Zen of Tai Chi

May 29 is Vesak Day. This is the day we commemorate the enlightenment of Buddha.

Though our practice of Tai Chi does not require us to be religious or of a particular denomination, however, the words of Zen masters past can be useful to help us master the art. The words of Hui Neng, the 6th Patriarch is inspiring and applicable in this respect.

The story of how Hui Neng came to be the chosen one is well known. For those who do not know we can summarize in a nutshell that when the 5th Patriarch, Hung Jen, was deciding on a successor he held a poem contest to test his students’ understanding. He asked his best student, Shen Hsiu, to write his understanding. Shen Hsiu did this, writing that :-

The body is the tree of enlightenment
The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand;
Time after time polish it diligently,
So that no dust can collect.

身是菩提樹,
心如明鏡臺。
時時勤拂拭,
勿使惹塵埃。

However, the 5th Patriarch felt that Shen Hsiu’s poem did not demonstrate complete understanding. Shen was unable to come up with more when requested to due to his agitated mind when under pressure.

At that time the future 6th Patriach, Hui Neng, was an uneducated layman. He had come to the monastery on the suggestion of the person from whom he first heard a recital of the Diamond Sutra. Two days after Shen Hsiu’s poem was composed Hui Neng heard it recited by a bystander who read the poem written on a wall.

Hui Neng asked about the poem and was told about the poem contest. Hui Neng asked the bystander to write the following for him on the wall :-

Enlightenment is not a tree,
The bright mirror has no stand;
Originally there is not one thing—
What place could there be for dust?

菩提本無樹,
明鏡亦非臺。
本來無一物,
何處惹塵埃。

What came after read like something out of a political thriller. In short, the 5th Patriarch recognized Hui Neng as his successor and this was the beginning of the school of sudden enlightenment.

Today’s lesson on beginning push hands for one student has a simple objective – let the mind be free. A typical student learning push hands would want to resist, fight back because he thinks this is the right approach.

Consequently, he cannot flow, cannot react fast enough, unable to control space, distance, timing and he might as well not be learning push hands. So it is important to teach the mind to be ego-less, to harmonize, to accept pressure and make it your friend for in your training partner’s pressure lies the key to your reaction.

It is very much like a conversation. If you are asked about the weather you don’t answer by saying the food tastes good. Your opponent’s pressure is a question. How you react is your answer.

Back and forth, back and forth the physical conversation goes. Then you have meaningful push hands training; your reaction will be sharpened, your control of space, timing, distance, ability to respond with the right technique will improve.

When you can let yourself go, the techniques will happen by themselves. By not forcing a technique you end up with multitude of techniques. By not insisting on one way, you have so many more options to move.

Though I did not teach so many formal techniques, instead offering one or two as examples, my student could see the options to respond once his mind was allowed to be free. Soon he could even tell me the possible responses. In summary :-

Accept pressure and harmonize,
Then your intent can flow,
And you can respond like
Water encountering resistance

Happy Vesak Day! Enjoy the day off but don’t forget to train, always.

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