Should Shaolin monks only be Asian? Can a Westerner ascend to the exalted level of an abbot? Venerable Abbot Shi Yan Fan of Shaolin Temple Los Angeles can answer that. He became the first of only 43 monks in the world to receive the ancient Jieba branding marks at Shaolin Temple, China in 2007, and he is Italian!
Born in Brindisi, Italy, Franco Testini began his study of martial arts at the age of seven. He explains that when he was young, Shaolin training was a secret in the communist-dominated country. Franco loved action, and when his older brother gave him an old sketch manual about Shaolin Qi Energy, he realized that he had in his possession something special. Coming from a poor family of 10, Franco challenged other children in the neighborhood to martial arts contests in order to bring money and food home to help support the family. He was a natural, and winning competitions came easily.
The manual was filled with simple Chinese brush sketches of martial arts stances and movements. It promised that by practicing this discipline, you could gain strength, learn self-defense, have longevity, develop healing powers and even become super-human. Fascinated by the book, he took it everywhere with him and constantly studied the movements. The book explained that the process starts through connecting with nature. This was the perfect opportunity for Franco to apply the philosophy of nature to his everyday life, for at the time he was a young shepherd on his cousin's farm. From sunrise to sunset, Franco spent his day in the mountains with a flock of about 200 sheep. As the sheep grazed, Franco mimicked the movements in the book, teaching himself the basics of martial arts. Even though the book was written in Italian, Franco was still unsure what the captions under the sketches meant. It was his cousin who explained to him that the basic principle was that with this training, a human being is capable of powerful and amazing things.
After two years of practicing from the book, Franco began to feel more strength, both mentally and physically. During that time Franco and his cousin would also visit the nearby military base to give fresh cheeses and milk to the soldiers. That was when he was first introduced to a martial monk named Kim Wong Feng from Chi Ri temple in South Korea. Kim Wong Feng saw great potential in Franco and accepted him as his student, thus beginning his official martial arts training at age nine.
Franco dedicated much of his time training with his master. Eventually, he left home to begin competing in tournaments. By the age of 19, Franco had won many titles but also became aware of the emptiness of the senseless fighting. He noticed that many bets were placed on him to win fights, but he never saw any of the winnings that he fought for. Franco realized that this was not the lifestyle that he envisioned. With so much anger and resentment he harbored inside, his master guided him to enter the gates of Chi Ri temple to change his life. After two years and three months of living a monastic life in South Korea, Franco was alerted of his father's deteriorating health. One month after Franco left the temple to go back to Italy, his father passed away.
After a few years of trying to reestablish his life in Italy, he decided to set out on an adventure to America. In 1994 Franco came to Los Angeles to spread Buddhism and the practice of Shaolin medicine. He arrived with faith and excitement over his unfolding adventure the day after the Northridge earthquake. He had no money, no contacts, no transportation and spoke no English. He slept in abandoned cars, on the floor close to a gas station and even on the sands of Redondo Beach. Franco would continue to train every day, and passersby would stop to watch him. People stood entranced just watching his body flow with power and elegance. He welcomed everyone to join him, and eventually people started to give him donations for the training. Slowly, his clientele grew. Soon Franco and his students started training in various parks, community centers and dance studios.
By 2004 Franco went to pay his respects to the temple in China and trained with the monks. Abbot Shi Yongxin was so pleased with Franco's dedication and history that the following year, the monks arranged a ceremony for Franco to become a disciple of the abbot and officially named him Shi Yan Fan, which means "Powerful Sky." Shi Yan Fan also received official permission from the abbot to open Shaolin Temple Los Angeles. He chose Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks because Ventura, translated from Italian, means "adventure," and that is how he has viewed his entire life journey.
Then, in 2007, the Chinese government allowed the partial lifting of a 300-year-old ban of an ancient ceremony at the Northern Shaolin Temple. Shi Yan Fan was requested by the Chinese government to participate in the ancient, one-month-long ceremony.
Out of 800 monks who attended the ceremony, only 100 monks were schedule to receive "Jieba," a ritual that is extremely painful because nine sticks of incense are affixed to the top of the head with a paste. Then they light the incense and let it burn for five minutes. The last two minutes are the most excruciating because the fire burns down into the scalp. Each of the resulting burn marks represents one of the fundamental rules of conduct: remain celibate, don't lie, don't steal, don't drink, don't use drugs, don't eat meat, don't kill animals, and don't judge others. Some of the monks fainted, while others cried or ran out trying to leave because they could not go through with the Jieba. Out of the 100 monks chosen to receive the marks, only 43 actually went on to being branded. Shi Yan Fan was chosen by the abbot to be the first monk branded in the ceremony. Not only was he the first to be branded in 300 years, but he was also the first non-Asian to receive this honor at Shaolin Temple. Abbot Shi Yongxin wanted to open its gates to the rest of the world by showing that race does not matter and that Shaolin is for all to receive its unlimited benefits.
Now back in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Shifu Shi Yan Fan continues to spread the message of Shaolin and Chan Buddhism. Shaolin Temple Los Angeles welcomes all ages, nationalities, athletic abilities and genders. Shifu Shi Yan Fan and his students all helped build the temple from the ground up. Volunteers donated their time and talents to help replicate the ancient warrior paintings from the walls of the original Shaolin Temple in China. A Buddha alter was also built to pay respects to the ancient culture. Shaolin Temple Los Angeles offers more than just martial arts training. Every day they Dharma walk for meditation as the monks do in China. Authentic forms of Qi Gong and Tai Chi are also offered, as well as traditional Shaolin tea and philosophy sessions. Shifu Yan Fan wanted a place where people can train and get a small taste of what the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple is like.
Currently, Shifu Shi Yan Fan and the members of Shaolin Temple Los Angeles are looking to expand its facility and erect a replica of the famous Shaolin Temple on a grander scale. Abbot Shi Yongxin has approved the project. Shifu Shi Yan Fan envisions it as becoming a majestic Los Angeles landmark for travelers all over the world to visit. It will be built up in the hills of Los Angeles above Ventura Boulevard.
Shi Yan Fan's life mission now is to continue to spread the teachings of Shaolin. He has stressed to me the importance of maintaining the integrity and ancient traditions of Shaolin by teaching his students every aspect: Meditation, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, martial arts, tea and philosophy, Chan Buddhism and much more.
There is also a biopic in development on Shi Yan Fan's life story, with the working title "Heart of Shaolin."
To read more I have an e-zine article on Shi Yan Fan coming in April at
For information about Abbot Shi Yan Fan and Shaolin Temple Los Angeles, visit www.shaolintemplela.org.