Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Training with Taijiquan Master Ben Lo

Below we have a guest post by Scott Meredith. Scott is a well known taijiquan teacher from the Bay area and has published several books on training methods. I recently posted an excerpt from one of his articles here.

Scott maintains both a website and blog. Please pay them a visit.

Scott is a student of the renown taijiquan master, Benjamin Lo; himself a senior student of the famous Cheng Man Ching (Zheng Manqing). 

Scott's article is about his training under Master Lo. Enjoy.


By Scott Meredith

You hear about kung fu killers living amongst us, non-descript, disguised as beggars or building maintenance guys, but I think you sense right away when you’re in the presence of a true master of the arts. At least I knew it immediately the moment Benjamin Lo walked out onto a Bethesda, Maryland YMCA parking lot at 7 AM one sunny Saturday decades ago. There was an intro speech by Robert W. Smith, but I had eyes only for Ben, standing modestly and self-contained to the side.

When Ben began teaching his first thing was “you have only one leg”. Without much preamble he demonstrated that by dropping into the Zheng Manqing Tai Chi pose “Snake Creeps Down” (蛇身下勢 in most styles). He dropped straight into that, with his back totally upright. But that wasn’t the demonstration of  “only one leg”. He then, while fully squatted, lightly raised up his forward, extended foot a few inches from the ground, with no more exertion, and no more distortion of his overall position, than you or I would put into crossing our legs while sipping coffee at a table in Starbucks.

The photo below isn’t exactly what it was (here he’s making a related point, in another pose) but it gives the essential flavor of the moment.

Remember that this was thirty-plus years ago. Nowadays we see a lot of bodyweight conditioning books and DVD’s, I don’t know what they’re called; maybe ‘Death Row Alpha Bad Boy Bulk Up’ or whatever - all kinds of para-military and convict-culture branded programs where the muscle-bound instructor will pop out what they call pistol squats or one-legged squats. And to them and their students, that’s no big deal, just an everyday calesthenic. So don’t think I’m trying to make a grandiose claim for physical attainment here. It wasn’t that, but it was a magic moment to me. For one thing, he did it so calmly, so easily. He stayed relaxed, he kept talking with an unvarying pace throughout, and he stood up on the same one leg as easily as he’d gone down. It was so quiet, gentle, totally unruffled. That’s what would differentiate it even today from the San Quentin Macho Muscle Madness type of current training programs.

I realize seeing that would not have the same effect on everyone. It’s a mystery why one person will glom on to teacher X while another swears by teacher Y. I don’t want to make any absolutist claims. I’m just explaining how I got drawn into working intensively under Ben for the following decades.

That, and more along those lines, was the morning session. It was devoted to form work (but in practice it was mainly exploring a few deep principles by means of only a handful of poses, rather than speeding through a whole fancy sequence). 

The afternoon session that day was held at a local Bethesda dance studio. Here the student crowd was much large, I would estimate 40 attendees.

Smith introduced Ben again very briefly and Ben immediately indicated that we were all to line up abreast against one long wall. Have you ever heard of those chess tournaments where the grandmaster plays 50 games at once, blindfolded? This had a little of that vibe. Ben started at one end and gave everybody a chance to play against him, do their very best to toss him back or down. There were some very big guys there too. In recent times, in my own extremely limited experience, I haven’t seen so many big-name teachers do this kind of relatively free work with every person present. Sometimes they’ll cherry-pick one guy, often their own student or the local host, for some demo freestyle work, more often they’ll just work patterns and drills. This was fixed step push hands, so it wasn’t ‘anything goes’ freestyle wrestling, or full sparring. But I was still impressed with his openness. Of course, this was the era before cell cams could instantly ‘out’ a teacher struggling with some big student the way they can now!

Anyway, I was well past the middle, towards the end so I got to watch as he worked down the wall. Every single person, at the instant they touched him anywhere, any way, was instantly blasted back without reserve, let, or hindrance and bounced bang off the slightly spongy wall.  Every single guy, big or small, it was as though they were all the same person. Ben didn’t say much, sometimes he’d ask somebody to try again, or say push me harder, try harder! But it was pretty methodical and mechanically efficient. 

At that time, I had a lot of background in Mantis, Northern Shaolin, Western boxing, Tae Kwan Do, and other stuff. The usual pedigree for any martial arts geek of the time, I’m not claiming any special depth. But mainly, I had done a lot of Tai Chi and push hands. A short period with Smith himself as a very young teen, then later I’d learned several Tai Chi form of hundreds of moves each, Tai Chi weapons, two man sets, all kinds of stuff including a lot of push hands experience, both patterns and free style, fixed and moving step. So, naturally, total idiot that I was (and still am) I figured well these guys just don’t have my serious background, but when Ben gets to me I’ll give him a run for his money!  Yeah right. Like I said, a total idiot. He got to me, I put out my arm, and just from his touching my arm - yes not even my body - BLAMMO I found myself bouncing off the wall. Just that touch. And I wasn't even qualified for a rematch in his eyes. As he moved crisply along to my neighbor, he very briefly looked back at me and said, “You’re stiff as a board, just relax.”

Probably he’s say the same today. I’m not claiming there’s anything inherently extraordinary in any of the above, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure anybody who’s done deep Tai Chi work would have something similar, or much more spectacular, to say about meeting up with their ‘real’ teacher. But that day formed my very subjective, very personal first impression of Ben.

I was hooked and moved to San Francisco not long after to pursue ‘full time’ training with him (every weekday evening, yes I did have a job!) The more I trained under his exacting physical specifications, the more non-physical (internal) energy I felt. That was weird because in every other quasi-athletic thing I’ve ever done, the instruction improves your physical performance but I began to experience things that went way beyond anything I’d ever felt, even beyond the bit of internal/qi stirring I had known from other Chinese training.  What I realized was that Ben’s extremely rigorous training method, which seemed so excruciatingly physical from the outside, or to a beginner, was a purely internal training protocol, designed to get us to understand without a lot of talk and philosophy that power comes from the legs. But he didn’t mean physical power or strength!

That is the hardest thing for people to get. They hear about Ben’s patented Torquemada-style training regimen, of standing in the true, absolute form of the ZMQ poses, five minutes of which standing, in any single pose is far more tortuous than a full hour in other forms of standard Zhan Zhuang, and they assume that if it was so physically arduous, physical endurance and strength must be the point of the training. Or maybe, at most, some mental correlate of those physical qualities, like learning to ‘tough it out’ phsychologically. But I began to feel in myself that this wasn’t at all his point.

I slowly began to feel his covert ‘point’ explicitly, whenever I stood correctly. His hidden teaching was that the internal power pervades the entire body from the feet and legs upward, just as the Classics say. That’s why you don’t need to use arm strength. Not that you become a powerless noodle, but that something else fills your upper body – arising from the feet and legs. ZMQ standing helps you develop that - it isn’t for Gold’s Gym sexy thighs. And this point is also what truly distinguishes Tai Chi from garden vareity Qi Gong methods, which tend to emphasize arm waving and twisting.  I felt this core teaching of Ben, in myself, for real. It was, in its odd way,  a totally non-physical conception and teaching, masked by the fact that visitors would tremble, faint, vomit, and generally need to sit down after just a few minutes sampling the rigor of Ben’s regular form class.

The weirdest thing was, Ben himself never explicitly taught or even acknowledged these energy effects, sensations, any of that. He did not deny anything, but he just kept insisting on his basic five training points, which appear “more or less” physical. But the energy harvest was totally blowing me away.  To this day, Ben does not discuss the kind of wild energy effects that I present in my books (though I have his blessing to have published them). His idea is that everything emerges naturally from the correct basic training framework of his five principles. That’s how it worked for me after all. And he feels that talking about wild energy experiences will just over-excite and distract people from soberly working the basics. I am, of course, very sympathetic to that view. He is my teacher after all!

So then why do I violate that deep wisdom so outrageously and flagrantly in my books? Good question. I just looked around at so much Tai Chi instruction of the present time, which, while not bad at all, never seemed to touch on what I know to be at least the beginning of the real inner potential of the art. Either they never mention it, or they talk about it as distant, abstract philosophy, and they make such a huge deal out of how many decades it will be before the student gets even a toehold with the real internal.

That’s ok, it’s not bad. But I thought, is there no room for somebody who simply tries to lay it out openly? There is a great quote from the classic internal writings (Xing Yi actually) where the guy phrased it really well, saying: The Dao is not far from people; it is people who distance themselves from the Dao by their actions. That line kept gnawing at me, I thought how sincerely, and with how much effort, people practice, shouldn’t they get at least a glimmer of one guy’s view of what’s possible? And as I said, Ben doesn’t mind it.

That now begs a new question though, what is possible, can any of this be useful in the real world? What is the overall point of it? This existential thing is a serious quandry for me. I talk a lot about what you’ll feel. But what is the use of that? People say Tai Chi is for “health”. You hear that a lot. But I feel health is a complex dynamic hairball of karma, genes, diet, emotions, and regular exercise. Tai Chi could be in the mix, but anyway you don’t need to pursue the bizarro experiences I have written about just to get a little better balance as a senior.

So what is the point? People talk about fighting and self defense, but there too I feel most of the talk is unrealistic. I’ve covered that elsewhere and a lot of people disagree with me. But I feel that of the people who are good at ‘fighting’ with Tai Chi, first, they don’t usually have an out-of-art fight record (a few do) and, second, they are mostly big, tough guys who would have been good fighters anyway no matter how they trained. And Ben often says that even Zhang Sanfeng, levitating in the sky, could be brought down by any average skeet shooter.

This is where I myself struggle to make a case for the energy–centric approach (almost arguing with myself!) I often say: art for art’s sake. I don’t know how to put it any better. Isn’t it intensely interesting to explore this incredible potential of feeling? Just from working the Zheng/Lo postures, using the Ben Lo principles, I began to feel, to a far greater degree than just the usual tingly palm stuff, the overwhelming presense of the INTERNAL POWER in its three main varieties: as wave, as stream, and as state, which can be experienced both during and outside of practice, while awake or asleep. It’s just so amazing to me that people don't talk more about this. Well,  many teachers have of course – I don’t at all mean to sound boastful like I discovered it or anything. In fact, my books bend over backwards to cherry-pick the most perfect and precise past evocations of this as an actual felt experience, which are semi-hidden, sprinkled all through the writings of the past masters. I have tried to cast all my re-treaded stuff in the light of that tradition.

What Ben did for me was (1) provided the training framework for it to startup (which I’ve tried to build on in my own work, some people would call it building down I guess – i.e. muddying the purity. I hope they’ve gotten better results working in the more standard way; and (2) demonstrated the true Tai Chi mastery.

More about that demonstration thing: I said Ben doesn’t talk explicitly about the energy. Furthermore, he won’t Tase you with some kind of inner zap when he touches, nor will he throw you with no-contact. You feel a bare touch and you go out, that’s all. His demonstrations are subtle. But me it’s inspriing to see him apply such a gentle contact with such outsize effects.

After working with him for a decade, after hearing him say No strength! to me how many thousand times, I still recall with a thrill the day I really ‘got it’. Nothing special he was demonstrating on a big tough football player type of guy what the real Tai Chi should look like. First he launched into the guy physically, as most of us do, with no effect at all. Might as well push on Mt. Everest. Then he backed off and said “Now here is Tai Chi”. Very lightly he contacted the man’s chest - WHAM the guy was thrown 10 feet back. At that moment, it hit me: Oh! No strength! Why didn’t he ever say so… !? Ridiculous I know. But that’s the moment I got it.

From then on my push hands improved greatly. But again, this article is not the usual me, I’m not trying to ride my high horse here. I have my bad days and my tough opponents. But as they say, I’m my own opponent. When I still have trouble with anybody, it’s not because of anything about them. My internal power is more than enough to toss quite a wide range of partner types at this point. But I still have trouble sometimes, and that’s because I’m fighting myself – my own fear, pride, tension – all these things block the full expression of energy. So I’m well aware that you can have all the great inner experiences you want in your solo training, only to see it all self-nullified in a instant of tension, distraction or ego.

The challenge never goes away. But despite the impossible nature of this inner cultivation task, I don’t think we benefit by basically giving up and saying well real internal power, as explicitly described by the old masters, either doesn’t exist at all, or else must be understood as a pre-scientific metaphor for things we now totally undestand, such as fascia tissue, or mechanically efficient torque or better nerve conduction or whatever is the flavor du jour of explaining away the old masters’ plain words. It’s real and even though it’s of limited use in daily life, and won’t always function perfectly for you even in the hothouse Tai Chi training context, it’s still fascinating to pursue.

My favorite Ben story of all time is what he told us once during a break at the rundown Mission Street studio he held for a few years in the 90’s. He was talking about his recent trip to Israel, where he’d done some big seminar. He said there was a professor of dance in attendance, an older woman, said to be famous in her field, accompanied by her young female grad student. It seems one of the many accomplishments of this distinguished professor was that she’d invented a revolutionary system of dance notation for choreography, said to be able to precisely capture any human motion. During the form class, this distinguished  academic sat and watched, notating everything she saw on her pad. During the break, she came to Ben with her student, a young woman who’d never been exposed to Tai Chi before that morning. Holding the notes before the grad student’s eyes, she had her pupil perform the entire sequence to absolulte perfection. The prof asked: Ben, is there any mistake? Isn’t it perfect? Haven’t we captured Tai Chi entirely in one set of notes? Ben said: Yes it is perfect, but it’s not Tai Chi. He signalled the biggest guy in the room - army vet, overall tough guy, bouncer etc. - over to him. He told the guy, Stand strong and don't let me move you even one inch. Ben touched the guys’ arms lightly and sprawled him back several yards. He turned to the Prof and her student and said, “Where is that in your notation?”

Ben remains for me the greatest Tai Chi master I’ve met, along every dimension. I realize how totally parochial that sounds. I’m really not as nutty as I sometimes come across, I’m more rational than you may think. The Professor himself said that none of his student was his own equal, that “Liu Xiheng got my water skill, and Lo Bangzhen got my fire”.  Thus, a partial transmission.  There’s probably something to that. Certainly Ben himself is extremely modest and consevative in making any claims about anything, especially himiself. So read this article with a big grain of salt. I can only hope it’s an interesting bit of kindling to stoke your own Tai Chi fire.


Carl Totton said...

Yes, Ben Lo and his skills are truly extraordinary! Has to be seen and felt to be believed.
Carl Totton

Rick Matz said...

I had a class with him once, ages ago, when I was learning the form from Carol Yamasaki.

She invited other students of CMC to come and teach from time to time. I remember Ed Yong, Maggie Newman and of course Ben Lo.

It was just one class and decades ago, but he certainly left an impression.