(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2007)
In his book, “Shaolin: Temple of Zen”(Aperture, $40), the photographer Justin Guariglia chronicles the eight years he spent photographing the famed Shaolin monks of central China performing kung fu. With its glorious black-and white portraits and stunning color photography, Guariglia blows apart the conventions of the coffee table book, creating a portfolio of great depth and beauty that melds aspects of Zen meditation with intriguing displays of martial arts.
The Shaolin Temple was built around 492 A.D. Around that time, an Indian missionary monk named Bodhidharma pioneered the meditation techniques there that became Zen Buddhism. The legendary Shaolin kung fu evolved soon afterwards from exercises to keep the monks fit. In Guariglia’s masterful book, he captures the beauty and discipline of Shaolin kung fu, from the grace of the Tiger Leaping Double Hooks and Thirteen Spears to the ferocity of the Big Hong Fist, and its spiritual grounding. “Shaolin: Temple of Zen” will make an excellent holiday gift for photography and martial arts enthusiasts, Sinophiles and people obsessed with beautiful design.
Guariglia, 33, was raised in Maplewood and educated at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. As a journalist and a contributing editor at National Geographic, he has worked throughout Asia, living in Taipei, Singapore, Tokyo and other places. Guariglia now lives in New York City with the wife, the artist Zoe Chen, where he met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his studio.
Q. How did you wind up at the Shaolin Temple?
A. Shaolin brings you into the fold. It attracts people. I found it by accident. I was doing a project about people who live in caves near Shaolin, in central China, and stumbled upon the temple. It took five years before I was allowed to photograph the monks. The first five years, it was me wrapping my head around the temple and what goes on there. All is hidden. Nothing is on the surface. There is a surface, a thick veneer. There are film crews, a photographer or journalist at the temple everyday wanting to write about the Shaolin monks. The abbot is a very smart man. He knows he needs to keep the monks at a distance from the press. He has put together touring groups of local kids who do kung fu. These same kids perform kung fu for the tourists and journalists with swords clanging. I spoke to the abbot and said, “I know there is a deeper, more spiritual side to Shaolin that people will appreciate. Most people don’t have a clue about what Shaolin is about. They think it is about monks fighting and killing people.” He realized I was dedicated to China and Chinese culture. He knew my heart was there.
Q. The temple was almost destroyed under Mao Zedong. How did it come back?
A. Under Mao, many of the monks were killed. Some were forced to marry. To keep the Shaolin kung fu tradition, a lot of the real martial arts went underground When the temple was reopened in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there were only three monks remaining. What brought the Shaolin Temple back was a collaboration between the Hong Kong film industry and the local Henan Province government. (Future Hong Kong film star) Jet Li was 18 at the time. He was the wu shu champion, which is the competitive form of Shaolin kung fu. His movie “Shaolin Temple” was a huge success.
Q. You use a wide variety of photography in the book, from portraits, to documentary work, to dozens of video frames detailing martial art forms and intricate photo collages of microscopic monks practicing kung fu by your artist wife. What was you goal?
A. I didn’t want to show just documentary work. The whole point was not to have a coffee table book. I wanted it to be something special, to go beyond what people expect. The book has to be appealing to people on an intellectual level, as well as a visual and design level. The reason to go to Shaolin was not just to photograph monks, but to show there was a spiritual side to what they were doing. The point was to come away with a body of work that was not just strong but that was the definitive look at the Shaolin, something that hasn’t been done before and would really go beyond what people might be able to do in the future.
Q. What is the spiritual purpose of Shaolin kung fu?
A. The forms were handed down from the Bodhidharma, the itinerant Indian monk. The legend has it that he started to forms to keep their bodies limber and their minds sharp. If you ask any of the monks what Shaolin kung fu is about, they will tell you very candidly that Shaolin kung fu is a vehicle for Zen. To practice forms like Big Hong Fists, which literally translates into “big flood of fists,” is to achieve enlightenment. It ends up cleaning your mind. That mindless state is what the monks consider enlightenment. That’s the meditation aspect of Shaolin kung fu.