Excerpt from “Life is a Fountain”

Kung Fu was one of my grandfather’s favorite television shows. He wasn’t a fan of the martial arts portrayed, but he loved the flashback segments in the Shaolin Temple, wherein Keye Luke and Philip Ahn would instruct young Caine, guiding him and teaching him lessons from classical Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. I used to love those parts, too. We never missed an episode. And it influenced how I came to view the martial arts later on. I grew up believing that Taoist and Ch’an philosophy were inextricably linked to the practice of Chinese gongfu. It was only many years later, when I started spending time amongst real Taoist and Ch’an adepts, that I learned that this was not entirely true. Still, it did begin my exposure to much of East Asian philosophy that was recognizable to, and could be appreciated by, a Westerner. I am an unlikely martial artist. In fact, I am not even sure if I can even call myself a martial artist. Over the years since college, I have dabbled here and there where I could, but I never began studying in earnest until around 2003. So, I’ve been working steadily at my martial arts for almost twenty years as of this writing.

Oddly enough, I did not become interested in the martial arts when I lived in Taiwan. It was the happiest time of my life, and despite having access to, arguably, some of the best fighters in traditional Chinese martial arts, my preferred form of exercise was the East German powerlifting team’s off-season volume training routine. I was much healthier back then, too. I was at a good fighting weight of 225 pounds, and I walked or biked everywhere. In fact, I lived on the thirteenth floor of my apartment building, and seldom used the elevator.

Though even that is not correct; “steadily” is not really how it’s been going. There has been a certain amount of consistency over the years, but my progress has been painfully slow, if existent at all. You would think that after so many years, I might be a gongfu adept, or a shodan karateka. No. During the day, there has been work — demeaning, barely remunerative, soul-destroying work — and depression has played a great role in retarding my progress. I am never going to be a martial arts master. I am, rather, a martial arts Sisyphus, struggling to make the most modest of gains, only to see most of them wiped away when the boulder of depression rolls down on me, flattening me like a not-quite-fast-enough Indiana Jones. Still, like Sisyphus, I simply start pushing that boulder uphill once more. And when it rolls back down again, however long it takes to do so, I start again. And again. And again. And again. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “It does not matter how slow your progress, so long as you don’t give up.” I first dabbled in the martial arts when I was at university in America, at Rutgers, New Brunswick. I was studying Chinese, and I was interested in exploring as many facets of Chinese culture as I could. One of the inter-campus bus drivers was a practitioner of some kind of Nanquan. I was not sure if it was Yong Chun, or Hung Gar, or a combination of both. He taught on the Livingston campus, two or three nights a week. I had really gotten into it, and had also joined a once-per-week class on College Avenue, led by a student from Taiwan, and who practiced Northern Shaolin. I was really enjoying it, and I grabbed what books of gongfu I could find to study. I even began watching Shaw Brothers films on Saturday afternoon television. However, my enthusiasm for gongfu was cut down, just as my enthusiasm for theater had been cut down in high school; I was told by my religious authorities that the martial arts were violent “alien ways,” and didn’t help make a fence about the Law, and so they cautioned me to stop. And, alas, so I did. That was difficult. The next time I tried to get back into the martial arts was in the early nineties, not long after graduation. I was looking for a martial arts teacher, and on Sansom Street, in Center City Philadelphia, I found one. Master P. was a Vietnamese martial arts master in a system called Thanvodao. Reading the Chinese characters in which it was written, it comes out as “Spirit Fist.” It is an Indo-Chinese system, steeped in Taoist principles, Buddhist beliefs, and Vietnamese folk religion. Master P., more than any other martial artist I’ve ever met, fit the definition of a “Taoist Immortal.” Not only was he superlatively skilled at his art, but he was also of a relaxed and mercurial disposition, and he delighted in play. I never saw him without a smile, or a mischievous glint in his eye. He was also quite down to earth and practical in his martial arts approach. I remember mentioning in class that I enjoyed lifting weights, and one of the senior students had declared, “Oh don’t do that; you’ll ruin your qi meridians!” However, when I once commented to Master P. that I was feeling weak, he said, “Well, if you think you’re not strong enough, why don’t you lift weights or something?” His religion, however, was quite bound up in his art. He believed that at the higher levels of Thanvodao, the spirits of past masters would enter your soul, to help you fight. A kind of possession, or trance state. Hence the name, “Spirit Fist.” In 2003, when I had recently moved into my grandparents’ old house in Brookhaven (which I purchased from my mother and aunt when they had inherited it after my grandmother’s death), I began looking for a martial arts school. I was gainfully employed, and had a proper place to live, and so I thought it about time. I had for a long time been interested in two particular “internal” styles of Chinese martial art: Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. And of the two, I was more interested in Bagua. It had taken on an almost mythical status in my mind. But these styles were usually not easy to find in the Northeastern United States at the time. But, through persistent searching, I found a teacher not too far from me, down in Wilmington, Delaware — Master SZK. Master S. was teaching at the University of Delaware, and was opening his own school. When we met, he took a liking to me, because of my facility with Chinese language, and because of my understanding of Chinese customs and tradition. Master S.’s family was an old, prestigious martial arts family from Dandong, in Liaoning Province. He was adept at several styles, including Baguazhang, which he learned from Sun Zhijun and Lu Zijian; Xingyiquan, which he learned from Sun Zhijun also; Chen Style Taijiquan, learned from Men Hui Feng and Kan Guixiang; and his own family style, Luohan Mizongquan. Master S. was indeed written up in China’s guide, Who’s Who in Modern Martial Arts. At first, Master S. wanted me to concentrate on Xingyi, but when he saw my interest in Bagua, he eventually relented and allowed me to study that. I was intrigued by the complexity of Baguazhang, and would not come to appreciate the sophistication of Xingyiquan until I began to study Okinawan Shorinji. Now, Master S. had many friends in the martial arts world of China, including many at Shaolin Temple, Wudang Mountain, and even Emei Mountain. Every year, he would lead a tour group of students to China, to meet some of those friends, to sightsee, and to train. And this is how I would meet my next teacher. In 2007, I went with Master S. on my first trip to Mainland China. He was actually conducting a group of karate students of a friend of his to Shaolin for a ceremony honoring those systems that could trace their lineages directly to the Temple. It was part of a program that Beijing had to promote the traditional arts of Shaolin around the world. Well, in theory. I went about ten days early, with Master S., so as to spend time up in his hometown, before going down to Beijing to meet the incoming group. Abbot Deli was also to meet us there. This is when I met Hanshi M.B. Hanshi M.B. can be described in no other terms but as a martial arts tzaddik. Imagine Rabbi Shammai, with the forbearance of Rabbi Hillel, and the words of Takuan Soho. He and his wife N. practically saved my life. M.B. is a rarity; he is a martial arts grandmaster of Okinawan Shōrinji-ryū, and one of only a handful of foreigners ever to sit on the Old Okinawan Masters’ Council. He practiced a form of Okinawan fighting that was a real fighting system. No trace of wushu contaminated his art. When I first observed it, I thought it ugly, brutal, and effective. It took me some years of study with him before I could see the beauty in the efficient, streamlined movements. Before I met Hanshi B. and his students, however, I fell ill while still in Dandong. Master S., being something of a celebrity back home, was constantly being feted and driven to rounds of banquets and gatherings. I was treated as his honored foreign guest. At one of these banquets, amongst the delicacies being served up, was sea cucumber. Sea cucumber is not actually a vegetable; it is a kind of nudibranch. A species of sea slug. As a guest, I was encouraged to eat of the very best of the foods there. That meant that I had to at least sample the sea cucumber. In fact, the boiled sea slugs were awful (quelle surprise). They had the look, taste, and mouthfeel of non-vulcanized rubber erasers. Not wanting to be rude, I gamely ate a piece, but I tried to swallow it quickly so that I didn’t have to leave it on my tongue for too long. But my attempt at courtesy backfired; it was assumed by the host of the feast that I liked the sea cucumber, so he and his friends kept pushing the vile gelatinous slime on me. I tried to refuse, but didn’t want to offend, so I ended up finishing the dish. The next day, however, I learned that courtesy, like virtue, is often its own reward. I was struck down with vomiting and diarrhea from the sea slugs I had eaten. How did I know that it was due to the slugs? Because for the first twenty-four hours, everything that poured from my alimentary orifices was the same dark greenish color of the hapless nudibranchs, who really ought to have been left alone to frolic in the depths of the sea. I quickly became deathly ill, losing some fourteen pounds in less than a week. I was unable to take in fluids faster than I was losing them. A travelling doctor came to my hotel room a total of three times, and I was even taken to the local hospital for IV fluids — which I somehow managed to vomit up. I was so ill, I was unable to make the trip down to Beijing with Master S. to meet Hanshi B. and his students. Master S., surprisingly, was upset with me, as if he thought that through willpower, I could just make the overnight journey without shitting myself all the way. However, the second day after, the doctors had managed to plug me up enough that I could make the trip. A friend of my teacher drove me down to Shenyang, some three hours to the west, and then I was put on an overnight train to Beijing’s Number One Railway Station. Master S. met me there, and we went back to the hotel, where, it being already late, I collapsed and slept until morning. When I rose the next day, I met Hanshi M.B., his wife N., and his students. As we all spent time together over the next several days, we discovered that the B.s and I were all Jewish, and that back home, we did not live far distant from each other. We became friends over the course of that trip, and as I noted, he and N. saved my life. Being so recently ill, I was not actually completely recovered; only “plugged up.” Hanshi and N. gave me their supply of Cipro and chewable electrolyte supplements. Practiced travelers, they had come prepared. The medicines they shared with me helped me to recover over the course of our tour through China. One thing I must share here about Hanshi B. is that he takes the duty of Tikkun Olam very seriously. An adept psychologist as well as a superlative martial artist, he took me under his wing as a mentor. He did it through the martial arts. He not only trained me to be a better fighter, but he strengthened me psychologically as well. Indeed, I received more psychological benefit from his training than physical. Self-respect, confidence, sense of self-worth, responsibility… things that you might expect a father to teach. And I have seen him do this with many people over the years. It always struck me as odd— Hanshi B. was always so politically conservative, yet despite that, he always stretched out his hand to help wherever he saw a need. I am sure that if the Angel of Death ever plucks up the courage to call Hanshi B. to Eternity, it will be discovered that he was a Lamed-Vovnik.

What do the martial arts mean to me? Why do I enjoy practicing basic combat techniques, taolu and kata? In dealing with my depression, there are long hiatuses in my training, yet I continue. I continue to fight my way back from the darkness, even if it means starting over again… time after time. Why? I don’t know. I do like the movement. I like the coordination and grace the forms can instill. But I also enjoy lifting weights; I did that for years, since my high school days. Deadlifts… squats… clean and press… benches… rows… kettlebell work. I still enjoy it, to be honest. What do I get out of lifting? Strength? Endurance? What do I get out of martial arts? Grace? Coordination? Through much of my life, I was never much of a physical specimen. I always thought of myself as weak, clumsy, and uncoordinated. And so, like many, I felt the need to at least make the attempt at self-improvement. I liked the idea of the martial arts because I felt that it would address my physical issues, and further, that if one were going to train physically at something, it should be at something which would be a useful skill, not merely general conditioning. But what was useful to me about the martial arts? Of what use are the martial arts in a time and place where firearms are so readily accessible? A friend of mine once commented, jokingly, that the best martial art was Parkour and a gun; the gun for inflicting damage, and parkour so that no one could catch you. In the end, though, I don’t think he understood the point of martial arts. I don’t think I really understood. I don’t think I really understood the martial arts until I began training with Hanshi B. Until this point, I have been thinking only of what physical benefits the martial arts could give me. But it was Hanshi who showed me that the martial arts were so much more. I think most people have heard the cliché that the martial life is one of commitment. That the martial arts are a way of life, not a form of exercise. But Hanshi B. showed me the truth that lay beneath the surface of such platitudes. Hanshi used to say that he could never teach stupid people. He would say that first and foremost, the brain was the most important weapon in the martial arts. (I admit, I sometimes had to suppress the image of a fighter removing his brain and thwacking his opponent over the head with it repeatedly; but that was just the comedian in me.) But this implied that the training had to reach further than the just the body, but that the mind and the body had to be trained together, as one unit. Physical conditioning, mental focus, the transformation of martial techniques into mere reflexes. The mind and body become one. This was quite a new definition of fitness to me. He also used to say that the art he was teaching us was for the preservation of our lives, and that therefore, we had to believe that our own lives were worth saving. That my life was valuable, and worth preserving. I must admit, this was the most difficult lesson of all; I’m still not sure I have internalized it. Hanshi would repeat this lesson often. It both affected and disturbed me. I was accustomed to being told how worthless I was for most of my life. This was something new. And as he tried to show me new ways in which to think about myself and those around me, he also taught me that physically I could accomplish things I never thought I could. He taught me confidence. He taught me how to respect myself. He taught me not to be abusive of myself. I don’t say that I have perfectly absorbed these lessons, yet; but he taught me. I never received instruction like this from anyone. Hanshi M.B. is, has been, and I have no doubt, will be, the greatest teacher I will ever have had.

Master S. was something of a disappointment to me in this regard. In my early days studying under him, I was in awe of his skill. However, as time drew on, I began to realize he was not that skilled of a teacher. And that he had the tendency to treat those around him as resources, not people. That’s not to say he was never kind, or considerate; but he was usually considerate of himself first. Eventually, I was unable to look past the flaws that I saw, that I probably tried hard not to see. The first things I never noticed until long after the time had passed. I only noticed them much later, when working with other, more competent teachers than Shifu. The first was a particularly nasty pain in my ankles and knees. It was severe enough to impair my mobility. What had happened was that during those early years, while I was practicing Bagua stepping, and walking the circle, no one had bothered to correct my footwork. Instead of turning my entire leg from the hip, I had been allowing my ankles and knees to torque, and bear the shear force of my turns. Similarly, I had also gradually damaged my rotator cuffs while practicing shoulder mobility exercises. I had lifted weights for years, with no ill effects, but now, I can barely lift my arms above my shoulders. Perhaps it was because I was not in top physical condition. Shifu spent a lot of time and care with other students who were much fitter, and who had more physical facility with martial arts than I. It was almost as if he wasn’t sure what to do with me. Understandable, I suppose; in Chinese martial tradition, teachers concentrate their efforts on those who excel, preferring not to waste their time on those that might be a drag on the rest of the class. If a pupil breaks under training, or cannot keep up with the master’s standards, they are left behind. By contrast, Hanshi B. thought it his responsibility as a teacher, not to make his students meet his own standards of ability, but to make sure they did the best they possibly could, equipping them with the principles and skills needed to carry on themselves in his absence. He also took pains over his students’ psychological and financial needs, as well as their physical conditioning. He never shied away from teaching anyone who was sincere — overweight, underweight, healthy, or not, clumsy or graceful. He even brought a blind student up to Nidan level.

But I noticed more about Master S. on our trip to China, all those years ago. I came to realize that he was introducing me to his acquaintances as his American lawyer. Either he was ashamed of me as a student, or he used me as a prop to impress those around him. And he liked to surround himself with powerful patrons, those with guanxi, and although he said to me that he was trying to give me face, he was in fact using me to give himself face. Hanshi B. never used me as a prop, nor did he ever behave as though he were ashamed of me, either as a person or a student. Yet it wasn’t just in the dojo that Hanshi taught and healed and rebuilt: Often, before class, we used to talk, and drink tea. After class, we would eat lunch together, N. preparing food for all of us. And after lunch, we used to work together on Hanshi’s property. Now, technically, I did things like this with Master S., also. But with Hanshi, it was very different. If Shifu wanted his students to work on his property, it was because he wanted us to work for him. He wanted our labor for free, feeling it was owed him as our teacher. When we worked for Hanshi B., it was only in part out of gratitude for his knowledge and experience. True, Hanshi never charged us for his teaching. And, while he may have charged for lessons at first, it was more for seeing who was really serious about study; and he never charged a penny from anyone who was serious about karate, but who couldn’t afford to pay. But in reality, working together helped to foster a camaraderie in our dojo. And Hanshi worked alongside us, harder than any of us, and as we worked, we would receive impromptu lectures, or just gossip about what was going on at home, or take five-minute breaks to practice a technique. It was another way for him to teach us. We trained together. We ate together. We worked together. We even spent holidays together whenever possible. And every opportunity to be together was an opportunity to learn from him. Similarly, while at my other school, we also sometimes used to have lunch together after training, Master S. only occasionally joined us, but when he did, it was expected that we his students would cover his bill. He was the focus of our attention and loyalty. At Hanshi’s, he fed us. There were times when N. wasn’t feeling well, that Hanshi himself prepared lunch for us. He fed all of us from his own resources. He looked after us. Hanshi concerned himself with our welfare. His sense of self-worth did not depend upon him receiving praise and adoration. It eventually became apparent to me that Master S.’s number one concern in his life was Master S. And he was not the virtuous gongfu saint I had wanted him to be. He eventually lost his school and most of his students due to his oblivious disregard for them as anything other than props for his own vanity or resources for his own profit.

Still, I will always be grateful to Master S.; I learned much from him despite it all, and it was through him that I met a true martial arts tzaddik. But training with Hanshi B. was not simply learning and practicing technique; he trained us in everything. After years of being treated as he and my fellow students treated me, it became easier for me to believe that — just maybe — my life was worth preserving. We had a community. A family.

Why the martial arts? Why martial arts as opposed to other forms of training or exercise? To be honest, I still don’t understand it. And I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the master who taught me Shaolin White Crane, Abbot Shi Deli.

Shi Deli came to Master S.’s school, introduced as the chief martial abbot of Shaolin. Indeed, Deli was superlatively skilled at Nanquan — specifically, Yong Chun and White Crane. He was also skilled at Tongzigong, a flexibility exercise. He came to Master S.’s school to hold a seminar, teaching us three basic forms from Shaolin White Crane, including San Zhan, and the Eight Pieces of Brocade qigong set. The Abbot also mentioned that he had come to help spread Shaolin Culture in America, and Master S. was one of his contacts. Being fluent-ish in Chinese, I was assigned to act as chauffeur and minder for him. Deli was a genuinely kind and highly skilled person, and he was utterly unassuming. Deli was adept at the actual function of gongfu techniques, and would on occasion demonstrate the difference between the showy wushu forms of a particular taolu and the actual functional form of that taolu. This skill was something that Hanshi B. appreciated, especially as he could see the similarities in Deli’s gongfu and his own karate. Hanshi B. and Master S. had been casual friends for a while by the time I’d known them both. Shifu had been doing a lot of home renovations on his properties, investing in real estate to help support himself, and Hanshi was a contractor and landscaper who worked with him for a bit. As I’d heard it, Shifu was always trying to get Hanshi to “donate” materials for various projects he’d have in mind. Hanshi B. himself was a very highly skilled martial artist, and he was also a scholar. He was working on a book tracing the development of Southern Chinese Crane Boxing to Okinawan Karate. The Abbot was the only one who had the skills and knowledge to help Hanshi in his research. And so Shifu brought them together. In 2007, Deli invited Hanshi and his students to China to receive a special honor as a “younger brother” of Shaolin, a school that kept to the tradition and could trace its roots to Shaolin itself.

Despite the Abbot’s undisputed skill in gongfu, his actual position as an abbot of Shaolin was, shall we say, suspect. He did at all times dress appropriately as an abbot of Shaolin, or at least as a very senior monk. And he had the martial skills and theological knowledge expected of such a high-ranking personage. However, many small things gradually came to light during our trip to China in 2007 that made me doubt that Shi Deli was quite who he said he was. First, Deli seemed to have an enormous amount of political influence. Real guanxi, as they say. Everywhere we went, he was chauffeured around in a classic black Mercedes. He was never without at least two cell phones. And he was always met with great deference and reverence wherever we traveled. However, none of those places was the Shaolin Temple. That said, he was given a lot of face at the Shaolin Temple’s “performance arena,” a sort of publicity theater for tourists. But I noticed when Shifu took us into the Temple itself, ‘Abbot’ Deli was nowhere to be seen. We met, and spent the day with Shi Deyang, the monk who was in charge of gongfu training and the martial monks of Shaolin. (He stars in many instructional videos of Shaolin gongfu.) And the chief abbot of the Temple is Shi Yongxin. The situation struck me as very odd. It was obvious that Deli was a man of genuine skill in gongfu, and he had deep knowledge of Ch’an Buddhist theology, and was politically very well connected. Yet, he did not seem to have a specific position in Shaolin itself. A few years after our tour of 2007, I happened to come upon the Shaolin Temple’s official website. I found a notice on the front page, “below the fold,” as it were. Translating from the Chinese as best I can remember, it read: There is a person going about calling himself “Abbot Shi Deli.” This person is not an abbot. The current abbot of Shaolin is Shi Yongxin. Anyone encountering “Shi Deli” should be aware that he is being deceitful, using the Shaolin name for his own gain. He has no ties to the Shaolin Temple.

I was surprised. But more surprising, I saw that the following week, the notice had disappeared, and no mention of false Shaolin abbots was made again on the website. Combining this discovery with what I observed in China, the conclusion I came to was that Shi Deli was not a Shaolin abbot, but was a commissar of some kind, watching over various Buddhist institutions in China. Rather like China’s “official” Panchen Lama, as opposed to the real Panchen Lama proclaimed by the current Dalai Lama. My suspicion was confirmed when Master S. confided to me that Deli was indeed in charge of Buddhist affairs in China. He didn’t tell me about the political and religious implications of such a post; but he didn’t have to.

As an aside, a brief conversation we once had: The Abbot once asked me, “Why do your religions always fight with each other? You know, in China, our religions are all harmonious with one another.” He simply did not understand. Of course, when I turned the question around, and asked how it was that all Chinese religions seemed to get along, he smiled slyly, and said, winking, “Because the government decrees it.” Yep. Definitely a commissar.

The arts I have been practicing for the past fifteen years or so, are Baguazhang and Shorinji-ryu. Over the years, I have found a lot of satisfaction in both arts, given, of course, my own limitations. These two systems, however, could not be more different. I never managed to “meld” them together, nor did I ever create my own personal “style.” I trained in both, keeping them separate; but of course, the two arts did influence each other in my own practice. Baguazhang is an “internal” martial art. In fact, it is one of the “Three Internal Arts” of Chinese martial arts, the other two being Xingyiquan, and the more widely recognized Taijiquan. Of these three, Xingyiquan is reputed to be the oldest. It is reputedly based upon the spear techniques of military infantry from the Song Dynasty, although no written references exist before the eighteenth century. (In fact, this is true for most martial arts styles, no matter how old they claim to be, or how impressive their lineages are.) Taijiquan’s origins are perhaps lost to the mists of Time; there are many stories about its origins, and few of them agree with one another. The most popular legend is that between seven hundred and fifteen hundred years ago, Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng developed the style at Purple Cloud Palace when he went into seclusion on Wudang Mountain. Taiji boxing is based on the philosophy of Taoism, and emphasizes relaxation, redirection of force rather than resistance, and control of breath and the cultivation of “qi.” In fact, Taijiquan’s origins probably lie with the Chen family of Chenjiagou Village. Baguazhang is the youngest of the Internal Arts, having been developed in the nineteenth century by Dong Haichuan. Baguazhang emphasizes footwork, constant movement, and constant change. It is heavily influenced by the Taoist philosophy of the Eight Trigrams — in Chinese, “Ba Gua.” Dong Haichuan taught his art to several disciples, most of whom were already adept at other martial arts, Baguazhang becoming something of a “framework” for the other arts. For example, Yin Fu was adept at Shaolin style boxing, making his Bagua a fairly percussive art. Cheng Tinghua, on the other hand, was an expert at Shuai Jiao (Chinese Fast Wrestling), and so his Bagua focuses more on evasion, qin-na (joint locks), and redirection of force. But both Yin Style and Cheng Style are Baguazhang. I am not as familiar with the history of Shorinji as I am with traditional Chinese martial arts. I have been studying Chinese history and culture since my university days, and apart from the films of Akira Kurosawa, Itame Juzo, and Kitano Takaeshi, I never really looked toward Japan. Which is probably not that bad after all. Cos Karate is Okinawan, not Japanese.

According to Hanshi B., Okinawan karate can trace its roots back about three to four hundred years. There were, he said, native Okinawan fighting techniques, and these were supplemented by Southern Chinese techniques (mainly Southern Crane Boxing) over the years. He also noted that many Okinawan systems style themselves with the name “Shorin,” or “Shorinji.” “Shorin” is the Japanese/Okinawan pronunciation of the kanji “Shaolin.” “Shorinji” translates as “Shaolin Temple.” Even centuries ago, people were eager to link their arts back to the legends and myths of Shaolin. The Shorinji I learned is an extremely aggressive style. Lots of punches and low kicks, and very little in the way of defense. A Shorinji karateka is not expected to block an incoming strike; s/he attacks it. It’s a much different philosophy than that of the internal arts. There is no call for the taolu or kata to look beautiful. It’s streamlined and efficient. Hanshi’s question regarding various techniques was never, “How does it look?” but “Does it work?”

As I noted above, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang are considered “internal” martial arts. Things like Shaolin boxing, or Nanquan, or Changquan, and so on, are all considered “external” martial arts. What is the difference between “Internal” and “External” styles? Ultimately, not much. The terms refer mainly to different philosophies of training. When you begin studying an internal art, the emphasis is on what the Chinese call fang song, which means relaxation, or softness. But what it means in traditional Chinese martial arts, is the relaxation of the spring, ready to be compressed to release its energy. In other words, a state of relaxed readiness. Many internal arts, as I noted above, focus on redirecting force instead of meeting force with force. External arts focus on conditioning the limbs, hands and feet, and works on developing speed, strength, and the skill to deliver or transfer maximum force for one’s efforts. But all that said, each style of training will in fact incorporate the same elements as the other. The only real difference is the “starting point.” I always imagined it as a circle, representing the spectrum of martial arts training philosophies. The External styles might begin at the 0-degree point, whereas the Internal style might begin at 180-degree point; but both styles will make a complete circuit around the same circle. If you observe the training routines of Shaolin monks, you will see them practicing their routines in “Taiji Style.” And if you observe Taijiquan practitioners, you will see them punching and kicking and stomping with quite a lot of energy. You will see practitioners of Bagua and Xingyi conditioning their limbs against trees and bags of gravel, and Nanquan and Changquan adepts meditating and practicing breath control. There really is no difference between “Internal” and “External” martial arts. The designations are completely arbitrary and can safely be cast aside.

A word about Qi. Or Ch’i. Or, as my teacher used to say, “Number Ten Bullshit.” There are three main things at play, here: The transformation of fighting arts into calisthenic and gymnastic exercises for health; limited popular literacy coupled with the dominance of poetry rather than prose in popular literature; and the ignorance and laziness of the general public. As early as the Tang Dynasty, military combatives were being adapted as exercises for the general public. While there were still many fighters who could apply their arts, many of the taolu slowly became divorced from the real fighting principles upon which they were based. This was perhaps inevitable during long periods of stability in China wherein life and death depended more upon crop yields and merchant networks than fighting skills. According to legend, Shaolin Temple in Henan was the birthplace and cradle of gongfu in the world. But the exercises taught by Bodhidharma in that tale were conditioning exercises to maintain the health of the monks as they would go about their daily religious duties. In fact, the legendary gongfu of Shaolin slowly developed as retired soldiers and bandits seeking sanctuary and redemption joined the temple. They would pass on their skills to the monks in conjunction with the qigong exercises the monks were already performing. And so, their gongfu became the gongfu of Shaolin Temple Boxing. But my point is that even at the famous Shaolin Temple, gongfu was originally a set of exercises for health.

Another problem was the generally low levels of literacy in China prior to the twentieth century, and the position of poetry as the pinnacle of literary development. This was a problem because every accomplished scholar and gentleman was expected to be able to produce verses, in beautiful calligraphy, at the drop of a hat. Very little respect was traditionally shown to prose of any kind, especially something as dry and graceless as instruction manuals. Many of the old fighting masters in China were no more literate than the general public. However, they were interested in teaching others and giving their art to the next generation. Part of that process would include leaving written records of their martial arts. However, the scholars who were able to help, were not themselves martial artists, and so lacked an understanding of the principles being taught. And because poetry was the dominant, respectable literary form, techniques that should have been described clinically were often lost in florid poetic metaphor. The result was that techniques and their uses were not readily apparent or easily understandable to the uninitiated. Hiding the Flower Under the Leaf is not a particularly clear way to describe a fighting position in which the fighter’s hands are kept in a non-telegraphing position before striking. And “Quickly grab your opponent’s ankle and yank up as hard as you can while shifting into him and standing up” doesn’t sound nearly as beautiful as Snake Creeps Down. A fighter who has trained and conditioned for decades is often able to do things that the untrained might consider extraordinary, or even superhuman. Most of it is simply year upon year of dedicated training. In other words, gongfu — “time plus effort.” As in any era, there were men and women then who were in awe of the skills of many of the masters, yet they themselves did not have the time, or perhaps the interest, to study and practice as diligently. As a result, they might have learned pretty forms, but were unable to apply the art. If questioned about their weaknesses as compared to their teachers or senior students, many used the concept of Qi to excuse their own lack of skill. “Qi” literally means “air,” or “breath.” And of course, in any physically strenuous endeavor, it is important to be able to coordinate one’s breath with one’s motion. But qi also has the meaning of elan vital, or “life force,” in traditional Chinese Medicine. It was thought that if one could harness one’s qi energy, one could perform miracles. By harnessing and directing their qi, martial arts masters were said to be able to deliver deadly blows, make themselves impervious to such blows themselves, move faster than speeding arrows, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and even use this mysterious force to heal themselves and others of illness and injury. This idea is what allows many charlatans to perform ordinary “strong man tricks” and pass them off as cultivated qi. Such flummery has even infiltrated Shaolin. When I visited, I was privileged to be invited to an informal lesson in one of the inner training courtyards to learn the Shaolin Jiben Taolu with Shi Deyang. I was also able to observe the services of a working Buddhist temple. But I also was invited, along with my traveling companions and fellow tourists, to see a performance at the Shaolin demonstration hall. I had expected to see various styles of gongfu performed. I had wanted to see the legendary skill and prowess of Shaolin gongfu. But what we actually saw was a demonstration of what they claimed was “hard qigong skill.” In fact, we were treated to typical strong-man feats, that, while requiring great skill, and infused with Chinese flavor, were nevertheless not gongfu, and known the world over. We saw cinder blocks resting on people’s chests being smashed with sledgehammers whilst they lay on beds of nails. We saw iron tiles being broken over the heads of young monks. We saw steel needles being driven through panes of glass without shattering them. We saw many impressive feats, but no martial arts.

Finally, it should be noted that another devastating blow to traditional Chinese martial arts was struck during China’s civil war, when many of the masters who still understood the fighting applications of their arts fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Many of those who remained in China were persecuted during the Great Cultural Revolution, when anything “old” was demonized and destroyed. Amongst the survivors, it also helped to advance the traditional attitude that one should hide one’s real skill — meaning that whatever real fighting techniques a fighter might know would often be hidden within beautiful forms that did not betray their actual use to the casual observer. The decline of martial skill continued until we finally reached the art of Wushu — acrobatic floor routines that are but shadows of the fighting arts they once were. Very few are left now who remember the use of the traditional arts in real combat, and fewer, it seems, who know the difference.

Here is something that Hanshi would sometimes discuss with us in class. He would often say that after learning the basic techniques, and learning the official katas of the system, he expected us to each find our own fighting style. He forbade us to imitate him too closely. For one thing, we were all different sizes, shapes, weights, ages, and possessed different levels of athletic ability. We were expected to use the techniques that we would be able to use ourselves. Hanshi would teach us principles, and their applications — particularly the applications that worked for him in real fighting situations — and we were expected to practice and work hard enough to discover what would work for us in at-need situations. By way of example, Hanshi used to talk about how his teacher worked with him. Hanshi’s teacher, Zempatsu Shimabukuro, was phenomenal with footwork and leg technique. He was an extraordinary kicker. But Hanshi discovered that he was much better with his hands than his teacher was with his feet. And so, Hanshi’s teacher helped him develop and condition his hand techniques for combat. He did not force Hanshi to become as great a leg man as he himself, though he expected Hanshi to be a competent kicker. Very often, a martial arts system can become “fossilized.” That is, the taolu, or kata, become holy writ for the particular system. Hanshi always instructed us, Kata is not Torah. But what happens? A master martial artist develops a set of techniques that serve him well in combat. In order to practice, he develops a taolu that simulates his own combat experiences. In Asia, especially China, a student is expected to emulate his teacher as closely as possible. It is partly a sign of respect, honoring the teacher’s knowledge and skill, and partly due to the fact that education in China has traditionally been a matter of rote memorization. As a result, the student follows the taolu taught to him. Precisely. Slavishly. Perhaps beautifully. He tries not to deviate from his teacher’s form at all. But what if the master was a lanky man, with long limbs, and the student is short, with stout limbs? Techniques that work for one might not work so well for the other. Suppose the master has a talent for joint-locks and throws, but the student is much better at straightforward punches and kicks? Would the student be able to use his master’s techniques himself in a fight? Would he even understand what the master intended in his taolu, because he doesn’t understand his own capabilities yet? And so, a student may learn a martial art, its forms, its methods, its philosophy, and so on, but not be able to fight using the art. A style might go on for centuries, never changing, never adapting to the needs of its learners. Hanshi always used to say, “The man makes the art; not the art the fighter.”

There is something else that I have noticed about the martial arts. Many of the practitioners I know, in addition to their martial art, tend to express themselves through other arts as well. It isn’t a universal, of course; but I have noticed that most martial arts adepts, who take their discipline at all seriously, display this phenomenon. Hanshi B. is a sculptor, and cultivates bonsai. Master P. is a painter. And I have seen beautiful calligraphy from the pens of Lu Zijian and Li Ziming. I myself write. I often wonder about this. It seems that, to mis-quote Shakespeare, “So far in martial discipline that Art will pluck on Art.” As was once attributed to Confucius, “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” Perhaps this is what draws me to the martial arts? The integration of all Arts? The integration of mind and body, provoking a dissatisfaction with only one form of Art? The ancient Greeks understood, “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” They understood that the mind and body were one. Materialist that I am, I can’t help but remind myself: The mind is what the brain does. And the brain is a part of the body. So, it follows that if my body is strong and healthy, then my brain will be strong and healthy, and then so will be my mind. And for those who fret over the “Big Problem” in philosophy, the martial arts also train a person to focus their “will,” or “soul,” along with mind and body. It’s a complete integration of the person. Perhaps this is what the martial arts mean to me?

Now you must remember what I said at the beginning of this treatise; I am not a great martial artist. I am not qualified to give martial advice, nor am I qualified to be anyone’s coach or mentor. All I can say is that over the years of my life, I have tried my best to overcome my baser self, partly through the martial arts. I have kept my eyes and my ears open. I have seen, and I have heard. And I have ruminated on these things, and from time to time, I chew the cud. These are my observations, nothing more. And I still cannot answer the question, “Why the Martial Arts?”

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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