The Times A-Changin’

On the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ Bob Dylan sang :-

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

This song came to mind when I read this article Why Kung Fu Masters Refuse to Teach. In this article there is this passage :-

Kung fu is not a just fighting art to today’s masters, but also a path toward enlightenment. Wrapping kung fu up with Taoist or Zen Buddhist philosophy and linking the quasi-religious martial art with the concept of internal qi gong is basically canon for many traditional martial artists.

When I read it I could not help but think that its funny for these masters to bring up enlightenment when what they are quoted as saying makes them a pretty unenlightened bunch. Now, I have a certain respect for masters since I have a few myself but you have to remember a master is a person after all, warts and all, and until they are declared to be a god of sorts they are not infallible.

Sometimes the hole that we are in is the hole we dug ourselves. Sometimes we may not wish for change or to change but change is certainly a-coming like it or not. So whatcha gonna do when change is here?

In the article it said :-

….They made it clear that the processes through which they learned Kung Fu were integral to the arts and that it would not be possible to teach properly if things were made ‘easier.’…Furthermore, they said that even if they wanted to change the methods, they could not, because they made an oath and were obligated to continue teaching the way that they were taught by their masters. One commented:

It has carried on from generations to generations in this way. From master to student through time. So we can’t do it freely as we wish. We must respect the way things were done. This is how we respect our masters.

I understand something about tradition. But is it true that changing tradition will harm the art? Or improve it? Actually, what is tradition? In line with this thought a famous Zen koan from the Gateless Gate which goes “Show me your Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.” came to mind. If you do not know what the Koan means read the explanation here; which I also reproduced below :-

What face did you have before your parents were born? The question isn’t hard. It’s like asking a sunflower what it was before it was a sunflower, or the wind before it was wind? A true Zen master never asks to see something that isn’t already there.

When you understand this Koan you will realize that this argument about tradition is well, how to put it nicely, plain silly. There are good things about tradition but not when tradition has lost its relevance, meaning and becomes an obstacle to progress, or even a major factor to obsolescence.

Bringing up respect is just an excuse, a convenient one to stop those clamoring for change. If the arts themselves never changed could they have become what they became? Could we have the teachings of the Yang family that Grandmaster Wei Shuren transmitted if Yang Luchan or somebody along the line did not change it from Chen style to Yang style? But then if in the name of tradition the art has deteriorated in actual skills then are we not actually dishonoring the tradition of the true art?

Sometimes I wonder if the old-timers are trying to protect the art or their standing (or perhaps rice bowl as well) when they say :-

A real master can only teach real kung fu to his disciple who learns under him for at least 10 years in order to know his character well or he will create problems. We’ll not teach the practical use of Kung Fu to those who learn only 2 or 3 years. This is the traditional culture. That’s why a lot becomes extinct. Chinese traditional kung fu is like this.

I don’t know what tradition they are from and maybe they do have a point based on their respective line. But I know its not always like that. To say so is inaccurate. When Grandmaster Nip Chee Fei taught my teacher, Master Leong, he did not wait for 10 years to know his character before teaching the real art. Same for my teacher of the Grandmaster Wei Shuren lineage.

In both instances, they got the teachings fairly early and quickly. However, it does not mean that they mastered the art early either. To do so they had to put in more dedicated hard work, persistent and consistent training than the average student who play play (玩玩) rather than learn seriously.

From my own teaching experience I find that it does not matter how much in-depth or number of corrections I offer to a student. He will not progress as long as he does not (a) make the effort to change (b) put in the time to make the change (c) keep training to make the change permanent.

Tomorrow if Chinese martial arts were to die out do not only blame the student. The teacher is equally at fault. After all, the sound of one hand clapping is a soundless clap.


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