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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Learning Details 2

Continuing from the previous post here.

To train heavy arms using this specific posture, White Crane Spreads Wings, from the form we need to pay some attention to basic details as explained below :-

This video only captures some of the explanation. The rest weren’t taped.

However, this should give you an idea of how our Tai Chi is taught, the level of details given even at a very basic level.

In this way, students don’t have to guess as to how to practice. They just have to listen, practice, get corrections and practice more to master the art.

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Learning Details

A Tai Chi form can be a wonderful toolbox from which you can learn all sorts of stuff.

In our Tai Chi learning we can use White Crane Spreads Wings to train soft, heavy hands. An example of how to do this is shown by my student :-

What he is doing here is to borrow the transition right arm movement when we change from White Crane Spreads Wings to Brush Knee, Twist Step to train how to relax the arm and move it diagonally across his body using the 6-harmonies principle in tandem with the 5-Count mechanism that is covered in the eBook TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan form.

However, his movement is not precise enough so the power is not expressed at the optimal level. You can tell this from the sound of his palm striking his body. Before this he also tried hitting a solid post to check his power as can be seen below :-

Below is my demonstration of how to do it correctly :-

The correct application of the principles will allow you to have heavy, relaxed arms – you can hear the sound of light striking on the post below :-

The videos here do not explain how to do this arm movement to obtain this result. So how do you do it?

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Feel Rain, Open Umbrella

I am offering a training Koan this morning. It is “feel rain, open umbrella”.

Of course, sometimes even if we feel the rain we won’t open our umbrella because :-

a) We don’t have an umbrella with us

b) The rain is too light for us to bother

 

“Feel rain, open umbrella” is the result of two experiences yesterday.

The first experience is of course being caught in the rain without an umbrella. This is not normal as I usually have an umbrella.

So with or without an umbrella I just had to react as best under the circumstances. In this case it was to pedal furiously to get to my destination faster though if it really poured heavily I could seek nearby shelter.

The second experience is discussing the use of the rowing exercise in Aikido with a student. You can see the rowing exercise in the video below.

 

The application we talked about is how the rowing exercise is used as a counter to an opponent grasping both your wrists. You can use the technique to pull the opponent forward off balance before pushing back using the back of your wrists. The video below illustrates this.

As you can see in the video the teacher was able to pull the student off balance before pushing him back. My point is as long as I am pushing without keeping proper balance then I can be easily pulled off balance too.

The question we explored is what happens if I keep my balance, just grasped my student’s wrists and just held on. He would then have a harder time pulling me off balance.

The answer is of course to somehow find a way to break my balance through movement. This is because most people tend to react when pulled or pushed and you can exploit their reaction against them.

It is not a big problem to deal with an untrained opponent. It is the trained person whom you have to worry about. In Tai Chi if I hold your wrists and you try to pull me I would let you pull me.

However, we still keep our balance and we let your pulling energy to tell us how to react. This is what I mean by “feel rain, open umbrella”.

Depending on the factors – how strong, which angle, which position, etc – given during the pulling or breaking of balance attempt is how we respond to it to nullify the attempt and counter the counter.

Of course, what if our wrists were grabbed? What could we do?

Using intent, we would apply a different method to induce the opponent to use strength without realizing it. Then exploiting his resistance we could then send him off balance.

At its root this is the same general principle as applied in Aikido!!! Except the process is different.

This is why though we find the same techniques in different styles such that we can say “same, same”. However, the way the process works can result in “same, but different”.

And that is the fun of learning and exploring different styles. Feel rain, open umbrella.

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Empty Emptiness 2

I know that I have gone some ways towards achieving the top 1% performance when Paul messaged me and wrote :-

But the ad lib video was fascinating because haha, all in all I didn’t like it.

I would be very surprised if Paul can see everything that I am showing here. I did ask him to take a look again but this time to keep in mind say Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 essential points as follows :-

1. Elevate crown, lift spirit (虛靈頂勁)

2. Swallow chest, expand back (含胸拔背)

3. Relax waist (鬆腰)

4. Differentiate substantial insubstantial (分虛實)

5. Sink shoulders, drop elbows (沈肩墜肘)

6. Use intent, not strength (用意不用力)

7. Upper lower body coordinate (上下相隨)

8. Internal external to coordinate (內外相合)

9. Connect continuously with no break (相連不斷)

10. Within movement seek stillness (動中求靜)

In performing the form most practitioners meet the requirements on different levels of conformance :-

1) Total conformance – Points (1), (2), (3)

2) Near total conformance – Points (4), (5), (7), (9)

3) Harder to conform – Points (6), (8), (10)

To most practitioners Item 3 can be more difficult to justify conformance so its not surprising that teachers in general like to think they can meet these three requirements when they do not. There are tests that can be used to check understanding and actual (as opposed to perceived) conformance.

If you are attempting to meet the requirements be careful not to force your body to do it as some parts may cause you to add extra stress to your joints such as the knee. For example, when trying to meet Point (4) it is common to see the leg on which the weight is on shaking especially when changing to the next technique.

This is the result of misunderstanding what this point means and also confirms that the practitioner is trying to force the performance using physical motions instead of applying the proper intent to get there.

If Point (4) is difficult to achieve then Points (10) would be near impossible because it requires good control of one’s intent to govern the body’s movement. When you can achieve this then you will approach a level of simplicity that conceals the complexity within.

Its like how a tsunami is like a ripple out at sea but when it reaches the shore it becomes devastating. Similarly, when playing the form we should be like the tsunami gently rippling but when fajing become like the tsunami hitting the shore.

It is for this reason that Tai Chi is an exercise for the mind as much as for the body. Attaining the 10 essential points in your performance of the form is not impossible as long as you follow a proper plan for learning how to get there.

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Important Thing

The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.
Shunryu Suzuki

Do you know what is the most important to learn to begin your Tai Chi learning?

Most masters and practitioners will tell you “sung“.

However, I will tell you “yi” i.e. intent.

How do you know who to believe, who to follow?

Take a second out and ask yourself, ask your fellow practitioner, ask your master what exactly is “sung“. How does only achieve it? To say that to “sung” one must relax is basically like chasing one’s tail in that you can forever not catch up to your tail.

When this is the case you can practice Tai Chi for the next 20 years, read the Tai Chi Classics and still “catch no ball” (that’s Singaporean speak for not knowing what the hell is going on). However, if you approach the learning of Tai Chi from the perspective of “yi” then you will be able to read the Classics and understand what they mean.

You will realize that the written words are not tautology but words recording the experience of master practitioners, words that so-called masters today have a problem making sense of in their entirety except for smattering of explanation here and there.

For example, when you read this section from the writings of Chang San Feng what do you understand by it?

Insubstantial and substantial
should be clearly differentiated.
At any place where there is insubstantiality,
there must be substantiality;
Every place has both insubstantiality and substantiality.

Since this is a general principle it should apply to each and every posture that you perform in the Tai Chi form (we will ignore the application for now). So how do you ensure that this principle is clearly and properly practiced in say Beginning Posture where the body’s weight is distributed 50:50? How do you achieve “sung” at the same time as you implement insubstantial and substantial in your posture and movements?

Easy question? Or stumped?

Here is another set of principles on insubstantial and substantial, this time from the writings of Wu Yuxiang, the founder of Wu (Hao) style Tai Chi :-

The yi and qi must interchange agilely,
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

How do you put this in play using “sung” approach? I can tell you how we do it using “yi” approach because its pretty straightforward. It is something we learn to do from the first lesson though beginners would probably still not really understand the importance then. It is a topic we constantly revisit and it would make even more sense when doing push hands.

So if you want to improve your Tai Chi follow the advice of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki and find out what is the most important thing in the learning and mastery of Tai Chi Chuan.

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Fajing Intent

Fajing in Tai Chi Chuan can be taught as a mechanical process. However, this would make it no different from fajing in other styles.

Fajing as a manifestation of intent is more difficult to master but not to teach. By following a simply checklist of three intent anyone can do it, even someone who has learned it on the first lesson. The only caveat is that a beginner would have a problem holding on to the skill or applying it freely.

Broadly speaking, the three intent are :-

i) Neutralize

ii) Angle

iii) Movement

When you read the three words you might have an inkling of the process and think its the same as what you do. It might be and it might not be. Without a comparison we can’t say for sure.

Beginners are introduced to the three intent when they learn how the movements of the form are used. It is not so much for the purpose of making our Tai Chi special but for illustrating how the use of specific principles can optimize one’s response by making it work more efficiently.

A reason why beginners have a problem hanging on to what they learn or to use it freely is because they have not mastered the requisite habits of awareness and mindfulness. These habits are necessary for them to control their body’s response when placed under pressure.

In particular, the natural instinct to fight back, to resist mindlessly must be placed under control, allowing them to react properly. We use the form to teach our mind to control our body.

After sufficient control is gained, the student will find it easier to begin the learning of fajing in an internal manner. At this point the teacher will work with the student to teach him how to use his intent to respond to an attack.

This will teach him to receive the pressure properly so that it can be neutralized with lesser effort and in the next instant borrow and return the power. A student will work at it from various levels of familiarity until he can begin to apply it more freely.

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