My recent training in Malaysia concluded with just over two weeks of celebrating Penang’s martial arts heritage and our organisation’s 30th anniversary. Banquets were had, speeches were made, demos were performed and awards of recognition were given. Master’s from around the world came to share their arts and we were lucky to be there to receive all their teachings. Here are some of my experiences and impressions from those sessions.
On the first day I attended a Silambam workshop with Master Anba. This weapons based martial art from south India is similar to Kalaripayattu and after watching a few demos by him and his students, we got to have a go at spinning the wooden sticks. The basic techniques we did were a little awkward at first, but once I got the hang of it I really appreciated the workout it gave your shoulders and the use of your elbows to guide and deliver the movement. Master Anba singlehandedly kept his lineage of Silambam alive in Penang – back in his motherland nobody of his lineage managed to do the same. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it takes seven years of study to learn the system. With over 60 years of experience in the art, it’s great to see that his passion and knowledge is being passed on to the younger generations.
Next we did a workshop with the vibrant Master Lee, who also has 60+ years of experience in his speciality, Hakka boxing. No, I hadn’t heard of that one before either. For those who don’t know, Hakka is a Chinese dialect group of about 80 million now mainly residing in Southern China and overseas. Hakka quan has similarities to Shaolin and other southern Chinese martial arts and from the first form that we learned you could really tell that it’s all about simple, direct and powerful movements. Each strike is done with fajin and the Phoenix Eye fist. Master Lee’s disciple Leo was later telling me about all the different training methods he has been put through, such as picking up gas bottles by just hugging them with his forearms. No wonder Master Lee’s energy radiated strength and vitality.
And so our days with Masters continued. Some taught us for just a few hours, others for several days. We learned a ton of forms, applications and meditations in taiji, qingyi, bagua, eskrima and silat. There were also more specialised workshops on fajin and archery as well as talks on the kris and the Dao. Our days were full!
What left me the deepest impression when spending time with the Masters was witnessing the joy and pride they had when teaching their arts. Of course seeing how they execute the moves of each art (whether applications or form) to such meticulous detail is inspiring and astounding. For example, watching Manong Eric Oladives execute his eskrima strikes to such accuracy and with lighting speed that he touches your hair but not your skull and brings the stick back to its starting position before you finish registering there is strike – I mean, how do you get to that level if not through a lifetime of dedication and training?
Or Grandmaster Gao Ji Wu’s impeccable footwork and speed when he demonstrated the numerous applications of Baguazhang. Another man who in his 70s can move like someone who is decades younger and make you feel like he can definitely take you down in a real fight – impressive, admirable and down right scary at the same time. His grandfather studied with Dong Hai Chuan’s (founder of Bagua) top disciples and his father studied with several Masters including Tai Chi with Yang Chen Fu. How can you not take such a lineage seriously?
Naturally, learning from these Masters and witnessing how they move will leave an everlasting impression and continue to motivate me to keep learning and improve my own skills. But what really struck me the most was that joy you could see in their eyes, the smile on their faces and their expressions of happiness when seeing their students are being attentive, willing to learn and putting in the work. We as a group collectively showed our appreciation to our teachers by demonstrating this and the masters reciprocally appreciated us for it. This is how it should be in my opinion. You appreciate your teacher and the years of work they have put in to get to where they are and they appreciate your attitude and willingness to learn. It was sad hearing from some how this synergy is dying in some parts of the world, mainly due to the interest of the younger generations shifting elsewhere, or people appreciating foreign martial arts more than the local ones.
Knowing that these men are truly masters in their fields and have dedicated their whole lives to their respective arts, I feel that preserving their art as they teach it is vital and essential. I do not have any desires to repackage something that they have been doing for decades and call it something else with my brand on it. The least I can do is study what they teach to the best of my abilities so I can understand it more fully and use it for my own self-cultivation and share it with those who are willing to learn.
Sure, I will make discoveries of my own and share things from my experiences but as a student, doing my best to learn the arts and practice it over and over again is how I wish to show respect and maintain my integrity and loyalty. Perhaps one day in my later years I will be at that stage when I have decades of experience and knowledge to add some of my personal touches to the arts, but even then the practice, learning and discovering continues. It never stops – just ask the Masters.