Shaolin and political theology

Daniel Boyarin, as quoted in Joas Adiprasetya’s book Berdamai dengan Salib, commented that in approaching another religion one should be ready to maximize generosity and try to explain it in the light of itself and not based on one’s own understanding. Indeed, that is actually the way for genuine comprehension. To use an extreme example, to ask atheists on whether they are sure that they will get into heaven is a category mistake. In the first place heaven does not exist for them. Nevertheless, sometimes one must and, indeed, can use his own religious category to speak about the other if he has committed beforehand to be as fair as he could.

Shaolin (2011) is a remake version of Jet Li’s The Shaolin Temple (1982). The first film was set in the 7th century CE during the transition period between Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, and similarly the recent one was set during a transition period in China. It was set during the warlord era of early Republican China. The last dynasty, the Qing, had fallen down and the new republic was divided into regions ruled by warlords who fought for the ultimate power in China. The film, then, discussed how a Shaolin temple negotiated life in such fragile condition.

First, what struck me was the default stance of the temple during the whole period. They were “passive” in the sense of they did not protest actively against the mistreatment of the warlords towards their own people. Or, to be more accurate, to the refugees who had lost their homes because of the war. The refugees found shelter in the vicinity of the temple, and the monks basically fed and took care of them. The warlords sometimes mistreated the refugees, for example when they wanted to find an opposing warlord who hid in the refugee camp. But in general the monks did not retaliate, even when Andy Lau, the main antagonist-turned-protagonist, desecrated the temple. It is interesting because more often than not we assume that we must voice ourselves against injustice when it happens. And we also often assume that the way to do it is through, for example, protest or advocacy. But the Shaolin temple simply feeds the refugees. Does it mean that they are ignorant toward injustice? I don’t think so. Feeding the refugees is the way they act against injustice. Now, whether it is enough might be more arguable, but I think the film gives a great example that to be political does not simply mean to demonstrate in the streets. One could be political by feeding the people.

(By the way, for those who could read Chinese, what the heck did he write on the temple?)

Thus, it remains relatively peaceful. Things became more complicated when the new warlord (Nicholas Tse) kidnapped most young men from the refugee camp to dig and unearth the treasures from the land so that he could pay for ammunitions from the British army. Only after then the monks purposely went into his base camp. But even then their ultimate purpose is to save the young men and not to kill the warlord and his troops. Although, of course, in the process, they inescapably killed some of the guards (and, likewise, some of the monks were killed).

And the scale of violence escalated further in the final scene, when the monks guarded their temple against the assault of the warlord and his troops. They tried as hard as they could to withstand the attack while the refugees escaped through its backdoor. The battle became full-blown, and finally the temple was destroyed because of cannons shot by the British army.

(You see, the ultimate villain is always the West!)

In this final battle, I think we could still argue that the default stance of the monks is to defend. It is symbolized by the fight between Andy Lau (Hou Jie) and Nicholas Tse (Cao Man). Hou, who became a monk after losing his daughter when he was backstabbed by Cao, thought that he was the one who caused Cao’s insanity. Cao, who was Hou’s right hand before, was indeed much more ambitious than Hou. In fact, it was Hou himself who taught him to be just like that. Cao was ruthless and had no mercy. Thus, Hou thought that he was responsible for Cao’s current condition and hence to fully redeem himself he needed to redeem Cao first.

Cao kept fighting but Hou insisted that they should stop fighting. Hou pleaded to Cao to stop to no avail, until a wooden beam almost hit Cao and Hou saved him. Hou died because of it, and finally Cao realized about his mistake. Cao was redeemed, and so was Hou. In a very symbolical scene, when Hou died, he fell into the open arms of a statute of Buddha. Hou, indeed, was in the hands of Buddha now. On the other hand, when Hou fell into the ground, Cao’s hand was outstretched, just like the hands of the gods of hell who were in the sides of Buddha. Even the gods of hell could not deny Hou’s passage to enlightenment.

This fight, I think, summed up in essence the attitude of the monks towards the warlords. They resisted as much as they can so that in the end the warlords would realize that they were mistaken. Although, of course, their mistakes were not due to the monks, as was the case with Hou and Cao. The monks fight not for the sake to fight, but to redeem the offender. And their default fighting stance is to defend. Most of the monks die to protect the refugees (only Jackie Chan and young monks survived when they escaped from the temple with the refugees). Indeed, I wonder whether the film has perhaps made an interesting argument on how you could be a “pacifist” when martial arts is embedded into your religious practice. Could we say that, to some extent, the monks are pacifists?

(By the way, Jackie Chan is the most Zen-like monk among all and the fact that he was the only one to survive might hint that Zen Buddhism rules! Or that they survive because of others’ blood?)


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