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An Interview With A Shao-lin Master, Part One

The following is an interview with Ma For Ren conducted by some of his advanced students. The interview covers a broad spectrum of questions dealing with Shao-lin training, principles and philosophy. This is a rare look deep into the mind of one who has lived all but the first nine years of his life in Shao-lin study.

grandmaster These interviews took place over an extended period of time, in this case years. What we did was to extract lecture material from the recorded audio tapes of his lectures during classes and interviews done by various students over the years.

For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.

Also, since the inception of our web site numerous e-mails have been received questioning various aspects of Shao-lin training. These too are answered. The amount of material is very large and will be presented here in a series. We have selected the most important and meaningful questions received over the years. Because of the large amount of material presented here we did not attempt to separate the questions into specific categories, but broke them down into sections entitled: Styles and Techniques, Wu De Ethics and Spirituality.

Enjoy now An Interview With A Shao-lin Master, Part One.

Styles and Techniques

Student: You teach a variety of art forms: Tai Chi Ch'uan, Pa Kua Zhang, Hsing-I Ch'uan, Shao-lin Ch'uan, Chinese Kenpo, etc. Do you have favorite?

Ma Sifu: When I do my Shao-lin it is my favorite, but when I do my Tai Chi, it becomes my favorite. I can say that about the other arts as well. In short, they are all my favorites, each intrinsically linked to the other. All the systems are different, yet the same. Each in its own way teaches a specific concept. I have no favorite. I would not give up one for another.

When people join our Kwoon they pick and choose which art form they want to study at that time. This is the way it should be. But, if their training continues and they learn the other arts, they begin to see the connection of all arts, and suddenly the two arts become one. In fact, as time moves on in training, it becomes harder to see where one art leaves off and the other begins. It is like when a mother gives birth to a child. Of course she loves the child deeply. Then a second child is born, can she now choose one over the other? No. Her love is boundless. They are both her children, each child different from the other in many ways, yet she can not choose between them. My styles are my children.

Student: Can you explain why then there is such disharmony among many of the styles and systems you see today. I have read of many feuds that exist among teachers and styles. Where is the harmony that the martial arts advocate?

Ma Sifu: You are right in your observation. There is much conflict. I, too, see it. That is why I rarely involve myself with any associations. I just quietly move within my own inner cycle of people. These conflicts exist because people are looking for the wrong things. Power and fame are often sought. Who is the best? Who is the head of this or that? Who was first? Shao-lin is not that way.

The superior person does not seek power or position. The superior person can be found at the back of the line.

The superior person does not seek power or position. The superior person can be found at the back of the line. He or she is not trying to become first at anything. A true Master is content with himself/herself. The problem lies not in Shao-lin, but rather in human nature. Shao-lin does not preach power over others, but rather power over self. It is a sad and, I think, an embarrassing mark on our arts when I see masters of same styles fighting for position and recognition. I don't think this problem will fade away soon either. As long as the disagreeable traits of humans exist, division will exist in our arts.

Student: I have seen styles appear claiming to be Ch'ang Style, either Tai Chi or Shuai Chiao, but they look totally different from what you teach. Can you explain why this is so?

Ma Sifu: There will always be those who will try to copy other styles. There is no stopping this growth of off-beat styles and systems. In my years I have seen numerous styles emerge from nowhere. They come from many sources: students who have broken with their teachers, others come from students who are trying to create a name for themselves, yet others come from students who did not learn their styles correctly and are displaying what they think the style should be like.

In my younger years, when I had little experience, these offbeat styles would serve to get me upset, and I did all I could to try to stop them from spreading and from infecting legitimate Kung Fu. But now that I am older and more mature in my understanding of martial arts and of the people involved in the arts, I have come to know there is no stopping the spread of the bad with the good. This is the interplay of yin and yang. There will always be poor martial arts and there will always be good martial arts.

In the final analysis it is the student who must distinguish the good from the bad. I as an instructor can only teach and write about what I know to be good, with the hope that students will come to realize what is real and what is unreal. The simple answer is that you should check out the background of the teacher and what he/she teaches. If a teacher is good it will be apparent to you, and if bad that too will be divulged to you.

Student: Which of your teachers made the greatest impression on you?

Ma Sifu: Actually Chang Tung Sheng had the greatest reputation as a teacher, but I can not say he taught me the most. All of my teachers taught me different styles of Kung Fu, and they all had my fullest respect. Each of them was a true master in his own right. Some teachers are very famous and you may hear a lot about them, while others whose names go unnoticed are as great, and in some cases greater than those who have such notoriety.

One of my teachers, Master Kwong, had a wonderful background of training under noted masters of China, yet his name is not well known in the outer circles of martial arts. Only those in the inner circles have heard of him. Yet his knowledge of Tai Chi and Pa Kua and Hsing -I Ch'uan was vast. Master Kwong did not enjoy the world-wide reputation that Ch'ang Tung Sheng had, yet his Kung Fu was excellent.

I could say much the same thing about all my teachers. None were the same and each was great in his own special way. So to answer your question, I really cannot say which of my teachers impressed me most, as each one impressed me in different ways. I would not be the man I am today if it weren't for each of my teachers. Each created a different part of my martial arts makeup.

Student: It has been many years since Grandmaster Chang Tung Sheng has passed away. How do you think his art has grown since his passing?

Ma Sifu: I am happy to say his name has grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. It makes me feels good to see the many articles and books and videos now appearing on the market showing the Shuai Chiao techniques and concepts. I am honored to be among those who made the effort to spread the Master arts to the American people, not that the Master needed any name recognition. He is a national treasure of China and will live on with or without my help. But, as a dedicated follower and adopted son of the noted master, I still feel I must do all I can to continue to teach his concepts of Kung Fu. I think the passage of time will only further contribute to the spreading of the Master's methods.

Student: I too have seen a great many books and videos about Chang Tung Sheng, but If I may say so, there are great differences among the various groups of Shuai Chiao followers in this country. Can you account for this?

When a Master dies the truth dies with him. From now on it's one person's word against another's. The Master cannot come back from the grave to tell us who right and who is wrong.

Ma Sifu: I can say this: when a Master dies the truth dies with him. From now on it's one person's word against another's. The Master cannot come back from the grave to tell us who right and who is wrong. Only those who have lived the experience know for sure what is what within the inner cycles. Yes, there are differences out there, and there always will be, and there are more to come as well. This fact cannot be changed. It happens in all arts when the headmaster passes away. This is why a student must make every effort to learn his or her teacher's background so that he or she has a better chance to find a legitimate teacher of the style.

This is a free country and you cannot control the schools opening throughout the country from proclaiming their superiority and legitimacy in the style. It is the seeker who must beware, that is, if looking for a pure school in their chosen art. No, I don't agree with many of the schools I see today in the Master's name; however this is totally out of my control. I still feel satisfied in my heart, for I know what I have, even if others may not know. I am content, and have no interest in the martial arts' political world.

Student: But what of the new students coming into the arts? How are they to know who anyone is in the martial arts? To them even the name Chang Tung Sheng means little or nothing. Because of this they may be unwittingly pulled into the wrong school. Is there nothing you can suggest to help them from making a mistake in their choice of schools?

Ma Sifu: In reality not much more then I am doing now. I write for my website in order to tell the general public what to look for in legitimate and traditional schools. Beyond that, there's not much else I can do. The student must take on the same responsibility that I took on when I became a practitioner. I always checked things out, but I have always been inclined to do good research when I do anything seriously. If research is done, the chances of joining a good school is good. Today, with the internet, finding schools and teachers is not as hard as it was in my day.

Just keep in mind that even valid credentials sometimes can be deceiving. A few Chinese characters printed on a certificate prove little but impress a great deal. I would venture to say that if the Master were alive today, half the schools using his name would go out of business. Mixed with the bad is always the good. There are those out there who are true practitioners of Chang arts and, if the new practitioner loves his art enough, he or she will encounter the truth along the way. All that he/she has to do is to recognize it.

Wu De (Ethics)

Student: I also see these disagreements exist between student and teacher. How can this happen within a kwoon?

Ma Sifu: A kwoon is like a family and in each family you will have disharmony. The teacher is like your parent. That is why the teacher is called Sifu, which means teacher/father. Many a parent has had problems with his or her children. Some children even become outcasts of the family. There is little difference between a kwoon and the family unit. If the teacher sees traits in the student that are against what the teacher professes, therein lies the start of the problem. In the family unit you must follow the rules, so too in a kwoon, you must follow the rules. When rules are ignored, the student is cast aside for the betterment of the Kwoon.

People will always be just people, some get along and some don't. But it is the teacher who must help promote harmony within a school.

A teacher keeps in his or her Kwoon the family tree. When a student is listed on the tree it means he or she follows the rules of that family tradition. When a name is taken off the tree, it means rules have been broken and the student is cast aside. It is the only way a teacher can show approval and disapproval in the development of the student. A tree rarely has to do with purely physical accomplishments of a student. It has to do with how the teacher feels about the student's understandings of the Shao-lin code of conduct.

People will always be just people, some get along and some don't. But it is the teacher who must help promote harmony within a school. Nothing hurts a teacher more than to see all his or her hard work at training someone go down the drain with a bad student. Losing a student is like losing a family member. It is something a teacher hates to do, but is forced to do for the well-being of the family.

It is a sad fact of life and we must face it. There will always be times when the teacher opens a door for the student to move ahead or closes a door to keep him out. All this is done to keep the Shao-lin as pure as possible for the next generations of practitioners. A teacher is the keeper of the tradition. If the teacher fails to do what is right, the art will suffer for it. This the teacher can not allow. And so inner school conflicts will always be there, but as long as there are good teachers the art will survive intact.

Student: Did you ever have students that disappointed you?

Ma Sifu: Sadly, I must say yes. When I first began to teach publicly, each of my new students was very special to me. They were my first students and all I wanted was to teach them what I had learned. I expected them to love the arts as much as I did, and that is the first mistake of a new teacher. It is a hard awakening when you find out that not everyone sees the arts the same way. Soon the teacher/student relationship ends and the teacher must look for another.

It is as hard to find a good student as it is to find a good teacher. Many students want to learn and many teachers want to teach, but unfortunately it is hard to find the perfect match. That is why you never really see famous masters with many top students. They may have many students, but few top or inner door students.

Thankfully, over my many years in Shao-lin I have matured as a teacher, and now I don't expect anything any more. I now let it all happen naturally. If the student wants to achieve more of the Shao-lin teachings he/she will follow the Shao-lin Way a little harder. A teacher can see this and simply gives more to those who care and work harder.

Few things now disappoint me. I go with the flow of life more now and let things happen as they will. Now if see a really bad student come into my Kwoon I will not accept him/her. I don't waste my time as much now trying to convert people into the Way. They must enter the door of their own free will. When I see this I put out the welcome mat; when I don't see it, I lock the door.

Student: I love the traditional arts very much and really enjoy learning. However, I am always afraid of making a mistake when it comes to proper Wu De (ethics). Chinese ethics seem very much different from our American ethics. How can a student hope not to offend anyone by making mistakes in proper Chinese ethics?

Ma Sifu: You cannot be sure. Errors are the mother of learning. We all make mistakes in ethics. When the Master lived with me, each morning he would awaken and do his chi kung exercise. I could hear him in his room moving about in his workout. After his breakfast he would always take a nice walk in the countryside. I noticed he would search out a large stick to carry during his walk. I asked him why he carried the stick. He said, "You never know when you run up against a wild dog or some other animal, the stick can be of use if this should happen." This gave me a wonderful idea for a gift, as his birthday was coming up soon. I decided to buy the master a walking cane. Not just an ordinary walking cane, but one meant for self defense. It was an oak stick with a leaded handle which weighed over a pound or more. If you were hit with it, without a doubt you would be hurt seriously.

The day of his birthday I offered my gift proudly thinking he would like my gesture. He looked at the cane and said, "Oh a walking stick." Before I could smile in concurrence I found myself being beaten with the stick from my waist on down as the master said "Oh, seems like a good walking stick." It was then I realized I had made a bad choice in gifts. It seems that my gift indicated in the Chinese viewpoint that Chang was old and needed a walking stick. To this day the stick sits in my house unaccecepted by the Master. This was a painful lesson for me in learning proper Kung Fu Ethics. It takes time, but with the aid of a good teacher, some research and a few errors, students come to learn in due course what Chinese Ethics are all about.

Student: How can a beginner be expected to understand the Way of Shao-lin?

The student comes to a teacher as an empty glass. It is the teacher's job to fill the glass. Teachers know how to teach, and students must learn how to learn.

Ma Sifu: They cannot be expected to know anything. The student comes to a teacher as an empty glass. It is the teacher's job to fill the glass. Teachers know how to teach, and students must learn how to learn. Nothing should be expected until it is first taught, only then will it be expected from the student. A good teacher knows quite well what a student does not know. In a good school the Way is taught to each student right from the beginning. Knowledge grows as the student grows.

Student: Sifu Ma, I would like to learn, but the costs of some schools are very high. How can people afford this?

Ma Sifu: Yes, you are right. I too have been surprised to see how much some teachers charge. There are three kinds of schools: Traditional, Non-Traditional, and Commercial. Traditional schools are those that teach for the sake of teaching. They want to pass the arts down as they were taught to them, without change, and to teach mind, body and spirit training. The Non-Traditional will teach a blend of ideas and styles and not focus completely on the spiritual nature of the arts. A Commercial school is in it for the money. In a Traditional School students will find that the costs are low. In our school the costs per classes are less than eighteen dollars per week. In a Traditional school the fees are based on raising enough money to keep the doors open and the school expanding for more growth, not for large profits. A school such as this is well within the financial reach of most people. True schools are there to pass on the arts, in a traditional way, not to merely make money. I have always told my high level disciples: never expect to make money as a teacher. You better have a good job somewhere else if you expect to make money, because as a Traditional teacher you won't earn much. Making money is not what Shao-lin is all about.

Student: Sifu, what do you think is the hardest concept for a student to understand?

Ma Sifu: From what I have seen over the years I would say it is training itself. Many want to achieve high levels in Shao-lin. It is only natural to want this. However, few have the patience and are willing to put the time into hard study. Not that Shao-lin is so difficult to learn. Only a few can learn it, rather only a few will dedicate themselves wholly to the training necessary to achieve high skills. It never fails, those who are doing well in my classes are the same ones who are always there training. They seem to eat up the movements and try hard to live the way of Shao-lin. They seldom fail in achieving what they seek. I can teach someone everything except patience and effort. They must come from the student. It is often said: "The teacher points the way, it is the student who must travel the road."


Student: You always talk about Buddhism and Taoism in your lectures and how they are the very foundation of Shao-lin learning. However, I have a hard time understanding you, or for that matter, agreeing with your religious beliefs. I am not Buddhist or Taoist, and in fact, I like being a Christian. I still want to study Shao-lin but I am not really interested in the Asian philosophies. Somehow I feel this will impede my learning in your eyes. How can I reconcile this dilemma in my mind?

Ma Sifu: This is a good question, for many who come to learn Traditional Shao-lin have the same feelings, but feel awkward to mention it. I am happy you did, so that we may shed more light on this matter in order to lessen our misunderstanding.

Firstly, I often mention in class that I am not a Buddhist, or Taoist, I am all and I am nothing. To make my point clearer, I do not proclaim to be anything but a combination of all religions and beliefs. I am a firm believer that all religions have something to offer. I have never uttered any suggestion that my students had to follow what I follow. I am only explaining the history and thoughts behind the art we follow.

There are many roads and they all lead to the Tao.

Each has to find his/her own way in life. Few walk side by side in life. We all move in single file, one by one, alone on the path we choose. Students come to our Kwoon to learn the Traditional arts. I teach that way so all may have the chance to choose their own way, their own combinations of beliefs. I demand nothing from students except to listen and judge for themselves what they will and will not follow. There is no right way in spirituality, there is only your way.

Student: Sifu, does it take a spiritual person to have full command of this art?

Ma Sifu: Again we speak of beliefs. First, you must define what a spiritual person is. You might say they are people who look toward the development of their spiritual nature; however, there are many ways each of us tries to accomplish this. Which way you chose makes little difference, as long as you are on the right path. As they say, there are many roads and they all lead to the Tao.

If you study our art long enough you will soon realize there are certain states of mind that induce success in anything, including combat. This state of mind is beneficial to the outcome of physical encounters. When a person feels they are in the absolute right, they will fight and usually win, for right is stronger than wrong. This is the yin/yang of nature.

When you feel right, then guilt has no place in your mind. You will never regret your actions. It takes a spiritual look to understand what is right and what is wrong. Only on the spiritual path can you find this.

Once you find your truth you become fearless in your approach to anything. Find me a person who is not afraid to die for what is right, and I will show you a fearsome warrior. Without knowing what is right and wrong, your command of Shao-lin power will be lessened because of the state of mind.

Student: I am interested in everything you speak of, especially when you discuss the relationships of Pa Kua Zhang practice to the study of the I-Ching. My only problem is that I don't understand the I-Ching. I have made every effort to study this, but find myself more confused every time I read this book. Will this lack of understanding conflict with my learning proper Pa Kua Zhang.?

Ma Sifu: Tell me, who can say they understand the Book of Change completely? This ancient text remains as much a mystery today as it did hundreds of years ago. There is no need to worry about the connections between Pa Kua and the Book of Change, just know it exists for now. You must do as we all have done to come to an understanding of the ancient text, and that is keep studying. To this day I still research and ponder the meanings of this great text.

No one expects you to decipher the hidden meanings of the Book of Change in order to master Pa Kua Zhang. It is sufficient to simply know there is a relationship. As you continue your training of Pa Kua Zhang, the simpler relationships become clearer. There will always be more awakenings as you press on in practice and study.

Shao-lin has deep and mysterious origins. If researched, they can all lead the way by which we can find enlightenment.

In the meantime, just train hard in the forms of Pa Kua, enjoy it. Look toward Pa Kua's uses in combat, look toward Pa Kua's beauty of structure, look toward the flow of Pa Kua. All this is enough to hold your attentions as you continue to ponder the mysteries yet unknown to you. Simply put, enjoy the journey.

Student: Do you really think it true when they say the study of Shao-lin can lead to enlightenment?

Ma Sifu: Yes, I do. The road is long and the road is filled with knowledge. If a student takes the quantum leap into training, he cannot help but come across the vast ocean of knowledge there, just waiting to be learned and put into practice. Shao-lin has deep and mysterious origins. If researched, they can all lead the way by which we can find the absolute truth. This absolute truth is just another way of saying enlightenment. True Shao-lin points to three ways in which a person can achieve the level of a Sage. Those three ways are called: Body, Mind and Spirit development. Of course not all who come to Shao-lin will commit to such an endeavor as enlightenment, but still it lies there waiting for those who choose to follow this demanding path. It is part of the whole. If a student chooses to reach this high level, Shao-lin teaching offers such a possibility.

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