Monday, April 17, 2006


It's after eight in the evening but I'm still sweating as I sit cross legged on the floor of Pak Zianal's living room, I'm not sure if it's because I'm dressed in the heavy black cotton of my Silat uniform, complete with colorful Sarong and headdress, or because I'm nervous. People bustle around preparing for the evenings proceedings, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque lilts softly in the background and the smell of incense and burning wood wafts through the door. Next to me a my friend, Don, also from England and my senior in our Martial arts organization sits dressed in similar garb, I look across out the corner of my eye and wonder if he is feeling the same as me.

We are here for our Khatam, Khatam is an Arabic word that means 'last' or 'ending' it is also used to refer to the last prayers said at someone's death. In Malay martial arts it is the name of a ceremony that closes a students formal instruction in an art, where he or she must demonstrate that they can perform to a certain level in front of a group of their peers and instructors from other arts (who have the final say on whether or not a student has passed). This probably doesn't sound too bad until you realize that some of the tests on tonight's bill include fighting with some of the local students and going through certain 'ordeals' involving flames and lumps of rock.

Finally as the call to prayer fades to silence Pak Zianal calls us out to begin. We sit on the bare concrete at the front of his house in meditation while Nigel, my teacher, opens the proceedings with the Tari. Silat Tari is form of Silat most often associated with dancing and like Tai-Chi often misunderstood as lacking in any martial application. As Nigel moves gracefully through his free form dance, arms waving in front of him as he moves into a low stance, you could be forgiven for mistaking the moves as that of simple dancing. However a good Tari, one that follows all the principles, should be able to have a martial application for any move within the dance.

Once the proceedings are considered open we are moved to one corner of Pak Zianal's yard and the fun begins. One by one we have to go up and strut our stuff in front of Nigel (who is overseeing the proceedings) and a panel of other students and teachers. Myself and Don run through our Tari first empty handed and then with weapons (Don with a Kris and myself with a stick).

Next comes the sparring, in this form of Silat sparring you have to show that you can fight using the moves of the Tari. So though we are fighting without any protective padding it's as much about style as it is about content. My opponent, Arri, is one of Pak Zianal's Thai Boxing students and a guy that likes to fight, but surprisingly I'm feeling very calm. We leap around the yard exchanging blows and weaving the patterns of Silat moves with our hands and feet, he's very fast and tough executing some crippling kicks at my legs and body but I think I give as good as I get. After two rounds of frenetic action we are called to stop, both of us grinning and panting, blood coursing through our veins, each of us disappointed we had to stop.

Don's fight is almost the opposite of mine, while mine was a flurry of blows Don's and his opponents Fayiz is one of patience and strategy. We find out later that Fayiz is a regional champion in competition Silat and at almost got on the team to represent Malaysia in the South East Asian games, he moves with feminine grace and commands distance perfectly taunting at Don with his facial expressions and movement trying to get him to rush in so he can punish him with kicks and punches. Don though is having none of it, he stays outside of Fayiz's range and plays the same game waiting for him to cross the distance to him. It's like watching a game of chess both fighters testing each other in short bursts of action and then retreating to a safe distance. They are quite evenly matched, Fayiz executes some lovely side kicks at Don and at one point Don sweeps one of the kicks out of the way with his arm and lands a beautiful strike to the face which takes Fayiz off his feet. Fayiz however retains his cool and as he gets up he pantomime's surprise to the crowd, continuing to fight with a zen like composure.

After the fights have finished the real fun begins, I have some ideas as to what the tests are as Nigel (who's done all of them) has made the occasional comment but I have little idea of the order or the details. The general idea is that you have to channel one particular element (fire, earth, wind, water) to negate another, so fire counters stone, water counters fire etc. Sort of like a mystical paper, scissors, stone.

Pak Zianal calls me up first and gets me to stand on scrubby patch of grass with my back to the audience. I'm told to channel fire, I imagine it igniting in my chest and spreading until my whole body is aflame, I'm shaking and twitching with the feeling of energy in my limbs. I can feel Nigel standing behind me, I try to relax and keep my mind focused on the flames, I have no real idea what's coming next so I just try to keep my mind on the meditation. Suddenly Pak Zinals voice cuts through the night in a short sharp command, a couple of seconds later I feel an enormous blow between my shoulder blades, the air is knocked out of me and I take a step forwards.

Trying to keep my composure I push the 'what the fuck was that!' thoughts out of my head and keep my concentration on the flame in my heart. Nigel asks if I'm OK and I nod waiting for what seems like an eternity until Pak Zianal's command barks out again and I feel the stunning impact for a second time, I still manage to keep my feet and after a third blow I'm told that this particular ordeal is over. Don then follows suit and I get to see the size of the rock just thrown at me, it's a solid lump of marble over a foot long and nine inches thick. I'm not sure which of us was in the better position, myself not knowing what was coming next or Don having to watch me knowing that he would have to do same in a few minutes.

Next we switched to fire, Pak Zianal called me up and asks me to roll up my sleeves and trouser legs then with a flaming stick in each hand he runs the flames along my arms and legs, I can feel the heat of the flames on my skin and a sensation of burning but no pain as I try to focus on changing my whole body to water.

After Don has had his turn with the flames we were subjected to more fire, lines of paraffin are drawn on the ground and Pak Zianal and his helpers bend to light them. However as they do so we feel the first spots of rain, there isn't much of it but it's enough to prevent them lighting the ground. Pak Zianal accuses me of using my Yoga powers to summon rain, though to tell the truth I just want to get on with it, I'm more worried about what test we'd have to do instead if they couldn't get the fire lit (some of the others that could have been chosen involve being hit with sharp prarangs or walking on broken glass). Thankfully someone brings out a pile of newspaper and lights it so we can proceed (you know you're in a weird place when you're glad of a pile of burning newspaper). Once the flames are going nicely both myself and Don had to walk through the middle of it, slowly, making sure both feet go through the flames (otherwise they'd make us do it again) . I can feel the flames licking around my feet, ankles and around my shins, but the sensation is the same as the flaming torches, a feeling of heat and burning but no pain. Afterwards I thought I'd burnt my right foot, but five minutes later the feeling had gone.

I'm thinking we must be close to the end now, I try to remember what other tests we might have to do. Then we are called over to the corner of the training area were a metal pan had been set up over a flame, inside it's filled close to the top with boiling oil, sizzling away with bits of ginger floating on top. We both know what we have to do, placing our hands into the oil we have to rub it into our arms and faces, I went first initially hesitant then with more gusto once I realized I wasn't being burnt. Don came after, liberally applying the oil with such abandonment that he managed to splash Pak Zianal who gently mentioned 'You are getting it on me my friend'.

Once this was finished we were brought to the front of the house, battered, bruised, slightly singed and covered in oil. I thought it was all over and breathed a sigh of relief. Then Pak Zianal pulled up Arri and placed him in front of me, speaking in Malay and pointing at his clenched fist, 'Oh bollocks' I thought. Arri takes a big stance and cranks up his fist punching me full belt into the stomach, I take the punch relaxing the muscles and letting the air out of my lungs but the blow still makes me step backwards. Next Arri hit Don who deals with it easily but still our ordeal wasn't over, one of the other lads Eddie steps up and delivers a low sweeping kick full power to my thigh, catching my hand in the process, my finger swells up immediately after the strike and I couldn't walk properly on my leg for a couple of days afterwards but I stayed standing. He tried the same thing with Don but I think he hurt himself more on Don's tree trunk legs than the other way round.

Finally we were finished, Pak Zianal came up and shook our oily hands, congratulating us on our success. We gratefully dragged ourselves to the living room where we sat on the floor to eat a lovely meal prepared by Pak Zianal's wife, followed by music and dancing at the front of the house where the local lads show they are not only talented martial artists but musicians and dancers to.

In all it was one of the craziest nights of my life so far, but by far one of the best. The tests themselves seem insane but follow a definite logic, they confront you with your most primal fears of pain, injury and death and force you to either overcome or succumb to them. We found out afterwards that many had failed the tests previously and been injured, but generally injury happened when fear takes over and hestitation occurs. If you fear the fire and pause you will get burnt, if you are scared and tense then when the stone hits you will be thrown of your feet.

The whole evening is not just to prove your outer strength and skill (though that is equally important because the physical is the gateway to the mental and without that Yang there is no Yin) it is also to test your inner strength and control which is invaluable both on the battle field and in life.

If you can enter into the right mindset you get an inner confidence that you know will carry you through. I knew, as I put on the Silat clothing before we left, that I was going to be fine, it's difficult to explain it's like a quiet calm comes over you and you know that whatever happens you'll be OK. The difficultly now is to carry that feeling past the Khatam into the everyday life, to let the lessons learned there gradually show themselves. A true initiation never ends and I will carry that night with me for the rest of my life, though Khatam may mean end it should also be seen as only the beginning.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Shaolin Master

Last week I was training at the Shaolin Temple.

Well ok not the real temple, I haven't been suddenly transported to mainland China, instead we visited the home of one of Nigels Martial Arts brothers, Master Wong, where he has built a fair replica in his back garden.

Master Wong is a small rotund man, shaven headed with a little moustache and a permanent grin. A grin that was still on his face when I last saw him a few years ago, standing on his head with two buckets of water hanging off his feet, while two of his students used a sledgehammer to smash a concrete block balanced over his testicles.

The temple is an impressive building. Built by Master Wongs own hands, it stands on the land next to his house. There is a large main training hall decorated with framed newspaper clippings of Master Wong and his students, behind this is a smaller room packed with a large altar, an impressive collection of weapons in racks on the wall and stacks of gaudy Lion heads for various Lion Dances. In the basement there is what one of our number described as 'the room of pain', it contains various training aids for strength and striking training. A large punch bag hangs from the ceiling stuffed with thin strips of bamboo, iron shot of various weights for grip strength lay on padded cushions and a large concrete ball with a rope handle sits on the floor for developing all over body strength.

After our brief tour we return outside and get down to the reason for coming here, push hands. For the next hour or so two of Master Wongs students do a round robin of push hands bouts with me (so they get to rest and I don't) across the bare concrete outside the temple entrance.

For those of you who haven't come across the term 'push hands' before, it's a form of controlled sparring common to Tai-Chi. It's similar(ish) to wing chun sticky hands or Judo Kumite, generally you can't punch or kick (though you can add that in if you want) but you can sweep, lock and push. The idea is that it trains close quarter fighting skills, working on speed, sensitivity and positioning to uproot and disrupt your opponent.

Master Wongs boys were strong, fast and pretty skillful but I was pretty pleased with my performance. I dumped one on his backside a couple of times and even managed to get another in a headlock using tiger returns to the mountain (a move in the Tai-Chi Form, Dave you would have been very proud :-)). Nigel seemed pleased as well, he commented that when I cheated I did it just like him.

After my hour was up, Master Wongs lads went through an impressive display of some of there forms and then we all sat and drank tea at Master Wongs special table come water fountain that he'd built at the other end of his yard.

Other training is going well, I've finished the fast form and have now moved on to doing it with weights (which hurts but makes you do it properly). Pak Zianal has moved from hitting me with sticks to using an axe (the blunt side of the head so far thankfully). We also had a fantastic Journey to a Malay Mystic mountain, but that will have to wait until my next post.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

New Key23 article

I've just put up a new article on Key23 about a visit to some Sufi tombs last week.

(Key23 is currently shifting servers, if you find the link above isn't working then give it a few hours and try again).