Beating a Path

The superintendant was cross with me.

The lawn was generally quite lovely, but I saw him there often — standing over a strip of bare ground along the side wall, shaking his head. I would wave and smile, and appear as pleasant, as oblivious as possible. He was a nice man. We must all of us carry some burden for the sake of higher culture.... 

I practised Xingyiquan there. The Five Elements, five fists, up and down, a straight line every day.

 Sun Lu Tang, whose style of Xingyiquan I studied.

Sun Lu Tang, whose style of Xingyiquan I studied.

Xingyiquan means, translated loosely, “Mind and Form Boxing”. It is not the style in which I have the most experience, but it has a special place in my heart. It is a short- to mid-range system of combat. There’s nothing flashy about it. Derived from the use of the spear, it favours the center line, defends and attacks all at once, and delivers staggering power. Its structure is solid, and its aims are pragmatic: yi beng kan xue — “one hit, see blood". Xingyiquan is steeped in lore, tradition and lineage, but remains impressively down to earth. It is scientific, and vicious.

It may come as a surprise, then, that Xingyi is one of the three “internal” Chinese martial arts, along with Taijiquan and Baguazhang. While these styles may seem at face value so dissimilar, an internal martial art shouldn’t be confused for gentle. It relies on body mechanics, the cumulative effect of many small adjustments, to achieve great results. It is heavy in theory and hard to master. “External” styles use large movements — and expenditure of energy — for victory.

Xingyiquan is the perfect answer to the Big Question, which must occur to anyone learning about martial arts: it seems so devoted to violence… isn’t this all just barbaric tradition to train attack dogs?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The martial arts are imbued with philosophies of service, and civility. In Chinese martial arts, there are the principles of Wu De: “Martial Virtue”, guidelines for fighting and civil conduct. The word, Samurai is a derivation of “saburau” — it means “to serve” or “be in attendance” to the upper class.

While we may confuse the cultivation of power for some service to the ego, the martial arts are meant for knowledge, and as a function of community. While many chase wealth and glory, the martial artist can be found outside, beating a path — figuratively and literally — for self-perfection.

A demonstration of the Eight Posture Routine by Yang Hai, from whom I learned Taiji in Montreal.

Yang Hai has trained in Xingyi since childhood.

"You should do the most hard work with calmness of mind, instead of showing off or boasting of your skills. The virtue of martial art should always be the first in your mind, keeping yourself respectful, modest, and with no quarrels with others. Self-control is the basic training for the boxing exercises."

— Sun Lu Tang


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Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

 The Journal of Asian Martial ArtsMartial Musingswww.koryu.com

Eat the Bitter

In 2004, at great risk to my business and relationship, I travelled away from Montreal to study with Chen Zhonghua, the 19th Generation International Standard Bearer of Hong Junsheng’s version of Chen family Taijiquan. I’d be gone for 4 months.

Master Chen began by saying, “I realize that here in the West, a great deal of weight is placed on being nice to each other. I want you to all know, I love you very much. Now, we can get on with Taiji.”

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As training progressed, I found he'd single me out, make me an example. Corrections became vague. I tried asking different questions, but he'd repeat a single answer. Criticism was derogatory at times, or humiliating — especially pertaining to habits derived from learning other forms of Taiji. He wouldn’t push hands with me.

A lifetime in the martial arts, I had never been treated this way.

It was a tough time. I practised from 9:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon, sometimes to return for the evening class. My quadriceps would lock so tight, I had to hammer them with my fist. I maintained two homes and an Internet business. I'd ply my trade from 6:00 AM, and until 10:00 PM. Income was throttled, expenses were doubled; my clients were understanding, but impatient; my girl was supportive... but also unhappy.

And to top it off, I’d hit a wall with my Taiji.

I felt uncertain. It hadn’t been an easy life, and I’d finally got ahead. Had I squandered it? That was one of the few times I have wondered about my limits.

Near the end of my stay, Master Chen paraphrased a proverb for us: “A block of purest jade is worthless, until it’s been cut by the chisel.” I remember it clearly. He looked at me and said, “I’m hard on you because you have potential.” Soon after, it all let go — just like that. I made a profound breakthrough in my understanding of combat.

“Eat the bitter,” the saying goes, “to taste the sweet.” I have been told that, by traditional standards, I was lucky — shown the favour of criticism, where many students get polite indifference.

In life there are matters more worthy than your pride, and your pleasures. You may have to choose. You should have to choose, or you’ll never understand your goals, whether they’re worth pursuing. Good luck can be confused for merit. And unless you find your tipping point, true balance can elude you.


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Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

 The Journal of Asian Martial ArtsMartial Musingswww.koryu.com

The Flowers of Time and Place

I once presented myself at a kwoon, a kung fu training hall. The instructor and I made polite introductions, traded respects. At the proper interval, I voiced my interest in learning Yang Taijiquan. Might I inquire as to the lineage of his style?

His smile faded. No. No, very impolite.

Confused, I tried again. I must have misspoken, very sorry. I was simply wondering, who was his teacher?

“No! No! Get out!”

I think it very nearly came to blows.

 Retouched photograph of Takeda Sokaku, c.1888.

Retouched photograph of Takeda Sokaku, c.1888.

This is the question of an art’s integrity, the effectiveness of techniques in which students invest. If a teacher struggles for an account of his line, or is reluctant to share it, it might be wise to walk.

During my 30 years as a martial artist, I have never wanted a medal. I have never scored a point. It’s been my lifelong purpose to find the most authentic transmission of technique from times when they were actually applied.

A decade ago, I was overjoyed to discover a study group of Daito Ryu Aiki Ju Jutsu. This was my Holy Grail; I could not have hoped for more. Daito Ryu is a koryu, a classical Japanese school, with a direct and documented transmission of about a thousand years. It was secret, taught only to high-ranking samurai. About a century ago Takeda Sokaku, its soke (headmaster), opened the school to the public. The curriculum includes bare-handed techniques and traditional weaponry.  

One day I asked, why are most of these techniques instigated with a downward chop? I was told it represented the sword. Why are my opponents so often attacking with blades? “Well, if they haven’t got a sword, they’re probably dead.”

For a while to come, I really turned this over. I had no question as to authenticity — Okabayashi Sensei had learned from Takeda’s son and student. He would visit us from Japan to supervise, and share generously with our group leaders. These were scary, bone-breaking techniques. Neck-breaking. I was happy. But I had this dawning realization that not everyone has a sword anymore; there's little potential for getting assailed by enemies as I kneel on someone's floor. 

Martial arts — like religions, politics, economics, family values or any other social construct — are the flowers of time and place. They may have embodied some pinnacle of civilization, and we may take these things to heart… but we shouldn’t be blind to the distinctions of present and past. 

50th annual Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu demonstration held at the Nihon Budokan October 4th 1992. Okabayashi Sensei can be seen demonstrating for the Takumakai school, about 38 minutes in.


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Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

 The Journal of Asian Martial ArtsMartial Musingswww.koryu.com

 

Walking the Circle

The birds were panting. I closed the door on my Acura’s conditioned air, climbed up Drummond Street. The humidity and heat had their immediate effect. Sparrows and crows walked on grass, beaks agape. Two blocks later, up the mountain, I was sweating hard. This was the auspicious beginning to my tutelage under Ong Ming Thong.

The first lessons were of “walking on the mud”.

“It’s not like normal walking,” he told me, “lifting the feet, up and down. In Ba Gua, slide the foot forward — always touching, never leaving.” The power of upper body technique derives its energy from the push of the stride. The feet are always ready to switch direction.

 File:Bagua-name-earlier.svg ©   Benoît Stella   / Wikimedia Commons /  CC-BY-SA-3.0  /  GFDL

File:Bagua-name-earlier.svg © Benoît Stella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Ba Gua Zhang, the “Eight Trigram Palm” is a difficult martial art. Its strategy is unconventional, tough to apply — but its masters have been legendary. The foundation of the art is to “walk the circle” around the opponent, an ongoing evasiveness punctuated with quick entries, and exits. It’s been called the guerrilla warfare of boxing; its specialty is multiple opponents.

It is also a profound system, heavy with philosophy, and closely associated to nature. It embodies the unending change of such interest to Taoists. Its eight directions are the trigrams of the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes — a very old manual for divination. The scene of young and old walking circles around trees is a common one in Chinese parks.

In midsummer heat, he taught me to walk; in autumn chill; in the snow outside McGill University, where he worked. Occasionally, some young guy would stop to share, to make sure we knew he had trained in Wing Chun, Hung Gar, some style or other popular to Montreal. No-one ever asked for a lesson. Maybe it was the weather.

Ong Ming Thong has a doctorate in Cell and Molecular Biology. He speaks five languages. He teaches four martial arts. He could have commanded a price, and I’d have paid it. Once I was able to buy him a meal — and I gifted him with a crafted tea pot, before his return to Malaysia. He never accepted a dime.

Possibly the most civilized man I’ve known, he exemplified humility. He didn’t shy from the elements. Merit, he showed me, is not bestowed by institution. It has no uniform. Greatness is a rare thing, a personal thing and, if we’re honest about it, it grows — like we do — in the mud.

A demonstration of the Baguazhang Deer Hook Swords


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Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

 The Journal of Asian Martial ArtsMartial Musingswww.koryu.com

 

Art of the Draw


In my own corner of the room I knelt on the floor, and adjusted my sword. I looked to some distant horizon, despite the walls. I sought to breathe long and even, despite my exertions. From a place of quiet and calm, a swordsman builds great intention. He pursues the total potential of small, coordinated acts.

I practised nukitsuke. It’s a fundamental technique of Iaido, one of Japanese sword arts. One rises from a kneeling position, and grips the weapon. There’s a lunge, the draw, and a simultaneous cut. Formal standards are very strict.

Hanitijo Sensei shook his head. He teased me that I was big and strong; the ladies would like it anyway. But, bad to use my muscles to cut. And I found this an odd thing to say; it was, after all, my arm holding the sword.

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How then should I cut?

“You should cut with your mind.” And he walked away.

I would eventually come to understand that bit of nonsense, stated so matter-of-factly. It was worth a couple years’ rumination — but it paid off, and I’m grateful.  

People imagine swordplay as a great exchange of blows, but Iaido is concerned strictly with the drawing of it, the cutting with it, and the sheathing of it. Sloppy technique can mean losing a hand or breaking your weapon. There are no petty details about three-foot surgical knives.

But despite its frightening size, duels were mostly won with the sword’s last few inches. It was a question of timing, targeting and reach.

In the West, we equate muscle with speed and power. It seems unintuitive to slow down and relax for a fight. The truth is, tight muscles respond poorly, move slowly, and confine the limbs. The joints must loosen, and extend. The cutting edge must find the furthest possible arc, to catch the retreating wrist or neck. Every small aspect of the swing, feet to hips to shoulders, must work in service of those last three inches. Eventually, that’s where the swordsman’s focus grows.

The sword does not obey brawn; it follows the mind.

Sensei's advice has had a more profound meaning, over time. For years, I have observed people working very hard to feel busy, rather than accomplish much. If we’d relax, reach out, embrace the fullness of the act, we’d have more time for the joys of life — a great victory.


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Glen Peters is a one-time web developer, martial arts coach, student of world religions and of classical guitar. He attends Algonquin College, and wants to write.

 The Journal of Asian Martial ArtsMartial Musingswww.koryu.com