Buddhist monk Ando remembers the toil of all those years, trying to satisfy the training demands of an aging martial arts master who could never be pleased.
BUSAN, South Korea — Buddhist monk Ando remembers the toil of all those years, trying to satisfy the training demands of an aging martial arts master who could never be pleased.
Silent and impassive, monk Yang-ik perched in the lotus position on a platform above his young proteges, who leaped from mats, kicking two impossibly high bags one after the other, the best adding aerial somersaults before landing gracefully, like big cats. When they finished, panting and sweating, the master dismissed them. "You have done nothing today — I have done all the work," he would say. "You try to impress me, but when I am gone you are loose-minded. This discipline is not mere athleticism, but a way of life."
At age 47, head shaved, his gray robe swirling around his precise movements, Ando recently succeeded the old master to direct the training regimen of a unique Buddhist order South Koreans call the Fighting Monks for their history in battling Japanese invasions. In the process, Ando is bringing its centuries-old traditions into the modern world.
Stern and reclusive, the old master Yang-ik rarely allowed outsiders to train among the monks and resisted popularizing a martial arts technique known as Sunmudo that has historically been steeped in secrecy.
Once, on a rare occasion when he allowed visitors to train there, he sternly greeted their arrival on a rainy day. "Rain is falling. Buddha is crying," he told them. "And for that you must be punished."
Yang-ik taught his students about sacrifice and selflessness, but Ando reasoned that did not preclude the order's fighting history and techniques from being introduced to the outside world.
Since he took over, he has expanded a Sunmudo gym in Busan, where 35 laymen now train with eight monks. Ando has also visited Los Angeles, where he wants to open a martial arts training center.
"I practice this art for the honor of my master and for the country people who lost their lives fighting alongside the monks centuries ago," he said. "I want to spread it around the world."
For more than a quarter-century, Ando has studied at the ancient Beomeosa Temple, which was first built 1,400 years ago in a bamboo grove high in the mountains that now overlook the sprawling southeastern port city of Busan.
On a clear day, Ando can make out Japan's Tsushima Island just 30 miles to the west, a proximity that has influenced the city's history and bestowed a special role to Buddhist holy men usually known for their profound passivity.
In the 1500s, monks here used swords, knives, spears and throwing stars to help repel a Japanese invasion that ended with the burning of their temple by retreating troops. Centuries later, a rebuilt Beomeosa became headquarters for the monks' underground resistance to Japanese occupation in the 1930s and '40s.
But their martial artistry languished for generations until the 1970s, when Yong-ik arrived to revive Sunmudo by systemizing its techniques, this time without weapons.
There is little sparring, but defensive moves once used in combat are combined in a sort of athletic meditation, like that of China's Shaolin monks. For years, students conditioned themselves by striking tree trunks, as well as a millstone the size of a car tire that hung from a tree, until it swayed to their rhythm.
Always watching, Yang-ik had a stern philosophy that had nothing to do with fighting style — that vanity and ambition prevented martial arts enlightenment.
Ando arrived at the place known as the Temple of the Nirvana Fish in 1984, drawn by the reputation of its master. Just 20, he came for the martial arts, but later took his oath as a monk.
Master Yang-ik became the focus of his world. Often imperious, sometimes grandfatherly, the elder monk demanded that his students not only pray and practice martial arts, but also work.
They rose at 4 a.m., running to the top of the nearby mountain before breakfast. Between the twice-daily practices, they carved stone to produce religious icons and likenesses of Buddha.
But while the master reveled in the past, his top student began to concentrate on the future. For years, Ando went to the graying Yang-ik and asked to be allowed to expand Sunmudo outside the temple walls. Each time he was rebuffed.
Not long before the old monk's death, Ando went too far: He took a dozen young students to perform at a nearby festival without the master's permission. Yang-ik was furious. He pardoned the students but not Ando, whom he beat with a paddle.
"After all these years, you have learned nothing," Yang-ik said. "We are not showboaters. You have insulted what we do here."
Here was a grown man being pummeled before the others by a man nearly twice his age. But Ando endured the punishment in silence, so strong was his devotion.
In 2007, Ando was meditating in another part of the temple when he learned of the master's death. He rushed to his side and found that Yang-ik had died in the lotus position, his head suddenly falling to his chest.
The younger monk ran to his room. For the first time in his life, he cried. He suddenly began to rue all the questions he had never asked Yang-ik — not only about martial arts but about life.
"I felt I had lost everything," he recalled, sitting erect on the floor of a room that decades ago housed anti-Japanese strategy sessions. "The most revered figure in our lives was gone. Who would lead us?"
For three years, Sunmudo training at Beomeosa stopped. Ando practiced on his own, but never with others. Could he ever assume the role that Yang-ik had left vacant? He felt unworthy.
But on the third anniversary of Yang-ik's death, temple elders named Ando to succeed Yang-ik. Ando soon brought his own style to the task, changing Beomeosa from a closed society to one that encourages outsiders to study there.
On a recent day, Ando trained with two students. His slow movements suggested muted power and his leaps lingered in the air, his robe flying, his body seemingly held by invisible cables.
"This is the martial arts form that once saved a nation," said Gene Healy, 40, a professor of Oriental medicine from Tampa, Fla., who has studied at Beomeosa, where large paintings of monks in martial arts poses adorn temple buildings. "Ando has continued the tradition. He is one of the gentlest people you will ever meet, until he gets to the gym."
Above the platform where Yang-ik once sat hangs a painting of the old master. No one is allowed to sit there, not even Ando.
"I still believe he's here, still teaching," Ando said. "When I'm with students, I hear the master's voice in my head."
Yet he knows that Yang-ik might be displeased with his decision to publicize the spirit of the Fighting Monks — and the discipline's newfound popularity.
"Absolutely, he would not be happy," Ando said with a smile. "He'd think my actions were too outlandish. I'd probably get the paddle."