The Sash

Recently my teacher announced that he would be issuing a lineage certificate and black sash to one of his students.  For my teacher’s students this is a big deal as this would be only the eighth lineage certificate and sash awarded in 36 years of my teacher’s classes. A request was made of the seven previous sash recipients to attend the award ceremony along with all the students at my teacher’s school.

The day of the ceremony arrives and we gather at our teacher’s home.  We prepare dumplings and share the many dishes that were brought.   We tease Matt, the new sash, telling him that he will have to shave his head, fight all the other sashes and then lift a cauldron filled with hot coals with his forearms.  He laughs at us and said he is willing to do all of these “requirements” as long as he could see the scars on our arms first.

And so our morning goes. We tell stories and get caught up on the latest family news.  We find out who has just been hired, who is graduating from college and who is now driving a car that runs on discarded vegetable oil.  We eat, laugh and yes, talk about our common passion of the martial arts.  Those of us who have been around for a number of years slip into the short hand of old friends.  For those new to the classes, more explanation is needed from and delivered by the senior students.

Finally it was time for the ceremony. First, there is recognition of my teacher’s Master, a man deceased for the last 17 years but who we recognize and follow through the example of our teacher.  We light incense and bow to the Master.  We then remember a member of our group, a dear friend, who passed away unexpectedly a year ago. After that my teacher speaks of the tradition of the Master’s school in Taiwan.  He then talks about his seven sash recipients and then of Matt.

Matt then receives his certificate and his sash.  Matt speaks to us all about being honored to represent the Master and our teacher.  He is humble and thoughtful, warm and appreciative.  And when he finishes I think that he is a good choice for this honor.

With all of us congratulating Matt, I start to reflect on my own lineage certificate and sash that I received so many years ago.  This carries me to why, after 33 years, I’m still practicing Xingyi and Bagua.

There were many reasons I started taking classes.  The primary reason was to learn to fight; to be able to defend myself.  My uncle is the one who directed me to my teacher, telling me that I could study other fighting arts but that if I wanted something I could do for a lifetime I should go to this class on Wednesday night.  I didn’t understand at the time what he meant.  But I went to class and met a man who threw a blazingly fast punch and could kick with power and control.  And I wanted to do the same.

Soon, with a lot of work, I could throw a fast and hard punch.  I could throw combinations.  I learned that I could take a punch (or two) and keep going.  But as time went on I realized that I was learning other things.  My teacher’s classes opened many doors by bringing so many students together.  One student was a doctor.  Another was lawyer who later became the district attorney.  There were school teachers and masons, woodworkers and tavern owners.  One student made his own guitars.  People would join and then leave after one class.  Others would be around for a number of years and then slip away.  Those of us still there kept practicing.

After class we would talk about what was happening in our lives. There were marriages, children, divorces, job changes and always the Art we practiced.  We compared bruises and techniques.  We pushed one another in many ways, whether it was sparring or learning a new form.  Once a new form was learned then it was the honing of the form, become smooth in movement and trying to understand applications.  We practiced to get the form into our bones, to become natural doing something that was not natural.  We would talk things over and then work some more.

Standing in xingyi’s santi stance was always a favorite.  My legs would burn and shake.  Sweat would pool at my feet and I felt that I was out of my mind for trying to simply be still.  Then I would sneak a peek out of the corner of my eye.  I would see my teacher, up in front with his own pools of sweat, standing solid, breathing and relaxed.  I would see the senior students ahead of me, doing the same.  That’s when I would gather myself and start breathing to bring that breath back down and to relax into stillness.

I followed the example of my teacher and the senior students and, after some years, I became a senior student.  By that time I’d learned to embrace the standing, all the forms and the sparring and realized that practicing all aspects of these martial arts was leading me to both mental and physical growth.

Now I find that I cannot stop what I’m doing.  I continue to learn about xingyi and bagua, China and its culture.  I’ve made friends all over the United States, Taiwan and Australia.  I’ve learned about my limits and how far I can go physically.  Most important, I realize 33 years is but a wisp of time and my uncle was right.  I have something for a lifetime.

Finally it is time for pictures.  We line up on the front steps of our teacher’s house and have a number of shots taken.  Then some of the group move back inside to eat a little more while others stay on the steps chatting.  And a couple of students line up on the sidewalk and start working through the Five Fists of Xingyi, working and sweating together as so many of us have done for so many years.

Tom Karls

Tom Karls lives in Madison, Wisconsin.  He has been practicing xingyi and bagua for 33 years.  When not practicing, he works for the Madison Public Library.