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