My personal preference is inner development through the life of a hermit (i.e., ‘eremite’) – rather than through the ‘coenobitic’ (i.e., ‘community-based’) life of a monk living in a cloistered - but interacting community. This may stem from my upbringing as a Chinese-Buddhist and my experience of being a Buddhist monastic attached to a Ch’an lineage in Hong Kong – but ordered to spend hours, days, weeks, months and years sitting alone in the local Name Temple of a Hakka village in the New Territories. This also included a period of some months sat in the isolation of the Devonshire moors in the UK – where the weather (and culture) was very different! The details do not really matter – what matters is the quality of the ‘inner gazing’. Whilst experiencing further and higher education in the UK, for reasons I cannot fathom, I was befriended by a number of Irish Roman Catholic priests and at least one Anglican vicar. As I do not believe in a theistic god – this was something of a surprise to me and them! Those I knew were good people – despite others not being so good (due to their conditioning) – such is life and there is no judgement on my part. People are human-beings and life does not always unfold slowly or as we would like it to.
I would say that what is important is the ‘quality’ of the ‘gaze’ as it is turned within. Many have endless problems perfecting the ‘gaze’ and so cannot ‘look within’ clearly. This is a common problem – East and West. Once the ‘gaze’ is perfected – it becomes vast and all-inclusive like a wide wall! Bodhidharma spoke of this but it is a concept often mistranslated or misunderstood. A mature mind is expansive like the surface of a wall-face that never ends – as if a practitioner is sat meditating with ‘open-eyes’ in-front of a wall – the edges of which cannot be perceived when the gaze does not ‘wobble’! An external wall (that does not ‘move’) is like the ‘empty mind ground’ that lies deep within! If a practitioner spends hours contemplating an external object that stands as a metaphor for an internal level of attainment – then eventually the internal level will spontaneously ‘materialise’! This is why Bodhidharma came from the West – at least this is what the Caodong (Japanese: ‘Soto’) Masters say.
I was taught Chinese martial arts from a young child as a cultural pursuit which equated to the necessity of ‘communal defence’. This was the ancient Hakka tradition – with our Great Master Chan Tin Sang (1924-1993) - being the son of the Chan Family Name Clan Leader. He – and the Chan Family Clan – fought the Imperial Japanese invaders of Hong Kong from 1941-1945 – after the British Army was over-run in the region. The Sikhs in the Hong Kong Police changed sides and joined the Japanese and assisted in the massacre of ethnic Chinese and Europeans. For this treachery the Sikhs were forever expelled from the British Police and Military! Japanese soldiers stormed through hospitals raping nurses and bayonetting the ill and the wounded in their beds! At least 10,000 Hakka men, women and children died as a consequence of those years of resistance! The returning British even raised a monument praising the bravery of the Hakka people! I do not support warfare and would prefer a world without it – but as long as some humans use force to persecute other groups of humans – we must defend ourselves or die-out.
Master Chan Tin Sang possessed a progressive mind-set and believed in developing a better world – this is why he decided to bring his family to the UK in 1956. It was a difficult time of transition – but transition he did. Coping with the very real problems of the outer world is a skill a true spiritual martial artist must acquire. In this regard, this path is very much like that of Vimalakirti – the enlightened lay-man who was a contemporary of the Buddha. He had four wives and plenty of children – and yet never broke the vow demanding celibacy! He taught that the ‘Mind Precept’ is the essence of ALL monastic and Bodhisattva vows (a Chinese monastic must take and uphold the Vinaya and Bodhisattva Vows)! This is the penetrating and realising the ‘empty mind ground’ or that part of perception – non-perception that is the basis of all human ‘awareness’. The ‘empty mind ground’ is what the ancient Greeks refer to as the ‘psyche’ - or ‘breath of life’. It is interesting that the ancient Greeks understood that ‘breath’ and the ‘essence of conscious awareness’ are one and the same at the deepest level of perceptual attainment. Later, the Christian theologians re-interpreted the Greek term ‘psyche’ to mean ‘soul’ (possibly of Germanic origin) to refer to a movable spiritual entity that enters the mind and body at conception – and leaves the body at the point of death, etc.
As I get older it becomes ever clearer to me that martial arts mastery is not ‘physical’ but rather conceptual. It is a mind-body nexus of permanent and intimate association. Such an attainment is no longer limited to designated periods of physical training – but is present whether awake or asleep. It exists as the backdrop to everyday life and influences opinions and behaviour. It is an innate awareness of the ‘position’, ‘alignment’ and ‘interaction’ of the joints, the long bone-shafts and the solid ground. Every position and movement are permanently ‘powerful’ with no hesitation, fore-thought or doubt present. The seated meditation position is as combatively perfect as standing in stance, sat in chair or lifting up a weight, etc. The consciousness is calm, vast and unruffled like a perfect seascape at sunset! Always available bodyweight grants instant ‘power’ without any sense of weakness or problem with attitude. Each moment naturally folds into the next and there is no worry, contradiction or complication. There is only the eternal perfected moment of being – clear and vast for all to see!
Being a hermit means that a spiritual practitioner does not get entangled in the world he or she happens to exist within. Sitting ‘still’ and ‘clear’ means that the essence of being in the world is understood to be nothing but an all-embracing ‘void’ of reality that has no beginning and end. The material body exists within this ‘void’ and seems to be ‘nothing’ when it is required to ‘disappear’ in an instant. This happens when an opponent cannot ‘perceive’ your presence when stood in-front of them. On the other hand, when the ‘void’ needs to manifest with the heaviness of a mountain – then the body becomes ‘solid’ and ‘immovable’ for all concerned. This has to be the case as there is no longer any duality to befuddle understanding and certainly nowhere for ‘hatred’ or ‘anger’ to manifest and sully the situation. Indeed, the underlying frequency of human love continues to ‘colour’ the entire situation regardless of the nature of the encounter. This is what happens when the seated meditation posture is assumed correctly and the empty mind ground penetrated. This is what it means to be a monastic who practices the hermetic path of self-development and material transcendence!
Probably from around 35-years onward, a serious practitioner of traditional Chinese martial arts should be beginning the slow transition from purely ‘external’ to predominately ‘internal’ training methods, exercises and understandings. The point of this is purely age-related – as we get older, we see more in different ways to a younger person – who naturally possesses a different type strength (which changes as age progresses). If a practitioner does not possess access to correct instruction, then he or she will not ‘understand’ how to accommodate these age-related changes, and almost always will ‘give-up’ their practice. Another factor that needs to be considered is the age that training start for an individual, as this will affect what objectives should realistically be sought-after. However, prior to 35-years old, a practitioner of gongfu should have experienced much of the ‘hard’, ‘external’ training, understand psychological and physical suffering (through direct experience), and ‘know’ how to defend themselves during a violent encounter. External ‘sensitivity’ training is very different from ‘internal’ sensitivity training. The latter example involves the turning of the mind’s awareness ‘inward’ so that a) the blood flow can be sensed, and b) after a deep-breath, the oxygen can be felt as it distributes throughout and around the entirety of the body! The point of ‘external’ and ‘internal’ training is a perfect ‘integration’ (zagong) of the two aspects so that qi-power can be manifested at anywhere on a scale from imperceptible to ‘massive’ and ‘highly destructive’. If none of this makes any sense, then train harder!
As we get older, our perception of our training changes. This is not only crucial, but also essential. Getting old is important for Chinese martial arts mastery. Getting old is not an error or a failure. We must give-up all of our younger perceptions as they are now out of date. Younger perceptions are for younger people as that is where they belong. Ego ad its ‘giving-up’ is the key. Young people are taught that ‘winning’ is everything in this (Western) culture, but in China the prevailing attitude is that ‘cooperation’ and ‘assisting’ one another are the glue that holds a civilised society together. Even ‘sparring’ in the Chinese cultural sense is very different to its ‘hate filled’ Western counter-part. An opponent exists, within the training context, to assist you to develop, they do not exist as cannon-fodder for the ego! Training to boost the ego means that when the body ages and changes, the practitioner quite naturally ‘gives-up’ as he or she can no longer muster the required aggression to train or fight! What a pointless waste of time all this is! Grace under pressure is what Westerners should be aspiring to achieve. Psychological and physical relaxation in the face of potential violence and danger is the standard once the physical techniques of combat have been mastered! Getting older is important to deepen understanding and develop a more profound perception of reality. Fighting is awareness and understanding which manifests evenly through both ‘stillness’ and ‘movement’ performed at the right moment! Most people find it very difficult to be ‘still’, although generally people think they can ‘move’ around quite well. Both assumptions are false. Clearing and deepening perception will lead to correct ‘stillness 'of body and mind. Again, age leads to an enhanced awareness through which the body moves with an almost divine capability regardless of circumstance! This is why getting older is important and to be welcomed!
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.