In 1975, I bought my first copy of The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, by Bruce Lee. It was a paperback copy. For Christmas in 1976, I was given a hardbound edition. I still have both copies.
This year -- 2011 -- Nancy gave me the Expanded Edition of Tao of Jeet Kune Do for Christmas. As I started reading it again, it really brought back memories of just how influential these writings were when I was 22 years old.
Growing up in the Bible Belt (Kentucky, Georgia, Florida) in the Fifties and Sixties did not provide opportunities for a young guy to think outside the fundamentalist church. Anything that wasn't understood was Satanic, including the Beatles, according to ministers in my church. Actually, it was a Sunday School lecture against the Beatles that first made me realize that the religion might be full of crap. If they would lie about the Beatles just to prove a point, what else would they lie about? It started me on the journey that led me to reject that sort of narrow-minded thinking. That was around 1969.
By the time Bruce Lee arrived, and I began studying Shaolin Do with Grandmaster Sin The, I was 20 years old and fascinated with the Kung Fu TV show and its Taoist morality.
Bruce Lee's book drove it home.
"Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo."
It was a new way of thinking.
"The eye sees it, But no hands can take hold of it. The moon in the stream."
"Nothingness cannot be defined. The softest thing cannot be snapped."
I began stepping out of the teachings of my youth and embraced a more abstract way of thinking.
Every martial artist since 1972 owes a tremendous debt to Bruce Lee. One of the things that I still practice is his concept of discarding what is not useful. When my students and I come across a self-defense application that seems preposterous, we discard it. If it wouldn't work in real life, we don't worry about it.
But my debt goes much deeper than just technique or martial philosophy. It goes to the very heart, the philosophy of life that I embrace. It's very peaceful, and it has carried me through some very down periods in my life.
I have a lot to thank Bruce Lee for -- I only wish he still lived so I could tell him. Instead, I'm telling you.
I'm making the switch. When I began teaching the internal arts, I considered whether to write "Tai Chi" or "Taiji."
On mainland China, Taiji (or Taijiquan) is the accepted translation style, known as pinyin.
Tai Chi (or T'ai Chi Ch'uan) is the Wade-Giles method of translation, developed by two men (Wade and Giles).
In 1997, I chose to use Tai Chi because that is the spelling most commonly known. That's the spelling you saw in newspapers and magazines such as T'ai Chi magazine. When I advertised my classes, I wanted the general public to see the ad and understand what "Tai Chi" meant. I didn't think they would understand that "Taiji" was the same thing.
It was purely a marketing decision, even though I knew that "serious" practitioners of the art used the term Taiji.
In recent months, I've started using both terms in my writing, and you might still see a Tai Chi pop up for search engine reasons, but for the most part, I'm changing the way I spell the art to Taijiquan, or Taiji.
My main reason for this change is this -- I no longer try to attract local middle-aged or elderly people for classes. The art that I practice and teach is not necessarily geared toward people who want a slow motion exercise for health and meditation. This isn't your grandmother's tai chi. In fact, that audience began falling as soon as I switched from Yang style to Chen style back in 1998. Chen style is much more athletic, contains more fa-jing, and it just isn't what elderly folks want to practice.
In the end, it doesn't matter what you call it -- Tai Chi or Taiji. What matters is that you practice. It's an amazing martial art, no matter how you spell it.
Today, Colin came over to the Kung Fu Room and for one hour, we drilled three techniques over and over and over.
The techniques can be found in the Bagua Fighting Skills section of the website -- Bagua Keywords.
We practiced Threading, Hooking, and Turning.
First we practiced proper form, then one would throw multiple attacks in a realistic way and the other would use threading to deflect the attacks. After a while, we worked hooking in a similar way. Then we worked on turning, which is very effective up close.
This was a satisfying practice because we slowed down, selected three techniques and practiced them repeatedly. There are a lot of techniques on my website, and a lot of principles. But just seeing a video or learning a technique in class and practicing it a few times will not make you good at it. Practicing all the keyword techniques in an hour won't help you to improve.
The key to mastery is practicing each technique thousands of times, solitary and with a partner.
I'm a firm believer in the basics. When someone is learning an art, it doesn't help them if I try to get fancy and explain or demonstrate things they aren't ready to perform or even understand. It doesn't help when your partner is trying to get fancy or trying to show that he or she is better than you. It works best when both partners are trying to help the other become better at one basic technique.
By slowing it down and exploring each technique individually, taking apart the body mechanics that make it effective, then making sure you include the body mechanics when working with a partner -- that's when you begin to internalize this material and are able to perform it when you need to.
I wish we had more time today. I could have spent the afternoon working those three techniques. And if I spent the next few years just practicing these three techniques, they could be the only three techniques I would ever need.
As Bruce Lee said, "I don't fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks one time. I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."
Whether it's a silk-reeling exercise or the movement of a Chen taiji form or a Bagua keyword like threading, it's the one who practices it 10,000 times who will be able to use it best.
I have a few instructional videos on YouTube, and naturally, they're viewed by all types of people, and of course everyone on the Internet thinks they've been anointed as experts in all things.
Yesterday, someone left a question on one of the videos -- "How would that stand up to an MMA fighter?"
In the last decade, I've heard that question more and more.The question is usually directed at the internal arts that I practice, or kung-fu, or karate, taekwondo, etc.
The implication is that traditional martial arts are useless and MMA is the real fighting art.
I'd like to answer that question this way -- oh, shut up.
I'm 58 years old as I write this. I'll soon be 59 and 14 months from now, I'll be 60. The last real fight I was in was at age 18. If you're keeping score, that's more than 40 years ago. I hadn't studied kung-fu at that point.
I was always a good fighter as a kid and teenager. I was in many fights. In those days, boys were considered sissies if they backed down from a fight. One of the few life lessons my father told me was at an early age. He said, "Kenny, never run from a fight." I never did.
But once you become an adult, if you have any intelligence at all you understand that fights can land you in jail, cause you to lose your job, and land you in court. Fighting is simply not a good move unless your life is in danger.
And now we come to the subject of art. The reason martial arts are called "arts" is because there is much more to it than fighting. There's philosophy, there's self-discipline and self-mastery, there's technique and power, there's tradition and history, there's the physical and also the mental balance -- it's a way of life for many of us, not just a way to learn how to beat people up. I knew how to beat up bullies long before I ever stepped into a dojo. The martial arts have made me better at it, but I have no intention of ever using that knowledge.
I got into martial arts in 1973 because I wanted to learn how to protect myself even better than I already could, but I was also intrigued by the philosophy. As I studied the techniques and the arts, I also studied Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and it had a profound effect on how I look at the world.
As I studied, and especially after I discovered Chen tai chi around 1998, I began to see the arts as multi-dimensional, with layers that could only be reached by hard work, attention to detail, and practice. I'm still working at it, despite health setbacks during the past 3 years.
I have respect for MMA. I know that many of them are tough fighters and they learn a lot of varied techniques from different arts. But in 40 years, I want to see some MMA fighters who have been in their arts as long as I have and still are able to walk or speak without stutters, or have joints that work. I have a feeling the damage would cause men to drop out of that art many years earlier. Most trained boxers would be able to whip other men, but boxing is an art that requires you to take a lot of damage. A concussion is not something to play around with, but for boxers, it's part of the game. You don't see many 60-year old boxers. Sometimes, you see boxers who have been damaged, like my hero Muhammad Ali.
I've known several young guys who took up MMA. I've heard of injuries that kept some of them on the sidelines. I know one famous MMA fighter and coach who is said to have dropped out because his body had taken too much punishment and he was broken down in his early forties.
As a martial art, MMA is fine. It's pretty realistic. There are no forms to learn. There's not a lot of tradition, and not much in the way of philosophy. It certainly can teach you to fight.
And then what?
If your only goal in a martial art is to be tougher than any other man alive, you have a lot of work to do. If that's what you want, go for it.
I've seen people who studied traditional martial arts who were able to defend themselves just fine when they needed to, and that's what counts.
So if you want to make the case that some tough MMA guy could kick my ass, I'll cheerfully admit that it might be true. I'm old enough and wise enough to know that nobody can whip everybody. On the other hand, I don't ever expect to be in a fight against an MMA champion or a Golden Gloves boxing champ.
Put me in a time machine and let me emerge at age 20 and I'd love to study MMA style fighting for a while. But before long, I'd gravitate back to kung-fu because it's a lot cooler than MMA (there's a reason they make Kung Fu Movies) and because traditional martial arts -- for most of us who can see deeper than the fighting -- have a lot more to offer in many, many ways.
For the rest of my life, I'll do what good martial artists do -- avoid situations that can become violent. But if I ever have to take action to defend myself or someone else, it will much more likely be like the incident below instead of against an MMA fighter.