Kung Fu Fighting Bench vs. Pom Door
Last year, just before the elections, a thief broke into our home. The perp stole some loose cash and my wife’s diamonds, a few thousand worth, then attempted to hide any traces of entry. My wife noticed a door was unlocked and had the disturbing feeling that someone had been there, but with all the excitement surrounding the elections, we figured the door was our oversight and the rest was due to the cat, who has been freaked out because we just got a new dog. We didn’t realize the crime occurred until a few days later.
The thief probably entered through our sliding glass door, which we had left cracked open yet barred. We did this to accommodate that new dog, who wasn’t completely house trained yet. It’s a small dog, a Pomeranian that we got at a shelter, and not a guard dog by any means. He probably led the thief to our valuables in exchange for a nice belly rub. The architecture of our house is such that there is only one door that leads to our backyard and it’s that sliding glass one. The crack was skinny, but not skinny enough obviously. I had been meaning to install a proper dog door, and to do so, I needed to cut a hole in the wall.
Now, I’m not a carpenter by any stretch of the imagination. I made swords for a living for a spell, but making handles and scabbards is much different than cutting holes in the house just before winter. Fortunately, an old fencing partner (as in sword fencing, not wall fencing) was in town. He has written for Kung Fu Tai Chi, but his real job, believe it or not, is as a movie set carpenter. He showed me what to do with his truckload of real tools.
My tool kit is pretty measly. I rent and borrow a lot. I don’t even have a sawhorse. What I have is my homemade Kung Fu Fighting Bench, which is exactly where I’m going with this Tiger Claw blog. If you’ve never heard of a Kung Fu Fighting Bench, it’s a traditional, albeit rare, weapon in the Kung Fu arsenal. There was a bench on the cover of our November 1999 issue, as well as one shown in our Featured Weapon section in our November December 2008 issue. This bench design is ubiquitous in Southern China, and if there’s one thing I love about Kung Fu, it’s that you can learn a fighting form for just about anything. It’s not just nunchakus and bo staffs. It’s benches, fans, chopsticks, rice bowls and even shoes. You name it and some Chinese master has a form for it. So a Kung Fu Fighting Bench is unusual but not unexpected.
Many years ago, my Sifu knew a bench form but he only had one bench – his personal one – so he wasn’t motivated to teach it. My kung fu siblings and I had been greedily eyeing that form. It’s so unique, and yet strangely practical. If you can transfer your bokken techniques to baseball bat, you can transfer sawhorse techniques to just about any chair or small table. Borrowing is a martial way. We borrow traditional weapon techniques for various inanimate objects. We borrow our adversary’s force and return it with change. To quote Bruce Lee, we ‘absorb what is useful’, which is essence is a form of borrowing. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to fight with a chair using borrowed bench techniques, but at least I’ll be prepared should the occasion arise.
One of my kung fu brothers had a small shop in his garage and came up with a simple design. Now traditionally, these Chinese benches were designed with a sawhorse pattern so they would have a snap-tight fit. The real ones use no nails. You’ve got to love that traditional carpentry. However in this case, we weren’t so traditional. Tradition is wonderful, but sometimes a luxury. Often in modern times, the practical reigns supreme. That traditional method required some serious carpenter kung fu. We used wood screws.
Building those benches is one of my cherished memories that kung fu family. We had traveled China together, competed internationally together and worked out together for well over a decade by then. But still, that day we call got together to make those benches stands out in my mind as one of our most glorious gatherings. Subsequently, we all did learn the form. When we all showed up with these homemade benches, what could Sifu do but smile and comply? Sometimes you need to go that extra step to show your resolve to get your master to kick down the good stuff. It was a simple form. After all, there’s only so much you can do with a heavy, bulky piece of furniture. I’m ashamed that I’ve long since forgotten it.
Nevertheless, bringing out my old bench to build that dog door brought back so many memories. I had hoped that I would learn some cool technique that I would someday deploy in a bar fight. Instead, I’m got this sentimental carpentry tool, which takes up more space in the garage than a folding sawhorse would, but is my essential tool for the occasional and inevitable home repair. Sure, it’s a nearly as melodramatic as the bar fight. In fact, it’s downright domestic. But in the end, it’s as solid of a practical martial arts application as any. Mostly, I’m left with a lesson in brotherhood (and sisterhood – can’t forget the kung fu sisters! They’d throttle me.) The lifelong bonds that bind a martial arts family are by far the most precious.
If you’ve read Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings (五輪書 Go Rin No Sho), you know what he thought of carpentry. Musashi was Japan’s most famous swordsman (and given how the Japanese love their swords, that’s saying a lot). Swordsmen are inherent tool users. We love metal blades with handles. We love to cut and carve. In Musashi’s time, carpentry was the trade other than swordsmanship that granted so much access to this. Since it’s just not right to go around cutting people down all the time, a practical martial artist like Musashi found a way to hone his skills in mundane everyday tasks and other arts. A true master always balances the destructive force with the creative. Musashi was an accomplished master so his talent crossed over into other fields beyond battle like carpentry and painting. In his book, he draws many analogies between swordsmanship and carpentry. Just like the bench brought back memories of my old kung fu sibs, carpentry made me revisit Musashi and reflect again on penetrating the wisdom he left for us.
When you live a martial life, your practice bleeds into everything. Even building dog doors.
Inspire your students to be of good hearts. And keep them supplied with Tiger Claw gear.
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