Begin with Nothing

Do you know how Tai Chi is configured?

If you know the answer then good for you.

If not, then how do you approach the learning of your specific style of Tai Chi?

For example, our Tai Chi is configured to be like a sphere. It is as simple as that at the basic level of understanding.

Of course, we then go on to explain that in motion a sphere can rotate. It can also give way and flex when you press right at the center part of the sphere.

In fact, if the internal pressure of the sphere is strong enough a sudden push from you to the center can cause it to rebound back at you.

Does the above sound familiar to you?

If not, then you don’t know your Tai Chi theory and principles well enough and should go read the Tai Chi Classics.

If you do, then you would know what the above means and how it applies to your practice and application of the techniques of Tai Chi (I am trying to avoid mentioning fajing here).

Knowing the above, what does it mean for our practice of Tai Chi?

How do we go about being a sphere?

I mean talk of theory is one thing but how do you walk the talk?

Or is theory really all talk and has no bearing on our practice?

How do we jump into being a sphere? How does the notion of Wuji (無極) to Taiji (太極) comes in?

To me a good understanding of this helps me to practice Tai Chi in a much more precise and concise manner. It helps me to avoid the problem of waving hands here, there and all over the place without purpose (or limited purpose) and with a huge disconnect between practice and application.

From nothing to something. How do we get to nothing or are we already at nothing? How do we jump into something?

I have a simple way of looking at this. When you stand still right at the beginning of your form, you have nothing but not in a state of nothing. You have nothing in the sense that you do not have the principles of Tai Chi in you in that you are unable to manifest them much less have them as part of the natural you.

So you have to begin by finding the way to nothing, an empty vessel, before your can fill it with intent, to become something. This is the part of the form that I stress to students that they must practice but 99% of students never do. In this way they missed out on the most basic building block of the sphere.

Therefore, learn to be still at the beginning of the form (no, we are not doing zhanzhuang here) and use your mind to setup the structure inside your body. If you don’t have this first thing then the rest will not follow naturally. It is quite easy to spot those students who did not practice this very first part enough because their control of balance will be imprecise.

The Reality Bubble

I have begun to read The Reality Bubble. Great book. For those who are lazy to read watch this video.

But seriously, the book is a really good read and is thought provoking. For instance, it can help you to think about your Tai Chi practice along the following lines :-

1) What’s your Tai Chi reality bubble?

2) What are you blind to in your Tai Chi practice?

3) How realistic is a Tai Chi practice that revolves around fajing?

When I learned Tai Chi my teachers rarely talked about fajing much less demo it. My best teacher who is from the Grandmaster Wei Shuren lineage just said not to focus on fajing.

To him if the basics are in place fajing is but a by-result. So why are we obssesed with fajing? Is fajing the magic solution to winning in combat? What does other combat arts view the topic of fajing?

Last night, I received a request on my Twitter account asking for more Fajing / Qi power videos. In the year ahead I don’t think I will put much focus on fajing. And I certainly don’t do Qi power.

That’s right, in my Tai Chi we don’t do Hen-Ha sounds, we don’t do Qi breathing nor Qi circulation along Du-Ren Mai and what not. To me doing Tai Chi this way is missing the point and a major contribution to the sharp drop in the ability to use Tai Chi as a combat art.

Consider this – you square off against another Tai Chi practitioner. He rushes at you, makes contact with your arms and you start shoving each other. You managed to push him back.

Objective achieved. Well done, great fajing. But you have failed at using Tai Chi as a combat art.

Now consider an alternative scenario – its not another Tai Chi practitioner who rushes at you. Instead, it is an attacker of unknown background, perhaps someone you bumped into accidentally, took offense, shouted at you and now looks as if he is going to attack you. You get into your usual push hands posture.

Your adrenaline starts to pump. Your vision narrows. The opponent is also crouching, ready to pounce. Then he rushes at you and you do the same. You close the distance. Puts your hands out to make contact.

Before you have the chance to react the opponent’s arm darts in and out. You thought you saw a glint. Then you feel a sharp pain. You stop.

Horrors! Your opponent is not attacking you with his hands, not pushing you, not trying to fajing you. Instead, he has a knife and you standing squarely facing him in your usual push hands stance just made it easier for him to stab you.

You changed strategy quickly, or at least try to cause old habits die hard. You try to grab his knife hand to disarm him. You even put your body weight behind your arms to be able to use your strength better and out of habit, to fajing the opponent.

This is what works for you usually when you do push hands practice inside your school and against other Tai Chi players you meet outside.

But today, today is not the day, today is the day you realized, too late that you are not prepared to deal with someone who is not going to fight you using push hands.

You managed to grab the wrist of the attacker’s arm that is holding the knife, pinning it against his body. Now is the moment you usually do fajing to send your opponent flying. You advanced and applied pressure to put the attacker off balance.

At that moment, when you thought you had your opponent, he quickly stepped back and pulled his pinned arm back. Your applied strength fell onto empty space, causing you to lose your balance momentarilty. You quickly recovered your balance to continue on.

But your opponent is not stupid. He quickly adjusts his position and puts forward his other non-knife arm to hold you back, fends off your attempts to attack and at the same time to control you.

Then his knife arm comes out bearing a deadly message. Swift like the tongue of a snake, the tip of his knife darts in and out, in and out, spitting its sharp, metallic venom to sear hot pain into your flesh.

We do not want to be caught in such a scenario, ever. A knife attack is dangerous, potentially deadly. But when we do not have a choice, when we cannot run then what do we do? How should we handle such an attack? Is our push hands training adequate to prepare us for this? We hope so. But wishing does not make it so.

Our reality bubble is thinking that our opponent will stand there long enough for us to use our fajing. How an attacker can react when you try to take their knife away is not something I made up. This response is what I learned in a Filipino art that is focused on using the blade. I have not even mentioned how fast a trained knife attacker can be………..

I don’t have all the answers but a diverse outlook helps me from developing a reality bubble that works against me should I ever have to use the techniques of the art.

Fajing does not teach you how to deal with an attacker. Instead, it is the techniques that do so. Fajing is but part of the process of using a technique. This is why focusing solely on fajing is short sighted. We have seen a number of Tai Chi “masters” in China fall to MMA challengers. We may not like it. We may not believe it. But this is the reality. OK, maybe those are not real masters but would you own master fare better?

On page 39 of The Reality Bubble there is a sentence that sums this up – “……while we’ve always thought that seeing is believing, the Church was insisting that we disbelieve what we could see with our own eyes.” – this was in the context of the heliocentrism theory controversy, a theory that the Church was against but ultimately even the holy authorities had to accept that fact is fact and overturned their opposition against it more than a hundred years later.

So our own question is do we dispute what we saw or do we review and revise our position in the light of what we actually saw. This is how reading a book such as The Reality Bubble can help us to improve our own practice by moving it forward and not get caught in dogma, arguments for tradition and what not, things that goes against what we see with our own eyes.

Year 2020 is 20/20

In less than 3 hours we will pass into the year 2020.

The numerals 2020 reminds me of the saying that hindsight is 20/20. This basically means that its easy to know the right thing to do after it has happened.

This is one reason why we learn from teachers because they have been there before us and we can benefit from their hindsight. If we know better than a teacher then we should not be learning from him because then it becomes learning in an echo chamber. I don’t know about you but I rather hear a different point of view than a point of view that confirms my biased view because of the possibility that my view is off-the-mark or worse still wrong <gasp!!!>.

Learning Tai Chi is not easy. For some it can be a frustrating journey because nothing is as what it seems. However, this is not really true.

Many things in Tai Chi are quite straight forward. The complexity comes about because of the many layers of principles. If you try to learn all at once they seem daunting. If you take one layer of learning at a time it is actually not difficult.

First you learn what it is then you practice the hell out of it. With familiarity you can then work on refining the movement, deepening your mastery. Then you add on the next layer and find that <gasp!!!> when you thought you are right, you are still wrong in many ways. So you do it all over again. For some they give up at this stage. They just can’t stand not mastering it now, today.

My teacher said the objective is to practice daily. This is what I do. Practice. Not master. Practice.

Sometimes it takes days, sometimes months and sometimes years but if you keep working on something, no matter how trivial you may gain insights you missed in the first place or things so obvious you wonder why you did not see them earlier.

Now you know why hindsight is 20/20. In Chinese we say that if you can know so easily you would be a fairy. You can’t know everything and you should not expect to. However, with practice and (this is important) keeping an open mind you will gain more and more insights that elevates your skill level.

Mastery is not the end of the journey. My teacher said that the end of each journey is the beginning of the next journey.

For example, once I have mastered how to use the 9 crooked pearls to fajing I moved on to fajing without using the 9 crooked pearls. By giving up one way I gained not one but a few more ways to fajing. Now I have even moved on to a more simplified way to fajing, so simple that any beginner can do it, and master it if they can put in a few weeks (that’s right weeks, not years) of practice.

It is human to want to hang on to something. Its comforting and we all hate changes. But if you are not prepared to let it go you will never move on. You will not develop. You will not empty out the space for new knowledge to enter. The refinement of skill is not by accumulation but by decumulation much like the way you sharpen a pencil by whittling away the excess wood.

Learn. Remember. Master. Let it go. Repeat. That’s how you become better.

Never assume you are right. You could be wrong. Your teacher could be wrong. Do not be afraid to slay sacred cows nor kill Buddha.

I have a student who just can’t seem to get how to practice the long form. Now that’s a problem because I teach by using forms. I explained in many ways to convince him why he should not give up the learning of forms. He was adamant that he was not going to practice form any more.

There are two ways I could move from here. Stop teaching him because that’s not how I teach. Its my way or no way.

Or treat it as a challenge. How to teach Tai Chi without teaching form.

Fortunately, I have an example to fall back on. Grandmaster Nip’s Pok Khek is taught using short movement drills. Movement plus movement or drill plus drill basically is how a form is constructed, except there are a few more things in a form.

Is teaching Tai Chi using short drills the best way to move forward for this student? It is the beginning of an interesting experiment. Time will tell.

Happy New Year 2020!

Crash Course Salient Points

Two cold mornings. Two early mornings. But then the early bird catches the worm.

Enter Alex from Australia who is here for a quick crash course in Tai Chi. I had planned to teach him Beginning Posture, Grasp Sparrow’s Tail and Single.

After the first lesson we had barely started on Grasp Sparrow’s Tail. OK, revised plan to teaching Beginning Posture and Grasp Sparrow’s Tail.

Learning just how to wave the hands in the air can take some effort. However, learning the principles, the details of how to control and move the body accurately takes tremendous effort because it then is not a just a matter of monkey see, monkey do but monkey must use brain power to remember and perform to a script and tune.

Thus, for the serious student who wants to pierce the veil of secrecy it is better to go for quality rather than quantity. The reason is the foundation skills apply throughout the form, application of techniques and push hands.

To help jog the memory we shot a quick video summarizing the salients point when practicing Beginning Posture and Grasp Sparrow’s Tail.

The emphasis is to remember the step-by-step process so that practicing is not about going through the movements but to train the mind to control the body to move in a manner that allows one to have dynamic balance, connect the body throughout and to the ground, configure the body structure for application of techniques and be fajing-ready.

For the beginner the emphasis for the first layer of skill acquirement is to perform each and every movement in compliance to principles, articulate the biomechanics clearly and execute each movement to their natural conclusion before attempting to execute them in a seamless and flowing manner.

In this way the learner is always sure of what he is doing. In this manner he knows what is the standard of performance to strive for. He will also know when his execution is off because then the key parameters will not be complied to. For example, when the placement of the arm is not optimized then one ends up resisting with strength, resulting in inability to neutralize and fajing effortlessly.

At the end Alex asked the one question I had expected him to ask early; that tiny obsession everyone has – fajing.

Fajing today is no longer a big mystery except to those who don’t know anything about biomechanics. In fact, the method to fajing is already built into the movements of Tai Chi. As long as one diligently practices them the ability to fajing effortless will come in time.

For illustraion I used the movement of Press to demonstrate that anyone can learn how to fajing in as little as 5 minutes. That’s right 5 minutes! Of course, I could slap on a lot of distracting and irrelevant stuff like how one must have qigong, knowledge of meridians and so on, and yeah, maybe need to baisi too.

But I’m on the wrong side of 50, every day a step closer to the end and I ain’t wasting no more time perpetuating the BS that is hampering the progress of Tai Chi.

Press provides a clean and clear cut example of the principles of classical mechanics in play. Follow the steps, setup the technique, then at the very last step is the fajing part. All it takes is one simple instruction here and you can send a person flying, maybe not as strongly at first but practice it a few more times and its not impossible to do so.

Its just a matter of put in place the conditions and pulling the power trigger and everything is ready. Then you see clearly the power that comes from the use of acceleration and momentum. Its practically effortless when you do it right and getting it right is not difficult either.

Yeah, I think the effortless part makes an unbeliever of us for no one wants to believe that its actually easy to fajing. Most people love it that its difficult to perform, difficult to attain and filled with mystery. That’s the myth of fajing. The reality is fajing is physics in application.

Right Question, Right Answer

In my opinion a lot of Tai Chi students ask the wrong question. When you ask the wrong question you get the wrong answer and you end up getting nowhere.

The problem is that few teachers teach you how to learn, how to analyze the issues and ask the right question.

The typical student comes in with his head of full of internal this, internal that, full of assumptions, presumptions, basically GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) information. When this is the case the prior knowledge taints and stunts the learning ability.

Basically, you can’t learn until you open your mind to possibilities. If what you know is valid why are you not making progress? What is it you do not know that you do not know?

Existing information can cause you to ask the wrong question. Careful analysis of the issue can lead you towards asking the right question. When a student asks about fajing I say that’s the wrong question. Why?

Its easy to do fajing against empty air. Try it against a moving, resisting opponent and right away a lot of issues are thrown up. When you confront these issues then you will begin to understand what you are missing out, why your learning should never start from trying to learn fajing, why fajing is but one component of learning.

Have you seen how people try to fajing by winding up their body and then releasing the power by shaking and jerking violently? Looks impressive, right?

Now, have you ever seen any of these practitioners replicate the same fajing in sparring? How about we make it simpler, during push hands against even a mildly resisting opponent? Why?

So the right question is not how to fajing only but how to fajing against a resisting opponent. How you move your body changes when your opponent is resisting you. Shall I add on the variable that your opponent is also trying to hit you back? This will complicate matter but its part and parcel of a free exchange.

You want to fajing a resisting opponent. He is going to resist you, try to take away the opportunities for you to hit him, while he is trying to hit you back. In this scenario there is no picture perfect conditions allowing you to wind up, pause to breath in, look fierce, and then release your power. Try doing that and you are likely to eat a punch.

So now you have to find a way to hit the opponent fast, hit him before he hits you. But if you are slow to deliver the strike then you have two options – hit faster or find a way to allow you to hit at your existing speed.

Hitting faster is easy except if you are older you might still not be able to match the speed of a younger opponent.

Using your natural speed is a better longer term solution but it calls for you to master certain skills. This is where you have to analyse what are the issues involved in using your existing speed and then directing your efforts towards mastering these factors.

Fortunately for all of us non geniuses the traditional arts have the answers. We just have to find the right person (or persons) to direct us, lead us, explain to us what the right direction is.

For example, when we play push hands often we have a split second to issue power. But if you spiral your body you end up telegraphing. In this scenario being internal is to your disadvantage.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We have to find a way to move quickly without telegraphing yet deliver power. The issue becomes how not to telegraph a strike, how to move quickly and how to deliver power. All three factors must work together and not nullify each other else you will be back to square one.

Some of my students are strong and fast but they have a tendency to telegraph their power generation process. No matter how fast they move I always seem to beat them to the punch.

I can do it because the long years of doing form training has taught me the value of being empty, of being efficient in movement, of eliminating excess and deficiency, finding out how to move just right to fulfill the objective of “opponent moves first, I arrive first”.

In this way I don’t have to be faster. However, when I need to move then I need to move swiftly and efficiently to where I need to be. This requires me to feel carefully what is happening, to interpret the movement data correctly by drawing on the database of movements cultivated from forms training, such that I know intuitively what the right response will be.

This is why forms training is important. To build a database of knowledge of how the body, your body, moves. This is because you are the one constant in the changing landscape of combat. If you do not know yourself then you will always lose.

At the end of it, the learning is straightforward. It is our greed to want to fajing that caused us to box ourselves into a learning corner, obstructing other learning topics. Ultimately, we pay the price of our enforced learning blindness.

Tiger, Tiger

Tiger, tiger,
Hungry as can be.

From the mountain
descend the tigers.

Out of the forest,
into a village.

See man,
see food.

Tiger, tiger,
Hungry soon no more.

Long unappreciated was the training sequence taught by Master Leong. Lying around in my mind, dormant, like a sleeping tiger.

The tiger soon awakened as I understand better over time the significance of the training sequence. As I would tell my students you have to find the application to understand what you are doing.

For you see, a form is words without music. Find the music and the words come alive. So find the application and you will understand better what you are looking at.

In China, a tiger is a fierce creature, residing in forest, in mountain, rarely venturing out of its comfort zone. Unless there is a shortage of food and hunger can drive a tiger to emerge from the forest to seek food in any form it can find.

A hungry tiger is a desperate tiger. A few hungry tigers are even more frightening. Perhaps there is such a thing as animal mob mentality or they just hunt in a pack.

Perhaps this was what Grandmaster Nip Chee Fei had in mind when he created this training sequence to encapsulate the essential elements of this one technique. This one simple looking technique which when applied vigorously resemble a pack of tigers throwing themselves at the prey relentlessly, one after another, after another.

A fitting image because when the 5 Tigers Descending Mountain sequence is used this is exactly what it would feel like, look like to an onlooker. A pounce, a rush, the unceasing attack, just like a hungry tiger hunting, seizing and subduing its prey.

Fly on Wall

I wish I was that fly on the wall.

Or maybe there was no fly at all.

A few years back, how long(?), I have forgotten, a student touched hands with a friend and videod it.

Before the event I gave him some advice on what he could try. However, as the video showed he practically couldn’t carry out any of what I suggested.

Cut to 2019. He had another encounter. More time passed since then. Wiser, more prepared to listen to my advice not to over focus on power. And I made him do some simple techniques.

Actually, those weren’t simple techniques. They are part of our 5 Tigers expression of techniques transmitted by Master Leong. I just taught them in a simpler, accessible manner so that they are easier to pick up.

He said, he claimed he had a much easier going this time around. I was tempted to say, yes, but where is the video evidence.

OK, maybe he didn’t made any. It would have been nice to see if he actually did what he said. Not so much as to cast doubt but to see how well he did it, and to spot room for improvement.

No matter. I showed him where he could improve further. The techniques may be external but underneath are the principles culled from what I learned in Dong style Tai Chi and the style of Grandmaster Wei Shuren.

Yeah, he had to bring up the power thing again. My point again – power is useless without the means of delivering it. So the technique matters. Speed matters. Then when all are in place deliver the power.

Power. Forget internal, forget external. Go with what works in that split second that you have to issue it. Don’t do anything fanciful. Quick, just do it.

How? Use simple, proven biomechanics that is backed by principles of our Tai Chi approach. The method looks external but feels internal. Few tweaks here and there to get the power out in a penetrating and strong manner.

When the time comes I will introduce him to a more focused method of training the power. Just appetizer for now, something to get started. Small bites.