April 2004 (Part 2)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I am a beginner in Tai Chi. I wish to know if the combat is slow like the forms that I have learned. My teacher told me that Tai Chi is not a dance, it is a style for fighting. For this reason I like your webpage. In other schools, Tai Chi is just an elegant dance.
— Jose, Mexico
Literally, the term “Tai Chi” means “Grand Ultimate”. It is the Chinese term for the Cosmos. “Tai Chi” can also refer to the symbol of the Cosmos, which is a circle with a black-coloured portion shaped like a fish on one side, and a corresponding white-coloured portion on the other side, with a small, round white dot on the black fish-shaped portion and a small, round black dot on the white fish-shaped portion. The black and white colours symbolize the yin and yang aspects of the Cosmos.
The martial art you refer to, usually performed in slow gentle movements, is called Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan in Romanized Chinese spelling. “Tai Chi Chuan” is the shortened form for “Tai Chi Chuan Fa”, which means “Cosmos Kungfu”.
However, for various reasons, Tai Chi Chuan today is often practiced as a dance-like exercise instead of as a martial art. In such cases, it is often shortened to “Tai Chi”.
When someone says that he “plays Tai Chi”, he usually means he practices a dance-like exercise for recreation, devoid of any martial application. If someone says he “practices Tai Chi Chuan”, the implication is that he practices a martial art. To confuse the situation further, the modern Chinese government promotes Tai Chi Chuan, usually written as Taijiquan, as a demonstrative sport.
Your teacher is right. Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art is definitely not a dance. Although the movements are usually performed slowly and gently in solo training, when the same movements are used in combat, they are fast and forceful.
Many people would be puzzled how this can be possible. How is it possible that slow, gentle movements in solo training suddenly become fast and powerful in combat application? It does not make sense if this phenomenon is viewed from the conventional Western perspective where speed and power are direct functions of muscular tension. And most people today, including many people in Eastern countries, view everything from the Western perspective.
But it makes perfect sense when we view it from the Tai Chi Chuan perspective, which of course is a traditional, Eastern perspective little understood in the modern world. In Tai Chi Chuan philosophy and practice, speed and power are not functions of muscular tension but of chi flow, or energy flow. The more chi there is, and the smother the flow, the faster and more powerful the movements will be. If you tense your muscles, as one would do using the Western perspective, you block your chi flow, which will result in slower and less powerful movements.
Suppose you wish to throw a punch. Using the Western approach, you clench your fist, tense your muscles, then punch out. How fast and powerful your punch is, is a function of mass and momentum. In everyday language, if you have big muscles, i.e. big mass, your punch will be more powerful than that from someone who has smaller muscles. However, the bigger the mass, the slower will be the momentum. Hence, a punch coming from a person with smaller muscles will be faster than yours. Herein lies an innate contradiction between power and speed when using muscles.
There are also other disadvantages of this muscular-tension approach which many people may not realize, but which sophisticated internal martial artists pay much attention to. When you tense your muscles, you also tense your mind and emotions, which means your thinking ability as well as your temperament will be unfavorably affected.
Tensed muscles also affect your energy network, which may have far reaching consequences. If that particular energy flow, or nerves in Western terminology, goes to your liver, but its energy is not flowing well due to muscular tension, your liver will be affected. If the energy flow going to certain glands is interrupted by tensed muscles, your body chemistry may be affected.
Usually such harmful effects may not be big enough to manifest as clinical diseases. But they are harmful enough to affect performance as well as longevity. A person not receiving adequate energy flow to his liver, may not suffer a clinical liver disease, but its performance will be below par, and it would not last as long as it should if provided with adequate energy.
If a person tenses his muscles, emotions and mind once a while, as in executing punches with mechanical strength, it is alright. The resultant harm is negligible and can be cleared away by his normal chi flow. But if he tenses them habitually, the accumulated harm over time can be substantial, and may cause physical, emotional or mental disorders, such as allergies, aggression and dull thinking. Usually he or his doctor may not realize the cause of the disorders was habitual tension.
Practicing Tai Chi Chuan and other internal arts not only avoid these problems but also contribute to health, vitality and longevity. The basic requirement is that the practitioner must be able to generate an energy flow. Initially this is accomplished by performing appropriate techniques in a slow, gentle manner. Once he can generate and control his energy flow, he can increase the speed and power of his movements. A Tai Chi Chuan palm strike using energy flow, without any muscular tension, can be very fast and powerful, faster and more powerful than a mechanical fist strike.
The energy flow generated during solo as well as sparring practice, also clears physical, emotional, mental and spiritual blockage sustained elsewhere, thus contributing to his health, vitality, longevity and mental clarity. If he had rheumatism (which is caused by physical blockage), nervousness (emotional blockage), indecisiveness (mental blockage) or depression (spiritual blockage), practicing genuine Tai Chi Chuan or any internal art will overcome these problems. This is one reason, among many, why members of Shaolin Wahnam, where every single exercise involves energy flow, are relaxed, amiable, mentally fresh and happy — qualities that are evident from reading the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum .
Would you be concerned that your students might not use the great Shaolin, Taiji and qigong arts properly? I am sorry if my question is too personal. Please feel free to ignore it. To me, it is sad to see so many arts being lost or extinct (shi chuan), such as Jiang Fa's Catching a Rabbit in 100 Steps or Damo's Xi Sui Jing.
— Cai, Singapore
Every good teacher is concerned that his students may not use the great arts properly. There are three areas of concern.
- The students abuse the art, like using advanced kungfu to harm innocent people.
- The students misuse the art, like practicing wrongly.
- The students disuse the art, like not practicing sufficiently or at all.
I do not know “Jiang Fa's Catching a Rabbit in 100 Steps”. I guess it is a form of “heng kung”, or the Art of Lightness, for chasing after an opponent.
Nevertheless, in Shaolin Wahnam we have “Three-Step Chase”, “Five-Step Chase” and “Seven-Step Chase”, which are various footwork techniques to chase after an opponent.
Damo's Xi Sui Jing, or Bodhidharma's Art of Marrow Cleansing, is not lost. My research has led me to conclude that unlike his other two great arts, Eighteen Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis, which were recorded in kungfu classics, the Art of Marrow Cleansing is not found in any records because it does not have any definite forms.
All the exercises in Eighteen Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis have definite forms. There are specific ways of moving the body, hands and legs when performing these exercises. If you move in a particular way, you perform a particular exercise, and a name is given to the exercise, like “Lifting the Sky” or “Flicking Fingers”.
The Art of Marrow Cleansing refers not to any specific ways of moving the body, hands and legs, but refers to the skill or ability to use flowing energy to cleanse nerves. A practitioner may use “Lifting the Sky”, “Flicking Fingers” or any chi kung exercise to generate the energy flow and then cleanse the nerves.
A rough analogy may make the point clearer. Suppose a driving champion has passed down three arts of driving, namely the Art of Driving a Volvo, the Art of Driving a Mercedes, and the Art of Driving Fast. The first two arts are named after the specific cars being used, but in the third art there are no specific cars used, it is named after the skill to drive fast, and any cars can be used in this art.
The art of cleansing the nervous system, or Bone Marrow Cleansing, is found in the repertoire of Shaolin Wahnam Chi Kung, although we have not called it “Bone Marrow Cleansing”. I used to teach this art in the chi kung course named “Massaging Internal Organs”. But to avoid the possibility that having learnt from me some may teach it incompetently to others causing harm, I have discontinued teaching this art of cleansing nerves, though I still teach massaging other internal organs like the lungs, stomach and kidneys.
I have come across many books on Taiji Qigong. After taking the intensive course, would I have the basic foundation to try out some of the exercises in those books? You have explained to us that Qigong cannot be learnt from books or videos. But are things different after the reader already has some foundation (from your course) and can understand the nuances that a total beginner cannot?
Yes, after taking my Intensive Chi Kung Course you would have the fundamental skills to competently perform Taiji Qigong exercises or any qigong (chi kung) exercises, except those that require specific, advanced skills.
Things will be very different for you. You will understand and appreciate many things that not only beginners but even those who have practiced external Taiji and chi kung forms for many years, may not understand. Many things that masters have mentioned in Taijiquan and chi kung classics, like “starting later but arriving earlier” and “don't use strength and you will have much force”, which are just hollow words to the uninitiated, will come alive for you.
You may also perform these exercises more effectively than Taiji students who learn the exercises personally from an instructor, and at times even better than the authors who wrote those exercises! This is not meant to be a boastful statement, although many people would interpret it as such. It is meant to highlight training principles to help serious students derive benefit from their practice.
Why could you be more effective than those in their own arts or than authors who wrote the exercises? The simple reason is that they do not perform the exercises as chi kung but as physical exercises. They may be elegant in their performance, but they cannot generate an energy flow or develop internal force. But you can. After acquiring the fundamental chi kung skills from my intensive course, you can use any chi kung exercise to generate an energy flow and develop internal force.
Surprising it may be, some authors may not even know the difference between chi kung and gentle physical exercise because the forms in both cases can be the same. In other words, you may practice a form like “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” as chi kung or as gentle physical exercise.
The great majority of Taiji practitioners perform it as gentle physical exercise. That is why they may have practiced it for years but have no energy flow and no internal force. Some authors who wrote these exercises might have learned them as external forms, or merely copied them from classical Chinese texts.
Is it true that qigong can increase reflexes and general alertness or awareness? Growing up on wuxia novels, it seemed fantastic to me that the heroes could avoid or catch flying knives. If that is true, it is really exciting because one can avoid a conflict simply by being aware of the danger and avoiding it, or even if there is an attack with lethal weapons, he can easily defend himself.
Of course it is true that qigong (chi kung) can increase reflexes and general alertness or awareness. This is an expected and a comparatively low level attainment. Even students who have practiced just a few months of qigong learnt from Shaolin Wahnam reported a noticeable improvement of their reflexes, alertness and awareness.
Many uninitiated persons may think that to be alert you have to tense your senses and muscles. This is not so. In fact, if you are tensed, physically or mentally, your awareness and response will be unfavorably affected. Our training enables us to be relaxed, calm yet alert and fast in our response.
Students who practice Shaolin Kungfu or Wahnam Taijiquan have found that they can respond to attacks reflexively and correctly. For example, while going over a pre-arranged sparring sequence, if someone makes an attack outside the sequence in a fast, unexpected manner, his partner would respond or counter-attack spontaneously without thinking and without hesitation. This is a common occurrence in our training.
We are nowhere near the standard of wuxia, or classical kungfu knights. I have mentioned a few times in this question-answer series that I myself am like a child when compared to the abilities of past kungfu masters. I have not undergone any formal training in catching or avoiding flying knifes or arrows. Yet in a few occasions of sparring and actual fighting, I could sense attacks coming from my back and successfully avoid them.
More significantly we can sense danger beforehand and therefore avoid it. When we are in situations where conflict may occur, we often can diffuse the situations with the radiance of our confidence and invisible but discernable force which cause our possible opponents to back away gracefully.
The Aikido founder was said to be able to avoid bullets because he could sense with his qi when the bullet would come out of the gun. I remember when I learnt Karate, I only concentrated on form but did not find my reflexes improving. Sparring was always a hit and miss affair. It seemed that if I could avoid a punch, I was just lucky.
If you are systematically trained in any martial art, avoiding a punch or any form of attack is a matter of course. If avoiding a punch is a matter of luck, how can we justifiably call our training a martial art? Yet, your experience is quite common among many martial art students today! But after attending my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course or Intensive Taijiquan Course, you should be able to handle any form of attack competently.
Your examples above illustrate a contrast between internal training that focuses on energy and mind, and external training that focuses on external strength. It was not that the Aikido founder dodged a bullet shot from a gun, but that he could sense the intention of his opponent about to shoot, and therefore he could stop him in time.
In your case your training was on external forms, and you focused on developing muscular strength, which necessitated tensing your muscles as well as your emotions, thus slowing down your reflexes. You also probably did not have any systematic training in sparring where you learned to respond to attacks with practiced techniques and skills. Like most martial artists today, you went straight to free sparring without prior systematic training.
Even if you had systematic training, if your training is external, including using muscles in your attacks and defence, you will be slower than an internal martial artist who uses mind and energy flow. First you have to see what the attack is. Next you have to think of which defence techniques you should use. Then you send the signals to your muscles to implement the movements. And if you are tensed, the speed of both your mental signals and your resultant muscular movements will be slow.
In contrast, many of my senior disciples have told me that they could sometimes know what attacks their sparring partner or opponent was going to make. Hence, they were ready with their defences or counter-attacks even before the opponent made the attacking moves. They could frustrate the opponent before he attacked, or allowed him to attack and then counter-struck while the attack was still in process.
How could such internal martial artists think so fast? They don't think! They just let their energy flow. Most people would not understand this, or believe this is true. But actually the principles are quite simple.
Through their internal training they have expanded their mind and energy field. In combat their opponent falls within this field. Hence, they may know their opponent's intended movements by picking up his mental vibrations. When the opponent attacks, his muscular movements start some energy vibrations within the energy field of the internal martial artists. They let their energy flow along with these vibrations and turn it back on the opponent.
This is the same philosophy which explains why past masters knew attacks coming from their back or were able to avoid or catch flying knives and arrows. Their mind and energy field was large. As soon as the attacks or flying knives entered their field, they would know it.
Actually there is nothing so fantastic about mind and energy field. It is a natural ability, but most people are unaware of it and do not develop it. Worse, some martial artists blunt their mind and block their energy by working themselves up into a frenzy and fighting like animals. You yourself would have used this natural ability without realizing, such as when you intuitively know that someone is kind or malicious towards you.
You mentioned in one Q&A that many secret classics have now been reprinted, and because of your training, you can interpret them. As your classes are in English, would we be able to also interpret these classics? My native tongue is Chinese, and my Chinese language is up to tertiary level, although my classical Chinese is still quite rudimentary.
Not only you will interpret many principles mentioned in the classics, you will put them into practice and discover from direct experience during my intensive courses that what past masters have written is true.
For example, in my Intensive Chi Kung Course you will discover that the more gentle your movements are, the more powerful you will become! In my Intensive Taijiquan Course you will discover how to generate energy flow with your Taijiquan movements. In my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course you will discover you can develop tremendous internal force by remaining still in stance training. You will discover all these on the very first day of the courses.
Interestingly, I often find that it is easier to explain Shaolin, Taijiquan and chi kung concepts in English than in Chinese! One main reason is that I have been teaching these arts in English for a long time.
Another main reason is that not only the Chinese language is very concise, the descriptions of the concepts are also very concise, usually leaving our explanation which the intended readers are supposed to know. To explain the concepts to uninitiated readers may not be easy because the words for a lengthy explanation may not be there. For example, if a Chinese person were to ask me to explain in the Chinese language what qi (chi) is, it would be difficult!
There is another big advantage when I explain the concepts in English. I can relate the Chinese concepts to similar English concepts. My explanation on why past masters could catch flying knives is an example. English speaking listeners or readers would have no difficulty understanding what mind and energy field, or mental vibrations are, because they are familiar with similar concepts of magnetism and electricity fields, and of brain waves and frequencies. But a Chinese speaking person without the benefit of Western scientific education would not understand what fields and vibrations are even though these terms are translated into Chinese.
Then, how was this ability of catching flying knives explained in classical Chinese? It was not explained, it was only described. And the description was very concise, such as “mind calm, energy still, ears listen to eight directions”. Uninitiated persons would not understand the description though they may know the dictionary meaning of the words used. Chinese masters who have this ability would know exactly what the description means, though they may be unable to explain it to others.
In this respect, I am in a privileged position. Not only I have direct experience of this ability, I also have the advantage of Western education, thus enabling me to explain this concept clearly to English speaking people. As you are also educated in both English and Chinese, you too will be able to perform this much needed task of explaining classical Chinese wisdom to modern Western societies if you spend some time to be trained in these arts.
What in your opinion is the best style and most effective in Shaolin, in every aspect and why?
— Joe, USA
In my opinion, the best style and the most effective amongst the many Shaolin styles as well as in all martial arts is the style of Shaolin Kungfu I practice and teach.
Some people may consider me boastful or egoistic. If I were a beginning student or an uninformed master who only knew his own art and no other, I could be boastful or egoistic in making such a claim.
But if you consider me as someone who has spent 50 years actively practicing, teaching and researching into martial arts, have access to different fighting systems, have searched for great masters and learnt from them, knowledgeable enough to answer questions from all over the world, and intelligent enough to be invited to international congresses, you should find that it is only logical and sensible for me to choose the best art to practice myself.
It is not because I practice Shaolin Kungfu that I call it the best. It is the other way round. Because it is the best, I practice it. If there were another better style of kungfu or other martial arts, I would have chosen to practice that other style.
There are many styles of Shaolin Kungfu that derived from the parental Shaolin Kungfu, such as Lohan, Tai Chu, Wu Chu, Huaquan, Chaquan, Eagle Claw, Praying Mantis, Hoong Ka, Lau Ka, Choy Ka, Li Ka, Mok Ka, Wing Choon and Choy-Li-Fatt. Because Shaolin Kungfu has a very long history, not only the derivative Shaolin styles (like Tai Chu and Wing Choon) are different, the parental Shaolin Kungfu practiced in the Shaolin Temple at different times was of different varieties..
The version of Shaolin Kungfu I practice is that practiced at the southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou and also at Jiulianshan (both in Fujian Province in South China) about 150 years ago. It is different from the version at the northern Shaolin Temple 1000 years ago, and very different from the Shaolin Wushu taught by Shaolin monks today. It is similar to the version practiced at the Shaolin Temple about 500 years ago, as depicted in the wall paintings of the temple.
We do not have a special name for our style of Shaolin Kungfu. We just call it Shaolin Kungfu, or sometimes Southern Shaolin Kungfu. Some people have kindly referred to our style as Shaolin Wahnam Kungfu, Wahnam Shaolin Kungfu or Wahnam Kungfu, but we think these terms are not appropriate.
We consider Shaolin Kungfu the best because it excels in all aspects — irrespective of whether we view it from the four dimensions of form, force, application and philosophy, or from the triple cultivation of jin, qi and shen (physical, energy and mind), or from the three-level aims of combat efficiency, good health and spiritual cultivation. Not many martial arts can fulfill the requirements of all these aspects. Some arts may be excellent for fighting but bad for health and have no spiritual cultivation. Some arts may have beautiful forms but no combat efficiency and no training of energy.
Would you agree that you can be the best fighter in the world if you train the hardest at any style?
No, I disagree.
No matter how hard and for how long you train in styles like modernized wushu and Taiji dance, you cannot even be an ordinary fighter, simply because these styles do not have combat in their training.
If you train in styles like Judo and Western Boxing, you can be a good fighter but not the best fighter because if your opponent fights beyond the safety rules you are accustomed to, like holding your legs or kicking your groin, you may not know how to defend yourself.
If you train in external styles like Karate and Muay Thai, you may be an excellent fighter but not the best fighter because you lack internal force which gives the practitioner an edge over his opponent in speed, endurance as well as striking power.
You may train the hardest in the best style like Shaolin Kungfu but if your training is unsystematic or inappropriate, like spending a lot of time in free sparring but without using proper techniques, or using good techniques but without applying tactics and strategies to ensure victory, you still cannot be the best fighter.
Even if you train the hardest using the best techniques, tactics and strategies in the best style, but your teacher is incompetent and unable to train you methodologically, your training could be deviated or misguided, and you will not be the best fighter.
Or if you were dull, you might have the best teacher and the best style and you might train the hardest, you still would not be the best fighter.
Or you may be very bright and have the best teacher and train the hardest in the best style, but if your opponent is brighter, faster or more forceful than you, and he also trains the hardest in the best style with the best teacher, he may be a better fighter than you.
In short, becoming the best fighter in the world depends on many variables, and not just on training the hardest.
- Gong-Ans: Beyond Words, Thoughts and Intellect
- Shaolin Plum Flower Single Knife
- The Best Thing that has Ever Happened to Me — Jonathan O'Donoghue
- Combat Application of Chen Style Taijiquan
- Angry Bull Charges at Fence