Book Review: The Monk from Brooklyn, An American at the Shaolin Temple
by Lang Reid
(Editorial note by Dante Scott: The first book ever written by an American who studied at the Shaolin Temple. This was the first in a long series of Asian adventures, which lead Antonio to hosting the new web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey, Click here: The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines)
Antonio Graceffo is an interesting author. Italian-American from Brooklyn, a former investment banker, martial arts expert and writer, The Monk from Brooklyn (ISBN 1-932966-10-2, available at amazon.com) chronicles his life in the Shaolin Temple in China, which is apparently the birthplace of Kung Fu.
In essence, the book is a diary that revolves around Graceffo’s time spent at the famed Shaolin temple in China, to learn their secrets in martial arts. These are the Shaolin monks that have amazed the outside world with their super-athletic feats displayed by their Kung Fu abilities, and to study there was Graceffo’s ambition.
Graceffo writes in a fairly laconic ‘hip’ style, with twists at the tail. “The novice and I hit it off right away. He is 25 years old and a good guy. Also, in the couple of hours I have been there, he hasn’t tried to steal from me.”
Author Graceffo is good at observing the Chinese culture as seen in the Shaolin temple (and as exhibited by visiting Chinese families) and examination of the reasons behind the apparent differences between that culture and his own. For example, the Chinese produced no trash, whilst Graceffo did. “”Everything they eat comes out of the ground. There is no waste at all. I have a pile of trash next to my bed and don’t know what to do with it. There is no mechanism for disposal of trash here.”
Very early in his training, Graceffo looks at the Chinese students with him and writes, “I keep wondering what is the point of all this. For me it is a diversion. I am here to lose weight, improve my health, and learn some kung fu. This program will add to who I am. But for the regular students this program is who they are.”
During this time of self-exploration for Graceffo he deduces one of the cornerstones of capitalism. “We Westerners derive much of our personal power from material wealth. In fact, we confuse purchasing power with personal power.” And a few pages later, “The power of money is amazing. But in the end, it is just a talisman. It is not real, though widely believed to be so.”
However, by half way through his three months training, Graceffo begins to see the realities of living in this Chinese enclave, the tawdriness, the dirt, the intrigue and the deliberate lies. The onset of the SARS epidemic is the final blow, as truths and half truths are manipulated to attempt to exonerate Beijing.
For me it was a very telling book, not so much explaining the intricacies of Kung Fu, but one that showed the chasm that exists between Eastern and Western philosophies. Whilst Antonio Graceffo did eat, sleep and work with the Chinese in the Shaolin temple, in the end, he was just a Chinese-speaking foreigner, as he points out in the epilogue. There are many lessons to be learned from Graceffo’s immersion in Chinese culture that can be applied to us here in Thailand, but not to the extremes, as experienced by this author. This is certainly no Lonely Planet.