by Anthony Revill
The single most important training habit I learned from my sifu, Kevin Earle, was to do my Form every morning. In fact, the Form (Sil Lum Tao) is essential for me in starting each day. It affects how I am in the world, and imbues my day with qualities that have become indispensable to me.
When Kevin became my sifu, I recognised that I was in the presence of an unusual kind of self-defence instructor. Kevin wasn’t the only guy around who could knock people down or throw them to the ground. However, early on, I felt there was something more to him. It was this recognition of a difference that helped me become receptive to what he was really teaching me. It’s true that I heartily embraced the business end of Ving Chun Kuen kung-fu: the intercepting, deflecting, entering, punching, striking, stomping, and other ways of engaging with the enemy. Nevertheless, this external manifestation of Ving Chun Kuen’s methodology, despite being fun and challenging to practice, is merely the flowering of a more fundamental essence.
So it is that when prospective students walk through my door, this is what they are looking for. They want to learn how to engage an enemy. And that’s all well and good; I can teach them that. Yet, by the very nature of their desire, they are focused on the external – and with the external they shall remain for some time. Because of this, the Form puzzles them. It’s an anomaly. It will begin to make some sort of sense as knowledge flows into it, as ongoing training informs it. However, to a beginner, I can accept that the Form is simple, slow, and tedious – something they copy in class because they’re told to. To them, it’s as external as any of their other training; and, considered externally, it makes little sense.
Furthermore, the Form does not look combative. A student may wonder what place it has in a self-defence class. As some sort of solitary, contemplative exercise, it smacks of downtime – a mere indulgence on the part of the instructor. (In class I have said, “What does the Form have to do with fighting? Nothing… and everything.”) Accordingly, I have little doubt that some of my students cannot wait to skip through the Form in class, so they can get to the good stuff. Legion are they who do their Form in class because they have to, and at no other time. I had to learn to love the Form, and I persisted with it because my sifu valued it so highly. He reinforced its importance by his own example.
My challenge, then, is how to facilitate a student’s interest in the Form. Newer students underestimate its value, while I cannot overstate its value. One reason for this is the experience of depth. For beginners, Ving Chun Kuen kung-fu is broad, containing many disparate elements, like a wide but shallow lake; while for me the art is like a very small pond, with such depth that I can step into it and disappear. This is the quality of Ving Chun Kuen that holds my interest. Over time, as the student navigates the lake, gradually understanding that the elements are all qualitatively alike, the lake begins to shrink in diameter, and it starts to deepen.
Essentially, the Form is a felt experience. Possibly it can be understood and discussed intellectually, but in practice the student has to come out of the head and into the body, so to speak. Thoughts running continuously through the mind are formations in themselves, competing with the exercise for attention. Memories, imaginings, old conversations, possible new ones, ongoing issues and the problems of a busy life – they all vie for the top spot in the student’s awareness. Nevertheless, the student must come to realise that training while distracted in this way is counter-productive. I do have suggestions and strategies for my students regarding this, but none of them involve the suppression of thoughts. Rather, a shift in awareness can be useful, guiding the attention away from the unfettered activity of the mind. Once this is accomplished, the mind can be recruited effectively, with its powers of intentness and focus of force through the gaze of the eyes – but empty of words, pictures, the past, future, and other formations. In this way the Form is grounded in the present moment, with the mind and body inseparable in purpose. Put another way, cultivation and projection of force involves the awareness, engagement, and unification of body and mind.
Here I have chosen to write primarily of the formless, and the irony of using a form to develop the formless is not lost on me. Yet there is no better method I know of that can impart the real depth of Ving Chun Kuen except that the student consistently practice their Form. And this is the aspect of my training that has made all the difference for me, namely, my commitment to practicing every morning, as inspired by Kevin. The Form is far more than a set of positions and actions that the student learns by rote, performed exactly the same way thereafter, repeated in a mechanical, unvarying fashion. The Form is actually a process, continuously progressing day-by-day, much like the human being practicing it. Initially, the student may see the Form as something separate from themselves which they have to conform to, but, really, there is no Form until they enact it. It’s a matter of perception. At first, their method of positioning, breathing, moving, focusing, projecting, etc., is imposed upon them by me. I am giving them the seeds of an idea, an idea that is not tangible until it finds expression in the kung-fu practitioner. Moreover, this aspect of training is never brought to a conclusion, for the Form represents the continuing evolution of the student; it is not only a doing, but a becoming.
Nothing I have written is meant to imply that the Form is a closed system all of its own. It does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, all of the other training within Ving Chun Kuen begins to inform the Sil Lum Tao and flesh it out. The Form begins as a small number of copied movements and positions, without any real internal substance. This has to change. Left to its own devices, it simply does not encompass enough experience on the part of the student to enrich it. Therefore, every other exercise in class is important, particularly partner work and the practice of the other forms. The student’s growing awareness, skill, and knowledge, developed from the ground up, is incorporated into the Form, there to be refined and improved – only to be returned to the training exercises in class once more. Effectively, this constitutes a cycle of enrichment, without which Sil Lum Tao would remain impoverished, its efficacy limited. Furthermore, like a sapling subjected to the elements, the idea must be put under all types of pressure to develop its resilience and vigour, as in the practice of sticking hands for example.
Having said that, there comes a time when the Form begins to give more than it gets. It remains the linchpin of Ving Chun Kuen’s combat practices, yet also moves beyond this, becoming a personal process towards self-mastery. More specifically, it is about switching on to internal definition, bringing the locus of control increasingly towards centre, away from the manipulations of external threat. In light of this, there is a stage of maturity to be reached in kung-fu training where the obsessive focus on dealing with perceived enemies gives way to more of a focus on dealing with ourselves. The Form’s cultivation of structure and posture, groundedness and stability, relaxation and expansion – along with awareness and intent – comes to signify assertiveness rather than aggression. And that is how I sometimes describe the Form, as an act of assertiveness; that is, a daily renewal of our attitude, confidence and determination.
To sum up, I have written about Ving Chun Kuen directly from my own experience, and touched on some of the ways in which the Form holds meaning for me. In doing so, I am aware that I am still going through the daily discipline of this training, and that my views may change – possibly as early as tomorrow morning. The day-by-day renewal through Sil Lum Tao is what keeps my kung-fu growing, much like an everlasting springtime.
© 2014 Anthony Revill
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