Rick Howard is the Special Projects Director for the VTM. He has been actively involved in Ving Tsun for over 9 years.
Articles by Rick Howard
The Anatomy of Ving Tsun
By Rick Howard
As anyone who has the interest to be reading this will surely know this century has seen a tremendous growth in the study of martial arts. Opinions as to the reason behind this growth differ from one person to the next, and they represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints. One reason may be the high profile the martial arts have taken in the media, particularly in film and on television, which has afforded them broad exposure. Also, with a real or perceived rise in the crime rate, it logically follows that more citizens would take up the study of martial arts for self-protection. Of course, the physical benefits of martial arts training cannot be overlooked, and many are attracted to them for this reason alone, particularly as people become more health-conscious. Regardless of which point of view you may embrace as to why the martial arts have become so popular there is still the essential question that you and all practicing martial artists should continually ask: ‘What are the martial arts?’ The answers to this seemingly simple question are as numerous as the various styles that are currently practiced. The most common responses simply mention the tangible benefits derived from study, as if the results of practicing the martial arts somehow define the art themselves. But the martial arts are more than the benefits they convey, much more.
Ving Tsun Kung Fu is certainly one of the styles that are at the forefront of the current martial arts expansion. It is based on simplicity, practicality, and a scientific approach to combat. However, the study of the Ving Tsun system is a process. The goal is to make oneself a part of the kung fu (living the art), as opposed to simply using it. This fundamental idea is the often-discussed yet difficult-to-understand concept of the ‘Kung Fu Life.’ To be truly successful at the art, a student of kung fu must attempt to discover the meaning of the phrase. What are some of the aspects of a Kung Fu life? One obvious facet of the lifestyle is the relationships you may forge with the people you may encounter during your course of study. Through time, you develop bonds with your fellow students and your Sifu, with the fine people you meet at tournaments and seminars, and with the children you have the chance to aid and instruct. However there is a less evident aspect of the Kung Fu life; this is the aspect of development. In practicing the martial arts, we cultivate our own personal growth and help others do the same. We grow physically, mentally, and spiritually and we inspire the desire to grow in our fellows. So, can a ‘Kung Fu Life’ be left out when defining the term ‘Ving Tsun?’ Of course not, because it is a fundamental part of martial arts training. More on this idea follows later, but right now, let’s take a look at some of the basic building blocks that form the underlying foundation of the art and which of these should not be confused as being parts of the art itself.
Firstly, what happens when you first begin your training? This is a basic question, but an answer requires a little examination. Obviously, you learn an assortment of stretching exercises, and you watch the instructor demonstrate various stances and hand positions. You might then be instructed to imitate these positions and be told to memorize them and their names for home practice. This introduces what we call methods. A reporter in a conversation with the late Bruce Lee asked: “How does one learn kung fu?” At this time Bruce reportedly threw his wallet at the reporter. The reporter instantly caught the wallet. Bruce commented by saying, “ See, you were successful. You reacted instinctively, without thinking. If you wanted to teach someone to do that, how would you teach them? Would you teach tem a single hand catch, a double hand catch, behind the back catch?” This is a distinction between result and method. To learn a martial art without a method is rare. Like father and son; the son may learn a lot from his father but he would be hard pressed to account for how, when, where, and what he learned. This seems to be no method but actually it is.
Methods are simply the presentation of the lesson and the presentation itself may take several forms. For instance, the method involved in our first training example above is basically a physical demonstration of the required position. The student’s goal is to memorize that instruction. However, the same set of stances first illustrated by the instructor might also have been learned (although with more difficulty) from a skillfully produced videotape. Understanding of the principles involved could also be accomplished by the instructor’s communicating orally to the student rather than physically demonstrating the position himself. As you can see, these are all valid ways of indicating the correct stance that the individual is being taught. Are these methods of instruction the essence of the art form itself? Certainly not, and if a student does not distinguish the difference between method and essence, it can become the ball and chain on one’s ankle, a stumbling block to making progress.
Methods are a means but should not be considered part of the art itself. As Grand mater Moy Yat states, everyone has his own kung fu and everyone has their own way of passing it on. Simply because a Sifu offers a ‘hands on’ approach of instruction does not mean that the student must teach using exactly the same method. When you grow and become a Sifu you might prefer the ‘deep thinker’ approach, talking and guiding your students from a distance. Another may have his students focus and recreate his every move. Each of these methods may obtain the desired results. However, they should not be considered an integral part of the art. We’ll come back to this later. Now let’s talk about what may people consider the main body on the martial arts: techniques.
When your Sifu illustrates a particular body positioning is he showing you a technique? In the Ving Tsun family, we are taught that techniques are not only the physical positioning of the body components in relationship to each other, but also the ability by positioning to lead to other follow-up techniques. For instance in any form of Ving Tsun training one learns the ‘three pillars.’ These are tan sao, fuk sao, and bong sao. Each of these is a particular physical positioning of the arms in relationship to the upper body. Tan sao can be described as being the arm extended upward (with fingertips at shoulder level), elbow and forearm in the center, palm up, fingers straight and flat, thumb tucked in, and elbow one and a half fists from the body. However, a tan sao can instantly turn into a bong sao by turning the elbow out and upward. This is typical of any true technique used by a martial artist of any style. Be it the kicks of Tae Kwon Do or the pillars of Ving Tsun, techniques are geometric positioning of the body limbs or trunk in relation to each other, which allows the practitioner to set the stage for the use of another technique. However, simply knowing techniques and understanding the methods that were used to learn them don not make a martial artist.
Wait a minute though. Isn’t mastery of the physical techniques what the study of martial arts is about? Doesn’t this give the practitioner the ability to execute a correct offense or defense? Not without the introduction of principles. Principles give the justification for the use of a specific technique. There can be many techniques used to satisfy the requirements of only a single principle. Let’s look at one of the most important principles in the art of Ving Tsun, that of the centerline. If I position my hand, arms and elbow into a proper tan sao, I am protecting the centerline. This is in keeping with the centerline principle of Ving Tsun. Now, if my opponent’s hand is being checked by my fuk sao then I again apply the centerline principle of occupying the center. If I position my body into ye chi kum yeung ma (the basic stance of Ving Tsun) then I am applying the principle of centerline to my entire body, with the line running vertically down the middle of the trunk.
So now we have the methods to teach a student physical techniques and the principles that these techniques are used to accomplish. Perhaps this combination is what puts the ‘artist’ in martial artist. Let’s test this theory with a brief study.
You stand in the proper stance and ready for action across from one of your Sihings (a senior brother student in kung fu). Your Sifu has used good methods to teach you and you have the techniques and the principles behind them firmly memorized. Your Sihing leads with a vertical punch and you pak sao (hand slap block) to block. Too late, however, as you are struck by the punch with your block not yet being into position. What went wrong? You were taught the proper block by watching your instructor and performing repetitions (the method). You can stand and demonstrate the proper physical hand/arm positioning (the technique). Also, you understand the principle involved: the block is intended to defend your center. What is missing then: It’s the last piece of the formula, which is known as attributes.
In the scenario above, the techniques and the principle were understood, but the student failed to produce an adequate defense because his timing was off. A technique is worthless if it is not used with both proper positioning and proper timing. Attributes allow the techniques and principles to be used successfully. Therefore, avoid using techniques as ends unto themselves of simply as a way of striking on opponent. Rather, use those movements as a vehicle for developing the martial attributes important to Ving Tsun Kung Fu. Examples include balance, coordination, timing, sensitivity, and relaxation. These are the true roots of Ving Tsun.
Could you maintain your centerline without balance, land punches without timing, stick hands without sensitivity, or obtain power without relaxation? Can you put any technique to use without attributes? Not consistently. Attributes are needed in order to make you Ving Tsun Kung Fu effective. While the principles are the foundation of Ving Tsun, the attributes are the results of applying those principles over and over again until they become instinctive. Once this instinctual understanding is grasped, you may freely express your Kung Fu, and have faith that it will be effective.
In the Moy Yat Ving Tsun family, Kung Fu encompasses much more than techniques, principles, and even attributes. It also includes the opportunity to develop and enrich our lives with the experiences of our Sifu, Sigung, and our elder kung fu brothers. Kung Fu life is the life experiences your Sifu has gathered by spending many years with his Sifu. It is these very experiences he uses to help guide you at a level he also was once at. He uses his life to help you understand the essentials and nature of Ving Tsun Kung Fu, thus allowing you to use the system as a tool to be more successful in your endeavors of life. A person may be qualified to run a class or teach a technique. But, to take disciples and absolutely change their lives, to make them feel more relaxed, enjoy life more, or to save time and expand their lives are the marks of a great teacher. This brings us full circle back to our beginning topic of methods.
Grandmaster Moy Yat believes one should ‘learn without methods’ as previously illustrated above by Bruce Lee’s father-and-son analogy. Through living a Kung Fu Life, a disciple not only learns his kung fu, but he can reflect on it as well. He can contemplate the progress he has made and say to himself ‘this is the method I used to learn this principle of technique'.
While a Sifu helps a student along the path of discovery, it is the student who must take responsibility for making progress. Ultimately, it is a student’s diligent practice and inward reflection that allows him to make the kung fu his own.
Remember: the burden of effort falls on you. You control your own destiny. The trailblazers of Ving Tsun are self-motivated, serious, and detail-oriented. They dive into the system and immerse themselves in a Kung Fu Life, which is the key to learning.