Sifu Andrew Barnett of Shaolin Wahnam Switzerland is huge and powerful, but also agile and nimble. This is a manifestation of yin-yang harmony in Shaolinquan.

Philosophy of Yin-Yang

Possibly, why I delve more into the Taijiquan theory is due to my impression that it is more complicated than Shaolin which is based on Zen. My understanding is that Shaolin is better experienced than studied, whereas Taijiquan lends itself more to intellectual debate given its relation to so many of the Chinese disciplines (yin yang, five elemental processes etc).

One reason why I like Taijiquan is because of its connection with Lao Zi who is one of my favourite philosophers. At the same time, Buddhism has always appealed to me. Alone among the major religions of the world, these two religions (ideologies? Ways of life?) have not been the cause of wars, like Christianity and Islam have.

I also find the circular and flowing nature of Taijiquan very attractive and at the same time, I find great affinity with the Zen ideas of simplicity and directness. Because I can relate to the underlying philosophy of both arts equally, I find it so hard to choose between the two.

Zhang Wuji

Sifu's Comments

Both Taijiquan and Shaolinquan are simple if we understand them. They appear complicated only when one lacks understanding. Worse, mediocre teachers and scholars make simple concepts and practices difficult, wrongly thinking that this may increase their prestige.

Take the yin-yang principle, which is probably the most important concept in Taijiquan. The concept is actually very simple, but it has far-reaching and most profound manifestations. But if one does not understand its basic philosophy and regards yin-yang as absolute terms instead of as symbols, this may lead to very complicated and fruitless arguments.

For example, if one believes that moving forward is always yang, and as such is always used for attack, he misses the essence of this yin-yang philosophy. When a strong opponent pulls your arm, for example, an effective response is to yield, which in this case is moving forward following his pulling momentum and is represented as yin. Then, you release his grip with a circular movement and strike his face with a reversed hanging fist, which is then represented as yang. Due to a failure to understand this yin-yang philosophy, had you pulled back when he pulled you, you might injure your arm.

Both Taijiquan and Shaolinquan are to be experienced for their practical benefits, not merely studied for intellectual debates. The rich philosophy in Taijiquan and Shaolinquan is the result of centuries of practical benefits, and not the other way round.

For example, it is through direct experience that Taijiquan masters in the past discovered they could more effectively overcome a strong opponent pulling on their arm by yielding that they formulated the theory of yin against yang to help their students. It was not that they first thought of the yin-yang principle, then looked out for techniques to implement the principle.

The benefits of yin-yang philosophy are, of course, not just limited to overcoming grips from strong opponents. If a person works very hard all day and leaves little time for wholesome pleasures, or vice versa, he fail to understands yin-yang philosophy. Nevertheless, when you practice Shaolinquan you too enjoy the benefits of yin-yang philosophy, five-elemental processes and other concepts frequently used in Taijiquan. This is because although Shaolinquan was Buddhist in origin, being the imperial temple for Chinese emperors and having undergone centuries of development in China, it has benefited from the best of Chinese culture. Hard and soft, external and internal, which are important factors in Shaolinquan, for example, are expressions of yin-yang philosophy.

But at the highest level in both Taijiquan and Shaolinquan, all forms of dualism, including yin-yang and five elemental processes, are transcended. Entering the Tao or attaining Enlightenment, which is the Taoist and Buddhist way of saying what Christians would refer to as the return to God, is attaining Nothingness or Everything there is without any differentiation.

Wong Kiew Kit

God and Health

As to aspirations, I can honestly say that I am not all that concerned with spiritual cultivation at the moment. One reason is that I firmly believe that God will call me when the time is ripe and not before. Instead of aspiring to enlightenment, I want to experience it naturally. All I desire in my cultivation is that I live as a good Catholic and family man.

Zhang Wuji

Sifu's Comments

God is always there whenever you are ready. Yet, both genuine Taijiquan and Shaolinquan are spiritual cultivation right from the very beginning. The meaning of spiritual cultivation is straight-forward; it is cultivating the spirit (or mind, soul or consciousness), besides cultivating the physical body and energy.

All students attaining my intensive courses feel a tremendous sense of peace, joy and happiness. This is spiritual cultivation, as God or whatever name one may call the Supreme Reality is peace, joy and freedom. Even at a mundane level, after vigorous sparring or demanding stance training, students feel peaceful, joyful and free.

Wong Kiew Kit

peace and joy

Shaolin Wahnam instructors and students in a state of peace and joy during standing meditation

My primary reason for learning Shaolinquan or Taijiquan is to equip myself with the skills for effective self-defence against predators. I want to be able to protect my family effectively without getting maimed or seriously hurt. I have concluded a long time ago that the external arts like Karate may be useful against a single unarmed attacker, but to be able to handle multiple armed assailants, I need to learn a martial art that uses more than our physical attributes.

I therefore searched for an art with neigong, which I knew from books could give the exponent the ability to sense attacks from behind him and the speed to intercept weapons. I read that for someone whose qi is powerful, he can see things in combat as if they are in slow motion. It is to this level of combat efficiency that I aspire to. This is also why I find it hard to choose since I believe both arts can help me to achieve this level, provided I practice diligently and correctly.

For health purposes, I feel that Shaolin Cosmos Qigong is sufficient to help me deal with my ailments, which in fact, it has already done. Thus, health considerations have not factored in my choice at all.

At this point in time, I enjoy every minute of my Taijiquan practice which is very helpful if I choose to specialize in it. It would not do to choose something I find no passion for. Yet, I enjoy my qigong practice even more, and I think that Shaolinquan will give me at least the same joy, if not more.

Zhang Wuji

Sifu's Comments

Both genuine Taijiquan and genuine Shaolinquan give you these invaluable benefits. But as you know very well, genuine Taijiquan and genuine Shaolinquan are very rare today.

Wong Kiew Kit

There is one aspect of Taijiquan that I feel is very inferior to Shaolinquan and this has been weighing on my decision as well. Earlier, I echoed the view of yourself and other masters that Taijiquan moves from soft to hard. But from what I know of my Taijiquan grandmasters (eg, Yang Shaohou and Yang Jianhou) and my instructor's master, their “hardness” was only evident in combat. In daily life, they remained soft, because they have conditioned their bodies to rely very little on muscles. I feel this is a type of disharmony as muscles are there for a reason and the idea of using qi to move the body should not be taken to an extreme.

Zhang Wuji

Sifu's Comments

It is a matter of preference. I would consider this a good point, often described as “iron wrapped in silk.” I would refer to these masters as gentle, rather than soft in the sense of being sissy.

Wong Kiew Kit

Comparative Study between Taijiquan and Shaolinquan

  1. The Evolution of Taijiquan from Shaolinquan
  2. General Practice and Training, and Sparring Methodology
  3. Combat Philosophy on Retreat and Yielding
  4. Difference in Stances
  5. The Use of Internal Force
  6. Fa-jing and Qin-na
  7. Academic Questions and Direct Experiences
  8. Yin-Yang, God and Health
  9. Spirituality and Over-Training
  10. Questions on Sinew Metamorphosis
  11. Questions on Breathing Methods and Control
  12. Taoist Philosophy and Concept of Open and Close