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