SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
JANUARY 1998
This is the third issue of the Question-Answer Series

Shaolin

Sifu Wong demonstrating a Shaolin punch

Question 1

I am deeply concerned in learning authentic kung fu and I don't want a sifu who teaches me garbage. What do you suggest?

— Henry, England

Answer

It is highly advisable to spend some time seeking a good master before enroling to learn kungfu. If you learn from a mediocre instructor, not only you will waste your time and money, you may mistake garbage for the genuine art.

I suggest the following 5-step approach.

  1. Have a sound knowledge about the scope and depth of Shaolin Kungfu.
  2. Define your aims and objectives.
  3. Seek a master or at least a competent instructor who can help you realize your set aims and objectives.
  4. Practise, practise and practise what your master teaches.
  5. Periodically assess the progress or otherwise of your training with direct reference to your aims and objectives.

Question 2

How does a person know a particular kung fu style is for him?

Answer

What knngfu style is best for a person depends on numerous factors, such as his built and character, his needs and asapirations, as well as the availability of suitable eachers and resources. Moneky Style Kungfu is suitable for a small-size exponent, whereas a bulky person will find Lohan Kungfu more advantageous. Usually a student is not informed enough to choose the best style for himself; he should trust that to his teacher

Question 3

Does a person have to take on the whole Bhuddist beliefs to get a full understanding and mastery of kung fu?

Answer

Shaolin Kungfu and all other styles of kungfu are non-religious. No one needs to adopt Buddhist or any religious beliefs to be proficient in the art. Throughout history famous Shaolin masters have been Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Christian, Muslim or of no official religion.

Question 4

I was thinking of taking T'ai Chi since I like the slower, defensive, internal arts but how long does it take to be able to use it effectively in combat situations?

— Lemuai, USA

Answer

If you learn Tai Chi dance, which is the norm nowadays, you cannot be combat efficient even if you practise your whole lifetime. If you practise genuine Tai Chi Chuan you should be able to take on a black-belt within one year. Like Shaolin Kungfu, Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) is not only an effective martial art, it is also a way of spiritual cultivation.

Pushing Mountains

An old photograph showing Sifu Wong perform "Pushing Mountains", one of the exercises in the Eighteen Lohan Hands

Question 5

What is chi and can it be realized?

Answer

Chi (written as "qi" in Romanized Chinese) is vital energy -- the energy that enables you to work and play, to think and dream, and to stay alive. It is found in everybody, but in chi kung (qigong) training, the practitioner improves the quality and quantity of his or her chi. It is hard to realize if one does not know the method. If we know the art, chi can be realized quite easily.

Question 6

I would like to know if Shaolin Kungfu belongs to the "hard" class of martial arts like Tae Kwon Do and Karate or the "soft" types like Taijichuan and Changchuan.

— Ipq, country not mentioned

Answer

Good kungfu, like Shaolin and Taijiquan, is both hard and soft. For example, Iron Palm, a well known Shaolin art, is hard, whereas Cosmos Palm, a more advanced Shaolin art, is soft. Taijiquan is normally practised in a soft, flowing manner, but Taijiquan masters may condition their body against attack by stricking themselves with bundles of cane, which is a hard form of force training.

Changchuan, meaning Long Fist, is a style of Northern Shaolin Kungfu. It is generally classified as "hard" form of kungfu although many aspects of its training is soft.

Question 7

In your writings you mention that your teachings can help people with mental illness. I work with mentally and physically challenged children and young adults. Conventional western wisdom relays heavily on drug oriented therapies and offers little if any real help. Behaviorist psychology is the dominant philosophy and seems to reduce human beings to a complex series of biochemical interactions.

I would like to learn a way that could really help.. How would a person go about learning what you teach?

— Kevin, USA

Answer

It is comforting to note that you are one of a gradually growing group of people who are professionally involved with helping mentally and physically challenged persons, and who realize that conventional drug oriented therapies and a philosophy based mainly on behaviorist pyschology would reduce human beings to a complex series of biochemical interactions. I believe this trend will change, and future generations will look upon you and the group as the pioneers (in western societies).

Actually if we examine the long history of world medicine, this comparatively short period of chemotherapy and behaviorist psychology in current western medical thinking, is an exception rather than the norm. It is because we happen to live in this period that many of us fail to see the trend from a wider perspective.

I would like to share with you another perspective -- the perspective of a medical system that has successfully maintained the health and sanity of the world's largest population for the longest period of human history (and prehistory).

According to Chinese medical philosophy, the mind and body is one unity, and the fundamental unit of life is energy, which the Chinese call chi. This of course contrasts distinctly with behavioristic philosophy which often denies the mind its existence and relegates it to a function of the mechanical brain. This alienation of the mind in western medicine and psychology, I believe, is a main cause for the failure in addressing many physical and psychological disorders.

Naturally many people would ask: Which is correct? Is the mind separated from the body or not? Or even, does the mind exist?

My reply is that there is no dualistic right or wrong, yes or no. Much depends on the perspective we adopt. A behaviorist can argue as convincingly that the mind does not exist, as a mind-body therapist argue that the mind possesses the body.

If I am asked which perspective is better, I would choose the one that best serves my purpose. The mind-body unity perspective has served the Chinese and other peoples very well throughout the centuries in overcoming both psychological and physical problems.

Let me give you a recent example. When Edward first met me about a month ago, he was visibly depressed. He also complained of chronic diarrhea which his doctors could not explain. I examined neither his head nor stomach but just taught him some chi kung exercises, almost the same exercises I would teach others with different complaints. It may be hard to believe, but just two weeks later almost everyone mentioned what a changed person Edward was. His chronic diarrhea was gone and he was (and still is) relaxed and cheerful.

From the Chinese medical perspective, there is a direct relationship between a person's emotional well being and his physical condition. If his stomach or spleen meridian is congested, for example, the blocked energy would manifest as worry or anxiety. If his lung system is blocked, he would be less able to endure grief. If his energy flow in his kidney system is disrupted, he is more prone to fear.

The Chinese explanation and treatment of psychiatric problem are very objective and profound. It is indeed amazing why many western medical professionals disdainly view Chinese medical practice as unscientific when virtually all western psychiatric treatment is based on subjective judgement.

Similarly, a person who is aggressive or malicious may not know that according to Chinese medical philosophy his condition has much to do with energy blockage at the liver system, but if he can generate enough energy flow through chi kung training to clear the blockage, he will be more calm without having to take drugs or counselling.

You need to practise genuine chi kung to have the effects I describe above. If you practise some form of gentle exercise which pretends to be chi kung, which is quite common nowadays, you will only get the effects of gentle exercise. A crucial difference between gentle exercise and chi kung is that the former operates at the physical level whereas the latter at the energy and mind levels.

It is noble of you to want to learn chi kung to help your patients. But unfortunately this cannot be done over a short period. Nowadays many people, especially in the west, start to teach others after they themselves have learnt chi kung, or some gentle exercise pretending to be chi kung, for a few months. It is like starting to practise medicine after sitting in a doctor's clinic for a few months observing how he treats patients.

Chi kung is a profound discipline, involing energy and mind. An art that can, among other benefits, help patients to be relieved of their illness where conventional medicine fail, certainly deserves more respect than that implied by thinking its essence can be acquired by merely copying a master's performance.

I offer intensive chi kung courses for foreign students who come to study with me for a few days. They will acquire sufficient skills and techniques with which they can competently practise on their own after the course. They have to practise for at least a few months before they can enjoy lasting effects, and a few years before thinking of teacbing others.

Question 8

I have been practicing meditation for the past 3 years and I find that when I miss a few days I feel drained of most of my energy. Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.

— Matt, USA

Answer

Meditation is an advanced art. You should practise it when you are ready; in this way you would be able to get its best results.

You may practise it from stratch, but then you may practise wrongly and get adverse effect, or at best you will get little benefits even after practising for a long time. This appear to be the case with you. If you have practised meditation correctly for three years, you should be healthy, peaceful and mentally fresh. You shouldn't feel drained of energy when you miss a few days of practice.

Tai Chi Chuan, Taijiquan

Tai Chi Chuan as well as Shaolin Kungfu are practiced not only for health and combat efficiency but also for sporitual cultivation

Question 9

I have been unable to find a clear description of the Eighteen Lohan Hands. Even the descriptions of the Classic of Sinew Metamorphosis which I have found are markedly different from each other.. Any help at all would be greatly appreciated.

Again, thank you for your hard work in preserving these treasured arts and sharing your knowledge with those of us around the world who would otherwise have little access to authentic instruction.

— Mark, Canada

Answer

The Eighteen Lohan Hands and the Sinew Metamorphosis constitute the foundation of Shaolin Kungfu and Shaolin Chi Kung. They were first taught by the great Bodhidharma to help the Shaolin monks in their Zen, or meditation. Shaolin Kungfu, Chi Kung and Zen are the three treasures of the Shaolin tradition.

However, because of their long history, different versions of the two arts exist today. It is difficult to say which versions were the original.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprising to many westerners, Shaolin masters in general have paid little significance to this question of originality. This is because, I believe, of the emphasis on practical benefits rather than theoretical knowledge in the Shaolin teaching. In other words so long as what they practise bring the results that the two arts are purported to bring, they are not interested whether they are the original, or even whether they are really Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis.

Similarly Shaolin masters have generally stayed out of scholars' debate on whether the exercises now called Eighteen Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis were actually invented by Bodhidharma.

I did not learn the complete set of the Eighteen Lohan Hands from my master. He taught me only a few of the 18 patterns, like "Lifting the Sky", "Pushing Mountains" and "Separating Water", but throughout my Shaolin training with him he paid much importance to "Lifting the Sky". (With hindsight I can now understand why, and am grateful to him.)

Then he told me: "The Eighteen Lohan Hands were taught my our first patriarch Bodhidharma to make the monks strong and healthy. You are now strong and health. Don't waste time over the other patterns; get on with other work."

But I had strong sentiments over the Eighteen Lohan Hands. They were the first patterns taught by our first patriarch in our Shaolin tradition, I thought.

Years later, as a young idealist and lacking my master's practical wisdom, I dreamt and meditated on the Eighteen Lohan Hands, and tried to search whatever classics I could find and ask whoever masters I could meet, to work out what the original eighteen patterns were. As you have noted, the records, written from the classics or oral from the masters, were little.

But finally, when I was already a master myself, I managed to gather 18 patterns together and call them the Eighteen Lohan Hands. I placed the 8 patterns of the Eight Pieces of Brocade from Taoist Chi Kung, which I had earlier learnt and found useful, at the start of my Lohan Hands sequence, and was aware that perhaps later someone might sneer at me for "stealing" from the Taoist to put into a Buddhist art. When occasionally someone showed me that his Lohan Hands were different from mine, or when I saw a different version in a classic, I could only smile, for I knew that mine was my own creation and not Bodhidharma's invention.

Imagine my surprise when one day I came across an old classic purporting to show the original Eighteen Lohan Hands taught by Bodhidharma, and they were similar in form and sequence to the ones I composed! I had no answer for the coincidence (or was it a coincidence?). I could only flatter myself to fancy that perhaps in some of my deep meditations I had touched the Universal Mind and had drawn the original Lohan Hands from the universal reservoir, or more poetically Bodhidharma himself or some Bodhisattvas had taken pity on me and inspired me with the original.

When I first started teaching chi kung publicly, I taught the Eighteen Lohan Hands at the first level. But gradually, emulating some of my master's practical wisdom, I found that my students would get more benefits if I taught only some selected patterns but in greater depth.

Listed below are the names of the Eighteen Lohan Hands taught at my Shaolin Wahnam School

  1. Lifting the Sky.
  2. Shooting Arrows.
  3. Plucking Stars.
  4. Turning Head.
  5. Thrusting Fists.
  6. Merry-go-Round.
  7. Carrying the Moon.
  8. Nourishing Kidneys.
  9. Three Levels to Ground.
  10. Dancing Crane.
  11. Carrying Mountains.
  12. Drawing Knife.
  13. Presenting Claws.
  14. Pushing Mountains.
  15. Separating Water.
  16. Big Windmill.
  17. Bending Knees.
  18. Rotating Knees.

Question 10

I found it difficult to learn Tai Chi from a book, so I purchased a video. Through my research, I've seen so much controversy over the origin and history of Tai Chi. Is there more than one style of Tai Chi. I often see either Tai Chi Chuan or just Tai Chi, are they the same?

Very few actually look at it as a martial arts, including my old Tae Kwan Do instructer, to whom I argued quite a few times on this fact. I hope to educate people about Tai Chi in a public talk.

— Jason, USA

Answer

Taijiquan as well as Shaolin Kungfu are not only very effective martial arts, they are also a way to spiritual cultivation. In fact spiritual cultivation was the very reason why they were first developed.

Learning from a video enables you to learn only the outward form, which is the least important aspect of Taijiquan and Shaolin Kungfu. The more important inner aspects have to be acquired from a master. Unfrotunately real masters are very rare today.

While I am glad that you have chosen to speak on Taijiquan, you are not qualified yet "to educate people about Tai Chi". The basic requirement of an educator or teacher is that he must not only know about the art adequately, more importantly he must have had some personal experience of what he is saying, and his experience of the art should be of a reasonably high level. If you cannot even tell the difference between Tai Chi and Tai Chi Chuan, or do not know about the various Taijiquan styles, your educating other people is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Please do not be mistaken that I am being harse, or that I am reprimanding you. I am just being sincere. I also know that you are sincere about doing your bit for Taijiquan, and that you mean well. That is why I am giving you this sincere advice, which I am sure you will much appreciate later when you have become a master yourself -- if you have the ambition to become one and are ready to work hard for it.

Your attitude is typical of many westerners. Everyone has a right to adopt his own attitude so long as it does not harm others, but from my experience I can safely say that such an attitude will never make you a real master -- no matter how long or how hard you try. That is perhaps one reason why there are so very few masters today, and why the standard of kungfu (including Taijiquan) has been so watered down that it becomes no more than a dance. If you know almost nothing about Taijiquan and have never practised it properly, but feel justified enough to educate others on the art, it is easy for you to think that you have attained a very high standard when you are actually at a superficial level.

This of course does not mean that you cannot talk about Taijiquan to others. It is perhaps a matter of word choice: it would be better if you say you inform others rather than educate them. And, in order not to give the false impression that the profundity of Taijiquan can be so easy reached by merely reading some books or listening to a talk, you may add that yours is only an introduction, and those who wish to learn about Taijiquan farther should seek a master, but not a bogus instructor.

Taijiquan is a practical art. Taijiquan masters are generally not bothered to argue over who was the real founder of Taijiquan, or when and where it was founded. What they are more concerned are the real practical benefits like getting good health, vitality, combat efficiency, mental freshness and spiritual joy from their Taijiquan practice. Nevertheless, if you wish to have some historical background, you can readily get it from my book, "The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan". You can also have a good explanation of the various styles, and of the difference between Tai Chi and Tai Chi Chuan.

I do not know how many people practise Taijiquan today, but I can estimate that more than 90% of those who think they practise Taijiquan are merely doing Tai Chi dance. Taijiquan is a very effective martial art; Tai Chi dance is a lazy person's way of exercising. You may practise, or "play" as some people are inclinded to say, Tai Chi dance your whole life, yet you cannot defend yourself; even the health benefits are minimal.

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