Spirit Mountain Vietnamese Martial Arts
By Jackie Bong-Wright
“As a professional ballet dancer, I practice Tai Chi. This holistic art form brings me balance, harmony and inner peace,” proclaimed Tatiana Robinson. “Ballet and Tai Chi both need stamina and perseverance through years of intense discipline to achieve personal freedom. Ballet portrays all sorts of human emotions — love, betrayal, high aspirations with romantic or passionate music — and teaches us about the human condition. Tai Chi, on the other hand, leans towards a simpler and purer internal rhythm where forms and shapes are chiseled in time and space. It teaches us internal strength, the release of energies, the expressions of let go, and a pure extension of ourselves.”
When Tatiana came to Spirit Mountain Martial Arts to watch a class in 2002, she thought she had come home after a long journey. “I had finally found what I was looking for. I wanted more than just a place to exercise. As I watched the class unfold, I discovered that the school was a legitimate place where not only bodies but minds and spirits were being molded, transformed and enriched. The quest for truth had brought me there.”
The mission of Spirit Mountain Martial Arts (SMMA), which teaches a discipline rooted in Buddhism, is to develop the right frame of mind and the technique and skills for self-protection and self-perfection. It stems from five virtues – appreciation, confidence, perseverance, humility and respect. Training classes at SMMA include meditation, Kung Fu, Kick Boxing, Aikido, Tai Chi and Lion Dance. These martial arts forms are practiced in a number of Asian countries.
Self-Protection and Self-Perfection
Martial Arts training programs strengthen reflexes, refine sensibilities, cultivate the internal energy flow, develop wisdom and compassion, and promote peace of mind. Three hundred years ago, Nga Mi Son Phat Gia Quyen religious sect members learned from Indian Buddhist monks who had traveled to Vietnam, the skills of surviving while meditating in mountains and forests and resisting attacks from ferocious animals. Subsequently, they also learned the art of internal self-healing, and, ultimately, the art of attaining universal enlightenment and happiness with meditation. The aim was to complete the two opposite worlds of the yin and the yang, uniting the physical, mental and spiritual cycles of the universe.
After the religious sect had kept its martial arts secret for generations, Zen Master Tung, successor of Nga Mi, wanted to propagate these traditional disciplines and teach other disciples. Later, Grand Master My Le, following in the path of his teachers, dedicated his life to guiding and coaching these art forms, especially in the United States, where he had migrated. He also expanded his martial arts instruction to include spiritual meditation and community service.
To make the classes more accessible, training is taking place on week-ends in Virginia at the Willston Multicultural Center and also at the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring in Maryland. So far, over 400 students have trained in different martial arts forms. Two kinds of forms can be taught – the internal short form and the external long form.
First of all, the body itself is considered an internal weapon, using vital points of the fingers, knuckles, hand-edges, elbows, knees, hips, head and feet as tools to defend oneself or attack others, though only as a last resort. This internal, or short form emphasizes strengthening the bones and muscles to make them as hard as metal and wood, as hot as fire, as fluid as water, and as malleable as earth. These qualities reflect the five elements found in the universe.
On the other hand, the regulation of breath, the ability to advance and retreat, and the dexterity of the long form imitate the external styles of different animals, such as the tiger, dragon, monkey, snake, cat, eagle or elephant, and improve free-fighting ability. A broad spectrum of fighting weapons – swords, long staff, dagger, spear, whip, knife, saber, double axe, hammers, rake, fan, round shield, and double hook — can be employed as an extension of the body to defeat the enemy.
“Before, I never thought that the Chinese Kung Fu movies I watched could exist in real life, but they do at our training center,” said Thao, a 17-year old student. “I am a red-belt Kung Fu student. I have practiced every Sunday for three hours for the past five years — first with the hands, then with the sword, the metal fan and the nunchaku – two bars connected with chains.
“Kung Fu keeps me calm and in good shape, and away from ‘bad stuff’ – alcohol, drugs, violence. I feel physically and mentally stronger than when I started at 12. Martial arts builds up my muscles as well as my confidence, and I intend to graduate with a black belt. I am more disciplined and more focused in my studies at school than before. I help instruct younger kids, and will continue to practice Kung Fu even when I go away to college in a couple of years.”
Hung Nguyen, the Executive Director of SMMA, describes the different classes. Teachers train students in Aikido, a Japanese style of grappling techniques, throwing and locking the joints in order to hold and subdue counterparts, using spare hands but also Katana – the two-handed long sword. Kick Boxing, derived from Thailand, uses the feet to kick opponents up to their chest and face. Teachers want also to preserve the Lion Dance, a vibrant art form celebrating ceremonies at festivities. But the most popular classes are Tai Chi and meditation, which teach the free flow of breathing and regulating the Ch’i or energy, inside the body for physical and mental self-healing.
Tatiana summarizes her learning with a sublime thought. “Meditation is like a vast ocean. Meditation is silence, and silence is golden. It disciplines your mind to be empty, devoid of ego and sinful senses. It purifies a person by reaching emptiness. Yet it is not empty, since there is compassion and understanding of the mystery of existence, eventually reaching forgiveness and salvation. It is a personal work of art and spiritual growth to be able to liberate oneself from suffering and find internal peace and eternal spring. What I believe and have faith in depends on what I know and understand.”
At the swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected Governor Tim Kaine, Hung Nguyen arranged for a group of ten dedicated SMMA members to drive from Maryland and Northern Virginia to Williamsburg. They got up at five in the morning to be ready to reach the capital, where Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson were among the first governors. Police closed the main streets early that morning to prepare for the parade. Organized by Jay Chen, the Publisher of Asian Fortune News, they marched with over a hundred other participants from five Asian Pacific American (APA) groups. They brought their colorful attire, their big drums, and their cymbals, and performed the Lion Dance.
By noon, a heavy rain was showering the thousands of marchers and spectators along the streets. Although drenched to the bones, Hung Nguyen said that all of them, including teenagers, were proud and honored to be able to show APA solidarity and strength and participate in the inauguration. Asked why he joined SMMA, Hung said that he was fascinated by the martial arts techniques. “It’s more engaging than lifting weights or doing repetitive aerobics movements.”
“I saw the happy faces of parents and children practicing together in a safe, healthy and fun environment. In the process of learning Tai Chi for the past five years, I have become more tolerant and I get more involved with the community. I also help instructors guide new students, and I volunteer to perform demonstrations with other members to promote SMMA. As executive director of SMMA, I have more responsibility and want to work more with my members as well as interact with other people outside my group. I want to share our blessings with others,” Hung concluded.
Throughout the years, SMMA practitioners have volunteered their services by performing at schools, community centers and organizations that request special martial arts demonstrations. In 2003, with generous donations from friends and members, they purchased a 33-acre farm in Maryland with a barn, a lake, a stream and picturesque fauna. To survive, they organize their own annual fund-rising dinner, plan to construct a training and meditation center where alternative medicine will be introduced, and want to build a temple of their own.
Tatiana, chair of the Eternal Spring Association, a non-profit organization that sponsors SMMA activities, has a vision – a ten-year plan to reach self-sufficiency. Her short-term objective is to call on the public to promote the organization’s ninth anniversary cultural show at the New Fortune restaurant in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on Saturday, March 4. For more information, visit www.spiritmountain.org.