real master

A great genuine master, Sifu Lai Chin Wah

Charles (Sifu Charles Chalmers) reported in our Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum that Chris (Sifu Chris Didik) asked me a question which is more important than what many people may realize.

"Sigung, can you tell us about character development in kungfu?"

“If he is successful,” I answered, “which constitutes a rare minority, there will be amazement, followed by amazement, followed by more amazement, then gratitude and contentment. The great majority, which constitutes more than 95%, will be unsuccessful. This is especially so today when learning a genuine art from a real master is so very rare.”

“But there is a point,” I continued, “where many would-be masters fall. To them, the progress is amazement, more amazement, even more amazement, then disappointment, and then arrogance.”

It is indeed sad to see would-be masters fail. I mentioned this point right at the early years of my teaching. I also mentioned that it was difficult, even for advanced practitioners, to realize the depth of our arts.

Because kungfu and chi kung are so debased today that many new students who might have spent many years in other kungfu and chi kung schools, and have attained an advanced or even a master’s level according to those schools, were amazed when they first learned from me even what I taught them was actually elementary.

I remember that when I first started Shaolin Wahnam Association (the forerunner of our present Shaolin Wahnam Institute) more than 30 years ago in 1982, a senior student told me an interesting story.

An assistant instructor of his former kungfu school asked him what he had learnt from me. “Attack me,” my student said. The assistant instructor threw him a typical punch using “Black Tiger Steals Heart”. My student spontaneously responded with “Lohan Tames Tiger”, pressing the assistant instructor helplessly onto the ground. The assistant instructor was amazed, but my student was more amazed. He told me, “I never expected that it was so effective.” Now our kungfu student can readily counter with “Hide Flowers in Sleeves”.

This student continued to learn from me and attained a high level of Shaolin Kungfu. Later he betrayed me, but he still acknowledged me as his sifu.

When I first taught chi kung to the public in the early 1990s, after a session during an Intensive Chi Kung Course, a wealthy businessman who also happened to be a spiritual master of a spiritual discipline, started sobbing and murmuring to himself, “Twenty years, twenty years!”. I went over to ask him what the matter was.

“I've practiced my spiritual cultivation for more than 20 years, but the result is nothing like a session of chi kung with you!”

I consoled him saying that it was because of his previous 20 years of practice that he had such a wonderful result in the chi kung session. This happened in Cinta Sayang in Sungai Petnai. Some of you may have fond memories of the place.

This student did not betray me. But I did not have much contact with him because later he was much involved in politics. Interestingly, he is an example where business, spiritual cultivation and politics can mix together.

Students who first learned from us, especially those who had prior kungfu and chi kung experience elsewhere, were amazed. As they continued learning, they became more amazed. When they attained a high level they became even more amazed. Then comes a period that they have to be very careful. This is the time when many would-be masters fall.

They come to a “plateau” of development, and become disappointed for lack of progress. Then they think they have reached the climax. They are also very powerful compared to other practitioners who practiced debased arts, though they are still far from the supreme achievement our arts can bring, which is the highest spiritual accomplishment, described variously by people of different cultures, such as Enlightenment, returning to God the Holy Spirit, merging with the Tao or union with the Supreme.

Because they are powerful compared to practitioners of debased arts, and wrongly think that they have reached the climax of their progress, they become arrogant. There are some tell-tale signs.

They speak with authority. Sometimes they deviate from the teaching of their sifu or their school, first subtly then openly. Some even bad-mouth their sifu behind his back, and instigate their schoolmates to disagree with their sifu. This is a sure sign of their downfall.

How would one guard against this downfall? The first of the Ten Shaolin Laws is an excellent guideline, Respect the Master. The student respected the master when the student first learned form him. The student continued to respect the master as the student progressed. It is even more important when the student has attained a high level and about to become a master himself, that he should respect his master.

Even when the student has become a master himself, and has surpassed his own teacher, he should respect and honour his teacher – amongst other things, at least for helping him to reach this point of high attainment. “Respecting the Master” is actually more for the students’ sake than for the master, though many people may not know or appreciate this fact. Yet, for us in Shaolin Wahnam, we respect the master not because it brings us benefit but because it is a right thing to do. (We do not want to waste time arguing with those with different values who believe that respecting a master is being subservient.)

Another excellent guideline, which is more intellectual and more inclined to self-interest than “Respecting the Master” which is righteous and traditional, is to realize the fact that there is still a lot the arts can offer, and still a lot the master can teach him.

The benefits of our arts taught in Shaolin Wahnam can be classified into three main levels:

  1. To live a meaningful life here and now.
  2. To go to heaven after this worldly life.
  3. To attain the highest achievement any being can attain, described variously as Enlightenment, return to God the Holy Spirit, merging with the Great Void, or union with the Supreme.

Most of our family members in Shaolin Wahnam are concerned with the first level. By working on the first level, which necessitates avoiding evil and doing good, we also prepare for the second level. As we have the skills, techniques and philosophy, when we are ready, we can work on the third level, in this life-time or in future ones.

Hence, by just looking at the three levels of benefits our arts can give us, can prevent or at lease subdue arrogance, and realize how much more our arts can give us, and how much more we can learn from the master. If a practitioner is still sick and unhappy, although he may think he has attained a high level of the arts, he should realize, if he is sensible, that he can still benefit a lot by learning from his teacher.

Here we view the benefits practicing the arts in our school can give from the perspective of depth. We can also view the benefits from the perspective of breadth.

The arts I know and hope to pass on to successors in our school can be classified into the following categories:

  1. Kungfu.
  2. Chi Kung.
  3. Zen.
  4. Healing.
  5. Lion Dance, Dragon Dance and Unicorn Dance.
  6. Knowledge of the Relevant Arts

Looking back at my students who fell due to their arrogance, all of them attained high levels at one or two and sometimes three categories, but knew little about the other categories. Many of them attained high levels in kungfu and chi kung, but knew little about Zen, healing, Lion Dance and relevant knowledge.

Some people reported to me, for example, that a fallen student, whose livelihood depended on healing besides teaching our arts, did not believe that so-called incurable diseases could be overcome, despite the fact that we have helped countless patients overcome so-called incurable diseases. This is a tell-tale sign of deviation from my teaching, which indicates his arrogance.

Saying that they have attained high levels in kungfu or chi kung is relative. They may know much and perform well in Shaolin Kungfu or Taijiquan, but know little about Xingyiquan, Baguazhang or Praying Mantis Kungfu. They may know much and perform well in Eighteen Lohan Hands and Abdominal Breathing, but know little about Five-Animal Play and Reversed Breathing.

I did not list “Weapons” as a separate category though it could be as weapons have become quite rare in kungfu training today because I included weapons as part of kungfu. The fallen students did not know many weapons though they were accomplished in unarmed kungfu. This is quite a pity because I myself know a lot of weapons, and more significantly, their application. Hopefully, this setback of our relative lack of weapon training in our school can be rectified in the coming Special Weapon Course in 2016.

Unlike most students of Shaolin Wahnam Association who knew Lion Dance and Dragon Dance, and some knew Unicorn Dance, very few in our school, Shaolin Wahnam Institute, know these dances which are traditionally associated with kungfu.

This short-coming is not due to my unwillingness to teach them. Tuck Meng (Dr Foong Tuck Meng) and Wei Joo (Sifu Lee Wei Joo) tried to organize an Intensive Lion Dance Course in Kuala Lumpur, where students learned and attained a high level of performance in 5 days what it would need most others 5 years or 20 years to attain if they ever did. Others may not believe in this statement, but those in Shaolin Wahnam would know that it is true. The response, however, was not encouraging enough to hold the course.

Why do we practice kungfu when we hardly use it today for fighting, or how does practicing chi kung overcome illness and give us good health? Very few kungfu and chi kung practitioners all over the world know the answers, or even ask the questions, though both the questions and the answers are very important, and should be known to practitioners even before they start practicing the arts. Fewer people know answers to or ask questions like why a small-sized exponent can apply Wing Choon Kungfu to defeat a bigger-sized opponent, or what are the various levels chi would flow in a practitioner and the benefits he will get as he progresses in his practice.

Today, with the advantage of the internet, many of our students know these important questions and answers. My early students, including those who fell, and past masters – genuine ones – did not have this advantage. Indeed I often mentioned that past masters were good in their performance but had little philosophical knowledge of their arts. Our understanding of kungfu and chi kung philosophy enables us to be incredibly cost-effective.

Hence, a typical developmental progression of would-be masters who fell would be amazement, amazement, amazement, disappointment and arrogance. What about that of successful students who become masters? Their developmental progression would be amazement, amazement, amazement, gratitude and contentment.

The crucial difference between a fallen would-be master and a successful master is disappointment and arrogance on one hand, and gratitude and contentment on the other. If, instead of feeling disappointed, a student feels grateful to his teacher and to God or whatever term we call the Supreme for the wonderful benefits that he receives, he will have a good chance to progress to become a real master. More important than becoming a real master, being grateful is a sure sign of good health.

When he has become a master, instead of feeling arrogant, he feels contentment – contented that not only his training has been successful but also his life has become meaningful. As being grateful is a sure sign of good health, being contented is a sure sign of happiness.

There are people who may have amassed a lot of wealth and a lot of power, and want more. They are not contented, and therefore not happy. On the other hand, there are people who have little wealth and little power but are contented, and therefore happy. A good comparison is the poor but happy people in Asia and the rich but stressful people in the West.

This, of course, does not mean that if a person has little or no money, he is necessarily contented and therefore happy. This is faulty, dualistic thinking. Having money and being contented are two different issues. You may have little or a lot of money, and you may be contented or not contented. But the curcial point is that, irrespective of whether you have little or much money, if you are contented you will be happy, and if you are not contented you will be unhappy.

We believe that being healthy and being happy lead to a meaningful life. If others believe that being unhealthy and being unhappy lead to a meaning life, that is their business, and we don’t want to waste our time arguing with them.

Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
10th January 2015

real master

A great genuine master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam


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