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How can we find stillness? Wang Xiangzhai (founder of Yiquan) himself said that we cannot be truly still, that we are always moving. True stillness can only be found in movement and true movement can only be born of true stillness. We move to find stillness so that true movement can be manifest.
Moving to find stillness is like making a rubbing of something carved into a rock or wood, you cover the paper with graphite from a pencil so that you can trace what is not there. You use a fullness to reveal an emptiness, and we do the same in Yiquan (or any other zhan zhuang practice…or meditation for that matter). All internal arts purport to do this, the difference is simply in refinement. Wang is commonly quoted saying that a small movement is better than a big one, and no movement is better than a small movement. This is maybe the only significant difference between Yiquan and other arts like Taijiquan and Baguazhang; that the former simply uses smaller more refined movements to discover a more reified kind of stillness than do the latter.
When we use grosser movements such as we do in Taijiquan, we are defining a grosser center. With these movements, our internal scene is much more complex and dynamic. This has its benefits, no-doubt, but it yields a grainier image of our true equilibrium and stillness than zhan zhuang does. When we use smaller movements to discern our still-center, we are using a higher resolution. The average person just walking around has some sense of equilibrium gained from everyday movements and activities. This is like using a rubbing as mentioned above. A trained martial artist has a more refined sense of equilibrium from his or her training. This is like using a microscope, it is more detailed because it is more precise. It is a smaller view. One who practices zhan zhuang has an even higher resolution sense of equilibrium gained from the tiny movements made during his or her ‘stillness’ training. This is like an electron microscope! It is a very precise and focused search for equilibrium. Equilibrium found during zhan zhuang is super-concentrated or truer than what we get from grosser movements. Don’t get me wrong, all styles have something to offer. But zhan zhuang is the mother-practice of them all, because it yields the most fundamental sort of power and equilibrium.
Even Yiquan, with its focus on zhan zhuang, moves around with grosser movements much like the other arts. The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that Yiquan is flowing freely from that true stillness found in zhan zhuang. All the jumping around and punching in all directions that you see Yiquan practitioners doing doesn’t look much different than other arts, but its root is absolutely different. The Yiquan doesn’t move because someone told him to, he moves because that is what has to happen right then in that moment, and for no other reason. Yiquan is an unbridled expression of what we are deep down. No one can really claim to have found the deepest part of who they are, because it just keeps going! The Yiquan practitioner simply listens as deeply as he or she can and acts with fidelity on what he or she finds there. This philosophy is, of course, rooted in Chan and Daoist traditions.
Zhan zhuang is a way of looking as deeply as you can into what you really are. We find not only stillness and peace, but incredible power. With that power, of course, comes incredible responsibility. It is not always easy to act with integrity on what we find in our depths, but we must. Otherwise, we are something unreal; an imagination, a forgery of who we really are.
Many people would be surprised to hear that they are a gongfu master, but they are. In fact, no one on the planet can be better at being them than them. I have studied many styles of martial arts from many different teachers, no doubt benefiting in one way or another from all of my training. But, what I have learned from Ha Sifu stands out. In most martial arts class settings, the point of training seems to be to learn a form. The idea is that if you learn the form you will eventually gain the skills that the guy who created the form intended to pass on to you. Over time, the well-known master fades away and all that is left are his students, diligently trying to recreate their master’s skills. For almost every traditional martial art there is a set pattern of forms that constitute the bulk of the school’s training. From generation to generation the form is changed and spreads among the various students and family members. The forms and techniques eventually cease being a means to an end and become an end unto themselves. This is where Ha Sifu differs from others with whom I’ve studied.
Fong Ha teaches that, “At the end of technique is skill…at the end of skill is spirituality.” So, for Ha Sifu, it really doesn’t matter what tools (i.e. forms or styles) you use so long as you are cultivating your own skills. One of my favorite Zen quotes is from Basho: “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old, seek what they sought.” There has been much work done to make uniform martial arts sets so that we can have competitions, etc. I don’t see anything wrong with this ‘sport’ approach as long as we call it what it is…a sport. Cultivating, manifesting, and utilizing your own gongfu requires an entirely different approach than does the sport aspect.
The first step is to realize that no teacher of any kind can get you where you need to go. We can only benefit from teachers as far as they manifest those skills or attributes we seek. Bottom line, if you are going to learn from someone, they need to have in themselves what you are looking for. Only you can master you. We may call someone our master or Sifu, but that is only a sign of respect. A true master will be the first to tell you that. What is it that you seek from your teacher? Do you want simply to learn a form? That’s ok. I still buy DVD’s and catch well-known teachers’ seminars when I can. It is always good to play around with the answers others have come up with, so long as we don’t forget to ask the questions. I’ve heard it said that advancement comes from answering questions, but discovery comes from questioning answers. It is discovery that we are after. Yang Lu Chan is long gone. Yang Cheng Fu never knew me, never mind trained me. Simply learning an old master’s set of forms will not get you anything but good at doing their form. Yang Lu Chan would likely murder most of the people doing Yang Style Tai Chi. What is it to ‘do Yang Style Tai Chi?’ Give me 100 Yang Style Masters, and I’ll show you 100 different forms. This is because, to master a style, it has to become your own. What drew me to Fong Ha was the directness with which he pursues his own gongfu and the consistency with which he asks you to pursue yours. Even after the four years I have been practicing his Integral Chuan, I still find myself trying to pin him down and crystallize the teachings. He can’t really be pinned down! He is not a Tai Chi Master, but he absolutely is. He is not an Yiquan Master, but he absolutely is. Fong is just as likely to use ballet or Xingyiquan to convey his skill as he is to use Taijiquan or Yiquan. Whatever we do – whatever style we practice – if we use it to cultivate, manifest, and utilize our own innate wisdom, power, and equilibrium, we can get ourselves to where great masters like Fong Ha are pointing.
We are all masters of our own way. We are the only ones who can fulfill our own destiny. Our practice should reflect that always.
Yiquan, especially that of Fong Ha, is more than a martial art. The founder of Yiquan, Master Wang Xiang Zhai said: “what cannot lead to comfort, happiness, and gaining strength does not deserve to be called martial art.” This about sums it up. Most martial arts focus on learning techniques and ways of dealing with particular situations. There is nothing wrong with this other than the time you spend doing all of that would be much better spent cultivating your own innate power and ability. Yiquan is the pursuit of not only great martial prowess, but also a good life. Don’t get me wrong. I know as well as anyone that most arts address this idea. The difference between Yiquan and other arts is that this is the main focus, rather than a side note.
Zhan zhuang (standing) is the main practice of Yiquan. It makes up about 80% of our training. The main benefit of standing practice is much like that of meditation – you get here and now. The way to incredible power is not hidden, nor is it anything mysterious or far away. We aren’t looking for the supernatural. We are trying to leave the subnatural behind. We do this when we cultivate stillness and equilibrium. Only the real remains when we are still. When we are standing still we are soaking ourselves back in. All the energy – mental and physical – that we devote to the memories of the past and the fantasies of the future comes flooding back to us in stillness. This can feel like something magical at first but soon you realize that it is just you. You remember your power and your self. This is the source of Yiquan’s power. It helps us be better people. Not better by some arbitrary standard – better by our own standards. No one can be you better than you so why let someone tell you how to be or how to move or how to think. Yiquan is a way of individual freedom. There is no room for fixed movements.
Most of the problems people have as individuals and as societies can be traced back to the inability of people to know themselves. People come up with laws and rules out of fear. We are afraid that we won’t be able to handle what comes up so we try to make rules to anticipate our reality. Laws and rules can serve the purpose of clarifying things as stop signs do for traffic. They can also come to be tools of oppression and interference like “hate laws.” The Dao De Jing tells us that foreknowledge is tinsel decorating the Dao and is the first sign of ignorance. In Yiquan we don’t rely on our ability to anticipate future realities. Rather, we cultivate our ability to sense and engage the world right here and now. To do this, we strip away rather than add. We strip away all the useless crap we’ve told ourselves over the years to reveal what is. Again this is a very Daoist principle. The Dao De Jing says the Dao is a process of stripping away day by day while learning is a process of accumulation day by day.
This is a proverbial saying that Fong Ha brings up at his workshops (in Austin anyway). It is simple and to the point. I’m not entirely sure where the quote is from. It may be from Wang Xiang Zhai, I don’t know. I like it because it captures the essence of years of training and wisdom in just a few lines, as do all great and enduring proverbs. The idea in Yiquan is that in stillness we can achieve the greatest cultivation, Da Cheng another name for Yiquan is Dachengquan, which translates to the way (quan) of great achievement, or perfection (dacheng).
There is a lot of confusion regarding the concept of Qi in Yiquan. Wang made many comments critical of the mystification of the martial arts using concepts like Qi. He also, however, made many comments using Qi. I have seen no quotes of Wang’s where he says Qi doesn’t exist or that it is a useless idea as many of his descendants seem to imply. Qi is simply the understanding of the fact that the world we live in is a connected whole. It is a continuous field of energy. This is what we know today in physics. Now, this theory has and continues to be used to promote all kinds of stupid ideas and delusions. You have to be able to sort out the good from the bad, which is what I believe Wang was telling us. Any theory that isn’t readily demonstrable and observable is weak. Chinese endeavors are guided by the notion of Dao, the Way. The Dao is the commonest of denominators. This means that the more powerful your theory, the more prevalent and obvious it is. We have the same idea in the west. A major part of our scientific method is that experiments should be repeatable and clearly demonstrate the accuracy of our theories. Yiquan follows the notion of Dao. Wang simply asked us not to focus on the rote memorization of forms and theories. He cited many exaggerations and misuses of traditional theories to warn us of what happens when we get lost in our ideas and forget about the immediate reality before us.
Stillness allows us to achieve great skill because it is in stillness that Qi gathers. In this sense we could look at Qi as potential energy. As we stand in postures only moving enough to keep upright, the system is very quiet. The activity of the mind and body are turned down to level that we can comprehend. We can observe the interaction of mind and body when we are still. The interaction of mind and body is the definition of Qi for a person. So we’re literally cultivating this energy in its potential form by standing still. Likewise, when our mind is still we aren’t adding any thoughts to the ones naturally bubbling up and our Spirit can be calm and grow stronger. When our system is idling it can repair itself – much like when we are sleeping.
Remember – Yiquan is the art of “doing nothing and achieving everything”