Demons Hands, Buddhas Heart
鬼手佛心 - Gui Shou Fo Xin (Ghost/Demon, Hand, Buddha, Heart)
My right wrist bears this tattoo for a reason, but it is rarely what people think the reason for me marking my body was. I get asked about it often as it is my only really visible tattoo and the reactions I get when I translate it are generally quiet, uncomfortable and change of subject. Just like when I go to “grown up” dinner parties and it’s my turn to talk about what I do for a living. “Oh, you’re an engineer? Cool. I pursue enlightenment through bare-fisted murder. More punch?”
So generally the conversation ends there but I have had some people come back as they get to know me better and ask why I got the tat and sometimes it seems worth it to tell the story, so I am writing it down today.
My second teacher/master in martial arts studies was Ma Qinglong from the Ma family style. When I started training with him family systems were pretty much unheard of and honestly I had never heard of them either. I thought I would check it out since I loved kung fu and was looking for a new teacher, good or bad it would be a new martial experience for me. I was in the first day when not only did I get to observe the students who would become my older brothers training things I thought only existed in movies or mainland China, but I got to feel them as well. I saw Drunken Boxing, Tiger being sparred with, Snake training and the most insane workout I had ever been a part of in the first hour! I was upfront with my new Shifu and told him about how long I had trained, where and what and all that jazz and hoped that he would be alright with me not being a clean slate. Well my nearly ten years of training was looked at and judged simply, he made me spar. Not only was I completely taken apart with ease by the older students but he would tell me to try harder, go faster, no worry, just fight. For those people who think kung fu schools never fight or spar, they never went down into the cave where Ma Qinglong taught. His rule was fight twice as much as you train alone. I never left so much sweat and blood anywhere in my life than I did in the first months I trained with him.
Sounds ideal right? He was skilled, old skool and a fighter. Within my first week he invited me back to his home after class to train and have a drink. His character then revealed itself more than it had before. He “let” me “spar” with him, not that there was a choice really. Six or so beers in he wanted to see what I had and I felt the same way about him. We fought in his back yard under that damned old tree he made me work out under for years afterwards. I quite literally let him have every single thing I had. I was the top student of my previous teacher, ran his classes, fought everyone and it was the worst beating I had ever taken in my life up to that point. (There were worse ones to come from him, but he was being nice that night.)
With every ounce of power and speed and skill I had I attacked him over and over. He mocked and laughed at what I thought I had for power and told me to kick him in the torso as hard as I could. Which I did and nothing.... It did not even take his eyes off me. He slammed my head through his white picket fence over and over knocking the boards out one after another. I know I went through it at least once back first as well from a throw of some kind. My memories are kind of blurry as I am sure I was not only too many drinks in but also concussed. When I woke up in the morning at home I had blood under my nose and lips, a black eye that would last for weeks and the worst headache of my life. My body was bruised up and I could even see where some of the more memorable strikes had hit me. I had never seen anyone who could actually drive their fingers into someone hard enough to leave fingermarks before. It was a good thing there was not a class until after the weekend. Of course that thought was short lived as the phone rang that day and he told me get back to his house to fix his fence since I had broken it....
I ended up living with shifu due to circumstances in my life and he trained me everyday but unfortunately it was almost always brutal. Learn to fall by being thrown, learn to block by being hit, fight everyday. We had some good times too of course, going out and people watching and working on seeing people’s injuries and handedness and so on. Applying the martial theory all the time. But even now twenty years later when my gong fu brothers and I get together there is always some release of trauma from him. It was a shared experience for us and we were all treated the same way. You either took it or you quit, he did not care at all. Shug talks about the day Shifu broke his ankle (which I saw happen) and Dom about having Shifu tear him open with his fingers. Seeing your own blood spilled from someone just moving their hands across your flesh is a crazy thing.
So why the tattoo? Well most people think it is to remind me to be gentle with my students and not be like my teacher. Keep the heart of the Buddha within and all that. But truthfully when I was on my own and teaching and training with other less severe teachers I found myself so mentally injured by him that I swung too far the other way. I was not hard enough on my students. I never have and still never will allow myself to become him and treat people that way but without some hardships in training many things are lost. Some schools in chinese martial arts dont even spar! The whole fists are too deadly BS... but I digress.
I became too soft on my students. The workouts got easier and easier, sparring softer and softer and when I did techniques to them it would be too gentle and kind. I knew what it was like to recieve them much too hard and never wanted to put them through any of that. I was working to be compassionate and kind. But I was actually not doing them a service at all. Without eating bitter we cannot taste sweet at all. I was not giving them enough bitter and their skills were suffering because of it.
In order to balance ourselves and our lives, yin/yang we must explore both sides. Without good killing hands you can’t have profound healing hands and vice versa. Now I know some will debate this but a surgeon has to be able to cut into people, carve pieces out and be able to do so knowing that healing comes from it. Without the knife, no healing can take place. Without the bitterness of real training, no sweet can come to taste.
So the tattoo is my reminder, be balanced. Do not kill their skills with kindness, nurture them with discomfort, plant the garden of their gongfu with some bitterness and toil. If the students never feel the teachers real skills they have no absorbtion of the reality of the art. Hiding it does no one any good. First do no harm, sure. But be sure to let them know that you certainly could. Devils Hands, Buddhas Heart.
Shifu Neil Ripski