The Soft Fist

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May/June 2013

It is a simple fact: Shaolin Kung Fu is always classified as a hard, external style. "Hard style" or waijia (外家) in Mandarin is an obstinate label, unyielding by definition. And yet, like so many aspects of Shaolin, a simple fact is not so simple. Chan Buddhism can be like that - full of paradoxical truths that are simple on the surface yet deep in the heart.

An internal form of traditional Shaolin is beginning to garner attention in America - Changong Rouquan (禪功柔拳). Chan is Mandarin for Zen; both are transliterations of the Sanskrit term dhyana which means meditation. Gong is the same as in gongfu, otherwise known as Kung Fu (功夫). On its own, gong can mean "achievement," "merit," "result," "service" or "accomplishment." In the Chinese martial arts, the term gong is often used conversationally to refer to a specific skill or training technique, usually something fundamental that takes a lot of practice to develop fully. For poetry's sake, Changong is translated here as "Chan merit." Rouquan means "soft fist" although rou can also be translated as "gentle" or "pliant."

At first glance, Changong Rouquan looks more like Tai Chi than Shaolin Kung Fu. It has that same profound grace and flow, thick and heavy like molten lava. And yet it is distinctly Shaolin. Shi Yanxu (釋延續), a noteworthy proponent of Changong Rouquan, calls it a "very special Shaolin form." Yanxu is the director of the Shaolin Temple Cultural Center, an officially-recognized representative of Shaolin Temple in Southern California. This coming October, he will serve as the lead coordinator for the 1st North American Shaolin Festival which Shaolin Temple's Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin (釋永信) plans to attend. "The main focus of Changong Rouquan is to combine the body and mind," states Yanxu in Mandarin. "It's very peaceful. All the energy passes through the body's meridians and connects to the wuzang (the 'five organs' of Traditional Chinese Medicine 五臟). The movements are united, quiet and still, to get to balance. This is Chan."

Chan merit Rouquan, Resembles Chan, not fist
At first glance, Shaolin Rouquan could easily be mistaken for Chen style Taijiquan (陳式 太極拳). Both have a similar energetic feel, a smooth and steady grace punctuated by powerful explosive bursts. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Rouquan is receiving so much attention recently. Like Taiji, Rouquan appeals to an older, more sophisticated demographic of practitioners. It is physically demanding, but not because it is full of flying kicks and splits. Rouquan requires a prolonged attention span, a deep commitment to mental focus, constant awareness. Anything less and the recital feels empty, shallow, weak. It is clearly a martial form so it stands apart from famous Shaolin qigong forms that are strictly health-promoting practices like Eight-Section Brocade (baduanjin 八段锦) and Muscle Tendon Change (yijinjing 易筋经). Rouquan can be applied to combat with devastating results. The applications are sublime. The practice is profound, answering some of the nagging questions of Chan, or at least, providing a pathway to seek those answers. Several of the more progressive Shaolin schools here in America are now emphasizing Rouquan as a major component of their intermediate and advanced curriculum.

Like many styles of Shaolin Kung Fu, Rouquan exists outside the Shaolin Temple as a stand-alone style practiced by what Shaolin monastics colloquially call "folk" masters. While not a popular style, Rouquan is well respected among the company of traditional Chinese styles. As with a lot of Kung Fu history, its origin is murky. Whether Rouquan was a Shaolin invention or whether it arose outside the temple and was later incorporated is a matter of debate. But for Shi Yanxu, it is an insignificant point. What matters is that Rouquan is an important part of the Shaolin curriculum now, one that has heretofore been largely overlooked outside the temple walls. Preaching the popular Temple maxim, Yanxu says with a smile, "All martial arts come from Shaolin!"

As for non-Shaolin Rouquan, Yanxu has examined some of the folk versions and finds them similar to what is practiced inside the temple for the most part. However, he notes that Shaolin Rouquan includes a key component often overlooked by non-monastic practitioners - Chan Buddhism. Typically, when outside the temple, Rouquan does not adopt the preface of Changong. It's just Rouquan. Shaolin often abbreviates the name to just Rouquan too, just like within this article, but it usually implies the formal title within Shaolin circles. According to Yanxu, Rouquan has six roads, or lu (路), that are commonly practiced at Shaolin today. (This is the same lu as in taolu (套路), which is the Kung Fu term for forms). Each lu is an independent form. In addition, several related forms are closely connected to Rouquan, such as yuangong xiushi (circle merit sleeve style 圆功袖式) and yuangong chanfa (circle merit chan law 圆功禅法). There is also a unique T-cane form called shouzhang (hand cane 手杖). T-cane is an English moniker as T is an English letter. This is a simple cane with a handle that crosses the top like a T. It is similar to Shaolin's iconic weapon, the Bodhidharma cane, only instead of a horn-shaped handle, the handlebar is straight.

While the internal aspect of Rouquan and its related forms stands in sharp contrast to Shaolin's external labeling, it must be remembered that, like yin and yang, internal and external are not absolutely exclusive. Seeing the yin-yang as just black and white oversimplifies the concept. There's always a dot of one in the other. And that dot is always right in the center of the heart, right where its polar opposite is thickest. At the epitome of Shaolin practice, or any Kung Fu for that matter, the practitioner must harness both internal and external power and harmonize them to become whole. As an explanation, Yanxu recites another Shaolin adage: "The internal fist must be polished - difficult to make bright. If their thought is obtained, (you'll) be mysterious like an immortal (Quan nei you cuo nan neng ming. Ruo de qi yi miao ru shen 拳内有磋难能明. 若得其意妙如神).

Not hard, not gentle, Resembles stance, not power
While all martial arts are founded on fighting, the heart of Shaolin Kung Fu is Chan. Any art can be a vehicle of Chan - music, painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, and especially Kung Fu. One of the more confounding premises of Chan, especially for a written article such as what you are reading right now, is that Chan's highest truths cannot be expressed in words or conceived through logical thought. Transmission comes through other means. For a devout Shaolin practitioner, Shaolin taolu are more than mere methods of self-defense. Just like the archetypal seated meditation of Buddhism, Shaolin taolu are structural body positions for meditation. Seated meditation is yin; Shaolin taolu is yang: while these practices are polar opposites physically, both are expressions of the same Chan mind. For the Chan practitioner, there is no distinction. In this way, Shaolin taolu are vehicles for Chan transmission.

This raises one of those Chan paradoxical points. If there is no distinction, any Shaolin taolu can serve as a Chan vehicle. But Yanxu believes that Changong Rouquan is particularly suited to the task. "All Kung Fu follows the three joints, four selections, five elements, six harmonies, eight methods and ten necessities (sanjie, sishao, wuxing, liuhe, bafa, shiyao, 三节, 四捎, 五行, 六合, 八法, 十要). Rouquan emphasizes Changong… You must empty the mind to combine the mind with the body. When your waist is firm and your groin is loose, and your mind and body are one, this is shenfa (this literally means 'body law' and in Kung Fu it refers to a method of moving the body in a completely united way so as to express maximum power with every strike 身法). Mind and heart move, and the limbs follow. Few really learn this. It is the Chan way."

Chan demands total dedication to the moment, which is why it is a method so frequently adopted by warriors. Attaining such high level of awareness, such a keen presence of mind, is as critical to combat as it is to Chan. "We must achieve this in every movement," states Yanxu. "When you achieve the highest level, you don't need the postures or the forms. You use your mind to direct your power." Yanxu breaks this down into three levels. The first level is xiediao (协调), which means "united movement." This pertains to balance and coordination. The second level is jinluo tongchang (筋络通畅), which might be translated as "passing through the muscle web smoothly." It refers to circulating power through the meridians for health. The third is the Chan level, the void, the realm of no movement. It is called wuwo (literally "no I" 无我).

Distinct from the dichotomous yin yang, Chan is fond of expressing itself in threes. According to Yanxu, there is another three-level organization of Shaolin Kung Fu. This is by the category of forms. He claims the first level of Shaolin forms practice is quan (fist 拳). This includes the bulk of Shaolin curriculums at most Shaolin schools today: xiaohongquan (small flood fist 小洪拳), dahongquan (big flood fist 大洪拳), qixingquan (seven star fist 七星拳), taizu changquan (emperor's long fist 太祖长拳) and so on. The next level is all of the chui forms (hammer 捶) like sanlu paochui (three road cannon hammer 三路炮捶), shandian chui (flashing lightning hammer 闪电捶) and a few more. The third and highest level is ba (把). Ba is hard to translate; it can mean "guard," "grasp" or "hold" (again for poetry's sake, it will be guard here). These include xinyi ba (heart intention guard 心意把), shanshen ba (flashing body guard 闪身把), hehu ba (black tiger guard 黑虎把) and a few others. "Not many learn ba," says Yanxu. "All Chan and Shaolin Kung Fu practices are to find your heart."

Resembles shape, not walking, Firm waist, loose groin
Shi Yanxu found his heart at Shaolin. He was born in a village near Shaolin Temple in 1979. Like so many local villagers, he grew up training Shaolin Kung Fu. From the beginning, he wanted to go to Shaolin, but his parents wouldn't permit it at first. Eventually they relented, so at the young age of 14 he managed to make it there. Shaolin wouldn't take him at first, but his persistence eventually gained him entry. He studied under two of Shaolin's eminent monks, Shi Yanshou (释延寿) who was born as Fu Zhigan (付志乾) and Shi Yongzhi (释永智) who was born Diao Shanduo (刁山多). Yongzhi was on the cover of Kung Fu Tai Chi's NOV/DEC 2007 Shaolin Special. In the late '90s, Yanxu also studied tongbeiquan (through-the-back fist 通背拳) and piguaquan (axe chopping fist 劈掛拳) while in Beijing under Zhu Shengan (朱生安).

In 2002, Yanxu shaved his head and started representing Shaolin in Kung Fu performances. Ironically, that same year his practice shifted towards Shaolin's internal methods of cultivation. According to Yanxu, the first decade of Shaolin training is dedicated to external practice. For the second decade, the focus goes internal. He began studying Yijinjing (muscle tendon change classic 易筋经), Neigong (internal merit 內功) and meditation under an old generation monk named Gao Dejing (高得江). He also started undertaking Chan retreats into the mountains. According to monastic regulations, these retreats would last forty-eight days. These were very austere. There are no amenities in the mountains. Assisting him with these retreats was another elder monk named Shi Huitong (释慧通). Yanxu usually undertook these retreats on Song Mountain where Shaolin Temple resides, but he also did some at Yujushan (语句山) in Yunnan Province. He also studied Chan directly under Shaolin Temple's Abbot, Shi Yongxin.

In 2003, he was offered 6th duan (段 level) by the local government for his performance achievements in the martial arts. But he declined. He intended to remain faithful to Shaolin Temple, and felt no need for such a title. In 2006, he took his formal vows to become a full-fledged Shaolin monk. Yanxu became a direct disciple of Abbot Shi Yongxin and took on the role as a head coach at Shaolin Temple.

In 2007, the Abbot sent Yanxu on a mission to the United States alongside his Shaolin brother, Shi Yanyue (释延乐). Yanxu feels the Abbot selected the two of them because they both had a more extensive Buddhist background. They were more complete. Their mission was to promote a more modern manifestation of Shaolin as a healthy practice for everyone. "We want to promote a healthy lifestyle for modern people, to open the wisdom of life. We are dedicated to social harmony through Shaolin Chan and Kung Fu exercises. This is to improve the quality of human life. It offers people health, wisdom, compassion and wealth."

Additionally, they were sent to regulate Shaolin Kung Fu in America. That means establishing a grading system of duan for traditional Shaolin Temple Kung Fu. With the blessing of Shaolin Temple, they are part of an international movement towards a global ranking system for Shaolin practitioners, complete with colored belts to denote rank. It is a nine-level hierarchy: three tiers each containing three ranks. Unconventionally, the black belt is awarded for 6th duan with three higher duan above that.

This Shaolin duan system is distinct from the International Shaolin duan system being advocated by the Chinese Wushu Association. That system feeds into a larger organization which ranks all Chinese martial styles. This system is from Shaolin Temple and strictly for Shaolin Temple followers.

Body and heart combine to one, Body and heart one action
Not many practitioners have the opportunity to train at Shaolin fulltime from childhood. What's more, modern life doesn't allow enough space in many people's lives to commit enough time to train as a Shaolin master. However, this doesn't preclude the common person from practicing as much as they can. Yang style Taijiquan (楊氏太極拳) increased its followers innumerably by softening the movements radically. Combat applications were softened to the point beyond recognition. While the temptation is there, traditional Shaolin isn't quite going that direction yet. Already within the corpus of Shaolin Kung Fu are many forms of qigong that are very soft, even non-martial. They are strictly for health and self-cultivation. Rouquan splits the difference. It is very soft and health oriented, but it retains its martial applications.

The closest analog to Rouquan is Chen style Taijiquan (陳氏太極拳). In fact, a casual observer who had a passing familiarity with the Chinese martial arts could easily mistake Rouquan for Chen style. Yanxu dabbled in Chen style Taijiquan and has tremendous respect for it, but is quick to point out the distinction. "I did it for a while. A lot of the practice is focused on finding the balance point of yin and yang - the physical point. Chen is looking for that yin-yang balance point. Shaolin is about finding your heart. The balance part of Taijiquan is included but the focus is different."

Despite the fact that Rouquan is usually considered an advanced form of Shaolin, Yanxu believes that Americans have the aptitude and willpower to see it through. "In some ways, Americans are easier to teach. They are willing to learn. They work hard. Shaolin teachings focus a lot on health. When Americans feel the results, they set their mind to follow. In China, the mindset isn't always as deep. Modern China is floating, searching outside." But whether teaching Americans or Chinese, Yanxu feels that he has his work cut out for him. "In the modern world, people only have two postures: sitting and lying down. Before people had so much, there was no car. You had to move more. Today, many people never stretch at all for years. Shaolin Kung Fu and Chan are perfect to stay healthy in the modern world."

A hundred branches mutually follow, This act is Chan merit
On October 15-20, 2013, Shi Yanxu is staging the first American Shaolin Festival. This is different than the Shaolin Symposium held in Los Angeles in 2011. It's akin to the European Shaolin Festival that was held last year in Berlin. Yanxu participated in both of those two events. The festival will offer a tournament open to all Chinese martial arts, as well as having competition specifically for Shaolin Kung Fu. The prizes are extraordinary. All first-place winners will be awarded a special two-week training program at Shaolin, including room and board. The winners just have to get there. Yanxu estimates there will be 100-150 competition divisions. The festival also hopes to have an exhibition of Taijiquan and Taekwondo, a discussion forum and a banquet. There is a special training program planned for Shaolin inner disciples, including an accelerated program for established teachers. The Abbot will attend, along with an entourage of thirty to fifty representatives from Shaolin. And, of course, the first rank examinations will be held.

The ranking system is already in place in several regions. Yanxu says it is about a nine-year program: three years for the basics and six years for the advanced material. The nine duan are broken into three tiers: Xiashi sanpin (lower warrior three conduct 下士三品), Zhongshi sanpin (middle warrior three conduct 中士三品), Zhangshi sanpin (upper warrior three conduct 上士三品). Each tier has a different color robe: Xiashi is blue, Zhongshi is red and Zhangshi is saffron (like a traditional Buddhist robe). Throughout all the nine levels, adherents first must learn the Shaolin Warrior Disciple Rules (Shaolin Dizi Wujiegui 少林弟子习武戒规) and Shaolin Cultural Etiquette (Shaolin Wenhua Liyi 少林文化礼仪). Currently, there are no Shaolin Temple 9 duan holders outside of Shaolin, but Yanxu is very hopeful that some may be awarded at the Shaolin Festival.

As Shaolin Kung Fu spreads around the globe, the question arises: Is it required for a Shaolin practitioner to be Buddhist? Do you have to be vegetarian, wear robes and shave your head? The answer is no, not necessarily. While many followers do, it's not a requirement. Just as a Taiji practitioner need not be Daoist and an MMA practitioner doesn't have to fight in the ring, the benefits of training can be their own reward without any denominational commitments. However, authentic Shaolin must have a Chan heart. True Shaolin offers a way to find your own heart. It is there, if you seek it.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May/June 2013

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About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh :
Find us on facebook Master Shi Yanxu is the director of the Shaolin Temple Cultural Center, currently with two locations in Temple City and West Covina, California -He is assisted with the application demonstrations by Shi Yanxue. To see other demonstration like the Shaolin Rouquan, visit our official YouTube channel .

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