KUNG FU: LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE

There’s no easy way around the issue of practicing. Learning an item is only that. You can learn an item without truly understanding or knowing it. You have to be able to chew on it and digest it and hold onto it. This can only be done through daily practice. Daily practice is something that a lot of students that are not “into” the art of Kung Fu can’t really fathom. I had a student last night give me the excuse that he had to leave early in order to pick up his laundry before 9pm. As he made this statement, the entire class laughed at him. Now, I’m not telling you not to have clean laundry; I’m all for that. But, the reward, the transformation, is within the practice. I’ve said this before, but you can’t cook with cold water, and you have to break some eggs to make omelets. Getting hot takes quite a bit of time, but only getting hot will allow you to reveal layers of understanding that can’t happen if you just dabble in it.

Treating your martial art practice as a hobby or a pastime is all fine and well, but in reality, is completely the wrong approach. I understand that life gets in the way, but Kung Fu is a way of life; therefor it should get in your way. It should get in the way of all the other things that distract you. It should get in the way of the things that keep you from investing the amount of time that’s needed to get you hot enough to be able to cook something up. Only then can you pass through those self-set stumbling blocks that every one of us encounters. Only then can you reach another level of understanding. You might say to me, I’ve heard this before, you’ve said this before, my teacher has said this before, I’ve read it in a book. You’re probably 100% correct, but it requires repeating on a regular basis. You can’t get something for nothing. If you give a little, you get a little, and if you give a lot, you’re going to get a lot. This is not an understatement. This is just the plain, cold truth. The time and energy being given by any one individual to their daily practice will be seen by those than can. And in this daily practice, the individual practitioner will start to understand their art and themselves.

This understanding is first rooted in basic training. You must continually train your basics, unceasingly, for decades. Train your stances, drill all your basic hand techniques and kicks until they become so well ingrained in you that they are almost a preoccupation. You’re consumed. When you’re standing there in the middle of the office at work and you start busting out movements, then you know you’ve been bitten by the Kung Fu bug. You’re practicing all the time; it’s become an obsession. You’re a chain smoker of Kung Fu. That’s the way you’re supposed to practice. You’re supposed to practice 24/7; you’re not supposed to practice between 7-9pm on Thursday night. You’re supposed to be so all consumed with the practice that it never leaves the forefront of your mind. You end up having Kung Fu dreams where you’re sitting there in bed making motions in the air with your hands, going through the form at night. That’s the way it’s supposed to be (at least for me). That’s the true practice; it colors every part of your existence. It has to be that obsessive-compulsive desire to constantly perfect your movement and in that way perfect your understanding. Using all your senses to practice – sight, smell, taste, feel, and then you develop the internal understanding. You start to develop a sixth sense, a knowing, an understanding of how things should be. You start to verbalize the language (Refer to my syntax blog) that is Kung Fu in a physical and mental way.

I was saying the other day in class, you practice for the click. You have to click with it, and you have to work hard for the click. Otherwise, it’s a mechanical gesture devoid of spirit, chi and understanding. When you get that click, you cannot explain it to anyone else unless they go through the same process that you went through. How many times have you gone through the process? How many times have you reset yourself back to zero and started again? Another even more intense question is, how many times have you quit, relented and come back? How many times have you thrown it on the ground, cursed it, picked it up, kissed it, said I’m sorry, and started again? This goes for all art forms, vocations and callings. If you haven’t done that at least half a dozen times, you’ve never done it.

You’re going to go through this multiple times. That’s the journey, and there are a lot of bumps and potholes in the road. You have to learn to navigate the training, take in the good, the bad the high and the low. A lot of people think there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or that the grass is greener on the other side, but as I’m fond of saying, it’s only Astroturf. Reality sucks and you have to deal with it. That’s why making excuses is the easy way out. The hard way, which many people today don’t really want to deal with, is to go through the process. The process is gut-wrenching and soul searching. It turns you inward and forces you to look at yourself and weigh everything. In a lot of the old Shaw brothers movies, you see a layman who goes to the temple and wants to learn Kung Fu for the sake of revenge. He learns a little but then doesn’t have the fortitude to complete the training and runs away. Sound familiar?

You may ask, Sifu, when does the training end? It doesn’t end. It continues forever. Your practice should last your entire lifetime and carry you through all the different changes, progression and evolution of your life. If it doesn’t, you either picked the wrong thing or you’re doing it the wrong way. From my personal experience, which is all I can speak of, my Kung Fu practice has followed me through different stages of my life and has helped me to progress through them and slowly, hopefully, fulfill the life that is a gift that you’ve been given. Your Kung Fu practice becomes an awesome maintenance tool for body, mind and spirit.

You may wonder why some people are better than others and some are getting it and some just can’t. It has to do with the time and effort the individual has put in and the way you’ve devoted yourself. If you only do a little bit, you may learn something, but you’re never going to permeate the true meaning of the practice, which is the development of the individual. The training becomes a magnification of the individual’s character. The training transforms you from a piece of coal into a glittering diamond. Now, we’re putting the magnification on you. We’re looking for character flaws, for the cracks; we have to cut that out and purify ourselves. Not many people can withstand that because the pressure increases. The heat increases, and it forces you to find those cracks and cut them out. It becomes extremely personal; it’s about perfecting the individual. That’s what you’re doing in your practice. As you practice and try to capture the idea of the movement, in actuality, you’re perfecting yourself. You learn to see your impurities, your character flaws, you take stock of them, you acknowledge them, and then you work to polish them away through the practice. You span the physical to the mental to the spiritual, and flow right back into the physical again. This is no different than any other art, a stroke of the brush, a flick of the wrist to strum the guitar, extending of the hand, extending the mind, the spirit and the body as one. That process is the process that transforms. It is only by spending time with the movement and spending time with your teacher that through the crucible of the practice you come to understand. You have to go within and spend time with yourself on yourself.

When you practice, you are using the vehicle of the form to tap into your energy, which is like lightning in a bottle, the bottle being your physical body. You want to capture that lightning in a bottle and make it work. You are just energy. You’re the lightning in a bottle. How you’re going to use that lightning is your choice. You can squander it, waste it and be foolish, or you can really hone in and make yourself into something. That’s what you’re doing with the practice. The only way to touch it is to practice incessantly. The inside makes the out; the outside never makes the in. You have to work from the inside out. This is what most people are missing. It goes beyond that punch and kick, that deadly technique. Rather, you’re working the energy. Don’t work the move; work the energy. The energy is also a byproduct of your attitude, so while you’re working the movement, you’re working your energy; you’re working the attitude; you’re shining yourself up. That’s what the practice is about.

We’re talking about your attitude, your approach. If you approach it from the right frame of mind, from a happy perspective, being happy to go through the process, happy to be worked over by the art itself, you’re going to glean more than someone who’s being dragged through the mud kicking and screaming. It’s up to you maintain that positive, happy outlook regardless of whether you’re learning a new form and weapon or working on something you’ve been working on for years. It’s that happy, content approach, that overall jovial attitude towards being in it that is going to allow you to harness that lightning in a bottle.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

ALL WARRIORS WALK THE SAME PATH

There’s no easy way around the issue of practicing. Learning an item is only that. You can learn an item without truly understanding or knowing it. You have to be able to chew on it and digest it and hold onto it. This can only be done through daily practice. Daily practice is something that a lot of students that are not “into” the art of Kung Fu can’t reallyfathom. I had a student last night give me the excuse that he had to leave early in order to pick up his laundry before 9pm. As he made this statement, the entire class laughed at him. Now, I’m not telling you not to have clean laundry; I’m all for that. But, the reward, the transformation, is within the practice. I’ve said this before, but you can’t cook with cold water, and you have to break some eggs to make omelets. Getting hot takes quite a bit of time, but only getting hot will allow you to reveal layers of understanding that can’t happen if you just dabble in it. 

Treating your martial art practice as a hobby or a pastime is all fine and well, but in reality, is completely the wrong approach. I understand that life gets in the way, but Kung Fu is a way of life; therefor it should get in your way. It should get in the way of all the other things that distract you. It should get in the way of the things that keep you from investing the amount of time that’s needed to get you hot enough to be able to cook something up. Only then can you pass through those self-set stumbling blocks that every one of us encounters. Only then can you reach another level of understanding. You might say to me, I’ve heard this before, you’ve said this before, my teacher has said this before, I’ve read it in a book. You’re probably 100% correct, but it requires repeating on a regular basis. You can’t get something for nothing. If you give a little, you get a little, and if you give a lot, you’re going to get a lot. This is not an understatement. This is just the plain, cold truth. The time and energy being given by any one individual to their daily practice will be seen by those than can. And in this daily practice, the individual practitioner will start to understand their art and themselves. 

This understanding is first rooted in basic training. You must continually train your basics, unceasingly, for decades. Train your stances, drill all your basic hand techniques and kicks until they become so well ingrained in you that they are almost a preoccupation. You’re consumed. When you’re standing there in the middle of the office at work and you start busting out movements, then you know you’ve been bitten by the Kung Fu bug. You’re practicing all the time; it’s become an obsession. You’re a chain smoker of Kung Fu. That’s the way you’re supposed to practice. You’re supposed to practice 24/7; you’re not supposed to practice between 7-9pm on Thursday night. You’re supposed to be so all consumed with the practice that it never leaves the forefront of your mind. You end up having Kung Fu dreams where you’re sitting there in bed making motions in the air with your hands, going through the form at night. That’s the way it’s supposed to be (at least for me). That’s the true practice; it colors every part of your existence. It has to be that obsessive-compulsive desire to constantly perfect your movement and in that way perfect your understanding. Using all your senses to practice – sight, smell, taste, feel, and then you develop the internal understanding. You start to develop a sixth sense, a knowing, an understanding of how things should be. You start to verbalize the language (Refer to my syntax blog) that is Kung Fu in a physical and mental way. 

I was saying the other day in class, you practice for the click. You have to click with it, and you have to work hard for the click. Otherwise, it’s a mechanical gesture devoid of spirit, chi and understanding. When you get that click, you cannot explain it to anyone else unless they go through the same process that you went through. How many times have you gone through the process? How many times have you reset yourself back to zero and started again? Another even more intense question is, how many times have you quit, relented and come back? How many times have you thrown it on the ground, cursed it, picked it up, kissed it, said I’m sorry, and started again? This goes for all art forms, vocations and callings. If you haven’t done that at least half a dozen times, you’ve never done it. 

You’re going to go through this multiple times. That’s the journey, and there are a lot of bumps and potholes in the road. You have to learn to navigate the training, take in the good, the bad the high and the low. A lot of people think there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or that the grass is greener on the other side, but as I’m fond of saying, it’s only Astroturf. Reality sucks and you have to deal with it. That’s why making excuses is the easy way out. The hard way, which many people today don’t really want to deal with, is to go through the process. The process is gut-wrenching and soul searching. It turns you inward and forces you to look at yourself and weigh everything. In a lot of the old Shaw brothers movies, you see a layman who goes to the temple and wants to learn Kung Fu for the sake of revenge. He learns a little but then doesn’t have the fortitude to complete the training and runs away. Sound familiar? 

You may ask, Sifu, when does the training end? It doesn’t end. It continues forever. Your practice should last your entire lifetime and carry you through all the different changes, progression and evolution of your life. If it doesn’t, you either picked the wrong thing or you’re doing it the wrong way. From my personal experience, which is all I can speak of, my Kung Fu practice has followed me through different stages of my life and has helped me to progress through them and slowly, hopefully, fulfill the life that is a gift that you’ve been given. Your Kung Fu practice becomes an awesome maintenance tool for body, mind and spirit.

You may wonder why some people are better than others and some are getting it and some just can’t. It has to do with the time and effort the individual has put in and the way you’ve devoted yourself. If you only do a little bit, you may learn something, but you’re never going to permeate the true meaning of the practice, which is the development of the individual. The training becomes a magnification of the individual’s character. The training transforms you from a piece of coal into a glittering diamond. Now, we’re putting the magnification on you. We’re looking for character flaws, for the cracks; we have to cut that out and purify ourselves. Not many people can withstand that because the pressure increases. The heat increases, and it forces you to find those cracks and cut them out. It becomes extremely personal; it’s about perfecting the individual. That’s what you’re doing in your practice. As you practice and try to capture the idea of the movement, in actuality, you’re perfecting yourself. You learn to see your impurities, your character flaws, you take stock of them, you acknowledge them, and then you work to polish them away through the practice. You span the physical to the mental to the spiritual, and flow right back into the physical again. This is no different than any other art, a stroke of the brush, a flick of the wrist to strum the guitar, extending of the hand, extending the mind, the spirit and the body as one. That process is the process that transforms. It is only by spending time with the movement and spending time with your teacher that through the crucible of the practice you come to understand. You have to go within and spend time with yourself on yourself.

When you practice, you are using the vehicle of the form to tap into your energy, which is like lightning in a bottle, the bottle being your physical body. You want to capture that lightning in a bottle and make it work. You are just energy. You’re the lightning in a bottle. How you’re going to use that lightning is your choice. You can squander it, waste it and be foolish, or you can really hone in and make yourself into something. That’s what you’re doing with the practice. The only way to touch it is to practice incessantly. The inside makes the out; the outside never makes the in. You have to work from the inside out. This is what most people are missing. It goes beyond that punch and kick, that deadly technique. Rather, you’re working the energy. Don’t work the move; work the energy. The energy is also a byproduct of your attitude, so while you’re working the movement, you’re working your energy; you’re working the attitude; you’re shining yourself up. That’s what the practice is about. 

We’re talking about your attitude, your approach. If you approach it from the right frame of mind, from a happy perspective, being happy to go through the process, happy to be worked over by the art itself, you’re going to glean more than someone who’s being dragged through the mud kicking and screaming. It’s up to you maintain that positive, happy outlook regardless of whether you’re learning a new form and weapon or working on something you’ve been working on for years. It’s that happy, content approach, that overall jovial attitude towards being in it that is going to allow you to harness that lightning in a bottle.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

Self AWARENESS… A Work In Progress

As I’m sitting here in my empty training hall, I, by chance, came across a story that a friend of mine posted in one of the Facebook groups about a horrific home invasion that happened over the weekend. As I read the story, I realized to myself how deeply unaware we are as individuals passing through our daily lives, oblivious to all the evil that surrounds us. We don’t have to look to bygone days for lawlessness, evil and people that commit such heinous crimes as murder, rape and theft. These criminals and evil people surround us daily; we’re just not aware of it. Unfortunately, this evil abounds and surrounds us continually. It’s running rampant in our modern day society.

The awareness that we carry with us on a daily basis is something that we all need to focus on. We get lulled into a false sense of security going through our daily lives in our daily routine. We are oblivious to the fact that these individuals and crimes exist all around us and are happening all the time. We desensitize ourselves and make ourselves unaware, basically falling asleep. We need to concentrate on our own awareness of our surroundings, the people around us and how we perceive and see things. I’m not saying that you need to become paranoid, but at the same time you have to wake up and understand the world is not a beautiful place that is populated by rainbows and unicorns. Rather, it’s a stark landscape mostly populated by individuals that don’t have your best intention at heart. In truth, human beings are just animals, and without some form of civilized social code cannot coexist with one another. Unfortunately, in the convenience of our modern society, our edge has become dulled by everything that is around us. I’m not saying that we should do away with the convenient modern society that we have, only to be aware that there are people out there who have been pushed to a societal level where committing heinous crimes seems plausible and reasonable, turning human beings into less than animals, but really monsters. We see bad things happening every day but yet turn a blind eye and think, well it’s happening somewhere else to someone else, out of sight out of mind. We all need to heighten our sensitivity to protect ourselves and our families and make sure, to the best of our ability, that something like this doesn’t happen to us.

This, first and foremost, can start with training in the martial arts to make ourselves aware primarily of ourselves and our surroundings. The understanding and awareness of the self is paramount to one’s own self-preservation and protection. 
Martial art training is a mirror of how you live your life. If you train in the martial arts and follow the codes and ethics that we adhere to, this should have a profoundly positive impact on your life and the people within your life. The martial art training that we receive should help to heighten our personal awareness as well as the awareness of our surroundings, the people around us and the energy in the area that we’re in. This should all serve to help us understand and feel what’s up. I’m not saying that it’s going to stop everything horrible from happening, but it should raise the level of your understanding of what’s going on around you, rather than just going with the flow as most people do. I see many people just taking things in stride; another sunny, beautiful day in the neighborhood. It may be, but you can’t fall asleep on the A train, watching your Netflix, playing your Candy Crush, and browsing through Instagram. I’m not preaching gloom-and-doom; I’m just saying all of us need to wake up and make sure that we know how to spot something that may be going on.

Awareness is an intangible understanding that one must develop on their own in order for them to understand themselves better. Awareness can be looked upon as both internal and external awareness. These two dual aspects of awareness are what we should strive to derive from our daily training. Many people pick up training in Kung Fu or the martial arts and just simply go through the actions without thinking and feeling from within and without. That is to say, they just go through the martial calisthenics without trying to tap into a deeper understanding of what’s going on around them as well as within them at the same time, what energies are being used and moved and required. One must understand the intention, the attitude and the spatial awareness in order to apply and utilize these movements. All these aspects must be taken into account, and form a special type of awareness that everyday people don’t have. The race car driver understands the confines of his surroundings. As he goes around the track at high speeds, he feels and is aware of the machine that he is within and becomes one with it. He’s aware of the road, the tires, and the pressure within the engine. All these things are the same for Kung Fu.

As one goes through their training regimen in Kung Fu and slowly begins to reawaken themselves through the stretching, breathing, stances, punches, kicks, matching up with their partners, going through their weapon and empty hand sets, one cannot help but build a better respect for oneself, their own mind and body and personal awareness of space and time. Slowly, you also begin to read other individuals. Become a student of human nature and watch people’s reactions, body language, gestures and start picking up on the energy so to speak. As we had stated in the previous blog, learn to discern what is evil or bad energy as opposed to good energy, and put yourself in the proper position to be able to eradicate and deal with such.

I spent some time the other day striking on the sandbag as we normally do, and was striving to become more aware of every fiber of my body being used to make that one strike with one action, one breath, one thought, honing a higher level of awareness. In order to attain this awareness, everything has to slow down. Most people, when they come in, they just want to jump right into it and begin training and ascend to a god-like status in the martial arts. Everyone does this, but it’s a misconception. Hopefully, as you start training, you will see that it requires you to actually slow everything down that you do, including your thought process, in order to become more aware of every little facet of every little motion and action that you’re doing. Coming back to the sandbag, I straightened the sandbag, watching my own stance, the way I initiated the power of the energy, the breath, trying to focus and make everything synchronized and work together, and I took a step back to realize that this is also the training for awareness that can be seen in a larger grander scheme or in a small minute detail.

The awareness developed through training is a heightened sense. In one way, it can be summarized as a sixth sense, giving you understanding of what is around you at that moment in time. Awareness not only gives us understanding of the physical aspects of space, time and speed, but also that of different types of energies. It allows you to know where to put yourself and how to situate yourself. This is an active pursuit that you have to be actively striving towards, to attain that next level of awareness. You’re not going to get it just because you participate in class; you have to be actively seeking the awareness. That comes back down to the individual’s approach. As I was watching my class last night, I could see who was actively thinking, feeling and striving to understand, as opposed to those that were purely doing the exercise aspect and not clicking with themselves.

As I’m looking for images for this blog, I’m searching the Internet and I come upon an image that is eerily what I was telling my class last night. You have to be the captain of your own mind. Many of us don’t understand this, or, at worst case, our captain is asleep at the wheel. Everything must be guided from your own mind. Therefore, your mind must be clear, clean and pristine to the point of almost being empty. The self-awareness that everyone should strive for will first come when we do, as we said, a spring cleaning, a spring cleaning of the mind in order to be able to understand better ourselves and the surroundings that we are in. You have to be ready, willing and able to partake of all aspects of your training in order to gain that awareness. This is where most students fail themselves because they are incapable of understanding that aspect of it. There is no magic that is going to happen unless you fully engage. If you don’t do that you’re missing the point. Training every day raises our level of awareness of ourselves which ultimately raises our awareness of everything that goes on around us, keeping us safer and more secure and allowing us to understand ourselves better.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

GOOD CHI, BAD CHI, NO CHI, YOUR CHI...

邪不能勝正

It’s supposedly springtime. They always say April showers bring May flowers. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m sick and tired of showers, and I’m not seeing any flowers even though May is right around the corner. Sitting hunched over the keyboard the other day trying to work on a project, I guess I inadvertently twisted around and tweaked something in my shoulder. I don’t want to say old age is creeping up on me, so we’ll blame it on the dampness of the weather. Then I thought to myself, how could this be? I practice my Kung Fu on a daily basis, sometimes hours upon hours on any one given day. Oh well. So, it came time to go visit my Sifu and do a little extra training. I mentioned it to him but then started running through our regimen of daily practice. I spent a lot of time and energy on one section over and over again. My Sifu was commenting from the other side of the room that he could see the chi that I was producing heating up the room and starting to escalate, and as he mentioned that I realized that I didn’t feel that stabbing pain in my back as much.

Everybody has chi; it’s your internal energy and power, but not many people know how to tap into it and actually make it work. That’s one of the amazing benefits of learning traditional Kung Fu. When you practice, you run the chi in your body. You can become your own doctor to a certain degree. You can diagnose yourself and understand what the issue is, and in certain respects be able to heal yourself and turn it around. It’s happened to me many times where you injure yourself or inadvertently get a cold or something, but through the practice of the chi gung that’s inside your traditional form, you are able to raise up that energy and have it course through your body and help push out whatever the stagnation or ailment is. And that’s my story, because now I feel fine. If you get a pinched nerve or a frozen shoulder or whatever people get when the seasons change, you’re going to be going to the chiropractor or the acupuncturist, and buying stock in Bengay. I’m not saying that Kung Fu can alleviate all that, but I’ve seen it happen many times through the dedication, faith, practice and belief in what you’re learning and utilizing it regularly. I’m not saying that the casual student is going to be able to do something like this. This comes only after years of dedicated practice and being able to link up the different systems in your body with your mind.

The practice of Kung Fu is a lot about taking those so-called involuntary systems that you take for granted and bringing them back under your control: the blood flow in your body, the flow of the chi, your breathing. These must all tie in with your thinking, unifying the mind and the body to maintain health, balance and well-being in the mental and physical realms. It’s nothing magical; there’s nothing mystical about it. Everybody’s heard the extraordinary examples of people being able to control their body temperature, being able to withstand the freezing cold or being able to control their breath and staying under water for a long time. These are extreme accounts, and I’m not claiming that this can be done through Kung Fu. But, through Kung Fu training, it is possible for you to gain an extraordinary sensitivity towards your body’s functions and their internal systems. You can gain control over yourself above and beyond the average individual that does not partake in this highly specialized type of training.

The average person may say, what kind of training is this, and how can I take part in it? Well, it’s nothing secret. I always tell my students that the secret is, there is no secret. The Kung Fu exercise or the form is there for everyone to learn. Everything is being presented from day one; this is my personal opinion. Being healthy before you start training is always desirable, but not absolutely necessary. The knowledge that one can gain from learning a particular form can produce amazing results if the individual practices guided by the hand of a senior master, but this depends on the amount of time, effort, energy and openness of mind and spirit that the individual can bring to his practice. The form doesn’t cheat you. It’s we who cheat ourselves or don’t allow ourselves to see what is being presented and the possibilities that can be gleaned from this type of training.

Most of the southern systems, especially the one that I train, are combinations of external and internal training, breathing, stretching, focusing the mind, as well as the fighting techniques of the tiger. The prevailing energy and power that is derived from this type of movement with this mentality, using the power and spirit of the tiger, has a special way of overriding all that might ail you. At least this is true for me. I’m not trying to sell you some kind of snake oil, but I’ve had personal experience over time with this practice. As I always say in class, despite how you may feel when you come in, you always leave energized and revitalized after practice. That’s not only because you’ve done a physical exercise, but you’ve gone through the cathartic process of clearing the internal energy that’s built up in you over the course of the day or days that you haven’t practiced. You need that flush and that special training that we do that combines all the different stances, bridge hands, breathing exercises and so on, and gives us that flush and then that rush of fresh brand new hot-out-of-the-oven chi. I’ve gotten comments from many people after they find out my real chronological age, do a double take and go “huh?” The median age people think I am is around 35, but what we should do is actually invert those numbers. It’s the training that sustains you and keeps you moving and growing and keeps you healthy and young.

In the study of Kung Fu/Chi Gung, I don’t like to separate the internal practice from the external practice. That’s breaking up the system, breaking up the yin and yang. I know other people who like to do that, but I feel that internal and external make one combination. It starts from day one where you first learn to stretch and take your first stance (horse stance). Traditionally, in our class, we train our breathing exercise in our horse stance as we train our bridge hand and tiger claw. Right away, if you’re taught properly, you start to create that mental imagery where you breathe in from your fingertips to your toes. Like a tree, you draw in all the power, in through the nose and out through the mouth. It sounds really simple and easy, but few people actually do it. Mentally take over the processes of breathing and draw in the power from the sky, from the ground and from yourself, and actually bring it in and out like a wave. You see the wave rolling up onto the shore and rolling back into the ocean, back and forth, and couple that special breathing sequence with the movements that you do. Do this enough and you can mentally guide the chi through the room.

Another great analogy would be the atmosphere that you’re in. The fish is in his atmosphere, which is the water, and they effortlessly use the water to move themselves about. Hence, they say, “That guy can swim like a fish.” The birds in the sky use the wind and the currents to help them soar, take off and land, so, us too. Our atmosphere is the air around us, which is another way of defining the chi: the air within and without the body. Through the training, we learn to to bring it in and bring it out and actually gain control and move it. And you say, well, how am I going to do this? In one way it’s difficult, but the process itself is rather simple. You can take any one particular movement that you like and slow it down, break it down into its components and slowly start taking all the edges off the move. For example, if you’re going to do a punch, instead of doing that punch with speed and power as you think it should be done, we’re going to slow it down. Start from the beginning of the movement and see it through its entire completion. I want to see the entire spectrum of the motion being done smoothly, cleanly and slowly with the breath. In every action, breathing in with every fiber, every cell of my body, drawing in the power, rooting myself through my stance, breathing in through the foot, through the hand. Taking the breath in through my dan tien, the lower diaphragm, and pushing it out smooth and clean until I’ve done this hundreds of thousands of times to understand what that action is and how to bring in that air and oxygen. I oxygenate my body, oxygenate my brain, rejuvenate every blood cell in my body and then slowly, in my mind, capture the essence of the chi. This is a very simple, brief explanation, but as one practices, over time they will gain an innate understanding of themselves and how to produce this energy. Through this practice, we tap into what we call 精神 jing sun. That’s what Kung Fu is ultimately about. It’s about unifying the mind and the body to derive the spirit. When the spirit is strong, then all the other systems can be strong.

So when I was practicing yesterday, my Sifu was saying as he was watching me, you were able to get that 邪氣 negative energy off of you. This is an amazing benefit that training a traditional Kung Fu system can bring to anyone that is willing to put in the time and effort. I don’t want to get too metaphysical, but every person has an aura around them. When your aura is strong, that 邪氣 negative energy can’t get through. The old Chinese believe that when you get sick or ill, mentally or physically, it’s because you’re not strong enough to withstand those things being sent to you. A good way to get rid of the “evil eye” is to have 正氣 good strong chi from learning good strong Kung Fu. Through the practice, derive better control of your mind, body and spirit. 邪不能勝正 When you have good chi, evil cannot win.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

RANTINGS ON A SUNNY TUESDAY AFTERNOON

There are three things that are taboo to talk about, religion, politics and comic books. And I'm not talking about any of them. That's my disclaimer.

Over the last three decades or more, I’ve seen many a martial art master preach the philosophy, the code of conduct, the ethics, the creed, the way that we are all supposed to live by. Unfortunately, a lot of it is the art of “bullshido.” We are supposed to be scholar-warriors, but many, hiding behind the guise of ethical and moral ideals, never live up to them, or, worse, completely disregard them when it comes to their own personal dealings. When you’re young and enamored with the martial arts and the code or the way, you have dreams of becoming a Samurai or a Kung Fu warrior walking in the dessert to go and avenge his father’s death. Righteousness, benevolence, loyalty and other philosophical standards are earmarks of the true martial artist. However, it seems to me that every established organized religion or organization that espouses a code of ethics or morality is a construct made up by those in power. They want to keep you in check while they go off and do whatever they feel like doing. They make you toe the line and control you with ethical values and the guilt that comes when you don’t adhere to them.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have rules, ethics, ways of life, codes and such. As Winston says to John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2, “Rules… without them we live with the animals.” And I must agree, there need to be rules, norms, standards and codes that we follow not just to elevate ourselves but to elevate humanity because this is what separates us from any other wild beast, be it something that lives in the jungle or something that lives in the jungle of New York City. And isn’t this what the study of martial arts is supposed to be all about? I’m talking about the actual true study of real traditional martial arts. In my opinion, this study is for the purpose of elevating the status of man and his world, no?

Unfortunately, although it’s preached all the time in martial arts, it’s often not lived up to in my humble opinion. Many masters, big and small, have touted how you should be and what you should do and how you should treat others, but few of them actually live by that standard themselves. They don’t do as they say or practice what they preach. This double standard is incredibly hurtful. It is not the rules of any religion, philosophy or martial art system that are inherently wrong or bad. It is the way people twist and use these rules, or ignore them altogether, that creates the issue.

I think what inspired me is the other day I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. When I was much younger, I had read the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s an awesome read as well as a very well-made movie. Kazantzakis looks at Jesus not necessarily as a deity personified in human form, but rather as an ordinary man being asked, by God, to live up to a certain standard and ultimately sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. Kazantzakis portrays Jesus as a man with wants and desires of his own who isn’t always happy that he’s been chosen to be the Messiah. He has moments where he tries to please God and wants to do what’s right, but he is always being undermined by his humanity. On the cross, he is tempted by an angel with the prospect of an ordinary life. Not knowing that the angel is in fact Satan, Jesus gives in and steps down off the cross, believing that everyone will think that he was crucified even though he can live out the rest of his days as a normal man with a wife and children. On his deathbed, Jesus realizes that he made a mistake and asks for another chance. He goes back to the cross and goes through with the crucifixion. I’m not looking at this movie from a religious point of view or making any kind of comment or judgment about Jesus or Christianity. I’m looking at the movie from a humanistic point of view. I think it’s a great study in human nature and how we all fall victim to our wants and desires. All of us have difficulty living up to this golden standard. We are all tested and tried, but we all have the chance and opportunity to go back and right ourselves, right those things that we did that were wrong and try to live up to that standard.

The problem that I have is when the powers that be set up these standards and expect you to live up to them when they don’t. I think the individual man, the average Joe, probably does a better job than many of these established leaders. I don’t have a problem with somebody that does their best to do good but knows they are human and acknowledges their human frailties and faults. My problem is with people that portray themselves as being pristine but yet are the dirtiest ones of all. These leaders have sway over others and use rules and philosophical tenets as a modicum of control while not living them as they lay them out. For example, I’m sure that Mao Tze Tung did not live a Communistic life. I’m sure that he had opulence that the populace did not have. I’d rather have someone just come out and say, I’m the king and everyone will do as I say, as opposed to someone that hides behind the guise of “the golden rule” and being “right” when they’re so wrong. I think probably the majority of these leaders didn’t start out bad. I think they were corrupted slowly, subversively, through the power. Another example is in the revolution against the Ching by the Ming rebels. The rebels established all these secret societies and organizations that were put together for the unification of their country to get rid of this foreign power that overtook them and murdered their countrymen. Over time, these organizations were slowly subverted and became something else. It’s that slow degradation, that slow decay. How do you stop that? I think that has to be done on an individual basis, but it takes a stronger character to stand up for what is right. It’s one thing to give it lip service ;it’s another thing to live it on a daily basis.

It’s a moral and existential issue in today’s society and I’m sure it existed in days gone by, that you profess and try to uphold one type of thinking but inevitably it can’t hold its shine for too long. People in general have a way of bringing things down to a baser level, and not being able to live up to whatever standard was originally intended. You set up these ideals, but after a while you find yourself waning. If you’re the leader of a group or the leader of a team, be it in a corporate environment, in government or on the battlefield, you’re the person that everyone looks towards. The Greeks have an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” I always liked that saying. If the top individuals are wrong in your church, government or even in a martial arts school, you have the top man doing whatever he wants to do but telling everybody else how to be. Then you’re not being exemplary in your actions. I think that the philosophies that have been taught to us and placed in front of us for us to follow should be followed by all, especially from the top down.

I’m not talking about politics. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about people being phony. I’m not putting down these systems and these norms. I actually am a firm believer in them. Don’t we all find it disappointing when we see individuals and leaders within society professing one ideal but living another? They don’t live up to that standard by any stretch of the imagination but expect you to do so. I think this has been true for thousands of years and it’s just the way it is. This is my observation, but it’s not going to change me.

I’m not going to change what I believe in. I still believe in being good and standing up for what is right, having respect and honor for those that are deserved of it. I guess you can say that I’m naïve and idealistic, but I still want to believe that good guys wear black and in the end they win. I want to believe that the right way truly is the right way, and you should be able to adhere to your standards and not have to compromise your integrity just to get by. I still believe in those moral and ethical ideals. As human beings, we have points of weakness, and that’s okay as long as everybody understands that and you try to right yourself, catch yourself before you go too far. I think that’s the good fight that we try to do every day.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

THE DYING ART OF DISCIPLINE

Discipline (v): to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way

Discipline, discipline, discipline. What can I say? Is it me, the full moon, or is everyone out there? Case in point, I got into the city today, Lower East Side, and went to a very Bohemian style coffee shop that I don’t normally frequent because everybody’s not on the ball. And it was proved to me again, it seems like most people are just trying to get by. I ordered my black coffee and a small biscuit. Not even thirty seconds after I ordered it, the guy had to ask me again what I ordered. Meanwhile, there was no one in line and the place was virtually empty. You might say to me, well, what does this have to do with discipline? Discipline is rooted solely in the mind. It doesn’t come from your left pinky or your elbow. I like to use the phrase, “Discipline your mind and the body will follow,” which a lot of martial arts students, exercise fanatics and general laypeople don’t quite adhere to. There is no magic bullet. The magic bullet is the discipline that you can conjure up and apply, stemming from your willpower and mindset.

I don’t think most people will have a problem with the definition of discipline above. But what I want to investigate is actually the seat of discipline itself. Where does it come from? How do you get it? You can’t buy it at Walmart. You can’t order it from Amazon. I think everyone has had moments when they were highly disciplined and moments when they couldn’t discipline themselves to get out of bed. And if you say that’s not you, I’m going to call you a liar. So how does one first and foremost acquire that understanding, feeling and/or mindset to even prepare oneself to discipline oneself? I have had people tell me I’m a very disciplined individual, especially when it comes to the Kung Fu training, but when I view myself personally, I find myself not as disciplined as I’d like to be. 

The art of Kung Fu requires immense amounts of focus and discipline from the individual. Discipline can be gotten by instruction from someone i.e., your master, Sifu, or teacher, but they cannot discipline you to the point that you acquire the skill. You can be guided, directed, taught, prompted, or even prodded, but you cannot be made to acquire the discipline to learn the art of Kung Fu. That is solely from the individual, from his mind, heart, body and soul. I’ve also seen highly disciplined individuals run off the track and end up out of sorts. I’ve witnessed those that are disciplined to the point that they stifle and stagnate their spirit and character by the sheer rigidity of the habitual practice of whatever they’re doing. Not only do we have to try to understand where the germ of discipline comes from, try to acclimate ourselves to the actual practice of disciplining the character and mind of oneself, but we must not exceed the extreme and become so rigid and unwavering that discipline takes all the joy out of doing something. Where is the point of balance? I know, I’m asking a lot of questions… and I’m not expecting any answers. These questions have to be answered by and for each individual, because what may work for one person may not work for another. 

I think giving oneself structure goes hand in hand with acquiring discipline to accomplish any given task, be it big or small, and the consistency of that structure on a daily basis will slowly lead oneself to be disciplined. Hence I was bent out of shape with my Bohemian black coffee that took the guy several times to get it right. In the study of Kung Fu and life and in raising yourself up to be a competent, mature adult that’s contributing positively to society, you need to give yourself structure. But what is the ultimate root of establishing that structure and giving oneself the discipline? I think it has everything to do with the desire that any one individual has within them. You need to want to structure yourself. You need to want to discipline yourself. You need to want to toe the line. How do you nurture that desire, how do you not let it run over the side of your coffee cup and become something else? It is controlling the heart of the individual (which in Chinese is also comprised of the mind), the seat of the intelligence and the soul of the person, that keeps you on the straight and narrow. 

Discipline, i.e. structure, gives you complete freedom. This is not the kind of “freedom” that means you can do whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it. That just leads to chaos. Individuals who lack the structure to discipline themselves are always a complete mess. We all know individuals that never learned to discipline and structure themselves to gain freedom. What is that freedom? That freedom is in knowing who you are, what you are capable of, what your limitations are, and then creating a structure that will help you to go above and beyond those limitations. You become free because you put that structure there. The building is only as tall as its structure allows; that is the discipline of the architect. If there was no structure, the building would fall down or never be built at all. An architect wishing for a building to be built but lacking the discipline to do the work will result in nothing. Wishing for something never makes it true; rubbing that rabbit’s foot ain’t going to help. You have to get down and dirty and do the work, and, as my mom always used to say, take your hands out of your pockets. My parents came from a highly motivated background that had less; therefor they disciplined themselves, and in the end had more. I think this comes back to my Bohemain coffee cup this morning. A lot of people have just enough to sate their palate, and because they are satisfied with what they have, they are that much more susceptible to falling short of creating self-discipline. In the lack of self-discipline and self-structure, we open ourselves to be controlled by others that can impose their own structure upon you. 

The ancient Asian civilizations and martial arts, specifically the Chinese martial arts, are highly systemized and therefor highly disciplined in terms of doing one said action ten thousand times, as we spoke of in the previous blog. The prevailing attitude of today’s culture is that it’s cool to bounce around and do what you please. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be happy with what you do, but there is something to said about disciplining the mind and the body, giving oneself structure by doing the same action again and again. In this way, you come to understand it in its entire depth and bring it to another level of perfection. In this way, the individual practitioner acquires the freedom that is in the knowledge. The process is not going to be easy or happy. The process is going to be filled with pitfalls and disappointments, and that’s okay. That’s the price that one has to pay in order to derive the discipline that brings the freedom of execution and skill that are required to practice the art of Kung Fu and to live the art of life. The art of discipline is how to live a fruitful, happy, and productive life. Yes? I think so. 

I guess the true answer of where discipline comes from is the individual’s willpower to honestly reflect upon themselves and be painfully true about who and what you are. This is why people don’t like to discipline themselves, because you need to look into the mirror of your own soul, and you probably won’t like what is reflected within. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most messed up one of all? That’s what you’re going to see, and you’re going to have to deal with it. But only when you deal with it can you make steps forward. Yesterday, I was cautioning my class about being too comfortable. There is a certain modicum of discomfort that pushes you to grow. Your muscles only grow when you utilize them to the point that they go above the limit they’ve become accustomed to. You only become more flexible when you stretch your ligaments, tendons and muscles to the point that they exceed the level of comfort that they know. Only death is comfortable because you’re in a prone position. You know you’re still alive when you get out of bed in the morning. So this conversation about the art of discipline, which I feel is actually not dying... it’s an art that the individual must find and nurture within themselves. But it’s not a one-shot deal. That’s why I said there’s no magic bullet. It’s a continual revision and refinement of the self. That’s the practice and the art of Kung Fu, which is truly the art of discipline. You have to confess, not to whatever spirits or god you may believe in, but to yourself. When you confess to yourself, that’s when you talk to God and he slaps you in the face and calls you a b****, and then you have to go back to work.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

IT’S A NUMBERS GAME… BUT NOT ALWAYS WITH KUNG FU

Good afternoon everyone. I think a lot of old school martial artists will understand where I’m coming from when I tell this story. I come into the school way before classes start most mornings just to have my coffee and some quiet time to reflect, and I do what I need to do to take care of the school. One of the routines that I try to do on a regular basis is clean the toilet. And some people would say, Wow, the Sifu, the master of the school gets down on his hands and knees to clean the toilet? Yup. And I’m happy to do that. I came in, lit incense and said hello my late great-grandmaster and had a little conversation with him, and then cleaned the toilet. I hadn’t even had a sip of coffee yet. That was my devotion to my training.

So while I was doing that early this morning, I reflected upon a conversation that I had with a longtime student of mine the other day. He was musing to himself about how I do the things that I do in terms of Kung Fu and martial art training. I know many martial arts students will witness their teachers just as I did and still do, and wonder to themselves, how does Sifu do that? How is he able to do this type of technique, movement, with this particular type of energy and power and speed and so on? So, as myself and my student were training and talking at the same time, he began to tell me that he thinking about something I had said many times about time and effort being the essentials for capturing Kung Fu. So, because he is a highly educated individual and is very analytical in his mindset, he tried to sit down and do the math and kind of figure it out.

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant by “the math.” Then he said, “I ran the numbers, I ran the numbers,” and that made me feel like I was a computer program. But I let him proceed to tell me the numbers that he ran. He started telling me well, I’m imagining that in one day you do anywhere from two to three thousand moves. I don’t know exactly what he means by a “move,” but I’m going to take it in the context of a technique or a movement which may contain several techniques. At this point in my life, and I’m sure a lot of my contemporaries would agree, I don’t really sit down and say, I’m going to do XYZ ten times and so on and so on, but rather just live the art that we practice. It’s different when you’re younger. When you’re younger, you make lists and say, I’m going to play the spear five times, then the saber, and so on and so on. But now, it’s just, you do as you please. It’s a calling, it’s a devotion, it’s a dedication, and things speak to you on a day-to-day basis and call out to you, and you practice and then move on.

But back to his accounting (since April 15 is coming very fast and hard upon us)… He made a rough calculation that if I do two to three thousand moves a day times 365 days per year, that equals roughly one million moves per year. So then he proceeded to give me the calculation for my lifetime, and I told him to stop because I don’t plan on going anywhere any time soon so let’s not be presumptuous and put a date on that. Ha ha. If I base the numbers on what he said, and I’m doing two to three thousand movements per day, and each movement contains several techniques (let’s use the base of three,)3,000 x 3 is 9,000, so that’s about 9,000 techniques per day. We can round it up if we want nice round numbers and say it’s 10,000 individual techniques in a day. That’s pretty hefty.

I concluded my conversation with him, and I sat there quietly thinking to myself as I watched him practice. All the numbers make sense. Everything is pretty much cut and dry. Yet despite all this, everyone doesn’t quite understand that Kung Fu, as all other artistic pursuits, is in its heart an “art.” An art, in my humble opinion, cannot be quantified by any number of revolutions of spinning the wheel. If Kung Fu is looked at as an art form that encompasses a myriad amount of talents, sheer repetition of an action is still in and of itself finite, if not almost futile without the understanding, acceptance and openness to the intangible. You may say, intangible? What do you mean? Clean the toilet. Intangible is things you can’t see, things you can’t touch, things you can’t measure and weigh, but yet weigh heavily upon the issue at hand. My Sifu would always say to us and still does to this day, Learn the heart, learn the art of Kung Fu. To learn the art of Kung Fu, you must learn the way of the heart. Basically, the meaning is, if you learn the art of Kung Fu, you have to study the heart. If you want to study the “heart” (your true self), you must study the art of Kung Fu. The art in and of itself is a highly polished mirror, and this analogy has been used time and time again. During ancient times they didn’t have mercury based mirrors, so it was a highly polished piece of bronze or copper that would reflect the individual’s image. So is the case with your Kung Fu. It reflects the image, personality, mentality, disposition, character and overall makeup. These are the intangible aspects of a person, but they are the person, because the shape of your nose and your earlobe and the curve of your chin are not really what you are. We can go and get plastic surgery done and change our appearance but still remain the same. This is the struggle.

I feel that in the culture that we have today, the true understanding of the art of Kung Fu is lost upon the masses because the majority (love to all of them) is usually made of up of individuals that just don’t get it. Just like everyone doesn’t “get” classic Rock and Roll, but they’re more than happy to listen to the modern music and the pop stars we have today, which, to me, all sound the same. I find this disheartening and feel that everything has become homogenized and, to some extent, sterile. We in the Kung Fu community and the traditional martial arts community have become the last bastion of individualism. Distinctive stylistic endeavors are rare, be it in music or martial arts. The intangible aspect of any art is what makes that art unique and the artist that creates the art unique.

Essentially, every classical martial arts system has the same movements. A reverse punch is a reverse punch; a front kick is a front kick; a butterfly palm is a butterfly palm. If you think about it, what’s the difference between Jackson Pollock and Picasso? Paint is paint and canvass is canvass, right? Let’s talk about Bach and Beethoven, two German composers, yet so different in their approach to music. This is also the essence of Kung Fu. It’s up to the individual to perceive it for what it is and to bring out its essence, at the same time elevating it to another level. It’s the organization, the composition, the expression, the feeling and the heart of the individual that brings out the essence of what it is, and it is unique every time. We have to learn how to revel in this uniqueness. Understanding that true Kung Fu and its expression are an extension of the creativity, personality, character and heart of the individual, numbers at a certain point no longer hold the validity that you might originally think they do.

I am by no means saying that you shouldn’t do the same movement ten thousand times. I am an ardent believer that continual practice will bring about better understanding, but understanding is not only found in the physicality, but in the mind of the individual. Mind and body, spirit and action must grow together simultaneously in order for the individual to glean any kind of understanding of the martial art that they practice. The heart of the issue is the heart. Coming back to my student that did the accounting, in the end of this conversation he said, “Sifu, but you said it’s inside you.” And he gestured, pointing to himself as though he was me with his index finger and said, “You said it’s inside you because of all those repetitions.” I agree with this statement but for the absence of the understanding that it’s done from within rather than from without. In the beginning of all of our training, none of us understand this because we can only relate to the tangible, to the physical, to the measurable item that we see with our own eyes. But as I grow more and more into the practice of Kung Fu, I see that it has a lot to do with the faith that the individual places upon what he’s learned. I’m not saying you should have blind faith by any stretch of the imagination. Everything that you do should be tried and tested. But there does come a point where you must have faith in your teacher, what you’ve been taught, and ultimately, yourself. This, coupled with the thousands upon thousands of repetitions with the proper mindset will hopefully in time bring you to a place of understanding.

My student is doing all the accounting and number crunching. Everything is a hundred percent right, but the true understanding is all about acquiring the balance between the mind, body and spirit. In Chinese we would say 身心合一。精神意氣。天地人和. Unify body, mind and spirit. Heaven, earth and man in harmony and balance. When you know yourself, everything is in balance. Understanding how to capture the spirit of Kung Fu is knowing that every day, every hour, every minute, every second is different. You have to become like a bamboo grove. Sometimes the wind will blow from the left, sometimes from the right. The bamboo doesn’t break because by its nature it sways and bends to the winds that blow but then comes back and retains its shape. It’s teaching you how to be. That’s what Kung Fu is trying to do, is teaching you how to be. In that itself, you learn the intangible aspect of you. You have to be able to sway and move with it back and forth, but always return back to your center. This is the hardest aspect because this is intangible – the individual’s capacity to be able to shift and change but yet always come back to center, to come back into balance.

That’s what’s missing from the mathematical equation. The mind and the spirit moves the posture. That’s the balance that you create because you bring heaven, earth and man together. You become part of that link; there is no separation between you and the heavens and earth. You are one. That’s the whole purpose and point of learning Kung Fu, the unification of mind, body and spirit. This is something you cannot see, and it is the most difficult, if not impossible, thing to teach. The individual has to be ready to see the invisible, to touch the intangible, to comprehend what truly is without having to quantify it. This comes back to faith. In the end it’s about all the unseen things that make you up that make the difference. The act of cleaning the toilet may sound like a ridiculous analogy, but that’s the act of devotion. That act itself changes you and contributes to your Kung Fu. You have to do it in order to be able to grow beyond yourself. You have to learn how to be. So now that I’m done, I see that I’ve missed a spot… I need to go back and finish my job.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

KUNG FU: THE ART OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

It’s been quite a while since I had a chance to blog. So here we go… The last year has been pretty tumultuous as well as invigorating. I think a lot of you are aware that my team and myself have launched my Instagram and Patreon channel Kung Fu In A Minute. We’ve reached our one-year anniversary, and I just want to extend a giant thank you to all my colleagues, students, friends, family and to my teacher, Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, for being so supportive of this endeavor. 

I was thinking about it the other day, what it’s all about and what I’m trying to do, and I remembered back many years ago, one of my close disciples had graduated from a prestigious art design school and we were talking about the concept of artwork and how it related to the art of Kung Fu. The idea that we centered around was something that he always called a “happy accident” which was not accidental at all, but rather practiced and planned for over countless repetitions, be it you scribbling on literally hundreds of pieces of loose-leaf paper and ending up chucking them behind you until you got that perfect rendition of what you wanted to display in your artwork, or countless hours of practice of Kung Fu. For that one minute of display of skill and expertise, be it in art or in the art of fighting, one requires endless amounts of hours and dedication just to one technique, let alone the art itself. This was the inspirational genesis for the term I coined, “Kung Fu in a Minute.” We’re displaying one minute of Kung Fu, but you have to understand that beneath that one minute of Kung Fu is decades of work. Even in this one minute of movie that we produce on a weekly basis, you don’t see how much teaching time is put into it. 台上一分钟,台下十年功 !“One minute on stage, ten years of work!”

Unfortunately, a lot of people have the misconception that Kung Fu is unusable in a fighting situation. I don’t know where this misconception came up. I understand that people are bombarded by media with notions of what works and doesn’t work, but I can remember before all the trends, many of the Kung Fu practitioners utilized their movements in competition as well as being tested in the streets. We grew up in an era where Chinatown was basically a war zone and there were encounters and turf wars and gang fights going on continually. I’m not advocating this, but it’s just the plain honest truth. So to say that Kung Fu doesn’t work is an overgeneralization if not a complete myth propagated by those people that want to push their own agenda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a punch is a punch, a kick is a kick, an elbow is an elbow, and a throw is a throw. I don’t care what martial art discipline you advocate or train in; the bottom line is the human body is the human body. There’s only so many ways to use it, and it’s up to the individual to make it happen. The essence of the actual physical technique of Kung Fu boils down to being able to utilize your movement. Many people have a hard time conceptualizing, understanding and putting their movement into practical application. 

Through Kung Fu in a Minute, I’m trying my best to display this and show the adaptability of Kung Fu form into function. The best term I could come up with was spontaneous combustion. Almost all the time, I come in on the day we’re going to film Kung Fu in a Minute, and my team will say to me, “What technique are going to do today Sifu?” I shrug my shoulders, throw my hands up and say, “I don’t know.” They always look at me, perplexed, and say “You don’t know?” No, I really don’t know; it’s just going to come out. This is what many people don’t seem to understand; it is spontaneous, combustible and flammable. That is the true application of Kung Fu. You practice the said technique countless times, but it is the live interpretation based upon the individual that makes it come alive. 

It’s up to the individual not only to learn and practice the exercises taught in classical form, but to be able to understand the true intention of the movement and then to go several steps further and understand that the technique being portrayed has multiple interpretations, not just the one that’s most obvious. I always caution the students not to be a master of the obvious as most of us are. We can all blatantly see the outer casing or the shell of the movement just by glancing at it. This is not wrong, it’s the most obvious application that everyone can jump to. But there’s still a lot more meat left on the bone. With that understanding, I can remember a rule set down by my teacher that you need to be able to give a minimum of three possible applications for every technique in the forms that you’ve been taught. That’s a minimum. If you look at an average form that has anywhere from fifty or more moves times the minimum requirement that he had, my math isn’t that good but that’s a whole lot of applications. That’s a whole lot of spontaneous combustion. 

That’s a whole lot of variations that you can apply in any one given point in time based upon the situation. Not only does the student have to be astute enough to have a correct interpretation of the intention, he also has to be able to understand all the possible variations on that interpretation and what’s going to trigger them. It boils down to you being able to effectively internalize the understanding of your Kung Fu and having it come out naturally. There’s an action and then a reaction; that’s what Kung Fu is. That’s what many people don’t understand because they get caught up playing a routine for the sake of the routine, rather than for the sake of what the routine is pointing you towards. I was having the same situation just last evening; I was going through a form with my team and they were just going through the motions. A lot of the techniques that we were doing, I had done with my team before and I had actually put a lot of them on film. When we make Kung Fu in a Minute, we don’t do it for the sake of making the one-minute movie, but for the sake of practicing the technique and learning from the experience. Despite what many people think, every week is completely unrehearsed. It’s spontaneous. It is up to the practitioner to connect the dots; to see all the possible variations that you have in any one given technique. 

You have to take time looking over what you’ve learned, deciphering on your own the possibilities that are there within that one given theme and then figure out how to apply it on various opponents of different shapes and sizes and different levels of ability. As carpenters say measure twice cut once – so the measure twice is the practice, the interpretation, the understanding that one has to build through practicing the form, through physical conditioning, through sparring with your partners, through countless errors, misgivings, misstarts, fumbles, pick yourself up and try again, and then you can go and cut once and that becomes the spontaneity. All that work has to be done in order for you to just do it. The art of Kung Fu is the art of instinct. It’s the art of closing the gap without having to think. It’s the art of that combustibility that is sparked by the attack of your opponent. 

The real art of Kung Fu is an art of self-defense. It’s lighting a fuse. Once you’re in engagement it’s like tripping the wire. You’re not looking to defend; you’re actually looking to destroy the other individual; in our art it’s the aggressive nature of the tiger that is the defense. I don’t need to defend because I’m going to destroy. It’s hitting the dominoes and ten thousand dominoes fall succinctly one after the other. It’s a chain link of bombardment, but all the time has been put in by the practitioner of that art. Therefor it comes out fluently. It becomes your language. And if you haven’t spent enough time speaking that language, then it’s not truly yours. That is how Kung Fu has to be applied. That being said, how do you derive that level of skill and sensitivity? Trial and error on a daily basis with copious amounts of hands on experience with your classmates under the guidance of a teacher that has that experience themselves and knows how to guide you. In the end it really boils down to the individual. 

Kung Fu is like turning on a light switch. As soon as you turn on the light switch, the light comes on. The question is, did you pay Coned? Did you put in the time to derive that kind of skill, knowing full well that the other individual is going to retaliate? You must be instinctive, spontaneous and be able to change without having to think, and augment your technique beyond the confines of the display within the form. I don’t know how to express this to you other than you touching the hand of the other guy and feeling the electricity. That’s what I feel every time I let my teacher show me a technique. Many times, it has been my experience where I’ve been shown something by him and then try to counter it and ten different things come out. That onslaught is the spontaneous combustion that we’re talking about. You have to touch hands with your teacher and your classmates to feel that electricity. Once you understand this, then you bring this back into your form. That brings your form to another level so form and function are moving up together at the same time. They feed into each other and each one helps the other to grow in depth and understanding, culminating together, becoming one, then ultimately becoming nothing and then BOOM, spontaneous combustion. A student of mine just came in while I was writing this blog and we decided to experiment, and BOOM, he said to me, “I never saw it coming.”

That’s how Kung Fu is and I tell you, that’s how everything in life is. You don’t see it coming and the reason you didn’t see it coming is because you didn’t do the preparation. Everything comes back down to preparation. Every art that requires Kung Fu is just like our Kung Fu. It only has a handful of techniques. It takes the seemingly limited amount of resources and becomes limitless; it becomes infinite from this finite number of moves. According to what they say, Wong Fei Hong was so good that he could dispatch you with only two or three techniques. If you’re at that level, you shouldn’t have to think about what technique is coming out. If you have to sit there and think about it, then it’s already too late. There isn’t going to be a, ready set go. There’s no one to say, time, go to your corners, illegal technique. You’re not going to know when it’s going to happen; you’re going to walk around the corner and it’s right there. Your instinctive reaction is going to define what happens. That’s what you have to train for. It just comes out, whatever you need. How do you do it? Any way you need it. What do you do? You get the job done. It’s so much in you that you go beyond you and just BOOM spontaneously combust. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

INTENTION, INTERNAL POWER & STRENGTH

心意, 氣, 力

Good evening everyone. I’m a little late today, but I was thinking about this subject a lot and took some inspiration from my teachers. Mental discipline and concentration are paramount in the study of Chinese martial arts. In order to progress in the art of Kung Fu and truly become one with what we practice, the mind needs to be empty of contamination. This being said, it is one of the most difficult things to do, especially in our day and age where we are being constantly bombarded with messages from billboard signs and flashing neon. Not only are we distracted by the external, the worst distraction of all is the chatter in our mind which drowns out the clarity of our mental process which allows us to decipher what is true or false. Keeping the mind clean and empty is an extremely difficult thing to do and maintain. Yet it is what needs to be done to excel. 

A very good example would be training with a student and trying to do a movement with a long-tassle spear where you throw the spear up into the air and catch it, but the student constantly misses. You could say the spear is too heavy or too light, or my hand is sweaty or whatever other feeble excuse you want to conjure up, but in truth, the ability or inability to perform a particular action, technique or maneuver, be it empty handed or weapon, has to do with the mind of the individual and its clarity. Achieving clarity of the mind is a skill that one must develop. One means of developing this calmness, clarity or emptiness of the mind is through meditation. Meditation can take many forms and is not always the one that you envision sitting cross legged in a lotus position. 

In our Kung Fu training, meditation begins from the first day. Unbeknownst to the student, it is from the first stance that they learn, i.e., the horse stance. The horse stance by its nature and structure is testing the will, determination and mindset of the student and gives them a platform wherein they can challenge not only their physical body but their mind to transcend the physical pain that they feel from this rigorous position and be able to redirect their mental focus onto something else. I’m sure many of you have gone through this, but how many have actually tried to utilize this position as a state of meditation? It’s challenging and difficult to keep your mind clear when you’re under such physical duress, but that’s the whole point. That’s meditation in stillness. 

You also have the other side of the coin which is meditation within movement – form training. It’s two sides of the same coin, and you’re introduced to both as a Kung Fu practitioner. In the beginning when people start to learn form, they’re caught up with learning the sequence of the particular piece that they’re working with, making sure the body alignment is correct, all the techniques are properly executed with speed, power and so on. Those attributes are in the physical realm of training, but we have to talk about the other side of training, which is the meditation. 

If we look at the word meditate – what does that mean? It’s not what most people think, that it means to think nothing. The real definition is “to think deeply or carefully about something.” Look at the example of a “premeditated” murder in a court case. That means the individual had the intention to kill; he thought about it beforehand. In our case, we wish to establish the proper intention for the individual technique because every movement has its own structure, meaning and theme. The mind of the individual is extremely powerful. Coming back to the example of the student dropping the spear every time they tried to catch it, it wasn’t a function of the spear or external circumstances, but rather where that individual’s mind was at that point in time. One of the goals and purposes of training is to be able to capture your thought, mold it into something and direct it. Focus is something that many people today have issues with. Martial art training seeks to give that structure to the individual wherein which they can gain control over themselves. When we say themselves, we mean the mind because that’s really what creates you. To the ancient Chinese, the heart and the mind were one. There was no division between the two. Intellect and understanding go hand in hand. The term that they use and I prefer is sum yee 心意. 

So, we’re talking about 心意(mind), and the hei (氣). Grandmaster Paul Eng said, “In Kung Fu, understanding the relationship between intention and internal energy and physical strength is critical to developing the effectiveness in fighting technique.” I really appreciate this wisdom and statement from him. Your mind is able to first acknowledge your internal energy, give a form to it through mental imagery, direct it, guide it, couple it with your physical strength and produce a technique that is effective for fighting. This is an ancient Chinese concept and theory that Kung Fu adheres to. As with any technique, there’s a beginning, middle and end on a physical level. As many of us have seen, it is the mental fortitude and willpower of the individual that sometimes makes a decisive win. The physical movement has limitations, but there are no limitations put onto the mindset of the individual. Therefor, for fighting, which is one aspect of Kung Fu, you need to have the proper mental attitude. If you don’t have that attitude, even though you have the physical capabilities you may not have what you need to see it through.

Not only do you have to have the will to win, you also have to have the proper intention of how you are applying the technique. If you don’t have that clear understanding in your mind, if the GPS of your mind is giving you wrong directions and it’s not giving you the most effective route, you’ve lost the purpose of having that guidance and intention. Haven’t you experienced that, when GPS gives you a convoluted way to get somewhere? Even though you end up at the same destination, you get there late, and you wasted time and energy. The effectiveness of any movement or technique is not necessarily based on the physical attributes of that technique. You have yee, hei and lek (力) – the mind, the internal energy and the physical strength. 
The old saying is, “The intention of the mind manifests the internal energy which in turn becomes physical action. This happens in an instant. It is electric.” That is Kung Fu. 

I don’t care what martial art you’re training, if you don’t have a clear cut intention, none of the techniques are going to work. If you practice properly, thought and movement become instantaneous. So when you’re practicing, we want to question, what is your thought, what is your frame of mind. Hey man, where are you? Are you thinking on all the levels that you’re supposed to? One, you’re thinking about the opponent and what their intention is. Secondly you have to formulate your intention and what you want to do. Thirdly, you have to have contingency set up for whatever else may happen. Therefor the mind is working on several levels at the same time while it seamlessly flows from move to move. 

Most students, including my own, are limited in understanding of what they’re doing. It’s not the fault of the art itself but rather of the individual being incapable of understanding. You can punch; you can kick; you can jump; you can flip; you can turn. That’s all physical. At some point you will max out. You’re going to get old; this is inevitable. You’re going to injure yourself if you continue to push on that realm only. What about the other side? What about the meditation, the mental, the thought? The mind is like a candle. Sifu lights the candle for you, and it’s your job to hold it. That’s what they say in Chinese, 師父開 光 (the Master opens the light). The light is the mind. Outwardly, many movements may appear to be the same, but as you upgrade your intention with insight provided by your teacher, you can make gains. Otherwise, it may appear finite, but it is infinite. When the mind is enlightened, it has intention. 

Every hair on your body should be fueled by the intention of your mind. The mind and internal energy create the movement. From your mental intention, you express your understanding. You direct and harness the chi, and then the chi makes the movement. Most students practice from the outside in rather than from the inside out. Initially, you copy the movements of the form, but at some point, there has to be a shift where the movement is no longer just an external expression but rather the internal movement that is expressed by the physical. Expressing something on a mental level that manifests on a physical level is no different than the expression of an artist. He has his mental intention, so he grabs the brush, and paints the canvass. His mental intentional takes hold of his internal energy and manifests itself into a physical expression. 

Kung Fu is a form of self-mind-control. The mind is a very powerful tool that many people don’t use efficiently and effectively. We’ve been taught not to. Don’t get me started on cell phones… which we all rely on, and I hug mine like it was my baby, but that’s like the direct antithesis of Kung Fu. Your cell phone’s not going to win a fight for you. But going beyond winning a fight, being able to link up your intention and your internal energy, culminating into a physical expression, not only helps you “win the fight” but helps you win yourself. From physical movement to the metaphysical understanding of the mind goes back to your daily life. You need to genuinely practice and put aside misgivings. You’re going to fail many, many times until you’ve done it in earnest enough to try to come to some understanding. That’s the meditation and that’s the learning. Harnessing internal as well as external energy and expressing it -- that’s Kung Fu. 

Everything we’re talking about is dependent on the maturity of the individual, but maturity is something unique to whatever task you’re doing. The maturity level that you have in your normal everyday life doesn’t necessarily spill over to your other pursuits, in this case martial arts training. It does take time and concerted effort to apply the mind to the task. In the beginning, we all start mindlessly following the physical movement until we pass enough levels and reflect. When we reflect, we start to utilize the mind. Then the mind starts to tap into different energies, and then we start to have a different level of improvement.

Our martial art training is the pursuit of the perfection of the self. Perfection cannot be found in the physical only, because the physical has limitations. So how are you going to change? You’re going to change because mentally you understand what you’re doing on a deeper level. So therefor, it becomes more. Stop copying the outside and start learning the inside. If you don’t know the mind within the movement you don’t know the movement. When you move, either you’re in line with what you’re doing or you’re not in line with what you’re doing. Through your practice, you must align your physical energy with your mental state and your internal energy. The greatest achievement of our Kung Fu is to galvanize the self and try to attain a sense of understanding and balance. In the end, Kung Fu goes far beyond the mere confines of winning the encounter but is actually about winning the self. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

KUNG FU – MY OWN PERSONAL BLACK HOLE

I had the off chance of flipping through the cable channels the other day and was watching the movie Interstellar. It was all about sacrifice, time, space and the relationships that you create. The only thing that could span time, space and even the immense power of a black hole was the love between a father and daughter. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when I was practicing, and I was frustrated in trying to relearn something that I had learned (or presumed to have learned) decades earlier. The only thing that keeps you going back again during those times of frustration is the love that you’ve developed for your art form. This propels you forward and keeps you inspired and motivated enough to continue learning, because Kung Fu is a black hole. What is a black hole? From my understanding, a black hole is a region of space where the gravity is so strong that nothing can escape. It is invisible, and surrounded by an event horizon.

When you spin a spear or rotate your body, don’t you see that representation of that swirling mass that’s in the interstellar atmosphere, galaxies, stars and so on? But don’t forget black holes are invisible. They have an effect on everything that goes near them, but they are invisible. You don’t see them, but you feel their effect. You feel their gravity, their weight and their influence on objects and people around them. That’s what I feel my Kung Fu practice does because it influences me, my physical body, my mental attitude, the atmosphere and the energy in my room just as much as a black hole affects any object that approaches its event horizon.

What is the event horizon for a practitioner of Kung Fu? I’m talking about a real practitioner, not a tourist – someone who is putting in a lifetime’s worth of work, decades upon decades of study and research. We all understand the definition of Kung Fu boils down to time and effort. But when you really look at it how much time and effort is required? A lot of students will ask, “When will I see benefits?” You can see benefits within 3 to 9 months, but that’s superficial at best. Physically, you might be a little more fit or flexible. You might have a little more awareness or start learning some cool stuff, but you only start to really appreciate the amount of effort and time that it takes to learn something when you spend decades on it. In Kung Fu, ten years is one step. It’s pretty much like being in a space time warp where ten years only equals one step in Kung Fu. So imagine how many years you have to put in to truly comprehend what you’re learning.

I don’t want to make anybody feel like this is an insurmountable task, but it almost is. No matter how much effort, time and energy you put into this art form, when you cross over that event horizon, everything goes black. You get sucked in all the way down and you cannot escape its gravitational pull. Some may disagree with me and say, well, I’ve made huge strides and progress in my art and I’m at the top of my game and so on. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about looking far beyond this quantifiable thing that we think is good or a high achievement of skill, but rather looking at Kung Fu as a lifetime art that we pursue.

Our practice actually resonates just as much if not more so even when we’re gone. You may say, well, what do you mean by that? Think about it. You’re propagating the lessons, the teaching, the philosophy and the efforts and energy of decades and centuries of masters gone by. There’s something to be said about this. Kung Fu is just like time and space. If you drop a pebble or make an imprint into the fabric of space, it creates a ripple. So, whenever a successive master teaches a student and passes along knowledge, it creates a ripple and a residual effect.

I think the art of Kung Fu is so powerful so all encompassing. That’s why we use the term Kung Fu and not martial arts. The ancient masters used this term Kung Fu, which is also all encompassing as a term for all art forms because they innately understood that no matter how much you put in there’s always more that needs to done. It (all your hard work) evaporates into the fabric of this art and requires more. You could say, wow, that sounds really defeatist or depressing. But I say, No, this is great. You have to take it the right way. There is no finite level of achievement. The level of achievement is infinite and is only stifled by the inability of the individual to be able to see the black hole of the art that we practice. No one’s ever gone into the heart of a black hole and come back, so you don’t really know what’s on the other side. You may appear on the other side and be renewed again and find yourself in a whole other dimension of understanding.

Your own physical improvement is a manifestation of you in another dimension. How about we look at it like that? The you of yesterday is the you of yesterday. I know this is very metaphysical and extremely theoretical, but how do you know that yesterday was yesterday and today is today? Everybody’s going to think I’m nuts, but at times while I’ve been practicing, I’ve felt different levels of chi, different levels of energy. I’ve almost felt as though time and space have been suspended in the moment. I know that other artists of other disciplines have also felt this.

I know I watch a lot of ancient aliens, but I’m not an astronaut from the past… ha ha… I’m just saying when I sit there and do a certain movement, I feel you’re almost creating a time warp. Kung Fu is an art of the self, but aren’t you also a microcosm of the universe that you live in? You’re basically one little molecule in this giant firmament of space and time, but you also encapsulate a miniature version of that space dust, so you have to have a relationship to it. When you practice your movement, you feel something. I’m doing more than just a move; I’m moving energy, because basically that’s what you are. You’re energy, but in order for you to grow, you need to consume and produce even more energy. So guess what? You’re a black hole. When you practice, to reach another level of understanding, I think you have to be able to view it in a totally different way, and not necessarily be bound by your old perceptions. In the same way, there are black holes and interstellar phenomena that cannot be explained by the physical laws that we live by on a day to day basis.

Maybe some of the readers that are reading my blog at this moment might not understand me, but I know that other artists of other disciplines will be able to corroborate and agree with the statement that I’m making. I think musicians and artists and anyone in an artistic pursuit that requires continual devotion of mental, physical and internal energies will understand what I’m talking about when I say Kung Fu is my personal black hole. Every time I think I’m getting somewhere, it sucks me back in, and I’m back at point zero but at the same time I’m not. I’m almost looking at myself from several different dimensions. There’s the inner self and there’s the outer physical self, and then there’s another outer self of me watching me. It’s the multiple levels of the mind. There’s an old Chinese saying that says 勁斷意不斷
“Physical force is finite but the mind and intention is infinite.” That’s really what I’m talking about. The mind which perceives (or strives to perceive) that everything is infinite allows us to go beyond the limitations of our physical being.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

ZEN WARRIOR IN THE SNOW

I was struggling with an idea of what to blog about, because sometimes you’re uninspired. But then I stumbled upon someone posting a video from a tournament in the early 90’s that my teacher participated in as one of the masters demonstrating in that evening’s show. I showed him the clips and said, “Do you remember when you were there and doing the demonstration?” It just so happened that one of the screenshots that I was able to take from the video closely resembled a posture that I had taken a picture of in my recent trip to Hoy Hong Temple in China. From his own words, he said, “It looks the same.” When I took a look at the clip and the picture, it dawned on me that it was exactly the same, but now, almost 30 years later, practicing the same movements and techniques, they don’t feel as they did back then. They feel different somehow. It’s kind of hard to explain to someone who hasn’t done one particular thing for decades. It’s a very uncanny feeling being able to watch that video and see the movement and understand the individual at that point in time and the same individual at this point in time and see the immense amount of growth in depth and understanding and ability, even though at that time he was at the top of his game. Now, in my opinion, he’s beyond the game. He’s still doing the same techniques, the same movements, but it’s not the same. It’s so much more.

Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng is one of those rare individuals and will mostly likely not be recognized until much later. He’s very much an underrated and undiscovered individual. I think there’s many people like that, and it’s because the powers that be will not let you into the game. It’s a closed game. In his own time, Yip Man was not recognized. He became recognized later when Bruce Lee came to fame, and he was able to become famous because of media. Wong Fei Hung became famous because of Lum Sai Wing and then the movies from the 40s and 50s. My Sifu is an immigrant that came here with no language skills whatsoever. He was thrust into American society in the tumultuous 60’s, bombarded with 60’s music and art, immersed into Chinatown, basically locked up culturally, screaming to get out, not knowing how to fit in, fighting for his way to find himself. How did he find himself? Through these two mediums that didn’t require to him to have a physical voice. He speaks through his art and through his Kung Fu. If you can’t see that then you can’t see him. When you hear him talk, that’s not his medium of expression. He’ll do a move or paint a stroke and he’s there. He holds the integrity of tradition but is able to bring you closer to it than you would have been if he didn’t open it up a little bit.

My Sifu has one foot firmly planted in the traditional moral and ethical ideals of an old Chinese master, but at the same time he’s a breakthrough artist in his artwork and his martial arts. He’s able to maintain the traditional values, precepts and integrity of Kung Fu. At the same time, he grasps an almost iconoclastic attitude and is able to mix and match and make everything work. He’s not constrained by, but rather freed within this framework of what he’s learned. He’s actually found a way to become more free and bring out a fresh, new interpretation that hasn’t been seen in the martial arts in a long time. Many athletes (because that’s what a martial artist basically is at the core) follow a certain line of dogma and a way of playing whatever they’re playing, be it baseball or martial arts. Few ever reach the point where they can actually go beyond the confines of the game that they play.

At any time someone introduces something that goes against the mindset of the norm, they are often not hailed as someone with an innovative concept or way of viewing things. It’s not so much that Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng has created a new way, but his way of viewing things is so profound. He is a real master’s master in the sense that not only can he do the traditional old stuff, but he’s so in tune with himself and the medium that he works in that he can repurpose and recreate and elevate something that’s already been shown or taught. He can breathe new life into it, even to somebody like myself that’s been practicing for decades. The reason why I think I can see this is not only because I follow him, he is my one primary teacher, and I’ve seen his growth over the decades. Unlike many martial artists that learn up unto a certain point and then stop, he’s never stopped learning. Therefor he’s never stopped growing, and he’s always seeking a deeper understanding and meaning to what he’s doing. He thinks outside the box without destroying the box but instead multiplying it, making it into a mansion. It’s no longer a one room cold water tenement flat on the lower eastside (that by the way costs $5000 month). His teachings and philosophy are actually deeply rooted in the classical understanding of Zen Buddhism and Daoism, but expressed in his modern sensibility. This is what people don’t understand. You may see his face, his artwork, his students and his grand-students, but if you don’t know what makes him tick, you don’t know the person. You may have an image, but it’s an image blurred by snow and white noise. You don’t know the true individual. I like this show they have on cable called Drunk History. There was some guy talking about JFK getting methamphetamine shots. Every time he had to have a meeting with Kruschev, he asked this guy who they called Dr. Feelgood to give him a shot. This goes to show you don’t know until later what the person was really like.

So I’d like to set the record straight. He may not be famous until we’re all gone, but as far as my humble opinion is concerned, I think he’s one the top masters of the last century. He’s able to strike and maintain a balance which is uncanny because most people are incapable of doing this. They get lost on one side or the other. They either go all the way to the extreme modern sense and do away with all traditional concepts, or run to the other end of the spectrum which is total fanaticism and adherence to dogma. I’ve been taught by him to see beyond the norms that are set. In this way, you can understand why guidelines were set up by the ancient masters and actually make sense out of them. At the same time, you can not only express the power, energy and spirit of the technique, but also be able to free yourself up to find yourself and express your own interpretation while still remaining true to the art. My teacher is able to take what he has learned and distill something from it. He can distill the essence of what he was taught and then inject that into everything else that he does, be it martial arts or artwork.

If you see his artwork, you see the grandeur and the energy and the flow of the movement. His artwork is very much about movement as opposed to being “still.” It’s not still. It’s alive in a sense that you can see the motion, the stroke, the splatter, the edginess, the contrast of the colors. It invokes motion. Everything that he does comes out to be poetry in motion. You won’t see it unless you know the heart of the individual and see the way he sees. This is the hard thing and this is the thing that you have to learn about art, Kung Fu, music and philosophy. If you just read the philosophical text or just look at a picture or listen to the music or eat the morsel of food or copy the motion of the technique, you’re only getting that purely physical sensory perception. You’re not seeing through the eyes of the artist. You’re not feeling it. You say, well, how am I going to feel it if I don’t know the guy and I don’t have the luxury of being with him all the time? It will be hard, but I tell you it can be done. The thing is you have to eradicate all your personal preconceived perceptions of what you think that said thing is supposed to be like in order for you to actually grasp it. It’s no different than having a cup of coffee. You’ve had coffee before so you envision in your mind what coffee’s going to smell and taste like, but then you drink it and you realize it’s something else. It’s a total shock to your system, because you’re not open to it. It’s not the coffee you’re used to or it’s something else entirely. Because you’re not open to the difference, it rocks your world, but not in a good way. It SHOULD rock your world, but in a way that takes you to a heightened level of understanding that you never had before. This is how I feel when I study under my teacher, and I’m able to perceive the deeper understanding that he’s imbuing into the art that we are practicing together.

How do you learn from any one individual? You can read the writings of Aristotle and Plato, but you may not get it because you have to know how to read it. That’s the cool thing about my Sifu. The way he’s taught me is not just what to read but rather how to read it, and that’s what I’ve been striving for for the last 20 years. My Sifu teaches me how to go beyond the limitations of what I thought I could do. He’s not reinventing the wheel, but he’s using it in marvelous and mysterious ways that are much cooler than I ever perceived. You want to be a disciple of the teacher and the art? You have to live it. Snow, rain, sun, you will come. Class or no class, whether someone is in the room or not, you will still come, because it’s not about the class; it’s about the art. When you learn the art from your teacher, you learn about yourself. What better gift can you give yourself than that?

My teacher is evolved as a person. What is the evolution of a person? It’s not about the physical and material trappings that they have, but rather the spirit. The soul of that person has gone through a metamorphosis, a change that has brought them to a higher level of understanding. Under the direction and tutelage of a person like that, you, too, should be able to evolve and know a higher level of yourself. That’s your duty here on this earth, to evolve. Through learning the art of Kung Fu from my Sifu, I see that life is a process of evolution and growth, and that is your main concern. It’s not a concern in the sense of feeling pressure to grow every day. You grow from the work and the introspective platform that you place yourself upon, and turn inward and look upon yourself to be able to move forward again.

This is what I could come up with on the Snowpocalypse 2019.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT

So, “I don’t want to hear it.” I know it’s a snowy, sleety, cold Tuesday afternoon, but I don’t want to hear it. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing attitude of most martial arts students in general. Truth be told, many claim in their minds to be students, but subconsciously they view themselves as customers. We’ve probably spoken about this before, but it’s worth reiterating. There is a big difference between a martial arts customer/student and a true, dedicated student. The difference is, one says, “I don’t want to hear it,” while the other is ready, willing and able to accept what the instructor has to say. 

The customer/student doesn’t want to hear anything from the instructor other than praise, which eventually rots out the student and makes them unteachable. Because they have paid for the instruction, most of the time the customer/student feels that they are entitled to undue false praise, which I don’t really understand because I was never given praise. Two things happened. Either you got yelled at for not doing it right and Sifu walked away and you had to sit there and figure it out, or he said absolutely nothing and walked away, and you had to sit there and figure it out. That’s the way that we learned. Good or bad, it definitely whittled down the riff raff. I think unfortunately, today, because martial arts is a business, the instructor sometimes has to compromise his standards to a certain degree in order to maintain the student body and pay for all the overhead and expenses of running a martial arts school. The customer/student seems to be hyper sensitive in regards to what they perceive as being negative feedback, and the teacher/instructor almost has to kow-tow to the whims of the customer/student. Otherwise, that customer might say, “I don’t want to hear it,” and go home.

Even though in business terms, a martial art school is perceived as being part of the service industry, in my opinion, it’s not. The true teaching has nothing to do with being a service. In actuality, the student is in the service of the master. This is like when little Johnny goes to elementary school, and the teacher grades him according to his performance. The very next morning, you have the parents knocking on the principal’s door complaining about the bad grade he got, but the bad grade he got was given to him because he deserved it. A teacher who cares doesn’t give a bad grade to make a student feel bad, but to give genuine feedback. What you put in is what you get out. That’s the crucible of Kung Fu. The current position in most people’s minds – and I don’t know when this changed but it did change – is that, “I deserve, therefor you must give what I want, AND I don’t want to hear it.” Most of the time when people “don’t want to hear it,” it’s because they’re hearing the truth. By not accepting the truth, you’re reinforcing the incorrect attitude that because it makes me feel good, it is good and it’s good for me, but it’s not. It’s a bad situation when you create the expectation that someone should be rewarded for not putting in full effort with an open mind to feedback about their performance. It’s not personal; it’s the job of the instructor to keep the student on the straight and narrow.

So, let’s talk about the truth. What is the truth? The truth reminds me of what we have in Chinese medicine or Chinese tea, we call leung cha 涼茶. It’s a medicinal, herbal tea that dissipates heat in the body that may create illness. The words of your instructor or your Sifu or master is just like drinking this herbal tea. It’s dark, bitter and has a pungent yet fragrant odor that most people would not be happy with. The one that you buy in the can in the Chinese supermarket is not really the right herbal tea. It has sugar and other things inside that make it palatable. That’s what people have become accustomed to as far as accepting what is true. They want the truth to be softened with corn syrup so it becomes digestible and no longer has the medicinal qualities of the latter. I understand this, but I also feel it’s detrimental to the growth of the student and the martial arts in general. It becomes an undermining factor, and has no value whatsoever. Consuming true leung cha will help dissipate certain ailments in the body, and though it may not taste good going down, the results over time are highly beneficial. You may remember Mary Poppins saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I say, “Mary, you b****, give it to them straight.” 

John said in the big book, “The truth will set you free.” This is only true if you accept it and hear it. I’m not a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of guy. I’m an “empty the glass” kind of guy, if that makes any sense. That’s what the truth does. The truth cuts and it cuts deep. This is why no one wants to hear it. But you know, once you hear the truth, accept it and digest it, you consume it, it permeates you, and you begin to grow again. It’s all about that acceptance. This is what we all have to do in all aspects of our lives, but particularly in martial art training. By being incapable of accepting the truth, you only hurt yourself. We’re all guilty of it.

In class, if I make a statement, everybody thinks, he’s not talking about me, he’s talking about somebody else. However, the guy that feels he is the most correct is probably the guy that’s the most incorrect. I think we as adults are not as willing to accept the truth about ourselves. Often times, the little kids and the teenagers learn so much quicker than adults because they are more accepting of direction and guidance than adults. It’s the character of the person that needs to be refined in order for their Kung Fu and everything else that they touch to improve. Even though the truth may sting initially, if we’re open to it, then we are able to grow and change. If not, you throw up the hand or you put your fingers in your ears and go, “La la la, I don’t hear you.” That only impedes if not completely retards growth and learning. Accept the teaching; don’t say, “I don’t want to hear it.” I know the truth is hard sometimes, but wouldn’t you rather know where you stand and be able to make inroads towards becoming better as opposed to just having a momentary satisfaction and living in the clouds? You would think, but that’s often not the case. 

Your local take-out place may sell you something that tastes good and makes you happy but isn’t necessarily good for you. That shouldn’t be done for martial arts. You’re not a restaurant, are you? What’s the difference between a massage parlor and a massage therapist? (You know, and if you don’t I can’t help you.) This is not to say that you can’t obtain a happy or good experience in training Kung Fu and martial arts in general, but there’s going to be a side of it that’s not all fun and games. This is where the maturity level comes in. You may say, what do you mean maturity level? I’m X age, I can drive, I can vote. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mature. Maturity means being able to handle the truth. It doesn’t really have anything to do with our chronological physiology, but our state of mind and character. In the end, Kung Fu is really about that. You can take either road. You can train just for momentary gratification, or for long term personal growth, but one of those roads is a dead end. The other is a mirror into the mind and soul of the individual. It’s a much harder path but ultimately that’s where the growth comes. People go, Wow, I didn’t know I was like that. They don’t like the way they look on the inside. Physical growth, mental growth and spiritual growth can be stimulated externally, but happen internally. You need to have that combination of the internal and external to make yourself grow. The truth being told to you is an external stimuli that if absorbed properly by the right individual can stimulate intellectual and spiritual growth. This can then spill over onto the physical movement. 

So in actually the truth is that leung cha. It’s that vitamin pill, it’s that supplement that you need every once in a while to set you right again. You may have started off right. I always tell the students that their training is a straight line. When you start out, you walk on the line and then you have a deviation, and Sifu says XYZ. Then you try to right it, and then you deviate a little to the left. In the beginning the deviations are great, but then you spend a lot of time with your teacher and the deviations become smaller. This morning my teacher called me and said, it’s snowing; if you have time, why don’t you come over and we’ll train and talk. We had a visit from a Buddhist and fung shui master, and we had a long conversation about this kind of stuff. I’m hearing the same lesson from two different masters of two different ancient Chinese disciplines, both telling me the same thing. I’m hearing the truth in their words and I’m trying my best to take it all in and hold onto it so I can pass it along to my team. 

Through your training, you have to understand how to strike that balance, how to physically, mentally and spiritually lessen the deviations from left to right until you’re walking on the center and you have that balance. That’s something that the individual has to do, but most of the time the student throws up the hand and says, “I don’t want to hear it,” because it’s about turning yourself in on yourself to see yourself and maybe not liking what you see. I may not be super intelligent or the most mature guy in the world, but I’ve learned how to try to accept and try to learn again which is the most difficult thing. Try to learn what? Learning about yourself allows you to learn whatever item you want to learn. Otherwise, you’re so caught up with the knowing that you actually lose the opportunity for learning. You throw up the hand and say, “I don’t want to hear it. You’re popping my bubble.” 

Your state of mind allows you to understand or not understand. That’s what we’re talking about. The state of mind of the individual allows them to accept the truth or not accept the truth. Once you do accept the truth, then you’ll be released and you’ll be able to grow. That’s dictated by the individual. When you put up the hand and say, “I don’t want to hear it,” then all progress grinds to a halt. You have to learn how to be. When the two masters were talking to me about the situations that we were talking about, they were teaching me how to be. This is what we call in Chinese, 式做人sik jo yan. Which literally means, “Be a man.” Know how to conduct yourself, or, in simple terms, grow up! You can’t know how to deal with other people or situations if you don’t know how to deal with yourself. Accepting what your instructor or Sifu has to tell you hopefully will open up different channels in your mind and let you grow so you know how to be as a person, how to treat people and how to treat yourself. So don’t sing the “la la” song. Don’t throw your hands up and stop the learning. Accept what comes to you. We learn and grow every moment of every day.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

CHINESE LION DANCE - HONOR THE TRADITION

恭喜发财 Gung Hei Fhat Choi! Happy “Chinese” New Year. I know everybody is politically correct and fond of saying “Lunar” New Year, and I know everybody wants to be all inclusive, but to me it will always be Chinese New Year. As I sit here watching this gorgeous first day of the Year of the Pig, seeing all the children out from school (which we were never allowed to do; we had to play hooky to enjoy the first day of Chinese New Year), and everyone dressed with dabs of red, and all the oranges, golden pomelos and giant stalks of sugar cane being sold on the street, the red and white pussywillows, and all the decorations, I can only stretch back and remember the Chinese New Years that I knew as a teenager. Today, it’s a little bit different. Back then, as I’m sure a lot of my Kung Fu brothers can remember, the streets filled with people, and the days were frigid and cold. We had to lion dance all day long in the snow and ice, but we were kept warm by the incessant barrage of fireworks literally being thrown at us from rooftops of rival factions in the most friendly of manners to bring us joy and prosperity and eradicate all the bad omens. It was the best and the worst at the same time. 

At that time, the lions were huge. They were classified as number ones, twos and threes, and most of the time we had a number one, which is the biggest. It felt like you had your own studio apartment, and I know a lot of the teams as well as ours would hide weapons inside, butterfly knives and the like, waiting for the chance to possibly encounter a rival team and have a throwdown. So is the mind of a teenager. The streets filled with red paper so high that it almost reached your knees. The smoke was so thick, black and grey that it clouded your mind and left the fragrance of gunpowder singed into your hair and face. The firecracker paper was coming out of your ears and your underwear and crevices you didn’t even know you had. You had burn marks on your legs, and you didn’t even know where they came from. Every team was drumming as loudly and powerfully as they could, playing their music to try to overpower and outdance the other teams. It was relatively friendly, but still had that edge of competitiveness. You knew that every other team would be judging you by the way that you lion danced. It was the most amazing time that I ever had in my young life. Nothing could compare to the joy, energy and anxiety of coming out on the first day of the new year. You always had to watch out for the oldtimers. The old dudes in the street would watch you, and they knew what they were looking at. Whenever we came upon a patch of old guys, you had to watch out, because they would know if you were doing it right or not.

At that time, Chinatown was still a hotbed of controversy with rival gangs owning particular parts of the neighborhood and streets where it wasn’t always safe to go. I remember after certain incidents every team was assigned at least one or two uniformed police officers to escort you through your route. I can remember several years in a row that there was a lot of tension. In one incident that I can remember (although I can’t say names), there was another team that was threatening to come out and fight with whoever crossed their lines. It was so tense that I can remember having to get bullet-proof vests just in case a shooting went down. It was no joke, there was that much tension. Another year, it was so volatile that I can remember one of my teachers saying, “Here, here’s a Kwan Do.” I said, “What do you want me to do, Sifu?” He said, “Stand next to me, and if anybody comes next to me, chop them!” I was all of 14. As I said, it was the best and the worst at the same time. One of the best things was when we were done, the team would always go out and we’d have our own Chinese banquet. Of course, there was copious amounts of food. We couldn’t get our fill, and the Tsingtao beer flowed freely. Ah, them was the days. I long for those gone by days and somehow know they will never return. The camaraderie, friendships and bonding that we derived from being together not only as Kung Fu brothers but lion dancing for Chinese year, means a lot to me and is something special that I would never trade for anything. 

Today, there are a lot of different styles of lions, a lot of hybrids, a lot of different teams using different methods. The lion dance that we do is from southern China. I remember when we were young and full of energy, we would always have the three traditional lions. They were: Lau Be, the rainbow or colorful lion; Kwan Gung, the red and black lion of the god of war; and Cheung Fei, the black, green and white lion. They were the three brothers of the peach orchard from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. They showed the power and the glory and personified the culture of Chinese New Year. We were always taught in the traditional manner. 

The lion dance itself is much more than what normal people understand. It’s a spiritual, symbolic dance done to bring good fortune and sweep away all the bad luck of the previous year. It’s not a dance of a puppy or a puppet. We call the lion “Sing See.” This lion is descended from the heavens and has the power and spirit to eradicate all bad omens and evil. We were always taught to treat the lion respectfully in its handling. The lion is sacred to the Kung Fu school and is its mascot. It was never approached lightly, and I can remember, we were never allowed to play the lion head until we ascended to a much higher level. It was always the most senior guys in the club that played the lion head. You had to start at the back end, playing cymbals, gong, and eventually the tail. Slowly, they would train you to do the lion head, but that look a long time and there was a lengthy pecking order. The lion dance that we were taught stemmed from the Kung Fu system that you learned. It utilized all the stances, posture and bridge hand work that is prominent in the Kung Fu that you study and should be displayed within your movement. The lion dances from the province of Canton taught to us by our teachers were fierce and powerful, moving through the streets to the beats of the war drum driving you forward to usher in the auspices and fortune of the new year. We were so honored, and I am still honored to this day, to try my best to pass along whatever little I could absorb from my teachers and give it to this next generation. 

In trying my best to preserve what I’ve learned as best as I could and bring it forward, every year we go out and do our shows. We were lucky enough to have one of our first lion dance shows in the neighborhood this past week, and in attendance was one of the senior instructors from Fu Jow Pai Tiger Claw Kung Fu, Sifu John Chang, one of my close Kung Fu brothers. It’s always wonderful to run into him, and he made me so happy by saying, “Your teachers, Sifu Tony Lau and Sifu Tak Wah Eng, taught you well, and you’re able to bring your team forward and do the traditional style of lion dance.” As I reflect, I think it’s important for us to be the custodians of the art form and the traditions and culture that have been passed down to us by our mentors and our teachers. As much as celebrating Chinese New Year is about looking forward to the new year and the happiness and joy that we will derive, I also think back and hope that we can do our best to carry forward the traditional values that were taught and passed down to us, and pass them down to the next generation. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

CRITIQUE AND CRITICISM -- HEAVEN AND HELL

( read it...Don't just laugh at picture)

Inevitably, throughout your career, be it training in the martial arts or whatever vocation that you choose, you will be critiqued and criticized by the best and the worst that can be found in this life. I’m sitting here chuckling about it because I can remember watching a news program where they interviewed Bruce Springsteen and they asked him, “After all these years, what keeps you going?” He summed it up very succinctly and said, “I believe every artist had someone who told them that they weren’t worth dirt and someone who told them that they were the second coming of the baby Jesus, and they believed ‘em both. And that’s the fuel that starts the fire.” We’re going to receive praise from those who feel that we’re just as good as sliced bread (and we’re not), as well as the most horrible denigrating statements meant to crash us out of spite, jealousy, envy and ignorance (and those aren’t true either). All of us have our good days and our bad days, and through our training we try to minimize that gap.

When receiving these critiques and criticisms, the most important thing that you have to remember is the source which they are coming from, hence the idea of heaven and hell. When you’re of a high level and very well-schooled in whatever art form (In this case, martial arts, and I do stress ART, and not just martial technique and fighting), the higher level the teacher, the more the teacher understands he is just a student and will be that for his entire life. He won’t indulge in passing firey judgment on others. Many times, the individuals that criticize with such vigor and energy are the ones that know the least. One of my lady students had one of her longtime girlfriends criticize her for spending so much time doing Kung Fu. She said she could get the same results from her Zumba class and asked my student, “Why are you wasting so much time?” Well, the last time I saw Zumba class doing 60 knuckle push-ups and playing with a spear was… never. You can see that my student’s friend was just trying to shoot her down because she was envious, because this student is older and still looks very young and is able to do all this activity while I’m sure her friend is not. I think it boils down to, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But, you have to ask yourself, who is the beholder and what is their mindset and where are they coming from and what is their experience and background? How can someone judge an art form based upon little or no experience in that art form? Once again, I stress this word ART form, because my great Kung Fu uncle, grandmaster Paul Eng said, Kung Fu is a martial art – “The word art means that it is part technique (what can be learned) and part personal expression (what is unique to the person doing it).” It’s always good to receive critique from a qualified source, that being your teacher or your grandmaster or someone that truly understands your art. If Mozart says to you that your music isn’t too good, I would take that to heart. But, if the beer belly mechanic in Arkansas criticizes your technique, I wouldn’t loose any sleep over it.

People have turned around and watched my videos and criticized me for having a “Mcdojo.” On the other hand, you have other people praising you and saying, wow, I’m so proud and happy that you’re trying your best to preserve traditional Kung Fu and the knowledge that’s been passed onto you. We all have to find the balance between the two. This is the real idea. It’s no different than a classical violinist or bass player tuning his instrument. If you tune the string too tight, it will snap, and if you tune it too loose it won’t play. I had seen a snippet of another interview with Peter Townsend and he was joking to the interviewer, “I practiced so hard, I could snap all the strings in my guitar in one stroke,” and then he laughed and said he was showing off. You have to be able to not take yourself too seriously – not be too loose, not be too stiff, not be too irreverent and flippant, but also not wound so tightly, so overly protective of your image that you can’t make light of yourself. Regardless of whatever critique and criticism -- be it good, bad or ugly -- that you will receive constantly from all walks of life, you must be flexible enough that you can accept all, but not fully digest every one of them, because neither extreme is healthy. You must know how to maintain your own mental and spiritual balance and know who you truly are. That is the practice of the martial arts and the reason why we still do it.

When people ask you what you do and you tell them you train in the martial arts, I’m sure many of you have experienced someone saying, “Well, I’ll just get a gun and shoot you.” These individuals are missing the point, and they not only show their short-sightedness, but they also show their ignorance. It’s easy to cop out and make statements like that. It’s much harder to sit there, analyze yourself and work on yourself, which is what an art is about. We train to be warrior scholars and hopefully better ourselves to better the society that we live in. The critique and the criticism that we receive from all sources, be they qualified and or unqualified, be they friend or foe, must be taken through and sifted to retain what is appropriate and take those appropriate comments, negative and/or positive and convert them into inspiration. You must draw inspiration in order to motivate yourself, because in the end it comes down to the individual.

This is what is so amazing about Kung Fu specifically, as stated by grandmaster Paul Eng above. This was also stated by Donnie Yen: “Martial art is a form of expression, an expression from your inner self to your hands and legs.” It is poetry in motion; it is art created by the physical, mental and spiritual essence of the individual, portrayed through the martial technique. It does grow beyond the confines of fighting the opponent or killing the enemy, which is one of its core premises, but nowhere near its total definition. Martial arts, first and foremost, is an art of life, an art of protecting life, promoting life, making life better by making yourself better first.

I had a chance meeting with an 80-year-old master that had trained in Kung Fu and Buddhism here in New York’s Chinatown the other week, and we had a lengthy conversation. He enlightened me about something that I already knew but maybe had forgotten. He said to me in the most kind and gentle way, “you don’t know how much impact we have on everyone around us.” Every action, every word, every deed is like dropping a stone into a pool of water, and it creates a ripple effect that reaches far, far, far beyond ourselves. The practice of martial arts must be taken in the right sense. It must be approached with a good, honest, sincere heart because every deed and every action that we do has an effect on the people around us, which has an effect on the people that surround them and so on, and so on. In this way, we have the power to influence those around us, our family, our neighbors, our friends and the greater society by the actions, words and deeds that we do. This is the responsibility of the martial art teacher and practitioner. I thought long and hard about this.

To bring it back to critique and criticism, those are two polar opposites that you may receive. Some may say you’re the best, and some may say you’re the worst, but this should not polarize you. We, as martial art practitioners and especially martial art teachers, have individuals that look up to us to lead them and give them guidance and inspiration and motivation. Because of this, we must take great care in what we say and do. Therefor, we cannot be polarized by things that people say about us. We must learn to find the balance within ourselves and know ourselves. Because in knowing yourself, you’ll be able to know others and be able to help those that require your assistance and teachings, and in doing so end up teaching yourself to be better. The thing is, it’s you. You’re never going to satisfy everyone. You’re never going to be able to make everyone believe in you. The most important thing is that you believe in yourself but are also able to draw inspiration and motivation regardless of if it’s a positive critique or negative criticism that you receive.

When I concluded my time with this master, he said to me, “When you’re confronted with individuals that have issues with you, you should say these four things to yourself: I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” Now you’re going to turn around to me and say, “Sifu, this sounds really squishy.” And as a macho man (or macho person, so I don’t offend anybody) I would first agree with you. But, more seriously, understanding that if we’re talking about growing from critique and criticism, it’s all based upon how we accept it. The only way we can accept it and be able to convert it into positive motivation and inspiration is by having an openness. That openness comes from the heart of the individual. You are what you are in your heart, not the color of your skin or your hair or what system you learned. Use these four statements when you encounter individuals that critique and criticize you. For the one that gives you the negative criticism, you dissipate and neutralize that caustic energy by just saying those four phrases in your own mind and in your own heart. Conversely with the good critique (not necessarily saying that you’re good, but the actual constructive critique), by using these four phrases, you honor the individual by honoring yourself and accepting the critique happily and joyfully. This is how you’re able to strike the balance. You’re neither one side nor the other. You don’t say, “Oh, I adore you because you pump me up,” or “I despise you because you knock me down.” Rather, you say, thank you, I appreciate it, I’m sorry, forgive me if you don’t like it, I love your comments. And the same thing to the other individual, you say, forgive me for not being good enough. The critique and criticism, heaven and hell, is part and parcel of the journey of becoming a martial artist – this true individual, this genuine individual, this real person – that is the purpose of the training.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

DON’T STRESS THE TEST

I’m spending the afternoon preparing for upcoming exams. You may say, well traditional Kung Fu doesn’t have tests and never had rank or belts or a ranking system and so on and so on. And I would say, you’re right. But traditionally speaking there was no need for testing. What people don’t seem to understand about today’s martial arts and the martial arts of ages gone by is that several hundred years ago, Kung Fu was their survival tool. It was the ways and means for an individual to protect themselves, their family, their village and so on. If you can imagine what a feudal society was like, there was no 911 coming, no cavalry over the hill, no one coming to save you. In fact, you were more than likely surrounded by marauding bandits who also had a great deal of experience with Kung Fu. These individuals were tested by their times and had no choice but to make it work. 

Today, many students don’t understand the process and reasoning behind the testing procedure and why it must be done. Testing is incredibly important for today’s society because it sets up goals and challenges that were not necessary for our forefathers in Kung Fu. They didn’t need external incentive to train hard; the incentive was to survive and make it work. For for those of us that descend from the southern Shaolin tradition, the goal was revolution and to overthrow the Ching empire. It was a very different mindset, and also at that time the physical livelihood of the individual was so much more strenuous than it is today. Today, if you want some water, you turn on the tap. If you want the house to be warm, you turn up the thermostat. In those days, you had to go and fetch a pail of water from the well or chop the wood to build the fire. Their existence was much more rigorous and austere. 

We in our more modern and technologically advanced society have many, many luxuries that they didn’t have in those days, and to some degree these luxuries have made us a little soft. Just entreat this idea for the moment. If you imagine a kid growing up in the street where it’s dog-eat-dog, that individual is going to grow up a certain way. Be they well-schooled in martial arts or not, they’re going to have to fight from day one because it’s their mode of survival. Fortunately for most of us, this is not our lot in life, and I know some of you have romantic ideas about it, but this is not a movie. Growing up and fighting in the streets is not fun, and any one of those kids would love to change places with you any time. But, I digress. 

Now maybe you understand the first thing I’m going to say why about we need to test. Testing puts us in a position to face ourselves, to more or less put ourselves on the firing line. It’s very easy to practice something and become comfortable with the way that you’re doing it but never have a catalyst introduced to rattle your cage and see what shakes out. Now, I’m not advocating that you go out to the street and pick a fight to see how good you are. This is not what I’m talking about. The test in this instance is the test of your mentality, your inability and/or ability to deal with the stress, the stress of the test. The stress is what we all feel and is what we all have to overcome. If you understand how to use and manage your stress appropriately (you can never totally get rid of it because life is stress) you will be able to take this seemingly negative energy and turn it into a positive. You have to find a way and a mechanism to train yourself to process stress and be able to turn it into a positive force that will propel you further. 

I know I’m using a lot of clichés, but everybody sounds good singing in the bathtub. No one’s watching you. When you do something alone in the privacy of your room, you may do it rather well, because you don’t have prying eyes. Knowing someone is watching you can affect your mentality and your ability to do your job. Many people struggle with that anxiety. If you approach the test as a learning tool, this allows the individual to be able to help themselves get over that anxiety. The only way that someone can get over something like that is if they actually face it, at least in my personal opinion. Trying to get “around” the subject in a passive manner is not going to alleviate the fact that it’s there. Just because you don’t see the moon when the sun is shining doesn’t mean that it’s not in the sky. So, testing on a regular basis allows the Kung Fu student to be able to build up their strength and tolerance to those peering and judgmental eyes. In life, you’re going to be judged severely and harshly by the world at large, so the sooner you learn to deal with something like that and develop a thicker skin so to speak, the better off you’re going to be.

Many times I say to my students, “Your test is my test.” As an instructor and a teacher, I teach on a daily basis, so my students’ test is also my test in the sense that I get to see pretty much what I already know, but can verify what they need and what I need to work on with each individual. Testing allows me to see the progress that the student has made, their shortcomings and their reactions to the pressure. The pressure and the stress of the test is actually one of the most important components in testing a student. You get to see character traits, psychological profile, their overall attitude and how they deal with problem solving and situations. This is a giant chunk of what’s going to make them as a martial art practitioner, because learning the movement techniques by themselves is not enough. The internal aspect of the individual also needs to be tested and this is why putting pressure on the individual during that testing time is important. This is just like when building material that engineers use to construct a bridge is put under certain stress tests to see if it will be able to sustain the weight and tension that is required. When this is done properly, you have a good outcome, and when it’s done improperly you have disaster. 

Every time the student gets an opportunity to be tested for rank, they’re not testing for the rank. This is what many students miss. You’re testing to be tested, to see where the cracks come, where you need to do the work. The test is not about anything other than learning more about where you lie within your range of skills that you are training. Therefor, if this is the case, the test is really about feedback. It’s physical, mental and, to some degree, also spiritual feedback, that comes back to the testee as well as the instructor. After you take the exam and you receive your new rank, a lot of people misconstrue that because you were given this belt/sash/ranking that you ARE that rank. You’re not. The belt that you hold is the rank that your instructor believes you can aspire to become, not necessarily what you’ve attained. So also in that sense, it’s a daily work. It’s a daily struggle. 

Because our lives are relatively easy compared to what was, the students of modern Kung Fu need more goals to aspire to, hence the idea of a ranking system or colored belts and sashes and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the understanding must be that eventually you will transcend all these things. If you hang around long enough, you’re going to get to a point where there are no more belts to test for, so when is the test? How do you test yourself if there’s no longer a test to take? This is another concept that I try to teach my students. The test is not only on that given day, but rather, we are being tested every moment of every day that we are alive. If you step back and reflect upon this, then you will start to understand that once you’ve gained the rank of black belt or black sash or you’ve gained your master degree in whatever art you’re studying, it is just another beginning to bring yourself to another level of learning and testing. We have to take the approach of looking at ourselves every day that we practice and teach and calculate our own grade. We have to grade ourselves on a daily basis and see, how well did you do? The students wait for every three to six months to be tested to receive their new stripe, their new belt, their new rank. And they’re so happy (the woohoo moment… but just for a moment… see last week’s blog) and that acts as an impetus to propel them forward, keep them going until they can get a footing on their new level and start working hard again. But as we said before, the true test is every day. Are you able to maintain the right mentality and frame of mind to get the job done the way it’s supposed to be done on a daily basis? 

So in conclusion, even though the traditional masters had no “test” and/or rank, and today many schools use ranking systems or colored belts to motivate and help their students set goals, the truth of the matter is, it boils down to you and what you put into it on a daily basis. The true test is every moment as the clock ticks off, and what you’re putting behind it. So, I hope you pass your test, but in the end it’s got nothing to do with that. Belt or no belt, rank or no rank, test or no test, you are who you are, and you have to own up to how well you’ve done the job. Let’s strive for all of us to make the grade every day. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

WOOHOO! (JUST FOR A MOMENT)

Did you ever have a “Woohoo” moment? I’m sure all of us have had. But it’s “WOOHOO!” only for the moment and then the moment is gone. I’ve had several of them the past week. I’m sorry that most of my blogs talk about training and my training sessions with my teacher, but that’s pretty much all I do. This past week I spent a little extra time with him, working hot and heavy on one particular set. Everything was going great, the energy was high; he was cheering me on; I was getting pumped up. As I started to progress, he said, let me show you a few extra techniques. I thought I did my best to emulate what he showed me, but as he was showing me and I was trying to emulate what he was doing, there was another person in the room with us, and they literally went, “Uh, uh, you missed a spot.” Everything ground to a halt. My teacher laughed out loud in my face. I think I’m somewhat self-deprecating, but I think that’s okay, because this is how we learn to be better. If you can’t laugh at yourself, and you take yourself too seriously, you’re in for a lot of disappointments in life. But getting back to my story, as my teacher laughed, he said, “Ah ha! This reminds me of an old Chinese saying.” 旁觀者清. 當局者迷. It’s kind of difficult to explain what it means in English but it loosely translates to, “The bystander can see clearly, while the author’s vision is cloudy.” Needless to say, that was like a tiny needle inserted into my big balloon that slowly siphoned off all the air. My giant beautiful pink balloon became shriveled up and wrinkled. 

At that moment, when those things happen to us, we never take them the right way. But upon reflection, which I tried to do immediately, I saw that he and the other individual were correct. Didn’t you ever have that kind of a situation where you’re working on something so hot, so hard, so heavy, your focus was so laser sharp on a pinpoint area of one small facet that you lost the greater picture? Doesn’t everybody do this? They always focus on miniscule stuff and lose the greater vision and goal. People do this when they practice, in their lives, in their work place, with projects and so on and so on. They become so engrossed in what they think should happen that they lose the true essence of what is supposed to happen. This really inspired me to take a look at everything that I’ve been doing lately. Because we get so built up and so caught up with what we’re doing, we actually create a type of blindness to what we’re supposed to be doing. This is where the so called unbiased, innocent bystander, even though they may have less training or no training whatsoever, can see so clearly. 

A good example would be a child. The innocence and the lack of desire and ego that children have allows them to see things that adults don’t see. Always they say, “out of the mouths of babes” because little ones just say what it is, unfiltered, not thinking about being politically correct or possibly hurting someone’s feelings or insulting them, not from any malicious standpoint, but because they just blurt out the truth. I can remember years ago being in an elevator in a building with my young daughter who must’ve been three years old at the time, and there was an older man in the elevator, and she looked at him and looked at me and said, “Daddy, Daddy, he has such a big nose,” and there was nowhere to hide. You do your best to make sure the other individual doesn’t feel bad, but the truth was, he had a big nose and it was right there on his face. That was what was being said to me in that moment. Look, look, you’re missing the details. You’re jumping to conclusions. It looks like something that you think you know, but it’s not exactly the same. So it is necessary for you take a step back, if not several, and refocus your gaze upon the same item. Needless to say, I tried my best and I’m still working on that set of movements. 

This idea of taking the unbiased critique of an outsider sometimes is the best medicine that we need in order to sharpen up our focus again. Many times, the errors that we make are when we dismiss the teachers that we have in front of us. But your teachers aren’t always the ones that you call teacher. Good things teach us; bad things teach us. Good people teach us; bad people sometimes teach us even better. And in this instance, unbiased individuals that have absolutely no concern with what you’re doing can also teach you a great lesson. It’s those people on the sidelines that sometimes see better than those that are involved in the game. I know there are a lot of armchair warriors that watch their football games on a regular basis and scream at the television why the guy didn’t make the pass or the touchdown, but there is some truth to this. Even though they’re not physically involved, they can see a little bit clearer than the players who are in the game. Sometimes we are so engrossed in the action or the item that we almost miss what’s truly happening. A case in point is one of the young men that I train on a regular basis and is sometimes part of my sparring team. He made a comment to me that he was so engrossed in being the adversary in a drill that we were doing that he couldn’t see what was being done to him, so there is something to be said for just sitting there and watching and listening.

I was carrying these thoughts around with me all day and all night, and being inspired by this, I took it with me to my early morning Saturday kids class. I think this is really heavy stuff for little kids, but I tried to find a way to explain to them that just because you’re working hard doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re working properly. I tried to explain it in such a way that confused them a little bit, but it was fun. I said, “How many Sifus do you have here in the school?” First they all said, “One!” and then after that it became mass confusion. Finally, we sorted it all out, and we came to the conclusion that you have three teachers at your fingertips. First and foremost is your Sifu, and you have to follow what he shows you. But equally as important, you have your faculties – that is your eyes and your ears. Sometimes we all turn them off. Even though you look, sometimes you don’t see. You hear, but many times you don’t listen. Your teachers are there but you don’t utilize them. I’ve grown frustrated with many of my students because even though I am present and they are neither blind nor deaf, many of them dismiss those faculties that are available to them and just go on autopilot, just as I was guilty of in my own training session. 

We have to train our powers of observation. How do you observe? You observe with your eyes, and you observe with your ears. These powers of observation that we have are not something that are exclusive to any one individual. Everyone has them. They’re super powers that everybody has, but not everybody knows how to use or how to cultivate. That’s why I’m so inspired by what happened. The small things that you gloss over may be the things that really make what you’re doing what it truly is. It’s the details. Kung Fu is in the details. It’s the small screw that holds together the two pieces of wood. It’s the hinge pin that holds the thousand pound door. This is what we need to learn, is how to be of a dual focus. While we’re working, being intensely focused on what we’re doing but at the same time policing and supervising ourselves so we don’t miss or gloss or skip what we’re doing or what should be done. We need to be careful not to lose ourselves so much in the task that we lose the task at hand. Coming back to my football analogy, this is why many sport coaches tape their games and tape their practices, because things happen so fast that they need to go back and show their players where they could improve and where mistakes were made, or where things were done well and try to duplicate those actions. 

You have to excuse me now. I have to go and do a little bit more editing on a movie that we’re working on for Kung Fu In A Minute. As I’m watching it, I’m going to try to use my powers of observation to see what things I did well and what things I didn’t do so well, and try to raise it up to another level. So let’s have a “woohoo” moment, but it’s just a moment, and then we need to refocus and get back to work.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

DO YOU KNOW HOW TO COOK RICE?

As is my custom for many years, I spend most holidays with my teacher. I consider this a great honor and privilege and always look forward to it. This past New Year’s Eve was the same as always. As everyone else was running around preparing for their New Year’s Eve celebration, buying champagne, funny 2019 glow in the dark glasses and confetti, and getting ready to be rained on in Times Square, we were together in his training hall. We were enjoying a homemade bowl of Chinese medicinal soup made by my wife while I was training on an advanced internal form that we’ve been working on together. The energy in the room was clean, strong and bright as the time of the New Year approached. Without a word to one another, we could feel the power and energy increase as we trained together. As I continued to practice and inspect every facet of my movement, we came to talk about the actual practice of Kung Fu and why different individuals end up with what they end up with. 

The analogy that we drew upon was that of cooking rice. In western culture, there is no differentiation between how to say “uncooked rice” and “cooked rice”. Rice is rice! They make no clear distinction between the two, but this is completely different from the Chinese point of view. Uncooked rice is called “mai”. Mai is the actual rice kernel. It’s hard, dry, small, inedible and indigestible. By itself, it is for lack of a better term, useless. On the other hand, the Chinese have a completely different word for cooked rice. Cooked rice has gone through the process of being washed, cleaned, and boiled. Today, everybody uses the rice steamer to cook their rice and it cooks relatively fast, but I can remember when we didn’t have the wonderful Japanese rice steamers that we have today. It took a really long time to cook the rice with copious amounts of water, and it needed to be watched over. You just didn’t push the button and walk away. When you finished, the cooked rice, which in Chinese we call “fan”, has been magically transformed to a completely different product that is full, big, tender, juicy and has a different mouth feel and is wholly edible and digestible. My teacher and I sat together and discussed this, because I’m so accustomed to the idea of mai and fan, it didn’t dawn upon me that in the Western mentality there’s no difference, but what a giant difference there is. You would never sit there and purposely try to eat uncooked rice, would you? No way. This makes no sense. But many a Kung Fu student takes that same approach when they practice. Most of the time, everyone is trying to eat uncooked rice. Because they trained with an improper attitude that makes their practice indigestible, and they are unable to derive the benefits. They never put in enough time. You could ask me how much time is enough time, and my answer to you would be years, and years and years. 

We all know in today’s mentality and culture, the “quick fix” is what everyone is looking for. Everyone is looking for the grand lotto ticket that they can win; everyone is looking for the inoculation shot that they could take for a cure-all for whatever ails them. Everyone is looking for the immediate knowledge and wisdom without the struggle, without the fight, without the daily practice that is the devotion that makes Kung Fu unique and special. Similarly, the old master chef would fuss over that pot all day long to make sure it came out just right, especially in Asian culture where rice is so important. It’s even considered that if the rice isn’t cooked properly, the dinner is ruined, regardless of what the other entrees are. The rice is the canvas that the food relies on to bring out its flavor and taste. So it is that the thick layer of understanding through continual basic training will be the platform for the student to understand advanced practices. What really needs to change and become upgraded is the attitude and the approach that we must have in order to gain a better insight. The attitude that must be adopted is exactly that of knowing “how” to cook the rice, or in this instance, the Kung Fut hat you’re practicing. Many of us, including myself, have taken the approach in the beginning that because we learned said topic, that we derived everything there was to get from it, and the actuality is, learning a particular form, weapon or technique is tantamount to going to the supermarket and buying a bag of rice, and thinking that it’s already cooked and you can eat it. That’s not the case. There are so many more things to do to take that grain and bring it to its fullest resolution, and have it become useful for consumption, digestion, i.e., your true understanding of the practice that you’ve embarked upon. We must practice diligently every day to slowly acquire the understanding and knowledge that is hidden within. 

I was teaching my class the other night, and made a remark in jest, “I’m going to promote all of you tonight.” Everyone looked at me, some in shock, some in amazement, some with a smile on their face, and as I finished my statement their jaws dropped because I said I’m going to promote all of you to the grand rank of white belt. And this was so funny because when I was training with my teacher, he made the comment that I had passed so many levels of black belt that I could now become a new white belt on a higher level. But getting back to my rice, in order for us to gain the nutrition from what we eat and what we practice, it has to be cooked properly. This cooking process that we need to learn is what everyone is missing. Many, if not all students feel that when they’ve completely learning a particular item, form, weapon, technique, etc. that they’ve actually accomplished it. Even if they don’t verbally say it, in the recesses of their mind, they do adhere to this idea. Many of us have done this before when we’ve cooked ourselves a meal. I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good of a cook. But when you cook yourself a meal and spend so much time to prepare it, you inevitably have to eat it, and few of us, if any, would say that what we cooked wasn’t that good. So, it goes equally with our Kung Fu practice. How many times have we cooked something, i.e. practiced our routine and at that moment, unwittingly or unknowingly, have said, “That’s not too bad. I feel good about this.” My case in point is that on New Year’s Eve I was practicing with my teacher, and I came back on the day after New Year’s Day to practice again. I turned to face him where he was sitting in his chair, as usual, and I said, “It got worse.” And he said, “Great. That means you’re already improving because you’re dissatisfied with what you did the day before, which was okay, but now you understand it can be even better.” 

As we begin to learn how to cook our Kung Fu, we grow to understand it more intimately and develop the flavor and taste, idea, energy, attitude and mind that cannot be transmitted just by merely imitating the pattern and the steps. This is why many modern-day martial artists cannot understand the practice of traditional Kung Fu, Karate, etc. The nourishment derived from the proper way to practice goes far beyond the mere execution of a movement. We should all strive to understand that this is a cultural point of view. Like I had said before, there are different words for cooked and uncooked rice that don’t exist in Western cultures. In order for the practitioner to grasp a different meaning, we have to align ourselves with a different mindset, a mindset from the ancient masters of time gone by. If you don’t want to, and you just want to opt out for any quick fix, that’s your prerogative, but you will miss out on the centuries of wisdom and understanding that have been imbued into these arts. Many of us don’t think about “how” to practice properly, and we end up wasting a lot of time. We’re so caught up with memorizing the routine and trying to make it look right, as opposed to being right from the inside out, that we end up losing more than gaining. That kind of practice becomes futile, and actually retards the growth and understanding of the practitioner. Understanding how to cook the rice, i.e. how to cook your Kung Fu, is one of the most important things I have learned and am learning still from my teacher. 

First and foremost, the preparation of the individual’s body and mind is paramount to beginning proper practice. This must be established through sound basic training under the guidance of an experienced teacher and with the willingness of the student to open his mind to being able to see beyond the confines of the physical execution of the movement. This could be drawn to the analogy of preparing the rice properly before cooking it. When preparing the rice to be cooked, it must be washed and rinsed several times to prepare it properly for cooking. So, too, we must cleanse ourselves repeatedly of preconceived notions and ideas that may hinder us. Cleansing the mind, allowing the true intention to come through, and understanding the true intention of the technique being practiced will allow the student to fully understand the form that he is practicing and its multiple purposes. You’re cleansing your mind of things you think you know, because you’re so messed up that you think you know everything. You have to wash that all out of your mind and then just retain a little bit of it, and then rest upon that, just as the rice must be left to rest after rinsing and before the cooking begins. The actual practice and/or “cooking” of the technique, form, etc., must be done with the proper intention. That is, after cleansing the mind of misconceptions, striving to understand and interpret properly the mental intention of whatever technique the individual is practicing. These two go hand in hand, like yin and yang, one helping the other. Submerge yourself into the subject again at a low heat, until you get used to it, then raise the heat, then lower the heat, then rest again. This is an ongoing process. Sometimes when you practice, you have to practice hard, fast and strong. Then other times you’ll practice the same exact set, but you’ll do it softly and smoothly and relaxed. It’s a blending of the two back and forth until you’ve done it so many times that it speaks to you without saying a word. Innately, you build an understanding, but this takes time. There is instant one-minute rice, and you can eat it, and you won’t die, but it sucks. Everything requires Kung Fu, even cooking rice, if you want to be at a high-grade level. In the end, it comes back down to us to do it right.

Today we have those wonderful electric Japanese rice cookers, and I love them. I think they’re awesome and they’ve taken away the toil and the trouble of making a good pot of steamed rice. But we have lost something in the process. What have we lost? We’ve lost the skill of being able to make the rice. Similarly, when we try to take shortcuts to understanding our Kung Fu and don’t fully flesh it out, don’t completely do every movement, we, too, lose something in the process. The practitioner who tries to take this shortcut may have the pattern and the look but has lost the substance and internal understanding. So following through with the analogy of cooking rice, whatever you choose to do, everything must be cooked properly and from the inside out.

For those of us who love Cantonese food, there’s nothing better on a cold, winter day like today than having a big bowl of steaming rice topped with Lop Yuk or Lop Cheung. Bon appetit… Cook up your Kung Fu!

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

I AM THE GRINCH

Ho ho ho, jingle bells, and all that stuff. This season seems to throw people for a loop. I do understand why a lot of people have so much anxiety at this time of year. I think the anxiety that everyone feels during the holiday season (whatever holiday you choose to celebrate) is because we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been sold an idea of what things are supposed to be like. It’s supposed to snow on Christmas Eve, and sugarplum fairies are supposed to dance on top of my head, and it just sets us up for disappointment because things aren’t always going to turn out that way. Your holiday season isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting. 

Everybody knows that guy, Norman Rockwell, right? He painted all those amazing family gatherings, snowbound Christmas pictures which are gorgeous and wonderful and heartwarming, and I appreciate them very much. BUT they set a precedent in everyone’s mind of what this holiday season and time should be like. I’m not in disagreement, but let’s talk about reality. It isn’t always like that. I actually never remember having a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Do you? I feel that that it sets up this bad precedent of expectation and creates this huge amount of anxiety. You think, Oh my goodness look at everyone having the best time of their lives. They’re enjoying the holidays, decorating, doing this, doing that, and you, me, and everybody else, we’re sitting here going, Why don’t I feel like this? What’s the matter with me? I’m not telling you not to strive for a happy holiday, but I think you need to just be chill. You can’t force the issue. Don’t force things to be a certain way. Just leave it alone; it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Christmas is just another Tuesday. I’m not going to get into religion or anything like that because that’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about not having the crushing levels of anxiety that many people have this time of year. There’s no rule that you must have an amazing time this holiday season. If you don’t, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are actually very normal. The Norman Rockwell version of Christmas sets up people for terrible disappointment which is unfortunate because that’s not what holidays are all about. 

Everyone is rushing around accumulating credit card debt, spending money that they don’t have to spend, trying to impress people with the amount of stuff they can buy. Is that what it’s all about? Why do we get caught up with the superficial activity of running around and buying gifts for everyone when I think that the greatest gift you can give to someone is your love and kindness. It may not be physically tangible, but I think it will last a lot longer, and I feel that there should be no negative backlash from that. You don’t want to wake up January 1 after your hangover and see your credit card bill and all the money that you spent on food, wine and gifts. I’m not saying don’t be merry and don’t buy presents, but is that what it’s about? How can we get over that? What should it really be about? Shouldn’t it be about family, friends and loved ones, and coming together and cherishing one another and being good to each other? And if that’s what it’s about, shouldn’t that be an every day thing that you strive for? Why do you have to wait for once a year to reach out and be good to your friends and family? 

Holidays should be about being happy, joyful and thankful for the things that we have, not necessarily the things that we have to go out and buy. I’m so much of a Grinch that now that the kids are grown, I don’t buy anything for anybody, and if I buy anything for anybody it’s probably for myself. Sounds selfish, right? But I don’t think it is. I had a discussion with my teacher many years ago and it stuck with me to this day. We concluded that every day is Christmas. Every day is New Years Day; every day is your birthday. Every day that you get up in the morning and breathe and set your foot on the ground is the best day ever. To avoid the holiday blues, we need to adopt a new attitude and view every day as the best day ever. If we have this preconceived notion of what the holidays are supposed to be like and how much fun we’re going to have (which we are), you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. The big holiday party usually disintegrates into a family row and that’s okay. It’s okay not have a wonderful Christmas. It’s okay that Santa Claus didn’t bring you what you wanted. Why do you set yourself up for disaster? It’s unnecessary. You first and foremost need to make yourself happy on a daily basis, and then you can in turn try to make everyone else happy. 

What you need to do every day is make one person happy, and that’s your gift to them and yourself. Because what you give out in terms of kindness and generosity to others, not necessarily in a physical gift, but rather in a kind word or a gesture, goes a really long way and is much more impactful than if you bought them something at Macys. And hopefully it will be returned back onto you… sort of like a karmic Christmas. On a daily basis, I try my best (even sometimes when I’m in a funky place myself) to make everybody have a good day, have a good class, have a good lesson and be happy. Case in point, I have a wonderful student who is a Broadway star on a major Broadway show that has been running for 20 years (unfortunately I can’t tell you her name or the show, but you know it.. RAWRRRR!) She came in for a lesson today, and I actively said to myself in my mind, I want to make this a great class for her. I want to make this class like a Christmas Day class for her. Instead of doing the same old dry stuff that she’s accustomed to, I broke out a weapon matching set and an empty hand matching set and we had so much fun for almost an hour and a half. I tried to make her class like a Christmas gift for her, but it wasn’t a physical thing that I gave her. It was the connection, the energy, the happiness in teaching her something fun and exciting, and I think it will resonate with her much longer than if I had given her a Christmas card or gift. So, giving of yourself to others is what I think what the holidays should be about, and hopefully that will come back to you, too.

A lot of times, people think, all right, well, when Christmas arrives, then I’m going to start to feel happy, but it doesn’t happen. Okay then, they say, well, when New Years arrives, I’m going to turn my life around, and then I’ll be happy. This attitude is another thing that bothers me about people at Christmas. My point is, if every day is New Years Day, if every day is Christmas, why do you need to wait to be happy? Why do you need to wait to change your life? Why do you need to wait to make yourself better? Why do you need to wait to go to the next level? Live in the moment. Now it’s the holiday, so live in the holiday, but remember that every day that you wake up is a holiday because you’re alive. Don’t waste time wondering, what am I going to get for Christmas? Or, what do you think Johnny, Joey and Janey need for Christmas? Why do you need to wait for the holiday season to do something good for somebody else? 

In conclusion, now I understand why myself and the Grinch are kindred spirits. We don’t hate Christmas; we hate people. And more specifically, it’s not because I hate people. It’s because I hate what we do to ourselves during this season. It’s unnecessary to put ourselves through that anxiety; if it’s not necessary, don’t do it. In the last year, there have been several incidents where people have passed away or have gotten gravely ill, and that forced me to think even more along this line and say, What are you waiting for? Time is fleeting. The holidays mean nothing unless you have the right people around you. Why do you wait for the holiday time to express your feelings and love toward them? Why don’t you do it every day? Because there will be a day when they’re not there for you and then no amount of holiday cheer is going to bring them back. Now knowing this, we can empower ourselves to eradicate those feelings of anxiety, depression and holiday blues by understanding that the holiday is what we make of it. The holiday is the joy and energy that we put into every moment of every day that we have together, and taking those opportunities to give of yourself when you can. I think making others happy is the real meaning of this time, and reminding oneself of the importance of that is a better way of looking at it. During the year you get tunnel vision. You’re so busy working and pushing your career forward, and you need a holiday like this to remind you to stop and think about everyone that has impacted your life and how to reach out to them, and “make the heart light”, make the heart happy, and remember what’s important. So… enjoy your “Who-feast” and have a happy holiday.

— Sifu Paul Koh

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