Monthly Archives: January 2010

Tropical sunshine

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Just in case anyone’s wondering why it’s gone quiet here, I’m enjoying the warmth in Singapore. I’ll be here for another week before moving on to Bangkok for a few days. After that, I’m going on a 10-day vipassana retreat. Can’t wait…

Meeting new people

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As readers of his blog will know, Tabby Cat has been in Beijing lately. I had the pleasure of catching up with him yesterday, and found him to be as interesting and good to talk to as I had expected! Tabby, I’ll looking forward to catching up next time you’re in town; watch out for an email soon.

We had lunch and then took a stroll around Zhongshan Park, exploring parts of it that I haven’t been to before. I was fascinated to discover that this is one of the areas where parents gather to advertise the personal details of their children, who are too busy for dating, in the hope of finding them a spouse. I’d read about this, but hadn’t realized that it happens in the same park where I train 🙂 Funny old place, China…

Visualisation


It was a fresher day today, thanks to a cold north wind that made my nose stream. Not much to report, really: it was just walk, walk, walk, first in a straight line, then in circles. Sometimes I did it ok, mostly I didn’t.

I was thinking further on the same lines as yesterday: that getting this right is fundamentally a mental problem, not a physical one. I’m speaking from a learner’s point of view of course. As I was trying to walk the way Kong Cheng was telling me to, I was trying to hold my attention simultaneously in my feet, my hips, my pelvis and lower back, my shoulders, and my hands. Of course, I couldn’t do it, that’s too much! I realised that I was searching for the right vizualisation.

I’ve been wary of vizualisation, which comes from my meditation training. Vipassana involves using the mind to feel what is happening in different parts of the body; the danger is that the practitioner vizualises the body part, in other words creates a mental illusion, rather than stilling mental activity and simply sensing what’s happening in reality.

For martial arts training, though, it hit me today how useful visualisation is. Rather than herding cats, as my mind was trying to do this morning, the correct visualisation of an action or movement presents the mind with an activity it’s already familiar with, so that it knows exactly what to do with the body and doesn’t have to worry about it any more. Of course, this is precisely why the Chinese martial arts have such poetic names for their postures and movements: they are precisely describing a movement, energy and/or attitude in terms that would make a great deal of sense to traditional practitioners. Of course, they lived in a more unspoiled and natural world, and so were far more familiar with the movements of wild animals etc, that we are today. Working on the basic tang ni bu, I’m having to create a new vizualisation: “Cross-country skier holds down balloon”, but there’s got to be something better….

Being present


It’s been much warmer this week, but there is a price to pay… The winds have died down, so there’s no wind chill – but it also means that there’s nothing to blow the pollution away. Going to Zhongshan Park this morning, there was an acrid mist that caught at the back of my throat. As I entered the park, I could hear a distant booming that lasted for ten minutes or so; I wonder if the weather bureau was firing shells into the clouds to bring some rain…?

Sorry if these photos are getting repetitive, but I want to keep a record of what the scene is like every time I go to train; over the months, it should track the progress of the seasons – and, hopefully, remind me of progress in martial arts!

I’ve been practicing, and my mud-stepping is improving – Kong Cheng only had to kick my heels a few times. I did a few circuits under the eaves of a park office (where a thick-set Chinese gentleman of senior years was also practicing some qigong; we politely ignored each other). After that, it was circle-walking for two hours, winding up again with a bit of push-hands.

Such a simple description of the lesson but, internally, quite a lot happened. Kong Cheng had to remind me repeatedly about posture: leaning forward or to one side; wiggling my hips a bit too much; letting one arm (usually the outer) collapse in a bit too much… It’s all good; I think these are superficial issues that will vanish as I develop the internal work.

What do I mean by that? Well, as my stepping becomes less of an issue, my mind is able to move more freely around the body as a whole, identifying tensions. In particular, my shoulders, upper arms and upper back have a clear tendency to tense up, and only relax when I send my mind to them.Of course, once I do that, the lower back is free to sink in and under, the kua can move more freely, and the stepping gets more fluid and correct. So: it’s all in the mind – and, in keeping the mind present, calm, and aware of the body. Once the mind wandered (for example, ahem, composing a first draft of this post…) then everything tensed up again…

This awareness of tension is something I just wasn’t able to do before beginning yiquan, and the standing pole practice of zhan zhuang. As I mentioned before, that explains why my bagua before was so lousy – I simply couldn’t do it before because of the tension in the areas I just mentioned, so I guess I just compensated by go fast, relying on momentum and sloppy technique…. Kong Cheng mentioned that martial arts masters say “It’s easier to learn than to fix”, but there we are: I have to fix by bad habits before I can progress. Madam Ge Chun Yan often used to say that my root was weak, and I see clearly now why she said that.

If the zhan zhuang took me quite a long time to get into, the xing zhuang of circle-walking is tougher yet – maintaining mindfulness while walking is not easy! By the end of the session I was perspiring freely, and my ankles were aching from the unaccustomed strain; I lost a lot of weight when I first trained in bagua in 2004 – with luck, the same will happen again! It’s this kind of train of thought that makes me think that finally I am on the track for learning proper neijiaquan; above all, it’s the awareness that’s important, not the form. I didn’t have that when I was training in Singapore, or indeed when I first came to Beijing. Again, it’s only since I started the yiquan with Master Yao Cheng Rong that the penny finally dropped.

So, on the whole, I’m feeling quite positive about it all at the moment.

Video night in the Jianghu

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Here are a few clips that have entertained me or provoked thought lately.

I think of this one as A Dream of the Red Junks. I linked recently to a post of John Robb’s, in which he advocates the development of your own tribe; a train of thought that he followed up here and here. I see this being an important train of thought since, by the time I’m 70 or so, I expect that the world to be very different indeed from what we know now, and support networks will be essential. That being the case, and looking at the skill sets that I either possess or am trying to acquire, the Red Junks look like a reasonable role model – people will always need entertainment…

So, that brings us to “The World’s Most Talented Man”, found via the Emptyflower forums:

What an entertainer!

Here’s a video of that Systema seminar in Kuala Lumpur that I mentioned in my last post:

Systema instructors all seem to understand the value of showmanship… 😉

For fun, here’s a bit of parkour in Beijing:

And to get you thinking… How is it that all these urbanites get fed?

Oh, and by the way, rising temperatures have pushed major Antarctic glaciers past their tipping point, which is not good if you live in a low-lying coastal area… This particular source isn’t one that I would regard as academically reputable but this post does tie together a number of issues that have flashed up on my radar over the past few months: Will 2010 Be The Year The World Runs Out Of Food?Don’t say you didn’t see it coming“.


I was Googling for more information about the shashka and found this, which I rather like:

It’s from a Systema school in Omsk which, as it happens, is where the Siberian comes from. The school has a website and a Facebook page, but only in Russian; I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, but I don’t speak Russian beyond a few words remembered from my schooldays, so it’s not much use to me. Still, now that I know I’m staying in Beijing, I have been meaning to take the Trans-Siberian railway back to the UK at some point, and Omsk is on the way (and cheaper than Moscow, I suspect!), so if I wanted to get some training in Systema… hmmmm…. watching that clip, I’m intrigued again by the way that ‘Systema’ ie Cossack fighting skills, are intimately bound up with dancing – which teaches relaxation, rhythm, timing, spacial awareness, and lots of other martial arts goodness…

Anyhow, coincidentally, I had a reader request via email today for more news about the Siberian! I’m happy to oblige, and I’ll have to tell her that she’s developing a fan club 😉 She’s happy in her new job, working for a very large and important Chinese company in central China, and is about to leave for a week or so to Kazakhstan, on business. However, I think i may need to clarify that the Siberian and S. are different people; I have a feeling there might be some confusion there…. The Siberian is an ex-girlfriend, and still a good friend (I’m lucky, and am still good friends with most of my exes). S. is the most beautiful and accomplished woman I’ve ever met; she’s younger than me but has achieved more than most people (including me) manage in several lifetimes. She’s my good friend and unattainable muse…. (sigh…)…..

So, ahem, moving on to swords: I found that shashkas are being made by Windlass – an Indian firm, suppliers to Her Britannic Majesty’s Armed Forces, not to mention the US Marine Corps, among others… Their shashka looks rather nice, and I am extremely tempted to buy a couple…. They also sell Hungarian sabres, which seem to be the same as a szabla… Plus, as a fan of Serenity, I’m intrigued to see the Operative’s sword….

Tying this up, it seems that Systema RRB, the Omsk-based school, have an offshoot branch in Malaysia, according to this article… Some of my readers from Singapore may be interested in popping up to KL to check it out and, if so, I would love to hear your feedback!

No balance, no power

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No balance, no power” – Kong Cheng’s comment on my circle-walking today…

Another early-morning session in Zhongshan Park. It was bitterly cold, with a wind to bring tears to the eyes, but I didn’t feel it so much. I’d like to say that my qi must be getting stronger, but it’s probably got more to do with the long johns.

Once again, I spent most of the two hours working on tang ni bu. I’ll ‘fess up and say that this form of stepping is much harder than what I’ve practiced in the past. I’m forming some opinions about it, but I want to work on them a bit before I write them here.

Eventually Kong Cheng decided I could progress from straight-line walking to a circle-walking… and, basically, I couldn’t do it. This is getting embarrassing. I am fighting not just a long period of inactivity, but ingrained habits. For example, I appear to have settled into the practice of swinging into bai bu and kou bu from the hip, with the leg moving in an arc, whereas Kong Cheng insists on the leg moving forward in a straight line, and only the last moment turning at the ankle. From what I remember of reading up on bagua theory, this is probably the traditional way, in which case where did those old habits come from?

We chatted a lot about the differences between Liu Jing Ru’s style and Sun Zhi Jun’s, but I’m not going to repeat that here – this being the internet, someone would inevitably use it to start a flame war, and I’m not interested in that.

Kong Cheng is off to Japan tomorrow, so it’ll be a week before our next meeting – I’ll need to train hard! We finished up once more with some tui shou, and once again a bit of tui na on my injured wrist.

Yesterday I splashed out on a fairly-good quality Yang-style taiji dao, which makes an approximation of a shashka; just for the heck of it, I’m going to work on some cossack-style swordplay.

Beneath the grasp of Thetis

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I met Kong Cheng again yesterday at Zhongshan Park; it was cold again, but at least there wasn’t any wind. (Also: hooray for thermal underwear!).

Basically, I spent most of two hours still working on tang ni bu. I confirmed that there is a significant difference in stepping techniques between Sun Zhijun’s style (which is what I’ve practiced before) and Liu Jing Ru’s style. The former allows the heel of the rear foot to rise while stepping forward; the latter does not – the foot must be kept parallel to the ground, with the heel flat.

I asked a friend of mine, who’s a student of Sun Zhijun about this afterwards; they said that the heel-raise is part of the bagua qigong. Apparently, allowing the heel to rise stimulates the Bubbling Well Point, generating yin energy, and stimulating the kidney meridian.

However, Liu Jing Ru’s style, which I’m now learning, doesn’t do this; since Kong Cheng is a TCM doctor, I’ll have to ask him about this next time we meet. The fact remains, though, that I find it very difficult! Kong Cheng was kicking at my heel whenever it rose, trying to make the foot slip or twist, and I suppose from that I can see a combat application (though that’s just a guess). I have to say that it got very annoying – though the annoyance was with myself for not getting it right, not with Kong Cheng for kicking!

(I also have a feeling that there’s a difference in the way the two styles approach kou bu and bai bu, but I’ll leave that question for another time).

I found that I had to focus on two points. First, the Achilles tendon, allowing it to relax and lengthen; secondly, the muscles at the front of the ankle, using them to keep the foot raised. Essentially, that means that I was trying to keep my mind intent on a ring around the ankle. I’m still not sure that I’ve got this right. Well, since I can’t do it consistently, I obviously haven’t, but Kong Cheng does say that I’m improving. I’m going to make sure I can do it properly before I move on to any forms. Once that happens, though, I think I should progress fairly rapidly, since those are the forms I studied with Sun Ru Xian Lao Shi when I first came to Beijing.

I find that I have to concentrate on my feet so much that I’m not able to focus much on the rest of the body. Even so, I could feel that my posture is improving as I walk, and I was able to relax back, shoulders and tailbone more than in the previous lesson. Plus, my ankles are much more stable, and don’t wobble so much – this is definitely a result of the last year’s zhan zhuang, since before I started yiquan my ankles were very tense and rigid, which meant that they didn’t like carrying any kind of load. That, in turn, I think made my knees bear my weight, which wasn’t good.

We finished up with some more bagua tui shou, which is where I finally felt able to apply some of the insights from yiquan, specifically with regard to generating strength from the core back muscles, rather than the arms or shoulders. My right wrist hurt a lot during this, so Kong Cheng used some tui na massage on it, which helped.

By the end of the class, my thighs and hams really felt that they’d had a solid workout, and were tingling a lot!

I popped over to Wangfujing to do various tasks, and then headed back to Xinjiekou for the afternoon’s yiquan lesson. That went well, mostly practicing postures that I’ve done before but do need to work on much more. I was the only foreigner there, which hasn’t happened for a while. This class also finisihed up with tui shou, for about half an hour. This is the first time that I’ve done any serious yiquan tui shou since my accident, and I was comprehensively demolished by my partner – I couldn’t read his movements at all, or escape from any of the traps he applied to my arms. Ho hum, back to the beginning (again!).

In the evening S. and I went to the cinema at Oriental Plaza and caught the 3D version of Avatar. The 3D affect is brilliant, and the computer-generated world is stunning. The storyline is a bit hackneyed, and I’m too much of a cynic to enjoy the ‘happy’ ending, since you just know that the ‘Sky People’ will return in greater force, but hey, it’s a nice movie to watch with someone whose company you enjoy 🙂

Shaolin controversy

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I don’t travel much in China.

I would love to, don’t get me wrong – but obviously, I’m working in the week, and my martial arts classes have always been on the weekend, and that means I’ve been afraid that going off on trips on the weekends would just totally disrupt what little training routine I have…

What this means is, I’ve never visited any of the martial arts ‘destinations’ such as the Shaolin Temple, Wudang Mountain, Chen Village etc etc…

Still, I’m disturbed by a recent article in the UK Independent, which was brought to my attention in a blog post by Dojo Rat.

The issue is the policy taken by the Temple’s Abbot, Shi Yongxin, to aggressively reclaim the Temple’s brand, using the legal tools of intellectual property protection, and so on – leading Dojo Rat to comment “Damned Capitalists“. This worries me, since it reflects what I think may be a seriously misguided understanding of what is likely happening there (and, again, I must emphasize that my views are also speculation, since I don’t know anyone at the Shaolin Temple).

I’ve written about this before, at this blog’s old home, but I need to explain my thoughts in more detail.

Ask yourself: “what is the purpose of a Buddhist monk?”.

The answer only takes one word…. ‘meditation’. That’s it. A monk takes his vows in order to retreat from the world, so that he can obtain the seclusion necessary to focus on meditation and thus achievement of Nirvana or Enlightenment (for the Theravada and Mahayana branches respectively). Of course, this is not universally true, but it’s the ideal.

Thus (influenced particularly by a very famous monk from the Himalayas, who I won’t name because I don’t want my blog to be blocked again), the Western public thinks that Buddhist monks should be unworldly, unconcerned with things like wealth and and profit and property management etc etc.

And they’re right to think so.

But….

How do you think all those meditating monks get food to eat?

How do you think that the walls around them are kept sturdy, and the roof doesn’t fall in on their heads from neglect?

The fact is, a temple or monastery is a complex organisation, and it needs a lot of monks who don’t meditate – in order to support those who do. What’s most relevant is that this is not a modern thing, it’s always been the case.

In The Zen Monastic Experience, Robert Buswell Jr has this to say about the job of Abbot in a Zen monastery:

While the position of abbot would seem to bring with it much prestige, the monks typically view it as an onerous one. The heavy workload and constant responsibility do not endear the position to many of the monks qualified to serve, and the monastery family may have to go through considerable machinations to cajole someone into accepting the job.

[There follows a long anecdote on the extreme lengths some monks will go to in order to avoid being appointed abbot]

I noted among the meditation monks a muted feeling that they are above the dictates of the abbot, since he is only an administrator, not a meditator. The abbot is, as often as not, relatively inexperienced in meditation, and some of the practice monks are patently supercilious toward him. The rector, who is superior in rank to the abbot, is the director of the meditation unit, and the practice monks place their respect more in him than in the abbot.

Buswell was writing about his time in a Zen monastery in Korea rather than China, but to my limited knowledge the difference is not great. He has a great deal more to say about the economy of the monastery which, having been gifted land by devotees, is landlord to many farmers who pay rent to the monastery’s administrative branch – which is how the practice (ie meditation) monks are fed.

In China, of course, there was the Cultural Revolution. The temples were closed, or destroyed, and the monks were forced back into lay life. Over the last couple of decades, of course, things have become far more tolerant, and religion is acceptable again. Old monks have returned to the temples, and a new generation of monks has emerged from those too young to remember the days of the 60s and 70s.

However….

As Red Pine points out in Zen Baggage, although the Chinese government has returned the temples to the monks, it hasn’t returned the farmland. As a result, these monasteries are left high and dry, financially unable to maintain themselves.

This is the context in which we have to look at what’s happening in Shaolin. As I understand it, the abbot there is reclaiming the Shaolin name, and getting rid of all the hangers-on who were trying to exploit it – with the purpose of generating a revenue stream that will allow the temple to return to its proper role as a centre of Buddhist contemplation….

Even monks need to eat… and that means that even monks (via their despised administrative officers) need money…

I rather feel that we should be feeling sorry for Shi Yongxin in his thankless role, rather than accusing him of selling out….

[See also: Chinese Buddhist monks enroll in MBA programs]

Hidden dragons

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Not being part of the ‘martial arts scene’, I had never heard of the Red Junks until Carlos put his web site up. I’m not sure whether they are well-known to other people or not…

However, the Red Junk Opera Company, or Hongchuan Xiban, have been intriguing me recently. I haven’t found much that gives a good history, though.

This is just a placeholder for a train of thought that’s developing; I may blog about it later.