August 2000 (Part 3)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I have been interested in Kungfu for many years, specifically Shaolin, and ever since seeing the monks on their first World Tour of 1997 in Zurich, I was awakened to Chi Kung. I wanted an explanation for the truly amazing feats I had seen (and only supposed to exist in movies) and found your book which astounded me. I am a scientist, but I am not narrow-minded and I accept all the things I see and know about Chi Kung to be true.
— James, UK
AnswerThe kungfu and chi kung exhibited by the modern Shaolin monks in their 1997 world tour were magnificent. Their amazing feats were true and I am glad you found an explanation of their seemingly impossible feats in my book "Chi Kung for Health and Vitality", which is a practical guide to chi kung. You would find more information in my other chi kung book, "The Art of Chi Kung", which provides a philosophical background.
But I would like to point out some crucial differences between the arts demonstrated by the modern Shaolin monks and the traditional Shaolin arts that I practise and teach. Those who wish to learn from me such feats like simultaneously breaking into two each of three spears by pressing against the spearheads with his two palms and throat, or lying on a bed of nails and have a huge granite broken into pieces on his chest when struck by a sledge hammer, would be disappointed.
Although I could teach these feats, I would not, because the basic philosophy of my school, Shaolin Wahnam, is quite different. Our chi kung is geared towards attaining good health, vitality, longevity, mental freshness and spiritual joy, rather than accomplishing such feats.
The kungfu demonstrated by the modern monks are also different from that taught in my school. Actually what the modern monks demonstrated was not traditional Shaolin Kungfu but modern wushu, characterized by nimble, elegant movements like somersaults and flying kicks. Modern wushu was not developed at the Shaolin Monastery, although most of modern wushu movements are taken from Shaolin Kungfu.
Students in my school practising traditional Shaolin Kungfu would not be able to match the flexibility and aerobatics of wushu students. Our emphasis is different; we focus on combat efficiency, internal force training and spiritual development -- aspects that modern wushu training normally do not pay attention to.
Until only recently the chance of learning these skills was not possible. I took in what you said about not practising these techniques at home until properly shown, in case of injury, but I am presently learning Choy Li Fut so at least the physical side is taken care of. I would dearly love to start Chi Kung but cannot find anyone.
Many people refer to today's age as the Information Age. Indeed the amount of information available today is incredible. Never before in history could anyone have access to such scope and depth of information as today -- in kungfu, chi kung as well as science, philosophy and all other fields. But this is a mixed blessing.
It is a great paradox -- rather than a great irony -- that although today the chance of learning these kungfu and chi kung skills is hundreds of times more, the number of people actually accomplishing these skills as well as the standard of skills attained are hundreds of times less! In the past, to have a chance to learn chi kung was a rare, golden opportunity. Today, thousands of people learn chi kung from books and videos, and some of them will start teaching it the following week.
The great paradox is due to the failure of most people to realize that learning a skill is only the first step of a very long journey in becoming proficient in the skill. Indeed, most people do not even learn the skill, they merely learn the technique, and they do not understand the difference between learning a technique, learning a skill, and practising a skill to be skilful.
Further, few people appreciate that in arts like kungfu and chi kung, even learning a technique (as distinct from learning a skill) should be carried out from a master, or at least from a competent instructor who knows the technique as well as has the skills that technique is supposed to develop.
Let us take the very basic example of a punch. It is astonishing that even some so-called masters do not know how to punch properly! The way they hold their fist indicates that should they connect their punch onto an opponent, they are more likely to sprain their own fingers or dislocate their wrist than injure their opponent, which is what a punch is meant to do.
Even if they can hold their fist and execute a punch correctly -- which means they have learnt the technique, many instructors cannot throw out even mechanical strength, leave aside internal force -- which means they have no skill in using the technique.
Of course in advanced arts where vital energy and mind are involved, incorrect practice may bring serious harm. It is pathetic that many people want to be teachers, often teaching for free or at a very low fee, before they are even practitioners.
In my sojourn in many countries, I have met so many people who told me that they taught yoga, chi kung or tai chi. Without exaggeration, most of these self-made teachers were mentally and energetically weak, if not actually sick. Yoga, chi kung and Taijiquan are advanced arts of mind and energy training. It really amazes me what little respect these teachers had for these lofty arts.
Your description of yourself shows that you have a right perspective towards these arts. With this right perspective you will do well with your Choy-Li-Fatt, chi kung or whatever you may choose to practise.
My problem is my drug addiction. For many years I have been smoking cannabis, and find it impossible to give up. I am totally resolved to doing this, but have so far failed. What I would like to know is are cannabis and Kungfu compatible?
Many other drugs are taken by people such as nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. Are these compatible as well? Although I kind of know the answer to the question, I would respect your opinion and guidance in this matter.
Taking cannabis or other hard drugs and practising kungfu are compatible but not recommendable. That is, a person who takes cannabis or other hard drugs can practise kungfu and be combat efficient, but it is not recommended that he does that.
He should drop the drugs and bring himself out of addiction. Regularly practising kungfu which should incorporate chi kung -- or only practising chi kung alone -- will enable him to get out of his addiction more easily.
Why do many drug addicts return to taking drugs even though they have attempted to stop taking them. Often they are being accused of being lacking in will power, which is quite unfair. It is actually a question of body chemistry, not will power. They should also avoid mixing with other drug addicts so as not to be influenced negatively.
When an addict takes drugs regularly, his body produces chemicals according to the presence of drugs in his body. If he stops taking drugs suddenly, his body chemistry cannot adjust in time to the new body environment. His body still produces those chemicals as before, as if there were drugs in the body environment. These chemicals cause a craving for drugs.
Practising chi kung, or kungfu with chi kung, overcomes this problem of body chemistry. First, the energy flow as a result of the chi kung or kungfu training cleanses out the bad effects of the drugs. Secondly, it enables the body to adjust to its chemistry more quickly.
In other words, as a result of better energy flow -- which is a Chinese jargon meaning better functioning of the nervous, hormonal and other systems -- the body now knows that drugs are not present, and is able to produce just the right chemicals for the new environment.
The body still takes two or three days to make the necessary adjustment, but if the reformed addict can endure these few days, it will not be difficult for him to permanently drop his addiction as his body successfully adjusts to his new drug-free environment. If not for his chi kung or kungfu training, his body may take a few weeks to adjust, during which time he may fall back onto his drugs.
Except when they are taken in excessive amounts, I do not consider nicotine, alcohol and caffeine as drugs in the same category as cannabis, marijuana and heroin. Although I myself do not smoke or drink alcohol, I believe that anyone deserves the pleasure of enjoying a few cigarettes and drinks a day if he likes them. But if a heavy smoker or drinker wishes to stop smoking or drinking, practising chi kung or kungfu will be of great help to him.
I have been learning Chow Gar from a friend at University for 1 1/2 years. I have been trying to find a style I can really learn and develop with a teacher I can trust since I started training at 7.
I learnt the 6 basic forms of Chow Gar and 2 internal iron shirt forms and would train privately with my instructor 3 or 4 times a week as well as training alone. We spar in most practice sessions and it has been good.
However last night we sparred for over an hour and I felt my instructor was getting overly aggressive. Not something I had seen him do before. He kept telling me to commit to my kicks which I refused to do as I felt it was dangerous as Chow Gar kicks are mainly to the knees and I'm aware that he is waiting for an operation to his knee. I blocked most of his kicks, but now my forearms are bruised and swollen from the power needed to deflect the kicks.
— Giles, UK
From your description it appears that yours were free sparring, and that free sparring was the sole method in your system to learn how to fight. As I have mentioned a few times in my question-answer series, in traditional kungfu training, free sparring comes at the end of a long combat training programme.
In other words you do not free spar straight away; you only free spar after you have learnt and practised how to do so efficiently. If you go to free sparring straight away with insufficient preparation, you are unlikely to be able to use your kungfu techniques.
A good analogy is swimming. You do not learn how to swim by first going straight into the sea. You learn the relevant swimming techniques on land, then you proceed to a pool side or the edge of a beach. You practise the techniques over and over again with your instructor's help. The onus of your swimming session is to practise and practise the same techniques, not learning new ones.
When you can float and move a little, you proceed to deeper water, but not deeper than your chest level so that in case of difficulty you can just stand up. Then you actually attempt to swim, strictly under your instructor's supervision. Only when you are fully confident of your techniques and skills do you swim on your own, but still not too far away from help whenever it is needed.
It is the same with sparring. There are many steps leading to free sparring, such as specific techniques, one-step sparring, three-step sparring, combat sequences, and sparring sets. You also have to develop various skills, such as spacing, timing, judgement, flexibility and flow of movements.
As in swimming, when you are in water you know exactly what techniques to use and have the skills to use them, so in sparring when you are faced with different combat situations you know exactly what techniques to meet these situations, and you have the skills to do so efficiently.
It is not just going in to hit the opponent while trying not to be hit, but not knowing what to do next until the combat situations arise. The whole trouble, of course, is that except in some rare schools, this methodology to kungfu sparring is virtually lost.
An instructor should be at least one class above you -- not someone of the same level with whom you punch and kick each other. As he is one class above you, he does not have to wait for your pre-determined moves. He can move in at any suitable time to strike or subdue you. His purpose in the sparring is not to hit you or punish you in any way, but to teach and train you how to spar.
He himself should be proficient in sparring, at least at the level he is teaching you. If you kick him, he would know what to do as he should have practised that hundreds of times in his own sparring practice as a student. If you do not kick him, he would also know what to do.
If he doesn't -- if he is like you, struggling in the midst of punches and kicks to grope for the right responses -- then he is not fit to be a sparring instructor. If he himself does not know how to spar efficiently at the level his students are sparring, how can he be qualified to teach?
Blocking kicks are third-class moves. You are using your weak point (your arms) against your opponent's strong point (his legs). But if you, like most people, are not trained methodically but attempt free sparring without any preparation, this is what you would normally do.
If you are properly trained in sparring, you would avoid his kicks and strike his legs before he had time to withdraw them. Here you are using your strong point against his weak one.
But you would be unable to do so in the spurt of the moment during free sparring. You have to prepare yourself for this situation. You have to practise this move with a partner hundreds of times in pre-arranged sparring. Then, when the situation arises in free sparring, you just apply the move.
You do not really strike your partner's leg to fracture it -- which you could do in a real fight against an assailant; you merely touch it, then move in swiftly with a follow up strike with your hand.
Again you do not actually strike him, you stop just an inch away from target. But if your partner is also methodically trained, he would be able to counter your strikes and response accordingly.
Your instructor would not be engaged in the sparring. He would be watching you from the sides, giving advice or demonstration whenever necessary, such as the angle you should adopt when avoiding a kick, how much and fast you should move in, and what you should do if your opponent suddenly counter-attacks.
You were right before when you said I'm not effective in combat and I still am useless. My instructor told me it was all confidence. I can defend but my instructor, who learnt to a high standard expects me to be able to be at his level after such a short time. I feel like giving up training and resent being so brutally treated that I now ache all the time.
Confidence comes from knowing how to spar and actually being able to do so effectively. It is the result of arduous preparation. If you have neither the techniques nor the skills to spar, but rush in madly to take punches and kicks, that is foolishness.
In kungfu it is important that you have trust and respect for your instructor. If you have reason to withhold trust and respect from him, for example if he behaves more like a brute than a human, you should not learn from him.
How can I defeat my instructor through confidence alone? Surely as I've only been practising Chow Gar for such a short time I don't have the experience of the techniques to use them as effectively. I find it totally unreasonable. I still naturally use "bong sau" to block and react with a straight punch or finger strike.
It is not just the length of time of practice, but of correct practice, that is important. One who practises sparring methodically for one year is better than another who goes straight to free sparring for three years.
The Wing Choon "bong sau" (where the defending forearm is below the elbow) is not meant to block an attack, but to defect it following the attacking momentum. Following up with a reverse palm strike using the same hand at the opponent's ribs or dan tian, while the other hand feigns a straight punch or finger strike, is more effective.
I am also moving away and cannot find a Chow Gar teacher near to where I am moving. Is there any point in practising an art I cannot finish learning especially when I cannot apply it? I took your advice before and stopped training in the other styles I had previously practiced. However I miss practising Siu Nim Tao and some Bak Mei I learnt. Should I not train at all in any other styles?
My advice was that if you wanted good results you should focus on only one style, and not spreading your time thinly over many styles. You should therefore have to choose the style you wish to focus on, as well as the teacher carefully.
Even if you leave Chow Ka for another style, that does not mean your training in Chow Ka is wasted. Similarly when you left Wing Choon and Pak Mei for Chow Ka, your prior training was a big advantage.
The various styles represent different approaches to meet similar objectives. Basically you want to be healthy and fit, and also to be able to defend yourself effectively. The kicking techniques of Chow Ka, for example, will supplement the hand techniques of Wing Choon, and the swift footwork of Pak Mei will add to both. Moreover the skills or special types of force training, such as the Inch-Force of Wing Choon, the stance training of Pak Mei, and the agility of Chow Ka, can be applied in any kinds of martial art.
This is how you should look at martial art, and not limit yourself to the rigid confiners of a particular style. However, this does not mean you are going to mix all and sundry together. You should also be aware of the special characteristics of the particular styles you have practised, and use them wisely in different situations.
However, it is often not the style of kungfu you learn, but the teacher you learn from that is crucial to your development. You are likely to benefit more from an excellent teacher even if his style is only mediocre, than from a poor teacher whose style is superior. It is not just what and how he teaches, but also the philosophy he has for his art and for life in general that is important.
But of course at the highest level, both the teacher and his students will be limited by the scope and depth of the art. If you practise a kungfu style that is meant to train you into a formidable fighter and nothing more, that is what you will get at the best. If you practise another art that aims for other ideals besides fighting, your development will therefore have more potential.
My instructor's sifu was unpopular and I have been refused places in schools for this reason which I feel is unfair as I don't know my instructor's sifu. I have also encountered problems because people say they are worried about systems getting mixed. I feel like I have reached a point at which I can no longer be taught because of the mess of my training history, yet I still cannot fight so my kung fu is useless despite all the training I have put in.
Suppose you work for somebody whose immediate boss is a big swindler. It will be naive of you to say that because you have not met the big swindler, it is unfair of others if they do not want to be associated with what you do for a living. A kungfu master's philosophy and way of living have much effect on the art he passes on to posterity.
I do not know why your instructor's sifu was unpopular, but suppose he was a big bully, and was notorious for beating up people. The art he passed on would be marked by aggression and brutality. It is therefore not unreasonable for other teachers, especially those teaching tai chi as graceful forms, to avoid having someone known to have trained in aggressive and brutal manners, bringing in negative influence to their schools.
Not accepting a student (without having to give a reason) is a right of a teacher. Your task is not to debate where this right is fair, but to demonstrate in whatever appropriate ways that you are a worthy student. Many people may be surprised to read this, but worthy students are actually in demand. Great teachers in any art are only too happy to teach worthy students.
There may be different valid reasons why people do not want to mix their styles of systems. If you are starting to make progress in Taijiquan, and you go in for karate, or vice versa, you may mess up the two systems. Or, after learning Wing Choon for three years, you learn Pak Mei for another three years. Then you combine them and found a new style which you call Wing Choon Pak Mei Do, and you emphasize free sparring in your teaching. You will not only mess up the two systems, you have insulted all the Wing Choon and Pak Mei masters.
On the other hand, if you have learnt Wing Choon, that does not mean you cannot beneficially learn Pak Mei; or if you have learnt karate, it does not mean you cannot benefit from Taijiquan. But you have to do so judiciously, realizing the particular features and objectives of each art. Appreciating the difference between Wing Choon and Pak Mei, for example, you would not lump them up undiscriminatingly, producing not a combination of Wing Choon and Pak Mei but something that is neither Wing Choon nor Pak Mei.
For your own development, you would choose one and focus on it. Irrespective of whether it is Wing Choon or Pak Mei that you have chosen, because you have had experience in the other, the progress in your chosen art will be better and faster.
Suppose you have chosen Wing Choon. In combat you meet an opponent who has much internal force and whose arms weigh on yours like lead. You know this is the forte of Pak Mei Kungfu because you practised it in the past. But you would not use Pak Mei techniques to counter this although you may know the techniques, because doing so would undermine your years of Wing Choon training. You would let him press down your arms and strike your vital point with a phoenix fist, as a Pak Mei exponent would do.
Then you shift your body slightly to counter his heavy attack with a relatively light "thang sau" (mirror hand), and simultaneously use the other hand to strike his throat with "phiew chi" (thrust fingers). You could apply your Wing Choon techniques well because of your prior experience of Pak Mei; if not, you might be overwhelmed by his internal force.
It is incorrect to say you have reached a point where you cannot progress further, because actually you have not started your journey. In kungfu imagery, you have merely wandered aimlessly outside many kungfu schools, and have had glimpses through windows. Despite groping about for many years, you have not entered the gate to start serious training.
Have you, for example, in your Wing Choon training spent at least six months practising the cup-fist punch and nothing else to develop "inch-force"? Or have you in your Pak Mei training spent at least six months on "nine-step chase" to develop agile footwork?
"Inch-force" and "nine-step chase" are not advanced methods, but basic training. After "entering the gate", you practise the basic training for a few months before moving on to other techniques. This is traditional kungfu training. What you did -- like learning many kungfu sets but being unable to use them, or punching and kicking each other in free sparring without adequate preparation -- is modernized kungfu.
You cannot apply your kungfu to fight because you have never learnt how to do so. As you sow, so you will reap. All the years you have learnt kungfu forms in solo performance, and free sparring where blows were wildly exchanged. Hence, all you can do as the result of your training is to demonstrate kungfu forms, and to punch and kick one another in free sparring. This is the pathetic situation with the great majority of modern kungfu students.
If you want to acquire good traditional kungfu, logically you have to learn from a good traditional master and be willing to pay the price he asks -- something that most students today simply cannot bring themselves to accept. The price is not just the fee, but more importantly dedicated, persistent training according to the way the master has taught. For some odd reasons, many students today fancy they can become masters by practising off and on what, how and when they choose to practise, sometimes telling their teachers to teach them what they want to learn.