I was recently asked (by a prominent [British] Muay Thai practitioner) to write a short text about the cultural differences between ‘Western’ Thai Boxers when compared with ethnic ‘Thai’ Muay Thai counter-parts. He was particularly interested in the different cultural patterns of ‘effort’ that are in effect in the Thai Boxing ring in Thailand. He explained to me that he knows full well that many dedicated and very respectful Westerners travel to Thailand to compete in ethnic Thai Boxing competitions (not ‘adjusted’ to the sensitivities of the international community) - and as soon as they step-off the aeroplane suffer the beginnings of a psychological collapse and the development of tremendous feelings of doubt!
Furthermore, despite bravery and stoicism – as soon as the ‘smiling’ Muay Thai Warriors the ring and being the traditional ‘Ram Muay Wai Kru’ - an ancient ritual of respect that praise the Hindu God – Rama – as well as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – a very strong sense of ‘alienation’ manifests. This sense of ‘cultural’ distinction is made even more pronounced as the Thai practitioner also ‘praises’ his or her family ancestors, parents, teachers and fellow students, etc. Perhaps this is one of its main purposes. This ‘dance’ is in fact a ‘secret’ martial art that only true Muay Thai Masters know how to interpret and use in combat. Muay Thai Masters have told me that it is a Thai manifestation of ‘internal’ martial art similar to the Taijiquan of China – which is often performed nowadays to ‘music’ as is the ‘Ram Muay’ (this is the shortened title my ethnic Thai friends us who live in the Warwick area of the UK).
I have had the privilege to train in the UK with students of Master Sken and Master Toddy over the years – despite never meeting these two experts in person. When some of these practitioners have passed through Sutton (South London) - they have come into our gongfu training hall on Sunday mornings and we have worked together. They have always been respectful, tough and very dedicated. Other than this contact with Muay Thai, my family frequent the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon, and on occasion, the Forest Hermitage (Wat Santidhamma) in Warwickshire – both of which serve the British ethnic Thai population and the Theravada Buddhism they practice. Years ago, when I lived in Hereford, I sparred full-on with ethnic Thai visitors and I was impressed with their ‘relaxed’ attitude and ‘fierce’ manifestation when fighting! I was inspired by how they live and breathe Buddhism first and foremost – and throw punches and kicks only after they have learned the Buddha’s Teaching fully! This is why I often seek-out special Theravada Bhikkhus living in the Buddhist temples in the UK. Unlike in the Thai villages and forests – this is not a common occurrence in the UK – but occasionally I get lucky!
I have also discovered that the Head Monks are often reticent to discuss this issue in the temple due to many Westerners developing the wrong attitude about Buddhism and Muay Thai. The way this works is that if the Head Monk wanted Westerners to learn Muay Thai – he would make its presence known and organise access. When I have discovered Muay Thai practice in the Buddhist temples – it has always been by mistake. This has also included incidents of special ‘tattooing’ sessions – whereby ‘sacred’ images and spiritually empowered mantras are ‘tapped’ into the skin – using a pointed-bone and coloured ink... These marks are considered ‘sacred’ and ‘divine’ as they grant the carrier with special spiritual powers. Interestingly, when I asked the Head Monk about how a person should begin their practice of Muay Thai? He answered that I should read the Pali Suttas about ‘correct breathing’, and about ‘stilling the mind’ - whilst living in an isolated meditation hut for at least three-years. Without this foundation of ‘Dhamma’ - I was told – I cannot practice ‘genuine’ Muay Thai.
“At age fifteen years of age I set my heart and mind upon learning (whilst transcending inner confusion and outer chaos). At thirty, I planted my feet firmly upon the ground (and achieved ‘rootedness’). At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities and doubts (as the mind and heart were ‘stilled’). At fifty, I fully understood the Will of the Divine Sky (as the mind and heart were all-embracing). At sixty, I clearly perceived reality through a docile ear (as none of the ‘senses’ discriminated). At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart and mind; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of what was right in the Divine Dao.”
Confucius – Analects (Lun YU) 2:4
This is a famous blue-print that the Great Sage Confucius (Kong Fuzi) constructed during his lifetime (551-479 BCE) within ancient China. It is a remarkable set of observations that have stood the test of time. There is a natural ‘mastery’ of mind and body which unfolds providing the aspirant is a) ‘aware’ and b) is ‘seeking’ such an achievement of mind and body maturity. If an individual merely fumbles aimlessly through life with no grounding or higher yearning, then these stages often remain unrecognised and unfulfilled. As I get older, I find a deep sense of ‘certainty’ pervading my mind and body. This is a permanent state that does not fade or intensify but which is forever present – still and shining. It seems to be the underlying reality of sensual and psychological existence. It is comforting, empowering and healing.
When the mind is permanently ‘stilled’ and has become ‘all-embracing’ - a certain ‘wisdom’ (Prajna) is activated which allows the mind to naturally (and instantaneously) perceive reality and understand exactly what physical action is required in a particular situation. This is true for help others with education, healing, housing or feeding, etc, as it is during times of human conflict. Within the limitations of martial arts practice, such mastery manifests in the expert manifestation of ‘action’ and ‘non-action’ and vice versa. Moving forward (with tremendous generated force) or seeming to ‘disappear’ inti thin air by a radical ‘withdrawing’ from direct contact and-or confrontation. As every moment is both ‘identical’ and entirely ‘different’ without inner or outer contradiction – all momentary decisions emerge in a pristine and timely manner.
Such a state of being is not fleeting but always present. The nature of such an awareness is both peaceful and tranquil. It is like a permanent sense of inner ‘Spring’ whilst stood in a beautiful forest clearing. All animal and plant life understands this directly – with other humans perceiving that something is present that is out of the ordinary. Although ‘nothing special’ this sense of mastery is exactly the same for all of humanity regardless of life activity, culture or time-period, etc. It is like a might river that all martial arts systems quite naturally flow into. Masters do not argue despite their very different life-paths and distinctive martial schools. The state of true Mastery sits quietly in the centre of the universe and attracts all things to itself. All is ‘healed’ and ‘reconciled’ and there is no ‘conflict’ or ‘contradiction’.
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.