The Gung of Hand Rod

The Hand Rod of the Tai Chi Ruler system is little seen and little known to the public. It is a different system of Tai Chi that is said to descend from a royal family in China.

Master Leong Lin Heng learned it from a master in Hong Kong and taught it as part of a Chi Kung routine. Below is a picture of Master Leong teaching Tai Chi Ruler in a park in Ipoh in the late 90s :-


As you can see in the picture above Tai Chi Ruler seems to be for old folks, another airy fairy, chi-gungy, exercise. However, Tai Chi Ruler is in fact a combat art.

Some of the things we learned seemed simple, like a one movement kinda Chi Kung exercise. Its martial application seemed absent. But don’t let the looks fool you. For example, take a look at this two men Hand Rod exercise as demonstrated by Master Leong’s grand teacher.


At first glance it looks like a cooperative push hands type of exercise using a tool. But then it doesn’t make sense. OK, maybe using a tool of a longer length can make you more sensitive. Maybe.

Or maybe its a tool to extend your awareness. I like this better. But no.

This is what I think is the real reason for training the Hand Rod (OK, so I cheated by using a broom here but a rod is a rod………. ) :-

There! Was that what you suspect the Hand Rod to be too?

Looking back at it now the method should have been obvious but only with the benefit of hindsight. I have long suspected this after reading this portion of the very first book I have of the Tai Chi Ruler system :-


However, as they say with time comes skill. So it is only with practice, reflection and insight that the secret purpose of the Hand Rod revealed itself.



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.


Empty Emptiness

I learned a new term today – Empty Emptiness.

Actually, I saw this term previously but did not pay attention to it. Today the time is ripe so I noticed it.

I didn’t set out to read about it. I just thought why not read it when I was organizing my files. The writer was talking about his learning of his family arts and mentioned about his father’s fond frequent recitation of a particular Buddhist sutra.

Empty emptiness is a paradox in that the sutra contains nothing yet has a lot of things. In a way this type of paradox is reminds me of the story of how Damo answered the Emperor of China when his majesty wanted to know about the spiritual merits he would get for advancing the course of Buddhism by building temples, copying sutras, etc.

When you learn Tai Chi initially you would look clumsy. Too many things out of place, not right. When you become more familiar then your movements look more coordinated, filled with energy.

At a more advanced level your movements look powerful and you can demonstrate fajing skills. To many this is what Tai Chi should be like. However, the concept of empty emptiness tells us that this is not so.

If anything Tai Chi at the level of conformance to the principles should be in compliance to empty emptiness in that it looks like there is nothing there to most viewers, except those in the know.

My teacher says that at the 1% level of attainment only true masters can see what we are doing. This is when we have internalized the skill such that movements look ordinary and unimpressive. At a certain stage even the form you play does not matter as much; you can apply the intention models from the 22-form into the normal Yang Chengfu long form. After all principle is just a principle.

So now you know a goal that you can work towards. Have fun finding the emptiness that is not empty.


Crazy About the Jing

Bang! Bang!

Bang! Bang! Bang!

More Bang! Bang!

I should not have shown my student how to do a penetrating punch on the shelter’s post. Now we are stuck here, in front of one of the metal posts supporting the shelter, our temporary striking dummy, learning how to align the body to hit hard.

The post is hard, unforgiving on the knuckles if you hit too hard. We are not trying to knock it down, just “tapping” and listening to the acoustics of what a proper punch sounded like as compared to the sound of a punch that pushed rather than exploded onto the target.

At the base level, a strong penetrating punch is a function of a properly, aligned, body getting the forces to converge on a singular target. It sounds easy but when I observed how my student punched some problems were obvious :-

a) The arm and body were not moving in-synch

b) The arm was rattling the wrong way, causing the force to be dispersed instead of concentrated

c) The fist was held wrongly; the curling motion when forming the fist just before striking was wrong

d) The arm-body positioning and alignment was wrong

e) Certain movements were excessive and not required, like this little flick of the wrist that I typically see Wing Chun practitioners do

In addition to the visual feedback, the sound of bones landing on the metal post helped to diagnose the impact that the punch was having. It was a good sounding board, giving good feedback as to whether the punching power was optimized.

Along the way, I pointed out why the Peng Quan that he had once learned isn’t correct. The mechanics were wrong, the principles were wrong, the optics were wrong, the sound was wrong.

When you get too many things wrong then the Peng Quan wouldn’t be the fabled technique that it was. I forgot if I mentioned the spear connection. I know I didn’t mention the Little Seven Star Fist in our Yang style Tai Chi Chuan that is a lot like Beng Quan.

We must have spent at least 20 minutes tapping the post. Fortunately, the folks upstairs didn’t complain. Whew………..


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.


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.


On Enlightenment & Tai Chi

My commentary on a poem on enlightenment by Layman P’ang (740-808) and its relation to the practice of Tai Chi. I am not an expert on Zen Buddhism but what is written here resonates with my experience in practicing the Tai Chi methods of Grandmaster Wei Shuren.

The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.
The present does not stay.
Don’t try to touch it.

Commentary – It is my experience in teaching students push hands that they are typically very fixated on the pressure I offer to them. I can explain, I can exhort but they are unable to let go of the pressure even when their position is giving way and they are being controlled.

Without letting go of the pressure they become fixated on the position they had before I applied pressure. This is what I feel the stanza “The past is already past. Don’t try to regain it.” means.

In push hands, the present becomes the past in the next second. Hence, if the student is unable to move on past the present to the future he will be stuck and he will lose his position. This is what the stanza “The present does not stay. Don’t try to touch it.” says to me.

From moment to moment.
The future has not come;
Don’t think about it

Commentary – In playing push hands with students I find that most of the time they don’t listen to the pressure input. Mostly they just react blindly. So in resisting without taking into consideration the pressure that is being applied on them they are trying to react to a future that has not come.

To improve in push hands, one must let the mind go, let the mind be like a mirror or a still pond. Then you will be able to actualize what the second section of this poem calls for and you will become enlightened in your push hands practice.

Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.
There are no commandments
To be kept;
There’s no filth to be cleansed.

Commentary – The fixated, the obsessed mind is the downfall of our position in push hands. We cannot leave things be. We have to resist. This is what the first two lines say to me.

The last three lines tells me to let go, stop resisting (not the same as collapsing) and let the pressure tells me what to do next. In letting go, we are not giving up. Students tend to think this is the case. It is not.

To let go is to be like water in flow. On encountering resistance flow anywhere except at the point of resistance. This is a major key in improving your ability to respond in push hands.

With empty mind really
Penetrated, the dharmas
Have no life.

Commentary – An empty mind is not a blank mind. It is merely a mind that has the ability to put aside the incessant chatter which is our nature, which obstructs our ability to see things as it is, to obstruct our ability to penetrate to the core of the problem.

The empty mind is an important requirement in achieving mastery in the practice of Tai Chi. The empty mind is not a mindless mind. Instead, the empty mind is a mind that flows like water, not stopping, not fixated. It is here, it is not here. It is there, it is not there. It is mindful, it is aware, not fixated, not stuck.

Only then can your intent call forth the force that penetrates through your opponent’s obstruction and resistance.The fourth section relates to the third and fourth of our four important core principles.

When you can be like this,
You’ve completed
The ultimate attainment.

Commentary – In our Tai Chi the fourth important key word is emptiness (). When you attained a state of emptiness you would have broken through and entered the gate of Tai Chi mastery.

This is not something to be contemplated. Instead, a lot of persistent, diligent and mindful correct practice is called for. Knowing more of what this means will not lead to mastery. Just keep faith with the practice and you will get there.