by Carlos Martin Casados
"That th^e warriors of old came too our peaceful hermitages to foster their martial skill is no paradox. They came to learn how to apply the secret of emptiness, how to ensure that the enemy's sword, though aimed at flesh, encounters void,, and how to destroy the foe by striking with dispassion. Hatred arouses wrath; wrath breeds excitement; excitement leads to carelessness which, to a warrior, brings death. A master swordsman can slay ten enemies besetting him simultaneously, by virtue of such dispassion that he is able to judge to perfection how to dodge their thrusts. A swordsman or an archer's aim is surest when his mind, concentrated on the work in hand, is indifferent to failure or success. Stillness in the heart of movement is the secret of all power."
- John Blofeld, The Secret and Sublime
Over the years I have heard many stories in which the master teacher has been engaged in either mock or real combat with an opponent and the opponent is unable to beat him. In some versions, the adversary is so desperate to prove himself that he calls for weapons to be used on the grounds that only then their skills will be truly tested. In most instances, despite a succession of weapons used, some of which may be the opponent's specialty, the master defeats the aggressor with as much ease as he did in the empty handed combat. While the aggressor expresses his confusion and amazement, the master calmly responds that weapons are merely extensions of the body. He explains that if he could defeat him without weapons, then most assuredly he could defeat him with weapons.
We could extend this analogy quite easily to mean that the weapon is an extension of the mind. In classical internal martial arts theory, the mind play a very important role in all aspects of training, including weapons training. The mind is seen as more than just a recorder telling us which move comes next or a mechanism inputting visual signals. It actually shapes our experience or reality. The moment you begin to wield a weapon your mind automatically forms a concept of it, therefore, the mind is inseparable from your actions.
I would like to direct the reader's attention to another aspect of this weapon-mind connection. Weapons training, in particular, weapons combat, allows for certain awareness and cognitive shifts which can greatly benefit one's practice of Ba Gua Zhang. There may come a point during lengthy practice when the student's mind begins to do a certain amount of wondering. I use this term with some hesitation because the student hasn't necessarily lost focus on what he is doing, instead, he is experiencing an abstract perceptual shift. To describe this more fully, flashes of insight can occur in which certain patterns of movement between himself, the weapons, and his fellow practitioner become instantaneously simplified into some abstract, internalized pattern. Some may refer to this as connecting into higher brain functioning. I call it superconcious integration.
At first glance, all of this may seem overwhelming or even inaccessible, but I assure you that many of us are doing this from time to time without realizing it! Under the right circumstances, this experience may even be induced consciously. This, I believe, is one of the timeless functions of training with classical Chinese weaponry. As I will mention later, weapons also serve as biofeedback devices to the ardent martial artist. If this process is allowed to happen in a natural way and is carried all the way through to its conclusion, great insights into body mechanics, combat strategy and even qi training may be gained.
As I understand the experience, prolonged and continuous practice with weapons eventually exhausts the exterior parts of our consciousness to the point that a certain melding occurs where the weapon quite literally begins to feel like an extension of our arms or hands. Even the slightest pressure of the air as it is cut by the weapon is perceived. I can recall stories of Chinese and Japanese swordsmen actually throwing their opponents while maintaining only sword to sword contact! Naturally, this seems very incredible to us, but is an ideal example of the limitlessness of weapons training. Now, developing the ability to feel, or listen, and the Chinese say, is crucial in internal weapons study. Imagine that you became so adept at this skill that you could extend this listening outside of your body and into another person. How much more effective would your attacks and counters be if you could feel your opponent's weaknesses and strengths? The answer is obvious. This is why sensitivity training should be incorporated into any extensive weapons training.
There are also other aspects which indicate that weapons are an extension of the mind. The first of these occurs after the general mastery of movement happens. A traditional teacher may introduce more combative aspects and during the ensuing battles much about our inner nature is revealed. For our example, we will take sword play and/or stick combat as an analogy. Now, for those of you who have ever "engaged," as they say, in sword play or stick fighting, you will surely note the often painful effect of hesitation or blind aggression in combat. For those of you who have not, you may well imagine that the broken or bleeding reminder is often enough to teach a plethora of lessons. This type of training offers a plus over mere empty handed training because the message is often more direct and shall I dare say, pointed!
Now that I have explored some of the connections between mind, body, and weapon, I would like to go over some of the basics of good Ba Gua weapons
Carlos Casados applies a wrist lock on his partner, Don Quach, using the Ba Gua Pen training. These points are vital in setting a student up to excel in any weapons practice. The first element to be cultivated is naturalness. In the beginning, a weapon may feel awkward and the practitioner might be too conscious of the weapon itself, unable to feel anything except for robotic movements which lack grace and power. I suggest that along with learning the individual movements of the form, simply walk the circle with your weapon. Let go of any goals you might have for a moment and attempt to "blend" with your weapon. Listen to what your mind and body tell you. Does the weapon feel light or heavy? Does it feel cut off from the rest of your body or are you feeling connected? Then, as you make these and other observations, you will slowly be forming that ancient system of biofeedback mentioned earlier. The weapon's qualities will be "tuned" into and digested, so to speak. Do not be afraid to experiment with other ways of moving the weapon either. Although there are certain tried and tested patterns for using various weapons, let experience be your guide. In general, if you draw your movements from the basic principles of Ba Gua Zhang, you can hardly go wrong.
As you become more familiarized with the basic moves and the weapon begins to feel more natural in your hands, you will need to be more specific and disciplined in your training. A regimen of regular practice should include, but not be limited to, basic form, two person drills, parrying and counter attack concepts, striking vulnerable areas of the body, two man dueling, and power body mechanics training.
Forms: During the forms training one is perhaps enlightened as to the various kinds of blocks, parries, strikes, throws and movements that are possible. In addition to this the student is given an aesthetic sense or feeling for continuous flow with the weapon. Persistence in this practice can confer faster and smoother reactions later on and less choppy and/or rigid responses.
Two Person Drills: The two person drills I speak of consist of facing off with a partner and trading off prearranged singular attacks on each other. Students train at this point to remain calm, unflinching and responsive to the attack, while maintaining eye contact and not letting their eyes get distracted by the weapon. Instead, peripheral vision training is incorporated in order that the whole picture may be seen at once. If you do not know any drills, they may be made up, provided that you keep them simple, direct and in-line with basic combat and Ba Gua principles. Fancifulness should be avoided and keeping to the basics emphasized.
Simultaneous to learning the drills, the student who has disciplined himself not to overreact and is more comfortable with the experience of weapons moving in on him will also need to learn the all important concept of "centerline" theory. This is the imaginary line which runs down the center of your body. As you face an opponent, imagine a line drawn down between the eyes, down the throat to the solar plexus region and then to the genitals. This is called the centerline. This line is not just on the front of the skin, but exists in the mid-line from nadir to zenith inside the body and is connected with the person's center of balance as well. It should be noted here that many vital striking areas exist in this center line. The seasoned martial artist has a keen, almost supernormal sense of it in the body, be it his or the opponent's, eyes closed or open. A student who has mastered this also holds his weapon in such a way that the centerline is always protected and parrying an incoming attack is made that much easier.
In contrast, this centerline technology can be applied quite effectively to "intrude" into the opponent's territory by holding the tip or edge of the weapon toward and into the opponent's centerline as you encircle and penetrate their weaknesses. An advanced method of this is to position yourself just inside or at the edge of their centerline while not setting off any of their alarms by being too obvious. The opponent, then thinking they have the upper hand, will extend themselves in full confidence while simultaneously impaling themselves on your weapon. At least that's how it works in theory. Experience tells me that one must always come up with new strategies because one rarely buys the same swamp land twice. You can see, however, that he who controls or is in harmony with his center has a natural advantage. Dueling: At the point when one has graduated to dueling, the student will have been schooled in various counter attacks and disarming methods. He has also been shown and has memorized various striking areas of the body and is truly ready to encounter various levels of graded combat, from light to intense levels. Any advanced study of weapons should, of course, be guided by a competent teacher and except for very advanced practitioners, supervision is definitely necessary during combat practice. This must be insisted upon in order to avoid may be detrimental or even fatal to the students' development in the martial arts. The ego must be controlled to the extent that aggression is suppressed and only calm, focused power remains. Fear must also be controlled through letting go and directing attention to the practice itself. Student must be called when over aggressive behavior shows itself to the detriment of another student. In other words, they need to know their limits and a teacher may be required to show them how experience, superior focus and calmness is applied against flailing, blind, brute force. The overwhelming pain may again surface here as a valuable feedback method. This type of action is of course the last resort and must be dispensed with using the utmost integrity, honesty, and lack of egotism by the teacher. Hopefully the instructor has been sensitive enough to have anticipated the student's ego problem long before any serious mishap occurs. The instructor should deal with it through counseling, separation, expulsion, or other means. Power and Body Mechanics: Gradually, as combat is persisted in, the answers to many questions regarding power development and body mechanics will be clarified. Through the various drills and foundational exercises that are practiced, many hints regarding correct body alignment and transmission of force along the weapon may be gleaned as well.
In conclusion, a practitioner of Ba Gua weapons would do well to consider the inseparable link between mind and the weapon chosen to work with.
Carlos Casados is a Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley based Ba Gua Zhang student and instructor. He is a sixth generation inner door student of the "coiling body, continuous palm" school (Cheng Ting Hua style).
serious injury, death, or ego problems which
Carlos Casados applies an arm lock on his partner, Don Quach, using the Ba Gua Pen
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