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