Veena explores reasons why it is difficult to understand the mysterious philosophy of XinYiBa and attempts to explain it.
What is XinYiBa?
There is a wise saying: Those who know, don’t speak; those who speak, don’t know.
I think this applies very much to the ‘apparent’ mystery surrounding XinYiBa, especially for western people interested in kungfu.
Having been inspired by a TV documentary on China which showed the sacred Song Mountain where Bodhidharma had lived, I decided to go there hoping to continue my life-long practice of meditation because my Master, Osho, had died a few years previously. Osho loved Bodhidharma, who he called ‘the greatest Zen Master’, and, as my way is the way of Zen, I wanted to make this pilgrimage. Bodhidharma – called Damo by the Chinese – lived in a cave in Wuru Peak, behind the Shaolin Temple. After 9 years of silence, he came down from the mountain and introduced his concept of Zen to people in the Shaolin Temple and later all over China.
The documentary was actually about a little-known form of kungfu taught by Master Wu Nanfang. He loves Damo deeply and the basis of the kind of kungfu he practises and teaches has Zen as its underlying concept – its ‘spiritual dimension’ if you like.
Whereas most kungfu schools pay homage to Buddha, on Wu Nanfang’s shrine in both his old and new schools he has an image of Bodhidharma.
In the documentary, Master Wu Nanfang gives a short, very simple yet inspiring, talk on Zen, which seemed to me to be a summary of everything that Osho had said about Zen, most particularly that it should become part of one’s everyday life. The more I got to know about this kind of kungfu, the more I appreciated it for its profound qualities of a very scientific understanding of the human body and how to maintain optimum health, and also its qualities of meditation which I hadn’t previously associated with martial arts.
At Master Wu Nanfang’s small kungfu school in Shilipu village near Song Mountain, I met a young South African man who was there for three weeks to, he told me, learn XinYiBa. Out of the corner of my eye I saw two young coaches look at each other, turn their eyes upwards and very slightly shake their heads. This intrigued me. What was this XinYiBa? The young man tried to explain, saying it was a high level of kungfu. But that didn’t help my understanding much.
As I learned more about kungfu I heard more veiled hints about this mysterious XinYiBa, which always seemed to be mentioned in almost a whisper – as if it was some profound secret that only the special, initiated people knew about. So I grew more curious. I don’t like secrets. Secrets are usually abused and used to try to maintain an appearance of power and prestige. I sensed this happening. Nobody would – or could – tell me what XinYiBa was. At that time, around Master Wu Nanfang, only his daughter, Lijuan, spoke a smattering of English which was not at a level to cope with anything other than everyday events. I started to teach a bit of English to some of the students, one of whom was Chengeng, who, from the beginning, showed a certain ability and determination to learn to communicate in English. But still his skills were also at a very basic level.
So my understanding of this Gulun Kungfu and the mysterious XinYiBa was based more on my own meditative experiences, intuition and observation than on any real facts.
“With XinYiBa, how do you feel?”
In 2013 the kungfu school, now renamed the Gulun Kungfu Academy, moved to new premises and one afternoon I sat outside under the overhanging roof and silently contemplated the softly falling rain with Song Mountain faintly appearing though it in the background. Chengeng came and sat with me and in silence we watched the rain. Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe I had been asking the wrong question. Always I had asked: What is XinYiBa? – and was always met with blank looks and dead silence. Now I thought to phrase the question in a different way and I quietly asked Chengeng, “With XinYiBa, how do you feel?”
For the first time I didn’t get the blank response. He thought for a while and then said, “Empty.” Then he obviously thought he was giving me a wrong impression and qualified his answer with the words, “But with full power!”
A perfect answer! Pure Zen!
I felt that my intuitive, possible understanding of XinYiBa had been tentatively confirmed. After another few minutes, Chengeng went on to try to explain further. He said that once he had had an experience when doing his practice of suddenly ‘opening up’ and feeling an energy so incredibly strong that he ‘fell down’. This, he thought, was XinYiBa.
He didn’t know how much his simple words meant to me. I really felt he had given me a glimpse which corroborated what I had learnt from Osho, whose Zen message was actually very simple: be empty and you will be filled with the love, energy and divine power of existence.
I also remembered a Japanese Zen saying: ‘The emptiness of the full moon reflects the Zen mind.’
Feeling that I now had a glimpse into the ultimate ‘goal’ of Gulun Kungfu, a few days later I was sitting with Lijuan and asked her my newly phrased question: ‘With XinYiBa, how do you feel?’ Again the blank look was absent. Again she thought for a while and then pulled out her phone and typed something into the phone’s dictionary. She then showed me the answer – one word: satori! I felt like another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. She didn’t know that the word ‘satori’ was not English but Japanese, but seemed pleased to see that I understood.
The word ‘satori’ roughly means ‘an experience of the divine, of existence, of something greater than the self, of a state approaching enlightenment’. Once a person experiences this state he is transformed forever; he can never go back to what he was before because he has had a glimpse of something of the beyond and now knows something about where he comes from, where or who he is, and where he is going. He hasn’t yet reached a state of enlightenment but he now knows the way. Sometimes the experience can be so strong it is frightening – as Chengeng described it.
And, as always, this experience cannot be described with words, only hinted at.
Which brings me back to my statement at the beginning of this article. Beware of someone who says he knows what XinYiBa is and proceeds to tell you. Currently there are many online websites telling people what XinYiBa is. There are many Chinese kungfu teachers bragging that they know what XinYiBa is, and if you just do their course and pay them lots of money, they will tell you! At one point, in a building in the village of ShiLiPu near the Academy, some Americans set up an ‘Institute for Research into XinYiBa’. I just had to laugh. From my point of view, if they had even a glimpse of what XinYiBa was, they could never have used the words ‘institute’ nor ‘research’. XinYiBa can neither be institutionalised nor researched.
Master Wu Nanfang, his daughter, Lijuan, and his disciple Chengeng were far wiser. Knowing XinYiBa they knew that it cannot be explained, only experienced. So they mostly stayed silent.
The publication of the book ‘Gulun Kungfu’ and my XinYiBa Query
In 2016 a young man called Wenzhe joined the Academy as the manager. He spoke better English than anyone who had so far been around Master Wu Nanfang or ‘Shifu’ as he was commonly called. (Shifu is the Chinese word for a kungfu master.) Wenzhe decided it was time to publish a book in English about this traditional form of kungfu: Gulun Kungfu. He had spoken with Shifu, got his agreement, and now approached me to ask if I would work with him to write and publish this book. He knew I had written texts in English for the school’s websites and blog, as well as publishing three books about my own spiritual path. Of course I agreed – but it was a difficult project because Wenzhe’s English really wasn’t good enough to clearly explain the details of Gulun Kungfu which, especially at an advanced level, were extremely difficult to put into words, especially English words. On a practical level, however, he did do a very good job explaining the ancient ‘Chan Wu’ text.
But I was not impressed with how he had explained XinYiBa. I asked him if he had consulted with Shifu and he said he had. I later found out that he had not discussed his explanation with Shifu. If you have the book, please know that what is written on Pages 39 and 41 is simply not true. Having no choice, however, I did publish the book – ‘Gulun Kungfu‘ by Master Wu Nanfang – after doing considerable editing.
In the spring of 2019, I was again visiting Song Mountain and at the Academy I found that Wenzhe had left and Shifu’s son, Wenju, was now the manager. Studying kungfu there for 2 months was a young man called Dongdong.
Dongdong spoke quite good English and he told me that Shifu had asked him to translate the Gulun Kungfu book to him and was fairly satisfied with everything – except the part about XinYiBa! I was very interested to hear Dongdong’s comments and asked Shifu if, with his help, we could now discuss things. Perhaps we could finally be able to explain XinYiBa in a better way, a way that was easier for Western people to understand, as so far no Chinese explanations had made any sense to me.
Instead of trying to explain, Shifu asked me how I would explain XinYiBa. I was rather surprised but gave him a bit of a discourse about how I felt a westerner could have a glimpse of what XinYiBa might be – knowing full well that only when one had the experience of it could one really know. At the end of my explanation Shifu said something to Dongdong who then turned to me and said: ‘Shifu says you have understood perfectly. Please explain XinYiBa in this way to western people.’
This is what I said…
To be continued in Part 2 of 2