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An Interview with Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming: Progress at the YMAA Retreat Center

by Daniele Bolelli, August 20, 2012
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming (Photo: J. Chang)

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming (Photo: J. Chang)

Dr. Yang Jwing Ming is at the halfway point in one of the most ambitious martial adventures in the modern world. Since 2008, Dr. Yang has been living for over nine months every year on a remote piece of land in Humboldt County, in northern California, with a group of disciples who spend their time soaking up Yang’s extensive martial knowledge. For Dr. Yang, the goal of this project is to cultivate a generation of standard carriers for traditional Chinese martial arts and make sure that what he has learned throughout a lifetime is preserved. In addition to the ten-year retreat, Dr. Yang is also about to start a second retreat that will last five years and will focus primarily on Taijiquan. Let’s hear what Dr. Yang has to say now that he is about halfway in this task.

Several years into the retreat project, what do you think about the experience so far? What have been the major challenges? How satisfied are you with it?

This project has been an entirely new experience for me. It is a very challenging one, and it has also been very educational as well. I will have to continue constantly adjusting my methods and strategies in order to make this project successful. There are a few obstacles that I did not expect would be so serious:

1.  It is very difficult to find committed students today. Many students from this newer generation tend to lose their patience quickly. A lot of them want and expect quick results in a short time. They do not realize that training Gongfu actually means applying a lot of patience and time to accomplish their goals. I call this mentality the “McDonald's culture.” Fast food is cheap, easy to obtain, and has instant gratification. Unfortunately, it is not of a high level of quality. It is impossible, and a disgrace, to treat traditional Gongfu as fast food. Gongfu has so much depth in it that it would be a great pity and loss to treat it so superficially.

Naturally, the “McDonald's culture” is partly the result of today’s rapidly developing technology. So many things in life now can be achieved by just pushing a few buttons, oftentimes even in just the palm of your hand. For many people around the world, life is becoming too easy, compared to previous generations. Many people nowadays struggle to conquer challenges, or they have forgotten how to do this. Some do not even care to even try. When they are unable to handle a challenge, they simply give up. There is a lack of drive, motivation, and direction. This was more often not the case in older generations, especially for those of us that grew up during war-affected times.

2.  I call this generation a “greenhouse” generation. Physically, many people's bodies are weak and have low endurance. Particularly in urban societies, we have cars, good shelter, and food. Technology has simplified some jobs so much that there are many careers where people sit all day. Physical fitness is not as important as it once was. Because so many things are so convenient and accessible, many people focus only on living comfortably and seeking out entertainment. Whenever they face challenge or adversity, many people are quick to quit or find shortcuts. Mental endurance and development is lacking. Consequently, spiritual development has been downgraded or in many cases, completely ignored. I accepted 21 students at beginning of the current program, but only three have been able to endure up to this point at the five-year mark.

3. Financially, I was hoping that the center could become self-sustaining after a few years of operation. However, many supporters and donors have had to reduce their contributions because of the poor economic situation today. The funds generated by the center itself are low. Every year, I have had to put in a significant part of my personal savings and income to keep the center going. However, no matter what, I will finish it.

Although only three students remain from the original group of 21, the progress is satisfactory. Even if I am unable to pass down my knowledge to a larger group of students, I am still very happy to pass down my knowledge to those few who really commit to the training. Overall, I believe that we are on track and will be able to accomplish much of what I originally set out to do. I do not believe the quality will be 100 percent of what I wanted, but I also have a tendency to plan very ambitiously. If I can achieve even 70-80 percent of my original goal, then I will consider this program a success. One great surprise I got last year was that my youngest son, Nicholas Yang, decided to come train at the center for the next six years. This has increased my willingness and enthusiasm to seeing this project through to the end.

What have the disciples covered so far in their training and what are the next steps?

A strong foundation from basic and fundamental training has been established, including a decent level of body conditioning for power and speed. Although this foundation is not as strong as I wish it to be, it has already been enabling the students to train techniques with more root, solidity, and practicality. Techniques are only useful if they can be effectively and realistically applied. This foundation is imperative to achieving such results. While they continue to train techniques, they will also continue much of their basic and fundamental training.

In the coming years, the students will gradually increase their focus in training to learning and refining more and more techniques. My wish is to have them learn each style to a high level of quality, so each semester, they will only be learning a few forms and techniques, and practicing just those few a lot. The whole aim of the program is to have quality over quantity, and that is why this program has to span across so many years.

Consequently, it will be a big time commitment to teach them all of the content I can teach them, but spending more time in the practice is the only way that quality can be achieved. In terms of learning techniques only, so far they have completed about 70 percent of Taijiquan, 30 percent of Long Fist, and about ten percent of White Crane. The technique-learning process will continue for at least the next three to four years, and refining the techniques to a high level of quality will continue for the rest of the program, and, I hope, for the rest of their lifetimes as well. Getting to the stage where they can use the techniques effectively and skillfully is still a huge challenge. Learning is easy, but training correctly and diligently enough to make that learning proficient will take a lifetime. One of the final goals is to be able to use the techniques learned into practical situations.

It is also my sincerest hope that after the program has completed, they will reach a level one day where they are able to continue creating and developing the art by themselves. To do this correctly, it takes several decades of practice, teaching, pondering, understanding, and being immersed in the art. This program is meant to give them tools and methods to achieve these goals. Without them, anything they create or develop will be superficial and meaningless. I want them to one day become true pioneers and leaders of the art.

After living in an urban area for so long, how did it feel to feel immersed in nature, away from any major city? How has the setting influenced the retreat itself and the training?

I feel more relaxed now and find that I can enjoy my life better. While there are still many things to worry about in terms of running the center, paying bills, maintaining the center, and other administrative headaches, being in nature helps to calm my mind and bring me some mental clarity. The air and water are clean and fresh, and the weather is comfortable year-round. The views of the mountain are very beautiful and bring a great sense of tranquility. It seems like there could not be a more ideal place to train than here. It is also the perfect environment for achieving deeper stages of meditation.

In this remote area, I find that the students and I are able to focus more on our training with far fewer distractions than in the city. It is certainly less hectic, and it is easier to keep our goals clearer and in sight because of that level of simplicity. We are living almost like farmers, quietly and as self-sufficiently as possible. We have an organic vegetable garden and also a chicken coop. In an environment surrounded by deer, bobcats, foxes, mountain lions, and bears, we feel very close to nature and are happy to be immersed in this type of environment.

In addition to the ten-year program, you have recently advertised a shorter program and are currently accepting new disciples. How does this program differ from the ten-year plan?

We are currently accepting student applications for a five-year program, which will conclude at the same time as the ten-year program in 2018. In this newly accepted group, no student will be accepted as a “disciple” until they have proven their moral character and dedication to the training. I believe that many students who have quit or otherwise left the center in the past five years did not fully understand exactly what being a disciple was about. By accepting a position as a disciple at the center, they were supposed to be committed, loyal, and respectful to the end, as a disciple should be, and as a child should be to a parent. Traditionally, the title of “disciple” was not a title to be taken lightly. Teachers were both a teacher and a parent to any disciple they accepted. However, many of the students that have left the center could not endure or adapt, and they put that ahead of the promise and bond they made by becoming disciples. That is why I now have only three disciples resulting from this project. However, I believe that the five-year program is more feasible for students to complete because of the shorter time commitment. In this case, it would be just like going to college to get a specialized degree or professional training.

Naturally, the quality of training that the five-year students attain will not be as complete or as refined as the ten-year students. Usually, to become proficient in any art, it involves 10 percent of learning and 90 percent of training. However, because the five-year students have less time, they will most likely be focusing more on learning while they are at the center. The bulk of their training will need to be done on their own, after they complete the program in 2018. They will also have less time to train body conditioning and fundamentals while at the center. I sincerely believe that once a student has built a firm foundation, proficiency and depth in the art can be attained accurately and smoothly through independent training, research, and analysis. The Chinese have a saying; “The teacher only leads you to the path. You are the one that must take it yourself.” I believe that even in just five years of heavy training at the center, a student will be able to build a firm foundation for developing the art very deeply themselves.

What do you think will happen to the land where the retreat takes place after the end of the ten-year program?

If I cannot find support, resources, and personnel to cover the expenses and maintain operations of the center independently of my personal contributions, I would unfortunately have to close it down and sell the property. It is too much of a financial burden for me to continue otherwise. The cost of operations has already gone up year by year, due to new building code regulations, higher taxes, increased insurance rates, property maintenance, and repairs. I hope I am able to find a few strong supporters in the next few years to keep the center going after the current program concludes in 2018. To keep the center open for ten more years, I estimate that it will take a minimum of about US$1.2 million to cover all of the expenses, including paying any future hired staff and instructors.

Now that you are in your sixties, how has your martial arts practice changed?

Since I am weaker physically, I am not able to demonstrate forms and execute techniques in the same way I could before when I was young. Therefore, I now focus more of my training on Qigong and Taijiquan. However, I have found that through teaching, I am able to continue developing and understanding the art in both internal and external styles. I am just not physically as capable as I was before. I wish I could have the knowledge I have now but be 20 years old again.


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