Gung fu, the centre of the Oriental arts of self-defence, is a philosophical art that serves to promote health, to cultivate the mind, and to provide a most efficient means of self-protection. Its philosophy is based on the integral parts of the philosophies of Taoism and Ch’an (Zen) – the ideal of being harmonious with and not against the force of the opponent. Just as a butcher preserves his knife by cutting along the bones, a gung fu man preserves himself by complementing the movements of the opponent.
The word gung fu means “discipline” and training toward the ultimate reality of the object – be it health promotion, mind cultivation or self-protection. There is no distinction to make between the opponent and the self because the opponent is butthe other complementary (not opposite) part. There is no conquering, struggling, or dominating, and the idea is to “fit” harmoniously your movement into that of the opponent. When he expands, you contract; when he contracts, you expand. Expansion then is interdependent with contraction and vice versa, each being the cause and result of the other.
Gentleness/firmness is one inseparable force of one unceasing interplay of movement. If a person riding a bicycle wishes to go somewhere, he cannot pump on both the pedals at the same time or not pump on them at all. In order to move forward he has to pump on one pedal and release the other. So the movement of going forward requires this “oneness” of pumping and releasing. Therefore, gentleness alone cannot forever dissolve away great force, nor can sheer brute force subdue one’s foe. In order to survive in any combat, the harmonious interfusion of gentleness and firmness as a whole is necessary, sometimes one dominating sometimes the other, in a wavelike succession. The movement will then truly flow, for the pure fluidity of movements is in their interchangeability.
So neither gentleness nor firmness holds any more than one half of a broken whole which, welded together, forms the true Way of martial art. The tendency to guard against is from getting too firm and stiff. Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind. This is why a gung fu man is soft yet not yielding, firm, yet not hard. The best example of gung fu is water. Water can penetrate the hardest granite because it is yielding. One cannot stab of strike at water and hurt it because that which offers no resistance cannot be overcome.
In actual application, gung fu is based on simplicity; it is a natural result of four thousand years of exhaustive experimentation and is of highly sophisticated complexity. All techniques are stripped down to their essential purpose without wastage or ornamentation, and everything becomes the straightest, most logical simplicity of common sense. The utmost is expressed and performed in the minimum of movements and energy.
The method for health promotion is again based on water, as flowing water never grows stale. The idea is not to overdevelop or to overexert but to normalise the function of the body.
An article written by Bruce Lee that was never published written on December 21th 1964 to illustrate the different techniques used by the different schools of Gung Fu.
Gung fu is so extraordinary because it is nothing at all special. It is simply the direct expression of one’s feeling with the minimum of lines and energy. Every movement is being so of itself without the artificiality with which we tend to complicate them. The closer to the true Way of gung fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Gung fu is to be looked at without fancy suits and matching ties, and it remains a secret while we anxiously look for sophistication and deadly techniques. If there are really any secrets at all, they must have been missed by the “seeing” and “striving” of its practitioners (after all, how many ways are there to come in on an opponent without deviating too much from the natural course?). Gung fu values the wonder of the ordinary, and the idea is not daily increase but daily decrease.
Being wise in gung fu does not mean adding more but being able to remove sophistication and ornamentation and be simply simple, like a sculptor building a statue not by adding, but by hacking away the unessential so that the truth will be revealed unobstructed. Gung fu is satisfied with one’s bare hands without the fancy decoration of colourful gloves, which tend to hinder the natural function of the hands. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity while halfway cultivation runs to ornamentation.
There are three stages in the cultivation of gung fu: namely, the primitive stage, the stage of art, and the stage of artlessness.
The primitive stage is the stage of original ignorance in which a person knows nothing of the art of combat. In a fight he simply blocks and strikes instinctively without concern as for what is right and wrong. Of course, he might not be so-called scientific, but he is, nevertheless, being himself.
The second stage, the stage of art, begins when a person starts his training. He is taught the different ways of blocking and striking, the various ways of kicking, of standing, of moving, of breathing, of thinking. Unquestionably he is gaining a scientific knowledge of combat, but unfortunately his original self and sense of freedom are lost, and his action no longer flows by itself. His mind tends to freeze at different movements for calculation and analysis. Even worse, he might be “intellectually bound” and maintaining himself outside the actual reality.
The third stage, the stage of artlessness, occurs when, after years of serious and hard practice, he realises that, after all, gung fu is nothing special and instead of trying to impose his mind on the art, he adjusts himself to the opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall, it flows through the slightest crack. There is nothing to “try” to do but be purposeless and formless like water. Nothingness prevails; he no longer is confined.
These three stages also apply to the various methods being practiced in Chinese gung fu. Some methods are rather primitive with basic jerky blocking and striking. On the whole, they lack the flow and change of combinations. Some “sophisticated” methods, on the other hand, tend to run to ornamentation and get carried away by grace and showmanship. Whether from the so-called “firm” or “gentle” school, they often involve big, fancy movements with a lot of complicated steps toward one single goal (it is like an artist who, not satisfied with drawing a simple snake, proceeds to put four beautiful and shapely feet on the snake).
When grasped by the collar, for example, these practitioners would “first do this, then this, then finally that”, but of course the direct way would be to let the opponent have the pleasure of grasping the collar and simply punch him straight on the nose! To some martial artists of distinguishing taste, this would be a little bit unsophisticated; too ordinary and unartful. However, it is the ordinary that we use and encounter in everyday life.
Art is the expression of the self; the more complicated and restrictive a method is, the less opportunity there is for expression of one’s original sense of freedom. The techniques, although they play an important role in the earlier stage, should not be too complex, restrictive, or mechanical. If we cling to them we will become bound by their limitations.
Remember that man created method, and method did not create man, and do not strain yourself in twisting into someone’s preconceived pattern, which unquestionably would be appropriate for him, but not necessarily for you. You yourself are “expressing” the technique and not “doing” the technique; in fact, there is no doer but the action itself. When someone attacks you, it is not which technique that you use, but the moment you’re aware of his attack you simply move in like sound, an echo without any deliberation. It is as though when I call, you answer me, or when I throw something, you catch it. That’s all.
After all these years of practice in the different schools I have found out this: that techniques are merely simple guide lines to tell the practitioner that he has done enough! Of course, different people have different preferences and therefore I will include different techniques of both the Northern and the Southern schools of gung fu. Observe closely the differences as well as the similarities of utilisation.
The Tao of Gung Fu
Bruce Lee – 1962
Gung fu is a special kind of skill, a fine art rather than just a physical exercise or self-defence. To the Chinese, gung fu is the subtle art of matching the essence of the mind to that of the techniques in which it has to work. The principle of gung fu is not a thing that can be learned, like a science, by fact-finding or instruction in facts. It has to grow spontaneously, like a flower, in a mind free from desires and emotions. The core of this principle of gung fu is Tao – the spontaneity of the universe. The word Tao has no exact equivalent in the English Language. To render it into the Way, or the “principle” or the “law” is to give it too narrow an interpretation. Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, described Tao in the following words:
The Way that can be expressed in words is not the eternal Way;
the Name that can be uttered is not the eternal Name.
Conceived of as nameless it is the cause of Heaven and earth.
Conceived of as having a name it is the mother of all things.
Only the man externally free from passion can contemplate its spiritual essence.
He who is clogged by desires can see no more than its outer form.
These two things, the spiritual (Yin) and the material (Yang),
though we call them by different names, are one and the same in their origin.
The sameness is a mystery of the mysteries.
It is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
In Masterpieces of World Philosophy: “Tao is nameless beginning of things, the universal principle underlying everything, the supreme, ultimate pattern, and the principle of growth.” Huston Smith, the author of The World’s Religions, explained Tao as “The Way of Ultimate Reality—the Way or Principle behind all life, or the Way man should order his life to gear in with the Way the universe operates.” Although no one word can substitute its meaning, I have used the word Truth for it—the “Truth” behind gung fu; the “Truth” that every gung fu practitioner should follow. Tao operates in Yin and Yang, a pair of mutually complementary forces that are at work in and behind all phenomena. This principle of Yin-Yang, also known as T’ai Chi, is the basic structure of gung fu. The T’ai Chi, or Grand Terminus, was first drawn more than three thousand years ago by Chou Chun I. The Yang (whiteness) principle represents positiveness, firmness, masculinity, substantiality, brightness, day, heat, and so forth. The Yin (blackness) principle is the opposite. It represents negativeness, softness, femininity, insubstantiality, darkness, night, coldness, and so forth. The basic theory in T’ai Chi is that nothing is so permanent as never to change. In other words, when activity (Yang) reaches the extreme point, it becomes inactivity; and inactivity forms Yin. Extreme inactivity returns to become activity, which is Yang. Activity is the cause of inactivity and vice versa. This system of complementary increasing and decreasing of the principle is continuous. From this one can see that the two forces (Yin-Yang), although they appear to conflict, in reality are mutually interdependent; instead of opposition, there is cooperation and alternation. The application of the principles of Yin-Yang in gung fu are expressed as the Law of Harmony. It states that one should be in harmony with, not in rebellion against, the strength and force of the opposition. This means that one should do nothing that is not natural or spontaneous; the important thing is to not strain in any way. When opponent A uses strength (Yang) on B, B must not resist him (back) with strength; in other words, B does not use positiveness (Yang ) against positiveness (Yang), but yields to A with softness (Yin) and leads A in the direction of his own force, negativeness (Yin) to positiveness (Yang). When A’s strength goes to the extreme, the positiveness (Yang) will change to negativeness (Yin), and B can then take him at his unguarded moment and attack with force (Yang). Thus the whole process is not unnatural or strained; B fits his movement harmoniously and continuously into that of A without resisting or striving.
The above idea gives rise to a closely related law, the Law of Noninterference with Nature, which teaches a gung fu man to forget about himself and follow his opponent instead of himself; he does not move ahead but responds to the fitting influence. The basic idea is to defeat the opponent by yielding to him and using his own strength. That is why a gung fu man never asserts himself against his opponent, and never puts himself in frontal opposition to the direction of his opponents force. When being attacked, he will not resist, but will control the attack by swinging with it. This law illustrates the principles of nonresistance and nonviolence, which were founded on the idea that the branches of a fir tree snap under the weight of the snow, while the simple reeds, weaker but more supple, can overcome it. In the I’Ching, Confucius illustrated this: “To stand in the stream is a datum of nature; one must follow and flow with it.” In the Tao Teh Ching, the gospel of Taoism, Lao-tzu pointed out to us the value of gentleness. Contrary to common belief, the Yin principle, as softness and pliableness, is to be associated with life and survival. Because he can yield, a man can survive. In contrast, the Yang principle, which is assumed to be rigorous and hard, makes a man break under pressure (note the last two lines, which make a fair description of revolution as many generations of people have seen it):
Alive, a man is supple, soft;
In death, unbending, rigorous.
All creatures, grass and trees, alive
Are plastic but are pliant too,
And dead, are friable and dry.
Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And yielding softness, company of life;
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the ax.
The strong and mighty topple from their place;
The soft and yielding rise above them all.
The way of movement in gung fu is closely related to the movement of the mind. In fact, the mind is trained to direct the movement of the body. The mind wills and the body behaves. As the mind is to direct the bodily movements, the way to control the mind is important; but it is not an easy task. In his book, Glen Clark mentioned some of the emotional disturbances in athletics:
Every conflicting centre, every extraneous, disrupting, decentralizing emotion, jars the natural rhythm and reduces a man’s efficiency on the gridiron far more seriously than physical jars and bodily conflicts can ever jar him. The emotions that destroy the inner rhythm of a man are hatred, jealousy, lust, envy, pride, vanity, covetousness and fear.
To perform the right technique in gung fu, physical loosening must be continued in a mental and spiritual loosening, so as to make the mind not only agile but free. In order to accomplish this, a gung fu man has to remain quiet and calm and to master the principle of no-mindedness (wu hsin). No-mindedness is not a blank mind that excludes all emotions; nor is it simply calmness and quietness of the mind. Although quietude and calmness are important, it is the “non-graspiness” of the mind that mainly constitutes the principle of no-mindedness. A gung fu man employs his mind as a mirror—it grasps nothing and it refuses nothing; it receives but does not keep. As Alan Watts puts it, the no-mindedness is “a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.” What he means is, let the mind think what it likes without interference by the separate thinker or ego within oneself. So long as it thinks what it wants, there is absolutely no effort in letting it go; and the disappearance of the effort to let go is precisely the disappearance of the separate thinker. There is nothing to try to do, for whatever comes up moment by moment is accepted, including nonacceptance. No-mindedness is then not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling is not sticky or blocked. It is a mind immune to emotional influences. “Like this river, everything is flowing on ceaselessly without cessation or standing still.” No-mindedness is employing the whole mind as we use the eyes when we rest them upon various objects but make no special effort to take anything in. Chuang-tzu, the disciple of Lao-tzu, stated:
The baby looks at things all day without winking, that is because his eyes are not focussed on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it. These are the principles of mental hygiene.
Therefore, concentration in gung fu does not have the usual sense of restricting the attention to a single sense object; it is simply a quiet awareness of whatever happens to be here and now. Such concentration can be illustrated by an audience at a football game; instead of a concentrated attention on the player who has the ball, they have an awareness of the whole football field. In a similar way, a gung fu man’s mind is concentrated by not dwelling on any particular part of the opponent. This is especially true when he deals with many opponents. For instance, suppose ten men are attacking him, each in succession ready to strike him down. As soon as one is disposed of, he will move onto another without permitting the mind to “stop” with any. However rapidly one blow may follow another he leaves no time to intervene between the two. Every one of the ten will thus be successively and successfully dealt with. This is possible only when the mind moves from one object to another without being “stopped” or arrested by anything. If the mind is unable to move on in this fashion, it is sure to lose the combat somewhere between two encounters. The mind is present everywhere because it is nowhere attached to any particular object. And it can remain present because, even when relating to this or that object, it does not cling to it. The flow of thought is like water filling a pond, which is always ready to flow off again. It can work its inexhaustible power because it is free, and it can be open to everything because it is empty. This can be compared with what Chang Chen Chi called “Serene Reflection.” He wrote: “Serene means tranquillity of no thought, and reflection means vivid and clear awareness. Therefore, serene reflection is clear awareness of no-thought.” As stated earlier, a gung fu man aims at harmony with himself and his opponent. Also, being in harmony with one’s opponent is possible not through force, which provokes conflicts and reactions, but through a yielding to the opponent’s force. In other words, a gung fu man promotes the spontaneous development of his opponent and does not venture to interfere by his own action. He loses himself by giving up all subjective feelings and individuality, and he becomes one with his opponent. Inside his mind, oppositions have become mutually cooperative instead of mutually exclusive. When his private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not his own he then achieves the supreme action, non-action (wu we). Wu means “not” or “non” and we means “action,” “doing,” “striving,” “straining,” or “busyness.” Wu we doesn’t really mean doing nothing, but letting one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself. Wu we, in gung fu, means spontaneous action or spirit-action, in the sense that the governing force is the mind and not the senses. During sparring, a gung fu man learns to forget about himself and follow the movement of his opponent, leaving his mind free to make its own counter movement without any interfering deliberation. He frees himself from all mental suggestions of resistance and adopts a supple attitude. His actions are all performed without self-assertion; he lets his mind remain spontaneous and ungrasped. As soon as he stops to think, his flow of movement will be disturbed and his opponent will immediately strike him. Every action therefore has to be done “unintentionally” without ever “trying.” Through wu we, a “reposeful ease” is secured. This passive achievement, as Chuang-tzu pointed out, will free a gung fu man from striving and straining himself:
A yielding will has a reposeful ease, soft as downy feathers, A quietude, a shrinking from action, an appearance of inability to do. Placidly free from anxiety, one acts with the opportune time; one moves and revolves in the line of creation. One does not move ahead but responds to the fitting influences.
Establish nothing in regard to oneself. Let things be what they are, move like water, rest like a mirror, respond like an echo, pass quickly like the nonexistent, and be quiet as purity. Those who gain, lose. Do not precede others, always follow them.
The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu we is water:
Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.
The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but moulds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallises into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu we:
The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.
The world is full of people who are determined to be somebody or to give trouble. They want to get ahead, to stand out. Such ambition has no use for a gung fu man, who rejects all forms of self-assertiveness and competition:
One who tries to stand on tiptoe cannot stand still. One who stretches his legs too far cannot walk. One who advertises himself too much is ignored. One who is too insistent on his own view finds few to agree with him. One who claims too much credit does not get even what he deserves. One who is too proud is soon humiliated. These are condemned as extremes of greediness and self-destructive activity. Therefore, one who acts naturally avoids such extremes.
Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.
Stop your sense, let sharp things be blunted,
Tangles resolved, the light tempered and turmoil subdued;
For this is mystic unity in which the wise man is moved
Neither by affection nor yet by estrangement,
Or profit or loss or honour or shame.
Accordingly, by all the world, he is held highest.
A gung fu man, if he is really good, is not proud at all. “Pride,” according to Mr. Eric Hoffer, “is a sense of worth that derives from something that is not organically part of oneself.” Pride emphasises the importance of the superiority of a person’s status in the eyes of others. There is fear and insecurity in pride because when a person aims at being highly esteemed and achieves such status, he is automatically involved in the fear of losing his status. Then protection of his status appears to be his most important need, and this creates anxiety. Mr. Hoffer further states that: “The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. One is proud when he identifies himself with an imaginary self; the core of pride is self rejection.” As we know, gung fu is aiming at self cultivation, and the inner self is one’s true self. So in order to realise his true self, a gung fu man lives without being dependent upon the opinion of others. Since he is completely self-sufficient he can have no fear of not being esteemed. A gung fu man devotes himself to being self-sufficient and never depends upon the external rating by others for his happiness. A gung fu master, unlike the beginner, holds himself in reserve, is quiet and unassuming, without the lest desire to show off. Under the influence of gung fu training his proficiency becomes spiritual, and he himself, grown ever freer through spiritual struggle, is transformed. To him, fame and status mean nothing. Thus wu we is the art of artlessness, the principle of no-principle. To state it in terms of gung fu, the genuine beginner knows nothing about the way of blocking and striking, and much less about his concern for himself. When an opponent tries to strike him, he “instinctively” parries it. This is all he can do. But as soon as his training starts, he is taught how to defend and attack, where to keep the mind, and many other technical tricks—which makes his mind “stop” at various junctures. For this reason whenever he tries to strike the opponent he feels unusually hampered (he has lost altogether the original sense of innocence and freedom). But as months and years go by, as his training acquires fuller maturity, his bodily attitude and his way of managing the technique toward no-mindedness come to resemble the state of mind he had at the very beginning of training when he knew nothing, when he was altogether ignorant of the art. The beginning and the end thus turn into next-door neighbours. In the musical scale, one may start with the lowest pitch and gradually ascend to the highest. When the highest is reached, one finds it is located next to the lowest. In a similar way, when the highest stage is reached in the study of Taoist teaching, a gung fu man turns into a kind of simpleton who knows nothing of Tao, nothing of its teachings, and is devoid of all learning. Intellectual calculations are lost sight of and a state of no-mindedness prevails. When the ultimate perfection is attained, the body and limbs perform by themselves what is assigned to them to do with no interference from the mind. The technical skill is so automatic it is completely divorced from conscious efforts. There are big differences between the Chinese hygiene and the Western hygiene. Some of the obvious ones are Chinese exercise is rhythmic, whereas the Western is dynamic and full of tension; the Chinese exercise seeks to merge harmoniously with nature, whereas the Western dominates it; the Chinese exercise is both a way of life and a mental cultivation, while the Western exercise is merely a sport or a physical calisthenic. Perhaps the main difference is the fact that Chinese hygiene is Yin (softness), while Western is Yang (positiveness). We can compare the Western mind with an oak tree that stands firm and rigid against the strong wind. When the wind becomes stronger, the oak tree cracks. The Chinese mind, on the other hand, is like the bamboo that bends with the strong wind. When the wind ceases (that is, when it goes to the extreme and changes), the bamboo springs back stronger than before. Western hygiene is a gratuitous waste of energy. The overexertion and over development of bodily organs involved in Western athletics is detrimental to one’s health. Chinese hygiene, on the other hand, throws its emphasis on conservation of energy; the principle is always that of moderation without going to the extreme. Whatever exercise there may be consists of harmonious movements calculated to normalise but not excite one’s bodily regimen. It starts out with a mental regimen as a basis, in which the sole object is to bring about peace and calmness of mind. With this as a basis, it aims at stimulating the normal functioning of the internal process of respiration and blood circulation.