Friday, November 21, 2014

Biased towards action

Chinese are pragmatic and they are biased towards action rather than enjoy arguing and philosophizing, for good and for bad. So much so, some people said there is no such thing as philosophy in the Western sense in classic Chinese philosophical texts as they are taught in local Universities. Although this saying might be going a bit extreme, take Tao Te Ching as an example, this text does look more like a narrative to guide action rather than a meticulously argued analytical text. Moreover, Tao Te Ching is an open text. The openness of the text lies on its usefulness as a text that can guide actions in different domains, as differently read by different readers. It has been regarded as a text to guide the Emperor to run his country (a political text), as secret text with hidden alchemical instructions (a sacred text), a day-to-day guidebook of Tao for...the modern man (!) (a self-help text), a book on chi kung (a mind-body text), an important text for religious Taoism (a religious text) etc. The same for the Book of Change I-Ching, a seemingly oracle book with different "hidden" meaning or agenda.

Recently I read Chomsky's Occupy (Occupy Central is still running in full steam in Hong Kong with more campers added daily and escalating grievances from the public). Not surprisingly, Chomsky is a man of action when his persona is an activist. He avoided unnecessary argument (or avoid being dragged into fruitless arguments). Not by evasion, but through reasoned argument. Here is a good example from a Q&A session. Good food for learning:

Q: The late British philosopher, Martin Hollis, worked extensively on questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality. One of the claims he made was that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic. In short, he argued that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good. He says that history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree; thus, anarchism is too idealistic. Would you mind responding to this objection very quickly, given your commitment to some of the ideals of anarchism?

A: It's possible to respond to arguments. It is not possible to respond to opinions. If someone makes an assertion saying, "Here's what I believe," that's fine -- he can say what he believes, but you can't respond to it. You can ask, what is the basis for your belief? Or, can you provide me with some evidence? What do you know about human nature? Actually, we don't know very much about human nature. So yes, that's an expression of his belief, and he's entitled to make it. We have no idea, nor does he have any idea, if it's true or false. But it doesn't really matter; whatever the truth turns out to be, we will follow the same policies, namely, trying to optimize and maximize freedom, justice, participation, democracy. Those are goals that we'll attempt to realize. Maybe human beings are such that there's a limit to how far they can be realized; okay, we'll still follow the same policies. So whatever one's un-argued assertions may be, it has very little effect on the policy and choices [66-7].

Paul's comment: the questioner does seem to have presented an argument:

If anarchism is to work, human nature must be good.
Since human nature is bad.
Therefore anarchism does not seem to work
And therefore one should give up the route of anarchism

In actual fact, it is an opinion that one (Chomsky) should give up the route of anarchism because it is not guaranteed to work. The Chomsky's answer is that anarchism is one's best available action-option and one should therefore try one's best to achieve the maximum results that anarchism can deliver, and let human nature, if counter-productive/reactionary to a certain degree, serve as a limiting constraint (like limited capital is always a constraint for any entrepreneur).  Chomsky is definitely biased towards action.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The unnatural way of being natural

  1. Is Tai chi and chi kung the most natural way to promote physical fitness and health?
  2. Should tai chi and chi kung therefore be practiced in natural slow movement?
The answer to the first question is yes, while the answer to the second question is no, or a qualified no.

The practice of tai chi and chi kung indeed should be (and are seen to be) practiced in a slow way whenever there is movement. Yet it is not moving slowly in a natural way, like casual strolling in the park. If THAT be the case, there is nothing exciting about the practice of tai chi and chi kung.

The way to practice tai chi and chi kung is far from natural. Take an example. In the practice of standing meditation (zhan zhuang), the most important requirement is "points stretched and body relaxed" and NOT total relaxation. Incidentally this is the same requirement for seated meditation of the Zen type or the Taoist type.  Those who practice seated meditation with total relaxation (even with listening to meditation music) are either practicing day-dreaming or sleep-dreaming.  They might be a bit refreshed after the session, but it is NOT meditation, in the proper sense of the word as practice.

In zhan zhuang, the points (in the beginning stage) are always the fingers and hands (and the toes and feet if one is more sensitive; for those less sensitive students, their toes and feet will be stretching anyway without their conscious effort due to the requirement of "half-asleep while standing"). Now comes the key concept. When a student consciously prepares himself towards the "points stretched and body relaxed" condition, his chi will naturally flow around his body. And with more practice, he can actually feel such flow. In order words, "points stretched and body relaxed" results from a unnatural conscious effort (plus other requirements such as a half-asleep mental state") while the chi flow is the resulting natural process of healing.

I have only used zhan zhuang as an example here. The concept cover (almost) everything in the practice of tai chi and chi kung. In a future post, I shall discuss how the "unnatural way" is practiced during movements.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Haruki Murakami 村上 春樹

A world without walls can be created “in the quiet but sustained effort to keep on singing, to keep on telling stories, stories about a better and freer world to come, without losing heart,” he said.

“We can see [a world without walls] with our own eyes – we can even touch it with our own hands if we try hard.

“I’d like to send this message to the young people in Hong Kong who are struggling against their wall right now at this moment.”

(Murakami is the first Japanese author awarded the Welt Literature Prize by German daily newspaper Die Welt since the 10,000-euro prize was established in 1999.)

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.
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