Talent and Kungfu

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DSC_0612One of my kungfu brothers and I were talking about talent the other day. We were talking about this guy my brother had seen on a TV program, who could shoot objects out of the air with a bow and arrow as easy as breathing. Apparently this man had picked up a bow some time when he was young, and on his first shot discovered he had a knack for it. He then spent his whole life honing this skill until it was practically superhuman.

Here in Wudang, I’ve seen talented people come along, who, without apparent effort, are able to do things that I only wish I could do: jump higher than their own height; kick as quick and sharp as a punch; bend their bodies into astonishing contortions; dodge punches with incredible reactions, etc. There are even people who show a natural affinity for the internal, emotional practice I’ve talked about, and seem to approach the rigors and trials of life in a kungfu school with a calm placidity I envy.

But I do not think talent is really what kungfu is about. Kungfu is not about making naturally athletic and ferocious people better at beating people up or doing incredible acrobatics. It is about finding one’s weaknesses and strengthening them, and then finding the next weaknesses and strengthening those, ad infinitum. I think, from this basic tenant flows all of kungfu’s virtue. Building up where one finds weakness makes for a balanced and healthy mind and body. And the emotional ability to look at one’s own failings day in and day out without giving up on your own self worth is an incredibly powerful skill, engendering calm and poise.

It is in regard to this last quality that talent can actually be a hindrance. No matter how lucky you are, eventually you reach a point where talent can’t carry you any further, and work is required and those weaknesses have to be confronted. There have been plenty of students who get as amazing at kungfu as they can on talent, and sort of plateau, get frustrated, and leave.

Talent or no, the real fruits of kungfu are found when the talent stops and the hard work keeps going. The talented people who also apply themselves and practice, like the archer mentioned above, achieve amazing things. But there is plenty that the rest of us can glean from applying the kungfu model to the things we do in our lives.

Riding a Bike in Winter

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T-shirt the guys at work gave me
T-shirt the guys at work gave me

When I am home in Maryland in the winter, I use my bike to get around a lot. As much as I can, I like to get two short bike rides in every day, to and from work. This is not always possible and often when it is possible it remains impractical, but I really like it.

I like it because it is hard, and I find that it is important to make a place in my day to do something difficult, and something that is difficult in an all-absorbing way. When I am actually at work, I do many difficult tasks during the day but they never require much of my body – I am at a computer most of the time. Riding my bike demands physical, mental, and emotional attention. I am in motion, I am dodging cars, I am staying calm in the face of bad drivers. I am dealing with the elements: cold most mornings in January, but wind and rain on the bad days. These things are unpleasant but within my ability to overcome, and there is an emotional cleansing I find when I do overcome them.

I was thinking of this the other day. I had been having a grumpy day – my emotions were not as they should have been, and I couldn’t seem to straighten them out. Word came down the pipe here at the school that we needed to wear our kungfu best and be at afternoon practice half an hour early. There was no reason provided, as is often the case here in China, but the order came from our older brother who got it from the school organizer who we must assume got it from someone he couldn’t say “no” to.

Afternoon training wore on, and nothing happened. By 5:30 we had been training for three hours, we were missing dinner at the school, we were tired, hungry, and uncomfortable in our full uniforms in the hot weather. We still had no idea what was happening, but by 6:00 an important official appeared with retinue for a tour of the temple, and we demonstrated some of our kungfu.

As we were finally leaving the temple, hungry and tired, I realized that I was actually in the best mood I had been in all day – my grumpiness was gone. Somewhere in the process of dealing with actual, concrete adversity that made demands on my body, mind, and emotions, I had cleaned out the emotional grime that had built up in me.

We train kungfu constantly here, and sometimes we lose sight of it in the everyday repetition. It becomes an activity that we do with our body but not with the rest of us. But I think a main purpose of our training is to learn to put ourselves deliberately and completely into whatever task we are set, so that it in turn replenishes us and cleans out the little cares from our lives. I do it this with kungfu, and I do this on my bike in January.

Sausages are like Laws

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SL373197Last weekend I had intended to post a new blog, but it didn’t happen. Why? Sausages, that’s why.

How many of you really LOVE a good hotdog? Before I came to China, hotdogs were very low on my list of favorite foods. At a cookout, I would pick a hamburger over a hotdog 7 times out of 10, perhaps. But everything changes when we are separated from the loving embrace of our mother culture. When I was home a few months ago, and had opportunity to eat whatever western food I wanted, there was no single mouthful of food that so filled me with joy as a hotdog, on a bun, with ketchup, mustard, and relish.

So I decided China needed hotdogs. Maybe part of what makes hotdogs so enticing to me is the fact that there are hotdog imposters everywhere here. These things, called huotui (fire legs) look exactly like hotdogs should look but lack any of the flavor of their ballpark cousins. They are lengths of flavorless processed ham — even spam is better. But one sees them and is duped, thinking, “I could really go for a hotdog right now.”

So I set out to make some hotdogs. First, I looked at recipes online. They all looked simple enough. I needed sausage casings, meat, certain spices — “I can do this,” I thought to myself. So I poked around town, asked the cook at the school questions, and after a few weeks of dead ends, false starts, and re-thinkings, I eventually believed I had a workable plan. Continue reading “Sausages are like Laws”

The Fruit of Three Years

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As of September this year, I have been training intensively in Wudang for three years. Full time training is such a luxury in one sense and such a burden in another. The opportunity to devote myself entirely to getting stronger mentally, physically, and spiritually is very rare and precious. However, everyday training quickly becomes like anything else — commonplace. It is easy to forget how lucky I am to be here doing what I am doing, and think only about the things I have given up in my devotion to this lifestyle. There are times when it seems I have given three years of my life, lost time with my family, spent all my money, and put normal growing up on hold for so long, all in exchange for just one thing to which it is much harder to assign value.

This past week has been a blessing in that respect. My master and many of my classmates went to Huangshan to the Fifth International Traditional Wushu Competition. I could not afford to go, so I had a week of much lighter training here at the school. It was a wonderful break after the past month plus, which has been filled with other performances and competitions. These are stressful because if there is a value in studying traditional martial arts, gold medals and looking good on a stage are not it. But in addition to a rest, my quiet week has reminded me of the treasures training has brought me.

For one thing, though the progress has been excruciating, I am indeed physically stronger than I was. And I have learned the value and the nature of hard work. For many years of my martial training, I watched those better than me with envy and despair. They made things look so easy. But three years of grinding repetition has made some things easy for me now. And I understand what it will take to reach the goals still before me; more work, sweat, grinding repetition, and above all, time.

Also, for much of the three years, Master has been pushing us to take more responsibility for our health. For years this frustrated me. It seemed like common sense to me that if I was exposed to a strain of cold virus to which my body had not developed immunity, I would get sick. Nothing I could do — just science, cause, and effect. Basic microbiology. How could I take responsibility for something like that? But this week I got a cold, and I knew even before I  showed any symptom that I had slipped up and with my behavior undermined my own immune system. And I realized that for a long time now I have been using sensitivity I have learned here to monitor my body and do what I needed to do to stay strong and not get sick. And it had been a long, long time since the last time I was.

These are just what I’ve been thinking about this week, hard work and responsibility. I am sure there are other things I have also learned. S0, my three years in Wudang have not been entirely fruitless 🙂