The Wah of Kung Fu - The Ch'i of Bonsai
My first Kung-Fu instructor, over a decade ago, bought me a bonsai black pine, in Ireland. Even though that tree died (as no one told us how to take care of it), it helped me learn about meditation, and thus my martial art, and also planted in me the seed of the bonsai enthusiast I have become. Somehow, the contemplation of the essence of tree embodied in that small living sculpture made a significant difference to my understanding of myself.
Through further study of both arts, I have come to understand more of how they are highly compatible and indeed complementary paths along the Way, and I would like to share some of this understanding with you.
Kung-fu is a fighting art - an art of motion, of explosive power, and quite deadly speed. Yet, the student of Kung-fu has not reached her or his potential until she or he has understood and achieved harmony, or wah. As the student of bonsai seeks to help a tree achieve harmony, so the instructor in Kung-fu seeks to help a student understand and accept him or herself, so that he or she can live and move in harmony. As a tree which shows harmony can help the student of bonsai achieve peace, so can harmony with her or himself aid the student of Kung-fu achieve peace, and a martial artist at peace is the most effective fighter, for she or he fights only the opponent, and not themselves.
No matter how steep the angle of the cascade or slanting bonsai, not matter how impossible the angle of the literati, a bonsai tree that speaks to people has harmony - and balance. Leaf must balance root, the top must find a balance with the bottom (roots and pot), and the branches create a balance with each other and the trunk. And balance is essential too in Kung-fu. The student of Kung-fu must learn and use balance, to stand with strength, and move with surety, to twist like the snake, charge like the tiger - and fly like the dragon.
Breath - or Ch'i is the essence of life, and the essence of Kung-fu. When the Kung-fu student thinks and moves from his or her ch'i point, he or she can begin to move without thought, and therefore effectively. Such a student becomes at one with her or himself, for she or he has achieved harmony. In the same way, a bonsai that has harmony has ch'i: its breath and power come from its centre. And with ch'i, it conveys a sense of movement. A slanting pine stands against the forces of nature, yet moves in response to them. An informal upright moves in its bends, and perhaps the highest aspect of the art, the literati or bunjin, conveys almost impossible movement, at the edge of imbalance, sometimes at the edge of flight.
A characteristic essential to both the student of Kung-fu, and the student of bonsai is patience. Patience takes a while to learn, but is critical to both arts. No matter the starting material, it is not possible to create a bonsai in a day. Generally, it requires years - and the quickest path to a tree that conveys harmony is to put it into the ground for a few years rather than straight into a pot. With perhaps most trees, planning essential elements of design requires planning - and therefore thinking - seasons and years ahead. This is indeed a difficult lesson to learn.
Similarly, the serious student of Kung-fu should realise that progress cannot be achieved without practice, and practice takes time. As a good bonsai must have a good basic design, so must the student patiently acquire a good understanding of the basics - stance, blocks, strikes, speed and power - before being able to put them together as a martial artist. And, on another level, the student of Kung-fu should try to understand the importance of inaction: of patience until the right moment for action arrives!
Both the tree and the martial artist are alive - and fragile. In a sense, death is a part of life, and the image of the cherry blossom can symbolise both. As the student of bonsai seeks to train a tree to achieve harmony and balance, by working with living material, so must the instructor of Kung-fu work with the student, to help her or him reach their potential.
The student of bonsai and the student of Kung-fu both strive for perfection, and both should strive to realise that while perfection can never be realised, the striving and improvement are the essence of being.
And, to close the circle, the student of Kung-fu, like the student of bonsai, can benefit from the understanding that openness allows learning, and improvement of the self. The seeking of self improvement is the seeking of excellence, and Kung-fu means excellence.
These are just words, though I hope they have helped your understanding. To learn, you must try to act well - and forget that you are trying.
Please, enjoy your arts.
Master Neal Hardy
Fire Dragon Australia
3 July 1995
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