Permutations of Kungfu

DSC_0050It is a pretty common occurrence here at the kungfu school, and at martial arts schools everywhere as far as I can tell. A teacher corrects a movement or explains a certain technique, and the student objects that the teacher is directly contradicting what the student was taught by another previous teacher. Or a student looks at two teachers demonstrating the same technique or form, and sees that they are very different. “So which on is right?” the student wants to know.

The answer is usually both. Or neither – that is, both versions may be equally valid, though they look nothing alike. There are infinite variables in martial arts, any one of which could produce seemingly contradictory instruction but which the student must strive to unravel to best grow and develop.

One variable is purpose. A given movement can be executed to a great number of different ends. Take a kick, for example. Within the realm of martial application, it could need to be a fast kick, to outrace an opponent’s reactions; a powerful kick, to do damage weather it is blocked or not and force an opponent hesitate; an unpredictable kick, so that the opponent’s reaction is doesn’t stop it; or most likely one of the infinite combinations of these criteria. But a kick could also be intended as an exercise, to improve the body’s strength and flexibility. It might not be something to use in a fight, but nonetheless valuable to practice. And each tiny variation of the kick and its mechanics could change what muscles or skills are being stretched and strengthened, so each variation could have its purpose.

Teachers might contradict themselves and each other when the purpose changes. It might change simply to try and encompass as broad a variety of movement as possible, thus making the student more versatile and flexible. Or the student’s growth could precipitate that change: first they needed to work on one part of the movement, then they need to work on a different part that is best practiced with different mechanics. Or, the technique’s purpose could and should change depending on the teacher’s growing and changing understanding of the movement. The teacher may notice that a movement he or she has practiced with sparring in mind can be altered slightly to become an excellent exercise in balance or coordination. The instructions they give, or even the look of the movement itself, could change very much depending upon the purpose to which the teacher applies it.

While there is no doubt that there is better and worse technique in martial arts, it is not as simple and clear as right or wrong. Martial arts are still an art, a living, growing thing that exists and is sustained by living, growing people. As students, we must strive to live up to the example that our teachers set for us. But that example is not just a set of physical movements. Students of martial arts must try to imitate the sincerity and engagement with the practice that our teachers model for us. And it fall to us to try to understand the “why” of our training, because ultimately we must become our own teachers.

Junk Food

Wudang Oreo Birthday Cake. Mmmmmm,
Wudang Oreo Birthday Cake. Mmmmmm.

I have spent most of the last seven years missing the foods available in America, so when I got to spend some time in New York this past visit home, I was in heaven. There is more variety and quality of food experiences in New York than anywhere I have ever been. But my time in Wudang has changed my relationship with food, and I couldn’t indulge in all that wonderful cuisine without thinking a little bit.

I have come to think of my relationship with food as having two parts: the nutrition side and the emotional side. As I have mentioned, training every day all day forces you to be more aware of the effects things have on your body – eat too much of the wrong thing, and you will feel the consequences the next time your coach is shouting, “FASTER! LOWER! STRONGER!” And since, “I ate too much cake,” is no excuse from training, if you don’t want to feel miserable you learn to control your diet. And once you learn that, you do get to feel the actual nutritional values of the foods you eat. I never understood how much my body needed fruit until I trained here – I knew intellectually that I needed the vitamins, but now I ravenously crave fruit, and I am aware of how bad I feel if I don’t get it. I feel like I am sensing the food with my whole body, feeling if it is good, not just tasting it.

The other side of food is still important to me though: the way it makes me feel to eat it emotionally, immediately. Here I am talking about flavor, but I am also talking about memories and emotional associations, like that something that makes me crave hamburgers, and makes Chinese food taste like ash after I have been eating nothing but for 10 months at a time. When I would walk down the streets of New York on my way home from work this winter, smelling pizza and hotdogs and all sorts of tempting things, it was all I could do not to stop and spoil the nice nutritious dinner I had waiting for me at the apartment.

Our senses exist to guide us to good things. Properly used, they help us find the things we need for our well-being. Thus our senses are our Five Treasures. The body needs fats and salts and sugars, so foods that have those things call to us. But they are superficial things, our senses, and if we do not master them they can be mislead and become the instruments by which we lose mastery of ourselves. Thus they are the Five Thieves. So I could define junk food as food that appeals to my Five Thieves so strongly that it brings me harm, by leading me to indulge excessively in certain desirable  nutrients beyond a healthy degree, or by supplanting needed nutrients in my diet.

What the streets of New York got me thinking is that there is junk food for more than just your stomach, and the Five Thieves have been made servants of all kinds of causes other than the well-being of our bodies. What is the original purpose of the senses that draw our attention to the 50 foot tall Victoria’s Secret billboard on 34th street? Why is it so hard to turn off that radio station, that TV, unplug from the internet? Not one of these things is bad. No more so that a big greasy slice of pizza. But somehow, moderation and balance must prevail.

Expectations and Uncertainty

P1090012Hoping to be able to post more often again, as it seems things are calming down a little. I’ve spent much of this month running back and forth to Beijing filming TV segments, but that might be over now.

We advanced through two rounds of 我要上春晚 (I want to perform New Years Eve) and filmed a third, but we did not advance through the third and final round. My immediate reaction was disappointment, followed by optimism. “Hey!” I thought, “at least I will get to go home for Christmas!”

However, that silver lining remains in question, even doubtful. As I have mentioned, the TV producers in Beijing have changed dates on us again and again, and time and again we were on the verge of just dropping the whole thing because keeping going was so costly and uncertain. But each time they assured us that we would certainly advance to the Spring Festival Gala, these second and third rounds were just necessary formalities, so if we could just accommodate them a little more, everything would be fine. Now, one is left wondering if those assurances had any truth or if they were just manipulations designed to keep us on the hook.

What it comes down to is that neither my master nor I feel entirely certain, after the situation has already altered so shockingly so many times, that it won’t do so once again. We are not deluding ourselves as to the nature of the TV people, nor as to the probability that we will be able to be on the spring festival show. Like Aesop’s scorpion and frog, we know the nature of our companions in this venture. And we know that we are almost certainly not going to be in the gala. But I have decided to wait patiently for the last flicker of hope to die before I hop on a plane. And I don’t know if that spark will be snuffed before Christmas.

I am sure some people will read this and think I am being naive, clinging to illusory hopes. On the contrary, I feel I am just doing what I should as a disciple. I personally think that the best thing for our Wudang culture and lineage is to carry on training good students to be good masters. But my master feels that it is the Dao that we take advantage of this high-profile opportunity if we can. Though it has been hard to do, if we can do it we will do more for Wudang kungfu’s visibility than we could do with hundreds of thousands of dollars by another means. If you think about it that way, the annoyances I am going through are very small relative to what might be achieved. And I have a good life here, training and improving myself — I am not really losing anything by being patient.

Except maybe Christmas. So here’s hoping I see you all at home for the holidays, and if not, I’ll be back in February.

Oh, and here is the link to our second round. If you look closely, you can see me miss a cue because the speakers were right in my ears 🙂 Our part starts at about 32 minutes.

Exciting Goings On

Beijing Demo 01I’ve fallen out of my rhythm with my blog for the last month or more, on account of all the exciting goings-on here in Wudang.

The biggest holiday of the year in China and many other Asian countries it the Spring Festival, the new years celebration of the traditional lunar calendar. Much like watching the ball drop in New York City for Americans, Chinese television features one big gala TV event on the eve of Spring Festival. It is a sort of variety show, with different acts over the course of the evening, celebrity MCs, and lots of pageantry. But while Wikipedia says that 22.6 million Americans watched Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2012, past Spring Festival galas have had a viewership of 700-800 million, while this year it is projected to reach a billion people.

When I say exciting goings-on, I mean that my classmates and I have the opportunity to compete for a place on this show. In the end of August, five of us choreographed and rehearsed a demonstration of Wudang kungfu that we traveled to Beijing to perform on a competition show called 我要上春晚 (I want to perform New Years Eve). We won, and then our entire class won a second round of competition in September. We will do one more round in early December, and if all goes well we’ll be in Beijing for a chunk of January preparing for the big event itself.

This is exciting, a great opportunity for us to help our shifu promote his school and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. But as is frequently the case with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it is requiring no small amount of sacrifice and determination to realize.

First, of course, we would never be considered for such an event if we had not put a great deal of effort and dedication into our training already. We are foreigners who are seeking a deep understanding of a uniquely Chinese philosophy and tradition that is even beyond the comprehension of many natives of this language and culture.

However, it is hard for some of us to adapt our outlook to an entertainment environment. I don’t think anyone would ever endure the training we have done in order to get on TV — there must be easier ways. So it is difficult for some of us to accept that the culmination of more than four years of deeply personal struggle and agonizing progress, which each of us has undergone for personal reasons verging on religious conviction, should be the seemingly trivial outlet of television performance.

Second, there have been endless challenges of planning and re-planning. The director of the show is understandably busy managing and orchestrating all the many acts vying for a place in the show, so our performance dates have been changed and changed again. And again. This would not be a problem any other time of the year, but with it being illegal for us as foreigners to stay in China for more than 12 months at a stretch without crossing the borders, and our regular yearly holiday falling in December/January, my classmates and I have been put to great effort and expense adjusting flight bookings and travel plans over and over.

I am lucky, and unlucky. Because I stay in America longer than my classmates in order to save the money I need for training each year, my 12 months in-country will not be over until March. But that means I must stay through the holidays and miss Christmas with my family and friends, and that is a bit of a downer. But even if this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is a bit of a double edged sword, I am pretty excited to be part of it.

I do not know for how long this link will be active, but here is our performance in round one of the qualifying competition. Not bad for a start, but we can and will do better.[%E6%88%91%E8%A6%81%E4%B8%8A%E6%98%A5%E6%99%9A]%E6%AD%A6%E6%9C%AF%E8%A1%A8%E6%BC%94%E3%80%8A%E6%AD%A6%E9%81%93%E6%97%A0%E7%95%8C%E3%80%8B%20%E8%A1%A8%E6%BC%94%EF%BC%9A%E6%AD%A6%E5%BD%93%E9%81%93%E5%AE%B6%E6%AD%A6%E6%9C%AF%E9%98%9F%2020131006

Usefully Useless

DSC_0003Years ago, Shifu sat my class down for a lecture on Daoism and culture, and in the true Daoist tradition of illuminating paradoxes, began by writing these words on the blackboard:



Which means, “Useful is useless and useless is useful.” He explained thus. Imagine a can of paint. It is useful because you can paint a wall with it, but just sitting there in the can it’s not really serving any purpose, so it’s useless. Take the paint out of the can and spread it on a wall, it is now useful because it is serving its role as cover and color, but now that it is on the wall it can never do anything else, and is really kind of useless to you — you can’t take it off again and spread it anywhere else.

A few years ago, I came to realize that I was not being very welcoming toward short-term students passing through our school. I empathized with them, knowing that if I was a newcomer in a strange place, I would want the people already established there to be friendly and open to me. But my time was all so useful already — I trained many hours a day, and when I wasn’t training I was studying or resting up for the next training session. Every minute of the day was accounted for this way. All my time was useful to me, which made it useless for camaraderie and human generosity.

On the other hand, think of a stereotypical working family man. His time is useful to his boss, to his company, to his family, to his children — but kind of useless to him. When can he spend time on his own health and well-being? He can’t — useless

But sometimes I take some time out of my day and set it aside to be useless. After training sometimes I sit on the stoop of our dormitory and see if anyone comes and talks to me. I don’t always do this, and when I do it doesn’t always amount to much. But that time never fails to be precious in my mind. I have nice leisurely conversations, meet new people, deepen existing friendships, or have a few minutes to reflect on my day, or sometimes I just realize the weather is much nicer than I had previously noticed. My useless time ever proves useful.

There are certainly limits to this, and I think they are frequently defined by the boundaries of moderation and good sense. A useless half-hour watching TV might prove useful, provoking, and stimulating, but a useless 5 hours on the sofa thumbing the remote seems unlikely to yield any rich bounty.

We must strive to be constructive, to be helpful to others, to take care of ourselves, to cultivate our character and our connection with the people around us. But this axiom reminds us that we benefit by making room in our lives for potential that can be realized into new and real concrete good, and by accepting that when that solid usefulness fails, new possibilities are opened.

X-men: Paradigms of Perfect Health

Colossus_and_WolverineAny description of life for me and my class would be incomplete without some small mention of hypothetical X-men questions. If you aren’t familiar with the X-men, I’ll refer you to the movies that have come out over the last few years portraying these superhero mutants from Marvel comic books, each with distinctive super-human abilities. If you are familiar with the X-men, you may have played this game yourself with some friends. You ask, “Would you rather have Storm’s powers or Rogue’s?” Or “Would you rather be able to teleport or be able to fly?” The question on my mind today is this: which is better, Colossus’s hard invulnerability or Wolverine’s seemingly infinite healing capacity?

Now bear with me. I know this question is pointless, except in that it parallels my own shifting sense of what is healthy. When I was living and exercising in the U.S., I used to think a hard muscle was a strong muscle. I suspect many people out there think the same way. However, others may have changed their minds, like I did. I have come to believe that a happy, strong muscle is soft. A hard muscle is one that can not relax. Either through bad posture habits or chronic mental tension, the muscle is always in a state of contraction. Often this hardness is even a sign of weakness: a muscle in the body that is too weak to do its job efficiently gradually locks down into a sort of brittle death grip. Hardness is a sign of blocked circulation and imminent failure, not strength. A healthy muscle has strength ample for the tasks that will be asked of it, and is able to relax when not called upon to contract. Because it is loose, blood, fluid, and nutrients circulate freely and easily within it and through it to other parts of the body, so it recovers from injury more easily.

I have also come to think about the immune system in a similar way. I feel like in the west no one trusts their immune system very much. We go to great lengths to keep microorganisms outside our skin, because we take it for granted that once they’re in they will do us harm. This seems to me to be a brittle and ultimately futile strength. Though we must be careful not to take in too many pathogens or toxins, accepting that we are permeable to our environment seems vital to me. The body has mechanisms that filter toxins, generate cells, and repair what is broken. We must trust in these sometimes, augment and strengthen them, and they will serve us much better than gallons of hand sanitizer.

Sound familiar? Kind of like Colossus and Wolverine, right? Not so much? Oh well, that doesn’t matter. What I think is important is spreading a more accurate idea of what a healthy body really is. If, when we train, we focus on how to strengthen and augment the body’s natural resilience, we stand a much better chance of weathering the health obstacles that life throws in our path.

Why do I ponder the relative merits of comic book heroes? What can I say — my class spends an awful lot of time together, and these days, who isn’t a nerd at heart?