A long time ago, in the province of Meng, in China, there was an honorable philosopher called Zhuang Zhou. He once wrote about his dream of being a butterfly. As such, he flew through the woods, enjoyed the perfume of the flowers and the sound of the rivers. All was wonderful with his colorful flying-self, as he knew nothing about his times and desires of men, only the wants of the most beautiful of the insects. In his ignorance, he didn’t miss human life. Happy as he has ever been, he glided among the trees.
Suddenly, he wakes up. His pale skin and pointy fingers are horrendous. His shadow has no wings. Desperate, Master Zhuang runs to the lake to check his reflection. Who is that creature devoid of colors? So confused he became, for a while he couldn’t tell if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a man or a man taken from a dream of butterfly. Zhuangzi was a wise man though, and through dedicated meditation, he finally understood.
“I am both!”
Yes, he was. The man and the butterfly. “But I shouldn’t have been awaken that abruptly, for the walls between the dreams and life should have no windows to peek.”
I hear the story, wondering why Sifu chose that particular one among so many others. After a full day training of intense Tai Chi forms, the connection wasn’t the clearest. Then he calls me to spar.
My legs can barely hold; my arms are heavy as if they had carried a pig for a mile. “Be light like a butterfly” – I think. That’s what he meant! He’s always scolding me for my hard moves, after all.
We fight. Soft and gentle, I watch myself floating around him. As if I had wings made of rice paper, painted with colors of all kinds. My Tai Chi shines. So precise, so beautiful. I enjoy in pride, until I get hit. A punch, right on the kidney, makes my chi leak, rapid. Inside, a coiling pain slithers up my body and hooks onto one of my eyes, the one on the opposite side of the blow. It twitches, rolls into my head then gets dragged towards the injured organ below the ribs. I fold. One knee first, then another. My hand touches the floor, hoping for a landing more gripping than sand. I feel everything. See everything. I think, what is going on? Is this what the allegory was about? Do I need suffering to… transform? To wake up? Is this the only path to enlightenment? I turn to Sifu, begging for relief and an answer.
Behind a chuckle, he gives one: “The wall. Never lose the wall.”
Is that the best he can do?!
He extends a hand to help me stand. The problem with kidney shots is they don’t cause the sharp pain of a broken bone or the dizzying effect of a head hit. It’s so deep it makes you feel dark in the chest, praying the world leaves you alone. That is me. I hold the hand.
Leg limps. Chest refuses to open. Guts are loose, like watery noodles soup. In a protective Tai Chi stance, I wait for his move. He launches, faster than a man his age should. And his fist is inside my stomach. Not a full punch though. Just strong enough to knock me down.
Despite the agony, I can still think. What I can’t is breathe. He seats me up, hits me three times with an empty palm on the heights of my back. Clock, clock, clock. Darkness fades.
“The wall”—he repeats, with a grin. Sifu knows my beast. So I hold it. Not allowing him the pleasure of a double lesson. Instead, I wait, quiet, until he says whatever he wants to say. Hurts less this way.
“Life and death; forms and fight; man and butterfly. The different sides of life must not recognize the other. Or they will never be full on what they ought to be.”
Master twists his beard and raises to a beautiful Tai Chi pose. Head tall, weight on a single limb, arms pointing forward and back. From below, his indigo robe, deeper than the indigo flower itself, looks like an armor of dusk. He presses with a hand as the opposite leg takes a gentle step backwards. “Repulse the Monkey”—I say, the name of the position. Perhaps it can unravel the mystery he taunts at me. Nothing. Damn, he is so light when he does Tai Chi! Maybe that’s it? He is telling I’ll never be weightless?
He says: “forms.” Then shakes into another pose. Elbows down, legs rooted like a tree, chin tucked, face hiding behind the fists. He jabs, crosses, hooks, dodges, kicks, leaps. “Fight”—he finishes. “They must not know of each other.”
After hours training forms and a devastating sparring session, that’s something really fucked up to say.
Took me a lot to let the anger pass, even more to comprehend. Not just time, new ideas and methods too. I mentioned I love Bruce Lee, right? How I even moved to Oakland because of him? Influenced by his writings, I started to cross-train. A sponge, absorbing everything I touch. That helped.
One day, I am in a judo class, learning to unbalance people by breaking their steps mid-move. Oh, and throwing them on the floor too. Next, Muay Thai, BJJ, Eskrima… Fighting styles for the entire world. My Boxing instructor adjusts my stance: sideways, right arm horizontal and low, covering the entire waist; shoulder forward, a glove to protect the chin. “Philly Shell”, he explains. The punches come from all angles, and I try to stay calm, but I’m getting close to the wall. His flurry continues: up, down, side. My elbow covers a kidney shot without too much effort. The shell is an interesting guard indeed! I have a vision: Sifu and his Repulse the Monkey. Not the full move, more like a flash, and do a Boxing version of it. Leg back, spinning the body, connecting to a cross from the other side. It shoots fast, sharp, precise onto my instructor’s face. I touch the wall behind me, give him a black eye.
Intriguing, the wall thing. The butterfly one. You teach your body to operate with flowery forms, hold them on the other side while you fight. Then one day, a flash of a form crosses time and space and possesses your swing. All of a sudden, your instructor learns he can’t mess too much with you.