Islam, Martial Arts & Human Nature – Juan Acevedo

Cambridge Muslim College – training the
next generation of Muslim thinkers Salaam alaikum
Thank you Graham and I’m very grateful to Cambridge Muslim College for the
opportunity to collaborate with their marvelous work. Well, if you allow me, I
will mostly try to read from this because otherwise English not being my
mother tongue, I tend to start stammering and it can prolong things. So I will start
as he was doing with a few words on terms. Of course basic terms because
there’s some Chinese names and I know there are some Chinese speakers in the
audience, so allow please apologies in advance for murdering the
pronunciation and also with some Arabic terms I will be using. When we speak of
martial arts we are often translating the Chinese
wushu. ‘Wushu’ you see that around sometimes, and it’s quite close
translation, but I have met some Chinese friends who wonder at the use of the word
art there. Why art? Wushu, why art? They’re puzzled because of the
evolution of the world in English, we have sort of problem with the word art
in English, which has come to be used almost exclusively for museum art, for
what we call the fine arts, and these normally means or very often novelties
and abstract things, sometimes quite absurd that the best characterization I
have heard in general about this topic was here in Cambridge by Ahmed Keeler
who is also a friend of Cambridge Muslim College and I highly recommend
his talk on the character of modern art. So to understand the expression martial
arts properly, it needs to be made clear that we speak of art in a more
traditional sense of a craft. What is a craft? A craft is the transformation of
suitable and usually noble materials at the hands of an expert initiated
craftsman, into something that will reflect the harmony of the cosmic order,
and that’s why it’s so beautiful, the product. In martial arts, as in true
craftsmanship, the transformation involves simultaneously the material and
the artist too, and the material in this case is not only the closest
possible to the artist of course, but it is also the noblest possible matter on
earth, namely the human body, conceived as it is by traditional medicine and other
disciplines as a marvelous microcosm, a little universe, which exceeds by far
what our current materialist anatomy and physiology teaches. Let’s go
back to the basic terms before we return to this transformation later on. In most
cases nowadays when people in China speak of wushu, as in the Olympics, at some point they made it to the Olympics, any public event and so on, they
usually refer to acrobatic displays, to a particular set of circus skills which
resemble outwardly through martial arts, but are limited in their effects and in
their combat applications. Another important word here is kungfu, very
popular and as it is frequently used by Chinese speakers,
it refers in general to Chinese martial arts, kung fu, everything is kung fu.
Sometimes people are puzzled to find out about Tai Chi Quan, you see it’s very slow
and then people wonder is that kung fu? Yes that’s kung fu too…well, more about that
later. Originally this word kung fu only means proficiency. So we can have kung fu
in any activity where we put our effort. Kungfu is like saying a PhD in something,
a real specialization. Master Su Yu Chang, from whom I have learned,
and I still learn martial arts, he likes to translate kungfu as time and
dedication. Another important word we have is Qi Gong. Qi Gong is also very
popular nowadays, it has the same kung element, Qi Gong, which means work, effort,
and this Qi at the beginning of Qi Gong, is what we call sometimes vital energy,
it has to do with the breathing, so Qi Gong can be translated as, work of the
energy, or work of the breathing, and it refers to Chinese traditional exercises
to improve and maintain health and sometimes also to treat specific
diseases or develop a particular strength. So today, as we normally do, I
will be using the terms kungfu and wushu as synonyms, meaning traditional Chinese martial arts in general, and including also Qi Gong,
because all real martial arts always include Qi Gong. There are no movements
that carry, there are no movement in real kungfu that don’t carry energy. There’s always an internal work. Martial
arts movements are always Qi Gong movements, that is they necessarily have
an impact on integral health and well-being. In martial arts, sometimes
also called higher martial arts, Wu Yi, there are no ornamental movements, just
as the concept of ornament is foreign to a traditional craft. The movements are
by nature beautiful and healthy at the same time, and effective. Now, coming to
the topic of the talk, there have been historical relations between particular
styles and lineages of kung fu and Chinese Islamic communities. Some of the
most important teachings in our own school Pachi Tang Lang and teachings
related to the one of the styles that gives name to the school Pachi Quan, to a
little-known style, very old and in a style that is renowned for its real-life
applications and it’s very effective use, some of these teachings have come
to us through lineages which include prominent members of Chinese Muslim
minorities. This was so even as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, and
it does not mean that these styles were in any obvious way Islamic, but simply
that there was no distinction between students and teachers of different
religions. Very much with the character of the approach of Chinese culture
to religions, but today I’m not going to speak of any historical relation, but
about a more internal or essential relation between Islam and martial arts.
So let me come back to this transformation I mentioned just now.
When we say that the artist himself is transformed as the matter he is working
on, into what is he transformed? And how? How is he transformed? Well if we follow
that craft comparison, he must be, as I just said, into something that reflects
the cosmic harmony. But wait, aren’t we already that? Aren’t we already something
that reflects the cosmic harmony, or are we not? Or how are we that? At this point, as in every manifestation of Chinese culture,
a Taoist concept is central, the most common expression of the aim of human
life in Chinese culture is, being like an infant, a baby. But we have grown up, we
have acquired language and plenty of habits, especially bad habits. Another
Chinese way of expressing the same aim is to say, return to what is natural and
‘the natural’ is a conventional translation for a cryptic metaphysical
expression Qian Tian, ‘before heaven’ prior to heaven, the former heaven. So
what is natural? It seems at least odd when not outright contradictory, that in
order to arrive at the natural, we are asked to undergo such exertion, sweating
and all that stretching. Isn’t it more natural to sit on the sofa munching and
watching something? It certainly feels more natural to lie
on a couch and being served, than to sweat in the kitchen, doesn’t it? Or to
take a hot bath, doesn’t that feel natural enough? Why take a cold shower
instead? It is the same situation in which we find ourselves,
the fitrah, our original nature feels in most cases far from what we would think
of as natural, in a profane sense of the word. Living up to the fitrah takes a lot
of self-discipline, zuhud, a lot of muraqaba, a very subtle and constant attention
to our inner life, and a lot of mahasaba, a meticulous reckoning of all our
movements, internal and external. So if we try to reconcile this exertion with the
divestment, divestment has become a term in finance, meaning you sell your stock, you sell your things, but originally it means to unclothe. To shed your clothes, take off your clothes.
So this divestment in order to become a baby again, like peeling off layer after
layer of our fallen nature, this which is required to return to infancy, brings us
to the very first and crucial practice in the learning of martial arts. It’s
very difficult and it is called in Chinese Fan Song Zi Ran, relaxation of
the body seeking the original nature. It’s quite remarkable, as you may have
experienced, and as we shall later on I think experience when we do a little
practice, how difficult it can be to simply relax
and let go of our customary daily levels of tension,
you see even here I’m like… why, I can just relax, let my shoulders sink, so much better.
All the time we’re living like that, with this tension in the back, everything, the
practical results of achieving even a moderate level of relaxation are an
improved breathing, and in general a sort of opening through, or in Chinese
medicinal terms, the re-establishment of a proper flow of vital energy through
the body. Two images from the Islamic tradition come to mind in relation to
this process, this relaxation, to allow for the original nature to come up. First
is how when we surrender our will to the prescriptions of the religion, we open
ourselves to the divine mercy and grace, as in the tradition reported in the Ihya
Ulum ud Din, “man kana lil’lahi kana Allahu lahu” Whoever is for God, God is for
him. A lot of different translations. The key Arabic term relating to this idea is
tafriq, an unloading and emptying, which is mentioned immediately before
the saying in the Ihya, it is all about emptying the heart of its contents or
worries. The second image, is this famous tale found in Rumi’s Mathnawi about
the contest between the Chinese and Greek painters. Not a good story from the
Chinese point of view because they lost, but what can we do. But the Greek
painters in the story succeeded by simply polishing and polishing their
wall, to the point that it became the purest mirror, without any trace of
rust or speck of dust, on which the Chinese marvelous work of art was
reflected, but looked even more beautiful and alive than the original
painting. Still to this day, the formal adoption into a lineage of martial arts,
usually involves the bestowal of a very special mirror, rather archaic in
design, exclusive property of the disciple, a symbol of his own soul. All
the above-mentioned effort, turns out to be one of self-noting as it was called
in the Middle Ages, clearing the house in a demanding unstable balance between
exertion and relaxation. It’s very paradoxical, ceasing to be
ourselves to be ourselves. One of the many associations in this regard is the
famous methodic rule of the medieval alchemists: solve et coagula – that is let
go and gather, or concentrate and dissolve, or in the Arabic which was
always such an important language in alchemical late literature, qabt and bast,
contraction and release, this is a very methodical reference. So now moving
forward, in a little summary of this talk which you have probably read, I mentioned
violence and peace as a puzzling contrast between the arts of war and the
religion of peace. It may be now a lot clearer what that relation is. In order
to impose peace on the soul the believer exerts himself and leads to the point
that there is some breaking, as in the expression ‘to break the two desires’ –
kasr al shawatayn, title of one of the books of the Ihya, and in the exact same
sense as we speak of breaking a horse. There is another Arabic expression which
combines very well the two aspects we are viewing, afragha jahdahu,
literally make something like to pour out his effort, meaning to do your utmost.
In this expression we find a combination together the emptying and the struggle.
This reminds me of a young English poet in the early 20th century, who would
later on become a very venerable Muslim in his old age and who spoke to the muse,
the divine inspiration, offering to pour himself out in her service to the lese,
you know the lese is like the dregs, the solid sediment that is left at the
bottom of a bottle or a jug, we can see it, it’s an everyday reality. So he spoke
to the muse about he made this promise of pouring himself out in her service to
the lese, and that means to the last drop and more. So next time you see the solids
that lie at the bottom of the bottle, remember, that is the measure of our
effort or job this is precisely what we do, we pour ourselves out in His service
to the lese, and emptying, purging struggle, and then the second step in
learning kungfu is something called stretching the tendons and
joints to allow the energy to reach every part of the body. So whereas the
first one sounds less active, the relaxation,
the second one is this stretch, a lot of stretching, all the joints. They say
people who practice this grow, grow taller, so my master used to say when he
in China rich people would buy their coffin long time before their death to
make sure it’s the quality they want and it’s an excellent coffin, but he said
in his case not only he didn’t have money to be doing that like the rich
people, but also because he practiced this [stretching the tendons and joints] in the martial arts, he shouldn’t do that because of the continued practice if he bought the
coffin at some point and at the moment of his death maybe he would be too long
for the coffin and they would have to saw holes at the ends of the coffin. So in order to practice this stretching,
this very special stretching, we need to familiarize with a certain configuration
of key points through the body. The junctions that act like nodes upon
which we shall work. This configuration is like learning a geometry of the body,
a new anatomy, and it is not unrelated to the well-known diagrams showing the
paths of acupuncture meridians. So you see we have now specified a little more
what is this effort we shall work on. It is an effort to change our body through
some very specific movements, in order to change our unnatural ways for the real
nature hidden within ourselves. Our real nature is so hidden, that it
feels at the beginning as quite foreign, and quite paradoxically unnatural, but
also at the same time there are always hints from our soul, from our original
nature within that resound more less enthusiastically when they are
confronted with the divine revelation. Otherwise why would we care about beauty?
Why would we care about nobility, or sacrifice? It is because of the real
nature within us which wants most often dimly, undecidedly, to break through our
false nature and this is also why it is possible to enjoy the work, to enjoy the
path, to enjoy the discipline. It’s not all about suffering really. I gave this
to read to a colleague and dear friend in our school and he said, ‘Oh you surely
have suffered a lot practicing.’ It’s not about suffering really, because of this
real nature within us we can enjoy, even when we are doing things that are
so contrary to what I call the pleasures of daily life. So when we talk of working
on our bones you see this stretching even to the bones, even to the bone
marrow as some famous exercises offer to do, we are certainly attempting to do
some violence to what we are used to seeing as a constitution, the way we are.
This violence I speak of you see has nothing to do with some rather misled
practices that you see a lot on YouTube and everywhere about breaking
bricks with the hands and that kind of thing. That has nothing to do with real
martial arts or very little if at all. So this violence goes inside,
there’s for sure kungfu is an art of war, an art of
fighting, so there’s all that dimension and if you practice kungfu for a
long time, you become a weapon really, in some countries people register
them with the police and so on, say he’s a weapon so he’s registered with the
police, I don’t think they do that here. So there’s all that dimension,
but the violence you can do physically is really a very little thing and of no
account really compared to the real violence that we have to do in relation
to our habits, in our name. The famous question in
English is can the leopard change its spots? So the answer of course is, no the
leopard is like that. But I dare say if the leopard practiced kungfu it could
change its spots. So you see that shows you the kind of violence we are speaking
of here, it’s like outgrowing itself you see. Well we don’t have much
time I think, to be fair we started a little late, so let me just go on for two
or three more minutes, to round this here. So a little more specifically now, as we
prepare for our brief practice session and coming back to this new anatomy I
just mentioned, there are five key aspects which are always involved in
martial arts and which we shall be exploring during our practice. One –
breathing, to calm the mind, spirit and to put in order the energy. Two – body weight
or balance, how you move your weight around, all this to help blood
circulation to relax the tendons and strengthen the bones. Sometimes also
body weight you stamp is learning how to use all your body weight.
Three – movement of the hands to guide the internal energy and to fill the external
energy. Fourth – difficult to translate, form of the trunk, this upper part of the body,
to change the temperament of the body and increase stamina and this involves
awareness of five places which are normally neglected in all sorts of
modern sports and exercising fitness training and all that. These are the
sternum, this bone here, the diaphragm, shoulder blades, back here, the coccyx at
the end of the spine, and the rib cages, the sides. You never hear anything
about that when you do some physical training but it’s important in
kungfu training, and finally mindfulness of the eyes, to unify spirit and ideas in the
internal with the external. So this is an easy way to tell good kungfu from bad
kungfu, you can go to any school, you see if people are instructed on how
to direct their eyes, then that’s good that’s thorough training. Otherwise
there’s something lacking you see, and it makes complete sense when you think it’s
your attention and actually it makes complete sense in a combat situation.
You’re not going to be punching here and looking at the other side or kicking no,
the eyes go with the movement. So given this ambitious little program of nature
seeking practice I think I’d rather conclude this talk now. Before we finish I would
like to ask you, I recently just a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go
and visit Master Su who is now in Spain, and he’s rather ill at the moment
unfortunately so I would like to ask for your prayers for him.
Remember him in your prayers. He has been very faithfully transmitting all this
knowledge for many, many years, about sixty years now, and done a lot of good
work especially in the West, the Americas and in Europe to transmit this ancient

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