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Bai Si – Art of the Disciple

John Crescione, October 24th, 2007

The accepting of a “special student/disciple” in traditional kung fu was a very big deal. You not only represented the sifu but also the particular style. Thus, there was a great deal of responsibility placed on the individual. If you lost a fight, got yourself in an embarrassing situation, associated with the wrong people, dishonored the system or your sifu’s wishes, you dishonored the sifu, the style, your kung fu family and yourself. You were the walking Image of the sifu, the style, and the school We call It “guilty by association” here in the West. As you can see, a lot was riding on this and was not taken lightly. You were the son(daughter) of the sifu and the system.

If you were accepted as a disciple, you were basically closer then the sifu’s son/daughter and family member in many respects. There would be no holding back of Information, special attention was given, the sifu would take great pains to see that you got the Information, then see If you understood it and could put it to use. Any of the styles so called “secrets”-herbal medicine, dim mak, forms, hit points or kung fu techniques were revealed. The sifu was always available to the disciple, and the disciple would In essence be able to call upon the sifu at anytime with a question or problem, not always necessarily about training Kung Fu. You would accompany the sifu on all kung fu related matters, or go in the sifu’s place, if the sifu was unable to attend. There was never a question of whether you had to or wanted to go-sifu said go, you go! Today’s excuses of work5 sickness, family and other obligations-although very real- didn’t even become subject for discussion. It also meant that the sifu was stricter with you in your training, you worked harder then your brothers and sisters, were responsible for all the younger brother and sisters training, opening and closing the school, as well handling all school matters on your own or at the request of the sifu, including the cleaning, repair and promotion of the school. At all public functions, the disciples were responsible for the needs of the sifu4ood, refreshments, money handling, etc. Remember-it was a privilege to be a disciple-one not given out easily. This private club was very hard to get Into, and all to easy to be kicked out of, If you messed up. You were always on probation. But, what you were getting out of it more then made up for it. Essentially, the sifu was molding your martial and moral character, as well as your technique-al skill. Knowledge was handed out to only the special few, and since it was not a tangible item-whomever got it was either very worthy, worked hard for it and/or was very lucky.

There were only two ways to become a disciple-you were chosen or you requested to be sponsored by a fellow student who was already a disciple. If the sifu saw that you were a worthy student, the sifu would send a disciple over and let the student know that they were being considered to become “part of the family”. No one said no, they weren’t Interested. The sifu had shown interest that this was a person that they wanted to share all their knowledge and skill with, to take special interest in. It would behoove you to remember the time period. First of all, getting “into’ a Kung Fu school was not that easy. Money was not always a criterion for admittance. If you did get In, any real knowledge was not readily forth coming. Now look at the disciple ceremony-in general this is why you came to the school 4or the style, but more importantly-the sifu. The sifu and the style were on the same level, sometimes the sifu was higher. Here was the person that would teach you, look after you, nurture and protect you, correct you, guide you and mold you. The sifu was the living embodiment of the style and the sifu was the one who was going to turn you into the same thing. I think you can begin to see the bigness of this whole thing.

The other way to become a disciple was to have an existing disciple go to the sifu on the student’s behalf, letting the sifu know that they wanted to become a disciple. The sifu at this point would either say yes, or would watch the student from that point on to see If you were worthy, could be trusted or was just trying to buy the sifu’s kung fu and “secrets”. The sifu very rarely came out and said no outright The sifu was the person who had final say on who would be allowed in the school in the first place-if the sifu didn’t like you from the beginning, the sifu wouldn’t let you in the school, let alone teach you anything. (Unlike today, where a check, cash or credit card gets you In the door and basically everything you want.)

The Traditional Ceremony

The candidate was Instructed on the proper procedure by an existing disciple or sponsor. Every school has its own rituals and procedures but below Is the most common.

The whole school was usually present-the ceremony, and hopeful acceptance was cause for a big celebration. If the student was made a disciple, after the ceremony the new disciple would take everyone present out for a feast.

The sponsor disciple or senior disciple would be standing on the left of the sifu, who would be seated. The candidate would be standing in front of the sifu.

  1. The senior disciple would pour a cup of tea and hand it to the candidate. The candidate would then either hand it to the sifu and get on their knees OR taking the tea, gets on their hands and knees, and holds it in front of the sifu.
  2. The candidate would then bow their head and state-” My name is.. .,my father’s name is.. ..,l come from.. ..(place of birth) I am humbly requesting the honor and privilege of becoming a special/private/indoor student or disciple of sifu. . .(sifu’s name) The candidate then raises up and offers the tea to the sifu.
  3. The sifu would take the tea and not drink it. The candidate would then bow 3 times (kowtow) and make his sworn pledge. The pledge is a personal commitment between the student and teacher and is an individual thing. The 3 bows must contain a commitment to the sifu, the style and traditions or school of kung fu. Below are some examples
    • Sifu- “I pledge/swear/promise to have no other sifu, and do everything In my power to make my sifu proud of me.”" I pledge to take no other as my sifu, and will belong to no other family, from now until my death.” “I pledge to honor my sifu, to follow and obey him (her) without question.”- The main idea is the commitment of the student to the individual
    • Style- “I pledge/swear/promise to keep, develop and protect the name of (school and/or style).” “I pledge to bring honor to both my style and my sifu. I will do nothing to bring shame to the name of (style).”-The main idea is that you and the style are now Inseparable. You are no longer a kung fu student, you are a (style) practitioner with a family and represent both family and style.
    • School/Tradition- “I pledge/swear/promise to preserve and protect the teachings of(school).” “I pledge continue to grow as a person within the art of(style) as taught to me by sifu(name) of the (school name).” “I pledge to continue and uphold the traditions and teachings of (school name) as my own. “-the main idea is to bind yourself with the school, It’s traditions, and the traditions of the style and schools ancestors.
  4. The candidate could bow and recite each one, (3 bows and recital’s total), then bow their head or stay bowed, recite all three and bow three times or just stay bowed and recite all three.
  5. After listening to the candidate’s pledges, the sifu would then drink the tea (if accepted).—Most schools now a days end here, the candidate would then give the sifu a hung bao, (red envelope with money) and the sifu would help the new disciple up, signifying the new sifu/disciple relationship.
  6. After the sifu drinks the tea, the sifu pours a cup of tea for the student. This tea is usually from a different teapot, and the tea is scalding hot. The student must take and drink the tea without hesitancy, discomfort or pain. This signifies to the sifu the candidate’s willingness to endure great hardships, whatever the sifu gives out.
  7. After drinking the tea in one gulp, the student hands the teacup to the senior disciple, and then hands the sifu a hung bao containing a prescribed some of money. This money ranges greatly from individual to individual-anywhere from $500 to $3,000(or more).The money-traditionally- was given in like bills. If it was $2,000 for example. two 1,000 dollar bills to signify the multiplying of money and good fortune/prosperity. 14(00) or 4000 was not used since the 4 in Cantonese -(say)-sounds like the word, die or death-bad luck I All the odd numbers are yang numbers-good luck numbers In general.

The sifu would take the hung bao and then help the new disciple up. The sifu would the say, “From this day forward you a part of my family and will be called… (kung fu family name given by the sifu) The disciple now has all the rights and privileges of a family member, and thus the training truly begins. At this point a formal picture was taken with the sifu seated and the disciple standing on the sifu’s LEFT hand side. A picture taken with the disciple on the RIGHT meant that the student had learned everything and was ready to go out on their own and teach. A graduation picture of sorts.

Bai Si in Today’s World

Being a kung fu disciple In today’s world ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In many schools it has turned into a way for the sifu to make money off of sincere students, promote idol worship, slave labor/ego boosting and separation from the kung fu brothers and sisters.

However, some schools today don’t hold much back, but most people are not appreciative of or realize the depth or significance of what they are getting In their school, In comparison to a similar stylel school up the block. And the majority of people really don’t care what style of kung fu they’re doing, “it’s close to the house and I can do it with my kid”, or “I can always go to a different school up the street.” There are more people out there who want to doll earn “something”, then those who are shopping for a (Insert name of specific style/system)school. And thus the sifu’s attitude can become “Get as much from them as I can now.”

People expect to pay big money for a chance to train with a Martial Arts Somebody, let alone become a “special student” of someone famous, if they’re lucky enough. Let me give an example-the general public would pay to train/become a disciple of Jackie Chan, a Martial Arts Somebody. The general public does not know who Dan Inosantos, Peter Urban, or Graciella Cassillas are, therefore they become Martial Arts Nobodies, even though to us they are big time Somebody’s (The general public Is driven to the Martial Arts by the media, not a specific style or style representative. The general public knows that Chuck Norris does karate, the martial arts public knows what style of karate he does.) The martial arts public know and are driven to specific people and or style because we are on the inside looking out, we know what we’re looking for. The martial arts public would expect to pay big money to train with these people, not the The general public. That only happens when the general public becomes the martial arts public and are educated In their schools, go to the seminars, read the books, buy the magazines and watch the videotapes.

But if the martial arts student’s are spending large amounts of money for a Martial Arts Neighborhood Nobody to become a disciple, then they really should be taught something special, not just what is in the curriculum. The disciple now has usually become the sifu’s servant, practice dummy and gopher-all for the privilege of ‘hanging out” with the sifu, under the hopes of getting “some pearl of knowledge” that no one else will get.

As I stated before, in the Sifu’s mind, knowledge is intangible, how or how much do you charge for It.? How long is the person going to be In the school ? Why should I bust my butt to make them get it when they…

  1. Don’t get it,
  2. Aren’t worthy or appreciative of it’s depth and beauty,
  3. Are going to leave when they get bored, run out of money or find something else to do,
  4. Don’t realize that what the sifu is teaching took years of work and understanding to internalize and then teach.

So, “You want it?,You can have It but it will cost you I” And that’s only If the sifu Is sincere. If the sifu is just out to make money off of the students-you ain’t getting Jack In a good kung fu school there should never be anything held back, everyone Is treated the same, taught openly and honestly and the sifu should always put the training and welfare of the students first. The sifu should always treat everyone as a student, friend and a potential “would be” or “could be” disciple-someday. So the question becomes-”Why be a disciple If I’m getting it anyway without all the above fuss? ” What the student gets is good kung fu, taught to you correctly and with the emphasis on you being good at it. The disciple gets an understanding of how to live the art, “when you can no longer tell where your Kung Fu ends and Life begins”, of bonding, fellowship with other disciples, of a commitment to the system, style and school, and to the sifu. In some schools it is a personal thing, you do it for your own reasons.
The sifu has now taken on a son or daughter, and must do everything In the sifu’s power to be there for them, guide them, mold them and set a good martial and moral example for them. The sifu is their Martial Arts father and Kung Fu role model.(If we can play with a famous saying and altar it a bit-With great responsibility, comes the potential for great power.)

Those of you who are students contemplating becoming a disciple sooner or later, or have been approached or “chosen”, remember that it is a commitment to the style, as well as the school and the sifu. But it is also a commitment to yourself. When you choose to become a full time student of the art (not just something you do a couple of nights a work when you have nothing else to do), your kung fu and your mindset change. You eat It, breath It, think It’ sleep It, poop it. Becoming a disciple is(in my opinion)the last great step in a kung fu person’s development-and it is important to make sure that all those of you who are Interested in it, have the knowledge, Information and education for the opportunity and experience to do it, complete it and live it.

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