April 2004 (Part 3)


Shaolin sparring

While sparring in many martial art schools often brings physical as well as emotional pain, in Shaolin Wahnam it is not only fun but it also develops desirable qualities like tolerance, consideration, and being relaxed and cheerful even in trying situations!

Question 1

One of the major teachings of Buddhism is that to reach Nirvana, one must free him/herself from desires. Isn't the want to reach Nirvana a desire?

— Robert, USA


Words are limited in expressing their meaning. A person reading or listening to a word often does not interpret it the same way it was originally meant by the writer or speaker.

Let us take a simple example. Three persons are looking at a sunset. The first person exclaims, “The sunset is beautiful”. The other two agree. But all of them may — and, actually, usually do — have different meanings for the same expression.

To the first person the sunset is beautiful because it is a splendid display of many colours. The second person may not be aware of the splendid colours but it is beautiful because it arouses in him a sense of peace and joy. Yet, to the third person the appreciation of the beauty may not be aesthetic but intellectual, reminding him that the sunset like all other phenomena are transient, not permanent.

In the teaching of Buddhism, when we say that one should free himself (or herself) from desires, we mean that he should free himself from cravings that distract him from attaining his goals according to his needs, aspirations and developmental stage.

For example, if he is a student studying for an examination, if he wants to attain the goal of doing well in the examination he should free himself from cravings like drinking excessively with friends in a pub or going to parties till late at night. The issue here is not the moral question of whether drinking in pubs or going to parties is right or wrong, but the practical hindrance to attaining a set goal.

Similarly, if he wants to have a happy family, he should abstain from the desire of wanting to have illicit sexual experiences with different women, or of spending all his time and money for himself and not providing for his wife and children. Again it is not a moral issue, as different cultures may hold different values. It is a practical issue. From repeated practical experiences, it has been found that if a man indulges in illicit sex or does not provide for his wife and children, he would not have a happy family.

At the highest stage when he is ready (including having fulfilled all his social and family obligations) and wants to cultivate to attain Nirvana, he has to abstain from the desire of providing for his wife and children, and becomes a monk. Again it is not a moral issue of whether he loves his family, but a practical issue that by binding himself to his family or any desires, even noble desires like wanting to be kind and charitable, will tie him to samsara, or the phenomenal world, thus hindering him from attaining Nirvana, or the Supreme Cosmic Reality.

We may logically argue that wanting to have different sexual experiences, wanting to have a happy family, and wanting to attain Nirvana are all desires. But when we understand the limitation of words, it will be more helpful to refer to wanting to have different sexual experiences as a desire, and wanting to have a happy family as a goal at one developmental stage; and wanting to have a happy family as a desire, and wanting to attain Nirvana as a goal at the highest developmental stage.

Question 2

I have become very interested in the healing arts of kung fu, particularly the herbal medicines, bone setting, and acupuncture. I was very surprised, yet very pleased to find two medicinal prescriptions in your book “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu”.


In the past every kungfu master knew “thiet ta”, which is the colloquial name for that branch of Chinese medicine dealing with injuries, especially injuries caused by falling or being hit. For convenience, I call this branch of Chinese medicine “traumatology”.

As my sifu, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, said and which I fully agreed, Shaolin traumatolgy is the best in the world. In my own experience, I have helped countless people, who had suffered pain or bone problems where conventional Western medicine offered little or no help, overcome their problems in a relatively easy and quick manner.

The main types of injuries dealt in “thiet ta” are sprains, concussions, dislocations, fractures and internal injuries. The main therapeutic methods are massages, bone-setting, external application of medicinal plasters, medicinal wine or medicinal oil, and internal taking of herbal concoctions. Acupuncture is not normally used by these “thiet ta” masters.

However, many kungfu masters and most kungfu instructors today do not know “thiet ta”. It is a pity because while such injuries are common, there is no equivalent in conventional Western medicine. Besides, it is not generally practiced in mainstream Chinese medicine!

Question 3

I asked the grandmaster of a kungfu school about what medicines were taught. He said that since, in America, medicine was controlled by the government, his school no longer taught the healing arts. I thought this was a tragedy to kungfu. What healing arts and medicines are taught to students of the Shaolin Wahnam Institute?


Today, teaching traumatology in a kungfu school is a rare exception. However, it is no surprise if we consider that even the most basic things in kungfu like force training and combat application are also not taught.

In our school, Shaolin Wahnam, the practice of Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan is a healing art itself. In other words, when students learn kungfu from us, they already can heal themselves because our kungfu training is also chi kung.

If some students have health problems like asthma, rheumatism or depression, for example, after training our Shaolin Kungfu or Wahnam Taijiquan for some time, their illness will be overcome. If they sustain injury during sparring, which seldom happens, they practice remedial chi kung exercises to overcome the injury. However, if intending students are too ill to start kungfu, we recommend them to practice chi kung exercises like Self-Manifested Chi Movement or Eighteen Lohan Hands to overcome their illness first.

In the past I supplied medicinal wine to kungfu students for them to apply to relieve bruises and sprains sustained from sparring. I also asked them to take medicinal pills or medicinal concoction to relieve or prevent internal injury. I also provided them the formulae for their preparation. But nowadays such medication is not necessary because cleansing with chi kung is even more effective in overcoming injuries.

Traditional Chinese medical philosophy and how our practice can overcome or prevent illness are explained to students when it is appropriate. For example, our students understand the philosophy of yin-yang and how our chi flow can overcome any diseases, and why different levels of cleansing give us good health, vitality and longevity in that order.

Advanced disciples will be taught traditional Chinese medical principles and practice, with special reference to their areas of specialization. Kungfu instructors, for example, will be taught “thiet ta” so that their training will be complete.

Iron Wire Set

A pattern from the Iron Wire Set of Hoong Ka Kungfu demonstrated by the Hoong Ka master Lam Sai Weng in his kungfu classic.

Question 4

I recently bought a book on Shaolin medicines and have two questions. Some of the formulas need to be decocted in baby's urine. Why? And some need to be decocted or taken with yellow or white rice wine. Since the Shaolin monks could not drink alcohol, would they have used the medicines?


Urine has the properties of killing harmful micro-organism and clearing internal injuries. However, if the person passing out the urine is sick, the urine may be contaminated. Hence, urine of children, known as “tong tze liu” in Cantonese, is used. If someone is unconscious due to serious injury, drinking children's urine may revive him.

Yellow and white rice wine has the properties of circulating chi and nourishing blood. Taken in small portion with medical pills or herbal concoction will help to circulate the medicines to various parts of the body. Medicinal plasters for relieving pain and swelling are usually mixed with yellow or white rice wine.

Buddhist monks are forbidden to take alcohol because it intoxicates the mind, which negates the effect of mind training, the third of the three fundamental Buddhist practices, the other two being avoiding evil and doing good. But when it is necessary, such as for overcoming injury, alcohol may be taken as an exception.

Chinese medicine is very rich in therapeutic methods. There are a lot of alternatives besides urine and wine. Vinegar, ginger juice and honey are sometimes used instead. The best choice is chi. Hence, in our Shaolin Wahnam school today we seldom use medicines to relieve injuries or illness; we use remedial chi kung exercises instead.

Question 5

What is meant by and what is the purpose of the Twelve Bridges of Hoong Ka Kungfu?


Hoong Ka Kungfu is famous for its powerful forearms, known as “kiew sau” (Cantonese pronounciation) or “bridge-hands”. They are called “bridges” because they connect with the opponents in attack and defence.

A famous combat principle in Hoong Ka as well as other styles of kungfu is “kiew lei kiew seong ko, mo kiew soon shui lau”, which is “if there are bridges cross them, if there are no bridges flow with water”. Basically it means that if the opponent attacks you, brush over his attack to counter-strike, if contact is broken flow in with his movements. This Hoong Ka principle is similar to the Wing Choon principle “loi low hui soong, liet sau jiet joong”, which is “retain arrival send departure, hands disconnected straight enter”.

These two principles represent the crystallized wisdom of past masters in their use of tactics derived from centuries of actual fighting, passed down to us in secret transmission. Understanding just these two principles will enable us to have many different variations to suit different combat situations whereby we can have certain advantages over our opponents.

In my own experience, I have used just these two principles to effectively handle countless combat situations in both friendly sparring and actual fighting. These are just two of many, many principles. This shows how rich kungfu is, and how saddening to see kungfu students as well as some masters discard their kungfu for kickboxing in their sparring.

The Twelve Bridges in Hoong Ka Kungfu refer to twelve different ways of using the forearms in combat. They are “hard”, “soft”, “press”, “straight”, “separate”, “stablize”, “inch”, “lift”, “retain”, “circulate”, “subdue” and “match”.

It is essential to back up these twelve techniques with force. Hence there are also “twelve different kinds of force” that correspond to these twelve techniques. . The force in the use of the “lift” technique, for examople, is different from that in the “circulate” technique. The difference, however, lies more in their application rather than their nature.

The way to learn the twelve “bridge-techniques” as well as to develop the twelve “bridge-forces” are found in the Iron Wire Set, the internal force training set of Hoong Ka Kungfu. Different sounds are used when training different types of internal force. This force training in the Iron Wire Set, of course, is not for combat only. As in all genuine kungfu, it is excellent for promoting health, vitality and longevity, and at high levels for intellectual development and spiritual joy.

Question 6

What is it like to be a sifu, own your own school, and have your own students?


There is no one definite answer. It depends on different persons and different circumstances, with all their different variables.

To some, to be a sifu is a fancy, to own your own school is a dream, and to have your own students is an achievement. To others, to be a sifu is a joke, to own your own school is a liability, and to have your own students is a burden.

But in our Shaolin Wahnam philosophy, to be a sifu, or a teacher-father, is a privileged responsibility. As a teacher, he must have attained a reasonably high standard in the art he teaches. As a father, he must care for and nurture his children.

To own your own school — whether it is a physical building or a conceptual organization — demands vision and direction. You must clearly know what your philosophy and aims are, and provide both the inspiration as well as the methodology to fulfill these aims.

To have your own students call for much dedication and sacrifice. Not only a sifu has to guide his students towards the right direction and vision, he himself must be a living example of what he teaches, not only in his art but in his moral living.

Question 7

In Taijiquan, when one punches, does one start out completely loose and relaxed and then on the moment of impact, tense the muscles?

— Stephen, USA


Yes, your description is correct, although a better expression for “tense the muscles” is “focus the internal force at the punch”.

But at the advanced levels of any style of internal kungfu, including Shaolin, it is not necessary to use muscles. A master uses energy and mind. Hence, an apparently gentle tap with a palm or a finger can cause serious internal injury.


While Taijiquan may be performed in a meditative or subconscious state of mind, its techniques need to be learnt consciously. This picture shows students in a class on the “Fundamentals of Taijiquan” at the Shaolin Wahnam Temple in Costa Rica in February 2004 consciously learning a Taijiquan pattern from Sifu Wong.

Question 8

When practicing Taijiquan in a subconscious state of mind, doesn't one automatically learn the combat function of the patterns without having to go through sparring?


No, a student has to learn and practice the combat applications of the Taijiquan patterns in a conscious state of mind. He also has to make conscious effort to correct or refine techniques and skills like where he should place his front foot or when he should start his response to an opponent's attack. He also has to make conscious decisions like what tactics he should use and what combat principles will give more advantages.

At first such learning and practice require conscious effort. Through systematic training his movements gradually become spontaneous, but he is still in a conscious state of mind. Then, as he progresses to advanced levels, he may operate at a subconscious state of mind.

This division into conscious and subconscious states of mind is dualistic thinking and for the sake of easier understanding. In reality, when a Taijiquan master spars or fights, his state of mind changes spontaneously and harmoniously from consciousness to subconsciousness, and vice versa, depending on the situation.

For example, he is fully conscious while observing his opponent. When the opponent attacks, the master responds correctly and spontaneously without any conscious thinking. In dualistic terms, his response would have come from his subconscious mind. Yet, while implementing this subconscious move, he may, if he wants, make a conscious decision to change his move in a split second. This is a common occurrence when masters fight.

Question 9

If practicing Taijiquan patterns trains speed and timing, what is the point of sparring?


Speed, timing and sparring are different, although they are related. A person who can perform Taijiquan patterns with speed and good timing may not be able to spar. This, in fact, is the situation today. Most Taiji practitioners perform their patterns slowly, but even among those who can perform the patterns fast and with good timing, they cannot spar unless they learn sparring systematically.

Sparring must be learnt and practiced systematically and methodologically. Going straight to free sparring without proper training is unsystematic and unmethodological, and is a sure way to become a laughing stock.

The obvious purpose of sparring is to be able to fight competently in real life. But there are other benefits, which are not obvious but actually more important in our law-abiding societies. Sparring is a good way to train and test one's physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development. When practiced correctly, it develops qualities like tolerance, confidence, accurate judgment, quick decision-making, and fluidity of movement. But if it is done badly, as in free sparring engaged by most students today, it injures the participants physically and psychically.

Question 10

Doesn't visualizing chi flow to your arms and legs impede the chi flow? Past masters have stated that thinking should not be done while practicing Taijiquan. The chi automatically flows to your arms and legs when practicing. I have found this to be true while doing my set practices.


Visualizing chi flow while performing Taijiquan patterns is a training method. At first it is done slowly. But when the practitioner has accomplished the skill, he does not have to visualize, he merely thinks. When he strikes, for example, he just thinks of his chi flowing to his strike, and it will be accomplished. When he is at an advanced stage, he does not even have to think. As he strikes, his chi will flow spontaneously.

However, if for some reasons, he wishes to modify his striking power, he can will it by conscious thinking. For example, he may just want to throw the opponent back a few feet without hurting him, or he may just want to touch the opponent without causing him serious injury.



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