Morality, or virtue, is the true basis for all traditional spiritual disciplines throughout the world. The ancient Chinese martial arts and Qigong systems were founded upon the ethical moral principles and philosophy of either Daoism or Buddhism, or both, and their founders were all individuals of intelligence and integrity. Virtuousness can be considered Right Heart/ Right Thinking.
These skills, beyond health/ fitness and martial arts, train character and develop Spirit and Mind (wisdom). In other words, they help develop our human potential. Without morality as the guiding principle these skills are rendered an empty shell, devoid of meaning, and their true value becomes diminished, or tarnished. A martial art without morals can lead certain students towards arrogance and aggressivity, to become bullies and oppress the weak, and to exploit and corrupt the skill, using it for nefarious purposes. Qigong also can be misused and ruined by students unable to tell the clear difference between right and wrong, and unwilling and unable to follow the rules.
Kunlun Wild Goose Qigong adheres to the Five Virtues: Ren (ethics and selflessness); Yi (right conduct, loyalty and faithfulness); Li (respect, reverence and politeness); Zhi (wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and prudence); and Xin (truth and sincerity). My Sigong, the late Grandmaster Yang Meijun, 27th generation inheritor of the system, discussed three essential principles as essential to success, and these are Zheng (Uprightness – in both mind and posture), Zhun (Accuracy), and Shi (Honesty). According to my Sifu, Master Michael Tse, she would often say, “Dao Tao Tao Dao”, or “To be Moral and Attain Dao”. Qigong is specifically for health, healing, disease prevention, avoiding premature aging and longevity, but only really works to its full potential by developing character and living life virtuously in conjunction with the physical practice. A truly healthy body can only be attained if Mind and Heart are healthy too. Through dedicated practice and developing positive Qi, the student’s nature will or should begin to improve. However, if Heart/ Thinking is corrupted and diseased at the very core then change becomes very difficult.
Chen Taijiquan’s family ancestor rules include being honorable/ dignified, respectful of teachers and elders, being fair and impartial, having integrity, compassion/ kindness, loyalty, magnanimity, courage, trustworthiness, sincerity, and morality/ ethics. These characteristics are essential to the student’s development, not only of combat skill, but also spiritual attainment. (They also list twenty prohibitions and twelve vices to bear in mind). Founder Grandmaster Chen Wangting was a proven warrior (who defeated over a thousand bandits), a scholar, and a philosopher who in his retirement taught Taijiquan to his disciples and descendants in order for them to become worthy members of society. Wing Chun Kungfu rules of conduct discuss conduct, courtesy, respect loyalty, and righteousness, limiting desires and preserving spirit, abstaining from confrontations, being gentle, and always using the skill with integrity, to protect the weak and vulnerable. My Tai Sigong, Grandmaster Ip Man, received a strict Confucian education and considered that a person should improve his moral standards before commencing studies of Kungfu. He regarded the pursuit of righteousness above all other qualities and over money and fame. How different this attitude is to modern society and culture which prizes money, status, success and fame above character, and overt expression of moral values over a genuinely good heart.
The Dao De Jing (The Classic/ Scripture of The Way and Its Morality), written by Laozi, contains the distilled essence of Daoist thought. One cannot ever understand and achieve Dao without cultivation of pure heart and moral standards. According to Buddhist thought, ethical conduct is built upon universal love and compassion for all sentient beings. (This includes “Tough Love”!) For a person to become fully Enlightened, compassion and wisdom must be developed equally. Compassion without wisdom produces a well-meaning fool, and wisdom without compassion equals a cold-hearted intellectual devoid of empathy. Buddhists follow the Five Precepts of No Killing, No Stealing, No Lying, No Sexual Misconduct and No Intoxication, as well as upholding The Eightfold Path – Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Many modern “spiritual” fads fail to address Right Heart/ Right Thinking. People today can learn all the “Inner Smile”, chanting, and mantras and mudras, from boutique spiritual retreats, while qualities such as loyalty, sincerity, humility, patience, altruism, etc. are not even considered as essential to spiritual attainment, or even to health and peace of mind. Methods to expand consciousness and attain “Oneness with the Universe” can appeal to the grasping, accumulating mind of the intellectual, while the more difficult task of introspection, facing our faults and working to overcome them, in order to perfect the self, tends to be avoided altogether. “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom!” In fact, Laozi wrote in Dao De Jing, “The Wise are not Learned. The Learned are not Wise.” And, Theodore Roosevelt even said, “To educate a man in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society”.
Accumulating knowledge for the sake of accumulating only swells the sense of self-importance, leading to pride, arrogance, and delusions of grandeur; the antithesis of spiritual development. At the highest levels of meditation, where Void or Emptiness can be experienced, there is no sense of self, no “I” or Me” and the illusion of ego, but one of merging, like a drop of water returning to the ocean, the Source (Dao). There is surrender instead of control, letting go instead of grasping, freedom instead of enslavement, and love instead of fear. The ego is the wall that separates us from others, and from Dao, and prevents us from reaching our own human spiritual potential, which must begin from the point of humility. The ego proves to be one of the greatest barriers to learning. It not only blinds students from seeing their faults, and offering resistance to corrections, but also cuts them off from the source i.e. their teacher and seniors who take no pleasure in teaching and helping them. It is the ego that literally and all-too-frequently renders a student unteachable.
Some spiritual movements promote “self-empowerment” and acquiring spiritual power to affect material life. Therein, lies the corruption, only leading adherents further away from their true nature. Power, physical or spiritual, can be like suddenly acquiring great wealth when unaccustomed to it. Without ethical principles to guide our thoughts, instinct, and behavior, and no correction in this regard offered, then all character flaws and weaknesses become exacerbated. Self-appointed masters and gurus of certain spiritual movements may possess the charisma, intellect, and mystique to draw in devout followers (like “moths to a flame”?) that hang upon their every word. But, few of these individuals could handle the demands of traditional Chinese skills. In all likelihood, they have never known what it means to “Eat Bitter”; able to endure the hardship that traditional masters and warrior monks would have had to experience. They sit atop their pyramid, with no-one above them to keep them in check, to criticize or force them to feel shame when they need it, to forge their character and to keep them humble.
There are self-help movements that promote the notion of “Deservingness”, or “The Law of Attraction”, causing followers to believe that everyone deserves everything they want, and can acquire or achieve just about anything with the power of positive thinking, and visualization. Not only is this wholly unrealistic, but also it creates a desire for material goods that never ends and becomes like an itch that is never scratched, causing the individual to become like a “Hungry Ghost”. These material desires and attachments are the source of much of our suffering, and karma, causing more worry, sorrow, and misery, according to Buddhist thought. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, aside from external factors, many causes of illness are created from within the mind and the emotions. When the cause of affliction lies within the mind, therein too lies the cure.
With this thinking, some students of traditional skills today believe they deserve to learn just by showing up and paying for the lesson. Does everyone really deserve to learn something so special, so pure, and beautiful, simply because they want it and have money to gain access? A genuine skill is more like an heirloom that needs to be passed on to the right person that will “give it a good home” and will look after it properly than some exclusive desirable designer item that can just be bought by anyone that can afford it. “Deservingness” really belongs only to those that genuinely want to improve themselves, and care deeply to improve the skill and perform it better than just acquiring more and learning faster, and also sincerely respect the person passing it down to them. The “Law of Attraction”, as it is taught, is quite misleading. The Universe does not send our way all that what we want, but rather what we need (in order to teach or test us), in the same way a good teacher gives us what we need and not what we want. We also attract that which resonates with our frequency, energy and vibration, with our Qi, or what emanates from within us. The Universe merely responds like an echo.
Some naively enthusiastic practitioners claim, “Everyone should learn Qigong/ Taijiquan/ Kungfu!”. While is true that these skills offer unlimited benefits for us all, and are pretty much suitable for everyone, not everyone is entirely suited to learn because not everyone possesses the right temperament, nature and character, or Right Heart/ Thinking. Many may seem to be very keen but otherwise possess entirely the wrong attitude, unwilling to change or improve aspects of themselves in need of improvement despite being shown their errors and given all the opportunities to do so. When genuine and profound traditional skills are entrusted to students that fail to appreciate them or treat them with due respect then they are like the proverbial “pearls cast before swine”. My Sifu has said that he’d rather his skills die with him than to pass them on to those that cannot respect them. This view tends to shared by all serious teachers of traditional skills that have worked hard to acquire and preserve their skills that were handed down to them.
Traditional Chinese martial arts and Qigong skills do not offer the promise of spiritual attainment, as health and fitness, or combat skill, is their primary purpose. Yet, under the right guidance, and personal dedication, the systematic approach of training Qi, Mind, Heart, Character, Morality, then Spirit is developed simultaneously. And so, in many ways, they present a far more realistic and practical path than many spiritual movements and Mind Body training regimens, and even certain religious practices, that only allow for hypocrisy and foster delusion.
The Art of Learning lies in facing ourselves and taking responsibility for our actions, inactions, thoughts and words. Without the ability to feel shame and remorse, and the desire to change, we can never improve ourselves. Without overcoming essential flaws, we will be no closer to Dao or Enlightenment, no matter how smooth and beautiful our form may become, no matter how indomitable a fighter we may become.
None of us are perfect human beings, or perfect students. Perhaps we never will be. But, if we remain mindful and consistently try to be a better student, this helps us to become a better person. We will all make mistakes along the way. Masters have made some of the most, but they work hard to overcome their faults and weaknesses to reach their potential and become the person they were destined to be. People today are impressed only by teachers’ abilities (real or perceived), or their business management, marketing, image branding and empire building skills, and not the actual character of the teacher. This has become practically inconsequential. A true master is not just one that moves fluidly like “poetry in motion”, making the difficult look easy, or can defeat others effortlessly, or has developed extraordinary abilities, but one that has conquered himself.
Some of the greatest and famous Chinese masters of current and past generations were renowned and respected for their character and heart or nature as much as their legendary skills. My Sigong Grandmaster Ip Chun (now 95) has claimed he is “never happy” with his Wing Chun Chi Sau (Sticking Hands practice) and his father was renowned for his skill, but equally for his principles, humility and graciousness. And, my other remaining Sigong, world renowned Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (now 75), has said that he is just “scratching the surface” of his family’s Taijiquan skill, after a lifetime of practice, and his grandfather, Chen Fake, widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th Century martial art masters, became known affectionately as “Incapable Chen” because he denied knowing much or possessing the high-level skill everyone else recognized within him. Despite reaching levels far greater than majority of practitioners today could ever dream of, these masters remain(ed) humble and continually seek to improve upon their current standards. They achieved their great successes simply because they themselves were good students and mastered the “Art of Learning”.
The very best teachers educate beyond movement, technique and theory. They also teach the customs and culture, philosophy and morality to improve and enrich the lives of their students. Most importantly, they uphold and live by the principles of their skill and set an example. Laozi said, “The highest form of teaching is teaching without words”. Sadly, a number of people seeking Chinese skills today have no interest in this aspect and want only the movement for themselves. This is no different than a monkey. A monkey is capable of mimicry, but not in understanding deeply and elucidating the meaning behind the skill nor interested in changing its nature. Hence, the Art of Learning lies in whether the student can acquire the non-verbal teachings set by example. The most astute observe carefully, and absorb almost osmotically, soaking up everything, like a sponge or like downloading digital files. While the average student may require verbal instruction in all matters, for those that sincerely want to learn, and be a good student, being told once is generally sufficient. Then, there are those that need to be given the same instructions or prompts repeatedly, over and over again. Even multiple times proves never enough. They just never seem to “get it”. Though some may genuinely suffer a learning disability, most often it simply concerns a lack of care and attention, and passion. This nonchalant, blithe disregard and laidback attitude is perfectly reflected within their physical movement, which invariably tends to be far off the mark; imprecise and unclear, lacking the right Qi and Spirit, which is the very essence of the skill.
What is a good student? If we were to pose this question to a novice or an uninitiated person, and then to a teacher, this would elicit entirely different responses. Those with little-to-no understanding will invariably answer that a good student is one that picks up the material easily and quickly, or attends classes regularly, or practices consistently, or all three. Imagine a student ticks all three boxes, but also happens to be disrespectful, disloyal, disobedient, undependable, dishonest, impatient, arrogant, self-centered, and ill-tempered. Can he or she still be regarded as a “good” student? Does the student set a good example for other students to follow? Is this student a credit to his or her teacher? There is a traditional saying, “Failing to honor your Sifu is to invoke heaven’s wrath”. (And, similarly, holding teachers to account, “Misleading students is lower than a thief”.)
Certain students today may question whether a teacher is really good enough to teach them, and this a valid concern. It is recommended to always research a teacher’s background, especially if his reputation is unknown, or level of knowledge and skill is not immediately apparent. But, the tables can be turned, with the teacher asking similar questions, “Is this person capable of learning? Does this individual possess the Right Heart/ Right Thinking to be accepted as a student? Does he or she deserve to learn my skill?”
There is a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”.
By Adam Wallace