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Exercising the body is only half the story with taijiquan.
To fully embrace the art, you must be prepared to rigorously challenge and expand the mind.
Ancient and modern wisdom
A taste of the useful insights that can be gleaned from studying the philosophical side of taijiquan:
can't do it, you don't know it.
Compromise to please others is not as good as integrity that annoys others. Rather than be praised without being good, it is better to be slandered without being bad.
How long do I need to train? Many people have asked me. And I answer, "Until you die." They're not very happy with that answer. In the West people want to learn fast; some people think once is enough. But the dojo is not like a university. You have to practice until you die.
When a master of taijiquan faces an opponent he brings to the confrontation thousands of years of philosophical, martial and practical thought. He has lived most of his life according to the principles established centuries ago and in the process, he has strengthened his body and probably earned a long and healthy life.
It's difficult to find any sport or activity that can top kung fu as an overall form of exercise.
Strength training must adapt to the fighter's needs, not the other way around.
A lot of hobbies are just mental and you have to get exercise by some other means. But if you study a martial art, not only is it mental, it's physical as well, which keeps it interesting. People also like the whole idea that it was invented by ancient civilisations, that there's a history to it, and there's a whole culture involved. The idea that some old Chinese guy up in the mountains made something up, or used this on a battlefield in ancient China, is appealing.
People do it even if they don't really care whether they ever get good at it, or if they are ever going to be able to fight. A lot of people just enjoy the art of it. The Chinese martial arts have a lot of nice forms, they are good exercise, and they're more interesting than calisthenics. You could just do jumping jacks and toe touches, but there's a whole artistry to the form, like a dance. So, there's a lot of different reasons why people practice.
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.
Most studies agree that there are a number of key personality characteristics that are important for healthy aging: easygoing, cheerful, self-confident, adaptable, active, independent, creative, happy, relaxed, satisfied, calm, open, agreeable, conscientious, sociable and having a high tolerance for frustration being mentioned most often.
The traits that lead to an unhealthy, shorter life? Being repressed, dogmatic, stubborn, hostile, neurotic, angry, guilty, sad, fearful, anxious, depressed and aggressive.
(Dr Bradley Wilcox, Dr Craig Wilcox and Dr Makoto Suzuki)
From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seem such discipline.
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
What's sad in a way is that the people that are the most giving, hardworking, and capable of making this world better, usually don't have the ego and ambition to be a leader.
They enjoy the goal but not the process. But the reality of it is that the true work of improving things is in the little achievements of the day.
If we didn't tense our muscles, we're in good balance, not interfering with our breathing, and if we're free, tall and expansive in stature, and used a minimum of effort, then we could say we had done the job really well.
Those who lack wisdom are convinced that they are truly awake;
they think they understand what is happening;
they think that the king is really the king,
and the servants are really servants.
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.
All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.
The awakening of consciousness is the next evolutionary step for mankind.
Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
I awoke, only to see that the rest of the world is still asleep.
(Leonardo da Vinci)
There is a lot of confusion about what taijiquan is.
Mostly everybody is concerned with what form is being done. "Oh, I study from so and so, and he studies from Master Tsung - or Master Choy - and this is Ma style and this is the Wu style and this is the Yang style. What do you practice?"
I say "I practice the Huang style." My style comes out of all these other styles, and I have to develop to the point where it becomes me.
(Chungliang Al Huang)
Religion is belief in someone else's experience.
Spirituality is having your own experience.
Demand much of yourself
and expect little of others.
Thus you will spared
Taoism is neither formal religion nor structured philosophy.
(Tao: Sacred Symbols)
You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.
Have a heart that never hardens,
and a temper that never tries,
and a touch that never hurts.
Befriend the man who is brutally honest, for honesty is the highest form of respect.
It is no measure of health
to be well adjusted
to a profoundly sick society.
Donít be too severe
in criticising peopleís faults;
consider how much they can bear.
His ability to take adequate care of himself.
Not a hypochondriac or obsessed with his appearance, but not ignoring things either.
With the result that he hardly ever needed medical attention,
or drugs or any sort of salve or ointment.
When asked how he overcame his opponents, Hadrat Ali explained,
"I never met any man who did not help me against himself."
There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
(Leonardo da Vinci)
And so he sets off on a path to mysterious destinations. He does so in spite of observations by others that such a way is naÔve, outmoded or idealistic. He goes because he knows others have gone before, because the unchanging direction of the Way attracts and calls to him.
He goes because he is compelled. He sets out on a journey of a lifetime because he senses that this way is the one to lead him to a place very much worth the going.
If the body is clumsy, then in advancing or retreating it cannot be free;
therefore, it must be agile.
Once you raise your arm, you cannot appear clumsy.
The highest level of taijiquan practice is high stance and small circle. In high stance and small circle you can conserve your energy to a maximum level. This is very crucial in battle. Endurance has always been the crucial key to survival in a long battle. Moreover, due to high stance and smaller shape you can reach to the deepest relaxed stage, the mind is highly concentrated, and the sensitivity and alertness can be extremely sharp.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
One is taught in accordance to oneís fitness to learn.
(The Silent Flute)
This is how we comprehend the abstract.
Without knots or barriers in mind we see Tao easily,
reaping good harvest from our practice.
(Loy Ching Yuen)
Confronted by limitations of effectiveness, the martial arts of the West responded with a continuous crafting of superior equipment. Confronted with similar limitations, the Asian warrior responded by fashioning a better self. The warrior turned not to technology in making his sword a better tool for fighting. Influenced by contemplative aspects of Taoism and Buddhism and by the self-discipline of Confucianism, he turned inward. He fine-tuned his body and mind in order to better manipulate his sword.
A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse; it ran away.
All his neighbours came around that evening and said, "That's too bad."
And he said, "Maybe."
The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it,
and all the neighbours came around and said, "Isn't that great?"
And he replied, "Maybe."
The next day his son was attempting to tame one of the horses and was thrown from it and broke his leg, and all the neighbours came around and said, "Well, that's just too bad isn't it?"
And the farmer said, "Maybe."
The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army,
and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg.
All the neighbours came around in the evening and said, "Isn't that wonderful?"
And he said, "Maybe."
In motion the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together.
If the opponent's movement is quick, then quickly respond; if his movement is slow, then follow slowly.
Most students ask too many questions too soon. An inquisitive mind is not wrong, but too much questioning often signifies that the student failed to practice enough or didn't take time to analyse and investigate the problem on his own.
Walk like a cat.
We take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves.
Why is the Tao so valuable?
Because it is everywhere,
and everyone can use it.
This is why those who seek
And those who reform
will be forgiven;
Why the good
will be rewarded,
And the thief who is cunning
To bear that which you think you cannot bear is really to bear.
Many people learn taijiquan just so they can show off to somebody else.
They learn certain movements from the outside,
but they the miss the inside, the essence.
And some taijiquan teachers also have made this mistake.
(Chungliang Al Huang)
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
(Leonardo Da Vinci)
When attacked you should always 'slip' the attack.
Never meet force with force,
or your opponent will be able to borrow your strength .
(Lau Kim Hong)
Cord: Who are you?
Blind shepherd: Whoever you think I am or want me to be, I am.
(The Silent Flute)
Taoism furnished the basis for aesthetic ideals, Zen made them practical.
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
(T. E. Lawrence)
Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.
(Edward De Bono)
When torrential water tosses boulders,
it is because of its momentum;
when the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey;
it is because of timing.
The art of teaching is clarity and the art of learning is to listen.
In all the martial arts
the critical foundation that must be cultivated by the student
Olives taste bitter at first,
So the matter of practice:
Hard work discovering the true way.
(Loy Ching Yuen)
Too early in the morning? Get up and train. Cold and wet outside? Go train. Weary of the whole journey and longing for a moment to stop and rest? Train.
Continue on in the spirit of perseverance.
There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
We demand to be coaxed and comforted, to be encouraged and gratified, so we choose a teacher who will give us what we crave for. We do not search out reality, but go after gratification and sensation.
The wise speak when they have something to say, fools speak when they have to say something.
May your wishes be granted.
I like reality. It tastes of bread.
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through.
Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it.
This is a kind of death.
When you come to the dojo, it is a recognition the teacher there has something you want. He will give it to you in his own way. You must accept that.
If you do not, you are free to leave.
The dojo, however, is never run by consensus.
If all you learn is a lot of forms, you just become a good dancer.
(James Wing Woo)
Have you noticed, in newspapers and magazines, the amount of space given to politics, to the sayings of politicians and their activities? Of course, other news is given, but political news predominates; the economic and political life has become all-important. It is so much easier to throw oneself into social and political activity than to understand life as a whole; to be associated with any organized thought, with political or religious activity, offers a respectable escape from the pettiness and drudgery of everyday life.
With a small heart you can talk of big things and of the popular leaders; you can hide your shallowness with the easy phrases of world affairs; your restless mind can happily and with popular encouragement settle down to propagate the ideology of a new or of an old religion.
12 March 1995
Last updated 09 June 2019