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Rachel had an excellent Star Wars insight: Luke Skywalker is weak and whiney; always complaining. She realised that we do not like the character of Skywalker at all.
What we like is his journey from farm boy to Jedi Knight. As the audience you do not want to be Skywalker, but you do want to undertake his journey.
Learning a martial art
If you want to learn a martial art, you attend classes, do as you are told and you gain skill. Hard work, dedication and patience pay usually off. Learning taijiquan is not quite this simple.
You cannot simply be taught taijiquan. You must understand taijiquan in order to use it.
Taijiquan utilises insights gleaned from Taoism. Herein lies the difficulty. Taoism is not easy for the modern mind to understand.
Our conditioning, education, opinions and upbringing make it hard for us to relate to what Taoism is saying. There is a tendency to interpret the words relative to our own bias.
You can be taught taijiquan to a point, but in order to really make all the necessary connections you need to comprehend Taoism as well.
Of all the
people who begin the discipline of taijiquan, only a handful will continue
past a year or so. Humility, compassion, lack of ambition, non-aggression,
spontaneity and silence are not qualities that our societies value. There is
no more difficult journey than the journey to the self.
Taoism is concerned with understanding our relationship with existence. This understanding is not intellectual. It is more intuitive. Taoism teaches us to move in harmony with the natural world.
If we can accomplish this, things run a lot more smoothly for us.
The original Taoist books: I Ching, Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu are quite challenging to read. It can take many years of study for you to even begin to understand them.
There are many different translations available, and it is advantageous to read a cross-section of these. Every translation is essentially an interpretation.
Zen is an offshoot of both Buddhism and Taoism. Studying Zen can help us to unravel the more obscure riddles of Taoism. At first glance, Taoism and Zen seem to be confused and paradoxical.
In reality, it is our minds that are confused, rather than the Taoist/Zen texts. We do not see things clearly.
Zen learning tools such as zazen and koan help us to become quiet and centred, to find clarity and stillness, to unlearn and see.
There are many expressions of Zen - wabi sabi, art, tattoo, tea ceremony, calligraphy, Japanese gardens - and they can all help us to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be.
Most of these Zen arts are Japanese.
Tai Chi Classics
The Tai Chi Classics detail the teachings of three practitioners: Chang, Wang and Wu. The meaning of their words will initially seem quite obscure to the beginner.
Reading Taoist books and studying Zen help to free your mind, so that you can understand the Classics better. It is not enough to simply practice taijiquan.
Unless your taijiquan follows the Tai Chi Classics, it cannot be said to be taijiquan.
Taijiquan is a journey with no
goals and no end.
So where is this journey? Where are you going? Why is it necessary? What you learn from your instructor is only a small fraction of what you need to study. There is so much more.
The journey of discovery is your own responsibility. Your instructor cannot (and should not) really aid you.
Consider: if we tell you what we think a Zen koan means, does that mean that you understand it for yourself? Are you capable of having further insights? Can you progress without our help?
Taijiquan is just the same. Your instructor can only take you so far.
Even though they may have much more material and insights to offer you, it is meaningless to you if you lack the cognitive wherewithal to understand it.
Internal, not external
People travel to China in search of understanding, but Lao Tzu said that you can know the whole world without ever leaving your room.
Your journey will not take you anywhere, for there is nowhere for you to go. You are right here, now. The journey is internal, not external. You must unlock your own mind and set it free.
Can you do this? Are you committed enough?
A different you
Unlearning will change you. The process may be slow and gradual but there will be radical and distinct changes taking place. You may well lose more than you bargained for.
A spiritual journey is not a trivial affair. It will profoundly affect who you are. You may come face-to-face with uncomfortable truths about yourself, unexpected insights and realisations.
Some people may withdraw from your company, whilst others will seek you out. If you are hoping to come through the experience unchanged, think again.
The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Peter Southwood once told this story:
An archer happened to be watching an oil seller one day and noted how the oil seller could pour oil from the ladle into a thin-stemmed vase without spilling a drop. This was a stunning feat of accuracy and balance. The archer quizzed the oil seller about it, so the oil seller placed a coin on top of a vase and proceeded to pour oil through the square hole in the centre of the coin. The archer was amazed and wanted to know the secret of this skill. The oil seller could not explain or teach his ability; he just put it down to practice.
The archer spent many years in training and gained a reputation for being a master archer. No one could match his skill. Then one day he retired into the wilderness and never returned.
Some years later, a group of archers came across the master archer living as a hermit in the woods. They were surprised to find that the master no longer used his bow. The archer explained that he no longer needed it. Archery was simply a tool. It had served to point him in the direction of the way. When he no longer needed it, he put it aside.
We must treat the taijiquan this way. It is the means, not the end.
Figure it out
Your instructor should be willing and keen to share their knowledge and skill with you, but there are some things they cannot share. This is not a matter of being mean or secretive.
You simply have to figure them out for yourself. No one can give it to you. No one can say it. The words are not the thing.
Walk the path alone
You must undertake the journey alone and you must be very diligent, patient and thorough. The path is different for each of us, for we are all unique.
It will not be easy, and you will become disheartened and frustrated. But it is worth it.
Taoism embraces all sides of our character; recognising that people are both good/bad, strong/weak and so on.
We cannot be one without the other. The key is to find balance. A harmony of apparent opposites. If you have the stamina and the passion to endure, then you will not regret your efforts or your sacrifice.
The journey is the point of your training with Sifu Waller. Not the books, not form, not combat. They are just tools to help you find your way.
4 December 2002
Last updated 17 September 2019