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!
It is best (or most advantageous) to perfect martial movement during the first half of your life – say aged 0-50 years – and then use that experience to integrate with the changes that happen to the mind and body from 50-100 years, etc. This is the ideal model. However, many people are not in a position to achieve this for various reason, and so a more serious attitude of self-organisation is required. The distractions of youth are interesting and enjoyable, but even when young there should be an inner core of training-attitude that is isolated from the worldly life. This oasis of peace, quiet, tranquillity and harmony will allow for the development of a deep and profound state of mind, the awareness of which will thoroughly ‘penetrate’ all aspects of bodily movement within the martial context. This is the traditional way which becomes ever more important the older a practitioner becomes. Do not become distracted by the ego-accomplishments of worldly-markers as these things, although interesting within their own context, do not give you any understanding or ability to cope with the ageing process. Those who become enmeshed in worldly concern may win this medal, that belt or this competition, etc, and although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, many people involved in such a superficial path simply ‘stop’ training at around 30 years of age because no one ever taught them about ‘what happens next’. If a practitioner must become involved in combat-derived competition, participate quickly, prevail swiftly and leave, as there are much more important martial elements to master.
Form movement is the key to mind, body and environmental mastery. A Form passes on the physical and psychological aspects of the martial lineage concerned. Intense practice when young allows for the dialectical elements of training to continue to permeate (and penetrate) the body and mind long after physical practice has ceased. The physical movements coupled with their reflection in the mind generate spiralling cycles of growth throughout the body-cells that eventually continues even outside of times of formal training. Ageing happens for a reason, and has many positive elements to it, as even young people age. With age comes maturity, experience, understanding, mastery, appreciation, wisdom, compassion, loving-kindness and selflessness. There is a certain ‘joy’ to giving-up the tyranny associated with youth! The other side is that physical abilities change. Within youth orientated societies it is said that abilities are ‘lost’, but this is not entirely true. It is better to say that physical abilities ‘change’, ‘evolve’ and ‘mature’, and manifest in a manner that is ‘different’ from that of the mindless years of youth.
Chinese martial arts are an interesting subject that has historically emerged from within Chinese historical experience. If a barracks, community, homestead or temple, etc, is attacked by a ruthless enemy, then everyone (men, women and children) are expected to ‘resist’ in one way or another, irrespective of ‘age’ (at least within Hakka Chinese family tradition). Between times of communal self-defence, people practiced the movements of martial forms to a) keep-fit and healthy (through preventative exercise), b) to perfect martial technique (i.e. retain ‘grace under pressure’ during intense combat experience), and c) deepen psychological and emotional maturity (or what might be more broadly referred to as developing a more profound sense of ‘spirituality’). Although there are numerous stages that an individual must traverse throughout their life, a paradox occurs whereby an elderly master moves with both ‘lightness’ and ‘speed’, whilst retaining massive striking-power with any part of the body that happens to make contact with the opponent. A mature practitioner knows how to correctly and appropriately ‘give things up’ without losing strength of mind or suffering any kind of detrimental reaction. Certainly, as the ageing process unfolds, the ‘physicality’ of youth is slowly replaced with the ‘psychological’ awareness of maturity.
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.