April 2002 (Part 1)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
A few years ago I started taking Muay Thai. I really enjoyed it but there were some major reasons why I stopped training. Firstly, it was not the graceful, beautiful style of martial art I was looking for. It is lethal, true; but very brutal. It was great for my physical fitness but did not do anything for me beyond that.
— Clayton, USA
Many people have asked me questions similar to yours. The answers below may contain a few surprises. They may disappoint the ultra-idealistic, but will help them to clear their disillusion.
Muay Thai is effective for fighting, but in my opinion it is a very bad martial art. Since many people associate fitness with health although these two are actually different, these people do not realize that while Muay Thai contributes to physical fitness it is very bad for health — both physically and psychologically. Physically its exponents sustained a lot of internal injuries, and psychologically they become aggressive and angry.
Interestingly, kungfu can be more lethal than Muay Thai, but kungfu is not at all brutal. A palm strike by a kungfu master can kill an opponent more easily than many elbow or knee strikes by a Muay Thai fighter. It may be difficult for those not familiar with internal force to understand how this can be so.
But a kungfu master does not have to kill or main in order to win a fight. He may, for example, immobilize his opponent by gripping his vital points as in Shaolin qin-na, or push him many feet away as in Taijiquan, whereas a Muay Thai fighter, because of the nature of his art, has to be brutal to win.
What many people may not realize is that Muay Thai is a sport; it is not meant for real fighting! When a Muay Thai practitioner grabs a street fighter and continuously strikes him with his knee, what a seasoned street fighter (who may not have the skills and compassion of a Shaolin or a Taijiquan master) has to do is to poke two fingers into the opponent's eyes or ram his fist into the opponent's testicles.
I wanted something different. I started taking Wing Chun Kungfu. This, I knew instantly, was much closer to what I was looking for. I started reading and talking to people about Kungfu and martial arts as much as I was able to, and from this I knew I found a very amazing world I had been blind to before.
When compared to Muay Thai, Wing Choon Kungfu is certainly closer to what you have been looking for. But if you list out what you have been looking for and compare what you will get from Wing Choon Kungfu training, you may find yourself still far from target.
Unlike Muay Thai, Wing Choon Kungfu is not brutal, but it is vicious. A Muay Thai fighter would break your jaw with his elbow or your ribs with his knee. A Wing Choon Kungfu exponent would not use such brute strength; he would elegantly pierce his palm thrust into your throat or unobtrusively smash your testicles with a thrust kick.
Qualities like compassion and practices like meditation, which you have been looking for, are not normally taught or manifested in Wing chon training.
Please do not be mistaken that I critize Wing Choon Kungfu. I practice Wing Choon Kungfu too, and actually wrote a book on it many years ago, though I have not sent it for publication.
I was not unaware of the fighting style of kungfu or even of Shaolin, but of the exercises, principles, theories, and knowledge, you don't see them as in the movies.
Why don't you see the exercises, principles, theories and knowledge of kungfu, especially Shaolin, in real life as you see them in movies or in books? The reason is simple, though most people refuse to relate to it. Kungfu, especially Shaolin Kungfu as I understand it, is very, very rare today.
What criteria can we use to ascertain whether the “kungfu” in question is real kungfu? Again this is simple. The amazing thing is that most people fail, or refuse, to see it. Virtually everyone who practices kungfu or reads about it, will agree that kungfu enables you to defend yourself, and gives you good health.
Yet, most of the so-called kungfu exponents today, including some masters, cannot efficiently use the kungfu they have ardently practiced to defend themselves, though they may be, and many actually are, formidable fighters using techniques of other martial systems. Moreover, many of them do not have good health, especially emotional health. If you cannot defend yourself with your art and are not healthy, how can you call your art kungfu?
The kungfu, or wushu as the Chinese call it, coming out from China today is no longer a martial or even a health-care art, as many of the practitiners suffer from arthritis and depression. I even question whether international wushu champions can effectively defend themselves against street dogs, leave aside street fighters. This is no slight on them. Most people untrained in martial arts cannot defend themselves against dogs, and Chinese wushu practitioners explicitly state that they are not practicing a martial art.
After we have ascertained that a particular kungfu style is real kungfu, then how do we ascertain it is genuine Shaolin Kungfu? Again we go back to classical authority. Past masters mentioned three criteria for assessment: lineage, philosophy and practice.
I would add a fourth criterion, namely result. Past masters did not consider this fourth factor because result was taken for granted. If one practiced kungfu he would be able to defend himself, if one practiced chi kung he would be healthy. Interestingly, today it is usually not the case.
However, although lineage was the most important factor in the past, it may not be valid today! In the past, if one was lucky to have a distinguished lineage, it was almost certain that his attainment in the art was high. But situations have changed. Today even the kungfu of many grandchildren and great grandchildren of established past masters has degraded into demonstrative forms.
Let us examine the other criteria.
In Shaolin philosophy, kungfu is not just for fighting and good health, but leads to the highest spiritual fulfillment. In Shaolin practice, its training system is complete and holistic. Hence, if someone stresses that there is nothing spiritual in his Shaolin Kungfu, I would suspect whether he understands Shaolin philosophy. If someone uses weight-lifting to develop power, and knows nothing about chi kung or a meditative state of mind, I would suspect whether his is genuine Shaolin practice.
The fourth criterion, result, dictates that it is insufficient just to talk about Shaolin philosophy and undergo Shaolin practice. His philosophy and practice must produce the expected result. If he talks about chi kung and meditation, and actually practice them, but he is still weak and dull, I would also suspect whether his is genuine Shaolin Kungfu.
Some other great kungfu styles may also have similar philosophical and methodological considerations. Taijiquan, for example, also aims for spiritual fulfillment, and its practice is also complete and holistic. How do we ascertain it is genuine Shaolin, Taijiquan or another great kungfu style?
We examine its typical forms and methods of training. Shaolin Kungfu, for example, typically uses forms and methods like Golden Bridge and Zen, whereas Taijiquan uses Three-Circle Stance and flowing movement.
I eventually found an excellent Tai Chi teacher whom I have been learning from since. He is a sea of knowledge and I feel honored that I found him so quickly. I originally began searching for a kungfu institute but I was unable to find one that did anything other than teach street fighting and show a few chi kung movements, and the teachers were unenthusiastic to say the least.
I am not referring to your particular teacher, but to teachers in general. A person knowledgeable in Taijiquan may not necessarily be a good Taijiquan teacher; he may not even be a Taijiquan practitioner. Today, many people read about Taijiquan, and also many people practice Taiji dance, but very few practice Taijiquan, and fewer still teach it.
My basic consideration to ascertain whether it is really Taijiquan or merely Taiji dance is whether it has internal force training and combat application. Even if the movements you perform are genuine Taijiquan patterns, but if you have no experience of internal force and cannot defend yourself using your Taijiquan movements, I would consider your art Taiji dance.
However there are a few things more I would eventually like to find in a teacher. First of all, he only teaches once a week. So although I can practice everyday, I cannot tap his knowledge as swiftly as I would like to. Secondly, because he does not advertise, his classes are fairly small and I have been unable to find a committed training partner which, although it is not necessary, is mutually beneficial for many reasons.
It is highly recommendable to learn from a good master. But first you must examine whether you are a deserving student. If you expect a master to teach you free or at a low price, as often as you want and in ways you like, then you are most undeserving.
Great masters — just as other great professionals like top doctors and top footballers — charge high fees, in cash or in kind. In the past students pay their high fees in kind by working for and serving their masters full time. It is ridiculous that so many people today, especially in the West, think that if they want to learn, a master must teach them, often in ways they like.
Even when students worked for and stayed with their master, he did not teach them everyday, nor act as a source of knowledge for them to tap. The students would have to practice very hard everyday, often on their own, and if they slacked or made mistakes the master would come after them with a cane. He would teach them once a while, typically once a few days and sometimes once after a few months.
If the students asked questions or intellectualized on their training, the master would ask them to shut up and do as he told them to. If they tried to improvise their training with their own ideas or techniques from other schools, they would get a scolding, if not a beating, from their master.
If you think the master was harsh, you are mistaken. He was most kind. His students, if they followed the master's teaching devotedly, would surely become masters one day.
Having a training partner is a helpful but not an essential requirement. There are three fundamental requirements to mastery in kungfu, including Taijiquan, namely the method, the teacher and the student. If you want great achievement, you have to seek the best method and the best teacher available.
If your method is inferior, such as merely training your physical body, and your teacher mediocre, such as not knowing how to help you develop internal force, you cannot attain good results even if you practice everyday for many years.
But the most important factor is the student. If he, usually implicitly, wants his teacher to teach him what, how and when he wants to learn, he is unlikely to have good results. Without him knowing, he implies that he is smarter than his teacher.
I also became extremely interested in Buddhism. I have become very serious in my spirituality and I have been following the Buddha's teachings for some time now. Through all my research I have realized I need a guru or teacher. The majority of my teachings have been of Tibetan Buddhism so I started going to a Tibetan Buddhism institute. I have never stopped researching Buddhism and I started reading about different kinds of Buddhism, which is how I came upon your Zen book.
In kungfu and chi kung, if you want good results you need a good, living teacher. But in Buddhism, at least at the beginning stages, you can achieve very good results by practicing on your own. Why? Because the greatest teacher, the Buddha, is everywhere. For your purpose, it will be easier for you to think of the Buddha in your heart.
The onus of Buddhism is practice, not research. Through research you may be very knowledgeable in Buddhism, but you may not even be a Buddhist. It is the same as in Taijiquan and other types of kungfu or chi kung. You may read a lot about Taijiquan, yet you may not be a Taijiquan practitioner.
What should you practice in Buddhism? Of course the teaching of the Buddha, and He has summarized his teaching so simply, directly and effectively as follows:
- Avoid all evil.
- Do good.
- Cultivate the mind.
A famous philosopher once asked a Zen master what the Buddha's teaching was. The master answered as above. “Even a three-year old can understand that,” the philosopher said. “A three-year old may understand that, but a highly intellectual eighty-year old may not practice it,” came the wise reply.
Avoiding evil and doing good are self-explanatory. There are many, many methods to cultivate the mind. A most simple, direct and effective method is as follows. Sit or stand upright and be relaxed. Close your eyes gently and think of nothing. Practice for about 5 minutes per session, twice a day. Gradually you may increase the time of practice per session.
I have many questions about many topics and am confused about what path of Buddhism to take. Your book has helped me out a lot in that aspect. I am very serious about joining a Mahayanist temple and becoming a monk. I plan to go home to visit my family for a short time and then travel to Asia to study Chinese and learn more, firsthanded, about becoming a monk.
There is a saying in Chinese that “becoming a monk calls for courage and responsibility even prime ministers and army generals may not measure to.” Becoming a monk marks one of the highest points and happiest moments in one's life. It is a tremendously great achievement. He is very clear of his spiritual path, and makes the great sacrifice, renouncing his family, all worldly pleasures, and all aspects of the phenomenal worlds (including heavens) so that he can whole-heartedly focus on attaining the greatest goal, that of actualizing cosmic reality.
I would strongly and seriously advise you to reconsider your decision to become a monk. You are not ready. The questions you have asked, indicate so. A dis-satisfied or dis-illusioned monk may later renounce his monkhood and return to lay life, but that would mark his greatest defeat in life. Hence, in my opinion, those modern Shaolin monks who returned to lay life to teach wushu, as well as to get married, eat hamburgers and drink Coca Cola, just failed to understand this basic Shaolin and Buddhist teaching.
Your first duty now is towards your parents. Spend more time with them and make them happy, while you still have the opportunity to do so. You will have more spiritual development this way than becoming a monk. Learn this from the Buddha. He says, “Even if we were to carry our parents on our backs to travel over mountains and vales for a thousand years as a means to pay back our debt to them, we would not have paid enough.”
Once I have adequate communication skills I will attempt to become a monk. If I am unsuccessful in the Chinese approach, I will travel to India and find a guru there. At the present time I will continue my meditation, my Tai Chi, and chi kung and I will continue learning as much as I can. I love kungfu and chi kung but when I become a monk I believe I will have to give them up.
Whether you are a monk or a lay person, when you communicate with the Buddha or God, you do not need the type of communication skills you learn from a language teacher; you communicate from heart to heart. You don't have to go to China or India or find a temple to do so. Buddha's temple, or God's garden, is in your heart.
The simple method I described to you above, standing or sitting with your eyes close and thinking of nothing, is an excellent method to develop the kind of communication skills you need for this spiritual task. When you have progressed sufficiently, as you look into your heart you may have a glimpse of this celestial temple or garden.
This is not empty talk; it is based on traditional Shaolin teaching and direct experience. If you examine the comments my students have made in my Comments section, you will find that the greatest number of them thank me not because I have helped them to recover from so-called incurable diseases, but to help them have such cosmic glimpses, which bring them tremendous joy, freedom and inner peace.
It is important to realize that this training, cultivating the mind, is the third step of the Buddha's teaching. The first two steps are avoiding all evil and doing good. Without these two preliminary steps, you cannot have glimpses of Buddha's temple or God's garden.
Did you know how Shaolin kungfu and chi kung developed? When the great Bodhidharma taught Zen, or meditation, at the Shaolin Temple he found the monks too weak — physically, enegetically and mentally — for this highest spiritual training. So he taught them “Eighteen Lohan Hands” and “Sinew Metamorphosis” to prepare them for the most noble task ahead. “Eighteen Lohan Hands” and “Sinew Metamorphosis” developed into Shaolin kungfu and chi kung.
Many of my students have had glimpses of cosmic reality. But none of them learned formal meditation from me. They just practice the Shaolin kungfu or chi kung learnt in my intensive courses or various classes, and have such wonderful attainment within a year.
I have often thought about continuing my studies but I do not think it is possible to follow the path I wish to take in this environment. I work to pay for all my lessons and a place to live and food and spend the rest of my time practicing, meditating or studying.
You have not mentioned what type of studies you are undergoing. But whether they involve your university education or your kungfu training, at your present stage continuing your studies takes priority over the spiritual path you fancy to follow. Your mentioning that you think your environment not suitable for your path is an indication that you are not ready. When you are ready, any environment is suitable for serious spiritual cultivation.
Both the Chinese and the Indians hold the following concept regarding full time spiritual cultivation. First, one must prepare himself physically, which includes having a good education, sound economic condition, and being healthy and fit. Next he must be emotional ready, which includes fulfilling all personal responsibilities to his family and social responsibilities to society. Then he must be mentally ready, which includes understanding fully what his intermediate as well as ultimate goals are, and how he can attain them.
Becoming a monk is not running away from responsibilities, and not a fashion to satisfy one's fancy. It is a decision, made after much and deep consideration, to spend the remaining years of one's life for full time spiritual cultivation. But one needs not become a monk to cultivate. Everyone should cultivate spiritually every day of his life. When you avoid all evils, do good and spend some time closing your eyes and thinking of nothing, you would have cultivated spiritually more than praying in a temple or a church.
From what I understand it is nearly impossible to get into the actual Shaolin Temple order and I have also heard that the temples are not what they used to be anyway.
The Shaolin Temple in China today is a great tourist center. Not only you cannot practice traditional Shaolin kungfu, chi kung and meditation there, you cannot even practice modernized wushu. If you wish to learn modernized wushu, you have to attend one of the numerous wushu schools that have mushroomed around the Temple.
Finally, I guess I will summarize and await your reply. What advice can you give me? I am at a crossroad in my life. Do I put kungfu behind me and become a monk, or do I continue my lessons here in the city and learn kungfu and chi kung for 10 or so years then become a monk, or is there such a thing as a kungfu temple or something which I can seek?
If you do not have answers to these relatively easy questions, you are far, far away from the moment when you have to decide making the great renunciation to become a monk.
You are not at a crossroad where your decision will irreversibly affect your life one way or another. Actually it does not matter very much which decision you take. You can put kungfu behind you and become a monk, or you can continue practicing your kungfu as a monk, or you can continue your lessons in your city and become a monk later, or you can enter a wushu school in China (which is the modern version of a kungfu temple).
In the end the result is the same. You will be disillusioned and disappointed. Why am I so sure of this conclusion? Because you have no vision and no direction, or more correctly mis-guided vision and mis-guided direction. Consequently the kungfu you practice is not real kungfu, and the monkhood you enter is not real monkhood. If you practice genuine Shaolin Kungfu or genuine Taijiquan, you would know from direct personal experience that you are undergoing spiritual cultivation. If you are ready to become a real monk, you would intuitively know when and how to do so.
My sincere advice is that you should make the best use of what you already have. If you are attending college or university, do well in your studies. If you are engaged in an occupation or profession, do well in your occupation or profession.
Meanwhile, find the best available kungfu or chi kung teacher and learn from him. Read with discretion and understanding good books on Buddhism or other spiritual disciplines. And practice as best as you can the essence of the Buddha's teaching, that is avoiding all evil, doing good and cultivating your mind.
In this way you prepare yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. When the time is ripe, you may make a decision to become a monk, or continue your cultivation as a lay person.
My heart wishes for a temple in which I can learn the Buddha's teachings, kungfu and chi kung whole-heartedly with a true master guiding me, but I think this is only a dream in the world today.
Yours is not only a dream, but a selfish one — one that many young people in the West cherish. Why should a true master do nothing better than stay in a romanticized temple to guide only you, just because you want to be enlightened?
Even in the past when such temples really existed, you would not be wholeheartedly learning Buddhism, kungfu and chi kung in an idealized manner with a master personally guiding you. Instead, you would be performing prosaic tasks like chopping firewood, carrying water from a nearby stream, and sweeping the temple floors everyday for many years.
For example, the great Hui Neng pounded rice in the temple kitchen everyday for six years before he wrote the following famous gatha, or poem, which indicated his enlightenment: and resulted in his becoming the Sixth Patriarch.
Bodhi is not a tree,
The heart is not a mirror bright.
There is nothing in the original state,
Wherefore can dust alight?
I am afraid that I must search from different sources the knowledge I seek. If this is true I am afraid I must attempt to merge together kungfu and Buddhism on my own, and I need help to do this.
The knowledge you seek is amply found in the Shaolin teaching. You are a lost lamb; you do not know what you really want to seek.
Great Shaolin masters through the centuries have merged kungfu and Buddhism together, and have passed on this priceless legacy to us. You do not even know what real kungfu or the essence of Buddhism is. So, don't try to be smarter than the masters by improving upon their great work.