Legacy of Zhang San Feng

Cloud Hands

Question 3

Could you please elaborate why and how the Cloud Hands practice is so amazingly beneficial and effective in terms of restoring good health, developing incredible amounts of internal force and mental clarity, improving the combat efficiency and setting the spirit free for spiritual cultivation?

Sifu Roland Mastel


It is reputed that Taijiquan originated from “Cloud Hands”. I believed that after practicing the Shaolin Kungfu he had earlier learned at the northern Shaolin Temple in Henan, Zhang San Feng stood still in the Wuji Stance, like what we do in standing meditation after each practice session.

Soon his body started to sway, which was described as “extreme stillness generates motion”. Zhang San Feng just was spontaneous, which in this case was following the swaying movements, and this was the principle of “wu-wei”.

The swaying gradually became more vigoros, which may be described in the Taiji principle of “growing yang”. Following the principle of “wu-wei”, Zhang San Feng moved about from his spot and also moved his arms about as the flowing chi gathered momentum. This was poetically described as “flowing water floating clouds” or “liu shui xing yun” in Chinese.

The vigorous movement operated by chi flow gradually slowed down, which can be described by the Taiji principle of “extreme yang generates yin”.

Eventually Zhang San Feng came to a graceful stop, brought his feet together like when he started his practice, and stood upright at the Wuji Stance, also like what we now do in our training session.

In his practice over many years on the Wudang Mountain, Zhang San Feng had glimpses of the Tao, or Cosmic Reality. Such beautiful spiritual experiences were known as spiritual awakening, awakening to cosmic wisdom with such understanding like we are actually spirit and not body, and as spirit we never die until we return to our Source, called variously as Tao, Zen, Bodhi, Original Face or God. It is heartening that many of our students and instructors have such beautiful and spiritual experiences in advanced courses like Cosmic Breathing, Merging with the Cosmos, Intensive Chi Kung Course, Intensive Taijiquan Course, Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course, and Small and Big Universe.

Eventually Zhang San Feng left his physical body and merged with the Tao, the highest attainment any being can aspire to. For us who have spiritual awakenings, we return to our phenomenal world where we work and live by thinking of our dan tian.

It is also said that Yang Lu Chan practiced “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” thousands of times everyday. What Yang Lu Chan practiced was Cloud Hands, as the term “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” was not known then, and the movements of the sequence which is now called “Grasping Sparrow’s Tail” were only stylized by his grandson, Yang Deng Fu, later. Like Zhang San Feng many centuries before him, Yang Lu Chan’s Cloud Hands movements were spontaneous, not stylized into a routine sequence as Grasping Sparrow’s Tail as performed today.

There were no records whether Yang Lu Chan eventually merged with the Tao, or even had any spiritual awakening. Personally I do not believe so. Yang Lu Zhan’s dedicated practice of Cloud Hands was for combat, whereas Zhang San Feng’s practice was for spiritual cultivation. Yang Lu Chan could use his Cloud Hand not only to handle any attack, but also he defeated all challengers earning an enviable nickname “Yang the Invincible”.

Subsequent Taijiquan practitioners were not as capable as Zhang San Feng or Yang Lu Chan in spiritual cultivation or in combat. The free movements of Cloud Hands were styled into routine patterns as Grasping Sparrow’s Tail by Yang Deng Fu. Today in Yang Style Taijiquan and in the 24-Pattern Simplified Taijiquan, there is a pattern called “Cloud Hands” where a practitioner moves his arms in circles in front of his body. Zhang San Feng’s and Yang Lu Chan’s Cloud Hands, which is a shortened term of “Flowing Water and Floating Cloud Hands”, were free movements moved by chi flow.

Cloud Hands as spontaneous movements is generated by chi flow. When chi flow clears blockage, it overcomes pain, injury and illness. When chi flow is harmonious, it maintains good health. When chi flow is vigorous, it contributes to vitality. When chi flow is abundant, the excess chi is stored at the dan tian and the eight marvelous meridians contributing to longevity.

Cloud Hands as a routine form can generate chi flow if practiced in a chi kung state of mind, and therefore will derive all the benefits described above. However, most Taijiquan practitioners except in our school perform Cloud Hands as physical exercise and therefore will not get the benefits of chi flow. At the risk of being long-winged to those who have read my statement many times, whether these other Taijiquan practitioners believe in what I have said is their business, not ours. But if they believe in the statement and are humble enough to learn from us, we shall be generous to help them obtain these benefits.

Cloud Hands, irrespective of whether it is spontaneous free movements or a routine form provided it is performed as chi kung, can develop incredible amount of internal force, especially for practitioners who can consolidate flowing force, like those who attended my Dragon Strength course. For those who do not know how to convert flowing force to consolidated force, the flowing force of Cloud Hands can still be very powerful, but if all other things were equal, it is not as powerful as consolidated force like in Iron Wire. However, in terms of health, vitality and longevity, as well as for peak performance in daily life, if all other things were equal, flowing force is relatively more effective.

Cloud Hands is also amazingly beneficial and effective in developing mental clarity. This is because a practitioner must be in a chi kung state of mind to generate a chi flow, and one essential condition to enter a chi kung state of mind is to clear the mind of all thoughts. When the mind is clear of all thoughts, the practitioner has mental clarity. When he has mental clarity, he will have better result in whatever activity, mental or physical, he does.

In this aspect of mental clarity, Cloud Hands in spontaneous movements is more effective than Cloud Hands as a stylized pattern. In spontaneous movements the practitioner must maintain his mental clarity. If irrelevant thoughts disturb him, his chi flow and subsequently his Cloud Hands will cease. As a styled pattern, the practitioner may still continue with his physical Cloud Hands movements even when irrelevant thoughts enter his mind.

Cloud Hands is also very effective for combat, though most Taijiquan practtitioners outside our school who practice Taijiquan as Taiji dance have no idea at all about the combat functions of Cloud Hands. They also have no idea about the combat functions of other Taijqian techniques, though they sing praises of Yang Lu Chan as an invincible fighter. Most of the Taiji dancers are actually very nice people, but that is not the issue. The issue here is that they debase a wonderful art into a decorative dance, often with injury to their knees.

Past masters have made things simple for us by classifying all attacks into four categories. Cloud Hands alone, whether as free movements or a styled pattern, can counter all attacks of these four catogories, except when a Cloud Hands practitioner is being pinned down. But to pin him down, an attacker has first to take him down. Cloud Hands is very effective in countering any take-downs.

In a real fight, for which Taijiquan is meant, if an attacker can take down a Taijiquan practitioner, there is no need to pin the practitioner down, as in a sports like Wrestling. The attacker can break the practitioner’s leg or strike his groin.

What would you do if an attacker attacks you with a strike? Simple: just brush of his strike with one hand of your Cloud Hands, rotating your body to avoid his full force, and counter-strike him with your other hand.

What would you do if an attacker attacks you with a kick? Simple: move back a small step to avoid his kick and simultaneously brushing it away, immediately move in to counter-strike him with your other hand.

What would you do if an attacker attempts to fell you? Simple: move a step to neutralize the leverage advantage of his throw, and simultaneously brush off his hands and counter-strike him with your other hand.

What would you do if an attack grips your arm? Simple: make a circular movement of your gripped arm to release the grip, rotating your waist for better effect if needed, cover the attacker adequately and counter-strike him.

These are examples to show how Cloud Hands can be used to counter any of the four categories of attack. Of course there are more sophisticated counters for more sophisticated attacks.

Cloud Hands, in both the free movement mode and the stylized pattern mode, can be used to set the spirit free for spiritual cultivation, ranging from the basic level to the highest level. There are two main approaches. We may use Cloud Hands as a primary method or as a supplementary method to attain relaxation, which is the most basic level of spiritual cultivation, or to return to Tao, which is the highest level, and to achieve any spiritual attainment in between!

As a primary approach, once we can perform Cloud Hands in spontaneous chi flow movements, we are already relaxed. If we use Cloud Hands as a stylized form, we have to be relaxed before we can perform it as chi kung.

As a supplementary approach, after performing Cloud Hands whether in spontaneous movements or as a stylized pattern, we go into Wuji Stance and be relaxed.

Advanced practitioners can progress further and deeper. As they perform Cloud Hands whether in spontaneous movements or as a stylized pattern but in a chi kung state of mind, they may have a glimpse of Cosmic Reality, and if they leave their physical body they will merge with the Tao. For us in Shaolin Wahnam, as we are not yet ready to merge with the Tao, we think of our dan tian and return to our phenomenal world.

This is a theoretical explanation. It needs great skills to attain practical result. For those who are not ready or do not want to merge with the Tao yet, like us in Shaolin Wahnam, we gently think of our dan tian to return to our physical body. Unless one is a master himself, he should practice such an exercise, even when he is advanced and ready, under the supervision of a master to ensure that he returns to our world.

The same process operates when we use Cloud Hands as a supplementary approach. After performing Cloud Hands in spontaneous movements or as a stylized pattern, we go into the Wuji Stance and let our spirit expand beyond our physical body to have a glimpse of Cosmic Reality. Then we think of our dan tian to return to our phenomenal world. Like in the primary method approach, this practice must be supervised by a master. Other spiritual cultivators who are ready and have reached this very high spiritual developmental stage, like Taoist masters, may leave their physical body to merge with the Tao.

There are countless stages between these two extremes. We may, for example, use Cloud Hands, whether as spontaneous movements or a stylized pattern, as a primary approach or as a supplementary approach, to be peaceful and happy, or to be free, to develop a lot of mental clarity or tremendous internal force. We shall have some opportunities to practice these skills, or to receive these skills from my heart-to-heart transmission, at the Legacy of Zhang San Feng course.

Legacy of Zhang San Feng

Sifu Manual and Sifu Daniel applying Cloud Hands for combat

The questions and answers are reproduced from the thread Legacy of Zhang San Feng: 10 Questions to the Grandmaster in the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum.



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