Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

By Jerry Waxler

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary suggested “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many young people, myself included, were seduced into thinking that these three steps would lead to wisdom. For several years I jettisoned social norms. At the end of that road, I believed in nothing. Leary’s formula had emptied me without offering anything in return. To fill the void, I looked Eastward and found a teacher in India who, unlike Leary, advised me to get a job. According to his system, I could best achieve spirituality in a sort of parallel universe while I continued to live in the world. Essentially, he recommended that I drop back in

Recently I read about another young man looking to the Orient to find deeper Truth. Matthew Polly, author of the memoir “American Shaolin,” dropped out of Princeton and joined a monastery in China to study martial arts for two years. Polly’s path required hard work and sacrifice. By the time he arrived in China, he had already learned how to speak Mandarin, certainly a harder project than any self-respecting hippie would have attempted. And that was only the beginning. In China, Polly devoted hours every day to practice Kung Fu. His intense commitment earned him the respect and friendship of his fellow monks.

Writing Prompt
Do you have a story about dropping out, or seeking truth? What prompted you? Where did you go for answers? What did you sacrifice? Who did you talk to? What did you see, feel, or hear on your search? How satisfied were you with the results?

Describing introspective experiences

Polly studied religion at Princeton, and must have amassed a mountain of complex ideas. But he didn’t travel all the way to China to learn more intellectual concepts. He could have done that in the comfort of his college library. He wanted to go beyond books to find a more ethereal “Knowing.” When he achieved such a moment of introspective transport, he attempted to describe in words the subtle observations that could only be seen within his own consciousness.

Then, out of curiosity he asked other people if they ever felt anything similar. To his surprise, many people told him about their own transcendent experiences. His description of these conversations provided one of the simplest, clearest treatments I have read about the direct perception of spirituality.

Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you perceived an alternate reality, perhaps while listening to music, or on a starry night, or in a dream, or in prayer or meditation, or in the physical exhilaration and release after a hard bike ride, hike, swim, or climb.

Seeking is just one aspect of his story

My own reading of “American Shaolin” focuses on Polly’s curiosity about his inner reality. But that was not his only theme. He also told about his Coming of Age. The book described the emerging connection between China and the U.S. It was also a story about learning to fight, and it was a travelogue. That’s the magic of stories. They package the intricate weave of life within an unfolding narrative. Authors show what they see, and readers draw their own conclusions.

Writing Prompt
List the various themes and dimensions of your own life journey that you believe readers will appreciate.

Seeking takes us to strange places, where rules are not what we think

In the famous bar scene in the movie Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker saw the menagerie of strange looking creatures, it was obvious that he had entered a different world, to survive he would need to learn and adapt to unfamiliar rules.

In Matt Polly’s memoir, there were many indications that he was not in Kansas anymore. When Polly went to the hospital near the Shaolin Temple, he was shocked to find out how poorly equipped it was, and the floors were made of dirt!  When he traveled to a remote rural region, most people had never seen a white man.  The economic system was an unpredictable mix of socialism and capitalism – the official term was, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Apparently, this meant that anyone could earn money, and if the Party bosses wanted to take some for themselves, they just changed the rules.

Writing Prompt

When you moved to a different region, or into a different subculture, what changes let you know you were in a “foreign” land? Write a scene to show your surprise.

Here’s one of mine

In Berkeley in 1971, in my usual dire state of loneliness, I went to visit a girl who knew some friends of mine from the University of Wisconsin. When she answered the door, I told her the names of our mutual friends. I was relieved when she softened and invited me into her candle lit pad. Behind her, another girl reclined dreamily on cushions. As I was sitting down to join them, the first girl asked me my sign. I said “Gemini” and they looked at each other. She became stern and distant, and then asked me to leave. Shaken, I walked out to the street, alone again, wondering what I had done wrong.


This is my third essay on the memoir “American Shaolin.” To read the other essays, click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world

by Jerry Waxler

As a teenager, Frank Schaeffer was filled with lust for the young women who travelled from all parts of the world to visit the Christian center run by his parents. At the beginning of his memoir “Crazy for God,” I was beginning to wonder why there was so much sexual tension in a book that was supposed to be about religion and politics. Then, a few pages later I realized why this background was important. When he was just 18 years-old, his new girl friend became pregnant. They married and had the baby.

Like many people before him, Schaeffer discovered the shocking fact that sex has consequences, a lesson which faced him every time he changed his daughter’s diaper. As an intense young man, surrounded by preachers, he couldn’t simply leave his personal discovery alone. He had to turn it into a sermon, not against his own sexual exploits but against abortion. In a few years he was working tirelessly, a human dynamo trying to rouse Christians everywhere to stand up for the rights of the unborn.

According to Schaeffer, the evil of abortion should be as self-evident to a Christian as the law of gravity was to a physicist. And so, he thought he was doing the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, down this path rode the hounds of hell.

While the most fanatical believers of his point of view were bombing abortion clinics, a much more widespread result was burrowing into the fabric of society. The pressure of these absolute positions skewed the politics of the United States, turning churches into battlegrounds for the control of government, turning every election into a referendum on abortion.

Of course, abortion opponents make an obvious point. Murder is bad, and murdering babies is enough to wake anyone in the middle of the night, screaming for justice. But when exactly do multiplying cells become a baby? The answer differs depending on who you ask. To know the moment when abortion becomes murder, you must choose the right religious doctrine over the wrong one, a battle that has created war and terror since the beginning of history.

As Frank Schaeffer grew older, he realized how politicians were manipulating his religious ideas for their own ends. He started to notice that his rigid position frightened people. His position softened, and his respect for people with diverse beliefs grew. Most interesting for me, he came to see that the abortion debate sidles up alongside sexuality. With his help, I see that sex injects a complication into what was supposed to be a simple question of stopping murder.

Sex is the act that turns an egg into a baby, and religions have long felt the need to take control. For example, in the Bible there was a woman who took sex too lightly and the punishment was public stoning. His observation raises a fascinating issue. How many of them are fighting to contain sex? And on the other side of the debate, how many who favor abortion rights are trying to take away the consequences of sex? Finally he turned his back on the evangelical movement altogether.

If you tried to understand Frank Schaeffer at any particular era of his life, you would see only one aspect of the man. At one period, he looked like a randy teenager. Then, a confused teenaged father. After that, a zealous preacher. Later still, a hypocrite who continued to speak for large fees about things he no longer believed. Then, he looked like a starving artist, refusing those easy fees while he struggled to earn money as a novelist. Finally, you would see the Frank Schaeffer of today.

When the most recent Frank Schaeffer looks at the mob mentality around abortion, he sees a situation similar to the righteous people in the Bible who wanted to stone the prostitute. In his younger days, he was leading the charge, urging greater passion. The more mature man says, “Let’s think about it more clearly.” He certainly knew the line in the Bible “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone” but he didn’t actually hear it until he grew older.

Writing about the evolution of ideas in his memoir, Schaeffer offers a profound lesson for aspiring memoir writers. When we look back on our own history, we can see ourselves in each period, and discover the set of beliefs we held then. We couldn’t know what those ideas would look like a decade later. It’s only now, as we look back through the years, that we can understand how the ideas changed. It turns out the accumulated wisdom that we earned through the course of these years is not contained in any one snapshot of our life, but in our unfolding story.
Writing Prompt
Looking back across the span of your life, when did you believe in something strongly, even zealously, and then later come to understand that your rigid ideas had consequences? For example, did you drink, assuming it would cause no harm, only to find out later that it was ruining your liver or your family? Did you believe strongly that some group was “bad” only to later discover their depth? How did your religious or spiritual beliefs change?

Write an overview of the beliefs as they moved through time. Describe the key ah-ha moments, events, readings, and discussions that spurred you along. Write about the doubts and certainties. Show how the beliefs influenced your attitudes and choices. Explore the possibility that this evolution can support some or all of the power of your memoir.

Frank Schaeffer’s official website
“Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back” by Frank Schaeffer