Interview with Benny Meng
18 Febbraio 2010
Today we meet Benny Meng, founder and curator of the Ving Tsun Museum. He has traveled extensively throughout the world researching the roots of the Art, and studying the training methods and applications employed in virtually every lineage of Wing Chun Kung Fu.
Dear Benny, when did you start with Martial Arts?
I started martial arts at 10 years old in Hong Kong, with Judo (1972)
With who did you know Wing Chun style?
I started Wing Chun under Sifu Lay Hoi Sung ( actor in many of the Wing Chun movies), a member of the Jiu Wan lineage (Jiu Wan was a relative of Ip Man, and studied under Chan Yiu Nim, which is Chan Wah Shun’s son). That was in 1981, when I traveled to Hong Kong from the US to study martial arts after high school. On that trip, I also had the privilege of learning Mantis Taiji, Monkey Kung Fu, and some basic Hung Ga (I can provide the teacher’s names for Mantis and Monkey). When I left Hong Kong to return to the US, Sifu Lay suggested that I should look up Sifu Moy Yat. I finished the Ip Man lineage under Sifu Moy Yat, becoming a disciple in 1986. With Sifu Moy’s blessing, I also completed the system under his kung fu brother, Sifu Ip Ching, and have had extensive training with Sifu Chu Shong Tin, Sifu Ip Chun, Sifu William Cheung, and training experiences with Sifu Mak Po, and Sifu Ho Kam Ming. I’ve also interviewed Sifu Leung Ting. In addition to the Ip Man lineage, I’ve had the privilege to research and train in several other lineages of Wing Chun, giving me a broader view of Wing Chun’s history, development, philosophy, and training methods.
Can we know what are the differences between your Ving Tsun and others interpretations (Wing Tsun, Wing Tjun, etc.)?
In my experience, Ip Man’s system passed away with him (he did not leave any written teaching records). Each of his senior students maintains and teaches a unique experience of the Grand Master. To beginning students, the teachings of Ip Man’s students may sometimes appear to contradict each other but I’ve found that at the deeper, conceptual level each of them agrees on the fundamentals of the system itself. What I’ve gathered and focused on were the central, core (foundational) concepts that were common to all of them – much like the roots of a tree – instead of the individualized, personal expressions – much like the flowers on the branch. This approach has been further strengthened by research into other Wing Chun lineages outside the Ip Man family.
Can you tell us your story and, expecially, the story of VT Museum?
The best source for my story and the VTM is in the article on the VTM website here.
What is the message that you feel to launch all practitioners with your hard work on the museum?
Wing Chun is a concept based system. We should focus on concepts and principles of the different families and lineages, because there was only one Wing Chun that originated in the Southern Shaolin Temple. Today, there are many flowers coming from the same roots – but all too often, people try to carve out their own place at the expense of others. There is room for all expressions of Wing Chun without taking away from anyone else. The biggest honor I’ve had over the years of my research is to be exposed to the larger family of Wing Chun, see the beautiful, unique expressions each family brings to the martial arts community, and truly see the ‘big picture’ rather than see the perspective of one teacher or one lineage. The focus of the VTM is to promote all families and lineages, free from politics. If you study Wing Chun, we want to share with you the beauty, depth, and breadth of this great martial arts tradition.
You founded your own organization. What are your relations with other associations?
I have very positive relationships with the Ip Man lineage through the Ving Tsun Athletic Association and many Masters and Grand Masters within that lineage. I was asked to be involved with the newly formed World Wing Chun Union, based out of Hong Kong. I’ve had positive interactions with Grand Master William Chung, Grand Master Leung Ting and their organizations. I have also had many interactions with the Wing Chun lineages that fall under the Shaolin Wing Chun banner (a term coming from the VTM) and the most recent activity is with Master Kenneth Lin, of the Black Flag lineage.
Who is your Master, now?
At this point in my training, I have relationships with many lineages and interact with many Masters and Grand Masters. My current focus is on the Black Flag lineage, under the direction of Master Lin, the international representative of that lineage in the US.
Who were your Masters in the past?
In the Ip Man lineage, Moy Yat is my Sifu and I also attribute a lot of my understanding to Ip Ching as well since he covered the whole system from Siu Nim Tau to the Baat Jaam Dao. I also give credit to my many kung fu uncles for their input, suggestions, guidance, and sharing their experiences of the system and Ip Man with me.
This question actually has two answers: traditional and modern.
In the modern martial arts community, an instructor of Chinese martial arts is called a Sifu. A Sifu that has students at the Sifu level, meaning out teaching in the public, is called a Master. A Sifu with students at the Master level is called a Grand Master. A Sifu with students at the Grand Master level is called a Great Grand Master. The idea of ‘grand master’ and ‘great grand master’ in Western culture are more influenced by Americanized Karate traditions than anything found in traditional Chinese martial arts.
In the traditional Chinese martial arts culture, a martial artist who teaches is called a Sifu by his or her students. Once a student decides to teach, he or she is not supposed to go back to his or her teacher for any additional training. Grand students call their teacher’s teacher ‘Sigung’ which essentially means ‘grandpa.’ Kung Fu culture is based on a family structure and family relationships, which go deeper than just teacher and student. A Sifu is a mentor that is traveling the same path, but is further ahead and acts as a guide to help you develop your skill and ability. A true Sifu is a type of life coach, touching on many levels including physical development, mental education, emotional growth, spiritual cultivation, and financial development. This is especially true for the martial arts that come from Shaolin traditions. The development of fighting skill without the simultaneous development of the whole person is a foreign concept in traditional martial arts culture. In this culture, someone that has attained Mastery is someone that lives his or her system in all aspects of life: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. True mastery is not something given from the outside, but, instead, is something that develops internally and manifests itself automatically, like the shining of the Sun. The sun shines; its heat and light self-evident to all. True Mastery of the martial arts is the same thing.
My todai (students) call me Sifu. Outsiders call me Sifu Meng, Master Meng, or Grand Master Meng. I am a 7th Level Senior Master Instructor under the Ving Tsun Athletic Association. I am also 7th Degree Grand Master under the Moy Yat Special Student Association. And I have Master Level students as well. That’s more of a modern martial arts community answer. As for the more traditional answer – I can’t give it, it comes from the people that know me and work with me. They have to judge my level of knowledge, skill, and ability for themselves.
How many hours do you train?
I live the Kung Fu Life: I look at all of life as an expression of martial arts concepts in action, so every moment I am awake is training for me. As far as hours on my physical training to maintain my health and physical skill, I average an hour or two a day, 5-6 days a week outside of teaching classes 6 days a week when I’m not traveling.
Are you a professional martial artist or have other jobs?
I am a full-time martial arts teacher and educator.
Have you ever fight on a sport’s contest? When, where and with wich results?
Before I opened my school in 1987, I was a national and internationally ranked competitor in Taekwondo. Several of my training partners were part of the Olympic Team in 1988 but I was already focused on developing my school by that point. In my competition days I actually fought and won against competitors that made the US Olympic Team for 1988. I was also active in kick boxing and open tournaments, including full contact fighting, open hand forms, and weapon forms. I won numerous awards for 10 years (starting at 15 years old).
How many hours per week should train a student to grow in a serious way?
That depends on the student: their age, their goals, and their support system. For example, training to be a teacher, to be a competitive fighter, to have good self-defense skill, or to be a good student of the art are all different goals and require a different level of commitment, time, energy, and finances. As a student, I arrived early and stayed late; put in the extra hours on my own time; got together with fellow students outside of class; saved money to afford extra training, workshops, and travel; and I positioned myself to be able to train full-time: I went to China, Korea, and New York for extended study sessions from a few weeks (Korea) to a few months (China) to a few years (Hong Kong and New York). This made a huge difference in my development but I want to do martial arts personally and professionally until the day I die. I don’t demand or require that level of dedication from all my students but I so expect my Instructor level students to share the same mindset.
How much your student spends to become a black belt (in terms of time and money)?
See my answer above – it depends on the goals of the student first. Generally, it’s 4 years to black belt and the tuition depends on several factors.
Black Belt itself means different things to different people. For example, I have a female student with health challenges that wanted to give up after five weeks but I helped her to see the long term value, and a few years later she earned her black sash under me. Her fighting skill was not my primary focus or requirement for her to earn black sash – it was primarily on her attitude, willingness to risk and grow, and her ability to push herself to the best of her abilities. Today, she’s a great success story. On the other side of the coin, I have a group from teens to adults that want to compete – they train 5-6 days a week for 2-4 hours a session, and are also being pushed to become the best possible people as well as greatly skills fighters in all ranges. I’ve also had a student that spent close to 10,000 hours in his first five years of training to earn his black sash – and today he’s a great communicator because all that extra time with me helped him to see and link all the martial arts and life together (the kung fu life) to a deep level. So it depends on the goals of the student – I am the guide to help them achieve more than they thought possible but I am not here to tell them what they should want for their own life. I just ask the questions, open the door, and point the finger; they have to walk the path for themselves.
What are the fighting concepts that are focalized on into your School?
Because of my focus on the concepts and principles of Wing Chun, we teach great fighting skill in all ranges. My approach is to use Wing Chun as a way to understand life, based on seeing how things begin and expand. For example, take the basic concepts of the Paak Sau exercise:
1) Occupy Centerline
2) Maintain Forward Energy
3) Inner / Outer Gates
4) Hand Replacement
5) Two Hands Work as One
6) Body Unity (immoveable elbow)
Understanding that sequence of concepts, all good fighters understand balance and center of gravity. That’s the Centerline itself. Next, all good fighters have forward energy – you don’t want to go around them because they will either kick, strike, or tackle you directly. Third, all good fighters have a sense of range – an inner defensive line and an outer offensive line. Fourth, all good fighters have the ability to maintain a line of attack. Fifth, all good fighters have the ability to flow from one tool to another. Sixths, all good fighters have a solid structure and threaten you with their whole body, not just the parts. Once you understand these concepts, it’s easy someone how to kick, strike, trap, grab, throw, sweep, lock, submit, choke, or break joints.
In life: you have to know your core values and what you believe to be true about life and people. You also need to maintain balance in all that you do. That’s your Centerline. Second, you need to maintain forward momentum and direction – your body will continually move through time even if your mind wants to live in the future or the past… that’s why you had to start with Centerline: to give your energy a place to focus. Third, you need to understand your boundaries – how far is too far? How close is too close? What you can truly influence and what is out of your grasp at the moment. Fourth, you need to be able to change what you are doing in a given moment without losing focus on your long term objectives and values. Fifth, you need to be able to flow effortlessly within your life to be successful. Any time you experience struggle, you know you are not doing something right. Sixth, you need to have a connected, solid effort with all pieces working together. Do these six things in this sequence and you will be successful at anything you choose to do with your life.
The essence of Wing Chun is efficiency. Efficiency is a mindset and skill. Efficiency is not a style or way of behaving that you can just put on or take off like clothes (that’s that Mastery I wrote about above, efficiency is self-evident). Unfortunately, many people treat Wing Chun as just a style of fighting, a collection of ways to hurt another human being and go no deeper. If the VTM can offer anything to the Wing Chun community, it’s really this understanding of Wing Chun as a vehicle to living a good life, learned in the shortest period of time possible.
Can you tell us what is the different between Ving Tsun and Weng Chun, if you can, after your practice with GM Andreas Hoffmann?
First, Wing Chun and Weng Chun are related arts, coming from the same roots: the Southern Shaolin Temple. Second, I urge everyone to visit with Grand Master Hoffmann and experience his personality, training, and attitude for themselves and come to their own conclusion. In my experience, he is a true martial art fanatic, a gifted teacher, loves what he is doing, and eagerly looks forward to sharing the traditions he’s had the privilege to experience in his life with others.
According to the VTM’s research, Chi Sim Weng Chun is one of the lineages that falls under the umbrella term of ‘Shaolin Wing Chun—Chi Sim, Hung Fa Yi, Black Flag.’ We use that moniker for Wing Chun lineages that share several major concepts including: Heaven/Human/Earth, Wing Chun as Chan Buddhism, Time/Space/Energy, Kiu Sau training, and a few others. In my experience, the Chi Sim lineage is different from most Wing Chun lineages because they do not have the Siu Nim Tau / Chum Kiu / Biu Ji form choreography familiar to other Wing Chun lineages. However, they do share the Reactional training skill format (most often called Chi Sau in Wing Chun but called Kiu Sau in Weng Chun), they also include the Wooden Dummy, 6 ½ point pole, and 8 chop knives.
As for the lineage, and in my experience, I see a closer connection to Hung Ga than most Wing Chun lineages but that is my conclusion based on my research to date and Grand Master Hoffmann might have a different perspective based on his extensive research into his own lineage and several Hung Ga lineages.
Think to come to Italy sooner or later?
Iwould love to travel to Italy, see the beautiful architecture, meet the wonderful people, and enjoy the incredible food. Up to this point, I haven’t had the opportunity extended to me to travel and conduct a workshop. With your efforts, maybe that will happen soon.