April 2006 (Part 1)


Sifu Wong Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kungfu is famous for its “five animals”. This is a recent photograph of Sifu Wong demonstating the dragon form on the Blue Mountain in Costa Rica in March 2006

Question 1

I have been studying Shaolin martial arts for some time now and have for the last few years been trying to better understand the Shaolin monastic tradition.

Many books have been written that discuss that monks practiced mediation, purification and mental discipline but I have found little on the methodology, structure, language and cosmology of that process. It occurs to me that a better understanding of these things will give rise to a better understanding of the heritage, culture and forms that we practice.

— Wayne, USA


Your questions, while interesting, are like those that prompted the great Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of the Shaolin arts, to ask the monks to burn their books and focus on their practice.

One should note it was not that Bodhidharma was against book learning but book learning alone, while providing useful intellectual knowledge and which the monks were doing to the extent of neglecting their practical application, would not help the monks to attain their goal, i.e. Enlightenment.

It also strikes me that you are too captivated by words alone, without actually being aware of what you really want to say. For example what do your really mean by “the methodology, structure, language and cosmology of that process”? By “that process” do you refer to the meditation, purification or mental discipline the monk did, or to the writing of many books, or to the discussion on the monks' practice?

Moreover, what do you mean by “these things” which you seek a better understanding? What is it that you (or we) practice? Do you mean you need a better understanding of the methodology, structure, language and cosmology of meditation before you can better understand the heritage, culture and forms of whatever you practice? Or do you mean that you need a better understanding of the whole process of what you say before you can better understand meditation? These are only some of many possible meanings of what you say.

Until you are clear of what you mean, it would not be meaningful to comment on your statement or answer your implied question to your satisfaction.

But the irony is that irrespective of your intended meanings of the words you use, and even when satisfied answers are given to you, you will still not have a better understanding of the meditation, purification, mental discipline of the monks, or of Shaolin martial arts or the Shaolin monastic tradition.

Although pages or even volumes can be written for the explanation, it can be briefly summed up in one paragraph as follows.

You are concerned with intellectualization. While intellectualization may provide some mental pleasure (or confusion), it cannot enable you to have a better understanding of the issue in question, irrespective of whether the issue is Shaolin martial arts, the Shaolin monastic tradition, meditation or something else. It is because these issues concern practical experience. Unless you have practical experience, you would not understand what is being described or explained even though the description or explanation is accurate.

Another two paragraphs of elaboration may make my point clearer.

In the Shaolin martial arts, for example, no matter how well a Shaolin master may describe internal force training, unless you have actually practiced and experienced internal force, you will not know what it is. In the Shaolin monastic tradition, no matter what structure is used to describe it, unless you have practiced and experienced it, you will not know what it is.

In meditation, no matter the language used to describe it is simple or profound, in English or in Chinese, unless you have practiced it, you will not know what meditation is. No matter what form of cosmology you may force it into the Shaolin arts, Shaolin monastic tradition or meditation, and how well or badly you describe the process, unless you have practical experience of the arts, tradition or meditation, you will have no understanding of them.

Question 2

I feel that it is unlikely that the Shaolin monks would have spent so much time training in martial art not to have integrated their spiritual development processes into it.


Your feeling is mistaken. Your thinking is mistaken too. Practicing the Shaolin martial arts was a process of spiritual development itself. The Shaolin martial arts evolved from a set of chi kung exercises called the Eighteen Lohan Hands, which Bodhidharma taught to the monks specifically to strengthen them physically and spiritually so that they could better attain Enlightenment.

Question 3

We all recognize the martial aspect and the need in the time of its development but what is less obvious are the ways in which it was applied to the development of the monks consciousness.


I am not sure whom do you refer to by “we”. If you refer to modern practitioners of the Shaolin martial arts, most of them do not recognize the martial aspect of these arts. They practice the arts as demonstrative forms, and are unable to use them for combat. If you refer to the general public, most people also do not recognize the martial aaspect. They cannot tell the difference between dance-like Shaolin forms for demonstration, and genuine Shaolin martial arts for combat.

I also do not understand what you actually mean by “the need in the time of its development.” If you mean that the martial aspect was needed at the time of the development of the martial arts, historically you are incorrect, and morphologically you are begging the question.

Historically, the arts were developed for spiritual cultivation. Morphologically, martial arts naturally were developed for martial purposes, irrespectively of whether the need for the martial purposes were present at the time of their development.

What ways and how the martial aspect of the Shaolin martial arts were applied to the development of the monks' consciousness are less obvious and probably not intelligible to you and also to most people because you (and most people) lack the practical experience, regardless of whether you have been exposed to its relevant literature.

But these ways and how they apply to our consciousness in Shaolin Wahnam are clearly obvious and intelligible, because we (i.e. Shaolin Wahnam practitioners, including me) have practical experience of their benefits. By correlation, we can also understand the ways the martial aspect applied to the monks' consciousness.

When we practice the Shaolin martial arts, for example, we feel relaxed and mentally fresh. When we enter Zen at the completion of our practice, we feel a tremendous sense of peace, freedom and inner happiness. Sometimes we may have a glimpse of cosmic reality.

We are also exposed to classical literature describing both the methodology and the effects of the Shaolin arts on the practitioners' consciousness, usually called “heart” in classical text, translated as “mind” in English.

When we practice the Shaolin martial arts or employ them in combat, for example, we should “hei koon tan tien”, which is in Cantonese pronunciation and it means “focus our intrinsic energy at our abdominal energy field”. As a result we attain “sam ching yu shuei”, which means “mind that is calm and clear like placid water”.

Stances in Shaolin Kung Fu

Stance training is an essential part of genuine, traditional kungfu training. Here participants to an Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course practice the Bow-Arrow Stance.

Question 4

If we accept this as a possibility then what we generally find is that we have the external manifestation of this work i.e. the form, but I have yet to find information relating to the internal mental dynamic that would go with it.


Again, your statement is not clear. It is probably due to too much intellectualization which clouds your mind. If you practice Shaolin martial arts or meditation correctly, you will clear your thoughts, which will result in mental clarity.

In your statement, what does “accept this” mean? Does it refer to the less obvious ways or to the monks' consciousness development or to something else? Also what does “this work, i.e. the form” mean? Do you mean that if the effect of the martial arts on the monks' consciousness is not obvious, then we are left only with their external form, and that you have not found information explaining the effect of the external form on the consciousness?

As mentioned above, the effect of the Shaolin martial arts on the consciousness are not obvious to most people because they lack practical experience and are not exposed to relevant literature. But the effect was obvious to Shaolin monks in the past, as well as is obvious to us Shaolin Wahnam practitioners today, because the monks had and we have both the practical experience and the intellectual explanation.

If you go to the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum at http://wongkiewkit.com/forum/ , you can find a lot of evidence that Shaolin Wahnam practitioners express themselves clearly and coherently, which indicates mental clarity, and that they are generous, kind and happy, which indicates spiritual development. These are wonderful benefits from practicing the Shaolin martial arts. This is a simple way of saying the external manifestation of this work i.e. the form, has produced beneficial internal mental dynamics that go with it.

We also have the information relating to the internal mental dynamics that go with the external manifestation. In simple language, we also can explain why practicing Shaolin Kungfu produces benefical internal results like mental clarity and spiritual development. This information is found in the oral teaching in our school as well as in writtern texts in kungfu classics.

The information is abundant and profound. But here I shall very briefly explain the findamental principles as follows. We attain mental clarity because each time we practice we keep our mind clear of all thoughts. We attain spiritual development because our practice also cultivate our spirit.

Question 5

The fact that the Shoalin arts integrate the five or ten animals, breath control and application, the five elements, the primary and secondary directions, the harnessing of intention, the harnessing of visualization, the application and understanding of the instinctive and emotional self, the principles of duality, morality of mind, morality of deed, leads me to believe that the arts handed down from the Shoalin tradition have an integrated internal development approach that is a form of dynamic yoga. I draw this conclusion as there are many correlation between the content and context of the Shaolin forms and Western monastic practice.


This is another example that you are so engrossed with intellectualization with words but may be ignorant of their meanings. Do you, for example, know what is actually meant by saying the Shaolin arts integrate the primary and secondary directions, the harnessing of intention, the harnessing of visualization, or the application and understanding of the instinctive and emotional self?

I don't, simply because different people can give different interpretations to these words. Even if they agree on the dictionary meaning of the key words, they sound hollow without practical experience.

What you mention is not a fact but an opinion, and by the standards of Shaolin tradition, yours is an incorrect opinion. The Shaolin arts, for example, do not integrate the five or ten animals. Some Shaolin arts, like meditation and sutra chanting, do not involve any animals.

Even if we consider only the Shaolin martial arts, which you probably mean, there are many arts, like Iron Palm and Golden Bell, where no animals play any role. There are also arts, like Praying Mantis Kungfu and Eagle Claw Kungfu, where the five or ten animals are not involved.

Even when the five animals are involved, they are not necessarily integrated. There are, for example, White Crane Kungfu and Dragon Style Kungfu.

Actually Shaolin martial arts traditionally mention five animals, and not ten. The five are dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane. The other five — lion, elephant, horse, monkey and jaguar — were mentioned just once in a modern kungfu classic, “The Tiger-Crane Double-Form Set”, written by a disciple of the Southern Shaolin master, Lam Sai Weng, in the 20th century. Interesting, although the five additional animals were mentioned, there was not even a pattern named after them in the book.

While some of the terms are used in the Shaolin martial arts, the concepts you mention, like five elements, intention, visualization, and principles of duality, are more applicable to Taoist arts like Taijiquan and Baguaquan. I would prefer to use the terms “five elemental processes” and “yin-yang” instead of “five elements” and “principles of duality” respectively. Even when they are used, regardless of whether in Shaolin or the Taoist arts, they do not necessarily refer to internal dimensions.

In Xingyiquan, for example, which is actually a Shaolin martial art although it is commonly but mistakenly classified as a Taoist martial art, the five elemental processes are used to describe five major ways of striking, which are of an external dimension. While the concept of yin-yang is present in both the external and the internal aspects of the Shaolin martial arts, Shaolin philosophy aims at non-duality rather than duality. Hence, while harnessing of intention may be used in both internal purpose and external manifestation, the emphasis in the Shaolin arts in both internal cultivation and external practice is on non-thought, which is the absence of intention.

Of course, the Shaolin martial arts have an integrated internal development along with their external development, but the terms and concepts used to describe this integration are normally not the ones you suggest. The concept frequently used to integrate the external and the internal is the “six harmonies”, which refer to the three external harmonies of hands, body and feet, and the three internal harmonies of essence, energy and spirit.

While there are similarities amongst the Shaolin martial arts, yoga and Western monastic practice due to universal values, they are distinctly different in both philosophy and practice. The Shaolin martial arts, as the name clearly indicates, aim at combat efficiency, but the other two do not.

Although both concepts are based on energy, the meridian system of Shaolin martial arts is different from the chakra system of yoga, whereas such energy systems are absent in Western monastic practice. Western monastic practice aims principally at going to heaven which is still phenomenal, whereas the Shaolin arts aim at Enlightenment, which is “jumping beyond the phenomenal” into transcendental Cosmic Reality.

Question 6

I have been practicing traditional kung fu for about a year now. Although my master also gives Tai Chi lessons and is a chi kung expert (he was a general trainer back in China) he has never taught us any principles about chi, breathing and other stuff. He teaches us forms, and only gives some explanation about the sequence of the forms (defence, attack).

— Miguel, Portugal


Kungfu teachers today normally do not tell their students about chi or internal force, for the simple reason that kungfu today consists only of external forms — without internal force and without combat application.

Your teacher may explain how some of the kungfu forms can be used for attack and defence, but without systematic combat training, you will not be able to defend yourself in sparring or fighting.

Combat Application of Shaolin Kung Fu

Another essential aspect of genuine, traditional kungfu training is combat application. This photograph shows Sifu Marcus and Sifu Michael, both of Shaolin Wahnam England, applying the snake and the crane forms in their sparring.

Question 7

I am wondering what I can do to improve my kung fu. I know I can train my body to some extent, but I lack internal training. For the time being, I do not have the economical capacity to travel.


If you are serious about practicing genuine kungfu, you should spend some time on internal force training and combat application.

An excellent way to develop internal force is to practice your stances, especially your Horse-Riding Stance. Remember it is very important to be relaxed in your stance training. If you practice your stances everyday for six months, you should have developed remarkable internal force. You may not feel the force yourself, but when you spar with your friends, they may ask you what has made you so powerful.

You may learn some combat application from my books or from the many video clips on my website https://shaolin.org. Practice the combat application with a partner or with an imaginary opponent. When you are ready, apply to attend my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course. You will find that kungfu is much more than what you may imagine.

Question 8

On the webpage /answers/ans05b/jul05-2.html you show a photo of you drinking to the health of your master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, the third generation successor of the Southern Shaolin Temple. I wonder whether you drank alcohol in that picture? If yes, how is that connected with health? Have you please any comment about this picture?

— Hugo, Sweden


Yes, I drank alcohol in that picture. For those who may not know, drinking alcohol and eating meat are not forbidden in Buddhism, although ordained Mahayana monks are forbidden to do so. Buddhist monks of the Theravada and the Vajrayana traditions may eat meat, but usually they abstain themselves voluntarily.

But not to be intoxicated is one of the five cardinal Buddhist rules, the other four being not to kill, not to steal, not to tell lies, and not to engage in immoral sex. This means that a Buddhist lay-person may drink alcohol moderately, but not to the extent of being drunk.

A little alcohol is good for health; it helps in better circulation of chi and blood. A little alcohol is sometimes added to medicinal concoctions for internal consumption, and to medicinal paste for external application to overcome external injuries like swelling and blood or chi blockage. Excessive drinking of alcohol is very bad for health; it damages the liver system and makes a person mentally dull.

Both of my masters, Uncle Righteousness and Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, were great wine connoisseurs. They could drink and drink, yet not be drunk. This was because of their very high chi kung attainment. Their small universal circulation of chi could neutralize the effect of alcohol. Both of them were known as “jow-seen” (Cantonese pronunciation), which means “wine-immortals”. Taoist immortals are great lovers of fine wine.

Most kungfu practitioners of my time loved to drink wine, and kungfu masters were almost automatically believed to be great drinkers. However, I was (and still am) an exception, and many people actually found this quite odd. I love tea instead, both Chinese and European, except perhaps when I am in Latin America where the Colombians and the Costa Ricans fight over Juan Vadez' coffee. It was Rama, who is a highly spiritual person, who introduced me to the taste of fine European wine when I visited Italy, and it went very well with delicious jamon (Spanish ham), which Douglas, my most senior disciple in Europe, introduced to me when I first visited Spain.

It is odd why many people in the West think that chi kung practitioners should avoid not only wine and ham, but also coca-cola, coffee, tea, cake, chocolate and ice-cream. Ideally, they presume, chi kung masters only eat green vegetables, drink pure water and be celibate. The reverse should be true. If you could enjoy good food and wholesome sex before, you should be able to enjoy more after practicing chi kung.

I still remember that many years ago my student, John Trevor, laughed uncontrollably when I had chocolate and ice-cream for breakfast in his boat-house on the Murray River in Australia, and the shocked faces of my early students in Spain when they saw me put three teaspoonful of sugar into my tea. They seemed assured, I presumed, only after Douglas told them in Spanish which I did not understand at that time, that I would still be sound and kicking despite the sweet drink.

Joan Browne, my inner-chamber disciple in Ireland, knows me better. She always takes the trouble to have full cream milk ready, so that I don't have to take white-wash with my tea. And Dr Riccardo, my inner-chamber disciple in Portugal, always fetes me with mouth-watering grilled prawns and Argentinean meat whenever I visit Lisboa.

The picture you mention has much sentimental value for me. I had not seen my sifu for many years. I returned to celebrate with him on his birthday. It is a Chinese custom to toast with wine — not with tea, coffee or cream milk. Although I do not normally drink alcohol, I drank heartily to my sifu's health and happiness. Luckily due to my good chi circulation, I was still able to stand firmly and speak sanely throughout the party.



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