Interview by Francis Hriadil
Below is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in “MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS PRESENTS – CHI POWER,” May 1999, which is published by C.F.W. Enterprises, Inc.
Master Park Bok-Nam is the Senior Lineage Disciple of Lu Shui-Tian of Shantung Province, China. He is an internationally renowned authority on Ba Gua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang) and has developed one of the most comprehensive training programs available for learning Ba Gua. Master Park has provided Ba Gua articles to various martial arts publications over the years and has produced a two volume set of ground-breaking books (with companion videos) entitled: “The Fundamentals of Pa Kua Chang: The Method of Lu Shui-Tian as Taught by Park Bok-Nam.” With over 38 years of experience in Ba Gua Zhang, Master Park is one of the most skilled practitioners and instructors of the art alive today. It has been almost two years since Master Park last appeared in a martial arts publication and Martial Arts Legends is pleased to present the following exclusive interview.
Many people may not be familiar with Ba Gua Zhang. Could you briefly explain what this art is all about?
Ba Gua Zhang means “Eight Diagram Palm” or “Eight Trigram Palm.” It is one of the primary internal systems of the Chinese martial arts – the others being Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan) and Xing Yi Quan (Hsing-I Chuan). The origin of Ba Gua is not clearly known and is a matter of continuing historical research. At its best, Ba Gua integrates both health and self-defense into a complete and comprehensive martial discipline. Ba Gua is probably most well known for its distinctive “circle walking” training methods. However, it is also renowned for its highly evasive footwork, its powerful palm strikes, its snake-like or dragon-like body movements and its lightning-fast combinations. The Ba Gua Zhang of Lu Shui-Tian is further distinguished by its basis and focus on natural principles.
What is your philosophy and approach to teaching Ba Gua?
My view, my philosophy, on Ba Gua Zhang is a traditional one. Ba Gua is martial art. It is not just sport. It is more than sport. It is more than exercise. And, it is more than form. In the past, Ba Gua Zhang was a matter of life and death. This remains no less true, even in the context of today’s modern society. The Ba Gua Zhang of Lu Shui-Tian is comprehensive, in this regard, in that it possesses both the Yin elements of Qi (Chi) cultivation and health development, which promote life in the practitioner, and the Yang elements of Qi release and fighting development, which can cause serious injury or death in an opponent. Both are required and both are taught for the complete development of the Ba Gua practitioner.
Since each student is unique, with a different background, character, size, aptitude, age, and physical ability, my approach to teaching is an individual one. This is in keeping with the traditional way. All training starts with the fundamentals and an understanding of the underlying natural principles because without this foundation no real progress can be made. Some have referred to this as a “bottom-up” teaching method. The student is first instructed in the basic elements and once these elements are mastered, they are combined to form more complex methods and concepts. New material is introduced as the student makes progress. The student must practice hard to develop a true “Ba Gua body,” to develop body knowledge, and to achieve the necessary reflex body responses required to reach a high level of skill and understanding. This is not easy and requires a great degree of discipline and dedication on the part of the student. Ba Gua mastery is not something that can be given; it must be earned. For as my teacher Lu Shui-Tian explained to me, “The master does not teach the student; the master merely presents knowledge and ideas – the students, in truth, teach and train themselves.”
You speak about the importance of understanding the difference between the “surface” of a martial art and the “depth” of a martial art. What do you mean by this and why is it important for a student to understand this?
A martial art in the traditional sense is not simply a form or a collection of techniques. A Ba Gua form is not Ba Gua. A Preying Mantis form is not Preying Mantis. Martial art forms only represent an aspect of the total martial art; they are a training method and a reference tool. Too many students today focus just on learning forms – thinking that more forms signify greater expertise or greater credibility as a martial artist or as a teacher. This view is flawed and misguided. Forms and techniques mean little if the practitioner does not understand what is underneath, in the depth of the art. Any one can learn or copy any form, for at its lowest level a form is simply a sequence of postures and movements. But, this is just the “surface” of a system. It is the principles beneath the form, beneath the techniques, beneath the methods, that are the key to deep understanding and mastery in any martial art. If a practitioner cannot answer the “where,” the “how,” and the “why” of a martial art, then he or she truly does not have a deep level of understanding. This is especially important in a sophisticated martial art such as Ba Gua Zhang.
What is the most important thing for students to understand about studying Ba Gua?
The most critical element of any art, including Ba Gua Zhang, lies in the mastery of the fundamentals. Without a solid foundation in the basics and a deep understanding of the underlying natural principles, a student cannot progress very far. The measure of mastery does not lie in how many forms a student can learn, how many techniques a student can collect, how many teachers a student can follow, or how many books a student can recite. The true path to mastery comes from the pursuit of perfection and precision in the fundamentals – in movement, in method, and in application. To reach the highest levels of the art, the student must strive to develop a true “Ba Gua body.” Ba Gua must become part of the student’s body knowledge and automatic reflexive response. This requires many hours of repetitive practice and drill, and requires the student to train both the mind and the body.
Learning Ba Gua is a process. The process begins with the fundamentals. To be successful in this process, the student must also adopt and cultivate four qualities: wisdom, benevolence, sincerity, and bravey. These qualities were considered so important by my teacher, Lu Shui-Tian, that he established them as his school motto. Wisdom is required because it leads to deep understanding. Benevolence is required because it leads to humility and respect for others. Sincerity is required because it leads to commitment, diligence, and dedication in training. Bravery is required because it leads to calmness, control, and skill in a confrontation. All are important and all are necessary to reach the highest level of skill and understanding in Ba Gua Zhang.
More people are learning Qi Gong today. What is important for students to know about Qi and Qi Gong training?
First, Qi Gong practice is an important element of Ba Gua Zhang. Good health is something that everyone desires, whether you practice martial arts or not. In the West, many people perform physical exercise at home, outdoors, or at health clubs to attain and maintain good health. But, there is a problem here. Physical exercise promotes a high level of fitness – which enables you to perform physical activities, play sports, and do physical work. This is not the same as good health. Fitness and health are different things; many people in the West, even today, do not realize this. Both are required for a long and happy life. The Chinese recognized this distinction and long ago developed methods to specifically promote good health. These practices were called Qi Gong and are based on the cultivation of an internal energy know as Qi. This concept eventually became the foundation for a whole new approach to martial arts in China and ultimately led to the creation of internal martial arts such as Ba Gua Zhang.
As important to good health as Qi Gong was in the past, it is even more important in today’s modern society. The world is no longer a simple place. In the past, life was simpler, stress was low, and the environment was clean. Today, the modern lifestyle is hectic and getting more so every day, stress is high and growing, and the environment is full of chemicals, toxins, viruses, bacteria, and so on – all of which serve to attack the health of the body. Qi Gong training specifically promotes an enhanced internal energy state in the body to combat these factors and maintain good health.
More people are coming to recognize this and over the past several years there has been increasing interest in Qi Gong training methods in the West. As a result, more and more people are teaching some kind of Qi Gong training. However, there still exists a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about Qi and Qi Gong practice.
It is important for people interested in learning Qi Gong methods to realize that Qi and Qi Gong training are not supernatural. Qi is part of the natural world and the human condition, and is governed by the laws of science and human physiology. Qi Gong methods are not “gifts from the gods,” nor are they based in mysticism or magic. The practitioner must train properly to cultivate Qi and produce Power Circulation. For Qi Gong practice to work, three elements must always be present: breath, mind, and form. This is what sets Qi Gong training apart form mere physical exercise. The focus is on combining or intergrating the mind with the breath with the body. Qi or internal energy is created by the breath and directed by intent and movement. A true expert can help you but no one can give your their Qi or send their Qi to you; you must develop your Qi within your own body. Proper Qi Gong practice promotes a high level of health; however, improper Qi Gong practice can cause great harm – so, one must be careful and educate oneself about the underlying principles. It is risky to become involved in any form of serious Qi Gong practice with any teacher unless they can show that they truly understand the principles upon which the methods are based. In Qi Gong training, what is good for one person may be inappropriate or may even be harmful for someone else.
It is clear from your remarks that teaching Ba Gua is not just a business for you. As a final comment to our readers, what is your goal and hope for the future of the Ba Gua Zhang of Lu Shui-Tian?
Lu Shui-Tian honored me when he selected me to be his Senior Lineage Disciple. Along with this honor came a great responsibility; – the responsibility to uphold his heritage and ensure the continued future and integrity of his Ba Gua method. Because of this, my primary desire has always been to introduce the distinctive Ba Gua Zhang of Lu Shui-Tian to the world community, and to find serious students of high character and strong commitment to carry on his legacy. This is not an easy task and is one of the reasons why I travel so much throughout the U.S. and Europe giving seminars, workshops, and classes. If I was just interested in business, I could simply open a number of schools in the Virginia area and just stay there and teach. By doing this, I could earn much more money and live a very comfortable life. But, this would not be in keeping with the duty that has been entrusted to me.
It is my duty to teach everything that I know to the best of my ability so that nothing is lost to future generations. I want all of my students to become better Ba Gua practitioners than myself; this is my responsibility as a teacher and as a disciple of Lu Shui-Tian. I can never fully repay Lu Shui-Tian for all he has done for me, but I must do my best to honor his heritage, preserve his tradition, and promote his method. This is my goal and this is my desire.