art_secrets2Some martial artists say there are secrets, some say there are none. Of course one part of the discussion is just semantics. Let’s say this, if there are no secrets in life then a whole lot of money is handed over each week to a legion of golf pros selling yak meat instead of prime rib.

Whether we call them secrets or techniques or special training tips, we all have to acknowledge that experienced players and coaches often have special insights into the fine art of execution, insights which many of us seek.

When a teacher watches a student repeating a single mistake over and over it sure SEEMS from his standpoint that there are secrets more untransmittable than an Enigma code. This may be due to the student’s stubbornness or limitations more than any secrecy on the part of the teacher. But in this reality of non-communication knowledge remains a secret for whatever reason. This is the first level of what a secret might be.

The next level contrasts the material and the immaterial. No matter how hard you work out, no matter how technically accurate you may be that are some jumps in training that can only appear when the MIND of the student changes. A different mental picture, a visualization, an attitude adjustment can alter a performance more than 10 000 repetitions. At this point the level of the game can change in an instant, now and forever. This brings us to another of those “truths” about secrets which everyone repeats, “There are no secrets, just hard practice.” Well yes, and no. But what if you don’t know what to practice or how? (In a sense everything is a secret until we know how to work it, as Brunelleschi’s standing egg trick illustrates).

art_secrets1The legends come, of course, from Kung Fu stories—East and West—where a Yodaesque figure holds a mysterious power back until the last minute of the crisis or until he is completely convinced of this student’s good intentions. At first blush this may seem childish, melodramatic, or romantic—three terms always reserved for truths which outrage the rational mind. But what such a story really is takes us back to the quest of the hero and Joseph Campbell. It refers, essentially, to each and every person’s need to decode himself and the wish, which may or may not ever manifest, and to have someone there—some designated witness—to help in that decoding.

The belief in secrets is not a weakness. It is a yearning after transformation but a special type of transformation—namely the consummation of one’s own intrinsic self. Secrets are not just technical. They are always about personal fate. You have to be fated to share some secrets. Intelligence, courage, even propinquity; are not enough. We know this because we see it happen a hundred times a day: where people walk around, over and through realizations they desperately need, revelations they hunger to have and solutions that would unburden their lives. They ignore these signals like a hungry cat walks past a pet food commercial playing on tv. As the Vedas state, without knowing what you are looking for you wander through the forest crossing and re-crossing the spot where the treasure lies.

Secrets exist not only in martial arts but everywhere. The history of mathematics is the history of secrets buried, lost, stolen and maintained. In science secrets may be hidden in notebooks or guarded by high security proprietary means but they are, ultimately, secrets. History’s greatest time of enlightenment was a time of secrecy without limit. Why do you think so many people believe in conspiracy theories? Because the world, basically, cannot run without secrets to lubricate it. We forget that, once, the techniques of Kung Fu kept China a great nation and relatively safe from invasion for thousands of years. There are negative secrets, too, covering straw soldiers and things we don’t know and can’t do. And of course there are family secrets, the marrow of community. There are secrets teachers would love to share but can’t because their pupils aren’t ready. This also shows that secrets, finally, are about timing. There is nothing worse than the teacher who tells the story too soon; before the student had done enough work to appreciate the short cut. The problem then is that, when the crucial situation arises, the student takes the solution for granted and misses the dynamism of a perfect knot sprung with a perfect unraveling twist. Secrets are everywhere because we all have secret selves. The tiger never lets you find his cave nor the wren its nest.


Kung Fu people love to say this or that manual is a secret transmission.  Here are some texts we feel at least hint at some kind of “secret” knowledge.

Tai Chi has more secrets manuals than any other style and Wu Meng Xia’s was one of the first…

What could be more secret than the famous Iron Palm?

And what about “Secret Door” Mantis, the system that fights the Mantis?

Lone Sword: This one actually records more “secrets” than you can shake  a spear at…

Ted Mancuso, the head of Plum Publications and this web site, runs a school in Santa Cruz, California. His new instructional text on Qigong: Blossoms in the Spring, is out now.

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