lördag 15 augusti 2015

The Evolution of a Kung-Fu Master: talking to master Ma Baoguo

                                                      Daniel Skyle © 2005. Use with permission only.

The evolution of practice over a lifetime is something I have been thinking about for many years, as I have seen different long-time practitioners and what they make of their training in the long run. This spring, I again had the chance to interview one of my teachers, Master Ma Baoguo, and get an overview of his evolution of the material. This is after his more than 50 years of intense practice and research into the external and internal martial arts and qigong, under highly skilled long-time practitioners in China.
In which direction do people go, as they practice?

Daniel Skyle © 2014. Use with permission only.

Master Ma Baoguo began training when he was seven. He has had several very skilled teachers over a lifetime of practice in the Internal Martial Arts and qigong. I thought we would follow his journey in meeting them, what he learned from them, and how he has kept evolving his own practice from what they taught.
  We will also look at the principles he uses in his own system: how he emphasizes that the first and most important thing is to cultivate one´s own heart and integrity – xiude, xiuxin – to become a good person, and then to use the energy and strength from the training to always help others.

The practice of internal martial arts, qigong, and meditation continues to evolve over the life-time of the practitioner. It has done, for a very long time. So many others have walked the same path as us, living their life, evolving themselves, and helping others through the increased clarity and energy and good heart they got from their training.

It is a warm day in April in Shanghai when we sit in Master Ma´s apartment before class, and begin to talk.

Family Kung Fu: Beginnings

My family had it´s own Shaolin-system. This is where I started to learn.” This is quite common in China, just like in Chinese medicine, where many middle- and upper-class families already have quite a lot of knowledge in Chinese medicine before they begin apprenticing or going to university to become acupuncture doctors.

Formal training began at age seven, and Master Ma has taught his own son the same way. Yet there is also the factor that since he was born, he was surrounded by people who practiced, people whose movements were percolated through by practice and who talked in ways infused by it.

My father was a soldier in the army in 1942,” Ma continues. ”He fought the Japanese, and he was famous for special missions behind enemy lines thanks to his skills in gongfu. After the war, he became a police officer and continued to use his skills to catch criminals.”
   In 1970, Master Ma himself joined up. Here he was taught more gongfu-skills based on military usage, and he kept up training intensely on the side throughout his service. He was also taught more advanced gong fu-training for special missions, just like his father.

                                                   Daniel Skyle © 2005. Use with permission only.

Discovering Internal Martial Arts – finding Xingyiquan and Master Shang Ji

In 1982, Master Ma went to university again. But this time, he tells me over the tea, he had the good fortune to meet Dr Shang Ji, a famous Xingyi-master.
  Shang Ji is a lineage holder in Hebei Xingyiquan – 94 years old as of this article and still training every day – and is the third generation from Guo Yunshen through his teacher Ma Litang. Master Shang also studied for other skilled teachers, including Chen Fake of Chen Taiji.

Master Ma had good fighting skills by now, but Shang Ji could easily beat him. This made Ma realize that there might be something to this Xingyi. He began an apprenticeship with intense training that lasted for the three years of his university course.
   He was taught Hebei Xingyi Five Elements, the Twelve Animals, Xingyi spear and a lot of pure fighting skills in how to actually use the system.

Since then, he has kept training for master Shang Ji, and still is.

Here you can see Master Ma Baoguo showing his own version of the Hunyuan Chen Taiji form, where he has added components and intent from the Daoist martial arts and teachings of Guo Shenghai. He can do it as the standard version too, just as with Hebei Xingyi and standard Chen, but prefers to focus on the work that has opened up with the skills of master Guo.

Deepening the Internal Martial Arts: a meeting with master Guo of Wudang and Emei gongfu

Then, in 1987, he met another of his important teachers: master Guo Shenghai, a Daoist monk who had been trained in the skills of Wudang and Emei martial arts.
   Guo Shenghai was born in 1916. He had been left in a temple on Emei Mountain when he was three years old, to be raised as a monk. Trained deeply in the martial systems of Wudangshan and Emeishan, he also knew many of the really old gongfu skills that are lost now.

When master Ma met him, Guo could easily beat him despite all his previous practice, so master Ma began training for him. Guo charged a lot of money for private lessons; 40 yuan for an hour, the same as the monthly wage for a skilled worker at the time, and master Ma had to save up money for class. In the beginning he could still only afford 15 minutes, but he kept on training.

One day, master Guo suddenly said it costs 800 yuan instead. He could teach master Ma the secret skills of point-attacking from Emeishan, but it would cost that much. The older gongfu master said this tentatively – 800 yuan was a fortune. Master Ma realized that his teacher was in some kind of financial trouble but didn´t want to ask outright to avoid losing face. As real students should also help their teacher, Ma borrowed from friends and saved money for this, and took that single lesson at that price.

Later, the old master ended up in jail due to a misunderstanding. Thanks to his own contacts, master Ma managed to help him get out of jail and then took care of him for a month in his own home, where he helped Guo heal after the beatings he suffered in prison. After this, master Guo taught him for free. The daoist master started to spend several weeks at a time in his home, teaching him all his knowledge.

Today, it is master Guo´s Daoist martial teachings and knowledge that is most deeply ingrained in master Ma´s entire system – all his teaching is based on bianhua, the study of change, and on principles set out in the Daodejing. He has also studied the Yijing deeply, both with master Shang and Guo, and on his own.
                                                      Daniel Skyle © 2005. Use with permission only.

The subtle skills of Chen Taijiquan – Wang Changhai, student of Chen Zhaokui and Feng Zhiqiang

Master Ma´s training-journey took another step forward in 1997, when he met Wang Changhai, a master of Chen Taijiquan. Wang was a disciple of the famous Chen Zhaokui, and after his death he kept on studying as a disciple of master Feng Zhiqiang. Feng himself was a disciple of Chen Zhaokui´s father, the legendary Chen Fake.

Feng Zhiqiang was a master of Chen Taiji and created the Hunyuan Taiji system. Now Master Ma began learning them both from master Wang Changhai.
   Earlier in his training Guo Shenghai had introduced him to push hands, but never the deeper skills of Taiji. With Master Wang he finally started to learn how to use a small force to overpower a much larger force.

Both he and his son trained with master Wang, just like they had with master Guo and master Shang Ji, and they still practice with him today. One thing that also stands out concerning master Wang is his good heart and generosity towards others, and he is always careful to show students just enough to make them understand the power but never actually hurt them.

And here you can see a more recent clip, showing his continual research evolving, and the energetics and work becoming even more internal than it already was.

Qigong-skills: first from family, then from each teacher
With master Wang, I also learned more qigong, but this time from the Hunyuan Qigong-system that master Feng created.”
   Master Ma had been taught qigong ever since he was in his teens – this was when he was taught the family qigong-system by his grandfather and his grandfather´s brother.

My grandfather´s younger brother was very good at both martial arts and qigong. He was able to crack concrete slabs through hitting them with his forearm.”

The family qigong-system was deepened both with material from Shang Ji and then, much more, from the Daoist skills of Guo Shenghai.
   Now master Ma added the repertoire of the Daoist-based Hunyuan Qigong-system to this, and began creating his own version of them.

                                                      Daniel Skyle © 2005. Use with permission only.

The road-map for your practice – whose map are you using, and for what roads?

It is interesting to think on where we want to go. What intent do we have with our practice? What are the actual goals we want to reach? And when do we know that we have reached them?
   I still remember a great description written by well-known IMA-teacher Sam Masich: ”One difference I saw between how Chinese and Westerners practiced, was that the Westerners went into the practice looking for something; the Chinese all knew they only refined something that was already there.”

Another one of my teachers, Alex Kozma, uses the phrase, ”Whose map are you following?” So, which practitioner´s map are you using for your own journey? This is a good place to start. And how is that map-holder as a person? Do they have a good heart? Do they manifest their life and practice in a positive, ethical way for others, and for society? Do they walk their spiritual talk? It is interesting to look at where their map has landed them: is their map positive for other beings?
   You always want to look at the teacher´s senior students; they are the litmus-test of the teacher and his/her ways of teaching. Are the senior students compassionate, balanced, and skilled at whatever the teacher is teaching? If not, you already there have knowledge of how that teacher´s map works for others.

Master Ma´s story also illustrates something important. Many of the really skilled Chinese practitioners were taught like he was, from seven and onwards. The material they teach is usually adapted for that kind of body and background, where solid basic training might already be done by age 15... It is rare that they adapt their material for Western bodies and the learning curve they might need. Is the teacher adapting their material for Westerners?
   And what intent does the teacher have with his or her own practice? Do they adapt this safely for their students? If someone is a hermit, or practices six hours a day, do they adapt the material they teach for a student with a more normal life in the West?

Master Ma Baoguo has kept researching and evolving his own practice, continously, all through his life. The past few years he began distilling the knowledge from his teachers and training into his own system: the Hunyuan Xingyi Taiji Men.

This is a short, improvised sequence where he shows Xingyi.

Teaching change: a system based on the Daodejing

Now, after all his training, his system is based on different ways to teach the core Daoist concept of bianhua, change.
   ”Each sequence in the system was created from principles in the Daodejing,” master Ma continues. Daodejing is the Daoist practice manual, The Book of the Way and the Power. ”The sentence that sums it up is this:”

The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to the Two;
The Two gave birth to the Three;
And the Three gave birth to the Ten Thousand Beings.
                                       – Daodejing chapter 42, Mawangdui version,
                                          Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching, Henricks, Ballantine 1989

His son, Ma Xiaoyang, is sitting at the end of the table, and he adds, ”All the practices in the system are studies in bianhua, change.”

Each of the 12 Qigongs and forms have three levels of increasing difficulty and complexity, all of which are focused both on creating good health and very effective fighting ability. Even the first level is quite complicated, however, and the system is not practical for practitioners who lack good basics or who don´t have a previous, very stable practice going.

Over the past few years, with the generous help of master Shang Ji, master Ma and his son Ma Xiaoyang have put together a new form for the Hunyuan Xingyi Taiji Men. This has the same three levels and is taught after the twelve qigongs. In class in his apartment here in Shanghai, there is a strong focus on applying the form using close-range and abrupt application practices.

                                                      Daniel Skyle © 2005. Use with permission only.

Eight principles of practice – and nourishing the heart and integrity

When class is over, we move into the room next to the training-hall for dinner and continue the interview there. ”What are the keys to your system?”
   ”Eight points.” Ma lists them easily, and it´s obvious that his evolution physically and energetically also has been built on a strong system of theory.

1) Practice your heart. And practice to become a good person. You must nourish your xin, your heart, to create a good heart inside you. You must also practice your de, your virtue and integrity, which is part of the phrase wude, ”Martial Ethics”.

This point is the most important, and the principle is called xiuxin, xiude: ”Cultivating your heart and cultivating your virtue”.
   ”When you practice gongfu,” Master Ma leans forward towards me to emphasize, ” you always need to think about how to use your energy, strength, and good heart from the practice to help others, and how to help society.”

(Very reminiscent of what a Daoist monk said when I interviewed him in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing: ”We need to become good people before we can become people of Dao!”)

2) Respect the teacher and his teaching, study diligently and train hard

3) Practice qigong first, then martial arts. You first need to get your health good and get a strong body before continuing with martial practices

4) First you need to know single movements in depth and very well, only after that can you learn forms

5) You need to learn the details in the movements of how to change the direction of force, and genuinely research this and understand it well. Why this way, why that way? How does it work in real fighting? And how can you change it, while in a real fight?
6) Your practice should include both good health, good heart, and the ability to use your skills in actual fighting and combat

7) The practice is good for intelligence, and should bring out your natural intelligence and enhance it

8) You cannot separate fighting ability in real life from health-care. If your practice has them separate, it is not really Chinese gongfu.

                                                                                                                                    Daniel Skyle © 2014

(You can read an earlier interview with master Ma Baoguo here: http://www.levandestillhet.se/artiklar/ma_baoguo. Both articles were published in Tai Chi Chuan Magazine in the UK, 2005 and 2014.)

Master Ma or teachers teaching his system can be contacted at http://www.hunyuantaiji.co.uk. Master Ma is soon publishing a book on his training-life and the styles he has learnt on the way. Daniel Skyle is an inner door student of Ma Baoguo. He is also a writer and a practitioner of Classical Chinese Medicine and acupuncture at his two clinics in Sweden. His blog in (mostly) English can be found at www.acupractitioner21.blogspot.se and you can find this article and others in English at www.levandestillhet.se/artiklar. He is currently publishing the first book on Daoism in Swedish, which includes interviews with Daoist monks and a go-through of classical Daoist and chinese medical texts and their training principles. It will be translated into English in 2016. Books to follow in the same series include one with essays on spirituality based on Daoist practices, and one with interviews with hermits in the mountains of China. He has recently begun a doctoral thesis on Chinese medicine in medical anthropology, based on interviews he is doing while studying Chinese medicine in China.