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 ~

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Why Fighting?

Below is an excerpt from an essay at Must Triumph. The essay explores the question of why we fight? Why are we by nature, combative? The full post may be read here.

I'm sitting here with a bunch of "sophisticated" types for lunch. They are lost in some conversation about algorithms, the best private preschools, and whether they should order quinoa salad or not.

Then there's this young guy walking down the street. An average-looking kid, one could say almost meek-looking. My cohorts haven't noticed him yet.

He passes by a basketball game in progress. Tall, athletic street-ballers. This suburban kid, in jeans, walks in and they confront him. Something interesting might happen here. I get up, not because I'm going to save him, but because I want a better view. But, alas, nothing happens. Wait, but now he's playing a game with them. They pass him the ball, and he's got skills. The game is quick and fast, the kid scores — a lot — and then, like that, he leaves.

There're some old Russian dudes playing chess. The kid sits down across from one and they begin to play. It's fast. They are attacking, going back and forth. Just like that, the kid wins. I grip the table, thinking the old dude is going to get up and teach him a lesson — old-world style — but instead, he shakes his hand. Disappointment again.

The kid walks into the liquor store. I lose sight of him. I get back to my table, and we're talking about stuff that has no basis in ordinary day-to-day reality. A question about everyone's favorite NPR show. This American Life is mentioned. Then their love of Bill Nye. I'm suffocating in conformity. Save me.
The kid steps out of the liquor store. He has something in his hand. Looks like a lottery ticket. He scratches it and then nothing. A long nothing. Then excitement. He's won, it seems. I look over at my table. Tumbleweeds. No interest.

Another guy walks up to the kid. He wants his ticket. And what's this? Wait for it. I'm waiting patient. That's it. A fight! It erupts, and this kid is beating the hell out of this dude. My table, as if compelled by some sixth sense, knows something is up without seeing it yet. They get up. Their bubble has popped. We all run to the fight. The whole street runs to the fight.

So why did we get up? The other day, one of my academic friends asked me about fighting. Let's call him Mario. Why fighting? Why my interest? Why are people interested, in general? What do people get out of it? He asked, wouldn't we live a more fulfilled life if we avoided conflict, as that creates more suffering? And looking for conflict only begets more conflict? Also, what utility does fighting serve? He was looking for meaning — a utilitarian purpose. And because of the bias of the self, he assumed, because he suffered from conflict, everyone else did as well. But the thing is, I know Mario would also get up and run to a fight if one were to break out. Even his dismissal of conflict creates conflict. To think you can speak for others creates conflict. Is he a hypocrite? Yes, and that creates conflict. But we are all hypocrites. And the search for constant profit-based utility makes us all miserable.
Boxing analyst Max Kellerman once told the president of the UFC, Dana White:

“If you take four street corners, and on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on the other, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.”
Mixed martial arts legend Frank Shamrock said in an interview with Mike Straka:

“Everybody gets it. It doesn’t need languages. Fighting is fighting.”

This is a whole philosophy of thought, that the description will never describe the described. That language can only misconstrue experience. How can you put into words the physical viscera of nature? The standard answer has always been: You have to see for yourself. It's a raw experience, as a spectator and as a participant, depending on how close you want to get to this truth.

Intellectualism took centuries — one person had a thought, then another person added to that thought until, eventually, they realized that experience cannot be adequately addressed through language. A fighter like Frank Shamrock, likely unaware of this work, came to this understanding after a few punches to the noggin. Socrates, too, had a rough-and-tumble history, which shaped his critical thinking. The physical was an essential part of his curriculum. It was the bare minimum for philosophy to flourish. Otherwise, you didn't know anything — not the least, yourself.
Philosopher Avital Ronell warned of the search for too much meaning. Ronell was walking through Central Park while being interviewed for the Examined Life. She came upon some dogs playing, which is to play-fight, and the dogs were in bliss. Ronell made this observation on the state of nature:

“Everyone wants something like meaning. But when you see these dogs play, why reduce it to meaning rather than just see the arbitrary eruption of something that can’t be grasped or explicated, but it’s just there in this kind of absolute contingency of being. To leave things open and radically inappropriable and something — and admitting we haven’t really understood is much less satisfying, more frustrating, and more necessary...”

Fighting is prior to man's search for meaning. Long prior. Or one could say, it is man's first and most natural way to examine life, along with procreation. Make love to it or fight it, or, more honestly, perhaps both. Fighting or lovemaking for the sake of pleasure isn't rational, but rather, it is natural.

Where we get bungled is this idea that rational and natural are enemies or friends when they are neither. It is natural to fear death, but is it rational? Probably not. But who will argue that we shouldn't fear death because it is irrational or that it brings about suffering? You could do this, but that, in itself, would be irrational. We only know experience, and we cannot claim to know what we have not experienced, so experience is the only knowledge. Animals fight and make love, and thus that becomes the primary source of their knowledge.

According to Viktor Frankl, meaning, itself, requires a fight. When man struggles, they fight to live.
But in a first-world society, self-harm and suicide become the new struggles.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how one cannot predict conflict, it just arises, just as we rose from chaos. To further that sentiment, from that chaos, comes organic progress through trial and error. Fragility, then, is the inability to gain from disorder.

“Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fighting is fighting. Everybody gets it. It doesn't need language. It shouldn't need explanation. Where self-deception happens is when people pretend dislike is the same as not understanding. You don't like it, or perhaps it is better to say, you don't want to like it, so you pretend you don't understand it.

Somewhere, we taught ourselves that we cannot dislike something we understand, and we cannot like something we don't understand — but there are no such rules. How many ills come from these misunderstandings? Protecting oppressive institutions because we understand them, hating others because we do not understand them. We have much more ability to live in a just world if, when appropriate, we can say, "Hey, I don't get it, but to each their own," or, "Oh, I get it. Which is why I know it is wrong."

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Dimensions of Kung Fu

Below is a post from Tambuli Media. The full article may be read here.

At some point in our sojourn in learning martial arts (武术/wǔshù) we come across an awkward scenario: the instructor or master demonstrates a particular technique (技/jì) or method (法/fǎ) for a particular posture (架子/jiàzǐ) that you are learning; they may state that the technique they are demonstrating is a secret, which is supposed to leave you in awe. He goes on to extended his arm outwardly with a clenched hand and he ecstatically tells you it is a strike; wow! But in reality he simply demonstrated something that is obvious to any child raised on Power Rangers.

Indeed, this is an exaggeration; or is it? You go on to learn the whole sequence (路/lù) and that is the only technique you are ever taught for that particular posture even after being at the training hall (馆/guǎn) for years. However, without you realizing: each posture you are taught within a sequence possesses multiple techniques. We should take into account that each posture will consist of five possible alternatives, which is referred to as the “five attacks” (wǔjī/五击), which are: striking (dǎ/打), kicking (tī/踢), seizing (ná/拿), throwing (shuāi/摔), and bumping (zhuàng/撞). However, not all of these actions are obvious; therefore, how does one extract these methods out of a posture without the guidance of an instructor or master?

Every physical activity we engage in is governed by the principles of physics; therefore, within physics we encounter the theory of spatial dimensions, which consist of: one-dimensional, two-dimensional, three-dimensional, etc., which can be used to explain the properties of postures within a sequence.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Wing Chun: Ip Man as a Role Model

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full article may be read here.

The title (and subject) of today’s post is borrowed from a search query that brought a reader to this blog last week. WordPress has an incentive to encourage writers to improve the popularity of their blogs as that allows them to sell more advertising. As such they provide a basic package of metrics allowing the owner of every blog to see just how popular their latest post was, how many other pages have been clicked and where all these visitors are coming from.

I suspect that this blog is fairly ordinary in that most of its traffic is generated first by visits from regular readers (thanks!) followed by searches and Facebook clicks. Some browsers allow you to see the specific search query that directed someone to your page.

“Bruce Lee” generates more traffic for this blog than any other single question. Given his association with the Chinese martial arts in the public consciousness, that is not much of a surprise. Beyond that things are pretty random.

I do not normally pay a lot of attention to search queries, but at some point last week a reader ended up coming to Kung Fu Tea looking for information about Ip Man. Specifically, they wanted to know why he is a role model. I do not know who the reader was, or even in what context they asked the question.

Still, this seemingly simple question struck me as being actually quite complicated. I could easily imagine someone asking me this exact question in a personal conversation and I realized that I am not sure what I would say.

This is not because I am unfamiliar with Ip Man. He became the subject of an extended case study in my volume (now in paperback!) on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts. I have read most of what has been published on his life (in both Chinese and English), my coauthor has interviewed his surviving family members. I have spent years studying his martial art on a practical level as well as delving into more theoretical discussions about their origin and place in Hong Kong society. Ip Man is someone with whom I am very familiar and have deep respect.

Still, on some level I am not sure what it means to ask why a martial arts master from a previous generation is a “role model.” One suspects that many of the individuals who might hold him in this regard are not all that familiar with the actual details of his life and career. Like his student Bruce Lee, Ip Man’s image has been spread and immortalized through a number of generally well produced martial arts films by directors such as Wilson Ip (“Ip Man” 2008), Wong Kar-wai (“The Grand Master” 2013) and Herman Yau (“Ip Man, the Final Fight” 2013). It looks like there may even be more in the works.

The real Ip Man was known within the Hong Kong martial arts community, but he was far from a household name. While teaching Wing Chun was his primary source of income, he never advertised his school and refused to even hang up a sign. His younger students in the 1950s and 1960s certainly looked up to him as a role model. In accounts of his school they remember not just his great skill but also his humor, gentleness and genuine friendship in an era when Kung Fu teachers and students did not always have close relationships.

For the current generation of students in both Hong Kong and the west, who have never had the opportunity to meet Ip Man, asking in what ways he functions as a “role model” becomes a more complicated question. He has gone on from being remembered as “the teacher of Bruce Lee” to becoming a popular media property in his own right. The Ip Man that most of us are familiar with is not a humble Kung Fu teacher in Kowloon, but a local hero from Foshan who single handedly defended the honor of the southern Chinese martial arts (and identity) by wiping out a room full of Japanese karate students after defeating a number of wandering northern wushu masters in artistically choreographed duels.

It would be wrong to note that the Ip Man who exists in the public consciousness is an artistic creation, an invention of the entertainment industry, and simply dismiss the question out of hand. Obiwan Kenobi, one time general of the Clone Wars and Jedi recluse, is also a fictional character. Yet he continues to be cited as an inspirational role model by generations of movie goers. When it comes to role models, their tactile reality may be less important than the functions that they perform.

As so many others have noted, Obiwan is an almost perfect “initiatory figure.”  He shows no sign of fading from discussions of youth role models just because he is fictional.

The question seems not be whether one has actually talked with a role model, but whether you have “focused” on them. Indeed, the selection and construction of role models always includes a dose of fantasy.  In that sense Ip Man once again becomes very interesting.

As a recent historical figure, fans that enjoyed his movies have a chance to go out and collect more information about their new hero. Since Ip Man’s career is pretty well documented there are many accounts that can be studied and meditated upon. In an ironic twist the known historical details of Ip Man’s life have become a sort of “hypertext” for his fictionalized biography. They are an additional “DVD Special Feature” that true fans might wish to track down to show their increasing dedication to their role model.

Then there is Wing Chun. Ip Man left behind more than just historic accounts and vintage photographs. He and his students did a remarkable job of saving their version of the Wing Chun system from obscurity. It is now one of the most popular Chinese martial arts in the world.

Most Wing Chun schools are presided over by Ip Man’s portrait and they feature his training methods. These are usually an emphasis on practical applications, a concept based approach to the Chinese martial arts, and an emphasis on Chi Sau (or sticky hands) as a major teaching tool. Ip Man’s personal approach to the martial arts still exists within his teaching system and it gives modern students a way of experiencing some aspect of his presence even if they cannot touch hands with the master directly.

Within my lineage it is said that Chi Sao unfolds like a conversation. In tactile and subconscious terms it asks students to consider “what would you do in this situation.” When Ip Man touched hands with his first student he started a new branch of this age-old conversation, and it is one that has never stopped.

Students are drawn to Wing Chun for a variety of reasons. Some are looking to get in shape, others want to learn how to defend themselves. A not insubstantial number have seen the recent Ip Man films and they, on some level, are looking for that “role model.” Almost all of them will discover after a few weeks or months that the reality of Wing Chun training (or any martial art) is different from what they initially expected.

More interesting to me is the question of why they stay. I suspect that for many individuals they remain because they enjoy being part of the conversation that Ip Man started. They feel compelled to keep listening and they want to make their own contributions to it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The 48 Laws of Power: #22, Use Surrender Tactic

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #22: Use Surrender Tactic

When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead. Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane. Do not give him the satisfaction of fighting and defeating you – surrender first. By turning the other check you infuriate and unsettle him. Make surrender a tool of power.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Looking Stong vs Being Strong

Below is an excerpt from The Art of Manliness on weight lifting. It discusses getting ripped vs getting strong. I think some of the points are certainly relevant to martial arts practice and should give us some food for thought. The full post may be read here.

When most dudes have the come-to-Jesus moment that they need to start exercising and eating right, their primary motivation is usually to look good, and looking good usually means being lean and “ripped.” They want the hot beach bod with abs you can grate cheese on.

But they also want to be big and strong. Really strong. “Strong AF,” as they say on Instagram these days.

After scouring the interwebs for plans that will simultaneously get them ripped and swole at the same time, these would-be Adonises get to training.

They’re at the gym six days a week, beast-moding a different body part each day. They take the obligatory locker room selfie of their after-workout pump and post it to Instagram (#transformation #beastmode). They drink their protein shake within the magical one-hour window after working out so their muscles absorb as much of it as possible. (Some really jacked guy on Instagram mentioned doing that in his sponsored post for Optimum Nutrition. The guy is jacked so he obviously knows what he’s talking about.)

For a few weeks, these gents see some progress. They’re getting a bit leaner and they’re starting to see some muscle definition. They can even bench a bit more than they could before they started.

But they want to get even leaner. Sub-10% body fat or bust, baby.

So they cut calories, eliminate carbs, and throw in some HIIT training at the end of each workout.

And leaner they do get.

Muscle definition is at its peak. Six-pack abs have been achieved.

But they’re not getting strong AF. In fact, they’re getting weak AF.

That 225-lb bench press that was within reach a few weeks ago now is miles away. Weight that was once easy to lift, now feels like a metric ton.

Bro, what happened?

Maybe it’s the program. Maybe you need to add in some accessory work. Hit those triceps hard to help with those last few inches before the bench lockout.

Adjustments are made and training commences again.


Your lean, tanned bod looks like that of a golden professional soccer player, but your lifts look like something your girlfriend could crank out.

You Can’t Have It All (At the Same Time)

I’m going to lay some hard truth on you here: Despite what the internet or that dude-bro at the gym might say, you cannot get both super lean and super strong at the same time. They are goals that are diametrically opposed to each other.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you can’t be shredded and strong. There are lots of men out there who have 10% body fat and can deadlift and squat a ton.

You just can’t work on getting ripped and strong at the same time.

Why You Can’t Get Lean While Getting Big and Strong

Increasing muscle density and size is what makes you big and strong. So to get big and strong, you need to pack on more muscle.

But here’s the rub. Muscle is calorically expensive. It requires a lot of energy to create. To create that new muscle, you need to consume more calories than you’re expending. How much more? More than you probably think.

The biggest mistake most men make when they set down the path of gainz is that they eat the same amount of food they were eating before they were training. Intense weight training puts a lot of stress on the body. To fully recover, you need to provide your body the fuel to do so. That means you need a sufficient amount of calories that come from protein, carbs, and fat.

If you train and provide your body with enough calories, muscle mass and strength will increase.

But you’re also going to put on some body fat.

I’m sorry to say so, but sadly it’s true.

There’s no escaping that fact. Some of those excess calories you’re consuming for the production of muscle will be stored as fat. That’s just how your body operates.

Why You Can’t Get Big and Strong While Getting Lean

To get ripped, lean, shredded, etc. you need to shed body fat.

Shedding body fat requires you to consume fewer calories than you’re expending so that your body uses your fat stores for energy.

But here’s the rub: just as you can’t put on muscle mass without putting on some body fat, you can’t reduce body fat without reducing some muscle mass.

When you’re in a caloric deficit, your body not only uses fat for energy, it also breaks down muscle tissue for the nutrients it needs to keep your physiological systems running. As muscle tissue cannibalizes, muscle mass and strength go down.

This is why you can’t get big and strong while you’re trying to get lean. Getting big and strong requires excess calories, while getting lean requires a caloric deficit.

You’ve got to pick a goal at the exclusion of the other.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Light Touch in Tai Chi Chuan

Below is an excerpt from a short post written by Nigel Sutton for Tambuli Media, on the qualities of a "light touch" in Tai Chi Chuan. The full post may be read here.

In this age of a horde of internet taijiquan "experts" it is common to hear the statement, this or that is not taijiquan. To which my usual response is that since taijiquan is based on the taiji (yin/yang symbol), which is a universal philosophy, that is it encompasses everything, anything that is not taiji must similarly be taiji. This is basic Daoism. Many of these same "experts" will tell you that when pushing hands (they seldom talk about application because that might involve force and therefore be a bit too dirty for the pure art of taijiquan)... your touch must be butterfly/feather/ "very soft thing" light. If not, you are just using force and that is not taijiquan, or so their lament goes.

Well here is some news for you, such "very soft" touching is not taijiquan… unless, wait for it, unless…it contains or allows the ability to put into action four extremely important taijiquan teachings. These four words, all very similar in English, are Stick, Connect, Adhere and Follow. The original four Chinese characters have shades of meaning which convey slight
differences. I remember Master Tan Ching Ngee explaining these to me as follows: 

Zhan – sticks very close so that you can't get it off, or get away from it.

Nian  continuous, can't be cut off or separated.

Tie – lightly adhering, on the surface (shares a connection with zhan).

Sui – follow closely (connected to nian).

Now, for all of these four to be present you have to have a connection to your partner/opponent that allows, facilitates and creates this stickiness, so that he is not able to escape nor move closer without feeling that you are still in control. This necessitates a degree of pressure – you have to be extending your ting jing (tactile sensitivity) beyond the external skin and right to the heart of the other person, ideally right to their center of gravity.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Training Rust in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from a post at Paul Bowman's Martial Arts Studies. The topic is rust, but it's not what you think. The full post may be read here.


To begin: as I said, one of the first things relevant to today that I didn't know was the Dutch word rust. So I needed to look it up.[1] So I duly turned to the OED, and it presented me with a phenomenal amount of etymological information.[2] Most of which I could do absolutely nothing with.

So next I just Googled the word, using search terms like 'Dutch word rust' and 'meaning of Dutch word rust', and I was immediately pointed to a couple of good sites, which proved much more useful than the OED.

For instance, the first site I found told me this:

English words for the Dutch word rust
calmness dead ease half time hush imperturbability intermission let-up
lie-off pause peace placidity quiescence quiescency quiet quietness quietude recess reposal repose rest silence tranquility tranquillity wait at ease[3]

Another site concurred with all of this, saying that 'rust' means 'break; calm; ease; half‐time; pause; peace; placidity; quiescence; quiescency; quiet; quietness; quietude; recumbency; repose; respite; rest; surcease; tranquillity'.[4]

And it also told me how to use the word, in the imperative, as a command: rust!, which means 'stand at ease!'

So now you can rest easy (or rust easy), safe in the knowledge that I am now a bit of an expert on the Dutch word rust, even though I didn't even have a teacher, and can't otherwise speak Dutch.

Rust and Flow

But what has this got to do with Eastern or Western philosophy, or Eastern or Western martial arts, or their relationship? I'm sure that some will see an immediate or obviously potential connection. There has long been a connection made between East Asian martial arts and sometimes Taoist, sometimes Zen Buddhist ideas of calmness and tranquillity.

But, in the face of this connection, one thing I do know is that most of these connections are mainly based on myths (and mainly media myths, at that).

Moreover, I also know that 'rust' in martial arts is not exclusive to either Taoism or Zen. Anyone who has ever done any wrestling or groundfighting learns quickly not to panic or tense up when rolling around on the ground with an opponent who is trying to choke or lock or pin or hold or strangle you out. Beginners tense up to high heaven and panic and expend enormous amounts of energy. The more advanced you become, the more you stay calm, relaxed, tranquil, and the more you can (ultimately) flow.

The ability to flow is the objective: not to get knotted up wherever the opponent is trying to take control or issue force; but rather to flow (or crash) around it and turn the tables from behind.

If we are face to face and you push forward into me and I push forward into you, then whoever is stronger will prevail. But if you push forward and I flow around that, then you end up pushing nothing and I should be able to capitalize on that – to the extent that I can flow. And the extent to which I can flow is the extent to which I am relaxed and calm in a very particular way.

As Bruce Lee famously put it, 'be like water', because water can flow and it can crash, it can push and it can pull, but you can't grab it with your fist and if you try to punch it you won't hurt it; it fills any space and passes through any gap, but try to wrestle it and you end up wrestling nothing.[5]

Perhaps in all martial arts, relaxation is the thing. Calmness of mind. Acuity of consciousness. Clarity of intent. Fluidity of body. Each martial art has a different way of being relaxed and in flow, a different ideal that practitioners aspire to.

The boxer, kickboxer, Thai boxer, karateka, escrimador or kung fu hard stylist have certain kinds of ways of flowing – combining striking techniques fluidly, rolling with the punches, capitalising on the gaps and opportunities provided by the other, smashing their way through. The judoka, wrestler and jujitsuka rely on the same principle, although it is very differently actualised.

But the premise, aim and ideal is always calm relaxation, if not simply tranquillity.

Tranquillity is normally associated with the most internal of what they call the internal martial arts. The ultimate example is tai chi ch'üan [taijiquan], of course. But many anecdotes from many different martial arts styles convey a sense that the highest level practitioners of almost any martial art can convey an air of tranquillity when fighting.

Training Rust

Still, tai chi is certainly a notable case. For, all of its training is designed to train relaxation, calmness and a great deal of what is conveyed by the Dutch word rust. Advanced-level tai chi practitioners fight like they are strolling, not running, charging or dancing. It's like they are simply carrying out a task that they have done countless times and it's simply second nature. So watching them deal with opponents is like watching someone steering a boat or flying a kite or mowing a lawn, folding laundry, or rolling up a cable; or someone in a warehouse folding or unfolding cardboard boxes; or a fisherman casting and reeling, casting and reeling. It's a very simple, very unglamorous, very relaxed, very natural, yet very skilful thing.

I have occasionally had the pleasure of being the one who is folding and felling opponents like a laundry worker folding and flattening out sheets. And when you are in that zone, that state of flow, it is very much like that – just something that you are doing; pleasurable, but natural – no real effort; no real striving, planning, pursuing: just feeling and doing.

Of course, I have much more often been on the receiving end, against someone who wants to treat me like some laundry that needs to be straightened and folded and flattened out. A popular martial arts saying is 'you either win or you learn'. And I have done a lot of learning.

And not just in tai chi. I have been folded and flattened in many different martial arts styles over many years. Occasionally it has been me doing the folding and flattening, and that is always a very nice occasional treat. But none of the other kinds of sparring that I know involve activities that are as necessarily calm and tranquil as tai chi.

Doubtless, this is connected with the unique and uniquely philosophical way that tai chi training is approached. In it, all of the attention is put on teaching relaxation. But this is not quite as simple as it may sound.

It is actually surprisingly hard to teach relaxation in tai chi, and the type of relaxation that is the ultimate goal is not simple relaxation. It takes different forms, from mental relaxation, to the hyper-awareness of tension and looseness in the body to enable higher levels of sensitivity and responsiveness, to the ability to be relaxed in otherwise difficult postures or transitions, and through to the cultivation of what they call 'sung jin' or relaxed force in the application of techniques.

There are other dimensions to tai chi relaxation or restfulness too. But the point is: learning it all is no simple matter. It takes a great deal of patience, commitment, and trust – trust in your teacher, trust in the investment of time and energy, faith that it will all pay off or yield dividends.

In many respects, rather than being anything like lying down and relaxing; training for this kind of relaxation is actually analogous to weight training, strength training, or bodybuilding.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A Visit with Ben Lo

Below is an excerpt from a post at Socal Tai Chi from 2014, regarding the author's visit to Ben Lo, the most senior student of Cheng Man Ching (Zheng ManQing). The full post may be read here.

Benjamin Pang-Jeng Lo began his studies with Cheng Man Ching in 1949 in Taiwan.  Although many famous disciples like T.T, Liang, Robert W. Smith, and William C.C. Chen followed, Ben Lo was Professor Cheng’s first major disciple and one of his most prominent.

Master Lo was in school at the time and was very weak.  He said he could hardly walk up stairs or cross a street without gasping for breath.  So, he sought out Professor Cheng who was a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner.  While treating his condition, the professor suggested that Ben take up tai chi to make his system strong enough to absorb the herbal medicine he was taking.

After his condition improved, Ben continued his studies with Cheng Man Ching until the Professor moved to New York.  Then in 1974, Ben got a call to join his teacher and help him promote tai chi among American students.  Ben promptly gave up his position with the Taiwanese government and moved to the United States.

He eventually settled in San Francisco where he established his school and where he still resides today at the age of 87.

Hsien Yuan Chen, who leads a small Cheng Man Ching group at Smith Park in San Gabriel, and I drove up to San Francisco to have dinner with Master Lo.  A steep stairway ascends from the garage at street-level to his two-story row home above, which is just a few blocks from Point Lobos and the Cliff House in the northwest corner of the city.

As one might expect, there was a black and white photograph of the Professor with a 25 year-old Ben

Lo on the mantle along with calligraphy and Chinese paintings on all the walls.  Stacks of notebooks and photo albums and video racks filled with DVDs were stuffed into the small living room.

Although at 87 his walk is a little wobbly, Master Lo’s spirit, nevertheless, is very much intact and quite infectious.  His internal peng (ward off) energy has not diminished either.  After looking at my form with some displeasure, he proceeded to let me feel his energy.  No matter which way I pushed, I could not uproot him.  Yet, when it was his turn to push, with hardly a touch, my toes were uprooted, and I found myself bounced away.

Ben reiterated Professor Cheng’s five principles or integrities which summarized the tai chi classics: relax, maintain your center, shift your balance (yin and yang), turn your waist (all movements are generated from the waist), and your hands should resemble “beautiful ladies’ hands.”  Ben also added a sixth principle, which is to perform all five integrities together when we do our form.

That fifth principle “beautiful ladies hands” is perhaps the main point of contention among Yang tai chi practitioners.  Most of the Yang stylists descended from Yang Chengfu hold their hands in the “tiger mouth” position with the thumb separated from the fingers.  If the hand is relaxed, then the “tiger mouth” is not an issue.  But Master Lo told a story of an ancient general to illustrate how the “tiger mouth” position can be detrimental if the hand is rigid.

The wayward thumb represents a loose nail on a horseshoe.  The nail gets caught on a rock and is pulled off, the shoe is displaced, the horse stumbles and falls and the general is killed.  The army is defeated, and the war is lost – all because of a loose nail.  Or, in the case of some Yang practitioners, a rigid hand with an extend thumb.

Friday, September 01, 2017

More Effective Practice

Charles James, over at Okinawan Fighting Art: Isshin Ryu, had a very good post on what constitutes effective practice.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.


As with all things of this universe that includes practice there are fundamental principles that give that discipline, in this case the discipline of practice, it substance resulting in mastery. This is what every practitioner and devotee of such disciplines strive for even if on a subconscious level. What follows is a simplistic description of the principles needed to practice, practice, and practice to receive the benefits toward mastery. 

The notes references can be viewed here, “How to Practice Effectively …”
  • It is not just repetitive practice, it is more.
  • It is about programming and creating changes in the brain along with the creation of a mind-state and mind-set of practice.
  • Repetitive motions alone are not enough.
  • Practice is not about large amounts of hours spent doing the repetitions alone. 
  • Practice must be about repetitions of a quality and effective consistent focused intent. 
  • Practice is about a type of challenge to our current abilities. 
  • Practice must be an effective form of practice or its just dancing around with only fitness and health as benefit. 
  • You practice by diligently focusing on the task at hand; minimize any distractions; start slow and gradually increase “Correct” practices.
  • Practice is also about building coordination of correct repetitive movement.
  • Avoid long singular daily sessions of great intensity, use frequent practice sessions with allotted breaks spanning the entire day. Like proper eating habits, it is more productive and effective if fed to you over time, several times a day, etc., i.e., eating small meals throughout the day is healthier. 
  • Practice includes spending time on things related to the discipline you wish to master. 
  • Supplement practice outside of normal practice through visual-imagery once you have established the motion or movement correctly and effectively. Visual-imagery, a form of visualization, is also a form of self-hypnosis where the brain can achieve improvements, etc., of established motions and movements at the same rates as actual hands-on practices.