Martial Virtue

Forbidden Kill Strikes

How to Teach Yourself Martial Arts

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Martial Ability (Wu-gong) refers to training and experience in external or internal martial arts; it implies a balanced approach to incorporating physical and energetic aspects to one's training. This is different from Martial Virtue (Wu-de), which refers to a code of conduct that restrains and controls the practitioner when applying the martial abilities gained through training.

Nowadays, Wu-de is an often neglected aspect of modern classes in the internal arts although teachers often talk of using their qigong practice for a variety of spiritual and/or meditative purposes. However, little attention or class time is usually devoted to the day-to-day implications of these lofty aims—or, to put it bluntly, "talk is cheap." This is partly practical from the perspective of the average teacher, as the kind of person who gravitates to the active life of martial training is often the least likely to want to stand or sit quietly.

It is also important to remember that the martial artist was the subject of hero worship in his homeland. There are many examples in Chinese popular fiction going back decades— even centuries—of Robin Hood type warrior ascetics whose kung-fu skills were as highly developed as their social conscience. It is another question how often the real experts lived up to this lofty ideal, in the same way that the average knight in the Middle Ages was as far as possible from the idealised nature of the Age of Chivalry.

Despite this, a substantial proportion of beginners have some expectation that their teacher will be like the venerable chief monk on the old kung-fu television series, and the classes and the training will be exotic and mysterious—and not just hard work with the occasional bruise or injury. Fortunately, this is largely irrelevant to whether or not there is a code of ethics in your own practice, and that of the teacher or style you follow. I feel that it is essential to instil values in your training that are worthy of inspection from the perspective of any good ethical system or religion.

May I suggest that the key concepts of martial ethics are Respect, Loyalty, Honesty, Humility and Integrity.

Respect is not easy to achieve or maintain and, on a core level, you must respect the art you want to learn as well as your teacher as a practitioner, as a teacher, and as a person. If you already feel that you know as much as him or her, it will be very difficult to understand the subtleties that often define the difference between a competent technician and a master practitioner.

We often become more like those we respect than we may be willing to acknowledge. You have to be careful that you don't copy the bad with the good over the months and years. On the other hand, if you cannot respect them as individuals, you can still learn a great deal.

You must also respect your training partners in class so that you approach each session as being a learning experience. It must have aspects of co-operation to be done safely and to the mutual benefit of all concerned. Martially, this is often difficult, as egos often come into play when people train together.

Sadly, many people who approach the martial arts initially do so out of fear, and their egos are tender in terms of "loss of face" or of appearing stupid. Sometimes a teacher must allow such students a little leeway at first or treat them harshly when they act out, to teach the valuable lesson. Respect is a two-way street and must be given as well as received.

You must also remember to respect those around you in your daily life and not abuse any martial skill that you do develop. It is particularly true for those younger men who approached the martial arts because they were fearful or had been victimised by bullies or criminals. It is easy to abuse your new-found health and martial abilities and become a little too much like those who may have picked on you before your training. With martial skill comes responsibility—both on an ethical and legal level.

Loyalty, in traditional view, to a Chinese martial arts teacher was expected to be unconditional, and the teacher literally assumed the role of an adoptive parent with the unques tioned obedience implied in their culture. Such a concept is hard for Westerners to digest and has largely disappeared from modern schools, but still can often be found in schools with an older Chinese teacher.

Loyalty is very much a double-edged sword in the sense that a practitioner is hardly liable to make the most of their training if they constantly hop from teacher to teacher, or if they feel no sense of connection to what is being taught and to the person teaching them.

However, it is equally true that a student must at the same time remain loyal to himself and to his family or society. Some unscrupulous teachers will not hesitate to exploit unquestioning obedience for financial, sexual, or egotistical reasons. It is a fine balancing act to remain loyal both to your own needs and to those of the person teaching you.

Oh, and you have to remember to remain loyal to your family and friends as well and not ignore their complaints: "You are always away at class!" or "Do you have to train now, we have to take the kids out!" or "That workshop clashes with the holiday we talked about taking in the summer." Compromise and negotiation are difficult skills to learn, but are essential aspects of being mature—no matter what your biological age—and, if you think about it, essential aspects of developing self-defence skills. Physical conflict should be a viable last resort and not your first choice in settling disputes.

Honesty is an elusive quality in modern life and seems to have gone out of fashion in many ways. It should not be confused with the media obsession of speaking out on every personal subject and former taboo in the name of being open.

The teacher must be honest with the student, and the student must be honest with his or her teacher and, perhaps the hardest of all, with him or herself! On a simple level this can extend to the most mundane details. For example, when I went to Boulder, Colorado in the mid-90s to be in Erle Montaigue's video on Dim-mak for Paladin Press, the editor we were dealing with mentioned over breakfast one morning that not one of their popular authors of self-defence texts with Chinese names was actually Asian. Strange how many North American kung-fu types insist on being called by an Oriental name or title, despite being born white or black.

On the other hand, good white practitioners will often get bestowed a Chinese name by their Chinese teachers, partly as a mark of distinction and partly because it will be easier for the Chinese to say than the original name. However, this is different from conferring a Chinese name on yourself to sound more authentic.

As a student, you need to identify what you want from your training, reconcile those needs with what you can realistically achieve through your training, and communicate those expectations to your teacher. The average student may be taking classes because they need to fill a void in their social life; they may want to learn something supposedly good for the health that they imagine doesn't take much effort; they may be looking for martial and/or performance skills, and they may be there because the school is convenient to their home or office or affordable. Only you can know what you want from your training, and what you are willing to sacrifice in order to make progress.

It is also important to realise that the teacher may have as much trouble as you do identifying what he or she wants from being an instructor. Some do so for the money to be made from teaching commercially, some from a desire to be in the spotlight, some teach from a genuine need to share whatever skills they may have, and some just like to be in charge. These are all normal motives for teaching. As long as the teacher is honest with the student, and vice versa, and both are getting something from the relationship, neither should have any real reason to complain.

Humility is only problematic if you don't have any. You are not likely to learn anything if you already feel that you know it all. In particular, those students who already have some skills may well concentrate on trying to find the similarities between what they already think they know and with what they are presently studying.

As I have said before, in understanding a new method or style it is often more productive to try and identify how is is different, rather than how it is similar to what you have done before.

It is perhaps even more important for the teacher to remain humble despite his or her technical skills and experience. I remember my elderly mother watching a video of a martial arts show where I and some of my students had demonstrated bagua in the mid-90s. Her comment was, "Why are you going in circles? That looks stupid!" Beauty truly is in the eyes of the beholder. It is hard not to keep some perspective on your skills and the relative value of your training when you are periodically reminded that the sun doesn't shine out of your nether regions. Perhaps, the loss of this kind of innocence is what keeps most instructors from fulfilling their real potentials as human being and as instructors. It is very difficult to become an expert if you already feel that there is little more that you can learn from anyone else!

Integrity is something that has largely gone out of style in modern society, and most people will no longer value the rare examples still to be found. For example, you find a wallet with a great deal of cash and go to the effort of returning it to the owner. Your friends or family will look at you incredulously because you didn't accept a reward for its return, and more than a few will think you are stupid for having returned it at all. Morality has no value in a consumer society whose heroes are large corporations or financial institutions who seem to function on socially dubious or fraudulent practices.

This is not to say that you should try to become some perfect or mythic figure, but just stay true to whatever value system your parents raised you with. And if they didn't, it is never too late to learn. Start with "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This excellent advice occurs in every major religion I have studied, and the wording is often very similar. Human nature is human nature.

Oh, and in the long run, those who choose to teach baguazhang (or any martial art) have a greater burden than those who are content to follow. Ideally, teaching should benefit the students on many levels—each according to his or her capacity and needs—and not just stroke the ego of the teacher or fill his pockets with money.

Although it has nothing to do with martial training (or does it?), I also like the advice the Dalai Lama gave in his speech on the subject of the millennium in the year 2000: "Follow the three R's: Respect for self, respect for others, responsibility for all your actions." Good advice for people in general, and martial artists in particular!

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