I recently did an interview for the Journal of Chinese Martial Arts conducted by Nick Scrima.
In the article I share stories about:
- What it was like to train in Karate in Japan in the 1960’s and in Aikido with founder O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba
- Why I shifted my training from external martial arts to internal martial arts (tai chi, bagua, hsing-i)
- What China was like immediately following the Communist Cultural Revolution
You can read the interview below (or download a PDF at the bottom of the page).
Master Frantzis, since a lot of information is already available on your background, I would like to focus on questions to give our readers new insights about your ideas and achievements. You chose to go from New York City to Japan for your training. What motivated you to seek knowledge there?
I wanted to learn martial arts. I already had a background in Japanese martial arts. By the time I left New York I had eight black belts including belts in Judo, Karate and Iaido. I also liked the Samurai philosophy as an art form and wanted to know the source. At the time there were few non-Japanese or Korean martial artists in the US or Europe. I had been practicing Zen Buddhism from the age of 14 and had been practicing Shiatsu and I also wanted to know more about the healing arts.
Did you have any fears or apprehensions?
Any fear I had centered on practical matters. I had to earn enough money before the trip to get me there, live there and attend college. Also, I had received scholarships for Harvard and Columbia. I turned them down to go to Japan. So I made that decision and went forward choosing to follow where life led rather than what was expected of me.
Describe your early experiences with the culture and the martial arts training.
The early cultural experiences involved several things. First was staying with the student of my Jiujitsu teacher and she was no fun to be with. Second was that racism in Japan was as strong as elsewhere but more subtle. Everything was more difficult but at least Japan had subways and buses. Being from New York I could figure out how to get around. But it was not like nowadays when there are signs in English.
In terms of the martial arts training, one of my mentors in New York recommended that I fatten up before going to Japan. He said I would lose weight there because of the unfamiliar food and the long training cycles.
Before I left I went from 175 to 240 pounds and after three months I was down to 160. In my opinion, martial arts training in Japan at that time was of a higher caliber and more intense than in the US, but I loved it. I arrived in September and by January got my own apartment less than a block from the main Aikido school. It was a joy to train with Aikido founder O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba.
The racism varied from light to heavy. For example, in the Kodokan, the headquarters of Judo, there was a section of the mat where the Communists and right-wing Nationalists practiced. I was told, “If you practice with them, you will go to the hospital.” And that is what happened to many people.
Within Judo circles, one student I practiced with was less than 5 feet tall and could easily throw me around. I learned a lot from him. When a smaller guy is throwing you, it is very motivating. In Karate I worked out with the Waseda University Team that won the Championship the year I was there. That was also extremely hard training and great fighting experience. Training was 6 to 8 hours per day; sometimes more but never less.
During my first two months I had some good luck. A friend Danny Connor, was practicing with the Japan University Karate Club and sometimes I sparred with them. They picked on of their top guys and I beat him. I sparred with a couple of other people and beat them. Danny said that I had made them lose face so I should get out of there quickly, so I faked and injury and left. Within 20 minutes four guys arrived who would have put me in the hospital.
To give you an idea of the severity of the training, at another university club there was a boy for whom the training was too hard, but because he had signed up he was obligated to attend. Face was very important and they would not let him quit even thought it was physically and mentally destroying him. His mother begged the school to let him out of the Karate team. They agreed but asked him to come to one last session so they could all leave with a “good feeling.” Then in that last session they beat him to death.
I imagine that times have changed but then it was rough. You never knew what the rules were. Basically there was a polite crowd and a reactionary crowd in the way they related to foreigners.
For young men, especially one whose early training was in Japanese Karate, it could not have been easy to make the transition to the Internal Martial Arts. What led you to seek this knowledge and what were your greatest challenges?
I wrote about this in my book Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. In Japan I saw that many of the older martial artists were in poor health; arthritis, cortisone shots, and heart attacks were the norm. Martial artists were not strong when they reached the age of 70 or 80. When fighting an older person, the younger students were supposed to pretend to take a hit to save face for the older teacher.
In contrast, when I went to Wang Shujin I saw that he could really beat the crap out of younger people. I realized that internal martial arts were like a horse you could ride your entire life. Wang was the initial input for my interest in the internal arts but later I met many older people in China who had health and power into old age. And I also observed in China that many of the Shaolin people, like older Karate people, were strong when they were young but not when they got older.
The most daunting challenge in learning internal arts was giving up the adrenaline rush and muscular tension. I had trained for years to put that tension in my system. It was not easy to relax and let go.
You had the privilege to train under Morihei Ueshiba when he was advanced in years. There are many stories about his skill. What stands out in your mind?
If you did not give your full effort when sparring with him, O-Sensei would take it as an insult and when he took you down he would hurt you a bit. Whereas if you gave it your all when you fought him, he would merely take you down and not particularly hurt you. In the old Samurai days when you practiced, you did it for real. This was also true with the old Chinese masters. O-Sensei had the same attitude as the Samurai and the old Chinese masters.
He was among that rare breed with remarkable, excellent skills that bordered on supernatural. O-Sensei was known for being a little spooky in his abilities and for having a considerable amount of Qi. He could channel energy in and out of his body in a way that would produce real physical power. He would seem weak but then he would start to channel energy and it would just come out of him.
For almost all the techniques he did, I saw good Bagua and Taiji masters also do the same. He studied Bagua and traveled to China often. He was good at sinking from high to low postures, typical of Bagua. His Aikido art was combined with Jiujitsu, giving it a unique flavor.
O-Sensei was a mere 5 feet tall. I have never seen anybody that size so powerful except Liu Hongjie, my last teacher in China. I never had a hero worship thing about O-Sensei but had a huge amount of respect for his ability. He had a level of skill greater than anyone else I saw in Japanese martial arts.
Was your Aikido training your first glimpse of the spectrum of the internal martial arts?
The very first was Zheng Manqing in New York but you could say that my first real eye-opener was O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba and then Wang Shujin. Wang gave me the full spectrum because he practiced Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi. These are the core of what I teach. Also, both Bagua and Taiji can be used as moving meditation. For some people, Xingyi and the standing practice of Santi are among the fastest ways to build Qi and health.
What was your experience with Zheng Manqing?
The first time I saw him, in the mid-1960s, I was a combat-fighting teenager. We met at a Chinese cultural center in New York. There were only five or six people in his Taiji class and he was not doing push hands; he was teaching the form. I was more interested in full-contact fighting, so practicing the Taiji form didn’t make a lot of sense to me except that I saw him do a slow-motion lotus kick and a slow-motion front kick, which I adapted to my own training. In terms of kicks, this was the edge that allowed me to win black belt Karate championships.
My second experience of Zheng Manqing was indirect, with his students in New York and Taiwan. My third experience was when a journalist I knew in Taiwan wanted to interview him for a magazine. I took her to Zheng’s house; Tam Gibbs translated. Zheng Manqing died a few days later.
Please distill the essence of Aikido in one sentence.
Aikido is about blending and circulating energy coming at you, going through you, and coming out to defeat the opponent with a minimum of malice (Ueshiba’s school).
You could have chosen to stay in Japan and continue your studies of Aikido, yet you were stirred toward the arts of China. At that time there was little information about Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and Qigong. What led you to believe there was something more to be had?
After O-Sensei died, I kept up my training in Aikido for eight or nine months but then stopped going to his school. None of his students had fully grasped what he had. I think O-Sensei was incredible practitioner but maybe not so great in teaching. He did not have a systematic way of passing down what he had learned. His system of Aikido was a synthesis of many things and he did not teach the individual components. What enabled him to become so spectacular apparently did not transfer, so even the most talented students did not achieve as much.
What O-Sensei offered was practical for real fighting. The atmosphere at his Dojo was a positive social-spiritual dynamic, but fighting arts were being emphasized less. Some of his earlier students eventually started schools that taught more fighting, but by then I had moved on.
This led me to the Chinese internal arts originally with Zheng Manqing. One of Zheng’s students, George Hoff, was my knife-fighting mentor in high school. He had taught the military and worked with security agencies.
A man named Nakayama, at the time head of the Japanese Karate organization, Shotokan, wrote a book on self-defense with the knife, and George was the attacker pictured on the cover. He told me that the best fighter in Japan was Wang Shujin and that if I had the opportunity to meet Wang I should do so.
When I was at a coffee shop in Tokyo owned by one of Wang’s students, he gave me a letter of introduction to Wang, who was then in Taiwan. Through him I met other teachers, many of whom were excellent. Both old and young among them at the time could beat me up, even with my Karate and martial arts skills. So I went to Japan to do the best fighting arts and then found that the best martial artists were in China!
If Taiwan was your bridge to mainland China, your martial arts sojourn there must have been quite revealing, especially since your teacher was the famed Wang Shujin, I first read about him in Robert Smith’s book Masters and Methods. Did you find him to be as described by Robert Smith?
Both Taiwan and Hong Kong were my bridges. I met Wang when he was older, but he was much like Smith’s description. Wang was a dramatically better practitioner than a teacher, so you had to be an exceptional student to get what he had. That said, he did produce some exceptional students.
What did you take away from your tenure under Wang?
Good basics and a clear beginning of internal power.
What did this clear beginning of internal power mean to you?
A nonphysical quality inside my body seemed to be getting denser. Muscles did not feel like muscles anymore. I felt some watery quality moving inside and in the air and space surrounding my body. That is how I initially experienced qi. Shortly thereafter I began to have a sense of intense but subtle internal vibrations.
How revolutionary was Wang’s training?
From the point of view of Bagua and Xingyi his training was traditional. In terms of Karate it was nontraditional.
The Japanese teaching style is disciplined and formal. The Chinese teaching style, while demanding, is not so rigid and formalized. Did you find this different from what you expected?
In Asia you experience so many things that are different that you roll with it. But for Japanese martial arts, there was much more ceremony than in the Chinese arts. The Japanese formality was not so much functional as cultural. I would have preferred going directly to the crux of the matter without having to do all the ritual, yet I appreciated its purpose.
The Japanese Samurai is perhaps the world’s most renowned warrior. His heroism, courage, and willingness to give everything and never submit to defeat underlie the commitment and seriousness that the Japanese offer to the martial arts. Samurai formality also gives a nice rhythm to focus your mind, which many people gravitate toward because their lives are so chaotic. But after a few years in martial arts I did not feel such a need.
I experienced a similar situation in India where I did a lot of spiritual practice. I did not find the excessive emphasis on the Guru and the trappings and rituals to be something I liked; it was more something I had to put up with.
The real traditional Chinese internal martial arts were more directed toward fundamentals than aesthetic beauty. I definitely preferred that, being more about substance than style. To me, the Chinese martial arts have the most substance.
Do you regret not staying longer to see what else Wang had to offer?
I don’t regret the past. Yes, I wish I could have spent more time but life did not allow it. I did spend two years with him and intermittently studied with him over a 10-year period. He was like a grumpy grandfather. We had a good personal connection. He gave me a sword from above his bed. I could get what Wang was transmitting where many others could not. I am very grateful for that.
One of your teachers in Japan was Kenichi Sawai, who studied in China with the famed Wang Xiangzhai. Many of his teachings seem distant from other students of Wang Xiangzhai. Do you think this is due to his own innovations or to his Japanese martial arts background?
Kenichi Sawai studied with Wang Xiangzhai for 11 years. Many of Sawai’s techniques were not exactly the same as what Wang Xiangzhai’s other students taught. It is obvious that he mixed his experience in Japanese martial arts with what he learned from Wang Xiangzhai.
Although he was with Wang Xiangzhai for several years, Sawai did not speak Chinese well and may not have understood everything the way other students did. Moreover, China was under Japanese occupation, so there may have been restrictions on the information passed to Sawai. I was told that Sawai was a colonel in the Japanese army and was also a top army guy. So limits may have been placed on the extent of knowledge that could be passed on to him.
Sawai’s background brought a somewhat harder Samurai edge to his training than for most of Wang Xiangzhai’s students. Having also studied with other students of Wang Xiangzhai, I noticed that Sawai made his students practice and practice, which was the old Japanese way. Many of Wang’s other disciples did not “force” their students to practice in this manner; instead, they “encouraged” them.
The old Japanese thinking, which Wang Shujin agreed with, is that it is better to have one technique that you do well than 10,000 done poorly. The one technique will get the job done, the 10,000 may or may not. Thus, Sawai emphasized fewer techniques, practiced to perfection.
Sawai also stressed the importance of standing so that internal power can manifest itself in a particular technique. I reached the point where I could stand six hours a day, due to Sawai’s inspiration. Also, Sawai’s emphasis was on the intent rather than exactness of the physical movement. His intensity compensated for the fact that his techniques were not as precise as many of Wang Xiangzhai’s other students.
But consider this: I met people in China who had studied with him during different decades of his life, and many of his techniques changed over time. The biggest difference between Sawai and the other disciples was that Sawai taught fewer techniques but focused on applications, on their ability to put people down. He considered knocking someone out or breaking a bone to be a gentle response. In true Samurai fashion, Sawai believed real martial arts to be about killing.
I never met another of Wang Xiangzhai’s students who had played quite so rough. But I did have a teacher named Han Xingyuan, who was one of Wang’s four official disciples. Han treated his students with respect, but outside of class he enjoyed going to Hong Kong docks to pick fights with British soldiers, who were a feisty bunch. Han apparently needed to expiate his aggressive desire to beat the crap out of people, and foreign occupiers filled the bill. The British soldiers thought they were picking on some limp Chinese guy, and did they ever get a surprise! Han did this on the sly and would never try anything like it in class, whereas Sawai was keen on conflict in the classroom. This was one spry old man and nobody messed with him; Sawai was living proof that internal energy work keeps you healthy and strong.
The first day I came to class Sawai had me spar with a student who was a third degree in karate. I beat him. I didn’t hurt him because I did not want to get in trouble. In Japan, if you are impolite, they throw you out and never let you back in. To make the point that training was more serious than that opponent represented, Sawai had one of his better students spar with me, a fifth degree in Oyama’s Karate. He kicked me beneath the heart and dropped me. If I had not stood back up, they would have thrown me out. Sawai’s purpose was to see if I had what the Japanese call “spirit,” or what the Westerners call “heart.”
Once, when sparring with Sawai he told me repeatedly to keep my hands in defensive position. I kept dropping my hands. He said, “I’m not going to tell you again.” He stuck a finger in the gap I left open and paralyzed my arm for a week. To make sure I learned the lesson, he gave me the name of an acupuncturist who restored my health. I never dropped my hands again.
How would you describe the overall body of Kenichi Sawai’s teaching?
Three components: Practicing a relatively small number of points to death; heavy emphasis on standing; heavy emphasis on sparring. Free sparring was stressed more than set exercises. If you did set exercises, you would immediately try to use them in free sparring. Sawai also did a type of push hands called Suritei, which I have only seen a few students of the Wang Xiangzhai school do.
When did you meet Hong Yixiang and what was the essence of his teaching?
I met Hong Yixiang in 1974. I describe his teaching in my book Bagua and Taiji. Hong’s well known phrase was, “I can teach you how to use Qi in martial applications, but I can’t really teach you about Qi.” Although he didn’t emphasize Qigong, he did focus on intent; wherever your intent goes, your Qi goes. He did not see internal martial arts in terms of building Qi but in terms of applying Qi. Where other teachers focused on Qi growth and were better at helping a person get their Qi going, the practices Hong showed us actually developed Qi.
Hong’s specialty was fighting techniques. Everything he did involved looking at how angles (circles, triangles, and squares) could be used in physical combat. Although the Hong school focused on fighting, it was very informal. When people would practice lines, they would take a rest, drink tea, and get back to forms or fighting again.
What was your first stop in China? How different did you find it from Taiwan?
I arrived in Beijing just after the Cultural Revolution and before the reforms took effect (1981-1987). The upheaval of the Cultural Revolution led to one of the most horrific periods in Chinese history, and Beijing was a bleak place. Nowadays it has changed, but then there were big differences between Taiwan and Beijing. Taiwan was definitely nicer. The summers were hot and humid with a lot of rain, and you could always find good food.
But in Beijing, all the chefs had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, so it was hard to find food at all. Instead of rain, Beijing was dry. When the wind blew, it stirred up dust. Beijing’s population was 12 million, half of what it is today. The pollution was invisible, silent but still deadly. Transportation was difficult; if you wanted a taxi, you often had to wait an hour or two after calling before it arrived.
Another difference had to do with freedom of speech. In Taiwan, people were relatively free to talk to whomever they wished. By the time I came to Beijing, I was fluent in Chinese. People in Taiwan might not talk to me because they didn’t like foreigners or because they thought outsiders were no good, but, in general, people in Taiwan were friendly.
Yet in Beijing, because it was such a locked-down Communist state, people were terrified to talk to you. They were afraid they could disappear, be imprisoned, or have tremendous troubles with their jobs or families. It was a terrible time for the Chinese people. As a Westerner it was extremely isolating, for there were only 500 foreigners in the entire city. Today there are more like 300,000 to 500,000.
In Taiwan, if there was a martial arts teacher you wanted to meet, most of the time someone would tell you where he or she was and you could show up and plead your case. The teacher might not ask you to come back, but you could at least try. In Beijing, you couldn’t do that. You had to get permission, clearance from a political person that is was OK to meet them. Then the teacher would weigh the personal political risks of meeting with a foreigner and might decline.
For me, the most striking difference between Taiwan and Beijing is that in Beijing I got to meet my most important mentor, Liu Hongjie. Liu adopted me as a son in a traditional ceremony and passed his lineages to me.
To summarize: Taiwan was an easier place to be; you did not have to fear that if you talked to someone you would get them in trouble. Beijing was isolating and desolate. Yet Beijing was the center of the Bagua and Taiji world prior to the Communist Revolution, and in its aftermath still offered the best teachers, such as Master Liu.
One of the masters you met in Beijing was the Hun Yuan Chen Style teacher Feng Zhiqiang. Please tell us the story of this encounter.
I met Feng Zhiqiang in 1981. As well as doing martial arts, I was a Qigong Tui Na energetic bodywork doctor. I had been meeting people involved in that branch of Chinese medicine at the Physical Education Institute. One day they told me there was a doctor coming who could give me a “tune-up.” I was advised to tell him what I was feeling while he worked on me so he could get an idea of my ability. It is said that your ability to diagnose what someone does to you is indicative of your own skills in treating people.
Master Feng came in – I did not know who he was even though I had been trying to meet him for weeks – wearing the doctor’s white hat and smock, and he started to work on me. I felt immediately that he had a lot of chi and knew incredibly well how to direct it. Afterwards, he discussed with me how Qigong Tui Na relates to martial arts, and finally I asked his name. “Oh, I’m Feng Zhiqiang,” he said, a broad smile on his face. His smile is one of his most obvious engaging characteristics.
Back then, Feng was the best Chen style Taiji master in Beijing. I wanted to study with him, but he said he wasn’t sure he could work with me, because it took quite a long time for him to arrange even a single afternoon off from his factory work. As I said, everything had to be cleared through political channels; it was dangerous for any master to work with a foreigner, especially one who spoke Chinese. Associating with someone who might be a spy was not good. There were still places where people feared the secret police. So it was several weeks before Feng could obtain political clearance to meet me without putting himself in danger.
We got along well. I studied Chen Taiji with him for more than a year in Beijing’s Tiantan Park. When I visited in 1989, he taught me his Hun Yuan Qigong system privately. Feng was head of Taiji for all of China (before his passing earlier this year). When I returned in 2011, he still had a picture of the two of us in his living room. We had a very strong connection; I had great affection for him. (Editor’s note: After this interview and the printing of this article, Master Feng Zhiqiang has passed, on May 5th, 2012. He will be missed.)
Please tell us about your experiences in Hong Kong and training with Yang Shouzhong, aka Yang Zhenming.
As I recall, 35 years ago, Yang Shouzhong was around 5’9”, which was tall for a Chinese man. Although he lived in Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese, he preferred his native language of Mandarin. I speak Mandarin, so we got along well.
His classes were held in the back of his apartment in a space no larger than 400 to 500 square feet. He would show a move or two, have his students do the form, and then put his hands on them to fix their posture. His classes were billed as private lessons, typically lasting 10-20 minutes; less time if he didn’t like you, more time if he did.
In his push hands classes, I remember waiting for class to begin and pushing with other students. The person whose back was to the solid stone wall would try not to get pushed into the wall, while trying to push the opponent. When your back is against the wall, your natural tendency is to freak out. But to have your back against the wall and not be afraid or stiff is a great challenge. On the other hand, the person who was not against the wall naturally felt more aggressive. He or she had to learn how not to overextend, let their emotions get the best of them, or charge without being careful.
Yang usually had an emotionless face or else he would get this wry smile. The smile usually appeared when he had you at a place where you could not ignore your difficult position. His Fajin was excellent. Yang felt soft, but not exceedingly soft. His body could alternate between feeling almost empty and feeling like pure steel. He could literally change the quality of his internal power as fast as wind could move a leaf in the air. When he put his hands on you it was like being stuck to glue; you could not get his hands off. There was no way to stop whatever he wanted to do with you. He was a true professional. I believe he more than deserved to be called “Master.”
How did you meet Liu Hongjie? What was your impression of him?
Liu Hongjie’s other formal disciple from after the time of the Communist Revolution, Bai Hua, introduced me to the master. I asked Hua if it would be possible to train with his teacher while I was at the Physical Education Institute. Hua said he hoped so, but that Liu was a recluse and did not teach people very often. Liu often refused to teach even famous martial artists in China who sought him out. Hua wrote me a formal letter of introduction and gave me Master Liu’s address.
I walked up to Master Liu’s house, knocked on the door, and met him. He said, “Glad to meet you.” He said this because he had been expecting me. I later learned that Liu had dreamed about teaching a foreigner who fit my description. Consequently, Master Liu agreed to take me on as his student.
What was the progression of Liu Hongjie’s teaching and the curriculum you studied with him?
One thing that was different in Liu’s teaching style is that in the beginning he said: “I am very old. It is hard to say exactly how long I will live. So I will show you something, but only three times. If you cannot understand what I am showing you so you can practice and digest it, I won’t mention the subject again for a year or two, at which point maybe you will have grown sufficiently to be able to understand what I am expressing.”
Although it only happened maybe 20 times in those three years, he was true to his word. However, by the end of our time together, we had revisited all those things and I did get them. Liu’s lesson is this: Either perform well or be patient with your shortcomings.
I trained with Master Liu every day. We started with the internal power (Qi) side of Xingyi and Bagua. Each session lasted about 3 hours, usually twice a day. Sometimes I would be so exhausted I couldn’t stand up. Master Liu would let me rest on his bed. A few times his daughter came in and gave me a look of death for lying on her father’s bed. She thought it was disrespectful but he explained my situation. Master Liu also told me stories about meditation, mostly about Buddhism, sometimes about Daoism.
That was the first trip to Beijing (1981). On the second trip (1983-1986) there was a different program. Because my back had been broken in a car accident, Liu shifted the emphasis to Tiaji and Bagua, especially Wu-style Taiji. This completely healed my spine. He also taught me about the Qigong set called Gods Playing in the Clouds. This set is useful for several purposes, including healing severe back injuries. Gods Playing in the Clouds is considered within Daoism to be the repository for the deepest and most complete internal work in Qigong, or Neigong. Moreover, Liu dissected everything I knew about Qigong from my 10 years in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Part of healing the body is healing the mental, emotional, psychic, and karmic attachments to the injury. Every day, along with the Taiji, Bagua and Qigong, we started going deeper into sitting meditation. We would sit together. He connected for me how sitting meditation interfaced with all the other types of meditation: interactive, standing, moving, lying down, and even sexuality from the perspective of meditation.
After my back healed, the flow between Taiji, Xingyi, or Bagua began. Most days we did something related to Push Hands or practical fighting techniques. The flow was always changing between the forms we practiced from one day or another, yet they intertwined so everything became part of one whole.
Liu taught me interesting material relating to chi and healing. Given that he was descended from 10 generations of Chinese doctors, this was no surprise. By the end of our time together, he made me a lineage holder in all of these subjects, as well as the branch of Chinese medicine related to Qigong healing. He had an amazing ability to connect each detail to almost everything about martial arts you could imagine.
Although you give credence, respect, and appreciation to all your teachers, you seem to have a special reverence for Liu. His teaching must have affected you beyond the martial aspect. Would you share your personal thoughts on this matter?
Liu was the most intelligent person I have ever met. I like intelligent people, and find that if you have any kind of an intellectual bent, then you get a great deal of pleasure from having a mentor who has you intellectually outclassed. I was learning more with Liu in a month than with many teachers in a year or two. He was brilliant.
Liu was also a fully enlightened meditation master, what is called the Daoist Immortal, a living Buddha. Just to be in the presence of someone like that radically altered my life in terms of martial arts and meditation. With him I had many primal awakenings. I was one person when I met Liu and a different and better person when I left.
We had a great personal bond, because in order to pass on his knowledge and overcome the vows I had previously taken, he formally adopted me as his own son in a traditional ceremony. Prior to meeting Liu I was a Daoist priest, and as such I had made 84 separate vows as to what I could teach, in what circumstances, and to whom. Liu adopted me because the rules in China are that you can teach your child anything you want. He also made me a lineage holder in the form of Daoism in which he was a primary lineage holder.
By the end of my time with Liu, I understood that in terms of internal martial arts, whatever you think, you can manifest instantly. The issue is not about purely the physical; it is about how your mind interfaces with your Qi. Liu taught me the power of meditation. I don’t think of him as primarily a martial arts teacher, although he was clearly one of China’s best. In my opinion, it is easier to obtain a high level of skill in martial arts than in meditation, yet Liu was a master of both.
Please summarize the essential qualities and martial aspects you derived from each of your teachers.
From Wang Shujin I learned how to obtain Qi for combat. Wang Shujin led me into the door of internal power. Hong Yixiang led me into understanding the science of angles in internal martial arts (the triangle, circle, and the square). Liu took what those two people showed me and showed me how to condense it and refine it like iron into steel. I understood the importance of the deeper levels of the mind, of intent, from Liu.
It seems to be a natural transition that as a person advances and matures in the arts, training and practice transcend the combative. What has been your experience with this stage?
In Daoist internal martial arts, I think if you choose to go into how your Qi works, this can lead to healing. Such is the progression that most people go through. Most don’t start with the healing side, most try to get strong, make Qi strong to be a good fighter, and then gradually learn how to strengthen the mind. Those people who get involved in healing can transfer that knowledge and increase it, or try to take that level of sensitivity to Qi as some form of Chinese medicine to heal others.
Then, as you go through the second stage, you rely less on physical strength and more on the strength of your Qi. So you come to another crossroads. Some people take up meditation because they recognize how the negative stuff in their mind interferes with their life and, combined with the energy work of the martial arts, can make them emotionally messed up. I began to understand this concept when studying under Liu. He asked me what I wanted to learn. I said, “I want more Qi so I can have the internal power to defeat more powerful guys.”
Liu said, “You’re missing the point. You have the Qi of a small elephant. If you had more, you might not know what to do with it. Your problem is that you don’t understand the Qi of your heart and your mind. If you did, you would have more physical power, and it would make your life better every moment of every day.” So you can increase your physical power, or you can choose to focus on meditation, which will in turn increase your Qi and internal power anyway.
Few people care about being able to fight well. Another of my teachers, Chang Yirong , one of Wang Shujin’s students, said, “Not everybody wants to fight, but everybody wants to be healthy.” And with internal arts, it’s not just about being physically healthy; it’s about being emotionally, mentally, physically and karmically healthy.
Tell us about your experiences with healing and the martial arts, and about your goals for the future.
I started martial arts when I was 12. Two years later, I started learning Shiatsu, or acupressure. During my career, on a parallel path, I was learning how to use qi to heal. It started with Shiatsu, then Swedish Massage, then in China I trained to become a doctor in a branch of Chinese medicine called Qigong Tui Na, and as part of that I treated 10,000 people in Chinese clinics.
When I left Beijing, I decided that I would no longer work on individual patients, although occasionally I teach students how the hands-on healing work happens. Another lineage Liu passed on to me was the Daoist Medical Qigong Lineage, the original one, which I do teach regularly.
After decades of experience, what used to take an hour with a patient I could accomplish by looking at them for 30 seconds. What I am interested in now is passing on this knowledge so that my students can then help a greater number of people.
You want to heal yourself with a certain degree of precision, then go on to help other people through speaking and teaching. Although much of my life is devoted to public service, I only can do so much. My emphasis over the past 10 or 15 years has been more about teaching Daoist meditation, because I have found that the greatest reason people in the Western world have discomfort is not physical. It has more to do with dysfunctions in the way the mind experiences life.
For this, we go back to a story told by Buddha. A person cam to Buddha saying, “I have a physical disease, can you help me?” Buddha said, “That’s not what I do. We have an Indian Ayurvedic Doctor, and healing physical diseases is his specialty. If after he heals your physical body and you wish to heal your mind and go beyond the way your mind can cause you to suffer, then return to me, because that’s the kind of doctor I am.”
I hold the same opinion. I have worked on so many people with physical problems. Given my meditation experience and my ability to sort out what causes people’s minds to suffer, I feel that the greatest gift my teacher Liu gave me is also the greatest gift I can pass on; namely, meditation. That is specifically the Taoist way.
A hundred years from now, how do you want to be remembered?
There is an old Daoist phrase: “Leave no footsteps.” But if I were to be remembered, it would be as a bridge between East and West in the transfer of knowledge of qi to the Western world, and specifically, of internal martial arts and Daoist meditation.
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