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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.