Monthly Archives: April 2008

Circles turning


My association with the Kwan Yin Chan Lin Zen Centre in Singapore goes back to the summer 2006, when I first attended a Dharma talk. They belong to the Kwan Um Zen school founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn, who wrote some of the best books on Zen, and on Buddhism, that I’ve yet read (YMMV, of course). On that occasion, as I wrote, the Zen Master was accompanied by a Buddhist nun: a Polish woman with whom I had a brief but very interesting conversation after the talk.

I’m just made contact with her again via Facebook, and we’ve exchanged a few messages. She mentioned that the Kwan Um School have a meditation centre, Mu Sang Sa. It looks very peaceful. What’s interesting, for me, is that it happens to be in the South Korean city of Daejon. Daejon’s the only place I’ve been in Korea – I went there for my first job as a freelance internet consultant, and it was that trip which convinced me that I had to leave the UK and move to Asia, though it took a couple more trips and some exposure to Singapore to actually bring the move about. Guess I have some sort of Karmic connection with Daejon…

As it happens, I’m already contemplating a trip to Korea in September; depending on the prices, I’m thinking of attending the LIFT Asia Conference. If I were to go, I’d been thinking about combining it with a visit to the Golgulsa Temple to see some Sunmudo. Maybe a trip to a zen centre at Korea’s “Silicon Valley” might also be an option….

Spreading the meme


Not too much to report. Saturday’s pan guan bi class went quickly; I enlivened the day for Master Sun and Mi Laoshi by vigorously stabbing myself in the leg during one move. It didn’t hurt too much, really! Then on to the Bookworm to catch up with Dragoncache again. He brought along a friend of his, a Russian girl who’s as passionate about tango as I am about martial arts. Very interesting, and beautiful – far too good for a stunted, pugnacious little troll like me! A fun evening.

On Sunday morning, I felt really grotty, as if a heavy cold were about to hit me, so I let Sun Lao Shi know I couldn’t make it to class, and stayed in bed. Eventually made it out and had an interesting time the remainder of the day, but it wasn’t really a martial arts weekend, I must say.

On Friday evening, I caught up with H at the Vineyard Cafe. Like so many others, she’s been caught up in the tightening of the visa situation here, so she’s decided to go back to the UK, for a while at least. She had planned to go travelling around for a month before she goes, but I happened to mention my plan in July-August to take the 30-day course at the Yiquan Academy. Her eyes lit up at the prospect of 30 days of zhan zhuang (ahem, how many other people would accept that as a totally appropriate response? It’s great to hang around with other martial arts geeks!), and she thought that would be preferable to aimlessly travelling… I sent her the URL, and she called them on Sunday. Last I heard, she’s starting tomorrow… She said she’d let me know how it goes and, always your faithful correspondent, I shall convey the news as I receive it…



… but it made me laugh:

humorous pictures

Small steps


I’m gradually getting ill, I think. The weather’s not helping, either: grey, cold, and raining. Lots of long-term Beijing residents are coming up with variations on “isn’t it nice, we hardly ever see rain” here, but I don’t think so. I don’t like rain, especially cold rain, and especially when I’m walking around with cold, wet feet and trousers. Bah.

Anyway, so, briefly before I hit the sack:

  • Bagua bi class yesterday went well. Made some more progress through the form; looked in more detail at what we’ve done so far. Master Sun (Zhi Jun) commented that my tang ni bu is improving. Mi Lao Shi is pleased that I can do one of the moves fairly well – not sure what it’s called, I think of it as “head dives under armpit”… Master Sun was in a very good mood, laughing more than usual. He was wearing a striped red and black sweater, which gave him the air of a wizened Dennis the Menace (British version, not American). He shook my hand when I left, which he’s not done before. Hmm.
  • After class, I went to the Bookworm, where I’d arranged to meet another of Master Sun’s students. I’d got in touch after seeing a comment he’d left on YouTube, and I wanted to meet other bagua students so I sent a message. I wasn’t sure what to expect but in the event Dragoncache turned out to be a really nice guy; we have a lot in common, got on well, and hopefully we’ll meet up again before long.He’s studied bagua for twelve years, and has lived in Beijing for the last five, so his standard is far beyond mine.
  • Today’s bagua class was limited; we couldn’t train outdoors because of the rain, so Rene and I took turns to go through moves inside Sun Lao Shi’s living room. I’m feeling really crappy and tired, so didn’t do very well, but in any case worked on two more moves from the Ba Da Zhang. Sun Lao Shi and his wife insisted we stay for lunch, along with another of his friends who (IIRC) is also a TCM doctor and baguazhang teacher. H, btw, appears to have stopped coming; it’s too far from where she lives. After the food, we worked on applications for a while, including some tui shou.

OK, time to sleep now. Good night!

Category: Baguazhang, Beijing

Zuo ch’an

I had my second ch’an meditation class with Wei tonight. A chat about various things, including mountains near Xi’an that are popular with Buddhist and Daoist recluses, followed by a half-hour zuo ch’an session. Wah, I was tired; about twenty minutes in, I started nodding… but got woken up by the chime of a bell – Wei was observing carefully! He says I’m still putting too much effort into breathing, and my chest moves too much; I should breath more shallowly, and be perfectly still. I do not find this easy to achieve. He’s dead right, though, about not trying to breathe; once I stopped worrying about breathing from the dantien, the block that’s kept my breath at my chest gradually went away, and I found the lower abdomen, especially at the back, was starting to expand perfectly naturally. I could of course just meditate on my own – except that I probably wouldn’t, and it’s good to get feedback, and it really is important to have some support from the sangha (in the broader sense, he’s not a monk!). This afternoon, though, I went to the Lotus Centre supermarket at Wudaokou and bought some cushions to sit on so that I can at least try to meditate more at home…

As with all of my teachers in China, we have some communications problems, but this is of course my failing; more effort needed to improve my Mandarin…

Walking home, I came back through the university gardens. Even since last weekend, the leaves are all fully out, many more flowers are in bloom, and the moon is almost full; as the Irish might say, it’s a grand evening, to be sure.

Category: Buddhism, Ch'an

Days in the sun

The weather was beautiful this weekend. The road from Wudaokou station to Master Sun Ru Xian’s apartment at the gate of the Old Summer Palace is lined with trees whose vibrant red flowers are in full bloom, standing out against the darker pines, and occasionally punctuated by paler flowers of other trees.

Yesterday, I was the only student, so I got his full attention. We revised the single and double palm changes to correct some details; I have these pretty much memorised now. They’re different variations from what I’ve previously learned. We worked on the “Follow Posture Palm” that he introduced to me last week; I think I can remember this, though I need to practice. Finally, we started on the “Back Body Palm” which, again, I think I now have memorized, but will need to practice.

Since I arrived in Beijing, I haven’t practiced much, due to a combination of the initially cold weather, and my workload. There’s a small park area on campus, and I did manage to go out there early on Saturday morning. It was already busy with students, each taking a small patch of ground, and walking around reading aloud from their English textbooks, but I found an area to work in. Worrying! I’m getting very rusty. It should be OK if I start getting out there from now on, but after a couple of weeks of insomnia, it’s difficult to get up early.

Master Sun’s a very interesting character. Rene, the Dutch student, told me the other day that his main interest isn’t really martial arts but music, and the erhu in particular. Did I mention that he works as a TCM doctor? Anyway, he does sometimes give the impression of being a slightly fussy aesthete – he’s so nice, and always so enthusiastic to give cups of tea, cook food, and so on! But all that falls away when he’s demonstrating applications – there’s suddenly a much different focus, and he becomes quite intimidating… We worked quite a bit on applications yesterday, as he showed me what the new moves are for.

We always chat quite a bit before and after class. He gave me a cake of pu’er tea, and invited me to come along with him for lunch with his daughters, which I reluctantly had to decline…

On Saturday, I was meant to go on a trip to a distant temple with people from work. A mix-up and some new developments meant that I didn’t go in the end, but I had already cancelled my class with Master Sun Zhi Jun and Mi Lao Shi. Oh, I didn’t mention that the other woman who watches the class, and who speaks better English than Mi Lao Shi, is called Li Ming; she used to be an editor and journalist for a newspaper (or a magazine? Not sure), but she’s now a professional bagua coach.

Instead of class, I went down to the Xidan bookstore, and spent a while browsing the martial arts VCDs and DVDs. I picked up five
– Liu Jing Ru demonstrating the Ba Da Zhang;
– a 64 linked form bagua set which turns out to look very ‘performance’ and ‘”dancey” (but comes with an accompnying book in Chinese; amongst the pictures and introductions at the front is Yang Jwing-Ming. The book contains a lot of training techniques such as practising strikes against a tree, that look much more practical than anything in the DVD);
– a VCD about Yiquan’s “Trial Force” – watched some of it, looks interesting;
– a Taoist health meditation and qigong set (not watched it yet);
– a DVD on dian xue pressure-point fighting (not watched it yet).

I’ve also been making an effort to catch up with other bagua people. I noticed someone on YouTube left a comment on one movie mentioning he was a student of Sun Zhijun, so I sent a message. We’ve made contact over the phone, and may meet up next weekend.

I also noticed that someone had left an advert on “That’s Beijing” about bagua classes at Beijing Language and Culture University, which is just around the corner from me. By the time I saw it, I’d already arranged classes with Master Sun, but I made contact and arranged a meeting yesterday. This teacher is a 26-year-old lecturer at the university; he teaches bagua, bajiquan, and xingyuquan. It was an awkward meeting, since his English is no better than my Mandarin, but we tried. His background is interesting; he’s the fifth-generation student of bagua and xingyi in his family. His great-great grandfather was taught bagua by a student of Cheng Ting Hua, and it’s been passed down in the family ever since. Modern, “performance” styles is strictly forbidden! He’s apparently won a lot of competitions in all three of his styles. The family is from Tianjin, and was quite prosperous until 1949; after that, the fact that his grandfather had many students made him suspicious in the eyes of the new government, and the grandfather was sent to prison for 20 years. One of his students, a Swedish girl studying Chinese at the university, arrived for class and helped translate; apparently there’s a British guy as well, but he didn’t show up. After a while I felt I was getting in the way of the class, and took my leave, but I’d like to catch up with him again.

There we are, some progress but not much. I’m getting more interested in learning some yiquan, for a number of reasons. Tabbycat’s feedback on that is much appreciated (thanks, Tabby!) but I suspect that an intensive introduction would work better for me – as it did with meditation – my first classes in that were when I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand, and it was great to just work on it all day, every day, and really get it ingrained; I think that with something like yquan I would want to do the same, rather than have a drip, drip of short, once-a-week sessions… As my plans for the future firm up, I’ll be able to see if that’s possible; too much uncertainty at the moment…

Anyway, I should do some work, it’s already passed 7:30am!

Category: Baguazhang, Beijing

Just found this via random YouTube surfing. I don’t speak Spanish, so I have no clue what they’re saying or what the captions mean, but it’s damn cool. Excellent upper body strength and footwork! Plus, the angles really start messing with my head after while….

[youtube gb8dpZFwvbU]



Yesterday was Qing Ming, the Grave-Sweeping Festival. This year – for the first time since 1949? – it was a public holiday. Hooray! I also got the day off, and did a bit of sightseeing and general slacking (which I’ll pay for – it’s not as if I don’t have a pile of things that need doing…). It’s also a good opportunity to braindump a few ideas that have been knocking around for a long time…

First: spring is here, the trees are budding, lots of flowers are out, and Beijing is starting to look beautiful. Hurray! The humidity is rising as well, though it’s still pretty dry. When we’re practising bagua, taiji, etc, we’ll be told to keep the tip of the tongue pressed against the palate. I’ve heard various reasons for this, including “it completes the circuit, allowing the qi to flow freely around the body”, and “it generates saliva which, when we swallow it, helps generate qi“. Well, maybe so; knowing the truth or not of this is beyond my level of ability. However, practising martial arts in the ultra-dry air of the north China winter has taught me that keeping your mouth closed, and generating saliva by pressing the tongue against the palate, is absolutely essential if your whole nose, mouth and lungs are not going to dry out as soon as you start moving.

Second: what’s going on with this Qing Ming holiday, anyway? I was familiar with it from Singapore, but I’d always, lazily assumed that this was the kind of “feudal” practice that would have died out in the mainland during the Communist Period. Not so! It’s still common for people to actually go and clean their ancestors’ graves. Last night in the hutongs, I saw many local residents burning piles of paper in the street. I’m not sure what the paper actually was, but I don’t think it was Hell Money of the kind burned in Singapore etc during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Reuters suggests that elements within the government may seek to re-establish Confucianism as a state ideology; well, we’ll see, but stranger things have happened.

Third: the hutongs. Most of Beijing’s old hutongs are gone. We Westerners regret their disappearance, as so much that makes Beijing unique goes with them. Those that remain are increasingly becoming tourist traps, and/or are being gentrified. It’s still possible to move into an adjacent alleyway, though, and be back in the unreformed, working class areas, where almost nothing seems to have changed since imperial times. The pictures below were taken in the vicinity of the Drum Tower, north of the Forbidden City. They were taken with my phone, so they’re dark, but that’s actually what I want to emphasize – these alleyways are very dark. Usually, they are illuminated by harsh, powerful lights mounted on high poles, widely spaced. This creates pools of bright light separated by stretches of near-darkness.

The hutong residences are all built around courtyards, looking inwards. From the winding streets, there are only strong doors and small, barred windows to be seen. Once the family is home for the night, and the courtyard door is closed and barred, they’ve turned their back on the outside world; no-one is looking out to what happens on the street outside. Even now, once you’re off the main beat, you can easily find yourself almost alone. This is what it was like in the bad old days, when imperial power was weak and there were no police. If you found yourself in trouble, say against a gang of thieves, you were in trouble – there’s nowhere to run in these alleyways, and for sure, nobody’s going to be looking out of their window, or opening their door. This is the environment that bagua was designed for!

This crossed my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was on my own in these alleys late at night, after eating a fine meal at an old-school, no-frills place run by a Hui family. I was heading back to the main road when I saw a couple of guys dragging a woman into a side alleyway and start hitting her in the face. What do you do? Apparently it’s not so unusual, but still… Anyway, I intervened, and let’s just say it was resolved without any incident, but in retrospect it could have been nasty. It’s kind of focussed my mind on working more on applications,..