June 2000 (Part 2)


Free sparring

John Manuel Gouveia from South Africa (on the right) engaged in a free sparring session with Tai Chee Yong in an Intensive Shaolin Kungfu course taught by Sifu Wong in Malaysia. Notice that both used typical Shaolin kungfu patterns. They could do so, and not merely exchanging blows, because their combat training was systemmatic, having prepared them before-hand for this free sparring session.

Question 1

As an aspiring kung fu student, I have been reading books and websites as starting points. Now on some of the sites, they choose to leave out the law of “do no harm to any living creature unnecessarily.” I would take this to mean vegetarianism -- when a person eats no meat, or no dairy, or uses any products coming from animals. Is this the case?

— James, USA


It is not a norm for kungfu schools to have written laws. Some schools may have written laws and they differ from one school to another. Nevertheless, virtually all kungfu schools follow one unwritten law, and it is “Jun Si Chong Tou” (in Cantonese pronunciation). Literally word by word this all-important unwritten law means “Respect Master Emphasize Morality”.

While ideal kungfu students would not harm any living creatures unnecessarily, “Do no harm to any living creature unnecessarily” is not a common written or unwritten law in kungfu. In reality ideal kungfu students were (and are) rare. In the past students practised kungfu in China, or any other martial arts in other countries, mainly for fighting, and fighting normally involved harming other human beings.

In this aspect, amongst many other aspects, Shaolin Kungfu especially as practised in the Shaolin Monastery in the past, was different from the various kinds of kungfu typically practised by the mass. Shaolin Kungfu was, and is, elite. While combat efficiency is crucial, Shaolin Kungfu was actually practised for personal development, from physical and emotional to mental and spiritual. But neither “Do no harm to any living creature unnecessarily” nor “Do not eat meat” was a written or unwritten law in Shaolin Kungfu!

Nevertheless Shaolin students generally do no harm to living creatures, not because they are bound by a law to this effect, but because they practise high morality. Except Shaolin monks, Shaolin students as well as Shaolin masters can eat meat. In the past, all Shaolin masters and students practising Shaolin Kungfu in the Shaolin Monastery did not eat meat, not because they practised Shaolin Kungfu but because they stayed in the Shaolin Monastery.

Question 2

Are the Shaolin monks vegetarians?


Yes, all Shaolin monks, irrespective of whether they practise Shaolin Kungfu or not, are (and were) strict vegetarians.

The Shaolin Monastery is a Buddhist monastery of the Mahayana tradition. While “Do not kill” is one of the five most important laws in Buddhism, the Buddha never made it a law for his followers not to eat meat, although the Buddha and his disciples were, and many Buddhists all over the world are, strict vegetarians by their own choice.

There are three traditions in Buddhism, namely Theraveda, Mahayana and Vajjrayana. Theraveda and Vijrayana monks, such as those from Sri Lanka and Tibet, can eat meat, and many of them do. But Mahayana monks, such as those from China and Japan, are strict vegetarians by convention.

Question 3

I have several friends who are vegetarians, and often they complain of living in such a society that is so animal-oriented. Are these schools refusing to recognize the Shaolin law, if I am interpreting it correctly, simply because it is hard to be a vegetarian?


If one chooses to be a vegetarian, that is fine, but he should not complain about others who eat meat. What others choose to eat is their privilege, or problem.

The lotus is a common symbol for Buddhism. Do you know why? Despite the muddy water all around it, it rises up pure and majestic, symbolizing that if you are upright and steadfast, negative surroundings cannot contaminate you.

There is no Shaolin law forbidding one not to eat meat. Hence these schools refuse to recognize the law is relevant. Moreover, many of these schools do not belong to the Shaolin tradition. Even if there were such a law, these schools are not bound by it.

One becomes a vegetarian because he chooses to. Hence, although it may be hard for a habitual meat-eater, it is not hard at all for a vegetarian to be a vegetarian.

Your interpretation is incorrect. In fact it is not an interpretation; rather it is a case of you, like many Westerners, wittingly or unwittingly attempting to impose your ideals in situations vastly different from your conceptualization. In simple words it means you idealize kungfu students, thinking that they are martial knights and spiritual cultivators, but in reality they may not be. You think there must be a law in kungfu forbidding its exponents to harm living creatures, and consequently they must be vegetarians, but in reality it is not so.

This reminds me of another mis-conception common amongst many young Westerners. They think that if one is a master, he must teach if any students express a desire to learn, and usually without charging any fees, otherwise he is not a master. Some even think that the students are doing the master a service by learning! Such an attitude is ridiculous from a Eastern perspective.

This ridiculous mis-conception probably resulted from situations where many people in the West, without first becoming students and devoted practitioners, wanted to become “masters” overnight, and they needed students to satisfy their dreams. For such bogus “masters”, teaching an exotic art like tai chi or ki gong would be a good choice. They did not even have to learn it. They could read it up in some books, garnish it with some other exotic arts, then teach it the next month.

Question 4

Sifu, have you heard of Wu-Tong temple martial art?

— Stanley, Indonesia


Wutong Temple martial art, or Wudang Kungfu, is the martial art that originated from the Purple Summit Temple on Wudang Mountain in Hupei Province of central China. (Please note that Wudang is pronounced as “wu-t'ang”, and not as “wu-dang”.) There are actually many temples on Wudang Mountain, but the Purple Summit Temple is the most important, and is often referred as the Wudang Temple. This Wudang Temple is one of the most important Taoist temples in China.

As the Wudang Temple has a long history, different types of kungfu have developed in it. There are, therefore, different types or versions of Wudang Kungfu. The most famous is probably the one initiated by the great Taoist priest, Zhang San Feng (or Cheong Sam Foong in Cantonese pronunciation), which later developed into Taijiquan. Zhang San Feng originally practised Shaolin Kungfu at the northern Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province.

A few centuries after Zhang San Feng, another Taoist priest called Feng Dao De (or Foong Tou Tak in Cantonese pronunciation) who also originally practised Shaolin Kungfu but at the southern Shaolin Monastery in Fujian Province, taught kungfu at the Wudang Temple. His style of kungfu was called Wudang Shaolin Kungfu, and later shortened to just Wudang Kungfu.

Recently, in the early 20th century, many people arbitrarily classified the numerous styles of kungfu into two major groups — the so-called external kungfu which they named Shaolin, and the internal kungfu named Wudang. According to this classification, there are three main styles of Wudang or internal kungfu, namely Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan. This classification is inaccurate but has become quite established.

Free sparring

Another scene in a free sparring session. Here John (right) just moved in with a right palm thrust. After deflecting the attack, Tai is about to shift his body forward to execute a thrust punch at John.

Question 5

A teacher of this art claims in his webpage that his internal energy exercise called Nui Kung is much higher than chi kung. What is Nui Kung, sifu? Is it really higher than chi kung?


The numerous arts of kungfu force training are arbitrarily generalized into two groups, namely Nui Kung and Ngoi Kung, or internal arts and external arts. Nui Kung (or to be more exact in its pronunciation, Noi Kung) and Ngoi Kung are in Cantonese pronunciation. In Mandarin pronunciation and Romanized spelling, they are “nei gong” and “wei gong” respectively.

One should remember that unlike scientific terms in Western culture, Chinese terms are meant for convenience and therefore not exclusive. What exactly is Nui Kung is open to various interpretations, but the common consensus is that Nui Kung involves the training of jing, shen and qi, or the internal dimensions of essence, spirit and energy. Hence, arts like zhang-zhuang (stance training), meditation and abdominal breathing would be Nui Kung. In contrast, training that involves jin, gu and bi or muscles, bones and flesh, like stretching, striking poles and hitting sandbags would be Ngoi Kung.

The term chi kung (qigong) is popularly used only recently. In the past, what is called chi kung today was called Nui Kung.

That teacher's claim can be true or false. This is due to the limitation of words, and to the linguistic difference between Chinese and English. What he probably means is that he uses the term “Nui Kung” to refer to his particular energy exercise, and not as a general term referring to the whole genre of energy exercises, and that by chi kung he means some forms of external dance-like exercises, which are actually practised by the majority of people who say they do chi kung. In this sense he is right.

But if we take the terms Nui Kung and chi kung in their actual meanings, as I have explained above, Nui Kung is chi kung. Yet, if we wish to split hairs, Nui Kung is of a higher morphological level, but not necessarily more powerful than chi kung, because Nui Kung includes all the arts that train essence, spirit and energy, whereas chi kung refers to arts that only train energy.

Question 6

He also claims that to be a master of Nui Kung, you only need 3 - 6 month to learn from him and will be able to knock out 4 bigger persons in one move.


Technically speaking, his claim can be true, but is certainly very misleading. If you train hard almost any martial art technique specifically for 3 to 6 months, such as continuously punching a sandbag or kicking your shins against a pole, you can develop sufficient power to knock out four bigger persons in one continuous move provided your opponents are not skilful or powerful.

This, in fact, is normal in Muai Thai training. A Muai Thai fighter can knock out four or more bigger but untrained persons in one continuous move, especially when the untrained persons are so taken by the attack that they freeze in their positions. But, in my opinion, becoming such a “master” is not desirable. It would be more effective if you use an iron bar against the bigger persons.

Question 7

I am a student of what is told to me by my shifu to be “Shaolin Gung fu” and to the extent of my knowledge seems to be so. I've been training for one year, through which time I have greatly developed and increased my strength, flexibility and co-ordination. I am however dubious as to the combat application of my art as I have never sparred as such with my brothers, and this over the past few months has become an area of some concern.

— Li, Australia


What you actually mean is that yours are genuine Shaolin kungfu forms. Today when people say they practise kungfu, what they actually do is to practise kungfu forms. This is the norm today, even in China. But practising kungfu forms is not the same as practising kungfu as a martial art. At best, it is only a part of kungfu, and in many ways practising forms is the least important part of kungfu training.

This is one of the main themes in my webpages. It is a delicate issue. While I do not wish to offend teachers who teach only kungfu forms (and many of these teachers are very nice people), I am much concerned about it because it is this aspect that makes many kungfu students a laughing stock amongst other martial artists. If you practise karate, taekwondo or even judo, you can defend yourself, but if you practise kungfu forms, even for years, you can only perform to please spectators.

From personal talks with many old masters and from research into much kungfu literature and other sources, it is evident to me that kungfu was not practised the way it is normally done today. In the past, form practice constituted only a very small portion of the total training time; much of the time was spent in force training and combat application. My own Shaolin training also followed this old tradition.

Question 8

Although my shifu demonstrates the combat application of our techniques and forms we never spar. We do however practice the techniques we have learned in pairs though at a slow and controlled rate and I do not in my narrow thinking see how this comes to help combat efficiency.


You are right. If you have never practised playing football in a field although you have learnt football techniques in a classroom, you cannot play football. If you have never practised playing a piano although you have learnt reading musical notes, you cannot play a piano. Similarly if you have never practised sparring although you have learnt sparring techniques, you cannot spar.

This is simple logic and common sense, yet it is amazing how many students do not realize it and how many instructors continue to misguide their students into thinking that practising kungfu forms is practising kungfu. Past masters referred to kungfu forms that were suitable for demonstration but ineffective for combat as “flowery fists and embroidery kicks”, or in Chinese “hua quan xiu dui” (“fa khuen sau thui” in Cantonese).

Even if you know the combat application of your kungfu patterns but have not practised using them in combat, you will not be able to use them. Combat application can be learnt theoretically from a book or from my webpages, but its actual use in sparring has to be learnt from a master and then practised systematically and repeatedly, not in slow motion, but in simulated combat. This is one reason among many why I have frequently said that unless they are already familiar with kungfu, those who think they can learn kungfu from videos do not know what kungfu really is.

Question 9

I have been involved recently in some sparring matches and have been unable to time my attacks or defense accurately. I know this sounds to you a question of pettiness and irrelevance though I have come in search of you to ask the question.


Yours is not a petty or irrelevant question; your question concerning combat efficiency touches the very core of the main problem faced my most kungfu students today. Many instructors and students do realize this problem, and their main and often sole way of attempting to rectify the problem is to engage in free sparring, usually or inevitably borrowing techniques from karate and taekwondo. Some of them can fight quite well in this manner.

But what they do not realize is that theirs is not the traditional kungfu way to combat efficiency. Even those who can fight quite well cannot apply the kungfu techniques which they can perform beautifully in solo kungfu sets. They become frustrated, and mistakenly think that perhaps their kungfu patterns cannot be used for fighting. This is a great pity and irony. The fact is that kungfu patterns are excellent for fighting -- the trouble is their not knowing the methodology to train combat efficiency.

There are many steps between set practice and free sparring, and these various steps need to be learnt and practised systematically. There are different types of sparring, and free sparring comes at the end of the combat training programme, as a means to test and confirm that they can fight -- and not as a means to teach them how to fight.

Lifting the Sky

The first eight exercises of the Eighteen Lohan Hands practiced in our school correspond with the Eight Pieces of Brocade. The picture above shows the first exercise called "Lifting the Sky".

Question 10

Recently I went for my first qigong class where we did Ba Duan Jin. After the lesson I noticed that I was in a better mood and still am although the way that I was learning appeared to be only at the lower level of qigong.

— Jonathan, Australia


Ba Duan Jin, or the Eight Pieces of Brocade, is a very famous form of qigong (chi kung). Whether a particular kind of qigong is of a high, middle or low level, often depends on how it is performed and what results it produces, rather than on what form of qigong it is.

Regarding how it is performed, I would consider working on energy mainly through physical movements as low level qigong, mainly through breathing as middle level qigong, and mainly through mind as high level qigong.

Regarding results, I would consider qigong that produces miraculous effects like dispersing rain, as high level qigong; that produces remarkable effects like overcoming cancer, as middle level qigong; and that produces expected results like providing general well-being, as low level qigong.

You have just started qigong. Be a bit modest in your expectations. Nobody expects you to disperse rain in your first qigong lesson. Moreover it is best to proceed from low to middle then to high levels.

Question 11

The only things that I was focusing on, or remember focusing on was breathing and the form but somehow this lower back pain I had is fading away quite fast.


Focusing on your breathing and on your form is a very good method. If you can only do this effectively, you will attain a unity of mind, energy and form, and be able to operate at a high level of qigong, though your results may still be far from miraculous.

If you can eliminate your lower back pain at your very first qigong lesson, you already have done remarkably well. What else would you or anybody expect in the first lesson?

Question 12

I'm not sure how things are supposed to be taught but I find what happened rather strange though not necessarily bad. Is there anything that I should be careful about?


You are only a beginning student. You have no way, and no right, to judge how your teacher should teach. If you wish to learn from a teacher, first of all you have to trust and respect him (or her). Considering that many people take pain killers for years and still have back pain, yet your teacher teaches you an art that eliminates your back pain in the very first lesson, you should have much faith in and gratitude for him.

Yes, that something you should be careful about is observing the first (often unwritten) law in kungfu and qigong culture, and that is respect your teacher. Should you for any legitimate reason find no respect for any particular person, then you should not learn from him.

Question 13

Also, I'm not sure if I understand this qigong state of mind you were describing on one of your pages. Roughly, what would my Sifu say to describe it?


No matter how well I may describe it, and how well you understand the words, you still would not know what a qigong state of mind is, until you have experienced it personally and confirmed by a master or an informed person. It is like asking what is the taste of sugar, or how does a cat look like. Until you have tasted sugar, or seen a cat, you would not know what it is from its description.

What your sifu say to describe it would depend on numerous factors, like his own experience and your level of appreciation. To my beginning students I would say a qigong state of mind is when you are focused and relaxed. To my advanced students I would say when your mind can influence energy and matter.

Question 14

At the moment I'm a little worried about whether I'm learning from a teacher who is just teaching the external form.


Instead of being a little worried, you should be a lot happy. Give yourself some time to learn and enjoy qigong. If you examine qigong classics, you will find virtually all masters advise that patience and effort are necessary. Even if your teacher teaches only external form, but if this is the only qigong you can find or are prepared to pay for, you have to make the best of what is available. Later you may have an opportunity to learn from a more profound teacher, but you must still be grateful to your first teacher who taught you only external form.

You must also be reasonable to yourself and your teacher. In down-to-earth terms, ask yourself how much do you pay as fees to your teacher. Even if you pay him a lot of money, he may not necessarily teach you high level qigong. If you pay only a nominal fee, it is unreasonable to ask him to give you his treasure overnight. If you want the best, you must be ready to pay for the best, which may not necessarily be in monetary form, and which may include such subtleties like sincerity and devotion.



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