Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Druid’s Journey

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The Piper guys were kind enough to give me the nickname “The Druid”, which I’ve been musing on lately. Of course, I’m not really a Druid – I haven’t been elected to the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain, nor am I ever likely to be! I suppose it’s possible that one day I might try for the language qualification and become an Ovate, an entry-level Druid as it were, but…. probably not!

Obviously, coming from Wales, I’ve always known about Druids. I don’t know what your mental image is when I use the term. Some people, I guess, will imagine them as Caesar described them, bloody to the elbows in entrails; others will think of Wicker Men, stuffed with captives waiting for the torch. Yet more will think of the neo-pagan movement and OBOD.

Me, I have a rather different conception of them. I see the Druids as observers and thinkers, heirs to the tradition of insight that goes back into the Neolithic period. Since the dawn of humanity, people were looking sitting on mountain tops, or venturing out to sea in tiny ships, and observing…. Observing the vast natural world, and pondering our place in it – and what makes us different. This was the slow thought, over years and decades, which gradually pieced together the great cycles of the stars and allowed the building of the megaliths and stone circles. I notice with interest the possible etymology of the name itself – most books will tell us that it’s somehow connected with the Celtic word for ‘oak’, but the Wikipedia entry suggests that it may rather have roots that mean “clear-vision” or “rooted knowledge”, something like that, which resonates with me.

I used to go solo up into the hills, back in the days when I lived in Wales. There’s something about being on a long ridgetop, with the bowl of the sky above you, the endless sea below on one side, the mountains receding to the distance below on the other, that clears the mind, that is so far beyond the reach of the mind, that the gates of comprehension are broken open and the fire of inspiration rushes through from the other side. When this energy is channeled into the grooves of practice and discipline, that’s when poetry and philosophy are created. It’s also the root of prophecy – when our knowledge is freed from the shackles of “I want”, or “I’m afraid”, and the truth of events can be seen – to the astonishment of those who won’t let themselves see….

In Welsh, we have a word for this, “Awen”. I’ve felt it on occasion; for example, there have been times when I’ve given an impromptu speech at Toastmasters, and felt the spirit take me; afterwards, people slap me on the shoulder and congratulate me on a great speech – but I really can’t remember what I said; the words just passed through me, not from me, it feels.

It was probably this sense of the Celtic poet/seer/Druid tradition that led me to adopt Thufir Hawat as one of the heroes of my teen years. Hawat, a character from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, was a Mentat-Assassin. A mentat is someone trained to use the full power of their mind. As Wikipedia puts it,

Mentats are not simply calculators. Instead, the exceptional cognitive abilities of memory and perception are the foundations for supra-logical hypothesizing. Mentats are able to sift large volumes of data and devise concise analyses in a process that goes far beyond logical deduction: Mentats cultivate “the naïve mind”, the mind without preconception or prejudice, similar to the contemporary practice of Zen, that can extract the essential patterns or logic of data, and deliver useful conclusions with varying degrees of certainty.

That, combined with martial arts knowledge? Wow! The Mentat Master of Assassins was a great role model!

It isn’t such a great step, either, from the mentat to the “Scholar Warrior”, the wuxia hero who cultivates mind as well as martial skill.

A Geordie girlfriend once complained to me that she thought the mountain-tops meant more to me than she did. She was right. She left the scene soon after, with no hard feelings on either side; my love for the hills still endures. Every now and again I get reminded that once I saw the truth; that once I had the clear vision, and deep-rooted knowledge. Time passes; material things and attachment cloud my sight, but I still know where the truth lies, when I’m reminded.

I’m writing this to remind you, the reader, and myself why it was that I got engaged in martial arts. Of late, I’ve been more and more focused on practical application – to the extent of losing sight of the bigger picture. To paraphrase Wang Xiangzhai, it’s an essential step – but only the first, and lowliest step.

Meditation, on its own, gives a lot of insight and detachment; it’s another route to that state of “no-mind”. I also need to work harder on my meditation! However, meditation is easy when you’re sitting comfortably on your cushions, safe in your home, with chanting or music on the mp3 player…. What about when you’re up against it, when things are not going your way, and the tide of the world is against you? This can happen on the mountain – the mist comes down, the storm rolls in, and suddenly you’re reduced to the most basic struggle of survival. Sometimes, one can transcend thought in these situations; the focus on finding your way out becomes a state of no-thought, no-mind, calm concentration on the task. Usually not, though… and even so, it’s not something we can organize or structure!

Martial arts, though… That’s the way… The internal martial arts have meditation built in; to keep one’s mind calm and empty, to loosen the grip of fear and attachments as someone actively tries to take you down… that is the way to develop strong meditation and detachment, calmness and freedom of mind and body, while under pressure. Furthermore, it’s something one can schedule, repeat, and learn from – unlike storms!

At the end of the day, that is why I’m studying martial arts. That is the journey that this blog is trying to chronicle!

Meditation on life


I finally made it to the meditation class at the Koan Abbey last Thursday night. My friend H and I have meant to attend on a regular basis, but we’ve both found that, as lecturers, we’ve been overwhelmed by paperwork – so actually, we’ve only been on one occasion a few weeks ago. After my last blog post about meditation, I decided that I would make the effort and get there again! H had to cancel at the last moment, so I went alone. We arranged to meet up later that evening, though.It turned out to be one of those meditation sessions that has unexpected outcomes.

Essentially, the class is two hours of sitting and walking meditation, with occasional sessions of stretching to loosen the joints.It surprised me how much cracking came from my shoulders! I still find it a little difficult to sit properly; the meditation cushions are much thinner and lower than the ones I’m used to, so it’s a bit tougher on my legs.

Chan meditation often focuses on breathing from the dantian, and there was a lot of this on Thursday, along with attention on awareness of the body. Perhaps because it was already on my mind, it seemed to me that the breathing was stimulating a lot of massage of the internal organs, especially the intestines and liver. The walking meditation also was interesting in terms of posture and weight; my Achilles tendons were definitely taking a lot more strain than usual when I walk – which is good, I think, as it means I’m sinking my weight. However, my knees often hurt, which is not good – it means that I’m not yet able to take the postural improvements I’m seeing from zhan zhuang, and transfer them into everyday usage. Not yet, anyway, not automatically. I worked on this a little during the zen walking, and my knees did stop hurting, so the weight was perhaps being transferred a little better.

By the end of the class, I was feeling much calmer and clearer in my thoughts. As I went to meet H, I became aware of a strange feeling; it felt as though my qi had been stirred up, and was swirling around my body as it looked for a new balance. It was a very odd sensation, and not one that I remember having experienced in quite that way before. It left me in a rather unsettled – no, not unsettled, maybe ‘detached’? – frame of mind, which lasted until the following day.

On Friday, I finish work early and, after doing some shopping at the Xidan bookstore, I went to the Stone Boat in Ritan Park for a late-afternoon beer. A large group was on one of the other tables; it seemed to be a meetup for New Zealanders in Beijing. I couldn’t help but overhear a lot of their conversation, which was about which posting they might be applying for next etc…

I heard a lot, and still.. didn’t hear anyone sounding really happy. A strange thing happened then; I suddenly remembered an occasion, over ten years ago now, when I almost fell into a still, black, freezing sea, with hundreds of cold stars shining steadily in the moonless sky. I saw those stars again, it seemed. as I listened to the chatter in the Stone Boat. I don’t know why that memory rose again then, but I think there must be some meaning. It’s true though, that over the past few years, I have oscillated between the pursuit of money and career success on the one hand, and meditation and martial arts on the other. At the moment, I’m having to make choices about direction again. It’s not unimportant that the times when I’ve had dead-end jobs, but was working hard on studying Buddhism and martial arts are the periods when I was happiest and, made the closest friends. On the the other side – money is helpful, and no-one wants to die a pauper!

H and I met up again yesterday; she came to Yiquan class, and we went for a drink afterwards. We chatted about a lot of these things, as she shares a lot of my views. We talked about attachments, and what we are trying to achieve. Neither of us has had a conventional career path…. We talked about romantic attachment… I’m single again, she has a new boyfriend… Also, is our study of martial arts an attachment? We could, after all give it up and work exclusively on meditation. For me, I think not… I do feel, somehow, that the study of neijia is something I feel driven to do, and somehow, it is intimately connected with karmic development…

I saw someone on Twitter asking the other day for articles about the connection between meditation and martial arts; I’ve lost the link, but perhaps I’ll write up my thoughts on the subject.

As for a conclusion…. Well; this is another stream-of-consciousness post, I’m afraid. Part of the process of trying to figure out “what it’s all about”, and “what next”…

Meditation on violence


Meditation on Violence, Maya Deren, 1948, featuring Chao Li Chi.

Comments?

Balance

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Time to consult the I Ching, I think – which I haven’t done for a loooong time.

I seem to be juggling with too many balls, so a change of some kind is needed. Not sure what yet…

Some particular thoughts on my mind:

  • I’m getting further away from enlightenment, or so I feel. My meditation practice is shot to pieces, there are no Dharma talks I can attend, and the serenity I felt after attending meditation retreats is but a distant memory.
  • I am enjoying the yiquan very much, and learning a huge amount from it, as I’ve mentioned before. However, recent conversations have shown me that I’m missing a huge amount of Master Yao’s teaching, because I can’t understand what he’s saying. Watching his actions maybe isn’t enough. Not sure what to do about this.
  • Beijing’s an extremely down-to-earth and pragmatic city, and I like that. On the other hand, I find that I really miss the temples and shamans of Singapore, the sense I had there that spirituality is a part of daily life for so many people.
  • Yiquan is doing a lot to improve my health in many ways, including opening up the joints, changing my posture, and improving my understanding of body unity. Nothing else I’ve studied has been so effective. On top of that, of course, it’s one of the few internal martial arts I’ve studied that regularly trains in application. All of this is great and extremely important. However… this morning I did a bit of work on the CMC-37 taiji form, which I haven’t practiced for ages. It’s very interesting to note the different feelings, post-practice. After taiji I feel positively energized, calm, and very aware of qi. After yiquan, I feel very focussed and, not aggressive, but goal-oriented; energized, but in a physical sense, like after sport, rather than in the qi. It also made me realize that since I started working exclusively on yiquan I haven’t felt quite so “well”. It’s difficult to convey exactly what I mean here… but taiji really built up my qi; bagua really massaged the internal organs… and the absence of these practices is something I can feel, more as a lack than a sense of being unwell… Of course, it could just be coincidence, or be caused by something else… but still. It does make me think that yiquan is great… but after achieving a level of competence I will still want to go back to bagua and taiji.
  • Reading and thinking more about systema really makes me think that it shares a great deal with Chinese neijia. Reading “Let every breath” and trying to substitute “qi” when they talk about “breath”, I get the same result – as the Chinese say, “the yi directs the qi, and the body follows”. Sounds a lot like what I read about in systema. Of course, without having had a class, it’s difficult to say. I wonder if there’s enough interest in Systema in Singapore to make it worth flying Vladimir Vasiliev there for a seminar…..?

Would you save a stranger?

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Steve Wildash recently wrote a very interesting post on his Systema blog about a program shown on British TV: Would You Save a Stranger? (Reviewed here).

Regular readers may remember that I have actually found myself making this choice – actually, it was almost exactly a year ago today! It was an incident that totally changed my approach to martial arts training, and made me realize that I couldn’t continue with forms-based training that had no practical elements…

What would you do?

Category: Martial Arts

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Many of the stories about Chinese martial arts masters of the past – in other words, what many would consider the ‘golden age’ of kung fu – describe the way the master in question defended his home village against overwhelming number of bandits… In fact, the general lawlessness of imperial China was the whole reason behind the development of whole schools of martial styles, each one optimised for its physical environment, and the anticipated skills of opponents.

That’s the past. In more contemporary times, I’ve been fascinated by a couple of news reports in the last week. The first is an NPR report about a university undergraduate student who has become the mayor of her village in Shaanxi province. Using her family’s money, she built a road that helped the villagers in their farming. Alas, it didn’t go smoothly:

Bai says one of her most frustrating moments was when residents from a neighboring village built a house, blocking the road she was building. She tried to negotiate, but her fellow villagers lashed out in anger.

“By the time I got there, they had destroyed about half of the building,” she recalls. “I tried, but couldn’t stop them. The crowd was enraged and had lost all reason. The situation was out of control.”

The residents from the neighboring village later tried to beat her up, she says, at the instigation of the local township party secretary. Her villagers protected her.

Meanwhile, on the southern island/province of Hainan,

One person died and nine others were injured in clashes between Gancheng and Baoshang villages which started Monday in Dongfang City. […]

The two villages, each with a population of over 10,000, have been feuding for more than eighty years over land and because of gambling houses.

The recent trouble started Monday night, when angry villagers gathered at the township government building to protest the government’s response to a fight between a student from Gancheng village and another from Baoshang.

The protest became violent when their demands were not met. The office buildings of the township government, the police station and a local inn were smashed and burnt. Damages were put at more than one million yuan.

Spontaneous clashes between the villages since then had resulted in one death and nine injuries, according to the information office of the Dongfang City government.

More than 1,000 policemen are now in the villages to maintain order. The bridge connecting the two is now under the control of the police to prevent further clashes.

Even so, people remain scared. Fruit and vegetable dealers are not coming to Gancheng.

Baoshang resident Zhang Mingyong said he had not gone to his farm since Monday in fear of a revenge attack by Gancheng villagers. As a result, he had no choice but to let his mature capsicum rot in the land.

On Thursday night, more than 100 residents holding knives from each village conducted their own patrols to prevent attacks.

Even now… it’s medieval out there!

Finally, looking forwards, with police in the UK predicting a “summer of rage“, and the global recession seemingly deepening into depression… there will be a lot of hungry and angry people out there. Learning to fight suddenly looks much more useful….. I grant you, I really study martial arts as a tool for insight and a meditative path. However, to quote a contemporary yiquan master, Cui Rubin, “Although Master Wang Xiangzhai said that ‘combat is the lowest skill’ (jiji nai moji), […] in order to become a great master you must at the very least possess this ability”. That’s taken from an excellent, and very long, interview with Master Cui that I found recently. I highly recommend reading the whole thing!