The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Struggle to Keep Martial Arts Alive

When I was young, I remember several martial arts schools either in the neighborhood or not far outside that were well established and operated for years. These days I don't see the as much. A BJJ school and a MMA gym. Anything else seems to come and go. 

Running a commercially viable martial arts school is pretty tough.

Below is an excerpt from a post that was published at Kung Fu Tea that is relevant. The full post may be read here.

This weekend has been a blur of activity. Friday evening was consumed by the first “open mat” sparring night at the Central Lightsaber Academy (which was a blast), Saturday was devoted to a day-long seminar on Sicilian knife fighting (a grimmer vision of weapons training), and about half of Sunday was spent helping out with the Autumn open-house at another martial arts school here in Ithaca. I have barely had time to upload my photos and draft out some quick field-notes.

Still, a nagging feeling emerged as I began to meditate on these very different events.  While I have not had time to fully develop these ideas, I thought that it might be helpful to write down a few of my impressions. The golden thread uniting and giving meaning to each of the activities seemed to be a “hidden” discussion on the problems of transmission and market viability within the martial arts.

Or maybe that is not entirely correct. The discussion happened openly in the second event.  I hope to write a fuller account of the Sicilian knife seminar led by Sifu John Crescione in a future post. But from a social scientific perspective, one of the more interesting things that came up was a debate as to whether it would really just be better to let this art die out. Granted, no one in the room thought that this was a good idea, but Sifu Crescione noted that many of the “old timers” back in Sicily who had learned and studied practical knife fighting as a family based “combative practice” saw no point in taking on students or promoting themselves within the current revival of the Italian martial arts. For them, knife fighting was a direct response to a violent environment and teaching strangers better ways to kill each other was not a wise course of action.  If a changing world no longer required these skills, so much the better.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Liu He Ba Fa Documentary

Liu He Ba Fa or Six Harmonies Eight Methods boxing is an internal form of martial arts that isn't quite as well known as Taijiquan, Xingyiquan or Baguazhang.

Below is a documentary.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The 48 Laws of Power, #28: Enter Action with Boldness

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #28: Enter Action with Boldness

If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous, better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Reaction Without Thought

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Herman Kauz, a senior student of Cheng Man Ching (Zheng Man Qing) from the NYC days, what was posted by the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. The full post may be read here.

Herman Kauz has been a prominent teacher of tai chi for over 60 years. For the past 15 years, he has instructed the free Push-Hands class on the San Diego campus. In the 1970s, he trained with Cheng Man-ching, himself a student of Yang Chengfu, who was one of the most famous teachers of tai chi ever to have lived. Cheng Man-ching’s short-form Yang-style tai chi, one of the first to be introduced to the West, has since become the most widespread style of the art in the Unites States. He is the author of several well-regarded books in the field, including The Martial Spirit, A Path to Liberation, Push-Hands: The Handbook for Non-Competitive Tai Chi Practice with a Partner, and The Tai Chi Handbook.

How did you start on the path to tai chi?

At first, I studied judo in Hawaii in 1948, while I was in the Navy. I won the 1953 and 1954 champion heavyweight judo tournaments. Shortly afterward I was injured, then ended up taking karate after I had recuperated. I eventually traveled to Japan to learn more karate.

So how did you end up switching from the harder martial arts, like karate and judo, to a soft art like tai chi?

I was looking for something more meditative. Both judo and karate could be thought to have that element in their approach, but I was reading about Zen and decided to go to Japan to study. I discovered, though, that I didn’t really like just sitting. I found it difficult to change from such an action-oriented approach, so I returned to New York and found Cheng Man-ching.
I’d previously studied with Stanley Israel (ed: considered to be one of, if not the best of the 1960s American judo practitioners, who pursued tai chi almost exclusively after meeting Man-ching), and Stanley recommended Cheng Man-ching. Some of my Hawaii friends had also studied with him.
Man-ching needed enough money to support his family, so the people of Chinatown permitted him to teach outsiders, which at the time was extremely unusual. I was just after the first wave of people to learn from Man-ching. Originally, the beatniks that were part of the first wave were just looking for a “sage”, and Cheng Man-ching with his wispy beard, and as the Master of Five Excellences—those being painting, calligraphy, poetry, tai chi, and Chinese medicine—fit the type. The beatniks stuck around for push-hands once they found out about it, even though the Americans were so low-level they couldn’t really begin to touch Cheng Man-ching.
Tai chi grew on me and I stuck with it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Internal Strength Training

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the excellent blog of Ellis Amdur, Kogen Budo. It is a guest post by Nigel Sutton and  has to do with internal strength training in taijiquan. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Note: During the writing of this piece Master Lee Bei Lei passed away. He was 86  years old. Rest in Peace, Shifu!

I first met Lee Bei Lei (aka Li Bian Lei/Lai) in 1987 on my first visit to Malaysia. My brother-in-law was secretary of the taijiquan group that he ran in Batu Pahat, a town in the southern state of Johor. As a ‘visiting fireman,’ who had participated and enjoyed some success in a competition in China, I was invited to perform in front of an audience of several hundred taijiquan aficionados. At that time Chinese in Malaysia were not allowed to visit China, so a foreigner who had been there and practised Chinese martial arts was something of a rarity. I strutted my stuff, the 48 step combined taijiquan form and a baguazhang form and afterwards, I was introduced to ‘The Master,’ Lee Bei Lei. My youthful na├»ve ignorance protected me from even being aware of the dread I should have been feeling. I had come to his training hall as a ‘celebrity,’ demonstrated in front of his students and basked in their applause! A traditional martial artist of Master Lee’s generation would see all of this as a challenge, literally an attempt  to damage his reputation. This to a man for whom challenges were an everyday occurrence, the very lifeblood and nourishment of his existence! But I knew none of that.

When he was introduced to me by my brother-in-law, I saw a huge man for a Chinese, with a very upright stance and a face full of amused disdain for me and all that I represented. He offered me  a huge index finger and asked me to grab it and bend it. I took the digit in my fist and strained with all my might, but I could not move it. Then, by seemingly just wagging the finger from side to side he was able, with ease, to disrupt my balance and move my whole body from side to side. He then instructed me to strike his stomach with my extended fingers, and with a dramatic expansion of what was already a quite substantial belly, he not only intercepted and nullified my strike, but also caused me some degree of pain.

This was not the first time that I had encountered the famed neigong methods of the Malaysian Zhengzi taijiquan school, and I was already sold. The various demonstrations–taking blows all over the body, being hit by telegraph poles or having chairs smashed over the back–were all impressive. What impressed me more, however, were the fighting exploits of the students of this style and the martial reputation of the school. These were men (and in rarer cases women) who walked the walk. Their taijiquan was a fighting art: this was what I wanted to learn.

Over the next few years, I became initiated in the Zhengzi lineage and learnt the neigong (internal strength) exercises that were the ‘inner teachings’ of the art, available only to those who had undertaken the formal baishi ceremony. I learnt these exercises from several different teachers. Although all of whom taught them slightly differently. the fundamentals were identifiably the same.

Each of the major teachers I learnt from had been drawn to Zhengzi taijiquan in the same way; already established as teacher or master-level exponents in other arts, they took part in challenge matches against a Zhengzi taijiquan exponent and were defeated. This, in every case, prompted them to do the gentlemanly thing according to the code of martial ethics, and become a disciple, if not of the man who defeated them, then of his master.

During my training time with these teachers I periodically encountered Master Lee, once at a competition where, unhappy with a refereeing decision made against one of his students, he challenged the panel of judges to a fight. These judges, all of them ‘masters’ in their arts, kept their heads down and would not meet his gaze, let alone his challenge. His outrage was vindicated when the committee that adjudicated such matters reviewed the referee’s decision and overturned it. Master Lee’s student went on to win the championship.

On other occasions, I was delegated to take visiting students from the UK to his club to engage in pushing hands bouts with his students. He was always polite and his students were welcoming but he never resisted the opportunity to ‘strut his stuff,’ to show the foreigners in general, and me in particular, how little we really knew.

Each of my teachers, although from the same lineage, approached the art in an individual manner. They always justified this with the claim that the way they practised was the unique way, taught to them alone by their teacher. There came a time when Master Lee and his teaching became the focus of my study. Given that I knew of his exploits as a fighter, why had I left him to later in my studies? The reason was that amongst the more ‘refined’ members of the Malaysian Zhengzi community, his reputation was that of a crude and unrefined brawler.  On the whole, taijiquan exponents pride themselves on the fact that their art is many levels raised above the ‘brute force and ignorance’ of other systems. At that time, it would be fair to say, my view of the art was not uncoloured by this elitist attitude.

Nevertheless there was no denying that Master Lee was a successful and very visible exponent of the fighting arts, and his art, as he loudly and proudly proclaimed, was taijiquan. Eventually, I made an approach to ask him to take me as an initiated disciple. This was facilitated by my brother-in-law’s continued service as club secretary and the fact that Master Lee had met me on a number of occasions over several years. His answer, however, was not immediate. In fact it was several days before I got a reply, in the form of an invitation, to visit the house where Master Lee was staying together with a number of his students. At that time they were all in the southernmost city of Malaysia, Johor Bahru, to attend a national level competition. My wife and I also happened to be there as she was also taking part in the competition.

The ‘entering the door’ ceremony took place at this house and gathered there as witnesses were many of Master Lee’s senior disciples and peers. Afterwards I was given an immediate taste of Master Lee’s unique style and the training methods he used. After engaging in a very short but painful ‘sparring’ session with my new mentor, I was immediately taught the first of his series of internal strength exercises.

At this juncture, it is worth considering just what the nature of internal strength training is within the Malaysian Zhengzi system, and also what it accomplishes. Historically, it is traced not to the Yang family, with whom Zheng Manqing most notably trained; but to Zhang Qingling, who although also a Yang family disciple, was in addition a member of a daoist lineage of internal martial arts. These he had learnt from his teacher, Zuo Laifeng. Within Zhengzi taijiquan, they are referred to as the ‘Zuo method.’ The effect of this training is to enable the exponent to receive force from an opponent and neutralise it by diverting the incoming power into the ground. At the same time s/he is able to take this force from the ground and return it in the form of devastatingly powerful counters. This is described in the taijiquan maxim:  “Neutralising is striking, striking is neutralising.” This training also enables the practitioner to use timing and distancing to render the opponent’s attacks ineffective, while magnifying any counter delivered. In addition, there is an emphasis on the development of tactile sensitivity at grappling range, which allows the exponent to be constantly unbalancing their adversary thereby making strikes even more devastating. The student of taijiquan also learns how to both ‘segment’ their body into various parts, in order to disguise their own centre of balance and gravity, and then how to reunite it in a whole so that the sum is much more powerful than the individual parts. This is described in another maxim: “In taijiquan there is no fist, the whole body is a fist.”

Training consists of several sets of standing and sitting qigong (‘breath/energy skill’), combined with pai da gong (‘slapping and striking skill’). The latter are self-striking exercises designed to condition the body. In addition, there are also a number of exercises designed to stretch what we would now refer to as the fascia, training exercises involving breath and sound, and various meditative practises, some involving the circulation of qi (‘vital energy’) and some not.

While the majority of these exercises were (and in some cases still are) kept secret, others are openly taught in other martial arts systems and schools of spirituality and meditation. Knowing these exercises, alone, however, is not enough. They have to be practised rigorously; in the first case for a minimum of 100 days. The full set of exercises which are supposed to be practised twice a day during this period, takes at least 90 minutes of training. Like most good things, especially when developing what the Chinese call gong fu, this is boring, repetitive and not without pain.

Furthermore, just developing the gong fu of these exercises is still not enough. Many other martial systems have the same things, but they can only be used when the taijiquan body has been created and the strategies and tactics of the art have become firmly embodied.