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Tai Chi, Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, Xing Yi Quan and all the other arts we practice are called martial arts because they focus on the mental and physical skills needed for self-defense. But they are also movement arts. Movement arts cultivate our ability to fully own our bodies and our ability to express ourselves with our bodies. Developing your ability to move your body with control and grace is a great foundation upon to which to create a martial art.

Each of the martial arts I teach has a unique way of moving and integrating the body and developing power. Each of the classical combat arts does this differently and this is one of the key things that makes them each a unique style. The requirement of developing power and developing courage completely changes an art from being a movement art like dance to being a martial art. However, since we rarely fight, most of our time is spent moving our bodies, refining, and improving how we move.

We also like to call our wonderful Tai Chi, Xing Yi Quan and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu “Lineage Arts”. When we choose to say “Lineage Arts” we are showing the deep connection to the past and the teacher to student transmission of knowledge, wisdom, and skills from one generation to another. These arts trace their origins into the distant past and contain the hard earned and timeless wisdom and skills of the ancients. Connecting to the strong, true lineages, that carry the essence of these arts is why one seeks a qualified teacher.

So Tai Chi Chuan, Xing Yi Quan, and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu are martial arts, movements arts and lineage arts but what does art mean in this context? Why do we say “art” and not use another term? What is the nature of the art we practice? “What is art?” is a deep question that has an entire field of philosophy dedicated to it called “Aesthetics”. Philosophers thinking about aesthetics do, not too surprisingly, have a few thoughts, or more, on the nature of art. Here are answers or thoughts on how art exists and the nature of its existence.

If we look at one of our favorite forms or training routines that many Kung Fu students know called Lian Bu or Connecting Steps. In what way is Lian Bu a work of art? There are five different thoughts on this subject: the nature of art. We can say that art exists: “In the Present Moment”, “In our bodies”, “In our Heads”, “In the observers mind”, or “In the creators mind”. Let’s dive deeper!

In the Present Moment – The present moment of its performance is the only real existence of the movement art. Art in this sense is a fleeting experience of the everchanging and flowing present moment in time. In this sense of art, we can only experience movement arts in the moment they are performed. Each performance is unique. Each performance occurs in a unique place, at a singular moment, and contains its own magic and flaws that will never again be exactly the same no matter how hard one tries. It is the actual present expression of the performers artistic, capable body, communicating their experience, and matching the forms and choreography. Even though the performer may have spent years acquiring the body and skills to express the essence of the art, that art only exists in the moment of its performance.

In Our Bodies – Since we can only experience this art when we move our bodies and perform it with our body the art must exist in our bodies. In large measure the most important or at least most beneficial part of each martial art is the process of building the body that can express the art perfectly. In this sense the body that we create and maintain to perform our movement art is the result of the art and also its cause. Because if we cannot actually perform our art with our body, does it really exist, or is it just a fantasy and mere exercise of our imagination? Most people will not pay much for the idea of a painting they want a real painting made with paints and canvas.

In Our Heads – Art might exist only in our minds. This means that although we may be moving our bodies while performing and displaying the movements as the performance of the art. The performance does end. When the performance ends does the art also end? Does the art cease to exist?  Or does the art live in our minds, in our memories, our imaginations, and in our conceptualization. Perhaps the true nature of art is to exist perfectly as the mental concept rather than an imperfect performance by a fallible human body. If our art only grows when our understanding, wisdom, and insight grows, is not the essence of our art too be found in our mind?sifu-scott-jensen-in-taiwan

In the Observers Mind – As performers we do not see ourselves performing. We can imagine what we look like, and we can watch our friends and peers perform. But we cannot be spectators to our own performance because we are involved and inside the performance. Only someone outside the performance, an observer, can actually appreciate the larger picture of the choreography and each posture, gesture, and step. So, the performance of our movement art lies in the perceptions, mind, and memories of the spectator or observer. Without the observer the art does not even come into existence because there is no one to perceive, observe, conceptualize, and react emotionally.

In the Creators Mind – The goal of art can be said to be expressing the thought vision or insight of its creator. This could be philosophical, political, religious, or something else. Connecting to the mind of the creator and seeing and understanding the world from the point of view of the creator of the work of art is the essence of the work of art. In this case it is the idea in the mind of the creator that is the true expression of the art and not the flawed physical expression we see created by human bodies or hands.

Therefore, we can say that Lian Bu only exists in the present moment of its performance. We can say that “Lian Bu” the work of art exists when someone performs it with their body. Their body that is capable of this amazing exercise is the only thing that allows it to exist even briefly, and it is in our body that the essence of Lian Bu exists. We can say Lian Bu exists as a work of art in our minds when we think of how it should be done perfectly even though we cannot with our body achieve a perfect or even adequate performance ourselves. We can say the “Lian Bu” work of art exists in mind of someone observing us perform it. And we could say Lian Bu exists most truly only in the mind of its creator. The identity of the creator of Lian Bu is at this time is lost. But in their mind hundreds of years ago was the original true work of art that we attempt to recreate.

Which of these answers do you think is the best explanation of the nature of art in our favorite martial arts? Are all of them true? None?

Venturing forth from the heady realms and ivory towers of western philosophers we can look to the East for inspiration in our search for the meaning of art. Those who pursue the Northern Shaolin arts might wonder about how the creators of Shaolin martial arts, the martial monks of the Buddhist Shaolin temple, thought about their practice. As Buddhist monks, each individual monk seeks enlightenment as the best way to help all beings escape suffering. This altruistic goal gives them a pure motivation for improving themselves and increasing their capability. In the context of their pursuit of enlightenment it is a practical necessity to have a few strong monks at every temple to make sure bandits do not carry off all the stored food and valuables. If one were to travel outside the temple knowing self-defense might lengthen your life to continue practicing meditation. In this context we see martial tactics for self defense fused with mind body practices designed to enhance meditation, wisdom, and presence. Martial arts become physically strengthening part of spiritual arts and the spiritual arts of strengthening the mind, presence, and developing wisdom become part of martial arts. Instead of creating thugs we create heroes and heroines who are also normal people.

If your art helps you become healthy and a hero or heroine in your life and the lives of your friends and family, you are on the right track!

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