Self-cultivation — Emphasis on Self

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WuhanFilming4A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with Shifu. This is kind of rare for me — he is a busy guy, and I don’t get to talk to him very much outside of class. For that matter, I am usually so tuckered out after class, I don’t really seek him out. But a television show, sort of a variety showcase, asked Shifu to come and bring some of his students to be a feature on the show. So I got to spend time on the train and in the waiting room at the TV station just shooting the breeze with my master.

Lately our training seems to me to have shifted focus. We still do all the same physical training, but it has become mostly a vehicle for our internal emotional practice. So I asked Shifu, “If the goal of this is self-cultivation, why do we do martial arts at all? Why not just meditate or do yoga or something?” His answer was that there is no reason. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you realize that the important thing is not to improve the skill but to improve yourself. Martial arts is really great, and offers lots of opportunity for this kind of development, but another pursuit might work just as well if you approach it with the right spirit. Indeed, “kungfu” in Chinese just means something you work hard at, and could really be any task at all.

It was cool that he said that, because there was a neat example of what he was talking about ready to hand. One of the other people being featured on the show was a sort of street performer/craftsman. He had a little tool box with a little stove warming a pot of molten sugar. He would blow the sugar much like a glass blower would blow glass, making a sort of balloon of it, and then shape it into any one of a menagerie of animals. He would grab up some hot sugar in his toughened hands, and calmly and peacefully pull it and shape it and chat and make jokes. Suddenly the animal would appear as if his hands had minds of their own and did not need him to guide them. More than anything one was impressed, sitting there watching him, by the atmosphere of calm and serenity that seemed to waft from him along with the fragrant smoke of his stove. It was clear watching him that this was a man who had, in the process of mastering his craft, mastered himself.

If I needed any further evidence of this man’s wisdom, we overheard a conversation between him and another performer on the TV show, a guy who rode bicycles across a tiny tightrope. The bicyclist saw me and my classmates and nudged the sugar sculptor, saying, “Foreigners are no good at Chinese kungfu, eh?” To which the sugar sculptor calmly replied, “Of course foreigners can do kungfu. Anyone can do kungfu.”WuhanFilming2  WuhanFilming5 WuhanFilming6 WuhanFilming3

Atmosphere of Change

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SL371526Today one of my favorite of my Chinese older kungfu brothers left to try to make his own way outside the kungfu school. Yuan Huailiang is a great young man, the kind of guy I look up to a lot, even though he is years younger than me and has seen less of the world. For one thing, he is an incredibly gifted athlete: his every movement exudes grace and strength that I envy. But more so than that, he is someone I have watched change into a really calm, confident, open person.

When I first came to Wudang and met Huailiang, when he was maybe 17 or 18, he seemed like kind of an angry kid. I remember sitting down at a meal across the table from him. I was already a little in awe of him, having seen his kungfu and how he moved, but as I sat there across from him he fixed me with this stare. He later told me that he had actually practiced that look in  a mirror a bit. It was the look of a predator at a watering hole, incredibly dangerous but for the moment tolerating your presence. I don’t think he wanted me to sit with him 🙂 I thought, “Wow, this is a powerful kid.” But it was also an angry, unhappy kid.

Being in awe of his kungfu and raw attitude was cool, but what is better is how he soon after grew out of that angry phase and seemed to find himself. His emotions calmed down, he became much more focused in his teaching and training, and though he to this day maintains a little of the crazy that I first glimpsed at that lunch table, it is channeled through easy laughter and playfulness. Last summer we were playing hackysack. When we kicked it to him he immediately started volleying it high in the air, letting it drop through the loop of his arms, and kicking it back up time and time again with a completely spontaneous aptitude for the game. He just laughed, a pure expression of joy, as we chased him around trying to get the hackysack back. That light heart does not keep him from his responsibilities, however, and he is one of the best, most capable and thoughtful coaches our school has had.

What I want to illustrate, through my little anecdotes about Huailiang, is the value of having a culture where people are expected to change. Shifu is always encouraging us to develop and grow at a very fundamental emotional level, and of course teaching us techniques to effect that change. That is what I had the pleasure of seeing Huailiang do – completely change his outlook, practically overnight. And I have seen many, many foreign students do the same thing. I really give a lot of credit to that atmosphere of expectation that grants the freedom for us to re-define ourselves. In other places and times of my life, I have felt as though I had to continue to be who I had been because that was what others expected of me. I do not feel that here — the expectation is that I will change, that I will become better and better.