Some things are absolute. You either won the lotto or you lost. You either got punched in the face or you didn’t. There, there is no question. But, don’t think that there’s only one way to win or only one way to punch someone in the face. Thinking in absolutes creates polarization and divides within one’s self. It creates stagnation and does not allow the individual to grow and expand. Therefore, absolute likes and dislikes, absolute thoughts about how particular movements, techniques and applications should or should not be done is not necessarily the best way to look at things. Techniques, forms and applications are presented in a way that gives you a concept of how to look at it. This does not mean you should be imprisoned by that concept and/or perception. Having an absolute mindset stops the possibilities of something else being able to come out of that situation.
That being said, you find a lot of people thinking that this is absolutely right and this is absolutely wrong, especially when it comes to martial art training. This is especially true in the realm of the beginner. That’s the stage where people speak in absolutes. It’s just like a child. In a child’s mind, things are absolutely great or absolutely horrible. In Chinese Kung Fu, we consider the first ten years to be a first step, a beginner stage. I had the benefit of having this conversation with one of my Kung Fu uncles, Master George Husek, recently, and he made this analogy. The beginner is like someone who stays in the city and is looking up at the sky. How many stars do you see? Not many. As you get better, and move away into the country, you start to see more. Then, later, you go to the mountain and see the Milky Way and your mind is blown by what was always there but could not be seen. When you’re a beginner, you understand everything but see nothing. As you progress, you see everything, but know how little you understand.
When you’re a beginner, you tend to gravitate towards absolute thinking because you see on a very narrow path and you’re looking for one clear, defined way. A beginner thinks in absolutes because he feels there is one surefire way that any given technique is done. He is completely convinced of the fact that this is the one and only way, and any other way is the wrong way. That’s the absolute thinking of a beginner, and so it is for all of us. The problem with thinking absolutely is that you become that toad in a hole. There’s a toad in a hole, and he’s sitting in his hole looking up at the sky through his hole in the ground, and he says to himself, “Wow, I see the entire sky, I see everything there is to see,” but as soon as he puts his head out of the hole, he gets run over by a truck.
There are proscribed manners and ways of training, but there is no one right way. The same reverse punch can be thrown so many different ways from different angles for different situations. You’re given one example when you learn, but you should also learn not to be held back by that one set method. You’re supposed to expand upon that, not be held back by it. I think that a lot of people studying martial arts have a tendency to become fanatical in the sense that they feel the way the move or form was laid down for them is the way it’s supposed to be all the time. But this is a beginner mentality. We have to use a more critical method of interpretation. The toad has to make a wider hole to see a bigger picture. To not be able to see in a wider parameter does a huge disservice not only to the practitioner himself, but to the martial arts in general. Because one day those practitioners may become teachers and may pass along that narrow point of view.
This goes back to the conversation I had with my Kung Fu uncle, Sifu George. He had said to me, did you ever notice that the higher the level the master, the fewer students he has? And that another individual who’s less skilled has that many more students? And I said, yeah, and I never really understood why. He began to explain to me that the issue is, when the teacher is 6 months, a year, several years ahead of the student, they can have a dialogue. There is some common ground that they can find to speak to each other because they’re closer in proximity of knowledge and skill. Even though the teacher is slightly ahead, he’s not that far ahead, so they kind of understand each other. When you start out teaching, you have one archetypal way in your mind, and it’s the only way that exists for you at this point in time. This is what you teach, and therefor it’s easily transmittable. I had an easier time teaching when I knew less. I could teach more people faster and get them to do what I wanted because there was one clear-cut way. The only problem was that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You were so convinced that this was the right way. This is true for all of us until you gain a lot more experience, many more decades experience. Then if you ask a higher level master like Sifu George, he said to me, “If my student came to me and asked me how to explain a particular technique, I would be hard pressed to explain to him one set way, because there’s so many variations, i.e., stars in the sky, that I wouldn’t know where to begin. And because I couldn’t explain to him one particular way to use the technique, he would think I wouldn’t know what I was talking about and would gravitate to the teacher with less knowledge who could give him one absolute method.”
If the teacher is much further evolved than the student, it’s much harder for him to explain or have a dialogue with the student. Beginner students that are just seeking that one absolute way, that one cure-all that will solve their woes, won’t go to a master of that level because there’s no platform for them to have a conversation. So you see how you end up with a higher level master having only a few students while the guy who doesn’t know much has hundreds. Look at how the real Sifu, the one that truly understands and has this great depth of knowledge, doesn’t get acknowledged the way the lesser one does simply because of the fact that the mass majority of individuals studying cannot see beyond the one absolute way. When you understand that there are many ways, you become a little bit more Daoist in your thinking. Each and every thing that needs to get done has a way, but that way may change depending on the circumstances. A master carpenter may do the same thing every day. He may make the same cabinet or table every day from the same type of wood using the same tools, but depending on the situation and the parameters that he’s given, he augments that so-called absolute way and is able to derive many different ways to solve the same problem.
Another good example of this would be the common American cheeseburger. You’ll find everybody going to McDonalds because they can afford it. Not only can they afford it financially, but mentally, it works for them because it’s quick, easy and fast. It solves the problem for the moment but in the end creates bigger issues. Whereas you could go and grind your own meat, bake your own bun, make all your own fixin’s and learn how to properly cook a good ol’ American cheeseburger and end up with a completely different result. That’s the difference between those two levels of mastery, those levels of understanding your art. One way is quick, easy and fast. The other is more difficult. The products may appear similar, but the end result will be very different.
If you think in absolutes, then a particular thing must be done a particular way each and every time. This is ok in the beginning to give you a baseline, but as you grow and start to understand more, you have to broaden your perspective. We must begin to accept that all things are required to make all things possible. The hard, the soft, the up, the down, the left, the right and so on. The correct understanding should be one of striving to comprehend balance and then maintain it. The balance is not always 50-50 but will adjust and change with the requirements of the day, situation, technique and so on. It’s ok to have a broader spectrum of understanding and say, hey, you know something? This same thing can be done slightly or even greatly differently than that baseline and yield more results, thereby making your understanding and knowledge and skill that much deeper. So now, at the end of our conversation, I’m absolutely sure there are no absolute ways to think absolutely about absolutely anything. Absolutely.
-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅