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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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
Beforehand.

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.

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Student Notes-Stop Thinking

Quick, what’s the solution to this? I asked my student when his arm was about to get caught in my trap.

He blustered and he flustered but he did not know what to do. So what was the problem here?

Have you seen how Tai Chi students look very competent when they do drills but when it comes to playing push hands freely with unscripted attacks they suddenly do not know how to react and basically tense up each time they are being pressured?

Tai Chi is an art that teaches you to flow like water so if you do too many drills instead of being able to flow freely you will only be able to flow as long as the attack corresponds to a reaction you have drilled in.

However, the whole point of doing push hands is to teach you to be able to react freely using the movements of the form as a frame of reference to train you how to change. To focus on doing drills one too many is to retard your natural flowing response.

You don’t have to believe me. The next time you play push hands just grab one of your partner’s wrists suddenly. Apply power and pressure him. Observe what he does. Did he tense up before responding. The moment he tries to apply a counter don’t let him do so. Go with his movement and continue the pressure. Is he now desperately trying harder, flailing his arm about in a bid to get away?

You can also ask your training partner to try this on you. If your response to an unexpected attack is to momentary freeze before resisting with strength and countering then you are probably doing too many drills. Drills tend to be situational and there are only so many drills you can so to counter the numerous types of attacks that your training partner can think of.

On the other hands, push hands are not situational in that the whole idea is to use it to test different attacks. Yes, sometimes surprise your partner. When he expects a push, do a pull instead. If he thinks you are going for his head change suddenly and go for his leg. Learn to draw him out. Sometimes let him draw you out; go with his attack. Try not to resist and see how far you can get go before he catches you. You can also try to use back his own technique against him – sometimes I would let my student try to lock my wrist; if he fails to do so I would promptly use back the same technique against him.

This is how we Master Tai Chi Today. Do not expect the unexpected. You cannot expect what is random. Just go with it. Really. Its OK to get pushed. Don’t worry about losing face. Without investing in loss you will never learn the real you. Let Tai Chi push hands liberate you today.

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Want to learn Tai Chi in Singapore? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.

Flow in Tai Chi 2

If you still don’t understand how Flow fits into the objective of mastering Tai Chi as mentioned in my first post I have laid out some explanations below using some of the pointers covered in Steven Kotler’s talk at Google.

1) To enter into the Flow state you must attain a state of no-mind. This can be achieved by practicing the Tai Chi long form in an accurate manner. “Accurate manner” can mean different things to different people but to me it means to practice in a precise manner that allows me to actualize the principles of the Tai Chi Classics.

2) When you are in a Flow state your sense of awareness is hyped up. This is true for the practice of Tai Chi because without this sense of awareness you will not be able to convert your state of intent to issue power using the models described in Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s book on the 22-form into reality.

3) Practicing the Tai Chi form in a state of Flow will dilate time. This is why without entering the Flow even a 1-hour practice session will seem very long. But once you are in the Flow a 4-hour continuous session will pass by quickly.

I know it is not easy to put in a 4-hour practice session. For many even a 2-hour session is a luxury but without finding a way to do so you will not achieve the desired state. Even then, you need to put in many X-hour sessions before you hit the stride and tip over into a state of Flow. In the meantime you will have to battle impatience, boredom, etc in your uphill climb to master Tai Chi.

4) Repetition, tons and tons of it, is important to get to the state to enter the Flow. As you practice your actions will become more refined, seamless, controlled; at this point you will start to notice certain patterns that once they make sense will trigger off exponential growth.

Even though I could write and describe what these patterns are reading about them won’t help you to master Tai Chi. You need to physically feel them.

5) When you learn Tai Chi using the tools of intention your brain will be swamped with information; many times, this is too much even for practitioners with doctorate degrees much less the ordinary Joe.

It will not get easier. The information will keep adding up. However, if you keep up with your practice the chunks of information will become clearer and you will no longer struggle mentally.

After a certain time the information will become part of you. You will use lesser and lesser effort to practice; no longer having to deal with the huge chunks of information not because they are no longer relevant or there but because your familiarity has reduced the information to smaller bite size.

At this stage you no longer have to do for example three movements to actualize a principle, you can merge the three movements into one movement. Your movements will take on flavors and characteristics that define the style you are learning.

6) When you can trigger off the principles using less intention this is when you begin to achieve the high level principle of “wu wo, wu wei” or what can be termed as the disappearance of self consciousness.

When you arrive here practice will feel pleasurable; your movements will flow effortlessly like a hot knife cutting through butter, your reaction will be swift, automated and magical recalling what Grandmaster Wei wrote about the mysterious manifesting itself. It is not magic but it is happening in a manner than does not seem possible to a normal level practitioner. When you understanding the principles it will be simply un-magic.

7) To enter the state of flow requires you to change. But as pointed out by Steven Kotler’s 7 out of 8 persons will not change their old habits even if they need to change due to a life threatening health problem.

If your life is threatened and you will not change what are the chances of you being willing to change your habits in order to master Tai Chi? Now you know why so few practitioners actually master Tai Chi.

8) To master Tai Chi through Flow we must be willing to fail time and again. However, we must first know the why and how of our failing.

I know it is difficult to separate the emotional part of ourselves from the intellectual side when learning Tai Chi. Without doing so we cannot accept criticism from others even when its evident that it is valid.Criticisms when its constructive is vital to our improvement.

Some parts of our Tai Chi journey will be difficult to go through, yet other parts will seem impossible. However, we should not despair because the art can be mastered. When in doubt go back to the fundamentals. Starting over is OK. Do it as many times as you need to until you get it. This is why my master said that Tai Chi is easy to learn but difficult to master.

10) Finally, you need to play the same Tai Chi form over and over again until you recognize what it is trying to tell you. When you reach this tipping point that’s when you start to achieve Flow.

After experiencing Flow you will probably lose it. If you keep at it you will find the Flow again. And you will lose it yet again. Again and again. Until one day when you find a way to instantly call it up when needed. If you cannot do so then your Tai Chi skills will be useless in an emergency situation.

Well, that’s it from me. Time to go and prepare for a Tai Chi lesson.

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Want to learn Tai Chi in Singapore? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.

Intention Exercise 4 – Control of Balance

INTRODUCTION

This is a continuation of the following :-

i) Exercise 1 – Optimizing Sung with Intention

ii) Exercise 2 – Settling the Body

iii) Exercise 3 – Substantial-Insubstantial

We continue our study of the above by examining the usefulness of substantial – insubstantial in the control of our balance.

PRELIMINARY

We continue to stand upright with both feet together whilst mentally separating our body into a substantial half and an insubstantial half.

INTENTION-IMAGERY EXERCISE

1. Imagine there is a stone pillar on your right hand side.

2. Use your intention to command your body to gentle and subtly lean onto it.

pillar3. Use the pillar to help you adjust your balance until it is entirely on your right foot. Your left foot should feel very light.

CONCLUSION

In the internal styles of Chinese martial arts the control of balance is very important. In order to have a firm grasp of balance manipulation the study of the use of single leg balance is essential. So if you want to Master Tai Chi Today do not ignore this exercise.

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Want to learn Tai Chi in Singapore? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.

Intention Exercise 3 – Substantial-Insubstantial

INTRODUCTION

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, writing in Creativity, Inc.  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

The previous two Intention Exercises paved the way for the following attainment :-

i) Intention Exercise 1 – how the use of intention can relax the body internally

ii) Intention Exercise 2 – how the use of a mental weighted ball can still the body

In this post we continue expanding on our learning of intention principles by examining how we can use intention to render the body into substantial and insubstantial parts.

Again, the use of intention is paramount. You have to be clear on the use of intention. Otherwise, you will feel stress in your body when you begin to step. If you use intention properly your body will feel light and effortless; yet when your training partner applies pressure on you he will feel as if you are a mountain. All this simply from thinking it.

Simple yet powerful, and so easily abused in the wrong hands. This is the reason why this aspect of Yang style Tai Chi training has been kept hidden from the public’s eyes for a long time and only first introduced into the open with the publication of the book on the Yang family Old Six Routines form by Grandmaster Wang Yongquan.

PRELIMINARY

We are still standing upright with both feet together.

INTENTION-IMAGERY EXERCISE

1. Mentally divide your body into two halves.

substantial

2. Imagine that the left side of the body is being hollowed out and its mass given to the right side. Thus, the right side becomes substantially heavier and the left side becomes insubstantial.

3. When you feel your body becoming heavier on the right, yet the entire body remains relaxed you should feel something. That something will enable you to do the next Intention Exercise 4.

CONCLUSION

Want to know what that feeling is? Send me feedback and I will tell you what it is. Feedback is to let me know that you are a serious student of Tai Chi because only those who are super serious, who have been looking around will know the value of these Intention Exercises because they are essential if you want to Master Tai Chi Today.

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Want to learn Tai Chi? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.

Intention Exercise 1 – A Feedback

Anyone tried my Intention Exercise 1 in this post?

Anyway, one person, X, did and below are some extracted comments :-

The first time, I did not even visualize the torch light.  I just worked with the 5 zones demarcation, and otherwise tried to relax using what I would call my normal approach.  I got a new feeling right away!  It was odd but not unpleasant; more the opposite.  The word I eventually came up with was “dissipating”.  Now why should it feel good to have my head dissipate?  But it did.

Oh yeah, by this time I had remembered to try shining the torch.  And I got another new feeling!  This one was more pronounced and also a little easier to describe.  I could feel the torch beam hitting my face.  And I felt something like pressure.  But it was dispersed rather than focused and in searching for a description I decided I was feeling “energizing pressure”.

Which is funny because what the heck is energizing pressure?  It doesn’t exist, I can’t think of any ready examples offhand.  Except maybe a massage?  I dunno — all I can say is that I felt a strong yet gentle, and steady energizing pressure from the torch shining.  Nothing like a massage, certainly.  I felt the dissipation more distinctly and yet the “pressure” continued, it was a weird steady state feeling.

Just now I find myself thinking “What if I really was feeling pressure and I was dispersing it; that would fit into the Zenmindsword taiji”.  But it wasn’t like that; the torch was dispersing me with pressure, and it was automatic, I was doing absolutely nothing consciously except trying to maintain the Intention as described in the instructions.  There was no ‘activity” on my part except for maintaining the shining torch.  My body feeling responded immediately; and continued to do so.

However, as someone who’s been working on this kind of stuff for years and having had sporadic successes here and there, I know what I did and I know what I felt.  No one told me what to feel…

If you have tried the exercise and have some experience to share please post in the Comments at the end of this post. Want to Master Tai Chi Today? Be open minded and adventurous to try things that are beyond your comfort zone. You might be surprised at what you come across.

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Want to learn Tai Chi? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.