This week I’d like to share with you a special chapter from my book which tells the story of how I met my friend and teacher, the herbal master Ron Teeguarden, and our magical adventure together to the Shaolin Temple in China. I hope you enjoy it. Big hugs of love, Jason
Chapter 19 – Shaolin Temple With The Dragon
I looked up in front of me. Through the mist towered a giant statue. A metallic monk peered out above the treetops, his hands pressed together, blessing the passage of all those lucky enough to make this journey.
I stopped and turned to the group of people who made this trip with me. There was something I needed to say. Not so much to them, maybe I was talking to myself. I spoke nonetheless.
“Whatever each of us has done,” I said, not sure where these words were coming from. “Whatever has happened in our lives, however it is that we’ve each arrived here, it’s all perfect. It’s all okay. We’re here … .”
With a tear of great joy in my eye, I entered the grounds of the Shaolin Temple in the foothills of the Songshan mountain range of China.
Two months prior, at the recommendation of David Wolfe, I had gone to see Ron Teeguarden, the master herbalist, who had asked me to meet him at his Beverly Hills store.
I arrived and walked through the door, the small Chinese bells on the door gently announcing my arrival. The store was filled with tinctures and plastic bottles of herbs, like an herbal pharmacy. Bottles with weird names I didn’t yet know, but soon would.
I introduced myself and asked the man behind the register where I could find Ron. I followed him through the store, around the corner. We entered the tonic bar decorated with Chinese antiques, TV sets showing videos of Ron on expeditions searching for herbs, and large canisters filled with giant roots suspended in liquid, like herbal lava lamps. The bar looked like a Chinese version of the many hip Hollywood bars in the area. There were no daytime drunks, however, no pick-up lines, and no expensive bottles of champagne. Instead of coming to drink away your blues, this is where people came to tonify their lives. I’ll explain that soon.
We continued past the bar into what looked like the herbal workshop of a mad scientist. It was. Glass canisters lined the shelves around the room, filled with roots, leaves, stems, berries, and other treasures I couldn’t yet identify.
“Hi,” Ron said. He was a tall man, really tall. I’m 6’3” and he was taller. His white hair sprouted up in patches around his head and face, making him look a bit like a bearded dragon.
He smiled a crooked smile as if sensing the amazement I was feeling in this herbal wonderland. I looked closely at him. It was like that moment in Back to the Future, when Marty meets Christopher Lloyd’s character, Dr. Brown, for the first time. As Ron began to share his herbal philosophy with me, I was only half listening. My brain was busy deciding what to make of this fascinating man, wondering if he was some crazy doctor hawking snake oil or my new guide.
“Have a seat,” Ron said interrupting my ponderings. “Ya … so welcome. It’s nice to meet you.”
There was an awkward feeling that’s hard to explain. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t supposed to be there, but more like we had a purpose, a history together, and the awkwardness came from having to get all the usual small talk out of the way so we could get down to business; or better stated, down to life.
“Thank you for seeing me,” I started off. “David spoke so highly of you. In fact, what he said was, ‘you have to consume Chinese herbs, and to do that right you have to see Ron Teeguarden.’”
Ron smiled his crooked smile. His eyes shifted nervously as if he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the compliment. There was something endearing about this man, like a long lost uncle who had traveled the world and had come home to share his adventures.
I told him my story just as I had told Michael and Vera and David and Guru Singh before him. The whole story from the beginning to the present. Then I said, “I’m here because I want to learn. David told me there is an intelligence to the herbs, a special quality you can feel in your body. I want to experience that feeling. “Will you teach me?” This is where my herbal education began.
“Chinese herbs,” Ron said, “will become your new best friend. They saved my life. They will change yours.” He looked at me as if he wanted to say something else, but wasn’t sure he should. Then he spoke: “I want you to know that what you’re feeling is temporary. The exhaustion. That is your Jing, your life force; it’s been depleted, spent throughout the life you have described. It’s why you are here.” He paused, looked at me, and then he continued: “There is something special in you. You are going to do something special with all of this you are learning. I will help you restore your Jing. When that is done there will be no stopping you.”
I sat there amazed, the hair on my arms standing up.
He told me his story. How as a college student he had a viral infection that doctors couldn’t diagnose or cure. He was wiped out, aching and depressed. He lost 50 pounds. Hopeless, he contemplated ending it all until a friend, returning from Canada, brought him some bottles of a Chinese supplement containing an herb called He Shou Wu. Ron was in such bad shape that he didn’t read the dosage instructions properly, and instead of taking a tablespoon three times per day, he drank it by the bottle. He got better. His energy returned almost immediately. In a short time he was back to normal. It was a miracle … a miracle in that it motivated this man to begin a journey of discovery, learning, and teaching that would bring Chinese herbs to the West.
In the late 1970s Ron met his mentor and great Taoist Master, Sung Jin Park. Ron would spend the next several years learning at the feet of his great teacher and friend. Just as I had learned Spanish translating Mexican pop songs, Ron would learn the art of herbalism by translating Master Park’s teachings.
Now, 35 years later, I was sitting with a great teacher, just as he had so many years before. Only Ron the student was now the teacher, sharing his experience with a new student: me.
We talked for hours. I was fascinated by this man and intrigued by his knowledge and description of the herbs. They weren’t things to him. They were like fairies with which he played and through which he created magical potions.
He explained the ancient Chinese philosophy of the three treasures― Jing (life force), Qi (vitality) and Shen (spirit), and the balancing characteristics of Yin (conservation) and Yang (fire)―and how they all interact in the body, each like a player on a basketball team. He told me that a good herbal formula can keep you balanced just like a good tune-up keeps your car running well.
The most important lesson that day and what had the greatest impact on me was Ron’s explanation of health, what he called Radiant Health and described as “health beyond danger.” He explained we can nourish our bodies and souls to the point that we are no longer in danger from the risks of our daily life. Instead of obsessing about how to eliminate all the toxins, chemicals, and pollution from our world (a truly impossible task), we tonify our bodies; we strengthen them through diet, exercise, meditation, and herbs until we reach the point of Radiant Health―health beyond danger.
Then he answered the question: “Yes, I will teach you.”
Ron pointed to a canister with large burnt-red, glossy mushrooms in it. “Those are Reishi mushrooms,” he said. “There are many great herbs, but none greater than Reishi. Reishi is a powerful immune builder that also opens your spirit to the heavens. In Chinese temples there are giant murals depicting heaven. At the top, there is always a Reishi mushroom. Someday you will go to China with me and we will find one. When you do you will know you have found your way.”
This is how I ended up in China, at the Shaolin Temple, as part of my education with my new teacher, Ron Teeguarden.
I had been consuming Chinese herbs for about two months when we arrived at the Shaolin Temple. I say consuming, not taking, because they are plants. When we say taking, it conjures up thoughts of a pharmaceutical medicine to treat something. The tonic herbs, herbs that promote the Radiant Health Ron taught me about, are plants. Wild, intelligent, special plants that promote health and well-being. Maybe the best way to explain it is to say we consume the herbs so we don’t have to TAKE medicine. Yeah, I like that.
Sixty days after adding these special plants to my diet, I joined Ron and a small group of his friends on the trip to China. The Shaolin Temple is an extraordinary place. It’s the Chinese birthplace of three modalities―Zen Buddhism, Kung fu, and Herbal Medicine. These are the three divisions of the temple, the three arts practiced daily by the monks who live there.
Imagining a Shaolin monk is almost impossible until you meet one. They are the most humble, sincere, sweetest beings I have ever met. Yet with a deep breath and a lightning-quick strike they are also the fiercest of warriors. This is the unique mix of the Shaolin training, a mastery of the body and mind through Buddhist teachings and meditation combined with kung fu and tai chi.
For me, the temple combined two parts of my life I thought were incompatible―the scrappy fighter who clawed his way up the ladder and the calm, loving, spiritual being I was uncovering through my new diet, yoga, and meditation. At Shaolin I saw them combined, two parts of the whole.
I spent the week learning tai chi, meditating, and studying with the senior monks of the temple.
The monks’ discipline is impressive. Beginning with an early morning wake up, their day is spent disciplining the mind and body through physical and mental workout and service toward others.
I don’t know why I didn’t sleep much at the temple. I was calm. It wasn’t that I was excited like a kid at Disneyland. I just didn’t feel the need to sleep much. I got up each morning, did yoga and meditated, and then walked the grounds barefoot, soaking in the sacred energy of the temple’s earth.
It was such a special experience to watch the monks chanting and meditating and to see the young children practicing kung fu. I felt like I had a backstage pass to a secret world that no one back home knew existed. And I was always looking for the Reishi mushrooms Ron told me about.
In my morning meditations I found myself crying. Not a sad cry. No, there was no sadness at all. More, it was a cry of awe, of the sheer wonder of life. I had a question … a thought … stuck in my head. “How did I get here?”
I had spent my entire life climbing, with each step leading logically to the next. Even if my life didn’t make sense to others, to me it did. I’d been poor, so I sold gum to buy lunch. I liked selling things so I got a job at the flea market. There I learned to sell more things to more people. Many of the people spoke Spanish, which was a barrier for me. I learned Spanish by translating music. Having learned to sell, to speak Spanish, and to appreciate the music, I became a Spanish-language concert promoter. Realizing that market was a niche, I expanded into English music. Then I rode the wave as high as I could.
See what I mean? Totally logical.
Now here I was, meditating under a tree, on the grounds of a sacred Buddhist temple, on the very site where Zen Buddhism began in China. The very earth where many of the herbs I consumed grew. How in the fuck did I get here? And so I cried. A cry of desperation, tears of wonderment spilling from my heart. Why am I here? The trip was magical. We were guided around the temple and grounds by a monk named Li Bo. Li Bo was a tiny man with a kind, gentle demeanor― like the monks in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He spoke broken English, but it was good enough for us to bond. He was a basketball fan. I had season tickets and kept him entertained with stories of Kobe Bryant, Laker games, and watching the team win the NBA Championship. In exchange he taught me about Shaolin. Together we searched for Reishi mushrooms.
One day, Li Bo told us we would be going to Bodhidharma’s cave. Bodhidharma was the founder of the Shaolin tradition. He was an Indian Buddhist monk who traveled to China and arrived at the Shaolin monastery. When they refused him entry he retreated to this cave high in the mountains where, legend says, he meditated for nine long years. He stayed there so long that birds nested on his head and his aura was burned into the side of the wall. After nine years he came down from the cave to deliver the Shaolin Buddhist and kung fu teachings, which are still taught today.
Where is the cave? To answer that question, Li Bo pointed up (I mean way up) to the highest point on the mountain and said, “A little past there.” I’m not a dramatic guy. I don’t like hyperbole. So take it at face value when I tell you that where he pointed, that far away mountaintop was … well … really really far away. I spoke for the group when I said, “We’re going to walk there?”
“Yes,” Li Bo said. “Or run if you want.”
Turns out that the monks run this route every day, sometimes twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I say run, but they don’t really run, they float. “Come on, Jason,” you’re probably thinking. If you doubt me, Google it and you’ll see what I mean. Touching only their toes for brief seconds, they seem to float as they run along from step to step. If they feel they need a little more challenge that day, they bear crawl down―all the monks, young and old, every day.
“How long is it going to take?” someone asked.
“Maybe two hours,” Li Bo said, “for you guys. When I run I can get there in 12 minutes.”
We set out to the cave in the sky. We held a steady pace trying to keep up with Li Bo. Soon the group had splintered as everyone found their own pace. Li Bo, Ron’s son Lucky, Reverend Michael Beckwith (a longtime client and friend of Ron’s), and I were the first to arrive at the final leg of the journey: a multi-leveled series of 1,000 hand-formed stone stairs that led straight up to the cave.
“Do you want to run?” Li Bo asked innocently.
What could we say? “Yes, let’s do it,” I said for the group.
So there we were, like a corny joke told at a banquet―a monk, a concert promoter, a reverend, and a kid named Lucky―running up the stairs to Bodhidharma’s cave. Let me clarify this. As I already said, Li Bo floated to the top. Lucky, Michael, and I tried our best to run, navigating the tiny stone steps with uneven rises in the scorching Chinese sun.
As we were reaching the top we looked down to admire the journey that got us here. Far in the distance below us, below the blue sky and clouds, beyond the endless mountains and trees, sat the Shaolin Temple where we had begun the day. Now we were a couple of steps from the cave. It was beautiful … a perfect analogy for my life. I closed my eyes and, as Guru Singh had taught me, listened to the moment.
Then we heard a voice, “Hey guys.” Coming up the final flight of stairs behind us was Olivia, a young client of Ron’s. She’d recently had a portion of her leg removed after a tumor was discovered in it. This trip was her inspiration to make it through that ordeal, to recover, to make it here. We stood off to the side and the girl with one good leg led the way.
When we arrived at the cave, we noticed an inscription in a stone arch above the entrance.
“Place of silent mystery,” Li Bo said, sensing our question. We entered, held hands, and Reverend Beckwith led us in prayer. Li Bo took us up one more flight of stairs to an observation point above the cave. There, sitting on the ground as if waiting for me to arrive, was a small Chinese man selling Reishi mushrooms. It was surreal. I’d been waiting to find Reishi, just as Ron had described on that first day when he told me about this trip. I’d looked everywhere and now here, in the most unlikely of locations, I found them. I bought one for each member of our group and gave them out as each arrived at the top.
When Ron arrived, I handed him the most perfect Reishi I had found. I felt tears well up in my eyes. I looked at him and said, “I’ve spent the whole trip wondering why I’m here. And just like the painting of heaven we found Reishi way up here, in our heaven.”
Then Ron repeated the words that Vera had uttered in our first meeting, the words Guru Singh’s eyes had silently conveyed to me: “You are home, Jason.”
I breathed, sat down, looked out from my own little slice of heaven, and we meditated. One by one the group arrived and joined me, each of us with our own story of how we came to this place, united by the Reishi mushrooms we held in our hands and the piece of Shaolin embedded in our hearts.
A few weeks after we returned from the temple I went to see Ron. I had saved a couple extra Reishi mushrooms and Ron had promised we would make a special tea with them. He got out a large pot. Together we broke the Reishi into pieces and placed them in the pot. Each piece carried with it a memory of our magical journey to the top of the mountain. Then Ron pointed to canisters and jars. Taking handfuls, he told me a story about each herb and then added it to the pot. “Gynostemma is the supreme longevity herb,” he said. “Drink it every day.” Into the pot. “Ginseng root is very special, Jason. After 15 years of life a ginseng root has a gene that activates and the root won’t die. Ginseng lives on and on. This one is 25 years old. It found me. Now that intelligence will go into our tea.” Into the pot. “Licorice root is the great harmonizer. It facilitates the combining of the essence and flavor of the herbs.” Into the pot.
This was how Ron taught me, on that day and on many, many others― in impromptu classes disguised as chance meetings, consultations, and tea making.
Once we had assembled the perfect combination of herbs, Ron told me he would brew it all night and that I should come back tomorrow. The next day was my daughter’s birthday and we would share the tea with her.
The next day I returned, eager to drink our special tea made from the Reishi mushroom from the Shaolin Temple. The mushroom that found me and helped me to find myself.
We arrived to see Ron standing proudly over a teapot. He was waiting for us. He had invited our friend, Wang Bo, another Shaolin monk, to join us. I sensed he was feeling the same anticipation I was.
Then something amazing happened, as if that Reishi mushroom wanted to make a point and give a demonstration of the awesome intelligence of the herbs. The door to the herb shop swung open and in walked Reverend Michael Beckwith. He had no idea we were there, or what we were doing. He had come to buy his monthly supply of herbs and walked in on our gathering.
So there we were, all together. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Nataly. Michael said a prayer. Then we drank our magical tea with the mushroom that had called us to China to find it and then brought us all back to LA to find each other. A lesson taught by a sacred herb to her lucky students.