IN a small, mirrored room on the second floor of the Victoria Gym in San Pedro, east of San José, Carlos Alemán watches quietly from a corner as a handful of martial arts students in loose, nondescript workout clothing run through sequential movements. Under thick, black eyebrows, his gaze is calm but reveals no emotion.
He steps forward and speaks with a student, correcting subtleties in the movements and demonstrating the correct technique. Akick flashes before he drops into a low stance and fires off a punch. One can almost see the air ripple. His eyes, which minutes ago were neutral, now flash with a furious intensity.
With close to a lifetime of training tucked under his black belt, Alemán, 37, is a respected kung fu teacher with an important distinction. He is an ordained Shaolin monk, a rare and revered title that brings him into the oldest and most respected kung fu lineage, originating thousands of years ago from the famed Shaolin Temple in China’s Hunan province.
An Argentinean, Alemán says the honor is even greater because the tradition was once closed off to all non-Chinese, and he is one of only a small handful of Shaolin monks in all of Latin America.
DESPITE his evident physical strength and power, and the plethora of devastating and lethal techniques trained into his mind and body, Alemán professes to be a man of peace and speaks humbly of the deeper teachings of his art.
As the class draws to a close, the students assemble in a circle with the visiting teacher, who leads the group in the ancient meditative exercise of chi gung. With eyes closed, all are breathing heavily and sweating, except Alemán. He slowly lowers his arms toward the ground and then back over himself, drawing energy up from the earth and circulating it through the energy lines known as chi meridians that, according to eastern medicine, run through the body like invisible veins.
Despite the cacophony of midday traffic just outside the window, a peaceful stillness pervades the room.
Later, he sits on the wooden floor and
shares cup after cup of traditional Argentinean
yerba mate, drunk from a small,
ornamental gourd. The intensity seen during
his teachings has dissolved into a warm
and kind countenance.
“I believe the most important thing a student should learn before anything else is to attack all the enemies that are inside – to defeat these enemies, which are negative emotions,” Alemán says. “Martial arts are not to destroy others, to win over others. Martial arts are to defeat oneself. And when I can defeat myself, I don’t need to prove anything to anybody.”
ALEMÁN embarked on a life of martial arts at the age of 9, following in the footsteps of his older brother by taking karate classes. He proceeded through other martial arts before finally settling on kung fu. After 11 years of training with the Wushu Association of Argentina, he received his black belt in 1992. He began teaching his own students, and competing – and winning – competitions in Argentina and across the continent.
“I competed a lot,” Alemán says. “I injured a lot of people so that I could be first. I was champion of Argentina, international champion, champion of Latin America – but by hurting a lot of people.” Drawn by the essence of kung fu into the study of the Chinese language, traditional Chinese medicine and the more meditative and introspective Chinese arts of chi gung and tai chi, Alemán broke with the Argentinean association in 1996.
The following year he left for China, where everything he learned was turned upside down.
“When I was in Shaolin, I realized that all this didn’t do anything for me, and all it got me was bad karma for injuring so many people,” he says.
ALEMÁN does not talk much about the specifics of what he was taught in China, but he tells the story of getting there between sips of mate and laughter. He and “four other westerners,” arrived in China searching for the Shaolin Temple, famed as the birthplace of kung fu.
As the most commonly told history goes, Shaolin was a Buddhist temple, and in the sixth century its monks began to train their strength and fighting skills to defend it.
They grew stronger, defending themselves from bandits and other attacks until the emperor took notice and closed the temple down. The original building was destroyed, but the monks rebuilt it in another part of China, a pattern that continued across the span of centuries.
Currently, Alemán says, it is located in the mountains above the city of Dengfeng, in eastern China.
After wandering into a temple in Dengfeng, Alemán and the other foreigners were approached by several monks.
“They were mad at first because we were there as intruders,” Alemán recalls, smiling. “Then they asked us who we were, and we identified ourselves as practitioners of kung fu. They tested some of our techniques, and decided to allow us to be in the temple, but they still didn’t tell us anything. They asked us what we were doing in China, and we said we wanted to learn Shaolin kung fu.
“First they laughed. When we got to China, everybody laughed. ‘Looking for Shaolin? You? Never – ha ha ha,’ they laughed.”
BUT Alemán and the others were taken to meet the director of the kung fu school, who presented himself as a Shaolin monk of the 32nd generation.
“And it was he who took us to the (Shaolin) temple, and asked us, ‘Do you really want to be a monk? Do you really want to learn Shaolin kung fu?’ We said yes. ‘Then I’m going to shave you,’ he said,” Alemán relates.
After receiving the approval of the temple abbot, the foreigners’ heads were shaved and they began living the simple and austere temple life often depicted in kung fu movies – 18-hour days of exercise, chores, meditation and kung fu training. Alemán was later inducted after a full-day test, and ordained as a 34th-generation Shaolin warrior monk with the new, spiritual name of Shi Yan Bao.
ON his return from China, he changed nearly everything about the way he was teaching, and forbade his students to compete. As a result, his class size dropped from 30 to three.
One of those three students, Marco DeLeo, now a black belt under Alemán’s tutelage, sits beside his teacher on the floor, sharing the mate.
“When he returned from China, everything we had learned until then was no longer worth anything,” DeLeo says. “It was a very abrupt change. We had to start over as beginners.”
The new teachings emphasized a deeper philosophy of kung fu, something that did not figure prominently in the previous training, DeLeo explains. Many of the former students did not understand and “just simply left.”
“People in the West are very accustomed to seeing the sport in martial arts, but we don’t see the philosophical side, the deep content of martial arts, how the movements stimulate the energy centers, how the mind is what controls the body,” Alemán says.
The Shaolin teachings were to “harmonize with nature, not destroy nature,” something he felt was difficult for his students to understand.
IN seeking a better way to bring the Eastern teachings to people in the West, Alemán consulted with the original people of this hemisphere, and spent most of 2004 with indigenous people and their spiritual leaders in Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and southern Argentina.
“The indigenous groups of Latin America showed me how to interpret the concepts of the East to do it here in the West,” Alemán says. “For those of us who live on this plane, the constellation that rules us is different than in China. When it is day here, it is night there. The energy flows differently.
“It’s not the same training an exercise in China as it is here. For the Chinese, the north is cold and the south is hot, but for us in Argentina and South America, the north is warm and the south is cold. So when we understand nature, we can transmit the real knowledge, the original knowledge.”
AFTER these studies, Alemán followed a calling to unify the kung fu practitioners of the West. In November, he held the first International Encounter of Shaolin Kung Fu Schools in San José. The exhibition drew some 35 teachers and students from Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica. Representatives from Mexico and the United States could not make it but “were there in spirit,” Alemán said.
“As one sees when flying in an airplane, there are no limits, there are no borders,” Alemán explains. “In reality, these are put in place by men. So the difference of colors, of languages, these are a question of men. If we leave aside our mental structures, we can achieve connection.
This was the objective of my trip.” For those interested in training Shaolin kung fu in Costa Rica, classes are currently held at the Victoria Gym in San Pedro. For more information, call 224-3963.
Former Tico Times intern Scott J. Krischke contributed to this report.