The Monk's Robe: formlessness and tradition

Why do many Chinese martial arts forms, always start by moving to the left or with the left leg stepping first?

There is a story from the Taiwan based Wu Tang school of traditional Chinese martial arts, that forms start to the left because of the fold in a monk’s robe. The robe was tied in such a way that it always opened to the left. A step out with the right would often result in the leg being constrained or tangled. Think of the robes of a Shaolin monk.

A Shaolin Monk in meditation practise with full robes.

A Shaolin Monk in meditation practise with full robes.

It’s interesting to consider how such a simple piece of clothing design may have influenced generations of movement. A gesture for practicality, economy and comfort became habit then became tradition. Generations learnt the forms, stepping out with the left leg and arm without question because this was the way it had always been done. 

It was the tradition. 

Learning a tradition through a long apprenticeship of slow knowledge and endless repetition was thought to bring virtuosity and deep insight. This was where the Mandarin phrase Kung (Gong) Fu or ‘hard work over time’ emerged.

Now we live in a time where tradition is discarded and the ultimate ‘movement’ practice is achieved through cultural tourism, a bit from here and a bit from there. Everyone steps out left and right without thought. A new tradition is born where ‘tradition’ is abandoned.

Is it necessary for the current generation of movement practitioners to know the cultural origins, history and tradition of their practise?

On You Tube, practitioners comment about a sort of ‘towards freedom’ movement. A way of moving that is improvised and ‘free’ of tradition. The unfortunate result is often a pastiche of superficial improvisation. There is a sort of waving of arms and legs without an understanding of the origins and purpose of the movement and/or technique. 

I argue one can’t have meaningful freedom without foundation. You need to learn the rules to break them:

‘Being ‘formless’ is an ideal long held as an ultimate in eclectic Martial Arts practice - but in the beginning the practice of ‘form’ gives a start point to skill development, trying to start your learning and development at ‘formless’ gives you nowhere to grow from and no foundation to stand on.’ (Senior Grandmaster Anthony Kleeman)

Boxers shadow box, Ju Jitsu grapples, Eskrimadors tapi tapi (spar), Tai Chi push hands, dancers dance.

These are improvisation practices within a tradition and are based on a deep understanding of technique, timing and placement. Through foundational practise combined with improvisation, one can reach an understanding of the paradox of tradition; change within a continuum brings freedom and formlessness. One is able to reach mastery, a place beyond technique where one is ‘listening’ with the body and able to achieve spontaneity:

‘The only constant within Eskrima, is change’ (Supreme Grand Master Cacoy Cañete)

The words of SGM Cacoy Cañete make sense if one understands the role of improvisation, form and foundation within a tradition. I find profound meaning in exploring and testing ideas through movement (and sparring) but always by acknowledging where the source of those ideas came from. 

Below are some links to short film examples of exemplary movement practise. These people humbly acknowledge their teachers and influences. They are grounded within traditions of Chen Tai Chi, Eskrima, Capoeira, Brazilian ju jitsu and modern dance, yet are able to find both freedom and expression through their movement. The examples range from the traditional through to the modern. Enjoy!

Du Yuze: Chen Lao Jia (Old frame Chen Tai Chi 1975). This is a great example of the combat origins of Tai Chi where its economy and simplicity is still expressed without all the modern fluff and ‘wu wu’ that has been added:

SGM Cacoy Canete: Doce Pares Eskrima in the classic ‘The Way of the Warrior’ documentary, 1982:

Tom Weksler (2018), movement, improvisation and expression:

Baris Yazar (2017), movement, improvisation and expression:

Frey Faust: doing amazing work rethinking dance and movement training. These lessons can be applied to yoga, martial arts and movement generally: