Monday, October 25, 2010


     A question which we seldom ask ourselves but which is all-important to our progress in martial arts (or anything else) is, why are you here?  Why are you doing this?  It is a question which we could readily answer back when we first began training, but after we've been involved for some time we forget about it...and that can lead to problems.  It's important to ask ourselves "why" periodically.
     In the past, I've mentioned various reasons why people first become involved in martial arts.  For instance, some want to get into better physical condition.  Frankly, a good aerobics class will do them more good in the short term.  Some aerobics and some weight training will work wonders for improving one's level of fitness.  Most people who start martial arts just to get fit give up shortly after they start.  Did YOU start training mainly to get fit?  WHY haven't you given up yet?
     Then there's the people who want to learn self-defense.  I used to tell these people that good basic defensive skills could be acquired in about six months.  Were you one of these?  If so, have you been training for more than six months?  If so, why?
     Some people just want to "learn martial arts."  It's a perfectly valid reason, but I can't say exactly what it is.  What do they mean?  WHY do they want to learn martial arts?  Is this your reason for starting training?
     Here's something new to add to your regimen.  Sit and write down just WHY you are currently practicing martial arts.  It may surprise you; you may not be able to express it in words.  But don't get up until you've written it down.  It's important that you know WHY you're doing it.
     Add a list of your strong points to your paper.  That is, strong points insofar as training and practice are concerned.  This should include not only things that you do well, but aspects of your character that benefit your training.  This helps you see how you really view yourself.
     Also make a list of obstacles which you have overcome (that you remember).   Do you recall just HOW you overcame them?  If so, write it down. 
     Now add a list of your weak points; weak areas of your training (things you need to improve), and aspects of your character that have a negative impact on your training.  Next to each one, write down what you intend to do to overcome each weak point or negative aspect.  You need to know where the chinks in your armor are, and you need to have an actual plan to overcome them.
     In a few months, review the paper and write up a new one with the same items.  See if they've changed.
     It's important to know how you view yourself; your strengths and weaknesses.  You need to know WHY you're doing this; what you intend to get out of it, where you are, and where you're going.  I think the majority of students have no idea where they're going.  They're like small boats out in the middle of an ocean being tossed about aimlessly by the the winds and waves of circumstance.  They have no oars or motor...they are helpless because they don't have a destination. 
     Too often we allow "life" to distract us from our goals.  We use it as an excuse; a  crutch upon which we lean our weaknesses.  "I failed because...."  Nobody ever wants to admit that it's their fault.  But it usually is. 
     A word of matter what goal(s) you ever set for yourself, things will get in the way.  What counts is whether or not you have the fortitude to grab the bull by the horns, face the obstacles, and overcome them.  If you don't, you never had a chance of success in the first place.  But if you try, you'll find lots of people out there who are anxious to help you.  Your instructor is one of them.  But you have to be willing to try and do whatever is necessary to overcome the obstacles.  Ultimately, the decision is yours.  Only YOU can make yourself better.  No one else can do it for you.
     I used to look at various martial arts figures for inspiration.  Masutatsu Oyama, founder of the Kyokushin style of karate, began his journey from Korea (his real name was Choi Yung Li).  He aspired to be a pilot in the Japanese military during WWII (!!!), so he went to Japan.  Sadly, he found that the Japanese weren't going to allow a Korean to become a fighter pilot.  He was an unwanted Korean, alone in a foreign country.  He managed to get a job driving a delivery truck.  It didn't pay squat.  But he saved his money until he could get into the university and it was there that he first saw a karate class being led by the legendary Funakoshi Gichin.  He fell in love with the art.
     Even the, his troubles weren't over.  He killed a man in a barfight (the squabble involved the affections of a young lass) and he also became involved with a group which supposedly wanted to unify Korea, but which turned out to be a den of thieves.  It was strongly suggested that he disappear for a while, so he went into the mountains and lived there, penniless, for three years.  When he came back down, his skill was extraordinary and he founded the Kyokushinkaikan, which became one of thw largest karate organizations in the world.
     But think about it.  He came to a foreign land that was prejudiced against him.  He could only get a crummy job which barely paid enough to live on, he got into trouble with the law...and he became one of the world's best-known karate teachers and was actually adopted by the nation which had formerly rejected him.  He even took a Japanese name.
     Sun Lutang was orphaned at a very young age.  A pre-teen, he lived on his own in Beijing and tried to make a few pennies by selling hog bristles which were used to make brushes.  That means that he had to climb into the hog pens and collect them by hand.  He was starving and decided to end it all by hanging himself.  But he even screwed that up, and a passerby cut him down.
     He was about 10 kliks below down and out until he saw a Xingyi teacher leading his students through some basic exercises.  He determined to learn that art and began training.  Later, he heard of a strange art known as Bagua, and walked to the other side of Beijing every day to attend class!  The rest is history.
     Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of Aikido) was sickly as a child and very weak.  After surviving his youth, his father set him up in a business to help him begin life.  He failed and the business closed down.  He was broke.  However, he determined that that type of business wasn't suited to him and he moved into the north to help build a small community.
     Even after he developed aikido, he was very poor.  He refused to collect tuition for classes, so his wife would do so in his stead.  In time, he became one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived.
     There are literally hundreds of examples.  Ed Parker was an unwanted Mormon kid who got beat up regularly.  Funakoshi Gichin was a schoolteacher who was sent to Japan (where Okinawans weren't held in the highest regard) to demonstrate karate.
     Kind of makes your problems look small, doesn't it?  It always did to me.  Still does.  When things get tough, I think of these people.  I think of the people I met in China and the unbelievable level of poverty I witnessed there.
     But each of these people made a conscious decision about what they wanted to do.  They knew where they intended to go and worked towards certain goals.  And although we remember them, there are literally millions of others who didn't make it... As I used to tell my students, "The world is full of failures.  Do not seek to add to their numbers."
     Success isn't based on luck.  Failure isn't due to a lack of it.  There's no such thing as luck one way or another.  Cause and effect.  Success comes to those who set a goal and then move towards it; to those who refuse to give up and who will struggle to overcome any and all obstacles that get in the way.  Failure and mediocrity comes to those who don't.
     Which way do you want to go?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Battle in the Mind

     The young warrior slogged through the thick mud created by the evening rain. Today would be the big battle; surely he would bring honor to his family by serving his lord and dispatching several enemy soldiers. At his side he proudly carried his father's broadsword; a very fine blade forged by one of the best swordsmiths in the province.

     As his troop marched down onto the plain, they were greeted by a terrifying sight. The enemy forces were much larger than they had anticipated and very well armed. With an ear-splitting scream, the enemy line charged forward with weapons drawn. Their faces were as faces of demons and the young warrior could see the sun flash off the blades of their swords. He drew his sword but then felt his legs weaken. His hand were wet with the perspiration of fear and his stomach seemed to knot itself into a ball about the size of a small nut. His eyes opened wide but he could not scream in fear. Instead, he threw down his weapon and ran; ran back to the safety of the ridge from whence they'd come, ran for the safety of home.......

Fast forward 300 years...

    The young Marine walked in a skirmish line through the dense jungle, his M16 locked and loaded. Quiet. Got to be quiet. He glanced up at his friend who had taken the point, advancing slowly and very carefully, looking for trip wires and pits. The enemy was in this place, somewhere. He could feel them.

     His silent world exploded into a thousand pieces when the first burst of enemy fire took down the soldier walking point. The Marine dove to the ground and felt as though he'd like to burrow underneath the roots of the trees. The noise was deafening. The screams of the wounded and dying filled him with terror. Maybe if he just burrowed down, they wouldn't see him. They'd miss him. He left his rifle on the ground and tried to burrow deeper, trying to get away from the screams...

     Pretty sorry writing, I know, but it's my blog and I can do what I want. So there. Phththth!

     The point I'm trying to make is this; one may be armed with the best of weapons but the weapon is only as good as the man using it. Without his help, it is useless and he might as well enter the fray with a twig. In the martial arts, we spend a great deal of time working on our weapons. Our bodily weapons. We build them from scratch as beginners and as we progress through the different levels of training, we temper them. We harden, sharpen, and polish them. We practice regularly so as to keep them in the best condition possible - who would want to go into battle with a rusty sword or a dirty rifle that hasn't been cleaned or oiled for a month?

     Certainly, our weapons are important. However, if our minds and spirits are not equally strong; equally sharpened and polished, our weapons will be of no use. Our bodily weapons are useful only insofar as actual physical combat is concerned...aren't they? How often will we need to use them? Did you use any of them last week? Last month? Probably not.

     However, the mind is also a weapon of sorts. When was the last time you used that weapon? Probably quite recently. Not only is the mind a weapon unto itself, it also controls the other (bodily) weapons. It is the stone upon which our bodily "swords" are sharpened and polished. The spirit is the forge in which we create these blades.

    As the two stories above illustrate, one may possess very fine and strong weapons but if the mind or spirit is in disarray the weapon is useless.  Many martial arts practitioners miss the point of various parts of training. They don't understand them or see their significance, so they tend to disregard them. Some teachers have gone so far as to toss out some parts of traditional training, declaring them to be "unrealistic" insofar as developing real fighting skill is concerned.

     This is unfortunate because it has brought about an over-emphasis on the development of bodily weapons which, as we know, are worthless without the development of the mind and spirit.  The old traditional ways have survived the test of time because they are tried and true. They were developed by men (and women, too) who had actually used their skills in life and death conflicts and for this reason they should not be carelessly discarded, especially by persons who label them as "unrealistic" or "unnecessary" -persons who have never looked death in the face.

     From the bow to the training hall to the line-up of class, to the kneeling bows and the beginning breathing exercises prior to class...these things may seem unimportant, "unnecessary," and "unrealistic", but they are, in fact, ways of training the mind and spirit which impact one's physical skills. They teach us to maintain center, to calm the spirit, and to maintain a constant state of what would be called "zhengxin" ("zanshin" in Japanese) which means roughly, "continue mind/heart/awareness."

     The mind must be taught to remain calm at all times, even in times of great physical stress. It must remain calm (and thereby keep the body calm) so that it can maintain full awareness of what is going on around it. In Japanese, this is called "mizu no kokoro" which means roughly "mind like water." A pool of clear, calm water will accurately reflect any image put before it. However, if pebbles are thrown into the pool, ripples arise and distort the image. The larger the pebbles, the larger the distortions.

Thoughts act as pebbles thrown into the pool. Fear acts like boulders thrown into it. The image becomes so distorted as to be unrecognizable.

     The mind is taught to be remain calm by focusing on correct breathing and maintaining one-point. At all times. In bowing, kneeling, standing up...and then while facing a training partner who will attack with a full-tilt boogie punch in the practice of one-step fighting. This is not something that is achieved after only a handful of lessons; it takes some considerable time and a great deal of practice.

     As training progresses, one faces a partner who will attack with an unspecified technique (freestyle one-step) at a time of his or her choosing. The attack is real but the student does not know when it will come or what it will be. If his/her mind becomes cluttered with thoughts and anticipation; if the pool's surface is broken by rocks thrown into it, he/she will not respond correctly or smoothly. He/She is not "keeping one-point."

     This same mind is to be maintained in the practice of forms. At first, the student struggles simply to remember the set. However, once that is done (and it cannot be achieved quickly), the form is to be done correctly - which often means with destructive power - while the mind remains calm and centered. This state can be called "buxin" (aka. "mushin") which means literally "no mind" or "without mind," or "without conscious effort."

     In the practice of traditional Japanese kyudo (art of using the bow), there is great emphasis on tradition and many beginning students give up because they fail to understand the importance of these seemingly "unnecessary" actions. For instance, one takes only so many steps in approaching the position from where one will shoot the bow. The bow must be held at a certain angle (!) as the arrow is nocked...everything is measured out very precisely.

     In the training of traditional Japanese iaido (art of drawing and cutting with the sword), there would seem to be many unnecessary facets. One must move the saya (scabbard) and grip the tsuke (handle) just so. Initial emphasis is on exact precision rather than lightning speed or power.

     Students may think me mentally decrepit when I say that these arts and the other traditional martial arts are not so much geared for teaching fighting skills to be used in combat as they are for training the mind, which is the greatest weapon. The sword cuts through our weaknesses. The arrow is launched into ourselves. In kyudo, the object is not so much to hit the bull's eye as it is to perform the action correctly. Hitting the bull's eye will come along later, but even if it doesn't, that's alright...because the object of the training is not really intended to make you a deadeye archer.

     This same kind of training can be applied to baguazhang's practice of walking the circle - where you aren't training (or at least you don't seem to be training) with the various postures and techniques - you're just walking the circle, round and round, going first one way and then the other......the mind must be trained first. It will train the body.

     Yiliquan students are, from the first few training sessions, told that they must learn to always keep one-point; walk, stand up, sit down, lie down, run...everything from one-point. This allows them to learn to control every movement with great precision and they are provided with physical exercises to assist them in learning to do it. However, the best exercise is to use the mind. The mind is what "keeps one-point"; not the body.

     As an aside, many years ago I had (still have) a good friend who was a female homicide detective with the Omaha Police Department. She often visited my school because I had an acupuncture clinic there and her back often caused her pain. She attended a chigong seminar which I held for my students and I spoke about "keeping one-point" and using it in everything you do. After the class, she asked me about using this concept in her practice of combat shooting. Her qualification scores had always been fairly low and she needed to improve her skills.

     We talked at some length about it and I taught her the basic concepts behind it. She took it to heart and practiced regularly and one day she came in to tell me (with a huge smile) that she had scored very high on her qualification course. She said she'd used the principles she'd learned in the training hall...the principles of the sword also apply to using a handgun.

     The bulk of our training is directed towards training the mind and developing a strong spirit. In the process, we might also develop a strong punch or a lightning kick, but that isn't necessarily the object. I had taught this young lady that the concept wasn't necessarily to hit the center ring of the silhouette target (a statement which really confused her at first); the object was to perform the technique - from the adoption of the stance and body posture to the draw and presentation of the weapon correctly. Do it as if it were a traditional martial art (it really is a modern martial art). Doing all of these small things very precisely was the object. This would train the mind. She had to keep one-point throughout the process and every tiny movement had to be broken down and practiced individually before moving on to the next. It was something like doing a short form. Over and over she had to practice until her mind remained calm and centered...until there was no"thought" of the weapon and no"thought" of he target. No feeling of "I'm now drawing my weapon...." No concern about hitting the silhouette or even the paper. Something like modern-day kyudo.

     And it worked.

     Next time you go to class or even practice on your own, keep these things in mind. No pun intended. By keeping them in mind, you will be able to keep them out of mind.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Seven Years For The Foundation

     Last April marked my fifty-fourth year in the martial arts. I recall looking through a copy of my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly, and thinking back to my early days of training under Master W. Chen.  I remembered something he'd said that made me wonder if I would be able to continue training in the Chinese martial arts.

     I was in the throes of a religious experience - that is, I thought I was seeing God - as I was doing my best to hold the "ma" (commonly known as "ma-bu", but more correctly called "chi ma-bu", or or "horse-riding stance"). My legs were on fire and shaking like a jackhammer, and I could hardly keep my back straight and breathe correctly. I collapsed, of course, but I resolved to get right back up and continue the exercise. And within a few seconds my legs gave way again.

     Sifu Chen stopped me and told me about the vital importance of learning the "ma", of building a solid foundation. He told me that the first seven years of training were devoted to this end.


     Yep. He said it calmly, as if it was a fact that everybody knew and accepted. I couldn't imagine continuing this kind of training for seven years! But that's what he meant and that's exactly what I ended up doing.

     Oh, sure - I was taught many other things during that time. I learned all kinds of techniques and forms and two-person exercises and joint techniques and throws and...lots of stuff. But the emphasis on the ma was always there. I can't count the number of times that I listened to lectures about the importance of it.

     I figured that if it was important enough for sifu to constantly lecture us about it, it was something I'd better practice. A lot. And I did. Eventually, I came to understand its value. This isn't something that can be completely understood just by reading or thinking about it. It has to be practiced - physically experienced over an extended period of time. That's the only way to "get it", to acquire the knowledge and ability that comes as a result of such painful practice.

     The reason I thought about it was because my editor had sent me a copy of a little blurb they were putting on the back cover of my book. It's a quote from the book about learning the "ma." I thought about how long it had been since I'd first started training and then noticed another line they'd put on the cover - that I'd been training for about 50 years (at the time the manuscript was sent in, it was only 48 1/2 years) and I was stunned. I guess time flies when you're having fun.

     But even after five decades of practice (part of which passed before I met Sifu Chen), I have to say that he was absolutely right. Without the proper foundation, learning real martial arts is impossible.

     Building a strong "ma" doesn't necessarily mean that you only practice standing in a horse-riding stance for a certain length of time each day; it also has to do with learning how to step, how to shift your weight and move, how to stand in other stances (although the "ma" is the mother of all stances), how your breathing affects your movement, how your yi (intention) affects your movement, how to maintain balance when standing still and moving...lots of things. But they all have to do with the foundation. The "ma."

     I remember back when beginning judo students were made to spend most of their practice time learning not only ukemi (breakfalls), but the basic stance (jigotai). It's kind of a second cousin to the "ma." Students practiced shifting and stepping in this position. Times have changed; I don't think most modern judoists have ever in so much as even heard of this posture.

     There's no question that the vast majority of contemporary kung-fu (and karate) practicioners have ever practiced the "ma." They may know what it is, alright - but they don't "have" it. They can intellectualize about it but they have no real foundation.

     Sometimes I hear internal stylists argue that they don't use the horse-riding stance very much, if at all. That's fine. "Ma" literally means "horse" (as well as other things), but the term "ma" when it's use in conjunction with fundamental stance(s) simply refers to the style's most basic way of standing. In xingyiquan, baguazhang, the basic stance is "sanzai" (aka. "san tsai"). That's their "ma." In taijiquan - well, it depends on who you talk to...some would say they do have a horse-riding stance (it appears in Commencement) while others use the "sanzai" stance...whatever. The point is that they do have a single, fundamental stance.

     The problem is that most martial arts enthusiasts nowadays don't practice their "ma" anymore. In many cases their teachers don't (and probably never have), either. The teacher is sometimes afraid that if he makes students engage in such uncomfortable training, they'll quit - and that means loss of income. So they don't make students do it anymore. And now we're seeing the results - martial arts practitioners who have no real power, no real skill. No "ma."

     I remember that my sifu used to insist that if we stood in the "ma" every day, our vital energy (chi) would eventually sink down to the dantien and we would be able to express great power. I couldn't imagine how this was possible. How could standing in this painful position accomplish that?

     And he said that unless we built a solid "ma" we'd never be able to emit real power. We'd have no true strength. That confused me, too.

     But he was absolutely right. And after watching the development of martial arts over the last fifty years, I must say that this old time-tested training method needs to be re-emphasized.

     Practicing the "ma" has a positive impact on both physical and mental health, too. Many years ago, kung-fu teachers in China would often recommend it as a sort of therapy for a variety of ailments, especially for problems with the stomach and intestines. It was prescribed for some respiratory sicknesses, too.

It's an excellent tool for developing a strong yi (intention) and spirit. Try standing in it for ten or fifteen minutes and you'll understand why.

     Most Westerners dislike this kind of training. They want to jump right into the martial arts and get into the "meat" of it. They fail to see how standing in some static posture or doing boring drills like "walking the square horse" are going to help them become superior fighters.

     But they do. It just takes time. You can't hurry the process. You have to learn patience, you have to willing to endure great discomfort, and you have to develop an iron will.

     For seven years.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Creating Your Form

     I imagine that the heading of this lecture has already confused a number of you. Those of you who have trained with me know how I feel about the homemade forms that are presented at various competitions in the hopes of winning shiny trophies or fat checks. And that’s not what this lecture is about. Not at all. It’s about creating form, which is the only real form there is.

     For several decades now, I’ve listened to many martial arts enthusiasts grump and whine about how traditional forms are unrealistic and do little else than mass-produce human robots. For this reason, many karate and kung-fu adherents toss away the forms they originally learned from their teachers and strive to invent their own flashier, “more realistic” versions. Others simply chuck the whole idea of learning and practicing forms out the window altogether and focus on “reality” fighting. In both cases, what we are seeing is simply an outward expression of ignorance.

      Okay, let’s back up this whole idea and start at the beginning. Any given form is learned in stages. In the first stage, you strive to memorize the movements. This isn’t necessarily as easy as it would seem; after all, some forms are more than a little complicated and they have to be learned slowly, step-by-step, until they can be performed without having to stop and think about which movement comes next.
     Many students, and even a good number of martial arts instructors that I’ve met, never pass beyond this stage. They figure that once they’ve memorized the form, that’s it. It’s more of a floor exercise routine than it is a book that contains valuable information. They’re not interested in reading it; they just like to look at the pictures, as it were.

      Those who have a deeper desire to learn real martial arts will move on to the second stage. At this stage the practitioner strives to understand and then master the physical mechanics of the form. This involves not only the study of each individual technique that is presented in the set, but also breathing and rhythms. These people have a deeper respect for the art they practice and their efforts will foster a deeper understand of the form and their art as a whole.
     Unfortunately, most martial arts enthusiasts never progress beyond this stage. They get stuck in the mire of being a “copy”; of the actual physical mechanics of the form.

     However, once you have memorized the movements of the form and you have acquired skill in the mechanical aspects of it, you need to create it.


     A form is not an entity that you can hold in your hand or measure or weigh. It has no life of its own like your dog or cat or even the tree in your front yard. In short, it does not exist apart from the individual who performs it at any given time. When that happens – when someone performs a particular set – it exists only for him or her and no one else.  That is, the person executing the form gives it life and spirit…or not, depending upon his or her understanding and feeling of the form, and his or her level of creativity.

     Each time you perform a given form, you create it!

     Or not. Maybe yours is a lifeless, mechanical robot. It is void of feeling and spirit. It is nothing more than a machine; a series of mechanical movements strung together in a certain sequence. And that’s it.  That’s what I call a “shell.” It has an outside but no heart. No guts. No feeling.

     And this is why you’ll never be able to do your form exactly as your instructor does it. You are not him. Your physical structure – your body – is different from his. And your mind – what you feel, how you feel it, how you express yourself – is different from his. And if he’s a well-trained teacher who has a deep understanding and appreciation of his art, he’ll encourage you to be yourself and express your own creativity through your form.

     This doesn’t mean that you’ll start changing the movements, body shifting, footwork, or rhythm of your form. It means that you’ll literally breathe life into it. Remember, it exists only when you perform it and its life-span is very short. When you end it, the form ceases to exist. It is gone forever. Sure, you can do it again…but it’s not the same form. Each time you do it, you re-create. And each re-creation is different, unique unto itself because you yourself change with each passing moment.

     What kind of form will appear when you perform it this time? How will it feel? What is its spirit? If it could be colored, what color would it be? Will it be geeky…rather bland and colorless? Or will it be like stone…hard and heavy? Will it be fiery or will it be like water that moves around objects and takes on the form of its container? Some forms are meant to be practiced so that they are hard or fiery or like water or even wind…and that’s how you should strive to do them. But you breathe your own unique character into them each time you practice them.