Art of Good Learning 6 – Cargo Cults

Chapter 44 Cargo Cults – Don’t Build Planes out of Straw is so good I have to write about it. Here are some passages that I found to be true about a lot of Tai Chi groups :-

Richard Feynman described cargo cults in one of his talks: “In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people…….. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work……… Feynman was pillorying a tendency that was encroaching even into the sciences: the adherence to form without a real understanding of content.

Further along :-

You might be laughing at cargo cults, but they’re astonishingly widespread. Even in the world of finance. How many businesses kit out their offices in imitation of Google – complete with slides, massage rooms, and free food – in the hope of attracting brilliant employees? How many ambitious entrepreneurs attend meetings with investors clad in hoodies, hoping to become the next Mark Zuckerberg?

In the last paragraph a warning :-

Stay away from any type of cargo cult. And be on your guard: the substanceless imitation of form is more common than we think. See it for what it is, and banish it from your life; otherwise it will waste your time and narrow your perspective. Give a wide berth to people and organizations that have fallen for cargo cults………… And, above all, don’t mimic the behaviour of successful people without truly understanding what made them successful in the first place.


So now you know a major reason why so many practitioners fail to master Tai Chi – it is because they follow blindly, listen blindly, worship blindly and practice blindly. I know that loyalty is good but ultimately you are the one to pay for blind loyalty if you are not careful.

Tai Chi is an art that requires you to think and practice. Good practice means understand what you are practicing and practice to conform to the requirements. Do not be too quick to think you have gotten the requirements down – evaluate with a critical eye, listen to criticisms and be prepared to change. Then you stand a good chance of succeeding.

I just told a student to print out Yang Chengfu’s 10 Important Points and refer to them every time he practices. I brought this up because I saw how his arms were moving when he did the kicks in the 108 form. I asked him how he was conforming to the requirements of keeping the elbows down if he was whipping up his hands the way he did which momentarily caused his elbows to go up.

Well, we can always think what’s a split second violation. True, but it can easily turn into a runaway habit if you are not careful. And as it is, it is an uphill battle to keep those elbows down. If you want to master Tai Chi then try getting the requirements down fully, for starters within the form and later in push hands.

If he was playing push hands with another person at his level then this violation would seem minor. But when playing with me a small upturn of the elbow is an opening for me to go through.

So do not practice blindly. We are not in a cargo cult. We do not bow to photos of dead people and go through substanceless rituals. Sure, we respect dead masters not with superficial gestures that dishonor the art they handed down but by mastering it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s