He began training me in Yi Guan Dao philosophy. I attended lectures up on the fourth floor. I would take notes from the lectures and ask questions. After a short period of time he told me that they were going to do an induction of new members. I asked him if I
Huang Jin Sheng demonstrating a Ba Gua application on a student, June 1992
Kent Howard with his teacher Huang Jin Sheng in front of the Yi Guan Dao alter in Huang's home/Yi Guan Dao temple, 1994
could take part, and he said yes. We had a secret kind of ceremony that lasted for about three hours. I had to be prepared for it and was told what to say, when to bow, when to kneel, when to sit and all of that sort of thing. Part of the ceremony was someone whispering in my ear certain secret incantations. It was quite an affair. It was almost grueling. Luckily it was during a cool part of the year.
After that, the next day in fact, a couple of things happened. One, I was invited to partake in the early morning practice with the others who were long time students. Two, within the first five minutes of the practice session, which started at 6:00 a.m., he began teaching me things that he had never taught me before.
In requiring you to become an Yi Guan Daoist before opening up some of the deeper parts of the martial arts, was he testing your character or loyalty or something of that nature?
There are certain parts of Ba Gua that are quite vicious in nature and some of the other aspects that deal with internal energy that he will not teach to a non-Daoist. Wang Shu Jin was the same way. He may have had hundreds of students in Japan and Taiwan, but, I am told, he taught very few of them the real stuff unless they were Yi Guan Daoists. If you meet someone who claims to have been a student of Wang Shu Jin and they don't know much about Wang's involvement and position in Yi Guan Dao, then they were probably not a very close student.
Because Wang Shu Jin was one of the elders of the Yi Guan Daoist movement in Taiwan, I hear he was even more sever than my teacher in regard to not teaching the deeper parts of the art to non-Yi Guan Daoists. I'm sure that there are those students who studied with Wang and did not become Yi Guan Daoists who got a lot of the physical movements and routines. But from what I hear, he probably did not talk in depth about the internal aspects of those movements.
Could you say something in general about what Yi Guan Dao is and what it is about?
Yi Guan Dao is really pantheism. It is mainly a Buddhist and Daoist faith. It also embraces the general principles of Confucianism, like being upright, loyal, and honest, being and a good person, etc. But mostly it is of Buddhist and Daoist origin relying heavily on Daoist cosmology and Daoist philosophy, especially coming out of the Dao De Jing. But they do not embrace only these philosophies. They also quote, for example, from Jesus. They revere what they call the five religions or philosophies: Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim, and Judaism/Christian. They consider these to be "five facets of the same jewel."
They promote world peace in their belief that the jewel has facets that each shine brightly in different reflections of the light. Unfortunately, because they embrace all religions, they are enormously unpopular with everyone.
I know the Yi Guan Daoists were persecuted in China. Wasn't the religion also outlawed in Taiwan for a while?
Yes, it was. It wasn't actively persecuted, but they were under surveillance a lot. The reason being that you had a lot of very powerful people belonging to what was almost like a secret society, and it was scary to outsiders. Powerful politicians and military leaders were involved in Yi Guan Dao, and the others were wondering what they were up to. There were also a lot of martial artists who were Yi Guan Daoists and throughout history in China they (the martial artists) had been known as trouble makers.
What kind of things did you do after you became an Yi Guan Daoist? Was there Yi Guan Dao classes or events that you attended?
There were always lectures going on and there were guests coming through. My teacher would call me and say that a certain priest was coming through from the main temple and I should come on up to meet him. I would do that. There were also festival events at the main temple in Tai Nan that I would attend. I would meet people and discuss the philosophy at these events.
There were also regular prayers. I would go to my teacher's house early in the morning at about 5:30 a.m. and we would go up to the fourth floor to pray in in a ritualized way. It kind of reminded me of Tibetan Buddhist bowing and kneeling and repetition of a prayer. It was very ritualized. We would do this before the morning practice and sometimes we would do it afterwards as well. There were special feast days and religious holidays. Of course, anytime we met in the evening for a lecture or whatever, we would all get together and pray first. First the men and then the women, in that fashion.
Yi Guan Daoist revere what they call the five religions or philosophies... They consider these to be "five facets of the same jewel."
When you became an Yi Guan Daoist and began to receive the deeper parts of the teaching, what kind of things were taught?
Well, the teaching was based on the "center." This area that is three vertebrae up from the sacrum and between there and the dan tian. That being your center of gravity and center of energy production. We learned how to use that and how it fits in physically with the rest of the body, how to manipulate it, and how to open it up. I learned a lot of exercises that taught how to "open up the center." There were movement exercises and some breathing exercises. Plus we concentrated on this center as we did the Ba Gua Zhang forms.
Did he go back to the lian huan form as a template for teaching these new concepts?
Yes, we went right back to square one. It opened everything up for me. You have probably seen a picture of Wang Shu Jin doing the "crouching tiger" posture. It looks like a forceful, straight ahead move that you bowl people over with. Huang showed me how to maneuver around someone. How to read their energy, let them come in and do what he calls luo kong, or "fall into emptiness," and then circle around. From there you have twenty things you can do to them. He showed me that as you circle around back, it was the crouching tiger posture that was being employed. The tiger leaps behind.
There were things that I thought I saw in the postures the first time through that were not exactly performed that way. I found that what most people would interpret as a direct hit application was not applied that way at all. At that time I began to understand and work on developing his concept of what I call in English "evade, encircle, and entrap." You read their energy, move in a Ba Gua fashion to evade the hit, let them hit air, and then you encircle them. It could be encircling an arm, or their entire body. Then you entrap them in some way. You can use kou bu ^ ) or bai bu (M.^) to entrap their feet or something of this nature. Your idea is to put them in a position where they can't hit you and you can do anything to them.
All of that sounds interesting in theory, but Huang can really make it work. He can do it. I've even tried to jab at him like a boxer as fast as I could. The jab would come in just shy of his chin and then I would be extended too far. When I pulled my jab back, he would be on me. It was as if I had sucked him right in. He would be on my chest and around my side before I knew it. I was told that Wang Shu Jin could do the same thing even though he was fat.
The skill is in reading the energy coming in and sticking to it having it suck you in with the return. This is one of Wang Shu Jin's six martial art principles. It is called Wu Ji Bi Fan fe fi). it means that when something reaches its apex, it has to return because the energy has been dissipated.
In order to develop this skill and its associated feeling and timing, sense of space and distance and rhythm were you taught a series of two-person drills or practice sets?
We did some. We did not do many. My teacher did not like preset drills. It was more along the lines of the students asking such questions as, "how do I get
Wang Shu Jin standing in the "Crouching Tiger" Posture
Kent Howard demonstrates an application of the "Yellow Dragon turns Over" technique from Wang Shu Jin's Ba Gua Lian Huan Zhang in?," or "how do I effectively absorb this attack without getting hit." He would ask us to punch him and he would demonstrate it two or three times. Then he would pair us up and we would try it. Then we would work for a period of time on that one piece. But we didn't learn all of the drills that Wang Shu Jin taught. Wang had a lot of drills that he had learned or that he had invented himself and presented them in a very formal fashion. My teacher was at the point philosophically where he did not like static drills. He said that you had to develop it intuitively or you would never get it. It was more of a "feeling" than a repetitive "technique." I'll have to say that in that respect it was a little difficult to study with him. Wang Shu Jin, and others who learned with Wang, tended to stick more to the prearranged drills. My teacher wanted us to go beyond that and it was tough to do, especially for beginners. You could learn a lot from him if you were ready to learn in that way. But if you were not ready to learn in this method, which meant having a background of martial arts experience, you really couldn't pick up a lot sometimes.
So after studying the lian huan form for so long, were you able to move onto another form?
Yes, I eventually learned the "swimming body" form. You could see the first form in the swimming body form, yet it was done in a very continuous fashion and the movements were shortened. By that time Huang wanted you to be able to hit with power, or fa jing out of any movement, doing it on a shorter line and on the circle without stopping.
The lian huan was a developmental form which eventually led you to the swimming body form. Learning the swimming body form first would not be a very good idea. The movements are not as crisp, and the power is not as extended as the lian huan form. Therefore if you do not already have power and the knowledge of correct body angles prior to learning the swimming body form, then you really cannot do much with it. The swimming body form is a continuously moving execution and the practitioner should be able to apply power anywhere in that continuum.
In the lian huan zhang, when you execute the movements they are crisp and it is obvious where power is being applied. The same kind of thing in the swimming body form just hits through and circles right around with no stopping and no obvious application of power. If you are not ready to hit through the opponent with that kind of power without it knocking you sideways or disjointing you, then it will not work.
So then the basic structure of your teacher's system consists of the warm-up exercises and the two Ba Gua forms?
There is actually a lot more. There are things that he handed off to me sort of down the road because I had come there with some experience. When I started studying with the big class in the morning, there were things that he was teaching beginners that I had not seen before. I was a little frustrated by the fact that he thought I was good enough when I came to him that I didn't need the basics because I would have loved to have learned them.
So slowly over time I picked up most of the set formulas that Wang taught, the standing postures which Wang began with, the straight line stuff, the single exercises, etc. I picked up all of this stuff when I went to work with the beginners class.
Having had a bit of martial arts experience before you went to Taiwan and then going there and finding various teachers and arts to study and finally finding Huang Jin Sheng and his Ba Gua, could you say something about the process of studying in Taiwan. Did your perceptions of the Chinese and Chinese martial arts change over the ten years you spent there?
I went there pretty green. I had had two years of Chinese language before I went there, and that helped a lot, but my skills were still pretty poor when I arrived. In the martial arts classes it primarily consists of people positioning your arms and legs because, unless your Chinese language skill is adequate, it is difficult to understand martial arts principles. I actually stayed away from internal styles when I first got there until my linguistic legs were under me. I had the experience of going to New Park when I first got there and listening to some of the internal style teachers and they would start explaining things in Chinese which was over my head linguistically. Yet the Shaolin people explained things in a way that was much more concrete and they would execute a more physical movement that you could really understand.
Personally, I don't tell people that I was in Taiwan unless the worm it out of me. To me it doesn't matter where someone got it, as long as they got it.
So I stayed with Southern Shaolin styles for a while. I did something called Golden Eagle for a while, followed by something called Tai Zi. I studied these for about three years. Tai Zi is named after a famous emperor who is said to have invented it. It is one of the indigenous Fu Jian Province, thus Taiwan, styles. There are actually three: Southern White Crane, Golden Eagle, and Tai Zi. I studied all three of these. Tai Zi has elements of the other two. It is a very short, fluid system - a real "go for the balls" style. Really nasty stuff. And this is what I wanted at the time because my previous training in Northern Shaolin in Hawaii and various places had left me with a lot of pretty forms and no fighting ability. So this stuff was very effective in the fighting realm.
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