HOW MANY PhDs DO I NEED TO BECOME A KUNG FU MASTER?

We just had a major snowstorm in NYC when they only called for rain and slight snow showers, and I had smaller classes than usual, but that was all fine and good. We took the time to look at some finer details on the form that I was teaching some students, and as I was watching them, I was thinking to myself, this is amazing. In order for you to do Kung Fu, you need to be amazing. I think I’ve always understood this on some level, but I’ve never brought it to the forefront of my mind. I’ve heard my Sifu say to me many times that in the amount of time I’ve spent learning, practicing and teaching Kung Fu, I could have earned several PhDs. This got me thinking… How many PhDs does it take to become a Kung Fu master? Let’s think about this.

Right now, I’m working with one of my personal students that I like very much and we’re working on the long axe, which is not a weapon that very many people practice, but it’s nevertheless extremely special and cool. I’m looking at him and at the structure of this form. I think you need to understand how your form is put together, and in order for you to understand this, you need to be somewhat of an architect. You need to know every single position and how each position connects to the next position. You need to know the transitions from one movement to another, the physical structure of the movement, the direction, the stature, the focus. To be a Kung Fu practitioner, you first and foremost need to understand the architecture of Kung Fu and become an architect unto yourself.

As we further practiced, and I started to talk to my student about obvious things like speed, power and precision, it also came to my mind that you need to be a superb athlete in order to do Kung Fu. Kung Fu is not for the meek and mild. You need to put force of muscle, bone and sinew, all the physical attributes. As I’m watching my student hacking away, chopping imaginary opponents in half with his long axe, the physical power and prowess that you have to display comes to mind. The athleticism that is required to perform Kung Fu correctly is astounding because you have to twist, turn, jump, spin, kick and punch. Your body has to be hard as iron and soft as silk. Without saying too much, I think that many of us that are practitioners of Kung Fu will agree that you almost have to practice to the standard of an Olympic athlete, hours upon hours every day, to acquire the skill inherent within our art. This is no small feat. This is total dedication of the highest standard. You have to be a superb athlete to be a Kung Fu practitioner. I think the list is getting longer.

Then, I’m watching him do all the intricate flowers, wrapping the axe around his wrist, his neck, his waist, spinning around with the silver bladed axe and displaying all the artistry. You need not only to be an architect and an athlete, you need to be an artist. You must be able to display the grandeur and the grace of the movement just as an artist painting on canvas would show you his artistry with the power of the stroke of his brush and the splash of his color. As the artist, we also paint with our body, the stroke of the hand, the foot, the body itself making motions on the invisible canvas that we call Kung Fu. With every chop and turn and hack of my student’s axe, I see every stroke, just as a painter would paint his picture for all to see. It may appear abstract, but it has depth and meaning. The list grows yet again.

As I continue to train with him and watch him go through his movements and techniques, I said to myself, wow, on the outside, if a regular individual, untrained in martial arts would look at your form, be it weapon or empty hand, they might say, this doesn’t look like anything to me. I understand this. You know why I understand this? Because to the untrained eye, this said “object A,” i.e. the form, means nothing to you. But to the trained eye it’s a treasure. It has meaning; it has depth. It is profound in its structure and way because you understand it from an archaeologist’s viewpoint. When you look at whatever form you’re doing, you have to also approach it from the point of view of an archaeologist. What does an archaeologist do? They dig. What do they dig for? They dig for the truth; they dig for the meaning. They look for the meaning, the point, the purpose. So, we as Kung Fu practitioners must also wear the hat of an archaeologist and dig beyond the surface of the movement. Where are the opponents? What is the meaning and the purpose behind what I am doing? Therefor, we must also be archaeologists. The list continues. Let me go back and reiterate; first we said architect; then we said athlete, then artist. Now, to the growing list of our repertoire, we must be archaeologists. This is growing more grand as we speak.

As we continue to train further and I watch my student calculating every single step, every measurement to the closest inch, coming closer and closer to his target, utilizing the space around him efficiently and effectively, wasting not time nor space, I understand that the Kung Fu practitioner also has to be a scientist. We must be a sort of mathematician, because we calculate with every single motion of our body and mind to execute the most efficient movement. We must utilize the physical laws that we live by in this universe, so damn, man, we’re even scientists.

This same said student of mine that is currently performing his long axe form over and over again is also showing to me that in many ways we have to become doctors, a doctor to ourselves. And you may say, “How is this? I don’t understand.” This same student is nursing a knee injury that he’s had for quite some time. Yet, through the therapeutic nature of training his form, he is able to overcome this injury and over time is beginning to heal himself. He is so immersed in his movement that it allows his mind to go away from the said pain and overcome it. Slowly, through the therapeutic transitions of his movement, it is helping to heal his body because he is moving his chi, moving his blood, moving his internal energy and moving his mind away from the pain. All of you know and all of you will agree, I feel, that you feel so much better after you practice than before you practice. This is because you become a doctor unto yourself through practicing this art. You’re moving all the humors in your body and you’re moving the energy of your mind away from the injury, and because you move all those energies, it actually helps to heal it. We are doctors onto ourselves mentally and physically, helping to fix ourselves. You’re a living, breathing machine that needs to be moving; you’re not an inert piece of furniture. You need to live, breathe, move, think and feel; that’s how we’re doctors onto ourselves. Many of you know that learning the art of Kung Fu is not just about fighting and “hurting” the individual, but also learning how to heal the individual. Many famous Kung Fu masters were also traditional Chinese herbal doctors and incorporated that practice into their Kung Fu teaching. The simple usage of dit da jow, the herbal liniment that we use not only for iron palm training but also for healing and protecting the body is just a small microcosm of the ancient medical practice that is hiding within the art of Kung Fu. This, in addition to the practice of Chi Gung, breathing exercises and stretching make it a well-rounded art. It’s easy to harm someone, but it’s much harder to heal someone. The list grows yet again, heavier and heavier.

As we continue to practice, I strive to communicate to my student that the rhythm of each and every form is unique and different as it is with each and every song. In many ways, as a Kung Fu practitioner, you have to be a musician. You have to know the rhythm. You have to keep the movement in time with the beat. You have to create harmony with all the movements within your form. You have to have the timing of a musician playing his instrument. You have to sing us the song, i.e. your form, and let us enjoy hearing you move when you play with your weapon or your body, both of which are your instrument. Just as I’m sure musicians “see” their music, we also see the music within our movement, and in this way ,we portray the musical quality that is inherent within our Kung Fu practice.

As I’m practicing with my student and watching him play and begin to transform within his practice, I reflect upon my own practice with my own teacher. Many times, he would remark as I practiced my tiger claw form, “You are no longer you. Look at you; you are no longer you; you have transcended yourself.” When you practice, you become the image, spirit and embodiment of the tiger. You have transcended yourself. You’re channeling the spirit of that which you are practicing, and you are no longer you. You almost have become like a shaman that transcends this world and the spirit world and connects the two together. Like a shaman performing a ritual, we, too, transcend our physical and mental bodies and almost go into a trance-like state where we are aware of everything but at the same time channel the energy and spirit of the old martial art masters. There is another aspect of Kung Fu we call the “sun,” which can be translated as god with a small g – the god within us. This is the internal power and spirit that is within every human being that we tap into when we practice. We foster that spirit, that courage, that energy, that thing that gives us life and lets us connect ourselves with the internal and external. When you practice Kung Fu diligently and regularly and invest the physical, mental and spiritual effort, you’re tapping into a universal energy that transforms you for a brief moment in time and allows you to touch the divine within man, transcending the three levels of tien, day, yun (heaven, earth, man) which are inherent in all Chinese philosophy and Kung Fu practice.

We work just as hard as architects; we work just as hard as athletes, artists, scientists, archaeologists, musicians, doctors… How many PhDs DO you need to become a Kung Fu master? If you think about it, when you hear news reports of people saying, “So-and-so has fifteen years’ experience in this particular field,” and they call him an expert. For most of us that have practiced martial arts the majority of our lives, 15 years is the blink of an eye. As I reflect back, in my first 15 years of practicing, I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing. And now I realize I know even less. The Kung Fu person is a Renaissance man. Even Confucius trained his students in several different disciplines. In order to be well-rounded men, they had to learn martial arts, horsemanship, archery, calligraphy and a myriad of art forms to become the “total man.” I think that one of the pursuits of classical Kung Fu was to be the Chinese version of a renaissance man. Not only were you a heroic figure with astounding martial prowess, but many of the old masters were poets and artists and healers, and this is what makes the art unique. You have to straddle that huge spectrum of disciplines in order to fully understand the breadth and scope of this art that we have chosen to follow. So, as I’m watching my student conclude his form, and we’re going to practice something else that’s what I’m getting. It’s a never-ending journey. Even as I write this, I know it’s much deeper than what I’m writing. To me, Kung Fu seems to be one of the ultimate disciplines. It encompasses all these various different disciplines just to add up to the one. Sitting here writing this to all of you and recounting what attributes are required to practice this multi-faceted art of Kung Fu, I feel all of us must strive to be amazing.

How many licks will it take to get to the center of the Kung Fu tootsie roll pop? The world will never know.

-Sifu Paul Koh

WHAT’S THE POINT OF WEAPON TRAINING ANYWAY?

I’m sure all of you have heard the argument countless times that the traditional weaponry taught in Kung Fu and other classical martial arts is outdated at best, if not completely useless in today’s modern martial art scene. But I beg to differ. Not only is it NOT outdated, but it can give you greater insight and help foster if not even deepen your understanding of your empty hand martial arts training. So let’s begin…

Weapon training serves as a unification tool for mind and body beyond the body and the mind. It forces the individual to put their entire mindset, feeling, expression and physical and mental power into the weapon, i.e. the tool. Therefor, you have to be a more excellent craftsman because you’re using the weapon. The weapon becomes the teacher; the weapon becomes the test; the weapon is the lesson that you must learn to excel and go beyond yourself. It’s never the fault of the Black and Decker tool that you got for Father’s Day when your project doesn’t turn out right. It always and forever will be in the hands of the craftsman, i.e. the student, teacher, sword master, weapon master, whatever you want to call yourself. Weaponry training is a magnification of what the student’s attributes are, be they positive or negative. Because it acts as a magnifying glass and an extension of the physical and mental ability of the individual practitioner, we have to listen to those magnifications, be they good or bad, and reconcile them in order to make improvement.

Initially, everybody goes, “ooh” and “ah” when they see weapons, but it’s not the glittery, shiny spearhead or the ominous looking wolfstooth mace that matter. It’s actually the power and spirit and physical ability of the practitioner that makes you go “ooh” and “ah.” The race car doesn’t drive itself; the painting doesn’t paint itself. The five star meal doesn’t cook itself. It all needs someone behind it. The things that we practice teach us back if we are good enough of a sounding board and able to listen. If we don’t, you become like Tommy, deaf, dumb and blind, but he was a pinball wizard and you’re not. If you take that famous rock opera by The Who, Tommy was deaf, dumb and blind, but he played that pinball machine because he was one with himself. He listened and became one with the item he was playing. This is what you need to do with your weaponry and your martial art training in general. You need to go away from yourself to get in touch with yourself. This is how weapon training can become a unification tool of mind and body.

The weapon is the teacher, not the other way around. Every weapon is taking the opportunity to teach you again, and your job is to learn again and listen to the weapon. The weapon is the teacher because you have to learn the special Kung Fu of that particular item. Each item has its own way to be treated, taken care of, taught and practiced. Just like when you’re cooking, everything has a particular temperature it has to be cooked at, and all things don’t cook the same way. You have to know how to cook that item. I see many people, including my own students, move, jump around and do all their movement. The movement may be good and clean, but if the taste is not there, it’s just movement. This is one reason why there’s value in learning a lot of different weapons. If we’re talking about classical weaponry, there are eighteen classical weapons. That means there’s 18 different tastes, 18 different flavors of ice cream (and there’s more than that). You have to be able to exhibit the difference in the taste and/or style (味道) because if everything tastes like chicken I don’t want to eat your ice cream. If you play the Kwan Do, you have to evoke Kwan Do taste. If your Kwan Do movement and your spear movement and all the movement that you do taste the same, that means you’re missing the individual Kung Fu, the individual flavor of that particular weapon. Even though each weapon is predicated on the same basic stances, arm and leg movement, they should each exhibit their own feeling and taste. You order California pizza or Hawaiian pizza, and then you go to Lombardi’s and you get a real margherita pizza. They’re all great, but the taste is so vastly different. If you don’t have that taste, then why did you order that item? When you play a particular weapon, you want to have the taste and feeling of that weapon. Yesterday, I was playing the bench with a young man. The bench has very similar movements to that of the double headed staff, but a bench is a bench and a staff is a staff. They sort of share movements, but the taste is very different. If you play one like the other, then you’re not doing it service. You must exhibit the spirit, feeling, attitude and power of each item.

Weaponry training forces your intention to go beyond the confines of your body. This is another reason why classical weaponry should still be taught and learned today. It’s forcing you to make that extension. You can see in the way the individual plays his form whether his intention goes all the way through. You’re not doing the move with the weapon or with your finger; you’re doing it with your heart. Once we take the weapon away from the individual, assuming that said student understands, the intention should still reside in your empty hand movement. If you can project your intention and energy into the weapon, which is an inanimate object, if we take the weapon away, then your energy is just as long as the weapon you had in your hand. All things taken equally, you should be going through the opponent when you strike him with your hand or your foot because you can project that energy through the opponent. Like a singer able to project their voice, you are able to project your energy. The audience is able to hear you just as well in the cheap seats as in the mezzanine or the orchestra. The weapon is helping you produce as well as project physical, mental and spiritual energy. You see how that translates back to the empty hand movement. You have to mentally project your energy, because everything comes back to your mental state.

If you train your mental state properly, then you gain. If not, you lose. This is what the weapon is trying to teach you. The other day, I was talking with two of my senior students while they practiced their weapons. I asked them, “Are you able to see how out of tune you are with your own mind and your own body because the weapon is teaching you? You need to listen with your heart to understand that weapon’s lesson because the master is hiding therein.” That’s cool! Even if you feel stupid and you look ridiculous, it’s cool because you have another chance to elevate your skill and understanding. That’s the approach that we should have. If you have that understanding in your mind, you will start to learn something. You will have some gains. Maybe you won’t look the way you want. Maybe you won’t have the power, speed and grace you’re seeking at this moment in time, but you’re making inroads into it. You’re making inroads into becoming a master of the weapon, inroads into becoming a master of yourself. Ultimately, that’s the real reason why you study Kung Fu. In essence, when you’re practicing weaponry, you’re learning not just the weapon, but learning more about yourself, therefor elevating your Kung Fu. This is one of, if not the main reason that classical Kung Fu weaponry should still be practiced and taught in this modern day age.

If you train your mental state properly, then you gain. If not, you lose. This is what the weapon is trying to teach you. The other day, I was talking with two of my senior students while they practiced their weapons. I asked them, “Are you able to see how out of tune you are with your own mind and your own body because the weapon is teaching you? You need to listen with your heart to understand that weapon’s lesson because the master is hiding therein.” That’s cool! Even if you feel stupid and you look ridiculous, it’s cool because you have another chance to elevate your skill and understanding. That’s the approach that we should have. If you have that understanding in your mind, you will start to learn something. You will have some gains. Maybe you won’t look the way you want. Maybe you won’t have the power, speed and grace you’re seeking at this moment in time, but you’re making inroads into it. You’re making inroads into becoming a master of the weapon, inroads into becoming a master of yourself. Ultimately, that’s the real reason why you study Kung Fu. In essence, when you’re practicing weaponry, you’re learning not just the weapon, but learning more about yourself, therefor elevating your Kung Fu. This is one of, if not the main reason that classical Kung Fu weaponry should still be practiced and taught in this modern day age.

-Sifu Paul Koh

SUNSHINE EVERY DAY

I’m sitting here with my grumpy cup of coffee as I watch the rain pouring down here in Chinatown. It’s a gloomy, rainy day in New York City, but inside my heart I try to always have a sunny day. I know today’s election day, and a lot of you are running around making sure to cast your vote for the candidate and issues that are closest to your heart, and I wish you all the luck. But in truth, what matters most isn’t who wins or who loses. What matters is you. Yes?

If you yourself are a miserable, unhappy individual, even if you get everything that you desire in your life, you will still have nothing. Your personal attitude and view on life is the most important thing that you can foster, develop and cultivate. This personal attitude that you carry with you wherever you go will permeate everything that you do and color all the relationships that you have. In our lives we’re going to encounter many different types of individuals and many situations that will not all be favorable. Not everyone wants you to win or succeed. Most want to see you fall down or fail, and some even want to see you curl up into a little ball and die. That’s just the way things are. The truth of the matter is that a lot of people have a bad attitude. You see a lot of people today who are extremely cynical and are always carrying a bad attitude or a bad vibration. You know how you feel when it’s dark and cloudy, and you can’t get the energy moving no matter how hard you try? Many times people carry that type of attitude and it permeates them and everything that they do. It has a tendency to malign even anything that’s good. This is unfortunate, but my suggestion is that we endeavor to have a better attitude towards life. Even though it’s raining outside, the sun is still shining from within. We all have to continue to better ourselves in order to better society at large.

You may ask me, well, how do we cultivate that positive, sunshine-y attitude? How are we going to get that perception that you’re talking about? This is a hard struggle and is different for each and every individual. There are many roads and not all of them are suited to everyone. My personal pathway is through practicing, learning and teaching the art of Kung Fu. I’ve been blessed to have an excellent mentor to help and guide me. As opposed to what many think, the art of Kung Fu is an art of personal development, defining your own personal philosophy. In fact, the other day I got a comment on one of the daily quotes that we post on social media and the individual said, basically, “Your Kung Fu is awesome but your philosophy is nonsense.” I had to retort to him and say, unfortunately you’re missing the point. Martial arts and the philosophy it bears with it are so closely interwoven that you can’t separate the two, and this is how we find the sunshine every day. As practitioners of an art of personal growth and learning of the self, we must understand the inherent philosophical attitudes, morals and warrior code that is part and parcel with our martial art training. It’s a balance of the scholar and the warrior, the sword and the pen, the heart and the body.

I was training with my teacher yesterday, and it was just me and him, a very quiet, intimate moment. We were training and practicing together, and you felt the positive vibration and energy within the room from both of us, giving and receiving knowledge and energy and fostering our growth as individuals and martial art practitioners. When you’re practicing Kung Fu, you’re not just practicing the physical aspect of the movement, but you’re actually moving all the emotions and are able to exorcise the emotional baggage that you carry (because everybody has some emotional baggage.) You pick up a lot of dirty particles because you interact with so many people throughout your life that all don’t necessarily have that good sunshine-y attitude. You pick up negativity from them, and you have to learn or find a way to get rid of it. Like in cell phone terms, they tell you to clean out the cache, that’s what you have to learn when you’re doing Kung Fu. There is a direct physical and mental connection when you practice. On the medical side, exercise produces endorphins which make you feel happy, but the practice also lightens your spirit. It’s how you practice that’s important. Surrounding yourself with positive energy, positive light, positive feelings and emotions from yourself, your teacher and the larger group that you practice with. That’s one way you derive happiness.

What I’ve learned from my teacher is to look at things differently, or at least try to maintain a proper mental attitude. As I sit here now and I polish the mirror, so there are no smudges on it, I think how this is like how through our practice of Kung Fu, we polish ourselves to a high luster so we shine. In ancient times there were no mirrors as we have today. It was a highly polished piece of bronze or copper, but it had to be maintained and polished continuously. This is what we need to remember, because some days you’re in a good mood and some days you’re in a bad mood. Some days your energy is up, some days your energy is low, but if you understand how to polish yourself through the practice of Kung Fu and maintain that healthy attitude, you can have sunshine every day, even on a rainy day. This is what we want to be able to extract from our training.

The sunshine that you’re seeking is from your own personal outlook on life, and that’s what you need to keep a strong hand upon, and not let the outside or external circumstances derail you to the point that you loose sight of what gave you joy in the first place. You have to find a way that you can exorcise or clear out the negativity that, by its own nature, is going to be put in front of you on a regular basis just because we’re alive. You as an individual must first and foremost be responsible for yourself. If you want to be miserable, go ahead. If you want to say bad things about people and put people down and cast doubt upon them, go ahead, but I don’t have time for that. It’s a waste of energy and a waste of life. The hours, the days, the weeks and the years go too quickly as you get older to waste time on hate and berating people and putting people down. I don’t think we were set upon this earth to do this. It’s all about how you spin it, how you feel, and how you feel has everything to do with you. This is what it all comes down to; it’s all about you. You can either draw and absorb negative energy and personify this, or you draw on the positive energy and personify that.

That is the way that you’re going to be able to find happiness and sunshine. It’s not only through defining your own personal philosophy, but by doing good. I think a lot of people have forgotten that you get what you put in to a certain extent. You may not always receive it directly or the way you want, but by doing good deeds on a regular basis you will receive that which you put out. You need to do good, be good, on a daily basis. It may not return to you immediately, but it’s going to add up over time. (Just as a side note, in case you didn’t know, in the pantheon of Chinese gods, there is 地藏王 Dai Jong Wong, which roughly translates as “King of Hell” or, more apropos, he is the judge that we all have to face prior to being sent to either heaven or hell. He has a book of judgment with all the good things and bad things that you’ve done in your lifetime and makes an account of them.) So, make sure that we all do good things every day. Even though today it’s raining, you can still do something good, say something nice and be a good person. It doesn’t cost you anything. You may bring sunshine to someone else’s life, but it will return to you many times over.

-Sifu Paul Koh

THE ARCHITECTURE OF KUNG FU

One day last week, after teaching all day, I went home, and it was pretty late. I like to geek out by watching all these special science channel shows, and they have this one really cool program where they go to different ancient locations and deconstruct the buildings to show you their architecture. So, I just happened to go home one evening and turn on the TV, and here’s this show, Unearthed. I said to myself, “Well, let me sit down and check this out.” I didn’t think it was going to be anything special or unique, but it was really intriguing this time because it was about the Forbidden City. I’ve never seen anything done on this architecture because for so long China has been so clandestine and not allowed western crews to come in. This show was done in conjuncture with a lot of Chinese archaeologists. It piqued my interest because the Forbidden City was constructed by the first Ming emperor. All of us that are descended from the Southern Shaolin Temple recognize the importance of this. (Fan Ching fook Ming – overthrow the Ching and put back the Ming… ha ha ha). So, I said, let me just sit here and check out what they’re going to say. 

First, they went through the brief history of the first Ming emperor, Chu Hungmo being able to oust the Mongols from China and obliterating their palace, which was the norm for every successive dynasty because they wanted no remnants of the previous dynasty left to remind you of them. Emperor Chu Hungmo (Hung Gar, Hung Moon… you know, all that rebel stuff), like every other emperor was a despot and ruled with an iron hand. But he went so far as to make the Imperial decree that everything had to be perfect in his court. So much so that in one section of the palace, when they were excavating, they found shards and shards of broken gorgeous Ming ceramics and pottery. Originally, the archaeologists couldn’t figure out why they were strewn into the walkway of this section of the palace. Later, they determined that the pottery was not up to the standard of the emperor’s liking, so it couldn’t be used for him, but would not be tolerated to be used by anyone beneath him, so it had to be destroyed. They used it to fill in the cracks and build up the walkway. 

So, fast forward to the actual construction of the Forbidden City itself. They went into talking about the joints, foundations and construction of the palaces within the city. What struck me as intriguing was that the grooves and ceilings that are ornately decorated with tons (literally tons) of ceramic roof tiles were not supported by the walls of the palaces but rather by the columns therein. The columns were embedded in the ground, but not dug in deep like a post. Rather, a hole was dug and in the hole they put loose rocks and stones and other material that the pillar would sit upon. It helped to hold up the roof of the structure but still allowed for movement, so when the structure was hit with a storm or an earthquake or a great wind, it had sway. It wasn’t brittle. It would jostle and be able to dissipate the energy. I was looking at this structure and marveled at how comparatively it was the same structure that we use in Kung Fu. We are rooted, but not to the point that the body’s structure is brittle and hard, but rather, it is flexible and able to absorb oncoming force. The pillars of the building are tantamount to your legs. I always talk to my students about the stability and mobility of your stance. When you’re executing a technique or absorbing a technique from an opponent, you need that interplay between the flexible and the stable.

This also led to them discussing the specialized joints that were fixed to the roof and the pillars. These joints, called Duogong joints, had no glue and no nails. They are cut in an ornate jigsaw-like pattern and fitted together so that they aren’t too tight or too loose. There is play in between the joints so when the shockwave from an earthquake or a storm was to hit the palace, it had give. It had sway. This reminded me of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints and made me think about the physical looseness and flexibility that we like to have when we play Kung Fu. We need physical looseness in all our joints, muscles, tendons, bones and sinews. We’re not so hard that we become brittle, but we’re not so soft that there’s no structure. There is a balance between the hardness and the softness that brings about a harmonious interplay between the two. This allows for the production and absorption of power. The body is like a giant link of chain. The almost whip-like structure that we like to use allows you to absorb the energy from the opponent’s blow and return it back to them. This is very much like the joint is able to absorb the energy of the earthquake and dissipate it amongst the rest of the structure, thereby not incurring any damage.

My feeling, especially in the particular system that I practice and teach, is that Kung Fu uses the inherent structure of your skeletal and muscular system. It doesn’t go against but rather with your physical structure. The other day, I was working with the class on an uppercut and I was explaining to them, it’s just like you sway your hands back and forth when you walk. The innate architecture of your body is being taken into account by Kung Fu and used to create techniques. To hearken back to the structure of the Forbidden City, the builders of the palaces didn’t fight against the natural forces that were being put upon them. Rather, they utilized an infrastructure that took them into account. They didn’t try to fight nature. Nature is alive, and whatever you build and whatever you do, you have to be able to respond with live energy. 

I see a lot of times, students struggle hard to learn how to move, but inherently you already know how to move because you’re a part of nature. When you execute a movement, you shouldn’t be struggling with it or fighting against it; you should be going with it. The archaeologists who studied the temple couldn’t figure out how it had been constructed. They couldn’t fathom how these guys did it, with no modern technology, no help, no machinery, no nothing. When I watched them uncover the so-called secrets behind the Forbidden City, to me it seemed like common sense. It’s the same thing with so many students of Kung Fu. Why do so many students have a problem bringing out those attributes that they already have? I don’t think it’s because they’re physically incapable; I think it’s because, like the archaeologists, they’re so predisposed to thinking one way about something that they can’t open their mind to another type of solution. 

What I saw in the construction of the Forbidden City emulates the physical construction that we have within our Kung Fu system. Initially, it struck me as strange, but now I look at it and think, Why is it strange? If this culture could build this architecture that had this resilience that could last centuries, why wouldn’t that same architectural concept be applied to Kung Fu? It’s coming from the same place and the same background. I sat back and thought about it, and after a while, it made perfect sense to me that the masters of old, be they craftsmen and builders or martial art masters, had the knowledge that had crossed over between disciplines. They knew what they were talking about. The architects and archeologists on the program commented that with all of today’s modern technology and so-called “know how,” they would be hard pressed to reproduce what these artists produced for the emperor in the Forbidden City. They had to deconstruct the architecture to understand how the city was constructed. They had to see the inner workings to see how these guys put this together. You can’t find the answers from the outside; you have to go in.

That’s what they did with the architecture, and I think we also need to understand and do this with our Kung Fu. I’m not putting down any of us in our martial art society, but I think many of us would be hard pressed to create or recreate the broad and all-encompassing systems that we have within the Chinese martial arts. We are just like our modern archaeologists and craftsmen, seeking to understand and duplicate what the martial art masters of the past did. The centuries of knowledge, skill and mastery that have been passed down to us should not be easily dismissed, but rather, as these archeologists did, we should take the time to try to figure out the meaning, purpose and logic behind the structure within the palace and the structure within our own martial art system. This will enable us to better understand our martial arts and be able to utilize them as they were intended. 

Today, you could say we have better building techniques than they did in ancient China, so let’s tear down the Forbidden City. But we shouldn’t do that. Just because initially the archaeologists could not identify the building techniques used on the Forbidden City doesn’t mean that they are not powerful or useful. Just because you don’t recognize something doesn’t mean there is no meaning; it just means that you can’t see it. Everything has an obvious meaning, but then there’s the implied meaning when you scratch the surface, and when you really dig deep, you may begin to discover the secret meaning inside.

I don’t see a reason to disband or do away with the traditional systems and the traditional martial arts. I actually think that the individuals that practice have to raise their standards in order to be able to understand and appreciate their system and put it into usage the way it was meant to be. This is what these archeologists found out. They discovered that these ancient artisans, craftsmen and workmen had know-how that we in our modern society with all our technological advancements could not see from the outside, and would have a difficult time reproducing from scratch. We shouldn’t malign the past because it is old. That doesn’t mean that there’s no knowledge there. There is knowledge and wisdom in the old that needs to be respected and looked to to help and foster our modern society and our martial arts. I saw the wisdom inherent in the structure of the Forbidden City, and it reminded me of the wisdom that’s imparted in our Kung Fu systems. This only made me feel that I wanted to go back and start learning again, because I probably missed something on the first pass. I think it would be wonderful if all of us could be like these archaeologists and put a well-focused eye to our individual chosen Kung Fu system, and seek to glean the hidden knowledge that lies within.

-Sifu Paul Koh

MUSINGS ON THE STATE OF MEDIOCRITY

I don’t know… is it me? Or does everybody seem to get away with doing a half-ass job? Don’t get me wrong, I’m just making an observation. It seems that everywhere you turn, things aren’t being done the way they should be done. Today, everybody seems to be rewarded, applauded and paid for NOT fulfilling their commitments. This seems to go through every facet of our society.

Case in point, I feel like I drive the MTA subway train every day through sheer willpower. Just about every day, and especially on Monday mornings, there’s an issue. I feel I’m about as patient as any other New Yorker riding the trains – and those of you that do ride the subway can back me up on this – but on a daily basis you encounter some situation that makes your subway ride two or three times longer than it should be. I would think that if you’re the MTA, and you know that on Monday morning you’re going to hit that rush hour and have a flood of people coming into the train station wanting to get to work on time, you would have your crews ready to go the night before, have a meeting with the crew that’s going out to make sure the tracks are up to snuff, the trains are ready to go and so on. But I don’t think anybody does that. So I wonder, why do you get paid? You could make excuses about the infrastructure of the system, but aren’t you paid to maintain, support and run the system? (I’m sorry if I’m offending anybody that works for the MTA… don’t hunt me down on the train, please.)

I have a student, and she’s an art director and editor. She’s working on a really large project and had to access critical files on her Apple computer. She turned on the computer, and all her passwords were unrecognized. She said, “Okay no problem, let’s call the great wizard of Apple and have them help me out.” She called them and told them her problem, and they told her to contact customer support. She logged onto the special support site and saw that many other people had the same situation. However, when she finally reached a live person, that person not only couldn’t help her, but pretended that they themselves could not even see that other people had the same problem. I have to wonder, after hearing her story, whether these people deserve to have that job. After so many people had the same issue, I would think that you would have a plan of action. Isn’t that your job? I’m not asking you to do something that you can’t do; I’m asking you to do something you’re supposedly trained and well-versed in.

This can be applied to everything in our society. I’m just using my experience with the MTA, and my student’s experience with Apple support, as a microcosm to get my point across. I don’t understand why this mediocrity and lack of enthusiastic behavior in all aspects in our society is constantly rewarded. Regardless of if you’re working on the trains, being a teacher, serving coffee, or any other job, many seem to be working at half power but getting full benefit. I think that’s not fair to all involved. Many people are doing a partial job on something they’re not really prepared to do, but then expect to reap the accolades, benefits and rewards associated with doing it fully and completely. The more this idea perpetuates, the less there is any drive to do the best job that you can do. If people can do half the job and reap the full benefits, what incentive is there for someone to do their job fully, completely and with excellence? The more we get used to this, the lower our standards become.

Here’s another example. I remember when I was a kid, my teacher would not give a black belt to anyone under the age of twenty-one. This was not exclusively because of the individual’s skill level, but because there was a certain level of maturity and responsibility that was expected. I don’t see how you can give an eight, or ten, or fifteen-year-old a black belt. Now I know some of you may disagree with me and feel that junior students may deserve to have a junior black belt, and that’s all fine and well. But back in the day, when we were training and about to receive our black belts, you really had to work for it. You really had to earn it. It was a badge of honor because you had to fight tooth and nail physically, mentally and spiritually to earn that rank. A black belt or black sash meant that you not only trained with your teacher, but you taught classes for your teacher, opened and closed the school, took care of the training hall and your classmates, and looked after your teacher. You had to be a higher level member in your martial art family and were expected to carry out certain duties and responsibilities. I’m sure there are some establishments out there that still do this. I try my best to uphold this in my school. I know it’s a very old-fashioned way of thinking, but it works for me.

Not only do I expect a higher level from my students, I am continually critiquing and criticizing myself. I am the most unhappy with my own performance, and I feel this is the way it should be. In order for us to be able to improve, we can only sit on our laurels for an extremely short amount of time, and then we have to take a hard, critical look at ourselves to move forward. I believe if you don’t do this as an individual, a business, or any kind of organization, if you don’t review yourself regularly, you’re not going to improve. You can’t sit there and want to have the same benefits or more even though you’re doing less. It shouldn’t work like that, but somehow it does. I’m just wondering, when did this all start, and why did we get used to this, and why do we tolerate it? I remember Grandmaster Peter Urban, one of the pioneers of Karate in the US, had a sign hanging up in his dojo saying, “There is no free lunch.” I fully believe in that statement. However, today we’ve been taught or infected with the idea that everyone should receive a slice of the pie regardless of the efforts that they put in. I believe this is hurtful to the progress of our society and succeeding generations.

For some reason, we have been duped into thinking that you can get away with stuff and be rewarded for deeds and actions that don’t merit the full reward for a job well done. Even when you get that black belt, that black belt doesn’t belong to you. That black belt symbolizes what your teacher feels you could aspire to be. You have to earn it on a daily basis. So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with having to earn your keep? What’s wrong with somebody having more than you if they fought tooth and nail for it? If another guy has worked hard and fought for it, don’t put him down. He should be ranked what he is. If another person hasn’t worked that hard and doesn’t have what others do, it doesn’t mean that something should be taken away from the guy who has it and redistributed to the guy who did nothing. Everyone should reap the rewards of their own efforts. Why shouldn’t you earn that which you want, be it a brand new house, a brand new car, a higher salary, or a black belt? You should learn and earn your position on a daily basis. Then we can reward you. Then we can hold you up. Then mediocrity disappears because the guy next to you sees that you’re working hard and hopefully that inspires him to work hard. That inspires everyone else to work hard, and no one sits on their ass and asks for a handout. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative, so let’s just clear the air and do away with rewarding people for a mediocre job and a mediocre effort.

The term “Kung Fu” when literally defined goes completely contrary to the concept of mediocrity. If you embrace the philosophical concept of the word Kung Fu and embrace its practice, you cannot abide being mediocre at any aspect of what you do. You may not be the best at everything you do, but at least you strive to be the best. You do the best that you can on a daily basis and only wish to be rewarded for that. Don’t tell me I’m great when I’m not, or that I’m doing a good job when I’m not. Tell me the truth so I can fix it and make it better. Otherwise, don’t do Kung Fu. Kung Fu, at its nature, means you’re striving to be the best. When you have Kung Fu in anything, that’s what it means. You strive for the best, not mediocre, not halfway. If we don’t do that, if we are satisfied with mediocrity and continue to be rewarded for that, then we’re just fooling ourselves. If something is given unearned, you will always know, deep in your heart, that it’s not really yours. So why wouldn’t you want to work hard? The things you work for and the knowledge that you derive through your training belong to you inherently. They are yours, and no one can take them away.

Sorry for being late with this blog, everybody, but I didn’t want to do a mediocre job…

--Sifu Paul Koh

THE ART OF WAR... IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS

In today’s society, which is supposedly more civilized, structured and ordered than in any time in recorded history, the concept of what martial arts is and the entire premise behind training in the marital arts (at least from a Chinese standpoint) is completely confused and befuddled. Today everyone is enthralled and enamored with the gladiatorial combat situations that are prevalent on pay-per-view, television and video games. It permeates the entire culture. This is actually kind of sad. If you have a real understanding of what it must have been like to live in a feudal society when most martial arts were codified, it was just about fighting to survive. That’s where martial art training changes, when it moves away from the base understanding of kill or be killed. It is ingrained and injected with the philosophical ideas that are supposed to be part of a civilization that is aspiring to grow and become more – a civilization that seeks to empower its citizens with a better understanding of oneself and one’s world, and how they are intertwined.

But getting back to the topic of the art of war… Today we use the term Kung Fu, which is not actually the proper term for Chinese martial arts (but that’s a discussion for another time). The real term itself is 武術Mo Sut or, in Mandarin, Wu Shu, which, roughly translated, means “war arts” or “martial arts.” Let’s just take a look at one component of the term, “martial” or “war.” A lot of people don’t understand that Kung Fu itself is inextricably linked to the Chinese culture. If you want to study an Asian martial art, in this case the Chinese martial arts, you have to embrace and embody the culture; that includes the language (written and/or spoken), the philosophy, the poetry, the music, the food, the idiosyncrasies. Everything that makes up the Chinese culture is embedded in their martial arts. When we study the Chinese martial arts, we can learn a lot from their language forms, in this instance the written form. All the calligraphy characters are pictograms. Each symbol is not a letter or a word, but rather, a graphic explanation of a concept. If we take a look at the character for “martial,” Mo or Wu, and break it down into its individual strokes, then you’ll understand that the true essence of the calligraphy character Mo means “to stop the fighting.” (https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/武…)

When you learn the martial arts, it’s NOT teaching you how to become more barbaric, wild, and self-serving. It’s not teaching you to become a street fighter. Rather, it’s asking you, through the practice of this seemingly violent art form, to raise yourself up and become a better individual. Through fighting, learn how NOT to fight. Through conquering yourself and your ego, learn NOT to bring war or fighting into society, but rather learn to become the hero that you’re supposed to be. Learn to raise up your standard and not fight. Because you learn how to fight, you start to develop a greater appreciation for how easy it is to hurt, maim or kill somebody, but to heal them, make them whole again or bring them back from the dead is impossible. You learn to have reverence for life and respect for one another. Even though you have this weapon in your hand, you learn how to abstain from using it. Bruce Lee has been quoted many times as saying he practiced “the art of fighting without fighting.” From a philosophical standpoint, the fight is not with an aggressive opponent, but rather with the self.

I think a lot of people today miss this because they’re drawn to the most obvious attribute, and that’s the punch, the kick, the strike, the takedown, the chokehold and so on. A lot of us initially were drawn to the martial arts because of the prowess in physical hand-to-hand combat that we thought we would gain and therefor become masters of the universe. But when you examine it more closely, martial art training is not about that. There’s a certain level of maturity, sensibility and civilization that is involved in martial art training. Why did so many monastic orders adopt martial art training when their philosophical base is about going with the flow and being one with the way, or eradicating the selfishness and ego of the individual? Why would they adopt “war arts”? I feel that they saw something within the practice of the martial arts that would allow them to cycle up and become much, much, because martial arts is much more than just a hand-to-hand combat system.

I started thinking more in depth on this topic last week when one of my Facebook friends, a very nice individual, shared one of the many videos and blogs that I put out on a weekly basis. He was inclined to share it on a Facebook group, and another individual took the chance to jump onto the thread, and comment that martial arts can’t really be used on the street and is no match for a club or a gun. I hear and read these types of comments on a regular basis, but in my opinion, this is missing the whole point.

We that are involved in the martial arts, the traditional martial arts that are taught with respect and honor even for your enemy, understand that the usefulness of it is not in the physical art itself but rather in the practitioner that practices it. That practitioner must fully embrace his art form with its philosophy and its moral and ethical standards in order to become that well-rounded martial artist. You may be very good at punches and kicks and throws and takedowns and any technique that you want to rattle off, but that still doesn’t make you a martial artist. That just makes you a fighter, good or bad.

What really personifies a true martial artist in the traditional mindset, be it Kung Fu, Karate, Judo or another traditional form, is the artist that embraces 武德 Mo Duk, martial virtue. That statement in and of itself almost seems like a contrast. You’re martial and yet you have virtue. You’re a warrior, yet you have moral standards. You have a philosophical and ethical code that you follow, that in today’s society is lacking. Feudal China and feudal Japan, thought to be more war-like, less civilized societies followed this ethical code, but in our more modern, technological society we seem to lack this philosophy. So, I want to ask you the question, who is more civilized? Name me a dozen philosophers from the last hundred years. I can’t do it. Yet I can easily name a dozen ancient Chinese or ancient Greek philosophers. Why? Today, society at large doesn’t hold these virtues on a high pedestal. It is the responsibility of the martial art teacher to uphold these values.

If you go into most traditional Chinese martial arts schools, they have a shrine, an ancestral altar, with a statue, painting or picture of General Kwan. He’s the god of war in the Chinese pantheon, but this individual was a living, breathing individual during the Three Kingdoms period. Why is he revered and honored? It’s not just because of his martial prowess, but because of this individual’s understanding of right and wrong, what is good, what should be done, what is the right and/or righteous thing to do. Time and time again, he was tested to see how loyal he was, how honorable he was, how respectful he was, and he faltered not once. This is why we honor him. This is why we look up to him and ask him for guidance and protection within the Chinese martial arts. These kinds of concepts can be a hard crossover for our westernized American mentality, and many individuals may not want to adopt them. That’s their personal viewpoint and way, but in doing so they lose out, because they never get to learn what martial arts training is all about. You’re just learning a purely physical art. There’s no catalyst for change, no catalyst to better the individual, without the philosophical concepts and understanding of the martial virtue behind the martial art.

When the students enters the martial art training hall, he bows to the ancestral altar to show respect, honor, caring, genuineness. I see none of this in today’s society. Yet this is what’s personified in that character for “Martial,” be it martial arts or martial virtue. It’s about stopping the fighting. Learn Kung Fu to stop the fighting, i.e. to SAVE society from burning itself down, which is what our society is doing on so many different levels even as we speak. Children don’t respect their parents; parents don’t respect their parents; students don’t respect teachers; teachers don’t respect students. There’s just a giant level of disrespect; it’s like a plague. The simple act of bowing and showing respect is seen as “weak.” The Facebook commentator asks, Why don’t you just beat them up? But it is this lack of respect, humanitarianism and genuine care for other individuals that is why society is the way it is. If this is your outlook, you actually don’t train in martial arts. You’re just a thug, a brawler. You may be the best fighter on the block, but there’s always somebody better than you. There’s always somebody who can kick your ass. That’s not what martial art training is about.

First and foremost, martial art training is about stopping the fighting from within and without, making you a better individual, and therefor a better cog in society overall. You may say, “Sifu, everything’s on a downward spiral and there’s no way we can stop it.” I want to take the side of disagreeing and say, we can change it one person at a time through martial art training. At the very least, I can make an impact on my students when they enter the school. Even if they never become “good” at Kung Fu, at least I will try to help them become the best person they can be, with respect, honor and concern for their fellow mankind. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. You may have all the championship belts and trophies, but you’re still a loser. Just cranking out fighters with no philosophy is not for me. The reason why everybody loves a hero isn’t because he beats everybody up, but because he saves the day. If you want to save the day, you have to first start to save yourself. How can you do this? Through martial arts training.

-Sifu Paul Koh

BOOST YOUR IMMUNITY THROUGH KUNG FU

Summer’s dead. Even though you might have a hot spell or two or a slightly humid day that’s trying to disguise itself as summer, the season is changing. It’s inevitable at this time of year when summer changes to fall that everybody ends up getting sick because one day you wake up and it’s cold, then the next day you wake up it’s hot and sticky. You don’t know how to get dressed or take care of yourself. I’ve seen this happen to many students; they catch a sniffle, and then it turns into a full blown cold or worse. Aside from eating well and taking care of yourself and having your gummy bear vitamins and getting enough rest, one of the biggest deterrents to getting ill during the change of the season is being consistent in your training. I’ve seen this time and time again, year in and year out.

No matter how much health food you eat, no matter how much green matter you consume or vitamins you shove down your throat, there’s nothing better than maintaining a healthy physical regimen through consistent training, and in this instance for me it’s Kung Fu. I’m sure this can be done with many other forms of exercise, but for me, this one is extremely interesting and appealing because of its broadness in spectrum. You can do something different every day and keep yourself in top physical condition regardless of your age or ability.

I think your immune system is just like any system within your body. It needs constant maintenance and supervision. When you’re younger, you take this for granted because you bounce back so fast from illness and injury. As you grow older, and your body’s systems grow older, you need more maintenance. The sooner you start doing that maintenance, i.e. training in Kung Fu, the greater and deeper the benefits. Lucille Ball said, “The more things you do, the more you can do.” I firmly believe in that. The more training you do and the more you push your physical and mental limits to maintain your training on a regular basis (every day), your immune system benefits because it creates a brand new benchmark for itself. Your body creates a benchmark wherein it says, this is what I normally do, this is the speed I run at, the metabolic rate I run at. I’m electrifying every cell in the body on a regular basis; I’m training so much I don’t even have time to get sick.

If you think about it, you’re basically just an animal… no offense… and you’re not made to sit at a desk, 8, 10, 12 hours a day playing with a keyboard. You’re made to stretch, move, jump and breathe. You’re an organism that needs movement and breath and water to flush things out. You’re part of everything else that’s alive in the world, and you need to maintain that cycle in order for your immune system to stay healthy. From the start of the industrial revolution when things started to become more and more automated until this time when they’re talking about A.I. taking over a whole series of jobs, people are more sedentary than ever. You’re not working; you’re not moving; you’re not breathing. I think a lot of the ancient masters addressed this through the art of Kung Fu, which is a comprehensive art (unlike many of the trendy martial art themes of the day). I may have said this before, but Kung Fu is an all-encompassing art that is an art of life. It’s there to help you maintain the health of your body and your mind. I see this happen on a nightly basis. I have students that are professional lawyers, doctors, financiers, you name it, who come through the doors at the end of a day beaten down by society and its demands. But in the course of an hour or two of training, hard physical training on whatever item we’re doing at that time, they transform and become themselves again. By the end of that training session they’re tired and sweaty, but they’re happy and reenergized. You know that they’re walking away with healthy benefits.

With this in mind, I want to address the concept of happiness and how this also ties into your immune system. We all have stress, but there’s good stress and there’s bad stress. Kung Fu training is stressful. It stresses the joints, muscles, tendons and bones in your body. It stresses the organs, your respiratory system, and it stresses your brain to make it function in tune with your body. This is all stress but it’s good stress because it’s leading to an awakening, an understanding and actualizing of oneself, therefor making you happier. This strengthens your immune system because, in my limited scope of knowledge and understanding, your brain controls your body. Your left pinky toe doesn’t tell your body what to do. In a very general picture, your state of mind has a direct influence on your health. If you’re miserable and unhappy, you’re more likely to get ill faster and easier than someone who is happier or in a better state of mind. The physical training is helping your immune system galvanize itself and make itself stronger to be able to resist illnesses coming in and infiltrating your system. At the same time the training is also making you happier. There must be some kind of correlation between the happiness of an individual and their health.

In a recent study quoted in Psychology Today, 350 adults volunteered to be exposed to the cold virus. Those with the most positive emotions were less likely to develop the cold than their less happy counterparts. Several other studies mentioned in the article corroborate this theory. A healthy individual is a happy individual; one goes hand in hand with the other, and Kung Fu training helps you tap into that. I’m here in my training hall every day all day from morning until night. That’s my choice; that’s what I do, I teach and train all day. It is inevitable that in a hot, sweaty little room of 20-30 people, somebody at some point is going to walk in with the cold virus. But I rarely, if ever, get sick and I rarely, if ever, take a day off. I see people come in on the verge of getting sick or full blown sick, coughing, sneezing, everything, but the training provides a shield around you. I’m not advocating for you to expose yourself to a sickly individual, but your training is like pennies in the piggy bank. You train every day, on a regular basis, and then you benefit.

Here’s another case in point on the mental side. On Sunday, I had a student send me an urgent text, “Sifu, I’m training. I’m one third into the form and I’m blanking out.” I’m getting ready to go out somewhere and do something when I receive this text and I say, ok, well this guy’s gone through this form with me countless times and all of a sudden he’s forgotten. I know why, because his work and family obligations have taken him off the training floor for at least a good 2-3 weeks. Not only is he going down physically but mentally, he’s not able to remember the remainder of the form and finish training. I return the text; I turn on the microphone of my phone and I walk him through every single movement until the closing of the set. Five minutes later, he responds, “Thank you so much. I know my problem. I’ve been out of touch for too long; that’s why this happened.” We’re talking about a veteran student, not a brand new guy. So, right there I see that training has direct implication not only on the physical but on the mental, in this case, memorization. When you train on a consistent basis, you’re able to retain and memorize and hold onto information much longer and deeper than you were ever able to before. This is a major factor as you age, which we all do on a daily basis. That’s another awesome way that Kung Fu training helps you to boost your immune system, physically and mentally. I mean, who doesn’t want to preserve themselves longer. The only other option is formaldehyde or pickling yourself or a cryo-tube and none of those options appeal to me. Breathing, moving, thinking on a daily basis – and I have to stress a daily basis – and surrounding yourself with good energy and good people helps to maintain and maybe even push your immune system to a higher level than it would have been if you didn’t.

Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against modern medicine, but I think the human body the way it was created is one of the most amazing systems. It can help to heal itself if it’s given a helping hand from its owner. This is my personal opinion and my personal observation because I see people on a daily basis. This is what I do; I deal with people. I see them when they’re healthy and when they’re not healthy. I’ve seen myself when I’m at the top of my game vs. when I’m on the verge of getting ill, and I know what makes the difference. The difference is exercising every day and keeping a healthy and happy mindset and attitude. Kung Fu is fun, it’s intriguing, it’s enlightening, insightful, educational, cultural and philosophical. There’s so much to gain from doing something like this that another exercise regimen may not be able to give you. You have to move and think. Because you engage your mind and body on a regular basis, you slow the aging process. You gain serenity and peace of mind which also must have an impact on the immune system. You don’t have to do a lot, but you do have to put in the time.

From my personal observation and experience, that means daily training in Kung Fu, because it covers such a broad spectrum of stretching, breathing, moving, and accessing the mind as well as the spirit. It helps to stabilize and raise up your immune system, therefor giving you health benefits that I think are paramount in your daily life. Because you have a healthier mental and physical attitude, you don’t get sick as often. You boost your immunity through Kung Fu, and you can work harder, play harder, enjoy more and be more productive in all aspects of your life.

-Sifu Paul Koh

DÉJÀ VU… FLASHBACKS OF A KUNG FU VETERAN

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but lately, I’ve been having lots of very vivid flashbacks. Teaching the Kwan Do, and black tiger steals the heart and various tiger claw techniques has been taking me back 25 years into the past. I’ve been having vivid flashback memories of my Sifu teaching me. At that time, it was horrific; he was screaming from across the room, “No, no, no!” I lived on a diet of “no.” Now, as I’m teaching the form I’m looking back at it with joyful glee and laughing, laughing so much I have to call my Sifu. I tell him, “I feel like a haggard warrior; I’m having flashbacks!” At that moment in time, it was the most bitter and difficult thing because I had to take my entire ego down to learn something new, but now I’m so happy.

At that time, I had 15 years of experience, but I had to put my ego away until I could cycle up again. This is the natural cycle of learning. You feel awesome and you absolutely love what you’re doing. You think you’re doing really well and moving forward. Then at a certain point, you realize you’re not doing that well. You start to think, “I hate this. I’m going to quit.” If you’ve never gone through that cycle, then you’ve never really done it. It’s the inner battle with the self that’s at the heart of it; it’s not your teacher, it’s not the time, it’s not the Kung Fu. It’s you. You hate you and love you at the same time. You have to be done with you. You have to get over you to move forward with you. Put a big WTF on yourself and think, “What’s the matter with me?” Then you either hit the giant reset button and start again, or you quit. If you choose the first option, you start the cycle of learning again and it’s so cool! Lately, I’ve been having many flashbacks to the first day I learned something that totally exploded my world, epiphanies I had along the way, times I had to put the pieces back together and start again. It’s the coolest thing! Now, you’re starting to actually live the Kung Fu. You’re no longer on the sidelines. You’re actually living the life and walking the path.

It’s been a rough road. One of my students said to me this morning, “Sifu, I don’t know if people really appreciate how much effort you’ve put in not just to start the school, but to keep it running.” Because you do come to that point where you quit and say, never again. There was a time, a long, long time ago, when I said, “I’m not doing this anymore,” and I walked away for at least a year and didn’t touch it. I tried to make another life for myself, but I was completely miserable. At that time, I was much less in tune with who I wanted to be, and I was much more concerned with making other people happy with my choices than being happy with my own choices. Ultimately, I had to confess that it wasn’t anybody but me. That takes courage, and it’s a process of finding out who you are. When I was able to do that, I was able to start again. I mean, literally start again from scratch. I don’t know how many times I’ve actually had to do that. But after you do it many times, it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s like you’re sitting there winding up the Jack-in-the-Box. You sit there winding it up, and Jack comes out and punches you in the face. The first time, it hurts, but you do it so many times that you’re ready for him, and you can hit him back. In life, even if you didn’t know what was coming, at a certain point you know that this is just the way life goes because you’ve lived more life. That’s how life is. That’s how training in Kung Fu is. It’s a giant wheel, but you know how to ride the wheel now because you’ve passed so many things.

You walk this path of, “I hate it, I love it, I hate it, I love it.” You think you know what you’re doing and then you come to a cross roads where either you can continue to say, “I know what I’m doing,” or you can stop and ask for directions. Even if you choose to go down the road of saying, “I know what I’m doing,” there’s always an exit ramp a few miles down the road that takes you around, so you can come back to realizing you don’t know. You can always find your way back if you truly want to. If you can’t find that path, then I think you just live in that state of denial, as they say. In your heart of hearts, when there’s no lights on and no one around, you know the truth, but in the daylight, you never confess because it’s just too hard to take. If you’re smart you take the higher road. It is the harder road, but if you pick it, the end is that much better. Living the martial art lifestyle challenges you to question yourself on many occasions. That’s the breaking point, when you question yourself, when you have the opportunity to either grow and go beyond or just resign. It’s an everyday challenge.

If you’re not continually feeling stupid, then you’re not learning. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you need to get your head handed to you. I know less today than I knew 20 years ago. I know that I didn’t know anything even two weeks ago, because my Sifu just proved it to me and that’s the most awesome thing. There’s still a chance for me; I still have a chance. That’s great. I appreciate that, and I say thank you to my teacher for showing me the ignorance that I have. He’s showing me the possibility of being able to learn again. Then, teaching my students and having those feelings of déjà vu and being able to play back the memories, I appreciate what I have, appreciate those moments of epiphany and appreciate those moments of stupidity because those are the things that keep the circle spinning. I had to call my Sifu and say, “I just had a flashback when I tried to teach one of my students that form,” and I said to him, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I didn’t understand before.” Because you have to change your mind, and you have to roll with that. Once you know how to roll with that, then nothing can touch you anymore. You broke everything open. You know and you don’t know simultaneously. The wheel keeps turning, but you are moving forward and you still have a chance. You live Kung Fu in your life and you live your life with Kung Fu. Your life becomes bound up inside it and it permeates everything and that’s the coolest thing ever.

Well, I’m off to create new flashbacks… Everyone have a great day!

--Sifu Paul Koh

LET IT GROW BY DOING NOTHING

As I’m standing here watching the torrential downpour in the Chinatown streets, I started thinking about training, and how sometimes we have the problem of our eyes being too big for our stomach 眼睛要大到胃. What I mean by that is although you may want to consume as much technical knowledge as possible, you can only digest so much at any one given point in time. What many practitioners and beginning students don’t understand is that sometimes backing off may be one of the best things you could ever do. Because no matter how hard you cram it in, it’s not going to permeate into your overall depth and understanding. It has to be given time. 

This is very much akin to having been given a beautiful plant as a gift. You love it and you cherish it, and you want to care for it so much that you start to over-water it, thereby killing it, because you never let it grow. Sometimes, you let things grow by doing nothing and letting them permeate into your understanding. To this day, when my Sifu teaches me something new or a variation on something we’ve done, it takes me time to catch up with it. Initially, you can follow along, but it’s purely just following along. You haven’t digested the material into your subconscious. It hasn’t become part of your martial understanding. You can practice it as much as you want, but it’s still going to take time. You’re not going to be able to force the issue and have it become something until you’re ready. Coming back to that beautiful plant that you have in your office or your home, you can’t pull it up by the roots and make it grow faster. It’s going to grow as its going to grow when it’s going to grow. You just have to leave it alone. 

This is hard, because human nature, for the most part, doesn’t allow us to have enough peace of mind or believe enough in the process (see previous blog on being part of the process). We end up ruining or hurting the process of learning by not allowing ourselves the given time. Coming back to training, I distinctly remember training with my Sifu and learning some wonderful techniques and movements and desperately wanting to catch them and desperately wanting to be able to utilize and apply them. In fact, I trained so hard several times that I ended up hurting myself. From this experience, you understand that you have to stop. This is like when you’re driving. If you see a yellow light, it means start to slow down. If you see a red light it means full stop. When the green light turns then you may proceed. Everyone has to follow these rules. If you exceed the speed limit or blow through red lights, you’re going to end up hurting yourself. You have to understand how to train. It’s not enough to train like a demon all day long. Kung Fu takes time. 

In that essence, Kung Fu is like bo tong 煲汤, a soup for protection of your health that the Cantonese are famous for making. Bo tong is made from pork bones that have to be cooked and boiled for a long period of time with many different ingredients. It has to sit there to distill the essence of those ingredients. You can’t microwave it. The same thing is true with your Kung Fu. It’s a slow process, and sometimes you have to make a full on stop and leave it alone to let it digest internally, mentally, physically and spiritually until you’re able to come full circle and bring it back out again. That takes a little bit of patience. You don’t really understand that in the beginning of your training. You have to go through a long period of time before you understand that you can’t have it today. 

I have a student who is learning a spear form. She’s learned the spear before and has some experience, but she’s learning this new spear form that has a lot of variations of movements and she’s encountering a lot of frustration. The frustration is not with the spear form; it’s with the approach of the individual and their learning. Sometimes, you just have to stop and let it grow. Work on one piece, one section again and again and again, and then back off and come back to it later. This is no different than the process that a writer would go through in writing a story or a painter would go through in painting a picture, or a martial artist goes through learning his technique or performing his weapon. We all have to take a step back, stop and sometimes even walk away. You think, “No, no, no, if I keep going, if I keep painting, writing, singing, dancing, whatever art form you want to do (because Kung Fu is an art) it will get better.” But it doesn’t. Instead, you’re going to end up breaking it. 

Here’s another good analogy in just stopping and letting it grow. I can remember when my Sifu was training me to do iron palm training. I would train pretty diligently, and I was consumed by it like everybody else because of the mystique of attaining this kind of a skill. At one point, I was training really hard every day, breaking bricks one after another until there was a big pile of bricks behind me. (Please don’t make the joke that bricks and boards don’t hit back.) My Sifu was watching me and he said, “Stop.” I said, “But Sifu, I have to train.” He said, “Stop, you broke one, you broke two, now you broke three. Stop.” I just looked at him, and he said, “Stop, that’s enough. You’re going to break your hand.” You can’t become so overconsumed with trying to capture something when it’s not ready. At some point you just have to stop, leave it alone, walk away, let it grow and come back to it. And you know what? I took his advice; I stopped, and I didn’t come back to it for quite some time. Now, every once in a while, I play the iron palm bag and break a few bricks. Then I walk away. I’m no longer consumed by the idea of trying to capture this mysterious power. 

The other day, I asked the class, “What’s your favorite drink?” and I got a whole bunch of answers. One guy said whiskey, and another guy said cold brew coffee, and somebody else said chocolate milk and we all laughed. They’re all great drinks, but you can overdo it. You can definitely overdo whiskey. You can also O.D. on chocolate milk to the point that you’re disgusted by it, and it’s no longer your favorite drink. So, how do you maintain that balance within your training and keep that affinity and that affection for it? You have to take a few steps back and sometimes even stop altogether. I’m not advocating quitting or not practicing. But by overdoing it, you actually destroy your ability to learn and digest, and your skill actually becomes less. There’s a fine line of how to practice. If you oversharpen the knife, you destroy the blade. That’s the real important part of stopping and letting it grow. When you’re hot on top of the subject, you can no longer see clearly. By stopping and walking away, and coming back to it two, three days or a week later, you’re able to look at it with fresh eyes. 

Another great analogy would be when you’re having an argument or a heated discussion with somebody – politics, religion, whatever. In the heat of the moment, in the heat of passion, you say and do things that maybe shouldn’t be said or done. Then, with hindsight, you look back and you wonder why you said or did that. You think, I should have just kept quiet or walked away. I could have handled it a different way. When you’re calm and cool and slightly dispassionate about the subject you can look at it more appropriately and make better judgments. This is the same type of attitude you have to have about your training. Overdoing something, even when it’s a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s going to grow any faster. You’re going to end up hurting yourself. I was watering the plant the other day and I saw that all the water was getting soaked up by the soil. I wanted to water it more, but I had to stop. I said to myself, you’ve done this before; you’ve overwatered the plant, and you came back the next day and saw the leaves were yellow. I knew this was my fault for not doing it right. 

It’s the same thing with training. I was training with my Sifu yesterday. We were going over something that I learned 20 plus years ago, and he was making refinements. I found myself saying, “Sifu, enough. I only want to do these two sections; I don’t want to do another piece.” In the past, I would never say this, but now I know when I’ve reached the max that I can digest. I need several days to internalize this before I can come back and work at it again. This is a level of maturity that the Kung Fu practitioner has to reach within himself and cannot be taught to you by someone else. You must discover this by practicing. You can practice every day, but you don’t have to max yourself out. If you take a day or two off, you don’t have to feel guilty. As long as you’re genuine in your practice, you’ll return to it. 

Sometimes, you have to back off because you’ve done it so much you can’t taste it anymore. You have to control your heart. If you say, “I want this, that and the other thing,” you’re not doing a service to yourself, to the item that you’re learning, nor to the art of Kung Fu. Just because you can get it, doesn’t mean that you should. You may not be ready yet. That’s another reason why you have to stop and let it grow because you don’t have the capacity at this point in time to appreciate the value of what you’re learning. Your mental processes need time to digest information. You’re training your brain like a muscle, how to absorb. And the mind, just like any muscle, needs a day of rest. Your mental process is inextricably tied to your physical ability. If you’re not able to adjust and grow your mental process, the physical process is not going to happen. Don’t let it go; let it grow. Let it grow by doing nothing.

THE SYNTAX OF KUNG FU

syntax (noun) /ˈsinˌtaks/
1) the way in which linguistic elements (such as words) are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses)
2) a connected or orderly system : harmonious arrangement of parts or elements

Because I am traveling abroad, I've recently had the chance to speak about Kung Fu training with several different masters in several different languages. I've had to switch back and forth between Cantonese, English and Greek and make translations to have these individuals understand the theories that I was talking about. I found that I had to stop and change my mental process in order to adapt to the syntax of each language and to make the necessary translations to help each individual understand, because one language's syntax and mental process didn't necessarily match with the others. This made me pause and think about the syntax of Kung Fu and what it truly means as well as the difficulties that individuals have in learning and understanding their chosen system of martial arts. Like each spoken language, the syntax of each martial art system is different and needs a different thought process. Many individuals only use pure physical imitation to play their martial art. These individuals miss the true understanding they could gain by learning the language and syntax of their system.

When learning another language, everyone has to try to grasp the understanding and concepts behind the syntax of that language. To understand the syntax of a particular language, one needs to delve into the thought process of how that language is put together and utilized. When you speak English, you have to use English syntax, but when you speak a different language, you must be able to sync up with the syntax of that other language. This is no different than learning any martial art. Each martial art system may be comprised of similar movements, but the syntax — that is to say, the way it's put together — is different. Even though some martial arts systems may originate from the same source, the founders of those systems thought in a particular way and had a particular reason for structuring the syntax of that martial art.

The syntax of your system is the way it uses the body and its particular physical language, and how to properly put together all the movements to get the job done effectively and efficiently. You need to develop an understanding of the syntax of your chosen system. All of us have the same four limbs, torso, waist, head, eyes and physical parts; we all have a mentality; we all have a spirit. Every system uses these same attributes that each of us has, but each system puts them together in a different way. In other words, they may come to the same conclusion but arrive in a different manner. Each system has a different way of approaching and expressing the movement and getting to that final conclusion of making the movement work. This is what I mean by the syntax of your particular system. Delving deeper into it, any martial art – Karate, Judo, boxing, Kung Fu and so on – will each have a different syntax. This will require the individual to be able to change gears and be able to think and speak in that physical language differently.

In the beginning, when one starts to learn Kung Fu or many martial arts, there are basics that are taught. These basics are indispensable for learning the syntax of things to come. In the beginning, our teacher showed us basic stances: horse stance, front stance, tiger stance and so on, reverse punches, swing punches, uppercuts, kicking and all different techniques until we were able to follow along and put them together into a basic routine. The foundation in teachings of any particular system is rooted within the syntax of its basic movements. These must be ingrained in the individual practitioner so they innately understand them without having to think too much about it.

In learning another language, you first have to learn its alphabet system, or in the sense of the Chinese language, you have to learn all the brush strokes and how to put them together to create words. Words then create symbols which have meaning. The study of Kung Fu, since it is a Chinese language, follows that same philosophical idea. When you look at a Chinese character, it's a pictograph. It's a message and an idea, not necessarily just a letter as it would be in some other languages. Similarly, each movement in Kung Fu is the embodiment of an idea through action. The typical movement, the punch or kick, is also coupled with the stance, the body position, the angle and the twist of the body or the leg.

Therefor, when you see one particular movement, you're not looking at one movement, you're actually looking at several meanings combined together. Just because a particular position looks like something doesn't necessarily mean that it is that thing. To use the old Chinese proverb, 一張圖片勝過千言萬語, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is an apropos way of looking at learning Kung Fu, particularly when looking at basic postures and forms. You can decipher many things from looking at one particular stance or position. It could mean a hand strike, a takedown, a sweep, a kick – not just whatever is most obvious to most people. Many of us, when we first start training, are masters of the obvious, but this is not what is hidden within the syntax of Kung Fu training and forms. To understand the true meaning of Chinese martial arts and its syntax, you must understand that a movement is compound. It is not just one movement but could be several movements with several different variations of applications all depending on the understanding of the individual. It will take a long time for a student that is not used to this type of syntax to decipher what is being shown. You may look at a particular movement and see something, then look at it again several years later and see something else. Therefor, you have to have a good grasp of the syntax of that particular language. This is not easy to come by. Fluency and understanding will only come from daily practice of your forms and with your partner, under the guidance of a competent and knowledgeable instructor.

When the basics are ingrained in the individual and digested to the point that they can start stringing simple movements together, this is akin to putting together basic words from the alphabet system that you have learned. From there, you can construct simple sentences. As time passes, and your writing skills become better, i.e., your martial arts skills become better, you are able to "write" and create more movements with complexity and depth. Words lead to sentences; sentences lead to paragraphs; paragraphs lead to pages; pages lead to an entire book. An entire book can be seen as a form; both minor and major forms serve as different types of training vehicles.

You can go through the physical manipulation of whatever techniques are set down in front of you, but without understanding the actual grammatical structure of the system, what it's trying to achieve, and how it's putting together all the different pieces to accomplish one particular action or group of actions, you will never be able to understand the true meaning of what you are practicing, nor will you be able to access the deeper meanings or the nuances of the syntax there within. Learning and understanding the syntax of your given school or system is indispensable because this is going to give you the tools of understanding that will allow you to apply your movements just as fluently as you would speak another language. In order to get this fluency in your martial arts, you need to practice on a daily basis. It is impossible to learn and speak a language fluently if you don't use it regularly. This goes without saying. Exactly the same is true about martial arts training. It has to be done on a daily basis and utilized regularly in order to maintain its sharpness. Otherwise, you end up looking like a Kung Fu tourist with a phrase book in hand, always messing up what you are trying to say. If you're a tourist trying to speak a language you don't really know, this only makes you look foolish in front of a native speaker. But in the sense of martial arts training, you may end up getting hurt. This is why it's so important to have complete command over all your basics, including strikes, blocks, kicks and so on. When true fluency is found through understanding the syntax of the individual practitioner's system, they can begin to utilize and literally speak with their hands and feet and entire body and express the true essence of their system.

The ultimate expression of the individual comes from their understanding and fluency in the syntax of their system. Everyone can express themselves in their own way as long as they master this syntax and understand the nuances within. Then, no one individual is correct or incorrect. We all speak in our own way using the same language to express our understanding. Therefor, Kung Fu is limitless and its expression boundless as long as we understand the syntax of the given system we have chosen to study.

-Sifu Paul Koh

OVERNIGHT SUCCESS... 20 YEARS IN THE MAKING

台上一分鐘 台下十年功
“For one minute on stage, you need ten years work under the stage.”
-Old Chinese Saying

I’m an old guy, so my taste in music is not contemporary. I like old school classic rock, progressive hard rock, that kind of stuff. You think about those bands, and you know their songs; maybe you have their greatest hits album. But you only recognize them for the high point in their career. For example, do you know how long AC/DC has been around? They’re not an overnight success, but the Iron Man movie catapulted them to another level. They’ve actually been around since 1973, but no one knew them back then. They probably had to play dive bars and outdoor festivals and every nasty little gig they could get. They did it because they loved playing rock and roll. It took a good 20 years or more for them to get noticed. You’ve seen this time and time again.

Take the example of a Broadway actor. These guys have been working at their craft since their youth, doing small plays, Shakespeare in the Park if they were lucky, doing every little acting gig that they could, until they broke the ice. Then, all of a sudden, you’re successful, and everybody maligns you and says, “Look at that guy, look at that girl, they’re an overnight success. They must have known someone, paid someone, or slept with someone, to get somewhere.” You’ve been working so hard, but no one took notice of you until you got that one big chance that catapulted you into the spotlight of mainstream society. The people on the other side of the coin think that you just popped up out of nowhere. To them, you’re an “overnight success.” Many of us, myself included, have looked at a singer, an actor, another martial artist, and said, “Where’d this guy come from? All of a sudden they’re all over the place. They must’ve ‘did’ something to get there.” And the truth of the matter is, they did DO something to get there. What did they do? They did their hard work; they sacrificed. They put so much time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into their craft for countless years until finally someone took notice. Then we, as the greater public, look at them and go, “Come on, you just crawled out of the woodwork because you have friends in high places.” That’s not really the case. The truth of the matter is, those individuals have probably been working at it for at least a decade or two in order to make it. Very few just make it right off the bat. With that being said, we shouldn’t be quick to judge or dismiss the so-called overnight success because there is no such thing as an overnight success. None of us will become an overnight success, and this is what we need to remember. Just because you don’t see the decades of work someone has put into their craft doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Another good analogy is Chinese cooking. Did you ever wonder why you’re able to go to a Chinese restaurant, be it a sit-down restaurant here in Chinatown or a take-out joint, and literally get your food in five to fifteen minutes? It’s all about the preparation. This really speaks to Kung Fu, because you work, you practice; you practice, you work; you work out, you refine. You do the same movement again and again, and you do the same form for years on end. Many times, you question yourself and ask why? Why am I knocking my brains out to do a repetition of this thing thousands of times? You don’t understand, you get frustrated, until that one moment when you actually need it and you’re able to apply it. Then you understand why it’s so important to be prepared. That goes back to the analogy of your Chinese takeout food. Why can they can crank it out in 10 minutes? All the preparation has been done; everything has been diced and chopped. Everything is ready to go so that when the order comes in, they can put it together and it’s done. It’s not fast food; it’s the nature of how they cook. This is also the nature of your martial arts. You have to be prepared. Prepared for what? Prepared for anything. If you don’t practice like this, when you go to utilize it, it’s not there because you haven’t done the preparation. That’s the same for any actor, singer, dancer or martial artist. Anyone who’s involved in an art that requires a skill needs to put in that time and do the preparation on a regular basis or the skill will not be there when you need it.

There’s an old Chinese saying that says, 台上一分鐘 台下十年功 “For one minute on stage, you need ten years work under the stage.” My teacher, Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, trained under a famous Kung Fu opera star and master, Lueh Gwok Cheun, and you may not know his name. But he was one of the top martial art coaches for Shaw Brothers Productions during the sixties and seventies, and trained many of your favorite stars, including Cheng Pei Pei, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Chen Koontai and many more. He was very fond of telling my teacher that statement again and again. He travelled the entire world performing Peking Opera and training stars to perform martial arts in countless movies. It’s the gravity of the statement that shocks me. One minute is equal to ten years. So how many years do you need to be able to actually perform, to be able to do to what’s deemed as up to par? You need decades and decades. According to this statement, thirty years is three minutes. Maybe it’s not that extreme, but it’s pretty close. You really have to be dedicated and devoted to your craft in order to attain that height of performance. That just boggles my mind. When someone says you’re just an overnight success, we have to take a step back and think about what this old master is saying through his decades of experience teaching and performing live shows. I think his saying that statement over and over again is just amazing. That sums it up. One minute is equal to ten years worth of work, so we better start working. The clock is ticking.

This comes back to the overnight success. Just because now you’re a so called “overnight success” doesn’t even mean that you’ve really made it. You still have to keep “making it” all the time. That means you still have to keep putting in the work, you still have to keep putting in the time. You’re only as good as the very last thing that you did. Just because people think you’ve made it doesn’t mean you’ve made it, either. You have to go back every day and start preparing again; it’s a continual process. AC/DC still has to go in for a sound check; they still have to rehearse; they still have to practice. The successful Broadway actor still has to go to class. It has to be real every day; otherwise it’s not real at all. Otherwise it’s just a fluke, an “overnight success”. You have to prove yourself on a daily basis. That’s the hard part that everybody has to deal with. Can you make it happen? That’s up to you.

Relating this back to our martial art training, no matter how good a system we pick, no matter how good our teacher is, no matter how amazing we think we are, we need to remember that there’s no such thing as overnight success for any of us. Nothing can replace hard work, dedication and loads of time.

-Sifu Paul Koh

UNSUNG HEROES: "NEVER A HERO IN YOUR OWN HOME"

Please excuse me… I don’t want to sound like I’m moaning and complaining, but truth be told, you’re never really a hero in your own home. What do I mean by this? I’m sure that many of you can relate. You work so hard every day, you provide for everyone that is attached to you unceasingly, and yet, it never seems to be enough or good enough. Yet without you being present and doing what you do every day, all the wheels will grind to a halt. You do, do, do every day. Day in and day out, you give of yourself. You provide mental, physical, financial and spiritual support. You give guidance and compassion, provide words and deeds to uplift everyone, yet in the end, appreciation and gratitude are in short supply. Often, people who are far away offer words of appreciation and thanks more readily than those who are closest to you or who derive the greatest benefit from your efforts. You are viewed through “heroic” glasses by those who are far away yet taken for granted by those whose appreciation you crave most.

There are times when it seems to you that this is incredibly unfair. And it is. You start to ask yourself the question, “What the hell am I doing? No one appreciates me, everyone takes me for granted.” I don’t even receive a simple, “Thank you, I appreciate you for all you do,” or even, “I’m grateful that you’re just part of my life.” Then you walk around all day kicking yourself in the backside saying, “Never again, never again.” I understand this feeling, but don’t cry; it’s ok. 

The truth of the matter is, even though you may not be lauded as a hero or appreciated the way you feel you should be, these other individuals that are connected to you need you because you ARE a true hero. You are the only one that is capable of holding your team, family, corporate entity, or whatever it be, together. You have to understand that “you’re the man,” as they say, and no one else can replace you. 

Everybody has different gifts. Everyone has different attributes and different callings, and if you’ve been called to the service of being a teacher, a mentor, a guide of any sort, to any one individual or a group of individuals, you must always remind yourself that at this moment in time, you will not be looked upon as a hero, and you may not be appreciated until much later. Maybe those individuals will never be able to see and comprehend all the things you do for them. That gap of understanding is what separates the ones that lead from the ones that follow. This goes for parents, teachers, mentors and leaders of any sort. The ones that you help are being helped by you because they need what you have to give. 

You’ve been put here, by the universe, to be a crucible, to direct and focus everyone’s energy. I think we do this, not because we are seeking to be commended or applauded, or looked upon as heroes, but rather because it is innate in our nature. Heroic deeds are done by those individuals because that is what needs to be done at that moment in time, not for the reward. If you’re doing it for the accolades, then it’s not truthful; it’s being done for the wrong reason. The true hero is selfless. The real hero doesn’t know that he’s a hero and doesn’t call himself a hero. He’s just doing his daily job, just doing the thing that he does, without looking for glory. The true hero is content with doing his task day in and day out, because that is his nature. 

You don’t have to have a cape or a secret identity to be a hero. Most heroes are unsung. The mom that takes the little kid to his Kung Fu lesson every Tuesday afternoon is a hero. The dad that works the extra job to make sure that his child can go to school and pay for his college tuition loans is a hero. The teacher that stays up late at night grading papers and reviewing essays to make sure their students get a good education is a hero. Just because you haven’t fought in any battles with aliens doesn’t mean you’re not a hero. The common every day hero abounds, is everywhere, and they’re all unsung and unacknowledged. They all require appreciation, but for the most part they don’t receive it. 

Every day, I see the fruit seller across the street from my school in Chinatown, and because we both work long hours every single day, we get to see each other and say good morning. I appreciate this guy because I see him going in and out, up and down from the storeroom from early in the morning to late at night, moving the fruit back and forth, dealing with irate customers and crazy New Yorkers on the street corner, and this guy never ever complains. You see his face; it’s placid and calm. He’s taking everything in stride. You could say, well, that’s his job; that’s how he makes a living. But he has a choice; he doesn’t have to do that and he doesn’t have to have a good attitude about it. He could go and do something else, yet he perseveres. This is another attribute of a true heroic character. He perseveres, rain, snow or heat, and does his duty every day to support his family and his business. To me, this is heroic and I applaud him. He’s perseverant and extremely humble. He does his task with a wonderful humility, which I admire.

I know an individual whose grandmother helped raise 12 of her own children and all her grandchildren. She’s almost ninety years old. That’s not a hero? If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is. For me, heroes abound. Sometimes, we just don’t know how to see them or appreciate them. Just because you don’t have stripes and medals doesn’t mean you’re not a hero in your own home. You may feel that no one appreciates you, but in essence, no one can do without you. 

Look around, really look around at all the people in your neighborhood and see how many heroes you can find. There are heroes on every street corner. I’m looking at the street in Chinatown right now and I see so many heroes, and most of them will never be recognized for their service. Yet this doesn’t stop them. We should have a national Everyday Unrecognized Hero Day. That would be a holiday worth celebrating. I think all of us should take a moment to sing the praises of those unsung heroes in our daily lives that we owe so much to, because if you didn’t have them, you would be lesser for it. Recognize this, and take a moment to reach out to those people and say, “Thank you.”

-Sifu Paul Koh

KUNG FU: SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

The discussion about Kung Fu is a difficult one and brings up a myriad of possibilities and options, because the word Kung Fu itself doesn’t denote martial arts in general, but rather, acquiring a skill in any art form or endeavor.  Understanding that the literal translation of the word “Kung Fu” means, “a skill acquired through hard work and perseverance,” in this blog I will be strictly talking about Kung Fu as related to learning and practicing Chinese martial arts.

There are many types of Kung Fu.  Not all Kung Fu is created equal, but that doesn’t mean that one type is better than another.  Different kinds of Kung Fu are put together to do different jobs.  Kung Fu is a broad umbrella – covering everything from fighting to health to entertainment.  People all around the world believe that the term “Kung Fu” is exclusive to what they’ve witnessed in movies, social media and magazines. This isn’t so. Kung Fu is an extremely broad term that covers a huge spectrum of the Chinese martial arts. Over the thousands of years of the existence of Chinese martial arts, the nature of Kung Fu has been shaped and changed tremendously due to the needs and desires of the practitioners.

Kung Fu as an art form most likely started in its most practical form, for one individual to protect themselves or their family from harm. We’re talking about prehistoric times, when there was no real record, no system, no technique, just one guy picking up a rock or a stick to defend himself against another guy.  That’s the genesis of real Kung Fu.  But as the centuries passed it divided itself into more specialized types of Kung Fu or skill sets. This hearkens back to the real meaning of Kung Fu – an acquired skill.

The history and development of Kung Fu has been shaped by topography, the weather, the terrain, the social environment of that particular region, the mindset of the individuals, and the economic and social climate of a given area.  When looking at any particular style or system, you have to ask yourself, who was the guy that made it?  What was his purpose?  What was his background?  What was the philosophy and psychological makeup he used to create this particular system of Kung Fu?

If you’re talking about social and economic diversity, Kung Fu that was played by affluent people is going to vary a lot from Kung Fu played by those that were impoverished and downtrodden.  If you were rich and well taken care of, your need to protect yourself would be a much lower priority than it would be for someone who’s coming from a rough and tumble hand-to-mouth existence.  If you’re a farmer, your Kung Fu is going to be different than that of an aristocrat or a courtesan.  Even though these individuals are both practicing Kung Fu, they are practicing different styles with completely different mindsets.  One is going to be more esthetic and pleasing to the eye.  The other is going to be more rough around the edges and about getting the job done.  The philosophies of these two types of Kung Fu are already in stark contrast to one another just based on social economic ways and means.

Another difference would be the actual region where you come from – the weather, the topography. Different regions in China have different weather and different types of land.  In the south where it’s warm and humid, everything was farm land and a rice paddy.  Your Kung Fu is going to be different from a style practiced in the north where the weather is much colder and you have to wear heavier clothes.  Kung Fu is transformed and modified by those who practice and teach it. The art form changes and morphs depending on the needs, wants, desires and capabilities of its practitioners.

For example, the Chinese opera is famous for its acrobats and its martial artists.  The Kung Fu that is used in Chinese opera is theatrical and dramatized.  The same is true with martial arts in many movies today.  That’s entertainment Kung Fu.  It’s very pleasing to the eye, and is an amazing skill which not everyone can do, but it doesn’t necessarily equate itself to a fighting system.  That’s not to say you can’t modify it and use it, or that all the Kung Fu in the movies isn’t real. Many martial artists in the entertainment industry have backgrounds in opera Kung Fu as well as more traditional fighting based arts.  Some have been able to transition back and forth. That’s actually one of the beauties of Kung Fu itself.  Because of its broad spectrum, you can run the gambit from being visually pleasing and entertaining, to being down and dirty and fighting for your life.  I feel this is one of the most amazing things about Kung Fu; it’s not pigeon holed to only be one way.

That being said, if that’s the case, the skill of the practitioner to be able to transcend from one end of the spectrum to the other has to be of a much, much higher level. Just doing one thing right is not easy, let alone being able to display several different understandings of the same art form. All of the aspects of Kung Fu exist simultaneously.  It’s the choice of each individual practitioner what you want to accentuate.  The health, regenerative, energizing and medicinal aspect of Kung Fu exists.  At the very same time, the fighting aspect, techniques and theories exist.  And simultaneously, Kung Fu can be entertaining and pleasing to the eye. None of these aspects can be separated from Kung Fu. It’s just what the practitioner wants to portray and what’s important to him.

Kung Fu is a lot like life.  You can live your life any way you want, and you can play your Kung Fu any way you want.  If you’re not a street fighter, it doesn’t mean your Kung Fu is good or bad.  Because one practitioner may like the entertainment aspect, or another practitioner only practices for the health benefits, doesn’t mean he’s good or bad either.  It depends on what you want, on your purpose and your goals.  It is up to the individual practitioner to choose those goals and choose their focus.  It’s like in college when you choose your major; if you try to major in ten subjects, you won’t be able to master any of them.  If you choose one major subject, you are more likely to achieve some level of success.  The same is true in Kung Fu and all martial art training.

Kung Fu is an amazing art form that everyone can partake in and learn from. This is why Kung Fu has existed for so many thousands of years and has continued to exist regardless of what trends are happening in the martial arts.  The educated individual that understands the broad spectrum of Kung Fu cannot stand by and say there’s nothing there for them.  If you want to fight all day and night, you can.  If you want to break bricks, you can.  If you just want to stretch and move and breathe, you can.  No one is stopping you; it’s all there for you. Chinese Kung Fu is an all encompassing system.  You can enjoy it because of its esthetic, because it gives you a means to defend yourself, or because it’s a physical and mental exercise.  This is why it has been around for so many thousands of years, and those who have the insight to see beneath the surface will understand that it has all of these benefits.  The broadness of the art of Kung Fu means that everyone, regardless of their status, their makeup, their ability, their capabilities, can come away with something by practicing Kung Fu.

CAUTION: “I KNOW” IS A DANGEROUS STATEMENT

知道不知道 只有天知道
“I know that I don't know… Only Heaven knows.”
-Old Chinese Saying

Inevitably when I’m teaching class, someone will say, “I know” to a technique, a movement, a comment or some bit of philosophy.  I feel that statement, “I know,” is extremely dangerous.  Not only is it dangerous, it’s incredibly naïve.  Many people will say, how do you see that?  Well, after almost 40 years of training martial arts and training with and under some of the pioneers and best Kung Fu masters on the east coast, I still question myself.  If I’m still questioning myself after 40 years, then a less experienced practitioner definitely shouldn’t say, “I know.”  It may be a slip of the tongue, but we have to be careful about that. This is not so much because of what other people might think, but what you actually might think when you say, “I know.”

The phrase, “I know,” limits the scope and breadth of the ability of the individual to learn.  Just by making that simple statement, you shut yourself down because you presume that your experience is more than adequate to flesh out the entire issue of what you’re learning.  Now, as I practice, decades into the art, I find myself learning more than I ever did before and actually practicing more and more in depth than I ever did before.  For example, I like to use the Tiger Crane Double Shadow form (虎鹤双形) as a basis for all my up and coming black belts.  Now, after teaching that form for so long, I still am able to glean more from it every time I teach it.  I don’t know how long I’ve known this form.  I don’t remember the first day that I learned it.  But somehow it always has more to give me.  Every time I teach it to a student, even though the student may not grasp what I’m teaching them, I’m able to derive more out of it.  And I think that’s primarily due to the mental state of not saying, “I know.”

Yesterday, I was training with my Sifu, and he was telling me to change things.  I’ve been training the weapon we were working on for at least a few decades, but I still will not say that I am a master of it.  I think that I am not a master of my art.  And many masters much, much higher in stature and ability than me would also say the same thing.  Other people call them a master of their art.  I look at all these weapons, forms and techniques that I’ve learned and I think to myself, “Still not good enough.  It could be so much better.”  This is not coming from a place of negativity, but from trying to critique myself and help myself gain insight and inspiration into becoming better.  There’s always more to learn.  As you go back and play your forms and weapons again, you need to revise everything.

This is the inspiration that I draw from my Sifu, whose experience is vastly larger and deeper than mine. He’s able to take the same old information and transform it, modify it and make it grow each and every time that I train with him.  It’s the same thing, but it’s never the same thing.  He has mastered the art of making it come alive by never pigeon holing himself into one way of perceiving.  Circumstances change, people change, ideas change, and the way you view things must change accordingly.  If you can do this, you can see so much more.  You have a limitless horizon.

Otherwise you will learn ABC, turn around and say, “what’s next”.  When you say this, you put parameters on yourself.  Everyone wants to feel good.  No one wants to feel bad or feel stupid.  No one wants to be perceived as lacking in knowledge or depth, but in order to truly learn something and know more of it, you have to come from a point of openness and, for lack of a better term, deficiency.  If you already know it so well, then you’re done.  Put your ego down and open yourself up to the learning.  Otherwise there’s no point.  This is all to do with the attitude of the individual.

The true knowing is in not knowing.  Your knowledge and experience may be very deep, but I think the source of that knowledge and experience is even deeper than you.  Why stifle yourself by uttering phrases like, “I know,” be they verbally said or mentally said?  It is a dangerous phrase that kills inspiration, knowledge and your ability to move forward.  The fastest way to start learning again is to adopt that attitude of, “I don’t know, and I’m open to the information.” When you take off the trappings of what you perceived before, you’ll be able to see more almost instantaneously.   

At the end of the day, it’s your state of mind that we’re talking about.  It’s putting your mind in the right gear to learn.  “I know” is like driving in reverse on the highway.  It’s dangerous.  Making that change in your mental state and perception will allow the flood gates to open.  Truly knowing anything begins and ends with understanding the self.  True knowledge can only be gained by first opening one’s mind and heart.
 

SIFU - LOST IN TRANSLATION

SIFU - LOST IN TRANSLATION

Your Sifu (師父)is your direct teacher, the one you started under, the one that opened the door and let you enter into the world and life of the Chinese martial arts.  This is opposed to a Sifu (師傅), meaning “master” or “qualified worker,” someone who has attained a high level of skill in a particular craft.  You may address this master as “Sifu” 師傅 to show him respect, but this doesn’t mean he’s your personal Sifu 師父.  Even though both words are pronounced the same, their meanings are different.  Without your father, be it your Sifu or your biological father, you will not have life.  In that sense, you look at your martial art teacher as a father figure bringing you into the martial arts. 

Pros and Cons of Group and Solo Training

Pros and Cons of Group and Solo Training

You need to be somebody who’s able to work with a team but still able to work individually. If you’re able to do this, what corporate entity would not want to hire you to be part of their management or part of their overall team?  See how this concept applies to daily life? You’re a part of a family unit, yet you still maintain your individual qualities and traits. This resonates through everything you do. It’s a skill set to transition from team to individual, from group to solo.  

What Is Perfect, Anyway?

What Is Perfect, Anyway?

In any pursuit that requires Kung Fu, you’re constantly striving to perfect your concept, your technique and your skill level.  Even if you’ve attained a certain level of proficiency that you perceive to be perfection, there’s still more to learn.  Perfection is an internal struggle.  It’s not you against the world, it’s you against you.

Satisfaction "Not" Guaranteed

Satisfaction "Not" Guaranteed

You pay for your training by honoring the knowledge that is passed down to you and working on it, then passing it on to others.  The satisfaction that you will derive is the satisfaction you will get from your relationship with your teacher and from your own hard work.  This satisfaction is not “guaranteed,” but requires constant “payment” of time and effort.  If you consistently do this work, your training will “pay you back” for the rest of your life.