When learning new things, I go through different stages of understanding, application and appreciation of what I am learning. My initial interest in kung fu came from the US television program Kung Fu in the 1970s starring David Carradine. His performance of “kung fu” seemed to me to be poetic, graceful and non-violent and in subduing his opponent, he would adapt his movements to his opponent’s level. The program’s plots had strong connections to Chinese philosophy with exotic stories like Chuangtse wondering if he were a butterfly which were very appealing to an American teenager. The fight scenes in the program involved few opponents at any one time, so the fights seemed natural and the opponents were just overly clumsy. Overall, to my uneducated mind, the David Carradine style of kung fu was the goal to aim for. After college, I met people who were fans of the Bruce Lee style of fighting, which seemed to me to be too intense, overly violent and ruthless. The fights seemed extremely choreographed and hokey (ridiculously unnatural) because each opponent waited patiently for his turn to fight Bruce Lee. (Why didn’t several people gang up and overpower Bruce Lee?) In his fighting, Bruce Lee seemed to exceed his potential in fighting, so he always seemed unbalanced to my uneducated eye. Compared with the David Carradine style, Bruce Lee’s style seemed unsustainable and thus undesirable to me. 

老師 started the Purple Cloud 紫雲 kung fu classes one summer when I was in the US on vacation. Since I’ve not been involved in sports, I wasn’t interested in attending the kung fu classes. Because the life philosophy class starts after the kung fu class, I often got to watch students practicing kung fu. They seemed to be like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes buzzing around my head in an irritating fashion, especially when the kung fu practice kept delaying the start of the philosophy class! From what I observed, the type of kung fu which the students were instinctively practicing in class seemed to be like the Bruce Lee style, with students injuring themselves a lot. This definitely was not my cup of tea at all, so I wrote off ever attending the kung fu class! I just kept on with my chikung practice and religiously attended the life philosophy class, where I learned over the years some things about how kung fu practice fits into the big picture. After taking the taichi class for eight or nine years I began to see some glimmers of the physical aspects of terms we learned in the life philosophy class like benevolence (仁), righteousness (義) and compassion (大愛). Best of all, after practicing kungfu a while (about 2 years), these terms have became even clearer.

From my limited experience practicing kung fu, I can see that there are many dimensions and levels to it. Each of us accesses them differently according to our ability and needs. The basic stages I’ve experienced are the classic 見山是山 and 見山不是山 or as I think of them as “playing badminton (打羽毛球)” and “herding cats (放牧一群貓) while engaged in bull fighting (鬥牛)”. The badminton stage is entirely defensive as I tried to defend myself by countering every punch from my opponent. Because I lacked ability and was using my mind so much while fighting at this stage, I seldom found the coup de grace (致命一擊)or way to score by hitting my opponent. These were such exhausting fights! The nature of the badminton birdie or shuttlecock (羽毛球小鳥) makes it very difficult to achieve a victory through physical coordination or force alone because to hit the birdie requires a lot of energy. Through repeated practice I gradually developed pathways in my mind to do new combinations of punching and to see more about what was going on in my fights. This let me occasionally control my opponents, an act I call “herding cats while bull fighting”. Cats (like humans) pride themselves on not being controlled by anyone, so to make cats do anything you want them to do, you need to use different strategies (and especially not use your logical or rational mind!). Part of these strategies involve becoming a bull fighter of sorts, distracting the cats with your red cape and personal (physical) form while deflecting their attacks and forces. I’m sure there are many other levels and aspects to kung fu that I am unaware of but I look forward one day to maybe encountering them!

It seems that kung fu can be different things to different people. Certainly my university students thought it was hilarious when I mentioned in class that I had begun practicing kung fu! They were probably thinking only of the action film version of kung fu! I think of kung fu as a reality touchstone (試金石), a mirror to let me have a chance to find out what is really going on in my life so I can use my abilities in a more balanced way. Kung fu practice gives me the rare opportunity as an adult to use my body in a balanced way. At first it was very frustrating and humiliating to do this! Furthering on from this experience, I can now more readily laugh at my clumsiness because I take kung fu practice less personally than when I began it. After all, beginners aren’t supposed to know how to do these things well! And in my work I try to take set backs less personally, too.

I learn so much from the many 同學 who fight me. From fighting them, I learn from my own responses to them. From their comments, I learn patience to wait for the time I am able to understand their comments. When I make comments about my 同學 when we fight, I learn about what I could change or improve about myself. And, of course, I learn to try to stop thinking so I can learn from what 老師 says and doesn’t say.

There seems to be a new kung fu stage opening up for me as I vaguely learn “how to learn” kung fu. It is clear that just having the desire to improve in kung fu does not work! Practicing a punch combination a hundred times does not guarantee being able to use it, either! From 老師’s patient guidance all these years in the life philosophy class, I know a little about what the honorable ancients tell us about furthering on. They say that the things which society and the world tell us are important (reputation, fame, success) are not helpful when furthering on. So, using criteria like reputation, fame or success in my personal and professional life isn’t going to help my kung fu or chikung practices. The ancients also say that developing a single strength or strategy to handle everything isn’t going to help either. Instead, we need to be more holistic and see what’s going on so we can be flexible and adapt to those around us. So, if I want to improve in kung fu, I need to go beyond the one or two techniques which usually are successful for me. This is where developing a larger observation ability and trusting in 不思不想 come in because they help us learn to learn in a holistic way. From my limited experience, developing these abilities comes from trying to avoid the 我以為 thinking I’ve relied on in the past. I get support to do so from regular chikung practice (fundamental, intermediate and advanced practices) and especially from the life philosophy class. Yes, sometimes attending the philosophy class is part of the bitter practice (苦練)because it ends late at night, but learning philosophy from someone for whom the ancients are alive is beyond value!

Now that I am practicing chikung and kungfu and attending philosophy class I can apply them to my daily life a little. Because furthering on requires one first to step back to see what’s going on, in my professional life I have more balance, especially during times of upheavals in my office. I can make more space for others which defuses things sometimes. This practice has also helped me see more clearly what’s going on in my family, too, which is the first step to letting go of expectations there, too.

I think the combination of practicing chikung and kungfu and hearing 老師’s teachings in the life philosophy class is the key to these changes. These help me understand, apply and appreciate the wisdom from the ancients so now in my practice the David Carradine style of kung fu is finding more harmony with the Bruce Lee style. So the Purple Cloud 紫雲style of kung fu is a synthesis of the soft David Carradine style and the harder Bruce Lee style, and that seems about right. (2011.01.20)