For some reason Chinese kung fu is full of many silly myths. I hear them often and I’d like to start addressing them here.
1) The Master Never Gets Hit and Can’t be Beaten
Well, this is true if the master is never in a fight but only then. Can you imagine saying this about any other athlete? You know a good batter never strikes out, a good quarter back never gets sacked and a good basketball player never gets blocked or misses a foul shot. It reminds me of the question put to “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. “Wayne, how many times have you made your shot”? Wayne replies, “I don’t know how many I made when I took the shot but I do know how many I made when I didn’t, none”. Is there a boxer that never gets hit or loses? So forget this myth, it’s nonsense. If you fight you are going to get hit. As they saying goes, ‘ it’s not what you do when you get knocked down but what you do when you get back up”.
2) An Old Master Can Beat a Young Fighter
Does this idea hold in any other sport? Do old ball players beat young ones? Do old boxers beat young ones? It’s crazy. As you age you lose many physical abilities and there is no way around it; believe me I’ve tried. Maybe an older fighter against a younger inexperienced fighter? Yes, that can happen but two fighters of equal ability years apart chances are great the young one will win. I am a complete failure if my younger students can’t beat me.
3) You Have to be a Better Fighter Than Your Student
Yeah, explain that to Michael Jordan that Phil Jackson could not coach him or to Mike Tyson that Cus D’Amato couldn’t train him. Only in kung fu do you find these ridiculous ideas about ability and teaching.
4) Size Doesn’t Matter
This is not only stupid but potentially deadly. Why are there size classifications in fighting, wrestling or youth football? So the little guy doesn’t get crushed. There is this idea that Bruce Lee would level a heavy weight, well, possible but not likely. I’ve had many experiences with bigger guys who were both skilled and unskilled fighters. Years ago I was with a WWE wrestler on a video shoot. They guy was huge and held a national trophy for heaviest military press. His chest was huge and his arms were not only bigger than my legs but almost the size of my waist. He had this shtick he’d do in bars for free drinks. He’d hold a full glass of beer in his hand and let someone full out punch him in the chest. If it didn’t spill they had to buy him a beer. He got a lot of free beer. In the course of the day we got to talking and he asked if I wanted to hit him to see. I did but didn’t want to admit it. I am very much into internal striking, i.e. – striking into the organs not through them. There were a few times I had floored folks with one blow so I was careful when I did it. In the back of my mind I wanted to know if I could hurt him yet was afraid I could not. Well, he egged me on and I went for it. I hit him with a normal punch first, to check the waters. Nothing, nada, zip, no reaction. So I hit him with 50% internal striking and again, nothing. So I gave him my all out, ‘to the moon Alice” (google it) and walloped him. His body shuttered for a second and he said, “Well, that was interesting, hmmm”. Not the reaction you want when you think you hit him with Thor’s hammer. This is where you say, “Please don’t hurt me sir”.
One time I had a huge guy, ex football player, just sweep me off my feet and held me up in the air over his head like I was a 4 year old. I was afraid he was going to throw me on the floor. He didn’t.
The other night while practicing I had a fellow, who was 5/8” 160 lbs, holding the bag while a very experienced kicker kicked him. Each time he would slide back a few feet from the blow ala Bruce Lee demo. There was another guy there who is 6’3 and maybe 235lbs and I had him step in and hold the bag. He didn’t move an inch when kicked. force = mass x (velocity / time) = (mass x velocity) / time = momentum / time
It’s just physics! Folks, size matters. (It just doesn’t matter when relating to……never mind)
5) Practicing in the Gym, Doing Forms, Prepares Me for a Real Fight
I’ve said this one a thousand times: you cannot practice swimming next to the pool. When in a real fight your cognitive brain is gone, period, it’s flight or fight. Unless you’ve trained your mind under very realistic conditions you will not be able to handle a real onslaught. Plus, when you train against fellow students you train to defend against what they do, not what happens outside. Most martial artists do very clean and linear striking but that almost never happens on the street. You can’t block a bobcat and you’re not going to block a berserk street fighter. I’ve told this story for years; I got attacked by a drug crazed knucklehead in a hallway once. He was bigger than me and came at me flailing like an egg beater. He was beating the hell out of my arms and I couldn’t get near him. I’d never experienced this before and finally shot a kick to his groin that dropped his hands and I ended the fight. In the school no one ever did speed and attacked me so randomly. You have to practice under real conditions and with partners who don’t fight like you do.
Years ago a student of mine was invited to another kung fu school. He is a good and kind hearted person and perfectly suited for dealing with many martial artists as he works in a mental hospital. He did the warm up with this school's students and then they paired off to practice punching and blocking. He was throwing first and his partner told him to start so he threw a few punches and his partner jumped back and shrieked, "Hey, you're trying to hit me!" Frank replied, "Of course I am, I'm punching you'. Frank could not understand that this student had never had real punches thrown at him. The sifu of the school called me later to complain about my 'brute' of a student. He may have been throwing real punches but he wasn't going to land them. The sad thing is that his many students really think they can defend their selves and they can't at any level.
If you don't practice what is real you can't deal with what is real.
One day I was in my yard about to construct a huge portable screened in porch. It takes hours, is no fun, and I was not in the best of moods knowing the time and effort involved. As I was about to start I looked into the yard and saw a groundhog digging a new hole. It was fully engaged in what must be a daunting task, making a hole much bigger than yourself. I thought the difference between me and him is that I am thinking of the finished project and how long it will take and he is just digging in the moment without the weight of the goal in his mind.
When undergoing any large task we are often discouraged by how daunting it is. We become overwhelmed by the difficulty and the volume of work needed and this impedes us. It could be learning kung fu, guitar or another language, whatever it is we become discouraged and often give up because we look at where we want to be rather than where we are. Here I think of one of my favorite expressions from India. “How do you eat an elephant”? Daunting isn’t it? Seems impossible? Yes. Here’s the answer though, “one bite at a time”. That is the key to all learning. We get hung up on the end result rather than dealing with the task at hand. About a year ago at a World Series of Fighting event I was talking to heavy weight champ Ray Seffo. He told me that he speaks German, Samoan and Japanese fluently along with his English. I asked how he managed to do this since I had struggled with Mandarin for such a long time. He said, “I learn key phrases then add each word as I need it, soon I can communicate and eventually I master it”. He didn’t try to learn it all in one big bite but did it one bite at a time. It inspired me to do that too and has been a huge help in my learning. So don't let the goal discourage you from the path, just stay on it. Practice without anticipation. Decades ago after I had undergone a tragedy and didn’t know how to go on or deal with it and my Zen teacher said to me, “just put one foot in front of the other..”.
There has been a trend in America for several years regarding how things are taught and the responsibility of the teacher. I have had several students say to me, “This is not how I learn best, please adapt your teaching to me”. I understand this and have people very close to me that have learning disabilities so I am not insensitive to it. On the other hand if I am constantly adapting for the student I will never get to teach anything to the others. The onus falls on me to adapt what I am doing but not what they are doing. I think this is an unfair request and ultimately not beneficial for the student and here’s why; because the student is always working in what is comfortable for them and they have no challenges. They will not learn to adapt and grow by this but will always look for that comfort zone. In the ‘old days’, particularly in martial arts, the teacher taught his way and you either got it or didn’t. He didn’t dumb it down or make it easier but you had to earn it. If you wanted it, you went after it, if not you did not. I am not saying a teacher should be inflexible but it has gone to the other extreme.
For some reason most people do not see kung fu as athletic training, they see it as magic. It is not seen as a form of athletic prowess but learning the right hands and techniques. “If only I knew this secret hand I’d win” is a common mentality among kung fu practioners. I don’t get it. It’s all about training and conditioning and not about magic hands. Even for those who do train they train at what they like, the familiar and the comfortable even if it hurts. I heard a professional body builder comment on this saying, “You see some guy in the gym and he works out an hour a day, everyday, but you never see him look any different, why? Because he does what feels right to him, he does not go into the ‘burn’ and the unpleasant places; he’s found a comfort zone thus his body does not have to adapt”. I think this is particularly applicable to kung fu training; you do the exercise that suits you or makes sense to you but it doesn’t necessarily improve your fighting ability at all. Maybe it helps your athletic ability but not your fighting ability. Many folks think fighting is something you calculate and ‘figure out’ but it’s not. Like I’ve said before think about being attacked by a cougar, the animal not the other type, and attempting to defend, you can’t. Nothing in the gym or forms can prepare you for someone who wants to hurt you. The only way to train for this is with real fighting in your training.
One of the first real fights I had was with a kid who was seventeen and I was twenty three. He had trained at Joe Frazier’s gym and wanted to ‘mix it up’. This is not someone whom I ever trained with or observed. I went in entirely confident that I could take this fellow, control him and defend myself. We paired off and then he went into pure attack mode, totally overwhelmed me, hell-bent on hurting me with no concern for his own safety. The fight lasted maybe ten seconds before I was on the floor. This greatly depressed me for a long time. I realized that I had been training to fight students and not fighters. It made me reevaluate everything I did from then on. I didn’t want to admit it but it was clear that I had no understanding of the real deal. Fighting is scary and ugly, no way around it. There are no time outs or take over’s; it’s just real and present. You either bring it to the table or get tabled. There is nothing comfortable about this. So many students don’t want to hear this. They want to practice a ‘defensive art’, you know, one that somehow magically negates violence like the cougar attack. It’s a dream folks, time to wake up.
Twice in the last month this topic has arisen again; the black sash. I know this is hard for some folks to fathom but having a black sash does not mean anything in Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu and, in fact, most styles of kung fu. I know there are teachers out there proclaiming that they were the first to receive this in their style or the youngest or whatever but it has never been an indicator of rank in this and most styles. That first day decades ago that I joined the kung fu school I bought my uniform which included a black sash. It’s the equivalent of a belt, just a belt. Black meant ignorance and nothing more; you were a beginner. If you finally made it through the style and completed the training you were allowed to wear a purple sash. Quite honestly I do not remember the significance of purple but if you were instructing you were allowed to wear it. In the karate system my Shotokan Sensei explained a black belt was supposed to symbolize the white belt turning black after years of training. He explained that in Japan a black belt was generally achieved in just a few years and that obtaining one meant that you were just beginning on your path not ending it. He lamented that Americans get it and stop training feeling they’ve accomplished something.
So please understand when you tell me you have a black sash I don’t know what the means or who created this. I know that many kung fu schools have adopted this from the Japanese systems but it is not a traditional part of kung fu. Even in the old kung fu movies you don’t see different colored sashes. It’s also a money maker as you can charge for testing. Besides what other physical forms require this contrivance? Is Pacquiao a black belt? Is Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky or Babe Ruth a black sash?
You might be a wonderful martial artist or not, the sash doesn’t matter friends.
We get stuck in the ways we learn and the ways we teach. We do not realize that we limit ourselves by our expectations rather than seeing what is right there in front of us. I remember standing in the back of a hall after a lecture with a great Zen master. One of the attendees there was talking to us and he said, “It must be wonderful to study with one of the great masters, I hope to meet one some day”. I asked, “How would you know it when you met one?” He replied, “Oh, I would know”. He fulfilled the expression, “ Standing in the water crying of thirst”. The master was not Asian and was not the paradigm of what he expected. His expectations kept him from seeing the real thing, one of the great masters of the last few centuries.
I often have folks come to me to study SPM. They tell me about their past, their belts and the forms they’ve learned. There is a way they have learned it and a protocol in their minds to what they think is right and how is should be taught. When I don’t fit that paragdigm they are perplexed. Since it is outside of their experience they don’t know what to do so they walk away thinking , ‘this is not the real thing because the real thing is taught in this manner’. I had a fellow come to me who had studied a short fist system for a long time. He had a falling out with his Sifu and wanted to continue somewhere else. He was truly distressed at the failed relationship with the previous Sifu. He came to me and showed me what he learned regarding chi sao (sticky hands). I thought his understanding of it to be undeveloped but kept my mouth shut. He kept pushing me to do it with him and I finally acquiesced. I barely had to move to shut him down and I am not great at this. He could not hit me and I did not try to hit him. This greatly frustrated him because he was used to a give and take in his practice. I saw his technique as weak and didn’t need to do anything other than null him. He finally proclaimed, “You don’t know how to do this right”. After that he left and never returned. It had nothing to do with the efficacy of my technique but with the paradigm that he was used to; he could not see beyond his expectation so he could not learn from it.
I had a similar situation many years ago in my professional life as a recording engineer in a music studio. I was very proper and careful in my approach to recording music, getting guitar and drum sounds, etc. One day a client came in and he wanted to engineer his own work. I was immediately put off by the fellow. He was the epitome of the ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ mentality. He was my polar opposite, very undisciplined. High on coke, obnoxious, loud, no social boundaries, inappropriate sexual comments, etc; this guy ran the gamut. I did not like him knew there was nothing I could learn from this knucklehead. As soon as he started setting up the band it went against all of my paradigms. He ran levels too high and pushed the equipment too far. Like watching a father see his son coached hard by someone else I was upset. I kept telling him what he was doing was wrong and couldn’t possible be productive. He had years of experience over me. Finally he told me to shut up and listen to the sounds. “Are they good?? Does this kick ass? Is it better than what you do?” I was so caught up in this guy’s personality and breaking all of the ‘rules’ that I did not listen to the final product. It was light years beyond my capability. It was excellent. Part of me did not want to learn from a person like him yet he did have something great to teach me. I gave in and he told me that I must understand and employ the equipment I had and not approach it timidly. I must master it and not let it master me. Quite honestly he changed my life. I took his advice to heart and I have become a skilled and nationally known engineer and have made a good living from it for many years. It was this fellow pushing me out of my comfort zone and over the edge that made a difference. From the least place I would have expected it I got the best advice.
We need to learn to see what we can glean from any experience. We cannot let our expectations of something get in the way of our learning. We must attain the eye to see beyond our myopic self position, our expectations and our desires. Sometimes we just see the rocks but not the mountain while is looms overhead.
Often when we are taught a martial art we are taught patterns and rhythms in our practice. We might do three blocks and then three punches with the idea being that after our blocks the opportunity arises for our strikes. It is thought of as a game of strategy, pugilistic chess, one trading off the other. Jook Lum and other infighting short fist styles are particularly guilty of this. “He’s going to throw so many punches and I will mor sao block them and return my attack. This is never going to happen in real life. Once you are on the defensive blocking punches you have no control of the fight. You are reacting to the attacker as opposed to acting on the attack. This might be difficult to understand but think about it; once you are in a defensive mode it is very hard to turn it around to offense. For one thing, we look for the opportunity to counter as opposed to creating the opening to counter.
If you don’t think you do this consider this; think about how you might envision a fight with a person and what you would do. Now think about being attacked by a dog or a bobcat; do you think the same way? I doubt it. In the human attack you might think sequences but in the animal attack you most likely think an unending barrage. The animal attack does not trade offense and defense. It is a constant barrage of attacks. You must understand this on the street. This is not a ring fight but a matter of life and death. When in a deadly attack everything you do must be to end the fight quickly and effectively. You must fully engage in it to win. There are no trade offs; the first mistake and someone fails. It begins with the first fist and doesn’t end till someone is down. There is no trade back in forth like in the movies. Train with this in mind. You must see the opening in the attack. You must attack the attack not defend against it. This does not mean power against power but even in avoiding a blow you are delivering one. This is very difficult to train for but ultimately the only thing that will help you to survive. There is no chess game here, there is only the moment and everything happens in that moment. Fights are not neat and clean but fast and chaotic. They are not perceived but enacted in the moment. You must know this moment.
These past few years have been most interesting for me. My teacher of many decades, Dr Richard DeMartino, student and friend of D.T. Suzuki, died in January 2013. D.T. Suzuki once stated that no other Westerner truly grasped Zen other than Dr. DeMartino. There has been no greater influence on my life than him. He tore down my preconceptions, challenged my views on most things and forced me to think deeply and critically. He freed me from my own myopic view of the world. A few years before him Dr Maso Abe passed on. He was another great influence on my life and bade me to teach to others.
Besides these deaths I have been traveling constantly for martial arts broadcasts. Two trips to Japan and then Croatia, Istanbul, Vancouver, NYC, Miami, LA, Vegas and a slew of other cities have enriched me as well as exhausted me. I’ve been surrounded by martial artists from all over the world, sharing the same hotels and gyms and traveling the world with them. I’ve had some of the best and most insightful conversations with these fellows and worked with Bas Rutten and Duke Rufous on a regular basis. I’ve been busier than I’d ever intended to be and traveled more miles than I’ve ever wanted to. The coming year looks just as busy and with even more travel.
All of my time on the road and with all of the events that have happened has caused me to constantly reevaluate and tweak how I teach martial arts. I always try to trim away the superfluous and unnecessary. I am constantly aware of how much ineffective and somewhat silly techniques are taught in martial arts. As one fighter put it in Tokyo “you can train all you want on how to fight someone but once you get punched in the face that all goes out the window”. What he meant was that what you plan for is not what ever happens. There is nothing like hitting someone with your super destructive thunder punch and having nothing happen to them; it takes the stomach right out of you. As they said in Mortal Kombat, “this is where you fall down…” but they don’t! Being on the road with these guys I see it over and over again.
I always find it most interesting when we are doing fighter interviews how the production crew reacts to some of their antics. Here’s some fellow trash talking or bragging about his skill and thinking he’s making some kind of good impression while the crew thinks ,‘ what a hammer’. There was a fellow in Japan bragging about how he is there real deal, true traditional martial artist, and that no one could train to fight him. One of the fellows in production muttered, “I hope he gets his ass kicked”. That sent me laughing. This guy was trying to impress and all he did was come off looking bad. He lost the fight in the first round to a KO. The majority of fighters are not arrogant at all. I’ve spent many a night in the hotel bar with the winners and the losers and there is almost no animosity.
So now I look to trying to teach what I can before that final ten count signs me off. One very accomplished fighter once said to me, “Joe, don’t try to offer a meal others can’t digest, they won’t learn”. It’s very hard to gauge what someone else can digest but I understood his meaning. The art has to be grasped from the inside and brought forward like a lotus opening up. All the techniques, belts and certificates in the world don’t mean anything if you have not digested the art. I strive to find a resonant point with my students; a place that sprouts within them that will grow if they nourish it. They need to grow without me, it has to be the nourishment they digested. There is so much bravado in the martial arts and it is truly dangerous. I regularly hear teachers bragging about their skill when they’ve never really been tested by a seasoned fighter. There is this wonderfully silly myth that big guys are slow. Well, some may be slow but when I was in Istanbul I was talking with a 6’5” Muay Thai kick boxer. His trainer was there and he showed me his hook kick. He fired that from the floor, touched my ear and put it back down in a flash. Most importantly he was completely out of range of my legs and arms, basically firing from a safe distance for himself. I was most impressed by his great speed. It just made me think of all those folks out there doing the arts and having no concept of what it is like to face a fellow like this.
We want to be secure in our art, we want to believe that no matter what we can win and be safe, and we can’t. We can do our best but there are no guarantees yet we want them. I saw a demonstration of a Taiji practioner who ‘only used defense techniques’ to ward off attackers. He took volunteers from the audience. It was not a martial arts crowd so no one could really fight and they flailed about on the stage while trying to get to him. It was great entertainment but so far from reality it was scary. A dear Chinese friend said to me, “See this is why Taiji is so great, he can avoid violence with no problem”. I answered,”no one here is trying to hurt him nor do they have the ability to”! I have nothing against Taiji or most arts. My concern is the unrealistic belief and expectation of them. I realized by my comments at this demo that I was raining on their parade and then kept quiet. (Yes I know that is unusual for me) They truly believe he could do this. If I went up there and challenged him I would just be an arrogant jerk no matter how good my intentions were. No one would learn anything by it. I hope that fellow never gets mugged by someone who has any skills.
I keep the art real; I always have and always will. I truly hope that the seeds I spread scatter and grow with dignity, honor, kindness and fierceness. I thank those who have persisted with me in continuing this art.
In my decades in the arts I have noticed a paradigm in training that many students encounter. This is the point where great doubt arises in their art and in their true abilities. This is the point in your study where you get tested outside of the normal confines of your style, in other words, the real world. Your opponent doesn’t fight like you nor does he care about the way you do things. When we only train within our own styles and communities we are not exposed to many real world possibilities. We have many theories about what to do and how to do as was taught to us by our teachers but when it is put to the test it can be quite traumatic. Often we find that what we thought would work will not. Sometimes this is after years of study that we find ourselves in this predicament. So you practice your style and then someone whom you expect to easily defeat trounces you without effort: what do you do? You thought you were good and could handle it and your training in your school seemed to confirm this to you. You have the belts and trophies but this person had no trouble beating you; how,why, what now? What went wrong?
I’ve seen one of three reactions from students when faced with this dilemma. The first is they feel cheated and lied to and that their art didn’t work and they quit. I’ve seen people leave an art after ten years of study because they think it failed them. Maybe it did or maybe they didn’t get it, it’s hard to tell. I will tell you that in my experience what is taught in many schools in no way mirrors real world violence; is it based on the theory of what would happen. It is based on orderly fighting and obvious technique. One thing I have seen many times is when an art trains against boxers. Often what happens is that one student claims to have some boxing experience and then they practice that technique against the style. It is not real boxing; it is their idea of what they think boxing is. I was in a dojo observing with a real boxer once and when the karate class ended the instructor then taught a boxing class. Both the boxer and I were stunned at what he was doing; it was horrible boxing with no foundation. The students here thought they were training against the real thing. If they ever met a real boxer they would be stunned at the ferocity of it. Where we trained in Philadelphia we were not far from Joe Frazier’s gym. There was no shortage of finding skilled boxers who would like to try their technique against you, it’s a humbling experience. Also I have spent decades around the pro boxers while working for HBO, Showtime and ESPN fights so I see the real all the time. The first time I went against a real boxer he knocked me down in less than a minute. I remember thinking, ‘this guy is doing nothing but trying to hurt me, no defense at all, he just wants to get me”. He did. The good thing is that I was taught to respect boxing and to be ready for it. This made me rethink my approach to everything in the art. I was quite depressed by it all but I carried on. If, however, you were to think that you should easily beat this attacker and you don’t, then you have a crisis; what went wrong, I was told this would work. So often the reaction is to give up and move on.
The second reaction I see is the ‘spiritual denial’ mode. This is where the student thinks that if they were spiritually more in tune they would have done better. Rather than immerse themselves more in the physical and practical they turn toward what they think is spiritual and practice the so called inner techniques. It is their belief that one day with enough spiritual training they will be able to fight. Do you hear of this in any other physical sport? Tennis? Soccer? Nope! The martial arts have their only little niche in reality. I truly hope these folks never get in a real confrontation because help does not descend from the heavens.
The last reaction, and the most uncommon, is there is a crisis of the art, a crumbling of the foundation and a reconstruction into the real. In this case the student, being utterly defeated and humiliated, doesn’t give up on the art but gives up on their grasp of it. They realize there is something drastically wrong with either their practice or the art itself. The deeply question their view of the world and the art. They turn their deep self doubt into deep self inquiry; what can I do to get better? What works in this situation? They are willing to be completely humbled and to start over with no self deception. In this case this student is the one that will truly grow, learn and excel. They give up on their self image and self fulfillment and can see beyond their desires and pride. They are willing to accept what they do not know and to approach it fully and sincerely. If you arrive here you will develop a keen eye and a sharp awareness. You will not cling to concepts and theory but immerse yourself in the real. This is very liberating as it allows you to see yourself in relation to everything else, strengths and weaknesses, without ego and self deception. As the great sage Harry Callahan once said, “A man has got to know his limitations”. It is here where real humility begins because you know you can always be beaten, that no one is invincible. From this point you realize that fighting is always a last resort for all reason has failed. You engage because you have to, not because you want to but you enter into it fully realizing what it is.
On more than one occasion while speaking to individuals who have never attended my classes I have heard the comment, “Well, your school is known for brawling…”. I am always surprised to hear this because there is no brawling at all in my classes and it is not allowed. I expect respect and friendship between all students and accept nothing less. Nobody wants to go to class to get hurt and I don’t want that either. So where does this idea come from? Well, that I can explain. I am vehement about the practical and real time application of this art. I have no fantasies about how really ugly a true fight is and I don’t want any student of mine to have that illusion. Forms and drills are fine and perhaps fun but they do little to prepare you for a real and violent confrontation. Many schools are more concerned with learning a routine rather than learning a true skill. They want you to believe the technique will work when the time comes rather than proving it before hand.
Whenever I have a new student I tell them how and why I teach. What I do can be summed up in this example: If I teach you a song on guitar you can only play that song. If I teach you one hundred songs you can only play those songs as learned and remembered. You are, in fact, not playing the guitar but reciting songs you learned. They are not yours and you cannot openly and freely express yourself on the instrument. If I just handed you the guitar and said, “Now play” what would you do? Most likely you’d recite a song to me.
I have many friends who are amazing musicians. I was with a friend who had a young daughter that was an skilled classical pianist for her age. Her mom told me she played the piano like my friends do and that she would play for me. I agreed to listen and she sat down to play but I walked over and took the music off the stand. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know how much I can play by memory”. I asked if she could just play the piano, what she felt. She looked at me perplexed and I gave her back the music. Afterwards I pulled her mother aside and said, “she is great at playing those songs but she does not know the piano”. She was great at reciting songs, very impressive, but without the music she was lost. She played the songs, not the piano.
Now on the other hand if you learn the basics of music, chord structure and scales on piano or whatever, you can now play any song that comes to mind because you know the root from which they arise. It makes sense to you, it becomes your native language rather than one you are struggling to articulate. You are now playing and not reciting songs, you can create as you go. When I teach kung fu I teach the foundation behind it, exactly why you are doing it, how it connects to the body and how it is expressed in power. I teach the physics and the body mechanics so when you are away from me you can work on it yourself, test it and correct it. You are not reciting what I taught but putting it into motion, making it real. There is no trust or belief that one day it will blossom and work, you will know from the onset if it will or if you are on the right path. I don’t want students to believe in the art, I want them to know it. The only way to know it is to practice and apply it. You cannot learn to swim standing next to a pool and you can’t learn to swim in the ocean by only swimming in a pool. To each its own nature.
Once another SPM school invited one of my students to work out with them at their place. He was a very nice, well mannered and good man. After warm ups they broke into pairs and were practicing blocking techniques. He lined up with a partner, asked if he were ready and started punching. The fellow he was working out with jumped back in horror and said, “Hey, you’re trying to punch me!” My student was completely perplexed by this statement and replied, “Of course I am, you are practicing blocking punches!” Well, this did not go over well at all because it was too real. He never touched the guy and was a complete gentleman. The teacher in this school called me to complain about the ‘thug’ I sent over there. Really? I find this insane. Imagine a Navy Seal in training saying to his DI “Yo, this water is too cold and rough Sarge, I’m not going in.” That would be his last day in the Seals. The guy on the streets is not doing a routine with you, he is trying to hurt you. You must practice for this onslaught.
Please think about this; can you practice lifting weights without lifting weights? You can do all the form you want but when you get the weight in your hand it takes an entirely different set of skills to move it. Besides what the muscles and bones contribute to lifting there is also the tendons and ligaments. If you do not do this correctly you will not only not be able to lift it but you will hurt yourself. A real punch coming at you is the same thing. It feels different and each puncher has a different way of attacking. There is size and weight difference along with variables of technique or, worse, no technique. When you practice with organized and repetitive straight punches you will have no idea how to handle a crazed puncher who comes at you like an egg beater. These things can be practiced without getting hurt but these things cannot be learned without practice. Why do martial artists think that waving their hands in the air or doing a prescribed routine prepares them for the real? I cannot think of another discipline that does this. Would you get into a car driven by someone who only learned on the computer?
I know that many teachers like to teach dozens of different hands and their subtleties but I have a different view of this. The subtleties of 100 hand technique are not worth the effectiveness of one good hand technique. Better that you do the fundamentals extremely well than have collected a thousand techniques. A sixty story building is only as good as the foundation. This is why I teach the way I do. No one gets hurt here but no one gets fooled into thinking there’s magic techniques and no one is forced to do anything they don’t want to do. If they want just the art form, fine, if not, better.
There is great misunderstanding of kung fu that I often hear. A teacher will say, “A truly great master knows that when the need arises his skill will arise to meet it”. This is total nonsense. If you have not trained and honed this skill it is not going to show up in a sudden flash. None of the Eight Immortals is going to descend upon you to help you but the Eight Thugs will descend upon you to hurt you. It’s about practice not belief. Belief is a problem.
As I have previously stated believing in a technique and having that technique actually work are two different things. There is a line of thought in the so called ‘soft arts’ that one day the techniques will just blossom, like those cactus flowers that bloom every 30 years, and all will be revealed to you. I’ve met folks who have practiced an art for decades yet still cannot really use it. They tell me about their master who can and one day it will present itself to them. Can you imagine studying any other discipline and not being able to use it after 10 years? Whether you’re a carpenter, a plumber, a musician or a doctor wouldn’t you expect to be pretty good after years of training? I would yet there are many folks who are waiting for that magic moment when it will happen.
Their practice is not about empirical observation and application; it is about believing that one day it will work. This is such pie in the sky thinking and I see it everywhere in “Eastern” arts as taught in the US. I have not seen people in the East so much think this way but do in the West. It is really a dangerous way to think and truly counter productive.
A fellow once came to my class to observe. I asked him if he wanted to practice with us and he declined and explained to me that he knew that if he ever really needed to defend himself or his girlfriend that the ability would arise. He said that his faith in himself and God was so great that he knew beyond shadow of any doubt he could do this. I told him that I hoped he was right. He watched us practice for a while and was getting a bit worked up. I had a large 120 lb bag in the center of the room that was not well tethered. At one point he just shouted, “I‘ll show you“and attacked the bag with flailing limbs. Somehow he managed to hit it in such a way that it tilted down and came back up and caught him under the jaw lifting him off the ground and flinging him across the room on his back. It was a very funny moment but also a very embarrassing moment for him. We managed not to laugh but I wanted to say, “So how did your faith work out against the bag”. I was not cruel enough to do that. He left rather defeated.
He believed he could fight but in reality he could not.
I have traveled the world over the last few years and spent that time with many world class Muay Thai fighters and MMA fighters. I’ve spent decades around professional boxers and their trainers and with all of these folks I’ve never seen a hint of the faith based ideas of many martial artists. They all know that it is training and practice in real time that develops skill; nothing more, nothing less.
More importantly the way you train dictates the way the brain handles it. If you do not drill it to your core it remains a cognitive function, there is no reflex. When attacked the cognitive part of the brain freezes and the fight or flight mechanism takes over. If you have not trained so that your brain is tuned to its core you are lost. Many times I’ve met people that have trained for years and feel they’ve got it inside them. At times I will spontaneously step into them and shout. The vast majority of the time they will cower and back up and not display any martial skills. A few will react strongly and appropriately but most will not. They were not taught effectively.
It is extremely important in practice to pull it into your core. The Chinese have called this ‘thinking with your spine’. There has been recent scientific proof that this, in fact, is what happens. They took a pro hockey goalie and wired him up to see what happens when he reacts to pucks coming to him at high rates of speed. To their astonishment his brain did not register the activity; it went to his spine and back to his limbs but not his brain. He was blocking them with his core being and not his cognitive being. Faith exists in the cognitive. Without thought there is no faith.
To truly master and art you must lose the art, become the art.
There is a famous story about a student of Samurai that had practiced and practiced. He had great skill with sword, staff and shield. His teacher would not pass him as a master Samurai and failed him over and over again. He had mastered every technique with these weapons but to no avail. He could not see why his Sensei would not pass him. His teacher demoted him to be a cook and the poor student reluctantly went about his kitchen duties. After a long time at this one night the teacher burst into his kitchen and attacked him with his sword as he bent over the cauldron. The student reacted paring the sword with the cauldron lid and smacked the teacher with the ladle knocking him down. The teacher arose with a huge smile on his face and said, “Now you are a Samurai!” The student had become the true Samurai beyond the attachment to sword and shield. It had reached his core being beyond techniques and cognition. Tai toku!
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