In the photo below, my first Sifu, Grandmaster Kuo Lien Ying, demonstrates the standing meditation stance Zhan Zhuang, Universal Post.
There are multitudes of "Grandmasters" milling about these days; precious few merit the title. Kuo Lien Ying was the genuine article.
Details vary, depending on who's telling the tale, but even as a basic, ballpark bio, his story is extraordinary. Born in Inner Mongolia sometime between 1890 and 1895, Kuo began his martial arts training when he was 12, mastered one (or more) of the Northern Chinese Shaolin Ch'uan forms (he was renowned for his Long Fist boxing and Rope-Dart skills), then traveled the land, challenging other masters to combat. When he found someone who could beat him, Kuo would make that master his teacher.
He was 30-something when he challenged 112 year-old Wong Jiao Yu to a match, or so the story goes. The venerable Wong won the contest handily, then insisted Kuo pass a series of arduous tests – including the infamous "Chin-to-Toe" stretch – before consenting to accept his vanquished opponent as a student. According to the legend, Wong was 121 when he died; in time, Kuo became the primary teacher of the martial art that had made Wong so formidable, the rare Guangping Yang style Tai Chi Ch'uan.
A general under Chiang Kai Shek, Kuo fled to Taiwan before the communists seized power, leaving his four wives and eight children behind. Had his military rank not compelled his departure, his kung fu would have done. As part of the new regime's "get rid of the old" policy, Chairman Mao proceeded to outlaw traditional martial arts, driving scores of masters across the Taiwan Strait.
On the mainland, ancient knowledge withered, ancient practices died. The forms that endured grew stagnant or dilute; some suffered the further indignity of being grafted onto politically-correct, calisthenics-style sets choreographed by committee and mandated for use as national exercise programs and in competition. Conversely, in Taiwan, the influx of expatriate masters spawned a martial arts renaissance. Thrown together on a tiny island, representatives of every conceivable tradition began pushing hands, working out, showing off and practicing with each other daily. Many, like Kuo, opened schools where the old forms were taught, discussed, debated, nurtured, developed and preserved.
In 1965, Kuo relocated to San Francisco and began teaching in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square. For a while, I was one of his students. Following a trail of random events and acting on impulse, I simply showed up one day, presented myself to the master and asked him to teach me. It was a Fool’s Journey, an ignorant innocent’s blithe, reckless leap into the unknown. I hadn’t any idea where I was, who I was talking to, what I was asking for. Kuo was fully aware I hadn’t a clue, but Fools are blessed with luck. Instead of booting me out, he invited me in and gave me my first lesson.
It began with short set of warm-ups. After leading me through the exercises once, he left me alone to practice them. I did the set over and over, hoping he’d notice I had it nailed and give me something more challenging to work on. He didn’t, or more accurately, I didn’t have it nailed. I was doing the set in the right order and with technical accuracy, but I thought that was all there was to it – that the exercises were just a way to limber up before getting to the good stuff. Did I mention I was clueless? In fact, the warm-ups were a way to waken and stir the Qi, and then use it to increase flexibility, improve balance and build strength. It wasn’t about external, physical moves. It was about internal energetics. This was the good stuff. This was a lesson in Qi and how to access it.
So, no surprise, Kuo didn't interrupt my solitary practice, and finally I had to go – back to the world of cable cars and buses, day-jobs, classes, and dogs waiting to be fed. I ended my work-out a bit disappointed in the dilatory pace of Kuo’s instruction, yet, at the same time, enormously pleased that I’d found the real deal; a genuine, old-style kung fu master who didn’t cater to America’s fast-lane, immediate-gratification mentality. If I wanted to learn traditional martial arts in a traditional manner, I’d found my teacher. Confident that the patience I’d shown in my first lesson would be rewarded in my second (clueless, entirely), I called it a day.
But Kuo did have something else to teach me, something he wouldn’t let me leave without. As I went to gather my things, he stopped me, again drew me aside, and gave me the Universal Post. His instruction was exacting. Righting my balance, adjusting my alignment, molding my fingers, re-directing my gaze, he tweaked and polished my stance until he was satisfied with it, then had me hold it a good, long while, making sure I understood I was to practice it every day, without fail.
And I did. But I practiced poorly, watching the clock, instead of looking within; standing still, without achieving true stillness. I was a good student, diligent and adept, but never one of Kuo’s “inner door” disciples – nor did I aim to be. After a few thoroughly remarkable, but, admittedly, semi-conscious years splashing about on the fringes of a vast, timeless, communal and culturally-rich ocean of martial artistry, I cut myself loose from the school and drifted away from my practice, keenly aware that while I'd been playing with pretty shells in the shallows, others had been gathering priceless treasures from the deeps. As clearly as I knew it was time to go, I knew I was leaving something important behind. Something rare. Something essential to a good life well lived. And I knew I'd be back for it, someday.
When "someday" came, Kuo was gone. After another 7-or-so years in San Francisco teaching students, training masters and cementing his place as one of the preeminent martial artists of the past century, he’d returned to China. Backtracking from the brink of cultural bankruptcy, the government was no longer getting rid of the old, but endeavoring to reclaim it. On his return, Kuo was invested as a National Cultural Treasure for his skill at Tai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang, Xing Yi, I Ch'uan and Shaolin Ch'uan. He died in Inner Mongolia, in 1984.
The geographical convergence of Kuo's beginnings and end might seem to imply that he'd come full circle. Qi doesn't circle. It spirals. We can go home again. We just can’t go back. We regain our past not by retracing our steps, but by moving forward. Kuo was gone, but he was still and will always be my Sifu. A master’s instruction is in the moment, but his teachings – direct energetic transmissions of specific information to an individual student or group of students – his teachings, once given, are never lost.
Returning to my kung fu roots, I found myself exactly where I’d started and somewhere I’d never been, practicing familiar forms on a brand new morning. Nearly three decades later and in a heartbeat, I was playing again in the same vast, eternal, gem-studded sea… but the sands under the waves had shifted and heaven's wheel had turned.
That’s why I’d come back. Because sands shift and stars fall, and time brings nothing but change – and if I was going to trip the light fantastic when the earth was crumbling under my feet and flames raining down from the sky, I had to go forward and back to the very beginning, and learn the lessons Kuo had given me that very first day.
Wake the Qi. Get it moving. Use it to cultivate flexibility, balance and strength until every step is filled with power and grace. But before I can teach you to walk, Kuo insisted, you must learn to stand. And if you want me to teach you to dance on the waters and in the wind and between the drops of fire, you must learn to stand like a mountain.