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Kung Fu as Chan Practice.

September 8, 2009

“Approaches to the Dharma without number I vow to master”

Si Hongshi Yuan (third vow of the Four All-encompassing Vows)

“Although sitting meditation is deemed the best way to settle a scattered mind and cultivate meditative concentration, one cannot sit all the time. Therefore, Buddhist teachers have developed techniques that allow one to meditate while engaged in other sorts of physical activity as well…The Chan school often says that everyday activity—eating, cleaning, defecating, carrying water, chopping wood—is itself Chan.”

(Chan Master Sheng-yen)

It’s been more than 25 years since I began my practice of Kung Fu and 20 years now since I first wrote a small theme called “Tao in the Art of Kung Fu.” Over the last few years, I have found myself coming around yet again full circle. For me, kung fu has always been more than a means for personal protection. In fact, if one’s goal is simply self-defense, then traditional martial arts are a waste of time. The truth is that there is more to the practice of traditional martial arts that is not needed if one seeks to learn to “fight” or “take care of business.” For me, there has always been a spiritual component to my practice of Kung Fu. One of the personal mottos I have taken for myself comes from the Dao De Jing:

“Those who know others have wisdom;

Those who know themselves have enlightenment.

Those who have power over others have force;

Those who have power over themselves have self-mastery.”

It has long been a tradition that kung fu is not only a means of self-defense, but it is also a means of self-cultivation.  In studying to know others, including our “enemy,” we come to know ourselves in a way that we had not before imagined.  While learning to have mastery over others through the combative elements of kung fu, we come to realize that often we are our own worst enemy.  Kung Fu then takes upon itself another aspect.  Our practice also becomes a living metaphor for self-knowledge and self-mastery. One aspect of training that starts on the path is Tao Lu (the practice of forms).

There is a great deal that I could write about the practice of Tao Lu; however, I will only touch upon one element: the use of Tao Lu as meditation. There are many elements to the practice of Zuo Chan (sitting Chan meditation). For example, there is the practice of Nianfo Chan (Buddha and Mantra recitation as found in Pure Land and Mizong schools), and Neng Cheng Chan (the Sadhana meditation practices found in Mizong schools); but perhaps the most common is Deng Jing Chan (Calm Abiding Chan) as found in almost all traditions of Buddhism. This practice is aimed at settling the scattered mind to arrive at “Calm Abiding.” In all of these forms of meditation, the mind is focused on what is called an object of support. Nianfo Chan uses a Buddha’s name or mantra, while in Deng Jing Chan, one uses mindfulness of the breath as the object of support. In the practice of Tao Lu in Kung Fu training, the object of support is the body in motion.

When practicing any kind of meditation, awareness and mindfulness is critical. A common analogy for awareness and mindfulness is that of riding a horse. Imagine riding a horse on a trail. “Awareness” refers to knowing when the horse is veering off the trail while “mindfulness” is applying the gentle correction to keep the horse on the trail. Having grown up in Colorado riding horses and such, this analogy was very meaningful to me. I recall a time, when I was about 16, my father and I traveled to a friend’s cattle ranch to pick up a new horse. We saddled a beautiful quarter-horse named “Casopy,” and I was turned loose to ride the wide open grasslands. Initially Casopy would try to assert his will and go where he wanted, but I would simply tug a little on the reins to move him in the direction I wanted to go. Awareness allowed me to be in tune with what was going on with Casopy. Mindfulness allowed me the ability to keep him on track. Eventually, there became a harmony of horse and rider. I no longer needed to pull the reins. Simply the touch of the leather on his neck informed him of the direction I needed to go. There was a profound ease as horse and rider became one.

When we meditate, we focus our awareness on an object of support such as the breath. However, our wild mind will often buck and get off track. We may be doing fine as we focus our awareness on each breath, and then our mind wanders off into thoughts about the day or plans for the future. Awareness, allows us to be alert to that wandering. With mindfulness, we simply can acknowledge this wandering with the label “thinking” and return to the focus on the breath. Once when riding Casopy, we came upon a large herd of horses. Casopy’s instincts took over, and he made a mad dash for the herd. For a few seconds, I was simply along for the ride. But with mindfulness, I brought Casopy back under control. Occasionally in meditation, a surge of wild emotion may come up. In meditation, we do not seek to push it back or repress that emotion. We acknowledge it as the weather in the mind and return to the awareness of breath. If anger creeps up, we can simply accept and acknowledge that anger and again return to focused awareness on the breath. This practice creates a space in which we can become comfortable with even the darker emotions in our mind without being carried off by them. We can accept them for what they are without necessarily identifying with them.

In Kung Fu, we use the prescribed movements of Tao Lu (form) the boundaries of motion. The pattern of movement is the trail. The form and my body in motion are the objects of support for my meditation. My awareness is upon my body in motion. In order to do the form correctly, I cannot think about my day or what I will have for dinner. I must maintain complete unity of body and mind in my movement. Initially, when people are learning a form, they struggle with awareness and mindfulness. They are still trying to learn the form, and so will lack the awareness to know whether or not the movement is correct. When it isn’t, they will lack the mindfulness to correct the mistake. Many times I will see a student making an error in the form, and show him the correct action. Occasionally, I will hear, “But I am doing that!” At this stage, the student lacks the awareness that what he is actually doing and what he thinks he is doing are separate things. At this stage, there is a disharmony of body and mind. For example, when practicing the horse stance, a student will—out of weakness, inflexibility, or fatigue—lean slightly forward with his butt sticking backwards into what I call “the constipation stance.” The student thinks he is doing the stance, but actually isn’t. At this stage, the Sifu plays the role of awareness and mindfulness by giving the student correction as needed. Eventually the student “gets the feel for it,” and begins developing awareness and mindfulness on his own. In time, the Sifu is no longer needed in this role as the student can do that part himself.

Occasionally a student will also struggle with the constraints of the form, and his movement will look robotic and stiff. He may struggle to “do” the form. He may become distracted by a thought and lose the flow. Occasionally, certain emotions will come out when training. For men, anger is perhaps the most common. He may try to “rage” through his form, but the result is a sloppy, angry mess; but, in time, this all changes. When I do forms, I am in the Now. There is no yesterday, or tomorrow, or even today. There is only this moment and this moment and this moment…There is only the movement of Now. At a certain point, there is no longer struggle with the constraints of the form. Tao Lu has been integrated into my being and has become “Zi Ran”—“natural.” It has become “self so.” It has become Wu Wei—complete and uncontrived action. There is no thought of, “I do this movement then this and then this.” My awareness is completely settled into my body. At this point, I no longer “do” the form. But rather it becomes an expression of being. For example, I no longer “do” Xiao Mei Hua Quan, but rather Xiao Mei Hua Quan is a natural expression of my being. It becomes as ordinary as flipping the light switch or brushing my teeth.

There are times when doing a form, my mind rests in naked awareness. There is a certain calm and restfulness in which my mind is like what the ancient Taoists called, “a placid lake unruffled by the winds of circumstance.” My body-mind becomes a poem of stillness in motion. It moves from Taiji to Wuji—from the polarity of opposites to complete undifferentiated oneness. At this point, one has entered the Dharma Gate of Kung Fu.

But Tao Lu in and of itself is not sufficient for “fighting” or enlightenment. It is true with Tao Lu that all the secrets of the art are hidden in plain view.  It is a secret pronounced in the open. However, one needs a key to open the secret that is before their eyes. This comes in the practice of “Yong Fa”—application. It is one thing to know the movements of a form, it is quite another to understand them. Today, with the modern sport Wushu, there are many who can do the forms with virtual perfection while possessing virtually no understanding of the meaning. Without understanding the art is dead for that practitioner—only he doesn’t know it. If one’s kung fu is to have meaning, it must be a living art. And this comes from Yong Fa.

So, the Sifu will give applications to various movements of the form. When I teach, I will give a couple of applications to various movements in the form. This provides the student with informed intention in movement. To one who knows, it is obvious when a practitioner has or doesn’t have an understanding of the movement. This shows in the lack of intention—a certain lack of “feel.” It lacks a certain expression of mind—it lacks the Qi of function. In Kung Fu, there must be form and function.

However, all the applications given are but illustrations of principles. Too often, students and even teachers will miss the forest for the trees. They will get blinded by only one or two applications of a movement and think that contains the meaning of that piece of the Tao Lu. There is the Chan saying that, “It is like a finger pointing at the moon. If you look at the finger, you will miss the glory of the moon.” When practicing Yong Fa, we have still look beyond technique and arrive at the principle, at the essence. There is an old Taoist saying, “Know the One and you will know the Ten Thousand. Know the Ten Thousand and you will know the One.” When practicing Yong Fa, we learn many techniques, but eventually we come to understand the principle behind the multiple techniques. We come to know the One. At this point, it has become integrated with who we are. Often I will be asked, “Sifu, what do you do if a guy does this or that?”  My response usually is, “Well, do it and let’s see.” The fact is that I seldom think about technique as they do. Like shit, technique just happens.

As I practice Tao Lu and Yong Fa, something amazing begins to happen. Tao Lu becomes a Gong An (a Koan); and as I practice Yong Fa, flashes of insight will penetrate my mind. New layers of understanding will occur, and I will see new levels of meaning to both Tao Lu and Yong Fa. I am always pleased when I see this happen with a student. As the process has taken root and blossoms in him, I can see him developing his own understanding of the principle. I remember once as Master An told me that we must each make the art our own. It has to become my own. It is only as the Gong An is deeply understood through insight that it truly becomes mine. And I have not fully given the art to my student until this insight really blossoms in him. And when I see this insight occurring, I can be assured that he is on the right track. As one continues the Kung Fu practices of Tao Lu and Yong Fa, these flashes of insight become quite common.

Likewise, in the practice of Zuo Chan, there comes a time, when we need to go beyond settling the mind. There is the analogy of Deng Jing Chan (Calm Abiding Chan) to sharpening the axe of the mind. At some point, we need to go and chop some wood. In many Buddhist traditions, the practice of Deng Jing Chan is married to the practice of Guan Chan (Observing Chan). Guan Chan is seen as the meditative examination of the nature of things that leads to insight into the true nature of the world—emptiness. Deng Jing Chan is the cultivation of samadhi whereas Guan Chan is the cultivation of prajna. However, they are of the same ground. In this case, the cultivation of insight is not something external to be obtained. It is like a pearl lost at the bottom of the lake. When there is no wind and the water is calm, the pearl becomes visible.

As I practice Kung Fu, I begin a path of discovering the Pearl—my own true nature. Through Tao Lu, I practice calm abiding in motion. By practicing Yong Fa, I practice observing Chan to arrive at the essence of the principle. This process becomes more than a metaphor for the rest of Chan practice; it is Chan practice. There is an old Gong An (koan) that expresses the value of Kung Fu in my life:

There was once someone who asked Chan master Cao Shan, “What is the most expensive thing in the world?”

“A dead cat’s head,” Cao Shan answered.


“Because nobody gives it a price.”

And I offer a new Gong An to my students: I have said many times before that there are a million ways to skin a cat; just show me the dead cat. My question for you is: what is the cat?

==Hoping that the finger pointing at the moon is finger-licking good,

Xian Tan Ju Shi

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