Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Inspired by Tao Te Ching - chapter 44



My translation of chapter 44 of Tao Te Ching:

Your fame or your body, which is more important? (Paul's comment: the answer is obvious)
Your body or your possessions, which is more valuable? (Paul's comment: the answer is obvious)
Gaining possession or losing possession, which causes distress? (Paul's comment: the answer is obvious)
That's why
the more we treasure something, the more impending unhappiness we have stored up;
the more we possess, the more sadness will come in time of lost.
Content with the little possession that we have, we harbor no chance to being disgraced,
Knowing when to stop early, we will never find ourselves caught in a dangerous situation,
And we can stay happy forever.

Paul's comment: The essence of this chapter is in the last three lines. The logic lies before these lines. Whether or not one buys Lao Tz's logic is another issue. At the very least, Lao Tz tried to support his contention with arguments rather than as if preaching some "eternal truth" for everybody to follow. He was not a religious guru, he was in kinship with today's free spirited intellect. He was an anarchist more than a liberal. And he certain hated autocracy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Umbrella revolution and self-defense

The Umbrella protests have been running in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks, with no sign of any rationale solution satisfactory to all parties. There has been clashes with the police who used tear gas, pepper sprays, batons, and protected with professional protective gears. On the other hand, the protestors used more amateurish stuffs: umbrellas, surgical masks, goggles and plastic wraps. In a conflict situation, it is natural to predict that the police will be the aggressor and the protestors the defender. Who is on the right side, morally and legally, is another matter. What is interesting here is that a few days ago, a pro-establishment legislator claimed that the protestors is the aggressor citing that they used umbrellas. He further supported his claims by saying that the legendary martial artist (whose life stories have been inspiring numerous kung fu movies) Huang Fei Hung (黄飛鴻) was famous for using a simple umbrella as his weapon. And nowadays students of master Huang's lineage still practiced a kung fu set using umbrella as weapon.

The questions that I am interested in are: What is the role of weapon in self-defense? And what are the objectives of self-defense?

Some traditional martial artists like to say that their art is to be used for self-defense instead of as sport, as in sports-MMA. To put their traditional practice at a higher level of prestige, sometimes they will claim that their art is more superior because they are more deadly!

Should self-defense techniques be deadly?

Professional fighters are usually prohibited by his affiliated associations to fight in the street - even self-defense pleads will be frowned upon, a high degree of burden of proof will be laid upon the fighter in case of judgment. Years ago prominent Sumo wrestler Asashōryū, one of the greatest Yokozunas, was forced into retirement after found punching a bartender (perhaps bouncer) in a casual brawl at a bar. The bodies of professional fighters are their weapons and are quite deadly, but they won't use it. Apart from the rules of his affiliated association, a professional fighter, who can be considered armed when facing a common civilian, will not dare to risk spending the rest of his life behind bars through inappropriate level of violence expressed in the slightest provocation. A friend of mine, a champion Muay Thai fighter, told me many years ago that he would try his best to avoid conflict situations. "It is only those who know little who like to engage in a street fight - besides the gangsters". The best way to avoid trouble, as he told me, is get away from it rather than fight your way out of it - because, him being a professional fighter, may end up in the losing end - either he wins or losses.

Having said that avoidance is only evading the issue of setting the objectives for self-defense. What are the objectives of self-defense, assuming that we fail to avoid a certain conflict situation?

The first objective in self defense is self-protection. Even the police, who are armed and equipped, need to protect themselves, helmet and shield are examples. In the Umbrella revolution, the protective gears (in particular the umbrellas) of the protestors aim at protection against tear gas and pepper spray. It is interesting to note that at some stage of the protests, when some police used batons, some protestors used industrial helmets and self-made forearm pads and body shields for protection. In martial art, it is blocks and evasion techniques plus the ability to absorb (minor) punches and the ability to do (simply) break-falls.

The second objective in self defense is counter attack appropriate to the level of attack. For the protestors it is a non-issue, and similar an non-issue for professional fighters in common minor conflict situations. For the common citizens, counter attack is to deter further attack rather than to inflict deadly/lethal harms, for most conflict situations. It is interesting to note that the pro-establishment legislator above had "cleverly" changing the concept of umbrella, used by protestors, as protective gears into as weapons of counter-attack. The fact is some protestors were arrested for some legal reasons (whether morally or legally valid or not is another issue) but none was arrested for "attacking" police with umbrella!

Umbrella revolution in Hong Kong

Monday, October 13, 2014

Legend and PR in martial art

People love stories and they love legends, keen to be part of them, in their imagination if not in reality. Lovers would cry over Romeo and Juliet (and [for the saner many] don’t imitate them) and tai chi practitioners dreamed of themselves as Unbeatable Yang, the legendary Yang-style grandmaster who pretended to be a dumb servant, according to a popular fiction that later turned into legendary “truth”, learned his art from a Chen-style master who refused to teach anybody not a Chen. I loved the stories as a kid and still love them today. They feed my imagination and fire my determination to learn. And I belong to the saner many.

It is the same in religion. A few years ago, I chatted with a brother-in-law of mine, a Caucasian who was (and still is) a minister in Canada about the life story of Jesus. “Of course it is not history, as is the history being taught in our Universities. It is a legendary story for preaching Christianity and to convert people”. And my brother-in-law belongs to the saner many too.

Recently I commented on a post in one of my internet friend’s blog and the post was written by a guest author, a sifu resided in the Gulf region - not that the never-ending crisis in the region has anything to do with the topic discussed here. Anyway I mentioned some historical facts in Chinese history concerning the use of certain weapon in the past, to correct apparent errors in the article (which I happen to be familiar about, as I have been living in Hong Kong all my life).

I then realized that I was caught in a cross-fire – apparently some one was trying to create a new legend, unsurprisingly, using favorable data, and apparently for PR purpose. More mentions of misinformation by other commenters. Then I recalled a teaching of my late father “Don’t openly comment on other sifu’s teaching because their livelihood might depend on it”. Old wisdom, whether or not it is still applicable today is another issue, though my initial response was: perhaps I should not have made the comment in the first place. I have no regret.

Today a product or service needs marketing and PR. Every single TV commercial is trying to build a good image story for its product or service. Every product or service would like to create a legend for itself. In most cases, people don’t care about the intricacies (who care about the technical details of Pepsi challenge, other than the image or perception of Pepsi winning the challenge!), they care about image (assuming that no major negative on the part of the physical product or service itself). The whole modern economy builds on marketing, aka legends and myths.

One caveat for marketer (including martial artists marketing their lineage/skills): In the past, people tended to be more tolerant on whatever were being said in legends (marketing/PR). Today, any perceived intentional tampering of the facts, if being found out, will most likely back-fire.  It is OK for Pepsi to claim victory in its Pepsi challenge (though nobody actually bought a cola drink without knowing its brand-name first), it will be disastrous for Pepsi's image if the company had faked the statistics.

The Pepsi Challenge

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Umbrella Revolution

Date - 30 September 2014, Place - Hong Kong 

When people speak with one voice, high mounts can be moved.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Essential visualization

Visualization is an important energy source of the internal arts. Meditators use all kinds of visualization (not meant to discourage my more rationally minded readers, sometimes it can be heading towards the direction of superstition, despite this unfavorable description, it can still work for some people who strongly believe!) Visualization is Yi (意 or 意念) in Chinese, referencing the various internal martial arts with the word Yi (意), like XingYi (形意), Yi (意) and XinYi (心意). In modern terminology, Yi means mind. And mind-body exercises are meant to synchronize our mind with our body for effective results.

What are the essential elements of visualization?  As with other aspects of the internal arts, actual usage is a far better explanation than theory alone. Let me take an example: Visualizing holding a big elastic ball in zhan zhuang: squeezes it and allows it to bounce back. Before I go into detail explanations, one more learning hurdle I want to overcome first.

I can't visualize! Everybody can visualize, even, or especially, small kids. A two dimensional small (TV) or big (movie) images enacting unrealistic human dramas can wet our eyes. And small kids are easy to get frightened, and for some still being frightened for a couple of days more, after seeing a horror movie, so much so, certain horror movies, in addition to porn, are barred from under-aged kids, for their psychological benefits. Music lovers are moved by Beethoven or the Beetles depending on individual taste. Shakespeare's dramas moved a smaller group while housewives choose to be move by soap dramas.

Visualization of the internal arts is a bit more tricky. No excitement! Primarily because the results to be sought after is a calm mind rather than an excited mind (with the exception of combat training in which visualization to be a fierce dragon makes some sense). Therefore visualization in the internal arts requires some mindful determination, and a system to getting a student's mind and body into a workable state or program for effective visualization.

What is effective visualization? Simply put it is generation of chi, growth of chi and management of chi.

The systems of visualization in the various internal arts vary a lot. Yet their essential theory stays the same. First the same definition of effectiveness. Second a system activating both the body and mind. Third there will be internal variation of the system for different training objectives and to be finely-adjusted for different students and/or stages of training, and finally, and most importantly, the "excited points" shall not be the instinctively aroused points, rather shall be the "un-aroused points". In Taoist terminology, it is called "the natural path breeds normal human being, the opposite path breeds immortality (順則成人,逆則成仙)". In modern terminology, it is called "sublimation of energy".

This post will not venture into explaining the full domain of the subject matter - which is impossible for a short article anyway. So I limit my exposition to one example. The task of filtering out the essentials from this example I leave to my readers. My example: visualize holding a big elastic ball in zhan zhuang, with squeezing it and allowing it to bounce back - minutely or nanoly. Effective visualization comes with the following techniques:

  1. A meditative mode of mind (to facilitate suspension of disbelief and for effective relaxation).
  2. Mind focusing on selected focusing points while the rest of the body to relax.
  3. Focusing points for the ball example: (a) necessary focusing points: stretched hands (b) additional focusing points: triceps close to shoulder joints (closer than indicated on photo below).
  4. Massage additional focusing points to induce localized chi between exercise.
  5. Use muscles at additional focusing points to squeeze and release the elastic ball. The direction of power application is left and right (i.e. along the x-axis).
  6. The squeeze and release will activate chi at the shoulder blades (test of effectiveness).
  7. Supplementary visualization to consolidate progress: holding a stationery ball with gradually increasing (and gradually reducing) weight - without squeezing the ball.
  8. Test of effectiveness: tiredness due to whole upper body exercise.
Intermediate students (with at least one to two years training) can learn effectively from the above instruction. More junior students should consult their seniors or teacher, otherwise you might not get the desired results.

Additional focusing points in visualization - the concept of sublimation

Friday, September 26, 2014

On killer instinct

Let's face it. We don't need to train our "killer instinct". Every animal has that killer instinct - aroused most for the two most important survival elements: food and sex (not necessarily in that order). One important point, however, we sometimes seem to forget in our discussion of the subject: survival is above food and sex (excepting those species die after the act of copulation, yet they won't act suicidally trying to achieve impossible copulation).

Now for martial art training. Some schools are fond of advocating the training of "killer instinct". They have a point and they do not have a point.

Let's face it again. An animal's response to conflict situation is either fight or flight. When an animal, for example a lion, is in a strong position, its animal killer instinct will be aroused. It will fight! When the situation is not clear as to who is stronger, for example contending for the lucrative position of being the dominant male, a contender will try its luck, testing its own strength against its opponent, and "kill him" when the situation is favorable, and "fleet from him" when the situation turns out to be unfavorable. A contending lion will not fight "to the last drop of his blood", that would be stupid. Contrary to the claim of some martial artists, an animal will NOT fight to the last drop of his blood.

Running away, in the natural order of things, is not cowardice. It is the best option in the animal world when one is in a weaker position. And we humans have such instinct too. Here comes the "trainers do have a point in cultivating killer instinct". In contact or combat sports, our natural instinct will be "flight" while a facing a (much) stronger adversary. A coach will therefore be needed to instill a "killer instinct" at all times - whether or not his trainee, the fighter for example, is going to face a stronger or weaker opponent. Afterall there are rules and referees, the risk of injury will be minimized. A weaker opponent (in strength or technique) may actually win through luck! And we applaud, the best moment of spectator sports, the underdog wins.

And how about self-defense in the street? I would say it is not a good idea to arouse "killer instinct" under all circumstances. Oftentimes, walking away will be a much better option. Needless to say, it shall be an informed judgment after the testing of strength (and techniques), either in real or mentally. As lions know about it in all ages. A final words, it pays to train ourselves to increase our strength and techniques, both physically and mentally. Worst case scenario: one might need some strength and techniques to walk away from a conflict situation. Who knows?

The stake is high

Taoism and anarchism - with a new translation of Tao Te Ching chapter 80

The political manifestation of Taoism in society is anarchism. My contention.

Lao Tze put a high values on personal freedom, and when extending the community level, community freedom. He put forward his political vision in chapter 80 of Tao Te Ching:


My rendition of Chapter 80 of Tao Te Ching, emphasizing its contemporary relevancy:

Divide a city into small communities with few people each
Let people use tools just good enough to serve their purposes
Let them value longevity, that comes from doing meditation at home, and therefore no need to seek for better lives further away
Let there be boats, but nobody finds any need to use them
Let there are armors but no community finds any necessity to show them off
Let people enjoy simple lives -
in which a few knots are good enough to note down important events
Let them have natural home-grown food
Let them have natural home-made clothes
Let them satisfy themselves with cozy dwellings
And let them preserve their cultural heritage
Each community helps one another only when in need
though each is proximate enough to hear one another's morning calls of roosters and the barking of dogs
Let people of each community age and die to their well-deserved natural age
and find no need to communicate with people outside

Lao Tz's anarchism was a revolt against autocracy, whereas modern anarchism, for example the anarchism of Noam Chomsky, is a revolt against liberalism of Western democracy. Lao Tz and Chomsky shared similar thoughts. Chomsky believes that autocracy is much worst than democracy. Autocracy puts suppressive power on a single person (or party) whose power will filter down to every (or almost every) aspect of citizens' life while liberalism puts it away from the government, but put it onto the hands of wealthy private individuals, companies or individual government agencies. It is easy to see that the former is much worse than the latter. In liberalism, a thinking subject like Noam Chomsky will have his freedom to develop and express his thoughts while in autocracy thinking subjects will likely be considered as enemies to the state (or party etc). For example, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner is still jailed in China today and his wife has been under house-arrest for years (for no other reason than being the laureate's wife!)

One interesting thing to note is that both Lao Tz and Chomsky put community to be the basic unit of structure of governing. It is a practical solution. We can hardly imagine a place able to be governed by individuals who decide on everything collectively on each tiny issue. But than it raises another practical issue: how to organize a community? I suppose Chomsky will say "by individual case, but a general rule will come one day".

My contention is: the danger of abuse of power in the power delegating or sharing process is forever a never-ending issue waiting for future sages to tackle. It will be there as long as we humans have that selfish genes, but then why complain? Our selfish genes made us survive and grow to this day. I can only hope our genes will not drive us to extinction one day.

Noam Chomsky - linguist and anarchist

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