Sunday, May 11, 2014

Circle of Iron - Quotes for Internal Gongfu

I first watched Circle of Iron (the 1978 remake of Bruce Lee's "The Silent Flute") over thirty years ago before I started on the Tai-chi road. At that time I was enamored with the choreographed fighting scenes and the Asian martial arts mystical fantasy. Now, after thirty years of seeking and training to develop "internal movement", I watched this old movie again but with different eyes.
Circle of Iron video cover

If you haven't seen the movie or if you want to watch it again, you may be able to find it online.

Leaving aside the movie critics' comments about bad fight choreography, bad acting, and cheesy lines, I still enjoy the film. Here are some quotes I have found meaningful in the context of my experience practicing internal gong-fu.

1. There are rules and you have broken them. You have chosen to break almost every rule of the contest. You wear no fighting clothes. You belong to no group.
I am my own man.
Reflection: Getting caught up in rules, clothes, customs, group identity is a distraction. The most difficult trial is overcoming the rules in their myriad forms which have been written into my bones and from which I live an habituated existence. The challenge is to discover how these rules show up in my structure. The challenge is to truly become my own man.

2. The trials along the way are severe.
Reflection: In this movie, I interpret the choreographed fighting scenes as representative of the internal emotional-muscular struggle involved when I am confronted with a change that is different from the way my beliefs, values, or morals are patterned in my body. Sometimes during the practice of zhan zhuang a severe trial may present itself. Freeing oneself from habituated patterns can be a trying experience. Addressing internal resistance, however subtle or nuanced, is never ending.

3. My skills are not there to impress you.
Reflection: "Seekers" speak of the skill of dan-tian movement and fa-jin as if these were the Holy Grail of martial art achievement. Many say they want high level "internal" skills, however, many drop out of this pursuit when they discover the kind and amount of work involved. The skills you see demonstrated (externally) are a byproduct of many years of internal hard work. The very personal purpose driving the person to engage and maintain a practice that results in this kind of body change is beyond the superficial desire to impress others.

4. One is taught in accordance to one's fitness to learn.
Reflection: The teacher really must have the skill to discern the level at which the student is prepared, able, and willing to learn and then teach at that level at that moment. The concept of  a "lesson plan", of spoon-feeding what I want to teach has its time and place.

5. What style of fighting do you use? My style.
Reflection: How you resist or fight against relaxing and letting go is highly individualized. When it comes to the internal, emotional-somatic struggle between holding and letting go, there are various "internal fighting" styles. For example, some may run away (literally or figuratively), or be confrontational, or be manipulative or combinations of each at once or over time. The specifics of how each person fights or resists change are part of that person's internal structure.

6. Other seekers have other trials.
Reflection: While the overall process is the same for everyone (relax, identify tension/holding, let it go, build the feeling of connection), the individual challenges are uniquely personal. No two bodies share identical emotional-muscular patterning. Our bodies are very complex. The process of identifying and releasing ever more subtle "stuck points" is highly individualized.

7. You come to me to test yourself. And in losing you have gained your victory. For now, you are on the threshold of truth and knowledge. That gift, which is what you really want from me, you have it now.
Reflection: In the movie, the challenger losing his life can be understood symbolically. Often, simply showing up for class is a test. In a good class I will lose what binds me and through this, I gain a deeper level of relaxation, feeling and understanding. This is the threshold of truth and knowing. The gift that a truly gifted teacher can bestow is helping me find that in myself. Many come asking for the gift. Not everyone wants the gift the teacher is capable of giving. 

8. My husband sent me to you. This will not violate your vow. The desire to... may be enjoyed without consuming it.
Reflection: Desires, control, vows. What severe trials and important lessons await here!

9. You answer every question with a question. Do you question every answer?
Reflection: A direct answer is not always the best answer. In earlier days, not getting direct answers to my questions frustrated me to no end. Questions born of the analytic process are usually differently motivated than questions born of the feeling process. Learn to distinguish the two. Puzzles, riddles, contradictions may "short-circuit" the analytic process and create an opening for a feeling realization.

10. You will see things and judge them before you know what they mean.... Your impatience is beyond me.
Reflection: Impatience and misguided judgement are probably the biggest problems plaguing the internal martial arts. Training on the assumption that you know what is meant by "internal movement" without truly knowing can lead you down many a wrong path. There are many who have erroneously interpretted the false as the true. According to the level at which you practice and learn over time, discernment may naturally arise.

11. Learn to listen to that which is not spoken.
Reflection: There is nothing mystical about this. Learn to feel into your body in ever increasingly subtle detail. There are no words in the corporeal, kinesthetic realm. Also in my verbal communication I express nuances of  emotional "energies". When my focus is on the words born of my analytic process, I am not even aware of these nuances. Yet when you can hear that which is not spoken, when you feel the feeling behind the spoken words, then a much deeper level of communication is revealed and understanding achieved.

12. The Seekers fight their way here, year after year, willing, eager to pay a terrible price to see what is in that book. And when they fling it open in blazing expectation to finding all the answers to all life's questions, what do they find.
There is no book, Cord. No enlightenment outside yourself.
There is nothing to take back.
Reflection: After decades of seeking for what the martial arts refer to as "internal movement", after watching others make progress on the road to that kinesthetic skill set, I can now see more clearly what is meant by "internal movement". In seeing this "goal", in seeing how the body changes, I can see which processes provide steps to that goal and which provide distractions.
There is no enlightenment outside yourself. What I learn in and about my body is specific to me. My "a-ha" realizations may serve as guideposts to others. There are known and unknown limitations in attempting to express any kinesthetic experience in words. There are so many nuances, so individualized, so personal. There is no enlightenment outside yourself.

Another scene worthy of noting is the "Man in the vat of oil" scene. This scene highlights the importance of knowing precisely what you want to achieve and knowing if the training method will help you achieve that result in the most functional way possible. In this example, the man in the vat could not maintain a vow of chastity. 
"How can a man be a holy man when that terrible thing attaches him to the earth? I got rid of my money. I shed my clothes. I ate a spoonful of rice each day. My mind began to soar. I felt the universe! I was the universe! And then that terrible thing summoned me, "Hello!" it cried, "Think of the pleasure!"
Because he lacked the courage to maim himself, he decided to sit in a vat of oil until "that terrible thing" dissolved. In the process, he also lost the use of his legs. There are many similarly ridiculous and dysfunctional practices. This scene also highlights the topic of the dissociated out-of-body spirituality versus the integrated in-body spirituality. This can be a topic for another day.

What's your favorite quote from this movie and how does it tie in to your internal gong-fu practice?


  1. "Tie two birds together, and even though they have four wings, they cannot fly."

    Not all movements work in unison with another as the mind and body do.

  2. Enjoyed your take on this.. "each day that passes changes you, how canyou have anything or anybody when you can't even possess yourself" there is no enlightment, outside yourself..