In my early years of martial arts training, I can remember countless times when I would have a hard time in front of my teacher. I would practice daily and feel as though I was coming along very well, but if it was in front of my teacher it was as if I hardly practiced at all. I may as well have been performing on uneven ground. I felt the imagined weight of judgment of all the great masters of the past saying, “What have you done with our art?” I would lose my balance, get shaky or unstable in my stances and easily get out of breath.
This went on until my next teacher spoke to me about the importance of performing in front of others and/or participating in competitions. He explained about courage and concentration. He compared it to finding yourself in a situation where you needed to physically defend yourself. How would you perform? What he was really talking about was overcoming the ego.
Growing up with sports and competition as much a part of me as eating and sleeping, when I came upon the practice of Kung Fu, I saw something completely different. I never saw it as a sport or had any interest in winning trophies (plenty of those just gathering dust in a closet). Trusting my teacher’s advice, I reluctantly began participating in tournaments.
There were no local tournaments specifically for Kung Fu (supporting my position that it wasn’t a sport) but there were plenty of opportunities to compete with tae kwon do or various karate styles.
I entered with one goal in mind: to overcome my fear and to be able to perform at the best of my ability, regardless of the situation I was in or who was watching. And there were only two things that mattered when I would finish: my teacher’s reaction and how I sincerely felt inside. Winning wasn’t a concern.
In the first few competitions I would experience excessive nervousness. My body wouldn’t feel like it was mine, at least not the one I used when I practiced on my own. It was worse than just being in front of my teacher (who was also there watching). Loosening up was very difficult. I would feel stiff and have a hard time with balance. Sinking into a stance was just not happening. Fatigue would come quickly.
Then one time while performing one of the most advanced Shaolin Long Fist weapon sets I had a breakthrough. I started out as usual with the first few steps a bit shaky, but then something just snapped in my mind and I let go. Suddenly, I felt as if I was by myself practicing in the park. The movements began to flow, the stances became solid and the breath was under control. I became very focused and could feel what I was doing. I was living it. When I was finished, I didn’t even stay for the judges’ scores. I saw the look of pride on my teacher’s face, as if to say, “What came over you?” and I knew how I felt inside. No more need to participate in these events.
I discovered what it was my second teacher was trying to teach me: without the mind on your side your physical skills are useless.
Gua Testing with the Master
We don’t participate in tournaments here, but an equal opportunity for every qualified student is to test in front of Master Bok-Nam Park. You get to show what you know, nothing more, nothing less. Wherever your development is, is where it is. Any reluctance to test is just your ego talking: “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not ready”, “I don’t need to”, “I don’t care about that”, etc. etc. Don’t do it to pass. Just do the best you can. Do it for the experience. Do it to share with others and to support them. Do it for the opportunity to grow.
We practice Ch’iang Shan Ba Gua Zhang. “Ch’iang Shan” is the name that Master Park was given by his teacher. He’s it. This is his system. To have the opportunity to show the master how you’re coming along is a privilege. Do you have any idea how many Aikido practitioners would give their right arm to be able to test in front of O-Sensei (Ueshiba)? How many would show up for a workshop? What about Shotokan Karate practitioners getting the same chance with their founder Master Funikoshi?
Thing is, these great masters of the past are no longer with us. Their time has passed. But Master Park is still here, still willing to come and spend his time with us, and still interested in helping the generation once removed from his direct teaching.
Like a grandparent caring for his grandchildren, Shizu (Grand-Shifu) has nothing but the highest hopes for the future of his Ba Gua Zhang making a difference in the lives of it’s practitioners long after he is gone. He came to this country to spread the art.
Every visit from Master Park is one closer to his last (retirement nears). How might the perspective of over 40 years experience effect your practice? You have an opportunity to get feedback from “Ch’iang Shan” himself, the highest level judge of this art.
Originally Published August, 2005