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I Am A Kung Fu Sell Out

Posted on: March 18th, 2014 by Paula Lazarz

People have accused me of this on occasion –
granted they are usually people who don’t know me very well –
but I have been accused nonetheless.


I admit it – I am a Kung Fu sell-out!


What is the main criteria I am judged against?   Mainly this:


I have been able to support myself for the last 7 years teaching Shaolin Kung Fu!!! 


Any traditional Shaolin practitioner knows “old-school” Kung Fu is not for the masses.  The level of dedication, commitment and discomfort it takes to master a martial art – ANY martial art –  goes beyond mere recreation.  So it stands to reason, if a teacher has enough students to support a school AND support themselves, they have had to water down the art and teach a McDojo version to keep more then 30 students.




I think it is safe to say those of us who came up in the arts over the last 15-20 years, did not do six months of  horse stance training exclusively before we could do anything else.  Yes, we did hold that horse stance for 5, 10, 15 minutes in class more often than students do now, but our classes ran for 1.5 hours (or more) per day.

I also think many of us would not claim to have the skill level of the old masters of legend, but we have developed the understanding of what it takes to develop that skill level.  We have the confidence that with enough sacrifice and hard work, this skill level is available to us.

It is possible to hand down the traditions to a new generation and give them the potential to surpass their ancestors.
Traditional Shaolin 

Shaolin Kung Fu is a complex system with a myriad amount of influences.  Because of this, it is possible to work a concept of Shaolin as a stripped down physical exercise, as part of a form, as part of a two person drill or as a live, more spontaneous practice.   People will take to one method or another or they may dip their toe in the water of each of them.  Generally, one method over another might work better to gain understanding for different individuals.

We must remember that historically the Shaolin Temple was a busy place with many people coming and going on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.  We like to envision a secluded place on a mountain with no distractions, but in its various heydays, Shaolin was in the thick of it, playing host to various religious practitioners, scholars, warriors, politicians and average travelers. There is a certain adaptability that has to be maintained to accommodate this influx of people coming and going.  There must be flexibility of mind.
Skillful Means 

Many things inform my Shaolin practice.   One is Buddhist practice and philosophy.  One aspect of Buddhist philosophy is “skillful means”.

This can be loosely defined as gradual or progressive instruction that employs different approaches and teachings.  Human beings have an abundance of varying capabilities and capacities.  Each individual must be guided on a path appropriate to their individuality.  This must be done while still adhering to a criteria that makes what is being taught unique to itself.

We as instructors have to make the material come alive for our students. The students living in this culture,  at this time, with this set of circumstances.

No ancient art survived by force-feeding a population its principles.

Following are some adaptable aspects that need consideration for today’s martial art student.

Digital Age Attention Spans


Students, whether young or old, WILL lose focus more quickly then they did years ago. Their brains are on overdrive after being inundated with faster and more voluminous snippets of information all day long.  Whether they respond to or react to this information or are just absorbing it, this is a modern day force to be reckoned with.

Classes have to be paced taking this into consideration.  Two, three, or four concepts need to be presented and then revisited in a circular fashion to keep attention.

Classes have to be shorter because students culturally feel the need to rush from activity-to-errand-to-activity.

Covering The Basics


We live in an area of virtual entertainment where people are increasingly cut off from a physical experience. Anyway you dress it up, the basics are not glamorous.  No one will work the basics like they did 100 years ago, 50 years ago or 10 years ago. This more then anything represents an instructor trying to swim upstream.


The romantic notion that attracts people to Shaolin Kung Fu – the idea of going beyond everyday human abilities – lays in the discipline to work the basics with the proper intensity and repetition. It is an unchanging fact.


This more then anything is one of the concepts that must be revisited over and over in a circuitous way. Sooner or later, the student gets wise to the methodology.  By then the mind has opened a bit, they have committed to the rigorous workout and they are ready to attempt the mental training the basics provide.


The Sash Ranking System


Chinese martial arts historically has no ranking system.  The argument goes that people can just tell whether someone is good or not.  It is hard to argue with this statement.  In Chinese martial arts,  a ranking system more then anything is where people will cry, “Sellout!”


I think this where we have our greatest cultural divide.


Whether we like it or not, or agree with it or not, our culture runs on a reward system.  This reward system is applied first in child-rearing, then academics and finally economics. Thinking that a few martial arts schools can buck this cultural tidal wave is short-sighted.


     Sash Ranking Is The Best Thing You Will Ever Do


There is a certain parity present in the school by having a set curriculum everyone works on for each sash level.  (Note: works on!) Students like knowing what is expected of them – regardless of age. They get excited about getting to a certain level and then working on specific things. It also allows an instructor to apply certain expectations for the students that they can accept as reasonable.  It gives an instructor a way out if certain fundamental things are not present.


     Sash Ranking Is The Worst Thing You Will Ever Do


It shifts percentile accountability of proficiency development on the instructor. It forces us to come up with creative ways to develop the semblance of the same skill sets in widely divergent people.  Nonetheless, since we are martial artists who compete on different levels, we know that a little bit of pressure can bring out the best in us.



Even though our school has a set curriculum, the students are actually tested on foundational development every step of the way.   It is always based on where they were when they walked in,  or one year ago or two years ago,  as compared to where they are today. Over time and with growing maturity in their practice, the students become aware of this.


The Depth Of The Undertaking


I personally feel it is important for the student, whether young or old, and their families, to not feel they’ve embarked upon a daunting endeavor.  Most students who study martial arts in the United States come in looking for a recreational activity.


Even if a student trains everyday, few would sacrifice academics, career or family for a single-minded martial arts pursuit.


Many of the qualities that good martial arts training provides – perseverance, rigorous physicality, mental toughness, courage under pressure, the ability to effectively defend oneself (on many levels) and a sense of the larger picture- all get developed over the long haul.  It is by practicing with consistency and experiencing the physical discomforts, the emotional challenges, the camaraderie and personal triumphs that these qualities are realized.

Yet, we live in a increasingly fast-paced culture based on immediate rewards.  On this point, more than anything, we must apply skillful means.   The student must feel challenged, then rewarded and then strong every step of the way in proportion to where they were when they walked through the door.  Only by experiencing this can they eventually commit to the long haul according to our art.
The Black Sash Begins With Beginner’s Mind
I have always been told earning a Black Sash means you are finally ready to learn – TRULY learn at a deeper level.
I believe THAT is what bringing a student to Black Sash in our culture is all about.   What better gift can we give our students in this Information Age then the gift of Beginner’s Mind?   ……the gift of humility, gratitude and wonder that is inherent in Beginner’s Mind? With Beginner’s Mind, the student has an idea of the depth of the undertaking they have embarked upon.Better yet,  they have the tools to truly endeavor to learn.
Shaolin Potentiality 
In closing, I would like to quote from The Analects Of Confucius. I feel this quote helps to personify the Shaolin emphasis on human potential. It reminds us instructors that goals for our students are actually goals for ourselves.
“(If) you want to establish yourself; then help others to establish themselves. (If) you want to develop yourself: then help others to develop themselves. Being able to recognize oneself in others, one is on the way……”  [6.28]