Tai-Chi Classics Explained - Part 3
By Athos Antoniades
In this article, Athos discusses the meaning of the Classics. Athos believes that true Tai-Chi must adhere to the words written by the great masters of old. Some of these classics which must be strictly adhered to if the tremendous health and warrior benefits are to be achieved are revealed below.
Wang Tsung-yueh's Treatise on Tai-chi chuan: Part 1
Note: Pay attention to practice. The commentary is not just writing for the sake of writing.
Tai-chi [The Great Ultimate] is born of Wu-chi [The Infinite] and is the mother of yin and yang.
Non-action is Wu-chi; action is Tai-chi. When the chi stirs in the void, Tai-chi is born and divides into yin and yang. Therefore, in practicing Tai-chi we must first discuss yin and yang, for they embrace all phenomena. From mutual production and mutual distruction comes change. Tai-chi is born of Wu-chi and is the mother of yin and yang.
In motion they separate; in stillness they become one.
When we practice Tai-chi, as soon as the will moves, it is projected into the four limbs. Tai-chi gives birth to yin and yang, four duograms, eight trigrams and the Palace of Nine. This is equivalent to Ward-off, Roll-back, Press, Push, Pull-down, Split, Elbow-stroke, Shoulder-stroke, Advance, Retreat, Gaze-left, Look-right and Central Equilibrium. When we are still, all reverts to Wu-chi; the mind and spirit unite as one. The whole body is completely empty and we become aware of the slightest touch.
Avoid both excess and insufficiency; extend when the opponent bends and bend when he extends.
Whether practicing the form or sparring, avoiding excess and insufficiency is equally applicable. Excess means going too far and insufficiency means not going far enough. Excess and insufficiency are both departures from the center. If the opponent attacks, give way by bending. Bending means to arch. If the opponent has not yet gone on the attack and attempts to retreat, then I follow him and extend. Extending means to issue energy with the hands. Excess can be seen in the error of butting and insufficiency in losing contact. The inability to bend is belligerence; the inability to extend is separation. Conscientiously remember the four words: losing contact, butting, belligerence and separation. If your art can be free of over-anxiousness and separation, you will be able to perform marvels with your hands.
The opponent is hard while I am soft. This is yielding. I am yielding while the opponent is resistant. This is adhering.
For example, if two people are sparring and the other person is hard and direct, then I use soft hands to cover the opponent's. I firmly cover his energy, like a beating whip. It will be extremely difficult for him to throw me off. My contact is like a rubber band which binds up his ability to release or expand. If he uses great force, I stick to his wrist and shift my weight to the rear. At the same time, without separating, I receive the incoming force and turn the waist a half circle to neutralize it. I extend my hand towards his left side, causing it to be powerless. I am yielding while he is resistant. By adhering to the opponent I prevent him from escaping. There is an old story that tells of a wild monk who excelled at using head butts. He was about to try conclusions with a man who knew his reputation as an invincible ram-butter and was extremely intimidated. Now this man noticed that the monk had freshly shaven his head and suddenly thought of a plan. He went into the house and got a wet washcloth. When the monk attempted his butting technique, the man tossed the washcloth over his head, and pulling down, he threw the monk for a fall. This is the principle of the soft overcoming the hard.
Respond to speed with speed and slowness with slowness.
At present most of my fellow Tai-chi practitioners understand the art of yielding but do not understand the method of quick response. I am afraid they would fair badly against external stylists. "Speed" means quickness; "slowness" means to be deliberate. If the opponent approaches slowly, I respond with yielding and following. The principle is very clear. If the opponent comes at me with great speed, how can I use yielding? In this case, I must respond by using the method of Tai-chi "intercept energy" and the principle of "not late and not early". It is just like concealing troops in ambush to intercept the enemy. What do we mean by "not late and not early?" When the opponent has already launched his attack, but has not yet landed, I intercept his arm with my hand before it comes straight. This will immediately deflect the attack. This is how to repulse a frontal attack. Without receiving the true transmission, "responding to speed with speed" is impossible.
Although the changes are infinite, the principles remain the same.
When sparring with opponents, whether push-hands or free-hand, no matter how we reckon it, the principles are: the great circle, the small circle, the half circle, the marvel of yin and yang, full and empty in the feet, the Tai-chi yin-yang fishes, and maintaining vertical. Though we flow unceasingly through myriad changes, the principles of Tai-chi remain the same.
From mastery of the postures, you will gradually awaken to interpreting energy. From interpreting energy, you will arrive at spiritual insight. However, without long arduous practice, you will not suddenly make this breakthrough.
"Postures" refers to the Tai-chi form. At present my fellow practitioners seek only to grasp interpreting energy, but are unable to repulse opponents. Instead, they should first learn the postures correctly and practice them until thoroughly mastered. Then gradually they should study interpreting energy. The ancients had a saying that to ignore the root and trim the branches was like raising a square inch of wood above the highest building. This teaches us that we must first develop the postures and later learn interpreting energy. It will then not be difficult to reach "spiritual insight." Spiritual insight here refers to miraculous martial skill; "sudden breakthrough" means grasping the marvellous secrets of martial art. If you can circulate the chi through the "nine-bends-pearl", then you will have mastered the principles of Tai chi. Without long practice and familiarity, how can you hope to reach this level?
There is a light and sensitive energy at the crown of the head; sink the chi to the tan-tien, do not lean or incline.
The "crown of the head" refers to the very top. Taoists call this point the ni-wan ("Clay pill"), or what is generally called the tien-men ("heavenly-gate"). It should feel empty and the head should be held erect. The spirit rises, but do not let the chi reach the crown. After long practice, the eyes will be bright and one will never suffer headaches. The tan-tien is located a little more than an inch below the navel in the belly. This is where all the intrinsic chi in the body gathers. When we move, it issues from this source as from a sea of chi and circulates throughout the four limbs. When chi is made to revert to the tan-tien, the body and chi do not "lean or incline". Leaning and inclining is like a porcelain jar full of water. If the jar is upset, the water will spill out. If the tan-tien leans or inclines, then the chi cannot rever tna dgatehr. The buddhists call this method "holy relics" [she-li-tzu, the gem-link remains after cremation of one who has achieved Buddhahood] and Taoists call it "cultivating the elixir" (lien-tan).
Practicing in this way, one will become strong and virile. After long effort, the sinews and bones will appear soft on the outside with strength and substance concealed within. When the chi is strong, one is impervious to the hundred ailments.
Suddenly disappear and suddenly appear. If the opponent puts pressure on the left, become empty on the left; if he puts pressure on the right, become empty on the right.
"Disappearing" means to conceal; "appearing" means to expose. The method of disappearing and appearing in sparring is most subtle and difficult to fathom. When an opponent attempts to attack me, I withdraw and "suddenly disappear," which prevents him from being able to apply his force. Now when he pulls his hand back, I follow him and advance, suddenly appearing. The opponent has no idea if my posture will be high or low, or whether I will attack from above or below. He will be helpless to withstand my thrust.
Practicing Tai-chi is like a small boat on a river. When a man steps into it, it leans to one side and seems to suddenly disappear, but when the man is aboard, it rises again, suddenly reappearing. It is also like the transformations of the dragon which mounts on high and then descends. When it comes down, it disappears by concealing itself in physical forms. Then it again reappears, soaring into the heavens, riding the louds and revealing itself. This principle expresses the idea that Tai-chi can rise and it can fall. "Disappearing and appearing" is the theory of suddenly existing and suddenly not existing.
Those who are heavy cannot move. Is it possible not to move when sparring with opponents? to engage in martial arts, we must have active bodies. Our hands and feet must be nimble; only then can we meet and adversary. If the opponent attacks my left side, I incline slightly, become empty and give him nothing to land on. My body is nimble and impossible to catch. This is the idea of becoming empty on the left, if the left is attacked; and vanishing on the right, if the right is attacked; and vanishing on the right; if the right is attacked.
Looking upward, it seems higher and higher; looking downward, it seems deeper and deeper. Advancing, it seems further and further; retreating, it seems shorter and shorter.
"Looking upward" means high and "looking downward" means low. If the opponent seeks to attack from a high position, I become so tall he cannot reach me; if the opponent seeks to push me down, I descend so low that he loses his center of gravity. Saying to yourself, "looking upward it seems higher and higher," look up with your eyes and imagine throwing the opponent on top of the building. Saying, "looking downward, it seems deeper and deeper," imagine beating the opponent into the earth.
There is a story concerning Master Yang Pan-hou. On a summer day he was in a field outside a small village (a granary in north China) cooling himself. All of a sudden a man appeared, saluted, and asked the whereabouts of Pan-hou. He replied that he was the same, when without warning the man attacked him violently with tree fingers. Pan-hou noticed that there was a grass hut in the field about seven feet high, so he motioned with his hand saying "Friend, why don't you go up there?" With that, he threw him on top of the hut. Then he said "Please come down, go home and find medical treatment." A villager asked him how he was able to throw the man on top of the hut. he responded, "Looking up it is higher and higher," but the villager could not comprehend his meaning.
In north China there was a man named Lo Wan-tzu who was a student of Pan-hou. After studying for a number of years, he wanted to test his art. Master Pan-hou asked him how he would like to be thrown into the shape of a silver ingot, like those of the Yuan dynasty. Wan laughed and invited him to try. They engaged, and he ended up, just as Pan-hou had said, with both hands and feet pointing towards the sky and the right side of his hip facing down, precisely in the shape of a Yuan ingot. Although he was not literally thrown under the earth, he did suffer a hip dislocation. He was cured, but to this day he still has a bit of a limp. This man is a fine marital artist and is alive today. He often says, "look down and it is deeper and deeper" is indeed a fearful technique.
A feather cannot be added to the body nor a fly alight.
After training for a long time you feel so sensitive and alert that you become aware of the slightest touch. You cannot bear the touch of even something as light as a feather. Even a tiny fly cannot alight on my body, for it would be like landing on the inside of a finely glazed jar which was so slippery that the fly could not stand. I use my neutralizing power to make the fly's legs skid out from under it. This can truly be called the culmination of skill in Tai Chi.
There is a story that tells me how Pan-hou used to lie under the shade of a tree to rest during the summer when he was training. Once a wind came up and blew some leaves down, but not one of them could alight on his body and they slid off to the ground. He used to test his skill by opening his shirt and lying down on his bed. Then he would take a pinch of millet and place it on his navel. He would hear an exhaling sound and the grains would shoot out like pellets from a crossbow striking the ceiling of the tiled roof. Pan-hou's art was truly supreme. My friends, strive earnestly to match it.