Tempering Your Kung Fu, pt V (Escaping the Nest)

11 06 2016

One of the hottest forms of “heat” used to temper one’s martial arts knowledge is the act of immersing oneself in the world of combat. While it is understandable that many Kung Fu practitioners do not engage in the study of the arts for fighting–one should not profess to teach combat and self-defense if he does not participate in any form of fighting. In fact, it is actually unethical for teachers to claim to teaching fighting and self-defense if he trains students in a sterile, sparring-free environment. One can learn forms for the next 40 years, develop the ability to perform all manners of acrobatics, and learn to do forms with all types of weapons, but without actually engaging in sparring–and to do so with strangers–the ability to defend oneself or someone else will be very weak. This is perhaps one of the biggest shortcomings of today’s traditional Chinese martial arts:  More than half of TCMA schools do not participate in sparring and many that do so, do it at a low level of skill. This is not a judgment of teachers who dislike sparring; it is just a statement of fact.

A popular discussion among TCMA teachers is a debate about whether or not the Chinese martial arts have remained relevant. The truth is, we have. We are very relevant in the modern martial arts world. We give our students an outlet to lead healthier lives, introducing many students to a form of self-discipline, we are a connection to the Chinese culture, we take children off the street and give them a safe activity that builds self-esteem, fitness, good manners, and more. Where we have not been very relevant is in the minds of the potential student who needs martial arts study for their self-defense needs. Whether they are police officers, prize fighters, security guards, or regular every day citizens concerned with self-protection against muggers and criminals–the term “Kung Fu” seldom enters the conversation. Few Sifus would dare to intervene in their own lives to stop a streetfight; I doubt if many would ever offer students to a local business as security or bodyguards.

Pause. I think I heard someone say, that security and bodyguarding has nothing to do with Kung Fu. I beg to differ. There was a time, in the very recent past, that Kung Fu Sifu provided most of the security, soldiers, and bodyguards to his community. My own system of Jow Ga began not as a school teaching martial arts students–but a family teaching combat to soldiers. Almost all of us trace our systems back to someone who pioneered some form of combat–so why are we now shunning this use for our systems?

While agreed–Kung Fu is so much bigger than fighting in today’s society, it is–the martial arts still must fill that need. We must keep our skills useful enough so that any of us who completes our curriculum is qualified to work as a bodyguard or provide unarmed security. If not, why not just remove all strikes, punches and kicks from our curriculum and call what we do “a form of exercise”?

Many Sifu have avoided combat so long, they are actually reluctant to let a student who is interested in fighting actually do it. Many have gone so far as to tell students that sparring would impede their combat skills!! I have seen a friend in recent years here in California, do his best to talk several students out of participating in sparring, when a few of these students originally signed up just to learn to fight. What we see today are cases of many teachers projecting insecurities and feelings of inadequacy about their own fighting skill onto their students. In the end, the students suffer. They must then spend the rest of their days in just as much fear of a mugger as any non-martial artist, wasting all that classroom training time. They must spend the rest of their lives suffering from cognitive dissonance, convincing themselves that somehow–forms practitioners are more prepared to defend themselves than actual fighters, because the fighters are competing in a sport–while the forms practitioner is doing “real” combat training. They must spend the rest of their lives pretending to be self-confident around tough-looking individuals, when they are relying on dialing 9-1-1 for protection, just like the next guy. They must spend the rest of their lives practicing their arts as hobbyists, instead of the warriors they fantasize that they are. All because Sifu did not let them leave the nest to explore the life of a fighter; not even for a short period of time.

Regardless of what kind of fighting experience a Sifu has, he or she must allow students to take the risk of being defeated, injured, humiliated, etc., and experience the up and down journey of a martial artist. You can’t live safely; sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose–but all of it makes you better. There are many lessons that only an opponent can teach you, that will never be learned in a classroom. Sifus must humble themselves and admit that there is much knowledge they cannot teach the students, and students must learn those things for themselves. For a bird who never leaves the nest will never learn to fly, and an eagle who cannot leave the ground is as useless as wooden chicken:  It looks real, but tastes horrible. 🙂

I think you get it.

Washington, DC 1979

Washington, DC 1979

In 1979, my Sifu arrived back in Asia–in Taipei, Taiwan–accompanied by a team of men he trained to compete at a full-contact Kung Fu tournament. He left for the U.S. 11 years earlier as a young man, wanting an American education and armed with martial arts as a vocation. in ten short years, he had trained some of the best fighters in Washington, DC., and he set out for this tournament to put them up against the best fighters in the world. No man returned empty-handed. This very young Sifu, not yet 35 years of age, had accomplished more in a decade than most men reading this article. With this one tournament, he established the DC lineage of Jow Ga as a fighting school, whose students should never have to fear or be subservient to any other martial artist. And he did it, not for his own reputation–but for theirs. He allowed each student to have this experience for himself, proving to themselves, their opponents, the spectators, and the world–that their training had not been in vain. Most members of the team were young men who had never traveled anywhere, some still in their teens. They returned to America, as newly matured martial artists who had fought the best the world had to offer. Some had trained in Jow Ga fewer than five years at that point. For the rest of their days, they were able to say they had traveled internationally and competed against the best of the best. How much did their Kung Fu grow with that experience? I’ll tell you, an entire universe more than many who have never dared to leave their own cities, let alone their own teachers’ classrooms.

This “leaving the nest” need not be halfway around the world, however. Students simply need to be set free from the confines of the school and the protection of the Sifu. They need the freedom of using their martial arts without being corrected or coached. They need to be able to try out the ideas they formulated in their heads while practicing–that their Sifus may not have allowed them to try. They must know what the sting of an unseen strike feels like, they must feel the unbalancing of missing a step while launching or evading an attack. They must experience the fatigue of having run out of energy while still under pressure from the opponent–and then still having to protect himself. Students must understand what it feels like to see a man who scares you, and fight him anyway. They must learn to see, recognize, create, and exploit openings. They must feel the emotional rush of having defeated an opponent. They must know what it feels like to have dominated an opponent, and have the wisdom and compassion to back off and not go for the kill in order to salvage the opponent’s dignity. They must learn to recognize attacks and defensive strategies and choose the appropriate method to counter them. There are so many lessons that can only be learned when the training wheels are off, we do them a disservice if we deny them these lessons because of a personal bias or fear. So often, we imprison our students in the walls of our protection, they must sever the relationship with us just so they can free themselves from those shackles in order to learn. Don’t be that teacher who must be escaped from because a student wants to learn what the world has to offer. Students can only learn if they accumulate a combination of good experiences and what some erroneously label “bad” experiences. A real champion is not one who has never been beaten. A real champion is one who has faced the best–even facing those who are better than him–and then become champion anyway. The greatest lessons, many times, are taught by defeat and these “bad” experiences. And nearly ALL of this knowledge is only found outside your doors.

There is a saying that is appropriate here, which says:  “The only bad experience is the one you don’t learn from.”  It’s one to live by. Let your students lift off so their knowledge base and skills can fly.

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