Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Internal Gong Fu Paradigms

In my years of learning different internal gong fu forms and other practices, I primarily saw and learned the superficial, mechanical differences without deeply understanding the differences in their underlying paradigms.

I tried synthesizing ideas without first having a basic functional understanding of each. As a result, I wound up with a confused stew pot of ideas. I learned to "talk the talk".

My purpose in writing this article is twofold. This is primarily an exercise to help me clarify my understanding of the paradigms of various internal gong fu practices. And in so doing, present you, the reader with my current understanding. Specifically, I want to answer the question, "What's the difference between Wujifa and its paradigm and other internal gong fu practices and their paradigms?"

First, what is a paradigm? The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines paradigm as:
"a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind"
Here's my current understanding of the paradigms of the various practices from my experience.

Paradigms in the Asian Tradition
  • Chi or Qi ( 气 ; ) paradigm: An invisible energy is the foundation of the universe. This energy flows through humans via a meridian system. Learning how to recognize and direct one's energy (internally) can also open one to connecting with the energy of nature and the universe.
    [Over the years, I've done all kinds of Qi-gong exercises with a variety of teachers in a variety of settings and heard Chi explained all kinds of way including doing Tai-chi as a moving qi-gong. So my 'definition' is kind of the gist of everything I've heard or read.]
(The below are listed as "sub-paradigms" as I believe the chi-paradigm runs through each.)
  • Wu-Ji ( 无 极 ; wú jí ) paradigm: the mother, the undefined that gives birth from the flow of energy of the Tao to Yin-yang, Five Elements and the ten thousand things. The stillness underlying movement.
    [When I got to college, I pursued a Bachelors in Religious Studies and Philosophy focusing on Asian Buddhism and Taoism. So of course, being on a college campus on Long Island, NY in the 1980s, and with New York City just a train ride away, I tasted A LOT of fruit. Transcendental Meditation, staring at a candle flame tip, staring at a full moon, sitting in a tree feeling how the tree grounds the wind, attending the Church of Eclectic Esoteric Whatever and on and on. Looking back, when I started, I remember sitting and notice my mind racing everywhere. Crazy. I can get to a quiet place much easier now.]
  • Yin-yang ( 阴 ; yīn yáng) paradigm: A philosophy of duality, polarity; complimentary opposites in balance.
    [In the 1980's, in addition to usual classes, I also attended workshops and seminars with William C.C. Chen, T.T. Liang, Yang, Jwing-ming and many others I've forgotten at summer camps at the original Tai chi Farm. So looking at Tai-chi, first there is the full leg/empty leg thing. And then in push-hands, where an opponent presents strength, I yield; where an opponent is weak, I fill with strength. I understand and feel this at the mechanical level, however, I never got to the point of consciously applying this paradigm in my daily life.]
  • Five Element ( 五行 ; wǔ xíng) paradigm: A philosophy recognizing five fundamental forces and how each overcomes or gives rise to the next.
    [I attended a couple seminars on the Five Element Xing-yi. One with Yan, Gao-fei and one with Gary Torres. In Yan's seminar, I remember spending a lot of time on practicing and honing the feel of the form and less time on philosophy. In Gary's seminar, I remember him covering a some philosophy and then we got into doing a two person Five Element Xing-Yi fighting form where for example, I attack with Wood and my opponent counters with Metal. Gary also covered the acu-point striking with Xing-Yi and how rubbing or slapping one point can overcome the effects of another being struck. So even in the acu-point area, I got a taste of the Five Element philosophy.]
  • Ba-Gua ( 八 卦 ; bā guà) paradigm: A philosophy recognizing eight fundamental principles of reality. Associated with the I-Ching.
    [This is probably the sparsest of my "internal" form training. I took a set of classes with Victor Chao and learned some forms and some philosophy. I never got anywhere near learning all his 64 forms. So it's hard for me to say much about Ba-Gua. My experience is pretty limited here.]
  • Twelve Earthly Branches ( 干 支 ; gān zhī) or the Twelve Animal Zodiac ( 生 肖 ; shēng xiào) paradigm: Each of the twelve animals of the zodiac express particular characteristics.
    [This is the wildest stuff. When I trained with Bob Klein at the Long Island School of Tai Chi Chuan in the 1980's, there was a strong emphasis on nature and wild animals. (You might recognize me in a few of the videos he made during at that time.) I learned a Tai-chi Monkey and Mantis form and started learning a Snake form but never got through it. When I was learning the monkey form, I used to go to the Bronx Zoo early Saturday mornings and sit for hours in the primate house watching the chimpanzees. Bob, being a zoologist would also on occasion bring out his boa constrictors. Very cool! So I got a chance to handle some very large snakes as well as do some snake staring. The purpose of all this training was to imbue my animal forms with the "spirit" of that animal. I also got to where I could imitate squirrels (in abundance in the local woods) but I got pretty jittery and so stopped this animal. Some wild stuff!]
  • I-Ching paradigm: An ambiguous framework of eight trigram/sixty four hexagrams meant to explain how things work through correlation.
    [You know, again, lots of different teachers have spoken of the I-Ching and somehow tied it back to Chinese martial arts but I still personally don't see how this is an underlying paradigm for any internal gong fu form or practice. Maybe one day, but for now, I just don't understand.]

Paradigms in the Euro-American Tradition:

  • Mechanistic paradigm: The philosophy of DeCartes and Newton. "I think therefore I am." Head-Body duality. Tends to not feel or to strictly control feeling of intuitions and emotions. Lives life by rigid formulas, laws, rules, codes of behavior.
    [This is the paradigm I grew up with so this thing is deep in my bones and influences every activity and thought and relationship and, and, and,.... When it came to learning martial arts, this is the place I came from. And when I could reproduce the mechanics of forms, techniques and applications, well, I thought that was the pinnacle. And why not, I also attend and even participated in a couple competitions (back in my Long Island days) and to me, then, competitions were all about being judged on mechanics. So... ]
Paradigms not Tied to a Particular Tradition:

  • Fantasy paradigm: A philosophy that the use of imagery and concepts will evoke bodily sensations. However, people often get lost in the image and don't develop validate-able skills.
    [Wow! Who hasn't heard these lines before? Imagine hanging from a string. Imagine roots growing out the bottom of your feet. Imagine moving as if through a thick viscous fluid. Imagine a ball of white energy between your hands. etc..]
  • Mystical or Spiritual paradigm: A philosophy of garnering power through petitioning or connecting with a "higher power" or supernatural being beyond my comprehension. Again, people often get lost in the "woo-woo" and don't develop validate-able skills.
    [Again, my whole Bachelors degree was about this stuff. However, I approached my studies mechanically, not understanding my philosophy nor experimenting with living the philosophies I was studying. As an extra-curricular assignment, I attended a wide range of different churches, synagogues, and temples, sweat lodges etc. over four years. It was interesting. Where I confused myself was in associating any of this wide variety of religious and spiritual practices with Tai-chi or Qi-gong.]
  • Functional paradigm: Looks to generalize principles found in natural, scientific and various other processes. Not based on rules or methods. See my article "Functionality and Wujifa".
    [When I started practicing Wujifa I was struck by the lack of forms, by the focus on feeling, by the focus on using temporary methods as short-term "medicine" to yield a particular result, namely a feeling of more connectedness, to work through a "sticky-point". Philosophically, the "Wu-Ji" of Wujifa is the same as the Wu-Ji above, loosely translated as No Ridge Pole, No dead post. The "Fa" of Wujifa refers to principle, law, or method. And it is this "Fa" that distinguishes the Wujifa standing practice from the common Wuji standing practice. So altogether, Wujifa is the way or principle of not being a dead post - or being fully alive, of being functional. This is kind of how I'm understanding it now.]

Here's another way to look at the above:

Qi-gong - based on the Chi and Fantasy paradigms.

Wu- Ji standing practice - based on the Wu-Ji and Chi paradigms.

Tai-chi chuan - based on the Yin-yang and Chi paradigms. Popularly practiced from the Mechanistic paradigm and employing the Fantasy and sometimes Mystical paradigm.

Ba-gua chuan - based on the Ba-gua and Chi paradigms.

Xing-yi chuan - based on the Five Element or Twelve Animal and Chi paradigms.

Wujifa - based on the Functional paradigm. The School of Cultivation and Practice uses a functional definition of Wu-Ji and approaches Wu-Ji functionally looking for connectedness.

* * * * *
I hope my sharing gives you an idea of my cumulative knowledge of my experiences with various martial arts and internal gong fu practices and my current understanding of Wujifa as I practice it today.

What's interesting is that I've been going to classes for years (decades), and I will come home and practice the methods and never really see the big picture of the school I was and am attending. Writing this article has been a great experience in helping me see the differences in the philosophies driving the practices.


  1. Very exhaustive and impressive list, Mike. I definitely enjoyed reading it. I have some thoughts on imagination and mysticism, about which I am going to make a post on my blog. I really like both of these two things, and would like to offer my thoughts on their merits. As you said, OFTEN these can be abused, and people can lose touch with reality. I just know that these things have had great value and meaning to me :)

  2. Hi Mike,
    In response to your comment over on wujifaliangong.blogspot.com, I must admit I'm a little confused. Here you indicate the yin-yang paradigm is a subset of the chi paradigm, and in your comments on wujifaliangong.blogspot.com you indicate they are very different philosophies. I'm not of a philosophical bent and hadn't heard of wujifa a week ago, so I'm sure I've missed the subtleties of your point. I will keep reading related posts and hope things get clearer as time goes by.

  3. Laurie,
    I struggled with how to represent these paradigms. The books I've read and the lectures I've heard on Wuji, Yin-Yang, Five-Elements, etc., over the last 30 years, typically discuss these in terms of or referring to "Chi". For example:

    In Wuji, the energy (chi) of the Tao is chi.

    In Yin-Yang, the underlying energy (chi) manifests with yin or yang qualities.

    In Five Elements, each element manifests with a certain energetic (chi) quality.


    So, chi is kind of a common thread or base substance(?) that runs through Wuji, Yin-Yang, Five Elements, etc. Hence, it is tricky to mechanistically isolate each from chi.

    That said, Wuji, Yin-Yang, Five Elements, etc., can also stand on their own and be discussed without referring to chi.

    In writing this blog-post, I wanted to come from my real-world experience rather than from a book-based, intellectual perspective.

    Such is my understanding at this time. Does this help?

  4. Hehehe... OMG Mr Mike as you surely know I Iove reading your blog!!! Glad to see more girls commenting here too. I'm really looking forward to taking you class this winter!

  5. By George, I think I've got it. Thanks for your patience!