Conflict is an intrinsic part of life. Throughout history wars have been fought for power, money and greed. Even those who live in peaceful Western towns may be possibly subject to an act of violence whether it be a mugging, assault or simply an argument which gets out of hand. Quite simply, an act of violence is one of the most basic and effective ways of gaining control over another human being. Often this violence is spontaneous and the result of negative emotions such as anger, hatred and fear. Rarely if ever is violence the product of positive emotion such as compassion, love or empathy.
In ancient China acts of violence such as this were common-place and one community who were constantly at great risk were the peaceful monks. The monks lived within their secular monasteries which contained a fair amount of wealth. For bandits and robbers these peaceful groups were easy pickings. Consequently the monks were forced to develop various fighting systems which they used to defend themselves if the need arose. These systems were fairly complex and included a great deal of jumping, kicking, locking and throwing techniques. The ideal for a practitioner of these fighting systems was to defeat an opponent without damaging them. This was due to the philosophical beliefs of the monks. They did not wish to cause harm to any other living creatures. These fighting systems were created many hundreds of years ago but cannot really be called Gong Fu since they did not contain the essence of the systems which still survive to this day.
Gong Fu did not come into existence properly until the arrival of an Indian monk named Bodhidharma around the year 520 CE. Bodhidharma had originally come to spread Indian Buddhism to the Chinese emperor but he instead arrived at a temple in the Henan province known as the Shaolin (Small Forest) temple. The monks here already had their own fighting system but it was not an integral part of their studies. Instead they focused mainly on the study of classical scriptures and seated meditation. Bodhidharma saw that the monks’ methods were not the most effective way to move towards their goal of spiritual transcendence and so he retired to a nearby cave to sit in contemplation. Legend has it that the Indian monk remained in his cave for nine years before he returned to the Shaolin monks and began to teach them the form of Buddhism which is commonly known as Chan or Zen in Japanese. This form of Buddhism quickly became the main philosophy of the monastery and it was from Shaolin that Chan then spread to the rest of China. As well as Chan Buddhism, the monks at Shaolin also began to learn Indian Yoga which they altered to form their own exercises based around the movements of five animals.
The five animal systems were a form of Dao Yin exercise which taught the basics of Nei Gong. From this the monks began to learn how to work with their internal energy known as Qi. Two texts were produced known as the Tendon/Changing Classic and the Marrow/Brain Washing Classic. These became the most influential pieces of writing for the monks of Shaolin who began to integrate the teachings into everything they did. In the space of a few years the monks were transformed from their previous weak state into strong and healthy individuals. It was a natural process of development for the teachings of Bodhidharma to find their way into the Shaolin monks fighting systems and this was the first formation of what we now know as Gong Fu. More than fighting systems, Gong Fu was an amalgamation of meditation, philosophy, combat, Yoga and spiritual development. The newly formed Gong Fu enabled the monks to develop legendary abilities which brought them a great deal of attention from the rest of China. Not all of this attention was positive and the Shaolin monastery was the victim of several periods of persecution. Despite this the styles of Gong Fu spread from Shaolin and diversified into many hundreds of styles, many of which still exist today.
As well as the Shaolin monastery their existed another strong religious group who also practiced their own martial arts systems. These were the mysterious Daoists who studied the teachings of Laozi and a type of meditation known as Nei Dan Gong which means ‘Internal Alchemy’. Exactly how the teachings of the Shaolin reached the Daoists is unknown and there are numerous legends which may all contain elements of the truth. How it got to the Taoists is not as important as the adaptations they made to the Shaolin’s Gong Fu. The Daoist’s who are said to have been based upon mount Wudang incorporated their own Nei Dan Gong principles which brought about a new style of Gong Fu we commonly call the ‘internal systems’. It is perhaps a little unfair to name the Daoist Gong Fu systems ‘internal’ and the Shaolin ‘external’ since they both contain elements of internal and external work. It is perhaps better to name them simply the Buddhist and the Daoist styles, although now they have crossed over and influenced each other to such a degree that this does not really apply.
This article is not written as a history book since there is already a great many resources available for those interested in this area of Gong Fu. The fact is that there are so many versions of the ‘truth’ that we cannot ever know what the real story is. It is better to concentrate more effort on training the arts than trying to figure out the exact history. The above information is important, however, as it enables us to understand what exactly is meant by the terms Gong Fu and martial arts.
A complete martial art is constructed from several components. In general a Buddhist or Shaolin system incorporates:
• Empty handed combat techniques
• Various weapons
• Yogic principles
• Chan Buddhist Philosophy
• Buddhist meditation principles
• Ethical teachings according to Chan philosophy
The Daoist systems are similar and incorporate the following:
• Empty handed techniques
• Various weapons
• Nei Gong principles
• Daoist Philosophy
• Nei Dan Gong principles
• Character developing methods according to the Dao
In addition to this both systems incorporate elements of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) although on the whole this is emphasised more in the Daoist systems.
Empty Handed Fighting Techniques
When a student begins to study any Eastern martial art they first have to learn the outer movements. These usually consist of various strikes, defences, locks and grapples as well as the various stances, footwork exercises, forms and partner drills. The easiest way to recognise one style from another is through the outer movements of the system. It is here that a student first begins to condition their physical structure and combine mind and body into one unit. It is also here that a student learns the principles of combat and self defence. This stage can take a great many years and then the training has to be consistent and hard if the student is ever going to become an expert in their chosen martial art. These are the outer shell of Gong Fu. The empty handed techniques are the tool which the students may use to develop their consciousness, spirit and soul which is the real aim of the Eastern martial arts. In general the Buddhist systems tend to have more dynamic outer body movements than the Daoist systems which focus on fewer movements. They are generally not as flamboyant. This is a great generalisation though and there are exceptions to this rule.
The majority of Gong Fu styles, whether they be Buddhist or Daoist in origin, incorporate numerous weapons. Traditionally the first weapon used is the staff which is then followed by the sabre and finally the straight sword. There are additionally many other weapons, particularly in the Buddhist systems which can contain hundreds of exotic blades, axes and whips.
The Indian word for our internal energy is Prahna; the Chinese term is Qi. The Buddhist systems incorporate many teachings from Yoga and this can be seen from the similarity of some of the positions in the two arts. For example the ‘warrior pose’ from Indian Yoga clearly influenced the ‘Bow and Arrow’ stance from Eastern martial arts. Every martial artist must aim to achieve a high degree of flexibility and relaxation, which serves to open the main energy points of the body and also mastery over their breathing. Breathing techniques in particular are a major part of Yogic traditions and this is reflected in Gong Fu. A martial artist who cannot breathe well will not get very far in their training.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Yogic tradition which was incorporated into Buddhist Gong Fu was the principle of development through movement. Prior to this point, the monks of Shaolin had separated their exercise from their meditation. Bodhidharma taught them how they might develop their spirit and consciousness through movements. This integration of mind and body was the foundation of his two texts: the Tendon/Changing Classic and the Marrow/Brain Washing Classic. In this way, Shaolin Gong Fu is a vehicle for the pursuit of enlightenment.
Nei Gong Principles
Nei Gong can be translated as meaning ‘internal work’ or ‘internal power’. It is a set series of stages that a practitioner moves through in order to awaken first their energy system and then the spiritual aspects of their innate nature. In brief, it can be though of as a combination of the Yogic principles of Shaolin combined with the Daoist principles of internal alchemy.
From Nei Gong comes the more widely spread practice of Qi Gong and the less well known practices of Jing Gong and Shen Gong. Qi Gong can be used to develop and maintain our health and well-being whilst Nei Gong can additionally be used to move us towards a state of spiritual awakening. The eventual aim of Daoist Nei Gong is spiritual immortality through union with the Dao.
I have written extensively on Nei Gong, for more information please refer to my forthcoming (at the time of writing) book from amazon: Daoist Nei Gong, Philosophical Art of Change.
Chan Buddhist Philosophy
Chan philosophy is extensive and complex and a follower of the Buddhist arts should ensure that they have a good grasp of Buddhist theory. The basics of Buddhism centre on the fact that life inevitably involves a large amount of suffering (or more accurately – disturbances). If we attach to this suffering then we accrue a great deal of Karma which prevents us from attaining the state of a Buddha, a level of achievement available to all of us.
A follower of Chan Buddhism places a great deal of importance on how they conduct themselves. They must always be ‘mentally involved’ in everything they do, they should seek to cause no living creature any unnecessary pain or suffering and they must aim to rid themselves of their Karma. Only then can they be released from the cycle of rebirth and become enlightened. In order to achieve all of the above we must have complete control of our thoughts and actions. We must also have a very strong will and high concentration. We cannot rid ourselves of suffering unless we are able to rise above the most basic afflictions of fear and pain. Martial arts enable us to develop the qualities we need for the pursuit of enlightenment according to the Chan tradition.
The Daoists reached very similar conclusions to the Buddhists. They agree on the principles of rebirth, Karma and suffering; what they differ on is their approach to the subject. Daoists place great importance on understanding the nature of existence and creation. If we can understand the process of creation then we can reverse the process and return to the source of existence, in this way we can attain spiritual immortality. There have been many cases of Daoists and the Buddhists disagreeing on various elements of their philosophy.
Buddhist Meditation Principles
Chan Buddhist meditation focuses primarily on the consciousness. If we can achieve stillness within our minds then we are able to conquer our Ego and free our Buddha nature. As you would expect, it is very similar to Indian Buddhist meditation methods. It is quite, however, quite different from Tibetan Buddhism which includes various elements of the Tibetan people’s native spiritual tradition.
Nei Dan Gong Principles
Nei Dan Gong or ‘internal alchemy’ is the Daoist system of meditation. Although it shares certain principles with Buddhist meditation it has one major difference: it works progressively though the three main bodies of man, the physical body, the energetic body and the spirit body. Internal alchemy leads a practitioner to enlightenment and subsequently immortality through the conversion and purification of three main substances: Jing, Qi and Shen. The final stages of Daoist meditation are almost identical to Buddhist systems but alchemy has a more systematic approach to the subject. Although it has several strengths over Chan Buddhist meditation it falls short due to the nature of its transmission. Daoist meditation was always written in metaphoric language which has been frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. Taiji Quan and the other Daoist Gong Fu styles are an ideal way to begin to understand Nei Dan Gong since combining the movements with mental intent and the Nei Gong process will help you to experience the changes of alchemy taking place within you. We will cover this in detail later in the book.
Ethical Teachings According to Chan Philosophy
In order for followers of Buddhism to understand the principles of non-Karmic action, the four noble truths were created which are in brief:
• Every living thing suffers
• Suffering is caused by attachment to desires
• End our desires and we end our suffering
• To end desires we must follow the eightfold path
The eightfold path is a set of eight rules of ethical conduct which can assist us in destroying our false sense of self known as the Ego. The eightfold path states that we must demonstrate:
1. Right views
2. Right resolve
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right attention
8. Right meditation
A practitioner of the Buddhist Gong Fu styles should spend a great deal of time studying the teachings of the four noble truths and the eightfold path.
These principles later formed the basis of Wu De or ‘martial morality’. Every traditional martial arts teacher should demonstrate a high level of morality within their daily lives and also try to instil this in their students. If the teacher does not demonstrate Wu De then they are a poor teacher indeed. It is also irresponsible of them to teach potentially lethal martial techniques without teaching the ethical lessons of Chan Buddhism.
Character Developing Methods According to the Dao
The Daoist approach to Wu De is a little different. There is a far greater emphasis placed upon the study of the various external manifestations of our inner self. Contained within each of us is what the Daoists call our congenital nature. This is our true self and what the Buddhists call our Buddha nature. Our congenital self demonstrates all of the virtuous characteristics we seek to attain through our training. Non-virtuous behaviour is simply a reflection of distortions within our consciousness which serve to strengthen our Ego and create our acquired nature. The Daoists aim through diligent self cultivation to remove these distortions from our nature and so enable the congenital aspects of our inner self to naturally shine through. The advantage of this is that we are not being governed by rules and so acting against what is natural, instead we are being compassionate and virtuous in the most honest way. In doing so we accumulate little, if any, Karmic stains. These stains prevent us from achieving union with the Dao. The disadvantage of this method is that it is easier to deviate from the correct path. Without strong guidance in this method it is easy to fall into self indulgent behaviour and allow the Ego to govern our actions. One symptom of this is a complete lack of compassion for other living beings. It is for this reason that Daoists often have a bad name amongst other philosophical and religious groups. An example of falling into self indulgence is the obsession with sexual techniques which are not traditionally a part of Daoism. Followers of the Dao who deviated from the true path, twisted the writings of the ancients to justify gratification of the basest of human desires. This is just demonstration of the importance of having a good teacher in the Daoist arts.
The External vs. the Internal Methods of Cultivation
I have already stated that I do not like these two terms being applied to the martial arts as they usually refer to the method in which they issue power. Traditionally the internal systems are said to rely on relaxation and Qi development whilst external methods rely on tension and muscular power. We can clearly see that this is inaccurate from the description of the elements which went into the formation of the martial arts. They all utilise relaxation and Qi development or else they would not be true Gong Fu systems. Instead we can understand the terms external and internal with regards to the method of personal cultivation inherent within each style.
The Buddhist systems can be considered external since they use external rules and guidance such as the eightfold path to develop a practitioners Buddha nature. Through following the rules of Wu De in their practice and their daily lives they gradually change the state of their Ego and in turn consciousness. The Daoist systems can be considered internal since they do not emphasise ethical rules. Instead the practitioner seeks to change their nature from the inside out using Nei Dan Gong methods. The virtuous behaviour associated with a martial artist is allowed to naturally manifest itself over time.
Traditional Chinese Medicine in Gong Fu
TCM principles are incorporated into every Eastern martial art but the emphasis placed upon this varies from school to school. In general the Daoist systems focus more on TCM theory although this is not a hard and fast rule. The movements of Gong Fu serve to open and stretch out the various energetic pathways of the body which keeps the practitioner strong and healthy. Depending upon the complexity and depth of the style it may also serve to remove energetic pathogens from the meridian system if you are practicing it correctly. Arguably Taiji Quan places the greatest emphasis upon this side of the martial arts and it is most well known as a form of Chinese health care. We will look at the TCM principles contained within Taiji Quan in detail later in this book. It was often the case in ancient China that the local martial arts teacher was also the local doctor. Perhaps he practiced massage, herbal remedies or acupuncture. The most advanced would also have been Qi Gong therapists although this tended to be the Daoist stylists more than the Buddhists. There are many who adhere to the belief that it is impossible to reach the deeper level of your martial arts training without studying TCM. It is also difficult to achieve the required level of mental focus for any Eastern therapy without extensive practice of Gong Fu, Buddhist or Daoist. From a ‘spiritual development’ point of view: it is imbalanced to study the healing arts or the martial arts on their own. Destruction and healing are intertwined and finding mental stillness requires understanding these two extremes.
The Threefold Path
Any of the various martial arts styles of Asia should take a practitioner through an intensive process of personal development. The training goes far beyond the various combative techniques which a person attempts to perfect throughout the course of the lifetime. It is the aim that every martial artist begins to walk along what the Daoists call the ‘threefold path’. This is so named after the three categories of people which a martial artist should come under: The Warrior, The Healer and The Priest. If a martial artist does not study all three of these areas then they have not trained in a complete system and they will never reach the deepest levels of attainment. These three areas of expertise were specifically selected to work as one harmonious whole which would help to shape a person’s character and forge their inner nature so that they may move towards enlightenment at an advanced level in their practice. This is what separates the martial arts from pure fighting styles such as kick-boxing and the modern system of mixed martial arts (MMA) which by definition is not a martial art. Fighting styles will help you to become a proficient fighter but will not help you to progress artistically or spiritually.
This brings us to another sticky subject. That of time spent training. In modern times there are a great deal of martial arts teachers who open their own schools after only a few years training. Maybe this is okay if they work as assistant instructors under the close supervision of a more experienced instructor but it would be wrong of them to go off completely independently. They still have much training to do themselves as they are only beginners, no matter how efficient they may be at fighting. In modern times it is normal for teachers to be produced after just three or four years, they each go off to set up their own school and then they all end up arguing amongst each other. This does nothing for either the practitioners or the name of the style itself. In martial terms these people are still very immature and haven’t even begun to walk along the threefold path. The time that it takes to become an expert in any system of Gong Fu cannot be shortened since it takes that long to work on developing a practitioner’s inner nature. It is easy to see why this has happened to the martial arts. Western culture does not encourage us to spend a great deal of time studying anything. We want everything quickly and consequently we place little value on anything. Gong Fu cannot be treated in this way since it is a great spiritual tradition which many past masters shed blood, sweat and tears formulating and preserving during times of hardship and persecution. What right do we have in modern times to relegate them to short term pursuits with little or no emphasis on spiritual development?
Reasons for Following the Martial Arts Path
The vast majority of people who begin martial training do so for self defence reasons. Lots of people have felt threatened and helpless at some point in their lifetime and nobody enjoys this feeling. For many people there is an inbuilt need to understand combat, particularly within men although many women also have this need as well. As the old martial saying goes: ‘Every man feels bad of himself for not having been a soldier.’ The martial arts can help a person to overcome this fear as they begin to improve martially. The true enemy though is the fear contained within the core of your own Ego. It is important for a practitioner of the martial arts to find a correct level of balance when studying combat. They must not obsess with fighting but at the same time they must not ignore this aspect of their training. An obsession with violence will develop a strong Ego, a sense of paranoia and eventually irrational aggression. A teacher who has gone down this route in their training is easy to spot as they will not spend enough time showing their students how to move correctly, they will ignore the basics of body alignment and structure and will instead go on endlessly about ‘real life confrontations’ and ‘street situations’. At the same time there are many teachers who completely ignore this side of the training, a common problem in modern Taiji Quan. These people will not even know the martial reasoning behind each of the techniques they teach and will not be able to apply their art form when faced with a partner. These people have learned a dead art and are perpetuating a watered down version of their style. The key to everything in martial arts is balance. There should be a balanced approach to training in combative techniques. The art should be alive and practical but at the same time it must be creative and artistic. There must be the correct level of attention to fundamental principles like posture, movement and breathing. After all, a huge percentage of us will never even have to face a physical threat in our adult life. It pays to be able to deal with it just in case it does happen but at the same time we should not allow ourselves to become paranoid and see danger on every street corner.
Taiji Quan as a martial system is a complete art and as such includes strikes, defences, locks and throws. A true practitioner must investigate their art thoroughly and try to find all of the hidden techniques within the forms. They must begin to look at them as things of artistic beauty which must be refined and perfected over time; introspection is the key to developing these techniques. It is never enough to simply say ‘okay, I got that technique, I can move on.’ This is not the true way. It is the way of deluded fools. Every technique must continue to be refined for the duration of your life time. My father has consistently trained hard for over 30 years at the time of writing. He is a man in his fifties and every day I see him train the most basic techniques from his martial arts. The same techniques he has tried to perfect for those three decades. He does not obsess with their martial meaning nor does he ignore them. He appreciates their artistic qualities and the effect that the continued practice has on his inner self.