Kung Fu Tea on Sun Lu Tang

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There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea about the life of one of the most influential Chinese martial artists of all time, Sun Lu Tang.

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

It’s a good read, so sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up with your laptop.

Link.

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The concept of ‘flow’ in martial arts

photo of man on his boat during daytime

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Tai Chi is infused with the concept of flow, but what does that actually mean? What does ‘flow’ mean in this context?

We are used to seeing Tai Chi practitioners in parks performing graceful, flowing movements. In fact, that’s what we expect to see whenever somebody mentions “Tai Chi”, but as usual, it’s what’s underneath the water that matters, not what we see on the surface.

The Tai Chi classics state:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.”

This points to the continuous nature of Tai Chi boxing. Techniques don’t really start and stop, they all merge into one continuous movement.

Sun Lu Tang 2014-12-11 15-54-12

Sun Lu Tang, Tai Chi.

 

Acquiring this skill in the Tai Chi form is actually quite difficult. For a start, people tend to speed up or slow down during a form performance. They speed up on the bits they like and slow down on the bits they find hard.

Another common fault is posturing – pausing serenely in postures that are being held, if only for a moment. It’s equal and opposite infraction is too much merging – movements get mushed into each other without one finishing properly before the other begins.

I’d say it takes a good few months of continual practice, focusing on just continuity, to iron these faults out of a Tai Chi form

The deeper lesson in continuous movement is that you are constantly recycling the ‘energy’ in the form. When you break a movement, or stop, you are not keeping everything flowing, and you lose the power of momentum. They fall flat.

This links back to the idea of Yin and Yang being in constant flux, with change as the only constant. These ideas are as old as the hills, but find their expression most often in Taoist thought.

In a recent TED talk Adrien Stoloff looks at what Wuwei (The Taoist concept of non-action, and flow) mean.

Adrien discusses flow and wuwei, and how recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests what may be happening in the brain when we experience flow or wuwei. Adrien Stoloff is a doctoral candidate in Asian Religious Traditions. He is interested in Chinese religious beliefs and practices from the late Warring States period to the Early Han Dynasty (approximately 5th-2nd centuries BCE). Specifically, Adrien’s research focuses on the Classical Daoist phenomenon of wuwei. Translated as “effortless action,” wuwei is a state of being in which one acts effortlessly yet efficiently in a given situation. His dissertation project uses an approach informed by tools in the field of religious studies – textual and historical analysis – as well as by the fields of philosophy and cognitive science:

 

The dance/fight game

If there’s one martial art that really emphasises the concept of ‘flow’ then it’s Capoeira. The Brazilian dance/fight martial art where two participants enact a kind of spontaneous, improvised martial dance set to music.

Clearly your connection to the other person in Capoeira transcends the physical connection we find in Tai Chi push hands, and it has to be in place or you end up with a foot to the face. That’s Tai Chi’s Ting Jing (Listening energy) on steroids.

Even as an outsider to Capoeira, I can tell when the practitioners are connected to each other, and when they’re not. When the focus is more on athletic ability and directed inwards the two practitioners don’t seem to melt together into one dance – they retain their separate selves. The type of Capoeira I like to watch is where the two practitioners become one – responding and reacting in real time to each other.

And of course, with the rhythm of the music and a focus on connecting there’s all the potential for it to cross over into ‘spirit dance’, where you connect to the wider environment.

I looked for some beginner capoeira videos recently and found these which I thought presented some basic moves that I could copy. I had a go at this video below this morning and I was surprised by how difficult (but also fun) even these ‘basic’ moves are.

I mean, I can do it badly. Anybody can do it badly. But trying to do it with the smoothness and flow that the practitioner demonstrates above is a different matter.

If you wanted to get more ‘flow’ in your movement, I think this could be a good place to start.

Don’t try! The paradoxical approach of Tai Chi Chuan, Charles Bukowski and Yoda.

Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.

Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:

don't try

It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.

Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:

Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?

Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”

As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:

“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski

Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…

I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.

Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.

You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?

All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)

With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.

In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.

For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:

The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.

Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).

But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.

I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.

I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.

What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).

In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:

trigram_for_thunder

And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.

From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

 

Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.

 

And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:

Song of Push Hands (by unknown)

Be conscientious in PengLuChi, and An.

Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.

Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.

Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.

And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.

Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir: Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising

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Scott Park Philip’s new Bagua book is out!

As somebody said: “From the sample pages it looks as bonkers and brilliant and polarising as the last one. Better than being boring!

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I’m really looking forward to seeing how he supports his theory (from the back cover) that Baguazhang was created after the failings of the Boxer Rebellion (1900) when the founder of the art, Dong Hai Chuan, died in 1882. I’ve been assured he tackles this point in the book…

If you click the Amazon link above you can click “Look Inside” to read a bit.

Zhan Zhuang tips – standing like a tree

two brown trees

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.

How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.

At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.

I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.

Some good quotes:

“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”

and

“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”

and

“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”

Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:

Red Pine on Cold Mountain, a Bill Porter interview

 

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I really enjoyed listening to this podcast interview with Bill Porter, who goes under the author name of Red Pine. (There’s a transcription as well so you can read it too).

Bill has had an interesting life, as you’ll discover from the podcast, most notably going to China to interview hermits living in near isolation on mountains in search of The Way. His most famous book is about this: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

I particularly enjoyed his description of translation work as being like trying to dance with a skilled dancer when you can’t hear the music.

In his translation work he’s perhaps most famous for his work translating the Buddhist poet Cold Mountain.

I found a collection of Cold Mountain translations here. They’re not by Bill, but by A. S. Kline. I like them all the same:

 

Where’s the trail to Cold Mountain?

Cold Mountain? There’s no clear way.

Ice, in summer, is still frozen.

Bright sun shines through thick fog.

You won’t get there following me.

Your heart and mine are not the same.

If your heart was like mine,

You’d have made it, and be there!

 

 

 

Sinking in Taijiquan

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I generally try to avoid telling people to “sink” in Tai Chi for the simple reason that they usually try to physically lower themselves in the postures, inevitably resulting in using too much force and sticking out their butt, or putting their knees at an odd angle.

Sure, you do need to have a lower-than-normal-standing posture, so you can relax the lower back and centre the coccyx, but when people start to get uncomfortably low (usually combined with too much tucking of the hips) that’s when things break down.

I was doing some push hands recently, and I was trying to work on the idea of reacting to being pressured with a push with the action of sinking as your initial response rather than by trying to do something with their push.

Taoist non-action

By sinking I mean internally sinking – letting go of tension and letting it all drop, rather than by physically lowering yourself. In a way – it’s a kind of non-action. You’re taking something away rather than adding it to the situation. If you can do that then the tension that is created between you and your partner – the pressure – when they start to get too close with their push just dissipates, and the right action arises spontaneously by itself. It’s easy to redirect them because you have ‘got underneath them’.

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Sun Lu Tang

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It reminds me a lot of reading the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic of the way and its power. The Tao Te Ching constantly advises us to take the path of no resistance, which initially seems like a passive response to a situation, but when done skillfully, is anything but.

By taking ‘you’ out of the conflict, it can often resolve itself, and usually in your favour.

“Therefore the Master
Acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
Things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
Acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”

 

Related stories on this blog:

Is Taijiquan Taoist?

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

Qin Shi Huangdi, the man who created China.

In the last episode of the Heretics podcast for 2019 from Damon and I, we look at the deeds of Qin Shi Huangdi, the man who created China.

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“Qin Shi Huangdi’s name, Qin (Chin), is the origin of the word China, and with good reason – he was the man who unified the states that collectively formed China. A vicious madman, his dynasty lasted for only about 15 years, but set the tone and structure of China’s civilisation for more than two thousand years.”

Topics covered also include Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese Legalism and military tactics.

Tai Chi beneath the surface

As we approach the holiday season, stress starts to enter the body and mind, family dramas intensify and it’s easy to forget the simple things in life. That’s where Tai Chi can help.

The question of what use Tai Chi or martial arts are to modern life comes up frequently. Unless you’re in a job that requires frequent encounters with violence most of us will live our whole life with minimal exposure to violence.

So what else can martial arts offer? This short film by Pamela Hiley shows some of the meditative sides to life that Tai Chi can reveal, where questions resolve to silence and are answered by nature.

“True to Life’ is a cinematic essay portraying the spiritual ideas of Pamela Hiley, a Welsh born Taiji master living in Norway. This is an exploration of Taoist philosophy, seen through her eyes, with very little factual information apart from ideas on the transcendent mind: breathing, balance, defence, neutralisation of conflict and moving beyond polarity. We follow Pamela on a trip to China where she meets with masters and students of these ancient arts – they love and share a deep respect for the mysteries of their common practice. But this film is not about a journey in the physical world, but rather trip into the the inner landscape of the mind.”

 

Interview series with Jarek Szymanski

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Jarek Szymanski’s website, China from Inside was one of the first and best resources on the web for the history and practice of Chinese Martial Arts, written by a European living and working inside China. It was particularly good for finding out how internal martial arts, like XinYi, XingYi, Bagua and Taijiquan were actually practiced in their native environement.

I remember reading his website back in the 1990s, and it’s still there!

Nick at Masters of the IMA has been working together with Jarek over the last few months on recording some of his experiences in China back in the 90s – how he came to end up living in China, his experiences investigating the history of various CMA, etc.

He’s posted the first parts of the interviews on his website, and it’s well worth a read. You can find out all about his experiences on Mount Wudang and Beijing, and get his opinions on how modern Chinese martial arts related to the older traditions, and how they differ. I really liked his insights into places like the Shaolin temple and Mount Wudang (see part 5) and how they’ve changed over the years compared to his visits there in the 90s.

It’s well worth a read.

Jarek Szymansk interview part 1

Jarek Szymansk interview part 2

Jarek Szymansk interview part 3

Jarek Szymansk interview part 4

Jarek Szymansk interview part 5

Jarek Szymansk interview part 6

Fun quote:

“When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.”