Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Symbolism and Internal Martial Arts

At New York Internal Arts there are many articles of interest. I've included an excerpt from one below. The full article may be read here.

I have long felt that the use of symbolism in old explanations of martial arts wasn't meant to obfuscate the information, but by use of symbols was the most direct way of conveying information. This is not unlike poetry - saying with words more than the words themselves can say.


Overview: Symbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. This, the first installment of a three-part article, discusses the importance and relevance of the symbols of heaven and earth, yin and yang, the five elements, and the dragon and the tiger.

Symbolism in the Chinese Internal Martial Arts

Symbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. The symbols connected with the internal martial arts are often dismissed in the West as superstitious cultural baggage that has little value in the practical apprehension and application of these arts. This attitude has increasingly been directed at the Chinese internal arts (nei jia), largely because the confusing nature of the culturally specific images used by Chinese martial arts practitioners makes it difficult for students in the West to engage with this aspect of Chinese internal arts.

As a result, many Western teachers and students attempt to update and transform traditional imagery, recasting the symbols to form scientific, bio-mechanical explanations with regard to training and application. Similarly, there is a tendency in the West to re-work the circular, more organic learning process and curriculum of Chinese internal martial arts into a logical, step-by-step process that smoothly carries one through a series of levels, from beginner to expert practitioner. This approach is characterized by attempting to parse out the movements, training methods and principles so they can be broken into their component parts.

This more “modern” and “scientific” approach creates as many problems as it attempts to solve – ultimately diminishing these arts and leading students to look elsewhere to fill in perceived gaps.

Because each aspect of an internal art interpenetrates with each other aspect, breaking things down into their component parts can actually make learning harder, or even impossible. The Chinese internal arts have an fractal-like nature. Each aspect, each part of an art like Ba Gua Zhang – from the most “basic” aspects to the most “advanced” – is a hologram that contains, interconnects and interacts with every other part of the system to form a complete, organic whole. This makes it impossible to isolate individual components without losing the essence of the internal arts.

The common argument put forward by the modernist camp goes something like: “the real fighters were not intellectuals; they did not know this stuff. They just trained hard and kicked ass.” Actually, they did know “this stuff.” Symbolism is so embedded in every aspect of Chinese life, culture and customs that they could not avoid knowing it. The Chinese written language itself is a collection of ideograms based on pictographs and symbols. The ”real fighters” not only knew the stories, metaphors and symbols, but for them, the mere mention of a story, metaphor or symbol triggered a cascade of other associated stories, metaphors and symbols. Even the most casual statements, by the most down-to-earth fighters that I have met in China are steeped in the language of the Yi Jing, traditional Chinese medicine, Daoist metaphysics, and classic books like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh.

One necessary by-product of the “scientific” approach is the discarding of the rich symbolism inherent in the internal arts. This is the very aspect of these arts that expresses and communicates their holism to the practitioner. Symbols are the very tools necessary to express the highly complex organic entity, with its many manifold and culturally embedded layers of reality and understanding, that is Chinese internal martial arts. Symbols are like a code, a code that serves to express aspects of reality which are obscured by the limitations of language and other modes of expression. In this way, symbols communicate and crystallize an aspect of direct experience, or truth, that is beyond words – and beyond the symbol itself. Symbols in this context also provide a platform for self-discovery, experimentation and transcendence.

Nei jia symbolism is a vast and complex subject, so for purposes of this article we will focus on five manifestations of symbolism commonly found in the internal martial arts. Many of these symbols and concepts have overlaps with Daoist meditation, Nei gong and Chinese medicine. The five manifestations of symbolism covered in this article include:
  1. Animal Symbolism and Imagery
  2. Cosmological Symbols: Yin and Yang and The Five Forces (Wu Xing; Wu De)
  3. Yi Jing Symbolism
  4. Movement Names in Chinese Forms
  5. Chinese Ideograms/Pictographs

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interview with Chad Hansen

Dr. Chad Hansen is a noted scholar on Daoism. He is the author of the book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought.

The interview may be found here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kushida Sensei in 1983

I found an old video of Kushida Sensei doing a demonstration in 1983, in Philadelphia to support Utada Sensei's Doshinkan Dojo.

30 years ago, Kushida Sensei would have been in his 40's.

The video is a little over 17 minutes long. The first half shows a group of students demonstrating techniques. Kushida Sensei is the focus of the second half.

He's not doing anything spectacular like multi opponent randori, but you can get a sense of how the man moved and the power he had.

The young Japanese man who is his uke for jo taking is his son Akira. "Akira Sensei" is now in charge of Yoshokai Aikido since Kushida Sensei passed last year.

The video ends with a jo form that I think is a real work of art. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The 48 Laws of Power: #6, Court Attention at All Costs

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. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

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.

Law #6 is: Court Attention at All Costs.

If no one notices your work, you'll be passed over. Simply by being visible to those above you, will increase your opportunities for advancement. You're somebody, not one of the nameless toiling masses.

I remember a former co worker whom we nicknamed "Magic." I can't remember his actually having done anything, except whenever something notable occurred, he seemed to materialize just before the managers showed up. Not by doing anything, but by being present, he associated himself with the good work being done by management and got more that his just share of rewards.

The downside is clear enough. If you are always visible, when something goes wrong you may be pinned with the blame.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Getting off the Treadmill

Relaxation is a key element to practicing martial arts, yet our lives become more and more complex. We run the Red Queen's Race where we have to run faster and faster just to stay in place.

What can we do? How can we actually make progress when we are being dragged down daily?

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the New York Times which may offer some clues. The full article may be read here.

Relax! You’ll Be More Productive

THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? 

Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?

More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

“More, bigger, faster.” This, the ethos of the market economies since the Industrial Revolution, is grounded in a mythical and misguided assumption — that our resources are infinite.

Time is the resource on which we’ve relied to get more accomplished. When there’s more to do, we invest more hours. But time is finite, and many of us feel we’re running out, that we’re investing as many hours as we can while trying to retain some semblance of a life outside work.

Although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable. Taking more time off is counterintuitive for most of us. The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted. More than one-third of employees, for example, eat lunch at their desks on a regular basis. More than 50 percent assume they’ll work during their vacations.

In most workplaces, rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive.

Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

The Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah found that when she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performances in practice dramatically improved: free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.

Daytime naps have a similar effect on performance. When night shift air traffic controllers were given 40 minutes to nap — and slept an average of 19 minutes — they performed much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time.

Longer naps have an even more profound impact than shorter ones. Sara C. Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.

MORE vacations are similarly beneficial. In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm.

As athletes understand especially well, the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. When we’re under pressure, however, most of us experience the opposite impulse: to push harder rather than rest. This may explain why a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 — up from 6.2 days in 2011.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Martial Arts in Contemporary China

The short article below is from The Economist. The original article may be read here. I would be interested in the opinions of our Chinese friends.

Modern martial arts

Ain’t that a kick in the head

New forms of martial arts are catching on, despite the nostalgia of filmmakers

THERE are now many ways to become a millionaire in China, and for Zhang Meixuan, the route has been through martial arts. In 2011 Mr Zhang, the son of poor farmers, was jailed for assault. On February 2nd in the grimy northern mining city of Hohhot, he became flyweight champion of China in mixed martial arts (MMA) and collected a cheque for 1m yuan ($160,000). His rise from the paddy fields of dirt-poor Guizhou province mirrors the rapid rise of more modern forms of martial arts such as muy thai and Brazilian jiujitsu and their challenge to traditional forms of Chinese kung fu.

Partly responsible for the shift is the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF), a China-based promoter run by Joel Resnick, a Canadian businessman (pictured, behind Mr Zhang). RUFF has been awarded the only permit to hold MMA events in China. The first, in 2011, was seen on television by perhaps 100,000 viewers. The Hohhot event was beamed to millions across China.

Traditional kung fu, incorporating different styles such as Wing Chun, Shaolin and tai chi , though still popular, has been in decline for decades, because of a one-two to the head, first from Maoism and now from commercialism. Youths with smartphones and short attention spans have no time for breathing exercises and meditation. The MMA crowd also accuses kung fu of being useless in an actual fight, and believe even Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two fighting film stars, are more like dancers than real toughs.

Into this debate has stepped Wong Kar-wai, an award-winning director from Hong Kong. His new film, “The Grandmaster”, opened the Berlin International Film Festival on February 7th. For many, Mr Wong’s film is just another kung fu epic. In China, however, the film has sparked further debate on the connections between traditional martial arts, beautifully portrayed in the film during the 1930s, and more modern forms.

A behind-the-scenes documentary, that shows Mr Wong’s largely unsuccessful search for kung fu masters of the old school to help train his actors, has been an online hit. Many Chinese people, including practitioners of MMA, still have a soft spot for the history and discipline of traditional kung fu. But, as in many areas of modern China, the new, the brash and the million-yuan cheque pack a bigger punch.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Disrupt Your Training

I posted back in February that we got a new puppy to be Bella's companion. Along with the new puppy came a lot of disruption in the daily routines around the house, including my training.

At the time we brought her home, I was rotating through three different workout routines over the five weekdays I go to work and was covering everything I wanted to work on adequately. When the puppy came along, I had to take her outside frequently (proactive). I had to be very careful that I didn't step on her. I had to keep an eye on whether she was chewing on something... in short my routine was disrupted.

I happen to think that some disruption from time to time is a good thing. We (at least I) need to get shaken up and stirred from time to time. It's all too easy to fall into a rut.

Martial arts training has a lot to do with changing according to the demands of the moment and adapting. In a real life self defense situation, we can't expect our opponent to attack us in a time and manner which we find most suitable.If we wait for conditions to be perfect, we'd be waiting a long time indeed.

Instead of my regular routine, while adhering to the broad outline I have drawn  up for myself, I have to continually ask "what is the best thing for me to work on for the next X minutes?"
In a few weeks or months, the household will fall into a new "normal" and a new routine will establish itself for me. In the meantime I am making the most of the chaos that Mabel (the new puppy) is throwing into the mix.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Authenticity in Martial Arts Lineages

The following is an excerpt from an article at Kung Fu Tea, which happens  to be specifically about Wing Chun, but which applies to all martial arts. The whole article may be read here.

Many of the debates in the Wing Chun world today focus on the question of lineage.  People want to know which expression of Wing Chun best captures its essential essence?  Which is truly “authentic”?  Often it is assumed that authenticity must be expressed in terms of history.  Some individuals then conclude that the branch of Wing Chun which is the oldest must the most “true.”

Needless to say this entire exercise is problematic.  There are too many undefined terms and leaps of logic in the foregoing statement to count.  Yet this sort of reasoning is what is driving a lot of the public conversation on Wing Chun these days, lacuna and all.  Side stepping the issue of “authenticity” for a moment (a topic complex enough to deserve a post in its own right), I have real doubts that the pure expression of anything is really linked to its oldest form (or better yet, our best attempt to recreate it). 

The truth is that things change for a reason.  Historically speaking, all martial arts, almost without exception, have been forced to reinvent themselves in every generation in order to survive.  Every true Sifu or Sensei instructs his or her students not just to be a clone, but to rise to ever greater heights.  And occasionally this actually happens.  As a result our arts change, grow and evolve over time.  They adapt to new markets and new economic conditions almost continually.  What was done in the late 1700s or the mid-Ming dynasty can never truly be replicated today.  Deal with it, and consider some other ways of defining “authenticity.”

Saturday, April 06, 2013

... And From The Dragon, We Learn To Ride The Wind

This is a clip from the original Kung Fu TV series pilot: The Way of the Tiger, the Sign of the Dragon. This is what started me off with my interest in martial arts.

The Shaolin master who demonstrates the Dragon form is actually Grand Master Ark Yuey Wong.