This principal entails understanding the essence as it is said: ‘’Patience and persistence is rewarded’’, ‘’build a house with a strong foundation’’. This means not rushing to learn, not being superficial in learning and overly proud for the quantity of what has been done.
Practising martial arts requires a deep understanding of each movement and technique until it becomes easy – ‘’it is – but it isn’t, it is not – but it is’’.
My teacher often used to tell me this story:
‘’One youngster set to find a martial arts teacher to learn martial arts. And one day he met such a teacher; known for his combat skills and knowledge of particular combat techniques. The youngster approached the master asking:
“Teacher, please take me as your student and teach me for three years.”
“No,” the teacher replied, “I will not teach you.”
“Teacher, please take me as your student and teach me for ten years.”
“No,” the teacher replied once again.
“Teacher, please take me as your student and teach me for the rest of my life.”
“Alright, I will teach you, son,” the teacher agreed.
I remember, back then, I really enjoyed this slightly strange story.
However, many years had passed before I found the deep meaning of it: If you decide to learn something – do not rush – rushing is fruitless. Be patient and submerge your mind in the learning process; forget about the time you have to spend in order to learn something. Day and night, think about the subject you want to master until it becomes your second nature.
More often, a strong passion and impatience to gain mastery becomes an obstacle to success. This is why martial art teachers do not take as their students those who: are impatient, rushing to reach their goal and who are not taking into consideration their abilities.
My teacher also told me another story:
‘’Once upon a time a millipede was crawling down and a caterpillar noticed how gracefully it was moving all of its many legs. The caterpillar got fascinated and after saying hello to the millipede he shouted out:
“Wow! You have got so many legs and yet you walk so fast without ever falling down. You are amazing!”
A millipede had never heard anybody praising it like that and it felt very pleased about what the caterpillar said.
“That is true,” she thought, “indeed I have got a hundred legs on both sides and I use them all easily.” Millipede looked at the caterpillar and said:
“And do you know how I am able to use all of my legs at the same time?”
It did not wait for an answer. Millipede started explaining:
“I take a step with my first leg on the right and immediately take a step with my first leg on the left,” said the millipede and showed the caterpillar how she does it. At the beginning, it all went smoothly. However, after a short while everything went wrong: front leg, rear leg, seventh leg on the left, eighth leg on the right. Legs started tripping over one another and finally the millipede fell down on its side.’’
Nothing can be compared to that natural ability or talent, which manifests itself in the highest levels of mastery. The millipede could control all its legs only when it was doing it naturally, without thinking as it is its inborn ability. This is exactly what we need to strive to achieve when we practise martial art. That is the ultimate level of skill, when hands and legs become a well-controlled weapon or as an extension of one’s consciousness. After applying a systematic training, a relative response becomes a new instinct. In the beginning stages of learning Kuen, one needs to focus on getting all the movements right. For example, self-observing how the bodyweight is spread in different stances, arms position, how and towards which direction the legs need to be pointed, what should be the length of each step etc. This way, constantly reviewing each movement and repeating it over and over again, one can achieve true perfection.
Although it is possible to learn a complex of movements or a form in a different way – by thoughtlessly repeating it numerous times, trying to perform it correctly from the beginning to the end. However, even if you learn a hundred forms this way, you will hardly be able to apply it in a real combat situation.
In Nhat-Nam School, there are many original and unique Kuen and each of them holds the creative experience of our ancestors, which was gained over centuries with blood and sweat. In every technique there is hard and soft, tension and relaxation, empty and full, high and low, far and close, movable and immovable, real and relative. In nature there is no stillness, nothing is certain and it is difficult to foresee any possible changes within it. So it is in the combat. It is necessary to master each technique so that it could withstand hundreds of other techniques.
This is the meaning of the principle: “seek quality, not quantity”
”Everything in the world is limited and so is the human life and human physical abilities. Even if human beings were to live 300 hundred years, it wouldn’t be enough to reach the ultimate level of mastery”. Does it mean that masters are pessimists? No. A deep meaning is hidden in these words. This means that it is not enough just to wish to find the essence. One has to concentrate all of his energy and direct it in a right way. In order to reach the peak of a mountain, it is important to choose the right path and utilize the body energy cleverly. One who is striving to learn as much as possible without wishing to find the deeper meaning of the teachings is not going to achieve the ultimate mastery. Folk wisdom says – “rush slowly”.
For many years one student had been learning martial arts from different martial art masters. One day he decided that he had achieved the ultimate mastery and set off to travel in order to meet other martial artists and test his skills.
Whilst travelling in the forest he met an old man. The old man was punching a tree, throwing the punch slowly and then faster again as well as increasing and reducing the power. The young man got surprised and approached the man asking: “Grandad, are you training? What can you learn by training this way?”
The old man continued throwing punches without paying an attention to the youngster and just said: “Mastery.” The youngster got fascinated like he had found a wild diamond and he said: “Would you please stop for a minute and test your skills against me?’’
“Alright” the old man replied. Both fighters assumed their fighting positions. The old man was standing straight and confident like an old oak. The young man – on the contrary- was showing his manoeuvring abilities; changing positions and demonstrating his polished fighting techniques.
“I will begin”, warned the old man and threw a lightening punch – hitting the chest and the young man fell down on the ground. After coming back to his senses the young man got up on his feet. Once again, he was suddenly swept off his feet with a slightly lighter punch in a head. After that the old man returned back to the tree and continued training as if nothing had happened.
After the second blow the young man got up and, as a student, respectfully asked the teacher: “Grandad, excuse me, may I ask you a question?”
“Certainly”- the old man replied.
“What technique did you apply against me?”
The old man laughed and said to the youngster: “I did not use anything special. It is simple. I spend a long time practising a punch and it becomes fast and strong.”
The essence is always simple. In order to gain mastery, it is important to start with simple techniques and then move onto more complex ones. Difficult techniques consist of simple elements and simple techniques consist of difficult ones. In order to master the art of combat, one needs to thoroughly and repeatedly practise many different techniques and learn about the strong and weak points of each of them. Besides that, every practitioner has to choose the combat techniques that suit them most, strive to polish it and understand how to apply it.
The young man strived to learn as much as possible, however, he did not gain a deeper knowledge of the things he learned. Yet the old man practised every element/fragment of each move, studied it thoroughly.
In order to gain mastery out of a wide variety of teachings/techniques, the student has to be able to select the most suitable combat techniques and tactics. This means that it has to suit their physical level and abilities.
Long and hard training will let you find yourself, overcome your weaknesses and gain ultimate mastery.
When you meet a stronger opponent in a combat situation, apply the principle “to understand complex (combat techniques and tactics) and to apply simple ones”. This will help you to understand and see through the cascade of complex combat techniques the opponent is throwing at you and, as a counter attack, to be able to apply a well thought out, most effective and well mastered technique. In a combat situation strength is conquered by agility, accuracy, carefulness and in cold blood.
In ancient times people used to say: “ the trunk grows on roots” or “ the good quality of the material is more important than the beautiful ornaments painted on it’’. These proverbs have a deep meaning when it comes to teaching martial art and evaluating the students’ level of mastery; every one of them must learn well what they are being taught. Every moment can bring victory or defeat, therefore no one can afford to make the smallest mistake whilst attacking or defending themselves.
I remember well a story Teacher told me once:
“A pottery apprentice got fascinated by the beauty of the clay pots that he had made. He painted and decorated them all over, even the bottom of the pots. Unfortunately, the apprentice did not pay enough attention to the quality of the clay the pots where made of. So when he put them to be fired, all the pots got cracked and broke into pieces.”
The same principle applies to training martial art: if a fighter is only focused on the grace and beauty of the positions and stances, he resembles the potter’s apprentice.
The principle explained above teaches the fighter – strive to understand the meaning of each movement as well as focusing on mastering the technique.
If we cannot control the use of our hands and legs properly, it does not matter what kind of combat tactics we know about – we will not be able to win even against an inexperienced opponent.
Prior to building a water storage tank, it is more important to find the underground source of water that is rich enough to fill the storage tank. When raised from underground, this water can be used in many ways – it can be turned into a stream or a powerful water flow.
Martial art master – is someone, who knows how to effectively fill his body with energy; how to use this energy and direct it onto the right path. Then, like a waterfall, his energy is able to move stones.
Since the ancient times, martial art was not just a way of conditioning the body and strengthening arms and legs, but also a way of training will power – which is necessary in order to find Dao and reach the ultimate perfection.
To become a hero in a true sense, one has to have a right mind-set and courage; has to be a fine fighter and, at the same time, a poet; his great knowledge of martial art has to work in harmony/balance with his will power and decisiveness. ‘’Action begins in the mind’’ is the main principle, which means that the level at which we act is equal to the level of our consciousness. Mindfulness, awareness, ability to analyze our actions – these are the three qualities that are required for the one who is striving to achieve certain goals in his life.
My teacher once told me this story:
‘’One famous teacher had many disciples. After being his student for a while one disciple decided that he had already learnt everything from his teacher and asked his teacher’s permission to start searching for a new teacher so that he could gain knowledge from another master. After fifteen years, he returned to his old teacher and said to him:
“Teacher, since I had left you I achieved high level of mastery.”
“I am happy for you, and what did you achieve the high level of mastery in?”
“Teacher, I learned to walk on water.”
“Oh my God! You wasted fifteen years for something that your friends and I have been able to do anyway and without wasting a second.”
The disciple refused to believe what teacher said and so the teacher, in order to convince the student, brought his students to the river. Then he called a boatman who simply put them in his boat and carried them all across the river. After that the old teacher said:
“You see! Knowledge is an ocean, and if you don’t choose your Path right, even a thousand years wouldn’t be enough in order to reach it. So, tell me – if you follow your Dao (or Path) relying on luck, how many tens of thousands of years it will take you?”
And here is another story:
One teacher was a famous master of calligraphy. His written words were distinguished by exceptional beauty and lightness. One day a follower of this art visited him. He brought a hundred pieces of rice paper as a gift and in return he asked to write a single word. The teacher was pleased. He wanted to demonstrate his talent to the stranger and immediately ordered his disciples to prepare everything.
After all was ready, the teacher began his work. He was moving his hands up and down, showing his fancy movements. He was trying to write a word that would show his mastery. However, inside him there was only pride and desire to show off his skill. As a result the first few strokes looked rough and indecorous. Unsatisfied with his work, teacher took more pieces of paper and started writing different words. Hence, the more he tried, the worse it got. And with each try he felt more and more embarrassed in front of his guest and the disciples.
Although he had used tens of pieces of paper, he could not write it properly. The stranger and the disciples understood the complexity of the situation the teacher had got himself in and they all left him alone in the room with all the pieces of paper he was trying to write on but failed. Left in silence, the teacher realized what his mistake was and on the last piece of rice paper he slowly wrote a word ‘success’. This was the most lively and beautiful word he has ever written in his life.
At the beginning, the teacher failed to write the words properly because inside he was unsettled and his mind was full of all kinds of thoughts. He rushed to show himself. But when he calmed down and forgot about his ‘ego’, he succeeded. Success comes to those who have a peaceful heart and an enlightened mind.
Every true martial art school doesn’t just focus on development of physical qualities of the fighters. It also requires from them to have refined senses, good memory and rational thinking.
Nhat-Nam is one of them. That is why all Nhat-Nam techniques, consisting of elements of attack and defence, were built upon this rationality and simplicity. Every movement in any of our techniques must be understood correctly in order to be able to apply a technique to a particular situation. Our martial art school does not state that, to train techniques and Kuen until it becomes automatic or to practice the same techniques for the rest of your life is the most important matter. We think that polishing movements and techniques until they become a new reflex is a first stage in learning Nhat-Nam. This forms a foundation for the following stages of development.
In combat, Nhat-Nam applies agility against strength, quality against quantity. Nhat-Nam tactics are based upon understanding that agility allows one to change the moves constantly. Stiffness of the opposite, is inertial, which makes it more difficult tackling someone who is agile. It is easier to win against inertial opponent.
That is why our tactics are built on active counter attacks and not the passive defence. This requires the fighters to have quick reaction, which come from their refined senses and mind. Mind must always be engaged in the process of learning. Only then the movement can be joined with the mind and, in the unity of both, it becomes an extension of consciousness.
Nhat-Nam martial art school puts particular emphasis on its’ students’ intellectual development. Apart from strenuous physical training, learning process also requires certain scientific knowledge from such areas as psychology, anatomy, human physiology etc. And every student must continue improving themselves by gaining that knowledge in order to succeed.
The principle described here puts priority on commitment in training. This, certainly, does not mean that the intellectual abilities are pushed into the background and that it is not as important. This principle means that even the brightest mind that is capable of absorbing different scientific knowledge cannot reach perfection if it does not have such qualities as will and courage. As it is said: ‘’drop after drop and the water jug is filled with water’’ or ‘’keep picking up and you will have a full basket’’.
Everyone probably knows a story about a tortoise who won a race against a proud rabbit. Similar meaning is hidden in another story:
‘’A musician was proudly playing his music in front of his students. And suddenly he saw a lamp man who was walking pass oblivious to the musician and his music. The musician felt insulted, he stood in the way of the passing lamp man and raised his voice asking the man:
– You, I guess, must have a true talent if you are allowing yourself to laugh at others?
– Oh no! I am just a kerosene man, I sell kerosene. I am an ordinary man. However, one thing I do well – I am very careful when handling kerosene, – said a kerosene man.
Musician and his students laughed loudly.
– Go on show us how you do it. This, indeed, must be a talent.
The old man quietly took out a coin with a small hole from his pocket. He wiped off the dust, put it on the top of the barrel neck and, after lifting the tank with kerosene, started pouring it down into the barrel. The kerosene was evenly pouring through the narrow hole in the coin until it filled up the barrel. He did not miss a single drop’’. Thanks to his commitment and love for his craft, the kerosene man reached the highest level of mastery.
Nhat-Nam school has got a vast system of exercises which also includes a set of basic techniques. And even though it may seem simple and can easily become boring in the process of training, it is necessary to practice it thoroughly and with dedication. As it is said: ‘’the deeper and stronger the foundation – the taller the tower’’. That is why at the beginning, when practicing basic hand and leg techniques, doing basic exercises and learning to move in stances students must put all of their effort to it. Otherwise it will be difficult to expect to achieve great success later on.
In order to achieve good results in training and teaching, Nhat-Nam martial art school applies ancient methodological principles as its’ foundation.
From generation to generation students of our school have been passing on this story:
‘’once upon a time ten youngsters asked one martial art teacher to take them as his disciples and he accepted them. However, the whole year passed and it seemed that he did not care about them. Soon after, some of the most impatient students decided to leave the teacher. And later on even more students had left. Finally, only one youngster stayed. He did not count the time he spent doing household shores in teacher’s house, working from the morning till late night.
And one day the master calls him asking:
– Well, why are you not leaving like the others did?
– Teacher, I made up my mind and I wish only one thing – practice with you.
– Go home I am not going to teach you.
– Forgive me teacher, but I know you are not this type of person.
– How do you know?
– I have learnt it from your day to day work you have been carrying out.
– Well, in that case, I am happy, my son!
– Teacher, I don’t understand why you are happy?
– You have learned my first three most difficult subjects.
And from then on master began initiating the student into the secrets of martial art.’’
This story is simple, but only after long time spent thinking I understood, that these three subjects were patience, faith and observation.
When masters of ancient times forced their new students to serve them for two or three years doing all the work around their house, this does not mean, that they were using the students as free labour. In this way teachers were testing the candidates, checking their inner qualities. Just as the ancient wisdom says: ‘’ Just as fire is testing the gold, so the life’s difficulties are testing the human being’’.
In order to reach mastery, it is necessary to overcome the difficulties and hardships of life. That is why at the early stage Nhat-Nam school focuses on developing all the necessary human qualities and then teaches the mastery. This is one of the main Nhat-Nam principles.
Because it is known that if a person is considered to be‘’ well-mannered’’ this also means that he or she is also ‘’educated’’. However, an ‘’educated’’ person does not necessarily mean they are ‘’well-mannered’’.
This type of approach towards martial art in many ways is similar to the principle ‘’Action begins in the mind’’. Yet, in terms of gaining mastery it has got a deeper meaning.
‘’Once upon a time there was a martial art master, who was famous around the province he lived in. However, the methods that he used in training his students were so unusual that very few could complete the training course. And one day a skinny youngster came to meet the old man asking him to be accepted in his martial art school and promised to follow any orders teacher would give.
And first few days after the youngster became his student, from time to time, the teacher would appear and start hitting the student on his back side with a stick without saying anything. Student thought he has done something wrong, so he humbly took the beating. But every time the teacher was hitting him harder and harder, and not just on his back side, but also hitting on his shoulders, spine, hands and even on the head. Not being able to take the beating anymore student became more alert and began watching closely when the teacher would appear and tried to avoid being hit by the fierce stick as much as possible. And strangely enough, every time when the student escaped teacher’s stick he did not shout at him whatsoever. It seemed that the teacher was even happy about the fact, as if he was rewarding the student for his efforts.
A year passed and the teacher changed his tactics: now he began attacking the student by hitting from the top, from underneath, from the left or right, openly or attacking suddenly from the hide. And teacher did not give his student a break- was attacking him while the student was working or eating or resting. It seemed like an invisible bond had been built between them, as if they both agreed to play some kind of a secret game.
Being forced to be in constant fear he was always vigilant and alert, just so that he could escape the teacher’s attack. His muscles and nerves were mobilized to the limit and ready for action. As a result of that the student gradually gained an amazing ability to foresee when the old man would appear and intuitively know what his aggressive intentions would be. And student became so great at it that he was even able to do it with his eyes closed, only by light movement of the air he would feel the teacher approaching and managed to avoid being hit by the stick.
After five years the student became unbelievably good at escaping an old man’s attacks. Furthermore, he started enjoying this terrifying game. But now, as if throwing a challenge at him, an old man started chasing the young man literally everywhere, doing everything just to get the young man with a stick. However, all was for nothing – he was not able to hit him anymore.
And one evening in the early spring, when the bright full moon appeared in the sky an old man called for the student and invited him to his bungalow. This was a place where student would never dare to even get his head in.
The student was walking to see the teacher and was happily thinking: ‘’finally, after all these years of my humble and patient serving teacher got to believe in me and like me and finally he wants to pass on his secrets of martial art to me’’.
After entering the bungalow student bowed to the teacher. And when he lifted his head he saw the teacher dressed in special robes. In the room there was a beautiful smell of the burning incense. A teacher got the student up from the ground and began speaking, his voice was very emotional:
– My son, get ready to hit the road. Tomorrow you will abandon these mountains and leave this place for good. And this evening we need to say good bye to each other.
The student felt so confused he fell on his knees in front of the old man.
– Teacher! What have I done wrong that you are forcing me out?
– No, son, you haven’t done anything bad. Simply you have learnt everything that I can pass on to you, – gently answered an old master after a minute of silence.
– But master, I haven’t even started training!
– A master in our art is considered someone who has mastered an art of defence and being able to deflect any attacks. And so even if I am not able to reach you with my stick, then who, tell me, can match you?’’
There is an undisputable truth hidden in this story:
in martial art there isn’t anything that anybody – who is persistent, patient and consistent in his practice – can learn.
The main principle of Nhat-Nam school is ‘’active defence’’. This approach in defence tactics is based on analysis of the psychological state of the attacker and those mistakes that he or she makes in one situation or another. Nhat-Nam defence techniques were constructed in this way of understanding, keeping in mind the specifics of the school, ensuring the highest level of the individual safety and the efficiency of the counter attack.
All practical methods such as ‘’retreat from the counter attack’’, taking a hit in order to counter attack and other, explained further in the part called ‘’Tactical methods of defence’’, are based on understanding of the principle reflected in the method. The practical application of it reminds the situation in a hunter gets himself when he is hunting a big prey. If he misses or only slightly wounds his prey, the beast will jump on him and it will be difficult for the hunter to save his own life.
Active defence tactics against an attack, in other words ‘’an intercepting counter attack’’, are necessary so that at the moment when the opponent is preparing or already launching an attack he is stopped by hitting open areas on his body.
At first the method of attack described in this way might seem contradictory and unclear, yet it has a deeper meaning and is reflecting a rule of combat: ‘’before attacking take care of your own safety’’; ‘’assume steady position before attacking’’; ’’when attacking – remember about the defence’’. It is important to understand that in this way safety is ensured whilst carrying out an attack.
This principle can be expressed using different metaphors such as a snake carefully moving towards its’ prey; or a fox that cannot fly yet is able to hunt birds; or a tiger that is catching a fast legged antelope. As it is said: ‘’smart do not show off their talents’’ or ‘’If you made a plan – do not disclose your intentions’’. All these proverbs and phrases teach fighters to hold their attack tactics hidden until the final moment.
Tactical mastery, in fact, is summed up in this principle. Setting up an unexpected situation for the opponent in the combat, ability to disguise the main strategy or the final attack technique so that the opponent is not able to take appropriate defence measures or counter attack. That is the ultimate tactical wisdom. It is also expressed in such tactics like ‘’direct active attack’’, ‘’provocative defence in order to attack’’ etc. These are described in a part where all the main tactical methods are explained. All of these tactics more or less follow the same rule – the most important thing is your own safety.
I remember once I got carried away in the attack, throwing punches at the opponent’s face. And suddenly he bent down into low stance and kicked my supporting foot. Our teacher saw this. However, he turned away without saying anything. For the next few weeks I was trying to understand the meaning of the expression on the teacher’s face as he saw what happened that day. Another time, whilst training with my sparring partner, I spotted a weakness in his stance and immediately attacked. However, it did not work. PSHHH! – I fell down again as my partner swiped me of my supporting foot. Once again I saw my teacher’s look and he turned away after he saw what just happened. Long after that, when I became an adult, I realized what that look had meant: ‘’I opened the principles of an ancient art, my son. But in order to master them, you have got to pay your price. The deeper you want to understand it – the higher is the price’’.
Precisely: ‘’one has to go through a lot and work extremely hard before they get a chance to sit on a carpet along their master.’’
Article source: Ngo Xuan Binh. “Martial Art Nhất-Nam” Volumes 1 and 2. International Nhat-Nam Federation. 11th January 2008.