SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
JUNE 1999 PART 1
I am a member of a shaolin kung fu association. In freestyle sparring we use general kick boxing techniques. So I find it difficult to learn the applications of my forms. How can I improve my knowledge of my forms and do I have to be an advanced student to learn chi kung?
— Gregory. UK
Yours is a common example of most kungfu students today. You cannot spar using the forms you have learnt in solo practice simply because you have never been taught to do so. Why didn't your instructors teach you how to use kungfu patterns to spar? Because they themselves did not know. Like you, their kungfu training consists mainly, or sololy, of performing forms.
If you want to know how to use your kungfu forms to spar, you have to learn from a master who teaches using kungfu forms to spar. Such masters are very rare nowadays. If you learn from someone who teaches only solo form performance, you will only know solo form performance.
Anyone suggesting to you that by learning the solo kungfu forms you can effectively spar, is like telling you that by going over the mechanics of driving in a stationary car you can effectively drive through a busy street.
When you attempt sparring you will fall back on kickboxing techniques, because these techniques are the most “natural” to someone not trainied in “artificial” sparring. Using kungfu forms to spar is “artificial”. For example, to someone not trained in any martial arts, when an assailent punches him, it would be “natural” for him to block as in boxing or kickboxing. It would be very “artificial” for him to lower into a False-Leg Stance and swerve his arm in an arc in a tiger-claw form. “Artificial” means “made by man”. All kungfu forms are man-made. But a kungfu practitioner practises and practises these man-made forms until they have become second-nature to him.
You cannot improve your knowledge of your forms or any aspects of kungfu by reading about them. But kungfu is not knowledge; it is a practical art. Here is where you and many other people, especially in the West, make a big mistake. You may be very knowledgeable in kungfu, and may also win trophies in demonstrative competitions, but if you have no practical experience in methodical sparriang, when you spar with Taekwondo or Karate brownbelts, you would become a sitting duck. This is the sad situation of more than 80 percent of people all over the world who think they learn kungfu, when actually what they have been learning is just some demonstrative forms.
If you learn real kungfu, you will practise chi kung right at the start. Chi kung is the art of managing energy. How can any martial art be effective if there is no provision for energy management? Here, of course, I am using the terms “kungfu” and “chi kung” as they were originally used in the past. Their modern sterotyped meanings have changed drastically. In the modern context, “kungfu” and “chi kung”, which are more of gymnastics and dance than martial arts and energy management, are usually taught separately. In such a situation, it does not matter when, or if ever, you learn chi kung.
I'm currently learning Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan and also Chen Taijiquan at my university. I've always been wondering which is a better martial art from the two that I've mentioned, but decided that there is no such thing as a supreme martial art. However, comparisons still can be made.
— Louis, UK
You are right in saying that comparisons can be made. The comparisons, of course, are often based on subjective judgement, and different people will choose differently. For me personally, I prefer Chen Taijiquan to Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan. This is because I know little about Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan. Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan exponents, understandably, will prefer this style to Taijiquan.
I choose Taijiquan because I know it will satisfy all the aims of my practising a martial art, namely combat efficiency, vitality, longevity, mind expansion and spiritual cultivation. I am quite sure that Nam Pai Chuan will also provide me with combat efficiency and vitality, but I am not sure how well it will help me to meet the other three aims. Here my presumption is that I can learn genuine Taijiquan from a real master, who is not easy to find. If I had to choose between Tai Chi dance and Nam Pai Chuan, I would prefer Nam Pai Chuan.
As comparison can be made, a supreme martial art is possible. To me the supreme martial art is Shaolin Kungfu — genuine Shaolin Kungfu, not Shaolin gymnastics. Like Taijiquan, it meets all the five aims I look for in a great martial art, but it even goes deeper and more extensively. At its highest level in Zen, its Mahayana philosophy explains the minute atom and the infinite universe in such details that modern science is only now approaching. Mahayana philosophy, for example, explains that a whole cosmos can be found in an atom, and that our physical universe is only a creation of mind. Can any honest, informed person seriously despute the supremacy of such a martial art over others whose main concern is defeating opponents using brute strength?
My main aim is to attain the highest possible level, which is acheived by cultivating the spirit as mentioned in your book “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan”. My question is: Can I acheive the same level and standard of spiritual cultivation and martial skills by practicing Taijiquan instead of Shaolin Kung Fu?
Yes, you can. For some people, Taijiquan may be a better vehicle to attain the highest spiritual cultivation. Of course, if you aim for the highest, you must be willing to put in the necessary time and effort, and you must learn from a master. If you think you can achieve the highest aim in three months through an explanation in an e-mail or viewing a video, you should not waste your time.
Being a student, I only practice Taijiquan once a week due to the lack of time. Are the chances of attaining a high level then difficult?
If you practise only once a week, you cannot even become a good Taiji dancer. Asking whether it is difficult to attain a high level if you are not prepared to put in hard work, becomes irrelevant.
A good dancer, in Taiji or other types of dance like romba and cha cha, practises on an average an hour everyday. Obviously, your concept of “a high level” is different from mine. In any art, if your objective is to attain a reasonable level, your will only waste your time if you do not practise regularly.However, if your objective is otherwise, such as to socialize with your friends, or to do something different to while away an hour, playing Taiji dance once a week may be better than training Taijiquan everyday.
I know that enlightenment is impossible to describe in words, but do you think you can give a rough idea of what the state of a person is like at this level?
At this “level”, there is no person, no nothing, just void, or, verbalized in another way, just a spread of undifferentiated consciousness. In more colourful Zen terms, it is seeing your original face or knowing why Bodhidharma came to the East.
It is my understanding that when practicing the exercises in your books on Chi Kung we use what I'll call “Normal Breathing” or Buddhist Breathing. When inhaling we expand our abdomen and upon exhaling we contract the abdomen thus creating a directional flow of Cosmic Energy/Chi in and out of our body. It is also my understanding that if one practices Taoist Breathing or “Reverse Breathing” we actually change the directional flow of the Chi and in fact reverse it from the Buddhist method, when upon inhaling we contract our abdomen and upon exhaling we expand our abdomen.
— Tom, USA
“Natural Breatthing” (where the abdomen rises on breathing in) and “Reverse Breathing” (where the abdomen is deflated on breathing in) are found in Buddhist Chi Kung, Taoist Chi Kung as well as other schools of chi kung. “Natural Breathing” is so called because babies breathe this way naturally.
But for many people, for various reasons, their “normal” breathing may be expanding the chest and deflating the abdomen when breathing in. This usual way of breathing by most people, however, is not “Reverse Breathing”, although superficially they may appear similar as in both cases the chest expands on breathing in.
The crucial difference is that in normal breathing, air is taken into the chest when breathing in, and disposed off from the chest when breathing out, whereas in “Reverse Breathing”, chi is taken into the chest when breathing in, and this chi is sent to the abdominal dan tian when breathing out, while at the same time (when breathing out) toxic waste from various parts of the body is disposed off.
If one practices one method of breathing for most of the time and changes to the other every once in a while does he/she change the polarity of their body? and if so, does this help in removing germs etc. from within one's body by making the environment uncomfortable for the germs.
I don't quite understand what you mean by changing the polarity of the body.
If a person is trained in both “Natural Breathing” and “Reverse Breathing”, he can rewardingly change from one method to another according to his needs and situations. For example, when sparring he can use “Natural Breathing” as this method helps him to converse energy better, but when he strikes his opponent, he can instantly change to “Reverse breathing” as this will enhance his striking power.
Germs and other toxic waste are disposed off each time a person breathes out irrespectively of what types of breathing he uses, and irrespectively of whether he pays attention to his breathing. In fact breathing out is the most important way to dispose off toxic waste, including harmful germs. It is a natural process; one does not need to learn chi kung to do this.
But knowing chi kung will enhance this natural ability. Hence, it is not that the germs are removed due to a change of polarity in the body making the environment uncomfortable for them. Other effective ways to remove germs include sweating, purging and induced chi flow.
Can we do your exercises using the Reverse Breathing method?.
Yes. In fact in many of my chi kung exercises, such as “Lifting the Sky” and “Carrying the Moon”, the standard way to perform them is using the “Reverse Breathing”, although the “Natural Breathing” as well as other types of breathing techniques can also be used.
I use both methods of breathing because I can manipulate the emphasis of my Chi towards an area that might need it more at that time. This works well for me and my body responds to the change, but I would like to use your exercises with both breathing methods instead of using the Tai Chi exercises with the Reverse Breathing method only.
The exercises described in my chi kung books, unless specifically advised, can be performed using “Natural Breathing” or “Reverse Breathing”.
As far as I know, the standard breathing method of Taijiquan is “Natural breathing”, and “Reversed Breathing” is used only for special purposes, such as in fast, forceful movements.
Some Taijiquan masters, however, use “Reversed Breathing” as the standard breathing method.
Sifu, I would like a clarification if possible. My classmates have asked the question (we had a visiting Chi Kung teacher show them a set of exercises using the Reverse Breathing method) and because in your books you specify the breathing to use. I told them that each exercise is to be performed as it is taught because it is meant to perform a specific function in a specific way.
Yes, it is always the best to perform the exercise according to the way it is taught by the masters. Only later when one is familar with the exercise, he may, if he has a good reason, modify the exercise to suit his needs.
In my chi kung books, I specifiy the types of breathing method for each exercise. Besides “Reversed Brething” and “Natural Breathing”, which I call “Abdominal Breathing”, there are also other types of breathing methods, including spontaneous breathing which is actually very important expecially for beginners and those who practise from books without the benefit of a master's supervision.
If a specific breathing method is not mentioned, the student should use spontaneous breathing. If it is mentioned that the practitioner should breathe in gently, he should do just that, namely breathing in gently. He should not worry unduly whether he should breathe into his chest or abdomen, or whether his abdomen should rise or fall. If he worries about such details when they are not mentioned in the instruction, he would only confuse himelf and may bring about deviations.
I used to get nose-bleeds after zhanzhuang. I can relax more now & no longer get nosebleeds. 1 in 5 times, I can do zhznzhuang & feel qi smoothly. Other times, I don't feel much qi. I do get some headaches (fullness), though books say it's because the path through yuzhen at the neck is not through yet.
— Benjamin, Malaysia
"Zhan zhuang" is a powerful exercise; you should practise with a master's supervision. You should feel fresh and energized after "zhan zhuang" practice. It is alright if your headaches go away, otherwise stop your practice for a day or two.
How do you promote taijiquan to young college students who seem to think that jujitsu is more practical?
A Taijiquan master doesn't care if other people think his art is not practical so long as he finds it beneficial. A master does not have to persuade others to learn his art. If other people wish to enjoy the benefits of Taijiquan, they have to beg the master to teach them, in which case he may or may not agree.