation for leaving the magical world of my twenties. I explained it very elegantly once to a friend: “I’m not bloody 19 anymore, if I see someone beautiful, guy or girl, I’m bloody well pointing it out…to their faces.”
Yes, I say “bloody” a lot, in a British accent, mind you. But I like to think I’m redeemable.
Besides, anyone who has met the Deutsch Buddha would find it hard not to gush about his Kung Fu skills. “If you decide to do something, do it with all your heart,” he says. And he does Kung Fu exactly like that – with heart.
Felix is one of the few trainees here who can spar with Sanda kick-boxers using traditional Kung Fu and win. In one spar with a Vietnamese Sanda student, the Vietnamese got momentarily distracted from the fight, asking Felix to repeat some moves that he used against him in attack or defense because they’re just “so cool.”
Explaining his method to humble martial-artists-in-training like myself, he says: “Always fight in your system. Not the system of the opponent.” When sparring with advanced boxing students, he even refuses to wear gloves, preferring to feel the punches on his bare fists, “the bare skin gives me a better feeler to how strong a blow is,” he says.
Between long bouts of silence, he shares his reflections on the martial arts – occasionally talking about it in the abstract while I pretend to get it. “What is Kung Fu?” he once asked rhetorically. “It’s a question you have to answer many times during the years. In different phases of your life, you’ll get a different answer. It’s not an absolute. That’s why you have to find your own Kung Fu. Adapt, depending on your history and needs. First comes form, then the formless.”
He smiled with that last reference to the popular Bruce Lee saying. Of course I nodded vigorously in agreement. I had no idea what that meant. And I often didn’t when fellow martial artists would say things like “be water, my friend,” as per Lee. I thank them warmly for the reminder then brood thinking “What the f*** was that about?”
Back to Felix.
The German Buddha couldn’t tell me exactly when he started falling in love with Kung Fu. “It’s like breathing,” he responded when I pressed on. “It just happened. It has been with me since forever.”
Getting Felix to talk about his personal philosophy of Kung Fu – or to talk at all – wasn’t easy, and before our friendship blossomed, it took quite an effort from my part (I;m generally a chatter box when I’m out of my voluntary solitary confinement) to drag the German Buddha, naturally silent and contemplative, out of his cave.
We went a long way, from him telling me that I “talk too much” and that I should try to “stop talking for a while” –the sheer shock of his words shut me up for a couple of days – to us chatting for hours about everything from philosophy, religion, and Ip Man (a famed martial arts legend), to his favorite fantasy character (it’s a dark elf called Drizzt Do’Urden, if you’re wondering). The crescendo was when he admitted that he’d love to learn “how to talk using hands” too. I even got to witness his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor before he packed up and left Shaolin.
One is also tempted to gush about the excellence of his form, because he doesn’t. Throw a compliment at the Buddha, and he nonchalantly shrugs his shoulder, gives you a small unreadable smile or dismisses it lightly. And if you’re observant, you can catch that split-of-a-second wince. I suspect that on some level compliments hurt to hear. But I don’t dig there, lest I thrash his privacy bubble (which I might very well do, if I’m not careful).
Seeing him in training, however, gives his secret away: he works hard. I don’t believe in talent, or genetic superiority. And I suspect Felix’s skill came after years of teeth-gritting and that same old ‘practice makes perfect’ maxim.
In fact, Felix was enrolled in Kung Fu school by his parents at the age of five (it was his birthday present – I know, don’t ask!), and he has been doing Kung Fu ever since. He studied gymnastics and sports as an undergraduate, and currently he’s finishing a masters degree in sports education. At 20, he started his training in China for the first time at the Shaolin Temple’s Ta Gou school, the harshest and hardest Kung Fu camp here, spending six months there in one go, with total 24-7 dedication to Kung Fu.
In Germany, he studied at two different schools including the prestigious Thammavong Schul for Kung Fu, Qi Gong and Chinese Therapy, until he rose up the ranks and became an instructor himself.
Felix is also an expert in Qi Gong, which aligns breath and awareness to manipulate life energy (an internal art associated with the Shaolin tradition). He dabbled in a brand of Chinese massage called Tuina in addition to studying Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM.
Acting as a co-teacher to our Shifu here in Ta Gou, years after his first visit to China, I experienced Felix’s teaching first-hand. I blogged earlier about an “incident” in the training hall where I disengaged from training and took it out on him and those around me (I tend to do that, I have a wide variety of demons and ghosts that haunt me on occasion, and some serious baggage from the past). I alluded to the fact that he is the kind of teacher than can be at once motivating and unapologetic about his expectations.
I don’t have to ask him to know that Felix doesn’t garner any respect for those who refuse to try, or just give up easily. Be as “haunted” by your past as you may, it’s your right to harbor mental or emotional pains, but as difficult as the training is, Felix believes in “showing up,” and after a few deep talks, some resistance on my part (and various excuses), the belief soon became contagious and I found myself believing in that too.
You see, the young man has been all through those mental battles, developing an impressive ability to see through the barriers that our minds set. I suspect the skill has to do with his own training in athletics. Maybe it’s something they teach in sports schools, or maybe it’s a gift, or a bit of both.
“The mind doesn’t go easy when we try to push it beyond a certain threshold or plateau,” he tells me. And if you lose concentration, you become weaker, more susceptible to attacks, “you’re not good enough, you missed many moves, your horse stance is weak…” the mind nags. “You train yourself to detach from this,” he says. “Listen to the mind. There’s no bad message. Or good message. It’s just a message.”
“Your body has a history,” Felix muses. “Circumstances you’ve passed through, emotions, what your parents gave you. Not everyone is the same. It helps to remember that. Because if you start thinking, based on this history, that you’re not good enough, that you can’t continue pushing, your body will keep that message. When you’re tired, it’s easier for the mind to feed you these messages again and again, and it’ll be easier for you then to believe them.”
I’m lucky that I keep running into people who remind me that the “negativity” is nothing but a mind glitch. How many of us desperately rebuff vicious offensives from the brain as soon as we start something new, decide to push our limits or even change a nasty habit in our daily lives? How many of us have been told, by our very own minds, that perhaps we’re destined to be failures, unloved, overweight, or uncoordinated or average or alone? How many were beckoned to give in?
“But it helps to be aware of all that, and to bring your body to be here, to feel your surroundings,” he adds. “I’m sitting with you now, being aware of the voices of trainees in the distance, the wind blowing on my right side, which got stronger in the last two minutes. It helps me to be in the now. And when you’re in the now, there are no borders [to what you can do]. Same with training. I try to bring the same spirit to my Kung Fu form. To be in the now.”
As if suddenly realizing this can all make him look good or something, he shifts in his seat slightly and quickly says, “Of course, I only try. I don’t get it all the time. As much as possible, I bring myself to calm down, listen, and observe what’s happening around me.”
We were sitting on a bench, amid greenery, outside the gates of our school, and nearer to the Shaolin Temple, it was getting dark as he told me those words, laughing a little at the end, and making some jokes lest I take him too seriously. He was right, the wind blew at our right, and I only noticed when he pointed it out. Before that, my awareness was somewhere else. I blame my monkey mind.
And now the German Buddha, like many others who pass through Shaolin, has left, and he took his silence with him, the one I used to poke fun at. That evening on the bench was his last here.
As visitors to the temple trickle away by the day and with the weather getting colder on the Songshan mountain, and the grounds emptier, it makes it easy to fall into a contemplative, nostalgic silence too … and it all made me realize that the German Buddha’s silence was so much different than the brand of silence, the emptiness, he’d left behind. Our classmate was right; he does have a presence.
The same goes for all those who came and departed, other Kung Fu warriors-in-training who have made me think, made me laugh, reassured me or captured my heart. Each left behind a certain silence. But that’s for another post.
Alas, silences are not the same.
(Yes, I said “Alas”).
Note: The German Buddha, our Shifu [Kung Fu master] Shen Jia and yours truly have decided to give Egypt a taste of Shaolin in February 2013, fusing the “retreat” and the “bootcamp” experiences into a 10-day training camp in Shaolin Kung Fu, energy work and active meditation in one of Egypt’s most scenic and serenest spots between mountains and sea. If you’re interested in training with Mr. Fechner and Shifu Shen Jia (I’ll be a student there too), do check out our facebook page: www.facebook.com/ShaolinDragonCamp and our blog www.shaolindragoncamp.com. We spill out all the details there.
Pakinam chronicles her China adventures, in text, videos and pictures, on her personal blog: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com.