I had someone write me awhile back and suggested I write something on “Internal” and “External” martial arts so here are some ideas about that which I hope are useful in making these concepts clear.
In Martial Arts when we say “Inner” it can pertain directly to how you feel emotionally or some physical sensation. So this sort of introverted self considering aspect can lead to Egotism and Fantasy. You can get lost in your imagination of what you feel. If the inner feelings can be compared and contrasted with the outer environment in some sort of systematic way then the Inner Path can be very useful. This way you don’t just fall for anything, mob psychology etc. So this kind of Inner Considering or Inner Sensation can be useful for protecting your physically and psychologically. Some people once they understand how Inner Feelings, Emotions and similar sensations are formed become very expert at the psychological manipulation of others. Then you have something like MK Ultra and various techniques which have been called Psy-ops.
If Inner Feelings actually consider other people and their unique level of development in their time frame and decisions are made to assist that person in their release of power potentials based on their “free will” or choosing then that is another function of the “Inner” or “Internal” aspect of a person; that is the ability to understand or assist others. St. Frances has been quoted as saying “Preach the Gospel always and sometimes even use words”. So sometimes it is best in many conditions and situations to not intervene or suggest. But your presence can speak. So this too can be called “Inner” or “Internal”. Sufi schools mention how the presence of another person can steer a conversation even if that person says nothing.
In the Chinese Language “Inner” or “Nei” means interior. In the house is “Nei bien” or literally “Inner Side”. The term can pertain to domestic, in country or in terms of martial arts something handed down within a family or within a nation or culture. This term came to be used in China in the 1940s by Sun Lu-tang and some of the other more literate martial arts people. Since Ba-gua, Tai Chi, Hsing-I all predate this period the term is not part of their origin. However it points to the fact these arts are Chinese products. Spoken tradition links them to the Wu-tang mountains where it is said Chang San-feng invented Tai Chi chuan.
The term “Internal” was used as a point of contrast with arts created outside of China, namely Shaolin Gung-fu which was understood to be developed from Indian-Buddhist sources and brought to the Shaolin Temple. While there is little to no physical evidence of this it is known that weapons in India had an influence on Chinese weaponry and with this influence there would be preferences for body movements of various types based on the weapons, horses, elephants, tigers, etc. War arts from Tibet, Burma and the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Afghanistan as well as North and South India all influenced China through it’s borders. The Silk Road and Spice Route brought through China a plethora of influences from Religion, Philosophy, Medicine as well as Arts of Metallurgy, textile, fabric and horsemanship . Martial Arts were and are interwoven with all these things. All of these influences could be called “External” or “Wai” that is, influences from outside the borders of China. In fact many of these influences were connected to Buddhism and Islam and so were linked to Shaolin. Influences within the borders of China (Internal Influences) were considered to be those things associated with Taoism and Confucianism. In light of this it is also important to realize that Taoism is in actuality, a kind of Chinese Shamanism less linked to mental abstraction and more linked to the animal kingdom,instinct and Earth.
Huang Po-nien in his ‘Dragon Shape Ba-gua Palm” text states the whole external – internal paradigm was wrong for the simple fact that Shaolin Martial Arts had meditation practices which made them “Internal”. So even in the 1940s these ideas were in debate. The stereotyped version that was coming forward at this time was the vision that Shaolin martial training was superficial and depended on muscular strength which was developed through hard conditioning protocols while the “Internal Arts” used more sophisticated breathing techniques and more flowing movements that were more ergonomic or used a higher level of efficiency. The fact of the matter is these arts overlap and the development of skills in either Internal or External Arts depends upon similar skill sets.
It is clearer for the modern practitioner of martial arts to see Chinese Martial Arts as a body of knowledge consisting of various specializations of techniques and /or conditionings and forms. These specializations of skill and conditioning branch into Hsing-I, Ba-gua, Tai chi and the roughly 400 forms of Shaolin. It may be that Shaolin Gung-fu at one time actually contained all of these arts as it was a sort of pivot location point for practitioners to meet. No Chinese martial art is actually exclusive of another. Bits of one can often be seen in another. Though teachers often stress the uniqueness of each. Teachers are interested in students perfecting a single teaching, not amassing a collection of forms. Because of this many teachers in the present and the past have not promoted exploration of different martial arts. The American contribution, the American attitude to learning to martial arts is distinct here. It encourages the exploration and comparison of methods. In light of the fact that “Styles” or Methods- rather than being mutually exclusive – actually serve different purposes it is more useful to see where these specialization are helpful – helpful for self-defense, health- to enhance human potentials- and then how that can be connected to an integrated psychology. In this way evolving martial arts practitioners are not trapped by ambiguous connotative terms like “Internal” and “External” which have political as well as psychological overtones. In our present Culture of Distraction it is more import to be clear headed and know why we train a specific technique, for whom and with what agendas. It is useful to consider the catalogue of human motivations. This catalogue is the book which is yet to be written. What are your objectives for learning a skill? why? what are the long term effects on you as a person? what are the societal effects? psychological effects? physical effect?