Like many North Americans, I first came to the martial arts as a young man because I was not particularly athletic and wanted to learn how to defend myself (the latter seemed important, as I combined the worst attributes for personal safety—a big mouth and slow feet!) Unfortunately for my dreams of being another Bruce Lee, I soon realised that arts like karate and jujitsu involved a great deal of hard exercise and more than a few bruises.
I wanted mastery of something that was reputed to be effortless and more than a little esoteric. Bagua seemed to fit the bill but, when I couldn't find a local teacher of that art in the mid-1970s, I picked Taijiquan by default. It took me almost a decade to learn, the hard way, that taiji, when done well, only looks effortless. When I finally started learning bagua and hsing-i in the early 1990s, I quickly relearned the same lesson—nothing is as easy as it looks to an outsider if done properly.
Similarly, it should be obvious, from a common sense perspective, that the best way to learn is to study with someone with the personal skill and the ability to transmit how he or she achieved that understanding, and who is willing to do so with you. There is really no substitute for this kind of apprenticeship, ideally on a one-to-one basis, but more often in a group setting.
A teacher is not someone with a great uniform, or who can do a seemingly endless variety of forms, or who can push you around by using tricks of leverage or through your own gullibility. It is true that training safely can sometimes make it difficult to weed out the experts from the poseurs. However, even without worrying about the many frauds trying to get your money or your loyalty, it is not easy to define competence when you are a beginner, as almost everyone is better than you in most ways. However, time and effort bring increased competence, and with a few years of experience (assuming that you are studying something valid to begin with) it should start to be easier to sort out the outright frauds from those who have some level of competence.
How does one find the real masters in the mob of wannabees and poseurs? It is sadly true that quite often those with the most grandiose claims and visible profiles are the ones with the least depth of knowledge. I doubt that the famous P. T. Barnum was thinking of bagua students when he wrote, "There is a sucker born every minute!"—but he would have been correct in many instances.
However, the longer and the harder you train at a competent style, the more difficult it can be to find better role models, much less exceptional ones. Not many students are willing to travel to workshops given by other experts in other cities, or even just to buy their videos for comparison purposes. This is sometimes due to lack of time and financial resources and sometimes to the kind of blind loyalty that drives students to think that it is disrespectful to their teacher to look elsewhere for inspiration.
It bears repeating that it is essential for an intermediate level student to make the effort to compare what his or her instructor is doing with the skills and styles of that person's peers in the the internal arts world. It is easy to be happy as a big fish in a small pond, and you have to make some effort to compare notes with your peers in the ocean if you are serious about your interest in becoming really competent!
Let me offer some suggestions as to how to define the elusive quality of mastery in your chosen role model(s). These opinions certainly reflect my experience with Erle Montaigue, who has been my main bagua teacher, but are equally true of those few other gems that I have experienced over the years. A master is content to offer his or her own thing without being overly defensive about his or her interpretation of the art and without being too critical of those who do things differently. He or she can actually do what they say they can. This may seem simplistic, but there are many supposed experts who "can talk the talk, but cannot do the walk" unless they are demonstrating on their own students. A master has a strong foundation in traditional internal arts and continues to develop in a way that is a reflection of his or her foundation. He or she is someone with a normal life and interests (family, vocation, hobbies) whose bagua is an aspect of their life—not their whole existence. A master is someone whose forms and training methods can eventually teach you the same skills. In other words, their understanding is replicable and not just a unique expression of their skill, experience, and personal genius.
On the other hand, you often meet teachers hooked up to a respectable lineage who are mediocre in their personal skills or their teaching abilities. Having had a famous master, now long-dead, will not automatically make you anything special. The problem lies in finding a balance between learning material that has some resemblance in detail and agrees in principle with what you see being demonstrated and taught by other good representatives of that art. Of course, this means that the observer has to have enough experience and skill to tell the difference between a fraud, a mediocrity, or a genius. So, being a beginner is not easy in any sense of the word.
Oh, and the height of mastery is that you don't act like a master and expect others to treat you like one. Many instructors are willing to be worshipped by their students; others are slowly seduced into thinking of themselves as special because of the adulation they receive. Some instructors tread the fringes of exploitation by misrepresenting just how advanced their skills are—when they are really skilled only in a hard style and teach one bagua form as a sideline, or by forcing their senior students to teach beginner classes for free, or by having grading systems that call for frequent and expensive tests.
Sadly, a few have no problem with ethics. They dispense with them altogether and take advantage of their students in a number of reprehensible ways. Here are some examples. A local instructor who taught women's taiji and self-defence classes to beginners told them that they could learn to project Qi (internal energy) to disable a rapist from a distance. A local self-proclaimed grand master used to tell his students that he could not train with them because his Qi was so strong that he would rip out their muscles if he touched them.
It was a little easier in the good old days to know if an instructor had skill, at least on some level. The other local martial arts instructors would visit and offer politely, or otherwise, to beat the „„ out of him. It is difficult to fake competence at the martial aspect of bagua when a stranger is doing his best to punch, humiliate, or throttle you.
It is also sadly true that the majority of instructors, whether here or in China, rise to a certain level of competence, or incompetence, and then never change, no matter how many years they continue to practise and teach. It seems to be human nature to believe that you know it all and changing your approach is not easy, especially if you do have some skill and have had good instructors.
In general, the fewer people involved, the less chance there is of serious errors being introduced. Think of it like this—would you rather own the master recording of a symphony done with professional equipment or the copy you made from the bootleg copy somebody else made with amateur recording equipment? Even with the highest skill and best intentions, some changes occur every time a form is learned by a teacher and subsequently passed on to his or her disciples for further transmission.
To make it worse, modern bagua is burdened with endless bad copies of bad copies. A student learns from a reputable instructor for a few months or years and then, without his or her blessing, goes off to teach students who do the same after an equally inadequate apprenticeship. The original form becomes riddled with errors, or changes are made for all the wrong reasons. Similarly, many recent immigrants from the mainland are now teaching the wu-shu versions of bagua that they learned as a requirement for being a martial arts sports coach at one of the Chinese colleges. While such forms may be a decent introduction to the art, learning and practising one form hardly makes you an expert in a system!
A good style should provide the material for a lifetime of research and practice. A mediocre or beginner's form should be discarded when the time is right to do so. It is in your best interest to make a real effort to search for an original "document" that suits your physique and temperament. Leave the mutilated texts where they belong—on the shelf.
My own main bagua instructor, Erle Montaigue is, in case you haven't done much reading or exploration on the net, a controversial figure. Many deride his abilities and internal arts pedigree, although rarely to his face or if they have seen him perform in the flesh. As far as I am concerned, he is the "real thing" in internal martial terms—a middle-aged expert who seems to get better and healthier every time I see him, and whose fighting skills are harshly effective compared to what passes as martial competence in many versions of the modern internal arts.
Erle has personally instructed and corrected me in my performance of all of the basic forms and methods of his bagua at annual workshops that I hosted for him in the early 1990s. He authorised me to teach those forms and methods in 1994, and I have been teaching that art at my Studio ever since. I have also done workshops with several other experts in this art and have studied a large variety of bagua instructional videos, books and magazine articles in an effort to understand the art better.
As those of you who have been studying with me for some time will know, my understanding of what I practise and teach is constantly changing and evolving. This can be confusing and frustrating for everyone involved, but that is also an important aspect of the process of growth. While I tried to follow the example and teaching of my various teachers, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that—for good and bad—what I practise and teach has the stamp of my own personality and experience.
However, I have done my best to stay true to the spirit and discipline of Baguazhang in terms of my own practice and teaching. It is important to remember that this was an accepted tradition in China—you brought the valid parts of your previous training to your bagua. For example, the Gao Style has been strongly affected by the competence of its early exponents in hsing-i.
If you don't have a competent instructor in your area, then give one of the basic tapes available through Erle, or other teachers, a try. It is possible to learn something at a basic level from a good tape, especially if you develop or have the motivation to eventually get some corrections from him or from another competent bagua instructor.
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