We all thought we had more time. We had so much left to learn and he had so much left to teach us. But suddenly today my Shīfu (师父, teacher/master), an incredibly dedicated and patient father and teacher, moved on. We lost a mentor and China, and the world, lost an irreplaceable treasure.
I’m in Colorado and have just climbed up into the woods to process. It’s a good place to be. Tall, strong trees reach for the sun, younger trees are just beginning to stretch, and older trees have laid down to rest. Everything is decomposing and arising and flowing. There is less distinction between alive and dead and none of the steps are hidden. This dark, wet stump before me crumbles and sighs slowly into the soft earth and pine needles pressing against my bare toes, a welcome and complete part of all that surrounds me.
One day I, too, will lie down and melt into the earth. Even as I write this, parts of what I think of as me are doing just that. Cells from my feet and others from my breath flow outward and into the world to become what we call “other”. At the same time oxygen I draw from outside fuels and becomes my muscles, just as lessons from others shaped those muscles and taught them to move.
When I first arrived in Fuzhou, China (福州, Fúzhōu) I was warned several times that no matter how much I wanted to, I should under no circumstances go right up the mountain. After intense jet lag (a complete planetary flip) I would dive in and kill myself with enthusiastic training. I waited one day.
I arrived at the little mountain at the center of the city at night. I walked up long wide stone steps and followed the road up and around a series of old temples as I climbed. Andy Chow was there to meet me and serve as translator, and Rudy Ibarra (my teacher from Austin) arrived soon thereafter. Rudy had made a special trip to Fuzhou to introduce me to Shifu and help me get started in China, a gesture I will never forget. We stretched and talked and I looked around buzzing with excitement as I saw all of the pieces of the training area that I had heard about: the giant clay pot, the forked tree and the old stone animals.
After more stretching and kicking to warm up I suddenly heard a sound in the distance that would become deeply a part of my experience: the whine and growl of Shifu’s motor scooter. From that night on I would feel my heart leap, my adrenaline rush, and my mind snap into sharp focus when I heard that little motor pull its way up the hill. Every part of my being prepared to lock into a world, a bubble, a universe all its own for the next two hours.
Everyone was suddenly moving and stretching, none standing still, pretending to be in action as though they had been working away with the same intensity for the last two hours. Shifu appeared and stepped off of his scooter to join us. He refused to allow any type of formality, even the least bit of bowing, and so we individually said hello (你好, nǐ hǎo). Rudy introduced me. We talked briefly (through translation) and I was immediately frustrated that I couldn’t already understand Chinese. I was struck by how simple he seemed. He was straightforward and calm and didn’t appear in the least bit rushed or have any need to come across as some sort of grandmaster or badass. After a few minutes of talking, the words came that I had anticipated for months: “Shifu would like to see your punch”.
At the heart of Natural Style Kung Fu (自然门 Zìrán mén) is what we call Shenfa, the body movement method (身法 Shēn fǎ). This involves a way of moving that draws energy up and out of the core. While this way of moving energy ultimately becomes part of every movement, the secret to learning begins with the basic punch.
I crouched into the Sìliù bù (四六步, forty-sixty stance), my hands raised as two bladed guards before me. Shifu stood calmly in front of me and held up his hand as a target. He nodded. I threw out my first three punches. Yī, èr, sān. (一，二，三, one, two, three). His head nodded every so slightly as he calmly said, “mm” and shook his target hand. One, two, three I threw again, my fists just tapping the palm of his hand. He moved his hand higher so that I had to reach even more. “Mm.” Again. And again. And again. One, two, three. One, two, three. Each time he simply responded with, “mm” and shook his hand slightly, just out of reach before me. I started to gasp for breath. One, two, three. One, two, three. My punches started going wild, missing his hand. I barely had the strength to heave them, one after the other. One, two, three. One. Two. Heave… three… His expression, and his hand before me, never moved. “Mm.” One Two… I collapsed to the ground gasping. I looked up in time to see Shifu look down at me. “Mm”, he said, and quietly walked away. My mind was screaming one thing: “Wait! I can do more! Wait!”
Suddenly I understood what I had been told again and again during my last year and a half with Rudy and Josh. “It’s different in China. Wait till you meet Shifu. You’ll see.” I was overwhelmed with a desire to please this quiet, comfortable little man. It was completely inexplicable. He had said and done almost nothing.
At the same time, I was elated to feel this level of exhaustion, of complete physical drain. In a rush it brought back everything I had ever most loved about sports and training. My first running coach who taught me to love the sweat and the pain. Wrestling practices that would leave every muscle in my body incapable of motion. The purity of pushing to the absolute limits of capacity, to then create even more strength. I was already hooked.
Rudy stepped beside me and whispered. “You’ve passed the first test”.
I love to describe Shifu’s teaching energy as like Tai Chi Push Hands: meeting each student with exactly the energy they’d bring to him. He responded to mild interest with mild engagement. Casually interested visitors got a casual greeting. At the same time he responded to passion with passion. Once he had a sense of my dedication, he didn’t hold back. He poured energy into my training, moving my arms, positioning my shoulders and back, watching every detail of my movement and making continuous corrections.
His patience was limitless. He would explain the same ideas to me again and again as I struggled to feel or understand. Never once did I see him lose his cool or show even the slightest irritation. He would simply show me through example or by positioning my body, every time with the same enthusiasm, again and again as though I had just begun.
That night, as with all nights to follow, the sound of the scooter whining down the hill was followed by a brief pause and then… a collective exhale. The powerful magical intensity that held the whole garden would release as everyone reconvened at the center of the training area. “Did you see when Shifu made this move with his foot, just as he was turning?” “Suddenly I see it now: I just need to pull back slightly right before dropping…” Now we will spend the rest of our lives doing this.
Here in the mountains of Colorado, tucked down into a little forest, I choke as I try to take up one of our classic stances. I cry for my own loss, the loss of this person in my life and a future I had hoped to fill with learning from this man. I cry for the loss of the past, my time in China when everything was so incredibly alive and new and clear. I cry for China, as another of their irreplaceable treasures is lost without so much as a ripple in the pond of China’s awareness; China who struggles blindly forward through clouds of modern poison hoping for a better life and leaving their miracles behind.
But I don’t need to cry for Shifu. He lived to the last moment teaching passionately dedicated students who crossed oceans over and over to find him, who wrapped their lives around their time on the mountain. He was also a Daoist (道教, Dàojiào) in the original sense of the word. Despite having literally fought his way through the cultural revolution he found a way to become peaceful even in his passion, his small smile a ready reminder that nothing was ever really that bad. Here in the woods I draw on that way of being, that way of knowing we are earth, will return to earth, and have always been earth.
Shifu was a father to many of us, and a living connection with hundreds of years of learning. Now that learning lives in us, pieces scattered throughout our little group. Rudy Ibarra may be the only one who knows some of the advanced techniques. Josh Shain may be the last person on earth who knows one of the Ziranmen Tai Chi (太极拳, Tàijí quán) forms. We are now the vessels who hold this fragile treasure.
I mentioned earlier that Shifu never wanted any form of formality despite our desire to show respect. The only gesture he allowed us was as he was leaving. When he wrapped up practice, just before he walked to his scooter to disappear down the mountain, we would all pause and say, “màn zǒu” (慢走, go slowly).
(Màn zǒu shīfu. Màn zǒu.)
Videos of Shifu and our conditioning room:
Shifu teaches Shenfa through conditioning
Shi demonstrates Taiji on Chinese television