"We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want."
The Tao Te Ching, 11
One day Tommy said he'd started taking "Khan Foo" lessons from some fellow out of his garage. This was well before the kung fu craze started, though I'd seen Bruce Lee in his role as the high-kicking Kato in the ABC TV series, The Green Hornet, and I'd always loved samurais, sword fights, Knights of the Round Table, and the like, so I asked if I could tag along. It began a long relationship with the only true discipline that life had given me up to that point, aside from my paper route. I started taking the lessons too, once a week, then twice, then as often as I could, learning first of all that it was Gung Fu, with a G.
My teacher had systematically cobbled together his own style based in the Wing Chun school of Gung Fu, named after the woman who invented it. To that he'd added elements of Japanese Kenpo, and some of the ancient anthropomorphized animal styles that originated in China around 1000 CE, popularly associated with the famous Shaolin Temple.
I ate this stuff up. I truly loved it. I was good at it, so it made me feel like somebody. And I loved my Sifu, Barry, who was not at all Chinese (on the outside), but rather a first generation Scots-American, who at times gave lessons wearing his kilt.
Barry seemed older than he was, in large part due to his all-encompassing intellect. He was constantly searching out knowledge of all kinds, from literature to technology to the historical accomplishments of ancient cultures. The politics of war. The poetry of the romantics. He quoted Byrnes and Emerson as well as Lao Tzu, Confucius, and the great samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, because for at least that part of his life, he was a martial artist of the highest order. It was a mystery how he got that way, where he had learned what he knew, but it didn't really matter. I required no provenance, nor did anyone else who ever shared a sparring session with him. His mastery was just a mysterious fact. He was so good, and knew so many different styles, that it wasn't until years later that I realized he must have been channeling from myriad former incarnations lived in the martial pursuits.
You would never know it to look at him. His appearance wasn't classically impressive, though his straight and balanced carriage did suggest an evolved underlying discipline. He seemed a bit paunchy and built close-to-the-ground, and had a round face, prominent teeth, a mustache, straight brown hair, and glasses. But when he donned his gi, and tied a band across his forehead, his eyes narrowed and he assumed a remarkably asian appearance, for a Scotsman that is.
Somehow he also knew about all things asian too - things it would seem only asians would know. He used to take me to the San Diego Chinese Buddhist Temple to watch Hong Kong kung fu movies, so heavily subtitled with four or five dialects at the bottom of the screen that you could barely see the film itself. The little auditorium was smoky, and full of Chinese men crammed together on metal folding chairs, cheering the crazy chop-socky action. We were the only lo fan - white Americans there, years before any Chinese kung fu movie had cracked the American market.
When Barry sparred, it was real magic. He could only spar groups of opponents, no single person could avoid being completely defeated within seconds. No group in fact, no matter how big, fared much better. He would become a sort of human hydraulic tornado. He dropped down close to the ground, eliminating any possible target, and began spinning smoothly and powerfully, like a scythe on a vertical axis, high and low, mowing through his attackers with an icy, expressionless calm, tossing bodies aside like spent tissues. Then suddenly, he would just stop, as a dramatic punctuation, holding an opponent impossibly off balance, his claw-like curved fingers buried just beneath his victim's eye sockets; the victim wild-eyed and paralyzed. Then he would casually drop that opponent, as if to emphasize how hopeless it was to have even tried to fight him, and begin mowing through the group again, taking the legs out from under one, stopping his diamond-hard fist just bending another's nose.
He possessed a power that gave me my first bit of understanding of the invisible energies that surround and enfold our material reality. With the slightest shuffle, he could side-kick a heavy punching bag off it's hook and send it flying twenty feet. From a half-inch away, he could generate enough power with a tiny push, to propel a large man three meters off his feet. Once, as he stood in ma bo- the solid stance of a man on horseback, another student and I tried to push him off balance manning either side of a heavy-handled shovel, the handle crossing him at the navel. We rhythmically pushed and bounced against his midsection until the handle just cracked and splintered. He was absolutely immovable. His expression was that of inscrutable focus.
This was my introduction to the power of ch'i, the flowing energetic force of the universe (what is called prana in Sanskrit), which courses through all things, and can be channeled through the body; focused and manifested as force, solidity, and resiliency. One aspect of the divine unseen.