Saturday, March 6, 2010

Will the Real Taiji Players Please Stand?

How many Taiji Players does it take to screw in a light bulb? One hundred. One to screw in the bulb and ninety nine to say, "that's not how we do it."

Let me get to my thesis right off the bat, with due respect and regards to my friends, associates, teachers, and mentors: There is no objective, real, true Taiji, to the exclusion of others.

Through the miracle that is the internet, we all have the opportunity to learn, teach, debate, and share knowledge. And overall I think that is great. However, through forums, and Facebook groups, and blogs, etc... we have all engaged in the "that's not how we do it" verbal exercise. I am as guilty as anyone. And I think that's OK, to a degree. We each need our own objective definition for our own version of Taiji. But like most things in this world, Taiji is subjective. That's what makes it such an interesting and appealing art. However, I think that once we step off into this idea that 'what I'm doing is real, and what you're doing is crap' we ultimately limit ourselves and a do a great disservice to Taijiquan.

Taijiquan is a potent, deadly, devastating Martial Art. At the same time it is a great choreographed from of Qigong, with unbelievable healing powers. It is a mindfulness practice as potent as sitting meditation. It is good overall exercise. It is a beautiful aesthetic art. And there are numerous other definitions that I'm not bringing to mind right now. For some of us, it is all of these things. For some it is only a few, or only one. That's OK. That's great. But if it is only one or a couple of these things for one, that doesn't nullify the other categories for other players.

There are some martial Taiji players whose art is as deadly and effective as any martial art on the face of the planet. At the same time, there are senior citizens doing simple, slow forms in the public parks and nursing homes of world who are proactively addressing their health and adding precious years to their lives. There are competition players, yes even MMA competitors, who add to their art through the practice of Taiji. At the same time there are spiritual-minded people who count Taiji as another meditation practice, another vehicle to Nirvana, or whatever their spiritual goal. The list goes on. And they are all Taiji players, and any and all of their Taiji is as real as any of the others.

I do think that there really are some practices that may be called Taiji that really aren't. But this is because they do not follow established Taiji principles and practices that follow across all forms styles and applications. The Classics are fairly clear on what constitutes Taijiquan. I don't want to go down that path in this entry. Suffice it to say for this post, if we are following the teachings of the Classics and the major schools it is Taiji. Yang Yang, whose system is my primary, has developed an eight movement form for senior citizens and new students based on the Chen Hunyuan System. It is a very simplified form and is extremely different than the original Chen forms. However, it is based on the thirteen movements: the eight forces (peng/lu/ji/an/lie/zhou/kao), and the five directions (advance, retreat, left, right, and central equilibrium). It is probably fair to say that most who learn and practice this art will never get to the point of doing San Shou, Double Push Hands, or Fajin. They may never use their Taiji as self defense, or even think about self defense at all. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing Taiji. At the same time, there are young Chen players whose advanced Push Hands is as potent as any Jujitsu, and whose sparring skills as skillful as any Karateka. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing Taiji either. It's just not the same Taiji as the folks at the nursing home, or in the park, or wherever.

As I said, I am as guilty of categorization and apparent exclusion as anyone. And for that I apologize to any who got the impression that I am coming from this point of view. I am not. I am just as happy playing hard push hands/sticky hands, San Shou, or grappling as I am doing the Yang short form and Zhan Zhuang in the park. For me Taijiquan is a martial art, a healing art, a vehicle for mindfulness, a tool for learning about myself, complete exercise, practical Taoism, self defense, etc... There are folks who practice in ways that I don't and use Taiji for things that I don't and may never. But I don't think their Taiji is any more or less real than mine. It's all Taiji and its all good.


S.Smith at RealTaiji said...

Due respect back at you while I politely disagree... and stand up for Real Taiji.

Part of my approach is to push against the subjective matter and ask people to amp up this degraded art. For me, it's more fulfilling to seek a high objective standard than to settle for a subjective equation.

Equating nursing home Taiji with Taiji that's martial is like comparing white belts in karate to black belts. Black belts are better at their art (though both are good people).

Too often, Taiji practitioners attempt to be fair and kind by claiming simple forms of Taiji are as real as advanced systems. That's silly.

While there is no objective standard... look close. Some Taiji systems suck and some practitioners practice poorly.

One professor (and Master and Leader of a Taiji School) at a University I lived near talked extensively to me about how he used Yoga breathing methods to make Taiji better. Was that real? No. He lacked so much Taiji knowledge that he added other arts to make his Taiji work. (I could go on: he demonstrated much more incompetence.)

Let me be clear: I think that beginner (and nursing home) Taiji is a good thing... it helps people. But it's not just-as-good-as more dedicate and thorough advanced systems.

We're all equal as beings. Sure. And we're not all equal as doings. Some have more doing skills than others.

That's my 6 cents (adjusted up for inflation, down for recession).

Rodney said...

Steven, thanks so much for your comments. I hope more people will chime in on this issue.

First of all, I am grateful for what you and the WTBA, and Chen Style folks like Chen Bing and Stephen Berwick, et al. are doing for the art of Taiji. As a Taiji martial artist is is and has been frustrating to find that most of the Taiji players I have easy access to have either no knowledge of Taiji as martial art, or no desire for such knowledge--or even worse, think that their simple Yang forms and soft push hands constitutes combat ability.

But while we will probably still disagree in the end, let me try to clarify my position. Yes, there are some poor systems, poor teachers, and poor practices. And while there is no objective standard, we do have established principles, VIA the classics and the teachings of the founders/leaders of the major schools. I am not making excuses for incompetence. I am drawing a distinction on goals.

Your goal (or one of them)is to ramp things up, demand a higher standard. That should be everyone's goal, across the board. That applies to surfing and playing the trombone as much as it applies to Taiji. It applies to life.

The goals I am talking about are ends. The practitioners who don't have martial competence, but perhaps a higher health standard, as their goal are approaching it in a different way, but may be just as competent in their approach. What one group lacks in breadth they often make up in depth.

The nursing home folks who are following Dr. Yang's seven movement form that I noted are likely performing at their absolute highest given their limitations. That is who he designed the form for. I don't like it myself. I think it is boring. But I can do the Chen Pao Cui, which is much more exciting and gratifying for me. Yang's target group are typically past the age of being able to do a form that demanding. Yet, their own individual experience is likely just as satisfying and health-inducing as mine. Looking at it from that perspective it is only subjective.

Nursing home Taiji and Martial Taiji are of course two different types of Taiji. But the level of difficulty for each group may be the same, based on their current abilities. At present I don't work with Seniors. But the only way I could say that my Taiji, or yours, or Chen Bing's is of any higher caliber is if someone were teaching young healthy martially-oriented people nursing home Taiji and calling it a complete martial art. I am sure that happens, but that goes back to competence more than goals.

My point is not competence at all. It is that different people have different goals in Taiji. The world is full of people who practice Taiji in some park everyday and couldn't fight their way our of a wet paper bag. But they are still doing Taiji. And in many cases it is very good Taiji. Taiji is a fighting art, but is not ONLY a fighting art. Sure it was at one time, but that is not the case now. I think it is good to propagate martial Taiji. But I wouldn't say it is exclusively better or superior than other approaches any more than than the "Tai Chi for Arthritis" folks should say martial Taiji is inferior.

I does bother me that when I tell people I practice Taiji, the only thing that comes to mind is all those old people in the park doing Ching Man Ching forms. I wish the world at large knew better. I am glad for people like you who are working to educate the world at large and who are offering people like me a much broader and comprehensive Taiji. But I'm also glad for those park people and their slow Yin forms, because I'm in it for more than combat. In fact I'm working hard to realize a world where violence is unnecessary and the only art we will ever need is a healing art.

S.Smith at RealTaiji said...

"What's the use of having beautifully polished crystals if you never find the spirit giver of power?" he said. "On the other hand, if you don't have the crystals but do find the spirit, you may put anything in his way to be touched. You could put your dicks in the way if you can't find anything else." --from Journey to Ixtlan (I figured: what a great quote for Nagual Time!)

Admittedly, I seek a beautifully polished form. I suspect the Real really lurks in the spirit of it... and certainly there are many ways to attain the spirit of it. So I'm with you. You've got good points.

I hope a well polished form becomes a beacon for spirit.

Rodney said...

I like that.
Spoken like a true 'Juanite'.

Benjamin Dean said...

Coming from someone who would mistake some of these form names for a good meal, I still enjoy these ongoing debates about purity of form. Take for example an erect spine for sitting meditation. If you meditate long enough, you realize this is what works best. Purity of form, regardless of the practice is found organically. There are many paths to the center. The center remains the center. People are so diverse. Why should they ever take more than they need from any art or practice?

Rodney said...

Wise words Benjamin.
Thank you.