Bai Shi Ceremony - Tradition, Honor, Respect
by Brian Bruning
In the summer of 2008, Grandmaster Chen Yun Ching of Taichung, Taiwan, youngest son of Chen Pan Ling and heir to his father's martial arts legacy, invited 19 students from the United States and Australia to come to Taiwan in January, 2009. They were to attend a training seminar and be part of a special traditional Chinese ceremony called Bai Shi (pronounced By Shur), in which the student asks the Master to share his knowledge (literally, it translates as "Ask teacher for knowledge"). This also included Master Chen's adopted brother James Sumarac and his wife Shou Mei, from Australia.
My fellow instructor Jim Ransom and I were selected from the Rochester T'ai Chi Ch'uan Center in Rochester New York to be among those privileged few to become Master Chen's first "Inner Door" students.
Master Chen's invitation read:
"I have organized a special ceremony where I will be for the first time accepting inner door students. Our ceremony will be conducted by a specialized team coming from Central Taiwan in a very traditional and correct manner. I have decided to select a few people from different countries that I have observed over a period of time and have displayed the appropriate attitudes to training and teaching of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. I wish to secure the future and reputation of my Father's teachings and his vision to build a stronger and virtuous International community thru the training and study of the Chinese Martial and Healing Arts."
Master Chen made the Bai Shi announcements in 2008, a Rat year, which is considered a time of hard work and renewal, and a good year to make a fresh start. The upcoming Ox year of 2009 was auspicious, and good timing for the Bai Shi ceremony. Ox years typically represent hard work and place great emphasis on authority and tradition. The concepts of hard work, renewal, auspicious timing and tradition all contributed to making this ceremony quite meaningful.
The location of our training and ceremony was the Kaohsiung Confucius Temple located on Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung's Zuoying District. Taiwan's largest Confucius temple, it is modeled on the Sung Dynasty's unique and majestic architectural style. The main building - Tacheng Hall - is very much like the Taihe Hall from the Forbidden City in Beijing.
One day during a break in our training, we visited a paper umbrella factory in the Hakaa village of Meinong. The making of painted oiled paper umbrellas was a tradition brought over to Taiwan from the mainland by a local businessman in the 1920s. The paper umbrella symbolizes prosperity and is a symbol of good luck for the Hakka people. The word used to describe the umbrella's rounded top is yuan, which is pronounced the same as the word for completeness, so umbrellas came to represent the good fortune that keeps people together. What's more, the word for umbrella (san) is made up of a group of people under a cover, and can also represent unity. Master Chen touched on this idea in his speech after the ceremony, likening our group to the spines of the umbrella supporting the whole structure of his teachings, his legacy: "Today I see a vision, I see us as an umbrella, many small pieces supporting larger pieces; if there is a small piece missing, it will weaken the larger pieces."
Nearly everything we saw or did in Taiwan seemed related to history, tradition and legacy - whether it was training in the martial arts of Chen Pan Ling on the grounds of a Confucian temple, visiting a famous Buddhist temple high on a hill, or touring a historic Hakaa village where early "visitors" settled. It all culminated in an emotion-filled ceremony based upon tradition, honor and respect.
Tradition, Honor, Respect
These qualities of life are what the ancient Chinese ceremony of Bai Shi is all about. It's about preserving a tradition - passing a legacy from father to son, from teacher to student. Some traditions may mean family rituals practiced during the holidays or at special occasions such as a birth, marriage, or death. It may involve the family's religious practices and may include food that the whole family recognizes as part of its heritage. Bai Shi, a ceremony with ritual elements conducted by a master in whom one or more students "enter the door" to become disciples, involves all of these and more. It honors a unique bond - and respect - between Master and student. With the conclusion of the Bai Shi ceremony, the student and Master are connected through an "adoption" or a formal extension of his family unit, in which the "inner door student" is officially recognized as the next generation in the lineage of the Master.
The ceremony signifies the student's commitment to the school, to the founder, to his master and to his kung fu "brothers and sisters," and in our case also to our "uncle" and "aunt." The Master recognizes this commitment by allowing the student to "enter the door" and reciprocates by giving the student true and open transmission of his art. The student can now be referred to as Men Ren, literally "disciple or gatekeeper," and is no longer a mere student. Students merit selection for Bai Shi by showing sincerity, commitment, good character, and high skill level and are given some form of diploma - in our case, a personal certificate signed by Master Chen, Uncle James and Aunt Mei.
Traditionally, a Bai Shi ceremony is a secretive event. However, in the Bai Shi ceremony conducted by Chen Yun Ching in 2009, the concept of secrecy was altered, as the ceremony was really about establishing a public proclamation of our commitment to the Chen Pan Ling Martial Arts system. The Bai Shi ceremony was, and is, in keeping with the overall ethos and direction set by Chen Pan Ling himself of overall transparency, in sharing his knowledge, experiences, and teachings with an open heart. As an interesting side-note, unlike other Masters, Chen Yun Ching (like his father) has no ban on his students studying outside his teachings. His invitation reads: "Being an inner door student bai shi does not preclude you from training with other Teachers or places."
The Bai Shi ceremony is an initiation ritual mirrored in Chinese secret societies and is only the first step in a long process of transmitting the inner teachings to a disciple. This produces a band of "brothers" and "sisters" that could recognize one another as such by knowledge of certain techniques and by a "family" name, or Pai, represented by a special banner. Ours is the Ling Yun Pai, using names from Chen Pan Ling and Chen Yun Ching. Ling Yun, which means "mountain peak clouds," is the name of Master Chen's training hall in Taichung, and it is graphically represented on the Ling Yun Pai banner.
The Bai Shi ceremony would normally be simple, conducted by the Master at his home or school. In our case, it was directed by a four member team, brought in by Master Chen and specially trained to perform such traditional ceremonies, and held in a side room across the courtyard from the Confucius Temple main hall. There was a sort of master of ceremonies with three additional members who wore traditional Jing Mo uniforms of grayish blue with red sashes around their waist and ankles. On the jacket's right front was a gold crest and on the back gold characters saying, "Hong Men Sheng Peng Shan," meaning Hong Door Mount Holy Peng (a subdivision of the Hong Society). Peng is a reference to a huge mythological bird from Chinese legend.
A picture of Chen Pan Ling looked down upon a red cloth-draped altar with two large red candles, an incense pot, and a container of incense sticks. There was also a small round mirror, a writing brush, a red painted tablet, and a stack of red envelopes to be presented to our teacher at the appropriate time. An upper shelf contained a small statue of the sage Confucius and a number of small flags. Master Chen sat to the right of the altar on a red cloth-covered chair and Uncle James and Aunt Mei sat to the left. Every object, action and person present had a purpose in this traditional ceremony.
The ceremony started with the elder team member, holding two candles, saying in poetic language, "Illuminate Mount Liang and our hill." The translation notes that "Mount Liang indicates the numerically larger, but self-interestedly criminal, component of the Triad world; 'our hill' is the numerically smaller but ethically higher component of the world that is dedicated to the ideals of the sworn brothers of the Peach Garden (in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms)." "Our hill," I believe, refers to the small group present at this ceremony, differentiating it with the ancient Triad organizations.
The second member holding three sticks of incense poetically praised the group present and stated that as the stick of incense is planted we are "planting seedlings." I think this is a reference to a new lineage sprouting forth, growing and thriving. He then moved a stick at a time to his right hand, referring to each as a symbol of reverence, first to Heaven, then to father and mother, and finally to the sages. With each stick handed over to the master of ceremonies, the team took the candles and the tablet outside the room, calling on the Sage to "join all brothers together in righteousness."
The team returned the objects to the altar, after which the senior member took up the mirror and writing brush and pointed to the altar and said words to "activate the light of the Sun and Moon." The translators noted that:
"Activate the Light" is kai guang. This is usually translated using the English idiom "turn on the light(s)", but kai actually means "open" or "begin." "Light" is capitalized because it is not ordinary light, but the light of the Sun and Moon, which together make the word ming - meaning "bright, but also the name of the Ming Dynasty, which the Triads were sworn to restore, and thus the appeal to the precedent of the patriotic sworn brothers of the Peach garden.
"The Sun and Moon refers to the gesture of greeting in which one hand embraces the fist of the other before the chest; the fist is like the sun; the clasping hand is like the moon; together they make the character, "bright."
The senior member took up a stick of incense and, holding it in both hands while pointing toward the Sage statue on the altar, commented that from now on "the whole company of brothers will be in harmony," and that "forever protected is the great fortune and joy of the Hong Realm." I took this to mean that our new brotherhood will experience a very positive future.
The Master of Ceremonies then had us all sit and asked Master Chen to "please activate the Sage." Master Chen then held three sticks of incense, offering them toward the Sage on the altar. He then knelt down three times, touching his head to the ground three times at each kneeling. The Master of Ceremonies said to him, "Facing the Worthy Ancestral Teacher, perform the rite of kneeling and reverence." Master Chen then kneeled and bowed to his Father with visible emotion.
We then professed our oath to Master Chen, and each of us took our turns kneeling and kou towing (bowing three times, touching our foreheads to the floor) first to the altar and then to our new Master. We presented Master Chen with the red envelope (a traditional offering) and he in turn placed a bagua necklace around our necks and presented us with our Bai Shi certificate and a Ling Yun Pai banner.
After the ceremony, we all spent the afternoon on a field trip to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. The headquarters of Fo Guang Shan, located in Dashu Township, Kaohsiung County, is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. It was a fitting place for a vegetarian feast to celebrate our induction that morning into the Ling Yun Pai family, via the Bai Shi ceremony. That ceremony, the highlight of our training, contained much cultural symbolism based upon centuries of traditional Chinese history. For all of us, that day was an emotional experience and a life event we will never forget.
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The translations in this article are credited to "Huang Liyi and Richard Brzustowicz" and were made by outsiders, who may have missed or misunderstood some points. Photos used by permission of the Chen Pan Ling International Foundation.