June 2001 (Part 2)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I really appreciate your attitude and patience in describing techniques, theories, and practicalities of Chi Kung and Kung Fu, and they get me thinking about questions I might have. So, maybe one has to come to the answer oneself, and not simply be told, otherwise there isn't always the understanding and learning that comes with it.
— Kevin, Finland
In Western culture, thinking out the answers to your own questions is usually encouraged. Among many benefits it exercises the mind, and nurtures intellectual independence. Hence, even if the answers are incorrect, the thinking process itself is beneficial.
However, in Eastern culture the perspective is different. If you have access to a master's wisdom, why be so unwise not to take advantage of it, especially in disciplines like internal arts where expert knowledge makes a big difference?
Eastern masters also have a different perspective regarding mind training. Being able to think out good answers to any questions is the effect of a trained mind, and not as in the case of the Western perspective above, its cause. In other words, a person trains his mind first, then he becomes efficient in thinking. The paramount approach to mind training is meditation. In the Western perspective, it is reversed — a persons uses thinking to train his mind.
Often many students unwittingly delay their progress, and in some cases acquire harmful effects due to their thinking out answers for themselves. A common example involves breathing. Many students, due to negative influence from conventional exercise, breathe in and out forcefully when practising chi kung, thinking mistakenly that the more forcefully they breathe, the more powerful they become.
In kungfu training, a common mis-conception is thinking that the more muscular strength one puts in, the stronger he becomes. Thus, many kungfu students use weight training. It would sound so illogical to them if they are told not to use muscular strength. In fact this is the advice of all genuine masters, and has been recorded in kungfu classics throughout the centuries.
Following your previous recommendation, I have begun to practice Ba Duan Jin everyday with ordinary breathing, and look forward to it immensely every day. I have noticed a few effects, namely feeling alert and refreshed afterwards, and some warm flushes in face, arms and palms, although I am well aware that my progress would be better if supervised by a master. Still, I am happy with the results which have exceeded my expectations. Thank you for your advice Sifu, when I do the exercises, they feel “right”.
Ba Duan Jin, or “Eight Pieces of Brocade”, is a wonderful exercise. If you practise this set of exercise — and nothing else — for about half an hour everyday for three years, you can have benefits that you may not think possible.
You are right to say that the results would be better if taught and supervised by a master. If you learn personally from a genuine master, the wonderful benefits you will get in three years can be obtained in six months.
However, had you followed conventional concepts in Western culture when practising Ba Duan Jin, such as using forceful breathing or tensing your muscles as one would do while working out in a gym, you would have adverse effects, like feeling dull and tired after the exercise, instead of feeling alert and refreshed.
Feeing “right” when you do the exercise, is a good guideline to know that you are practising correctly. This has been advised by masters throughout the centuries. If one practised the exercise incorrectly, he would feel tensed and out of breath.
Another very good advice given by masters is to enjoy the exercise, which you do as you look forward to it immensely every day. Do not worry whether you make any mistakes — just feel right — and do not chase after the benefits. The benefits will surely come when you have practised adequately, which in Chinese (Cantonese) is “kung tou tze yin seng”.
I have recently started to learn kung fu, but I feel sometimes that I am not learning as much as I could. But I have nothing to compare with.
— Edward, UK
Some people may think it is a matter of semantics, but actually the difference in the choice of words here is crucial. I clearly remember that in my early days with Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, my sifu told me, “One does not learn kungfu, he practises kungfu.”
That was good advice from a great master. When you learn kungfu, you add techniques, or worse still you add theoretical information. When you practise kungfu, you go over and over again what you already know, without adding something new.
Most people want to learn kungfu; they would be bored practising kungfu. When you learn kungfu, even if you keep on learning for many years, you remain a learner, or at best a scholar. When you practise kungfu, if you keep on practising for many years, you may become a master.
Another crucial difference is that when you learn kungfu, your emphasis is on information, whereas when you practise kungfu, your emphasis is on performance. When your emphasis is on information, you may know a lot about kungfu, such as various techniques to develop internal force and to defend yourself, but still you have no internal force and cannot defend yourself.
Perhaps for this reason, some people cynically say that “those who cannot, teach; those who can, do.” But this cynical statement does not apply to genuine kungfu, because the emphasis is on performance. A good kungfu exponent is one who is healthy and can efficiently defend himself, not one who knows a lot about kungfu information.
This, of course, does not necessarily mean that information is useless in kungfu. Information is very useful, but it should be geared towards practical results.
There are two sets of criteria you can compare your training with. One, you can compare with what kungfu is reputed to produce, such as good health and combat efficiency. Has your training made you healthy and combat efficient?
Of course, you must be fair. You cannot expect to have good results after just a few months of training. But if you have been practising for a few years, and yet you are still sickly and defenceless, you would have wasted your time even though you might have accumulated a lot of kungfu knowledge.
Two, you can compare with the purposes for which you want to practise kungfu. For example, if your purposes are to learn some graceful kungfu movements to loosen your limbs and joints, as well as to demonstrate to friends, you would have achieved your purposes.
Each week we warm up and stretch for an hour and then spend half an hour practising different stances, but we do no sparring. I want to look for another club that involves sparring. But in 6 months I and the club are travelling to China to train with the Shaolin monks, and I don't want to miss out on the opportunity.
By sparring, I reckon you mean free sparring, for that is what most students do today at the start of their martial art career. Rushing into free sparring without proper preparation is a sure way to fight like children as well as to hurt one another.
There are many types of sparring, and free sparring comes at the end of a combat training programme. But even before starting this combat training programme, which is one of many aspects in genuine kungfu training, you should familiarize yourself with basic kungfu patterns and movements, and develop some internal force.
Congratulations for having the opportunity to train with Shaolin monks. Nevertheless, as far as I know Shaolin monks today do not teach traditional Shaolin Kungfu, they teach modern wushu, not in the Shaolin Temple itself but in numerous wushu schools around the temple. Modern wushu is promoted as a sport, and as such there is little or no sparring. But you would learn very beautiful wushu movements, which are magnificent to watch.
I and some members of the class are thinking of sparring away from the club but we don't know if this would harm our training. Can you give me any advice?
You are likely to hurt yourself if you spar on your own haphazardly. Moreover, no matter how much you may practise on your own, you would not be able to spar efficiently using the kungfu patterns you have learnt in solo practice. This is because you lack the methodology to train effective sparring.
This is a main problem facing most kungfu schools today. For some reasons, the methodology of kungfu sparring is lost. In their frustration for being unable to spar, and in their desperation to learn sparring, most students as well as instructors of these kungfu schools borrow sparring methods from other martial arts like karate, taekwondo and kickboxing, or attempting free sparring unmethodically. The inevitable result is that either they spar like karate, taekwondo or kickboxing exponents, or they spar like children.
The best advice I can give you and others like you is to come to my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course with a few kungfu friends, and practise amongst yourselves at home after the course. If you practise diligently amongst yourselves for about a year, you will find Shaolin Kungfu such a superior martial art, and you can efficiently use authentic Shaolin techniques for sparring or fighting.
I hesitate to give this advice because it is easy for many people to think that I want to advertise myself and my school. The underlying reason behind my offering the Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course to the public is to enable deserving students be able to use kungfu for combat, so that hopefully the wonderful martial aspect of kungfu will not be lost in the future.
But you have to make some sacrifice. Not only you have to come to Malaysia and pay a comparatively high fee, you have to carry on training on your own after the course. Such an opportunity is not for those who want to learn from books or videotapes, or expect to be taught the best kungfu free. Those who think they are deserving should refer to Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course.
Also I am worried that my diet is incorrect and wondered if you could give me any suggestions of what I should eat to maintain fitness.
It is worthwhile to note that the typical daily meal of Shaolin monks of old, who were very powerful, fit and excellent in combat, consisted of plain rich porridge with some roasted nuts or vegetable. They did not eat meat, high vegetable protein or any special diet. Where did they obtain their energy? From the cosmos, through their kungfu training, which included chi kung.
You do not have to pay attention to special diet if you train kungfu properly. Just eat what you have been eating normally.
I am a student of Zheng Man-Qing style Taijiquan. While being as relaxed as I can, I find I can strike faster than if I tense my muscles consciously. I feel this is a good thing to practice, but I am not certain. I have stopped practicing this for fear of incorrect practice which could lead to the opposite of the results I want.
— Justin, USA
All Taijiquan masters have said the same thing — be relaxed and you will be more efficient in combat, including striking faster and more powerfully. Great Shaolin masters also say the same thing, but middle-level Shaolin masters may tense their muscles when striking.
It is difficult for those who come from a different culture, such as that in the West, using a different paradigm to explain speed and force, to understand or believe how this can be so. In Western culture which views phenomena and processes from a physical dimension only, speed and force are explained by means of mass and velocity.
In such an explanation, it is impossible to have any work done with speed and force if the muscles are not tensed while they are being used. The trouble is that once people are used to a particular paradigm, they often think that it is the only correct paradigm. It is this big mistake that prevents many people, including some otherwise very brilliant people, from accepting that cures are possible for diseases which their conventional paradigm regard as incurable.
Great kungfu like Taijiquan and Shaolin uses a different paradigm which includes the dimensions of energy and mind besides the physical one. In this paradigm, speed and force can be explained in any one, two or all of these three dimensions.
For someone who does not know how to use energy and mind, as in low level kungfu, tensing his muscles is necessary in a strike. But for someone who can employ energy and mind, tensing his muscles will slow down his strike as well as make it less powerful!
Why is this so? The answer is simple. Tensing the muscles will slow down the energy flow. It will also bring the mind from a heightened state to a lower state, thus losing efficiency. It is the heightened state of mind directing smooth energy flow that brings about a powerful, fast strike.
When you are relaxed, physically as well as mentally, you are not only more efficient in combat, you are more efficient in anything you do, including eating and making love. This is one of many reasons why I claim that great kungfu like Taijiquan and Shaolin is far superior to martial arts like karate and taekwondo where the exponents not only tense their muscles but also scream and distort their faces during combat.
From the Chinese martial art paradigm, such stressful training reduces the efficiency of their energy and mind dimensions. I would not go to the extent of saying it may reduce their eating or sexual pleasures, but I am quite sure that such prolonged conditioning is bad for both their physical and mental health.
Hence, you should continue your correct practice of being relaxed, not only when you perform Taijiquan but at all times, even if you were engaged in a real fight or in some demanding situations. This is one of the ways your Taijiquan training enriches your life.
I can be comfortable in the beginning Taijiquan stance for 30 minutes. Once again, is this something to try and lengthen? Or would holding it for longer periods be a waste of practicing Taijiquan? After 30 minutes of it I feel refreshed, and I look forward to the next time I can do it.
Congratulations. Being comfortable in the beginning Taijiquan stance, or the Three-Circle Stance, for 30 minutes is a remarkable achievement. You would have developed impressive internal force. Developing internal force is at a more advanced level than being able to relax physically and mentally. With internal force your strikes or any other movements can be fast and powerful without tensing your muscles. It also enables you to do better anything you do.
Continuing your stance training so as to lengthen the time at your stance will increase your internal force. Great kungfu masters in the past spent hours on their stance training, or zhang zhuang as it is called in Chinese.
But our needs and standards are different from those of the past. While increasing your internal force is of course desirable, you may also spend your time more profitably on other aspects of Taijiquan, such as set practice to improve mobility, sparring to improve combat efficiency, or meditation to improve mental clarity.
From my limited experience, I find “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” to be the most effective Taijiquan posture for both attack and defense. Would you happen to know any attacks where “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” would not counter it, or have difficulty countering it? I have failed to find such attacks.
Most Taijiquan masters have the same view as you have, i.e. “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” is the most effective pattern for both attack and defence. The Taijiquan patriarch, Yang Lu Chan, used only this pattern to defeat all challengers.
Some years ago on separate occasions, I demonstrated using respectively “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” and Chen Style “Cloud Hands” (from which “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” evolved) to overcome various attacks from an International Jujitsu sparring champion, and a 5th dan karate master.
Like you, I have tried thinking if there are any attacks against which “Grasping sparrow's Tail” would be ineffective. But I have found none, though there are some attacks whereby using other counters would be more preferable.
For example, if someone taller than you pulls at your hair, you could use “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” to dislodge him. But using the Shaolin pattern “Two Dragons Subdue Monster”, or the Taijiquan pattern “Fan Through the Back”, where you use one hand to hold his attacking arm to prevent further pulling, and your other hand to strike his exposed ribs, may be a better alternative.
It is significant to point out it is not merely the movements of “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” that are responsible for overcoming attacks, but more importantly the stable yet versatile stance and internal force of the Taijiquan exponent. If his stance is not stable yet versatile, and he has no internal force, he may perform the movements of “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” correctly but he may fail to overcome the attack.