Friday, October 7, 2011

The Ever-Narrowing Path

Do not go by revelation
Do not go by tradition
Do not go by hearsay
Do not go on the authority of sacred texts
Do not go on the grounds of pure logic
Do not go by a view that seems rational
Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances
Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it
Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent
Do not go along because [thinking] 'the recluse is our teacher

The Buddha (Kalama Sutta)

Right from the beginning here, I realize this post may bother a few folks, probably some people I care about quite a lot. So, right from the beginning I want to say that is not my intention, but I do understand how that may be a consequence. What I truly hope is that something here speaks to everyone who reads this.

I got the title, "The Ever-Narrowing Path" from a conversation with my friend, Paul Read, about how unfortunate it is that in the martial arts world in general, and the Taiji world in particular, so many people are caught up in such superficial concepts as lineage, and "the way it's supposed to be done", and our style vs. your style, and this family as opposed to that family, and interpreting history, short form vs. long form, and martial vs health, and traditional vs contemporary, and on and on.... I do think it is a natural thing to want to understand one's art. Good research would have you discuss with those who have been at it a while, read books on the topic, see what your teacher and your lineage has to say about things, and see what other teachers and lineages have to say. But at the same time, I think it is counterproductive to rely solely on what your teacher and lineage have to say. Not that they may mislead you, or that they may be wrong. My point is that in Taiji, as in all things, we need to get to a point where we think for ourselves--even if our thoughts are different or in direct opposition to our teacher/lineage/system.

It is downright discouraging to me to see very talented and knowledgeable people openly belittling others to, apparently, only boost themselves or their "system". It's even more discouraging that when I bring up an unusual idea or concept to another Taiji player, to see them defer totally, 100%, to their teacher or system, especially when another teacher or system has a different, but legitimate answer. Of course we should always trust our teachers and the system. But at the same time we should allow ourselves the right to think outside the box. We must remember that this is a human art. And humans are fallible. Taiji was not handed down by the gods, then diluted by devious humans along the way. It was invented by humans, has been practiced and modified by humans, and will continue to be practiced and modified by humans. I believe we should give our teachers the full respect they deserve. But at the same time, we should be bold enough to wander outside the temple every now and again.

In my opinion, one of the best things to happen to modern martial arts was Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do. JKD is not a new style, it is a different approach, a style of no style. Lee said that style imprisons us because combat is not limited to style. It was Lee's intention to free his followers from styles, patterns, and doctrines. Unfortunately, almost 40 years after his death, most martial artists have not taken his advice. This is especially true in the Taiji world. I recently read somewhere on an internet forum where a young student, new to Taiji and taking both Yang and Chen style classes from different schools was almost to the point of quitting altogether because each of the respective schools spent so much time demeaning the other.

When I'm faced with these arguments, and my friends' certainties that they, and only they, are following the one true path, I am reminded of the words of the founder of Quakerism, George Fox. When confronted with religious arguments based on the bible and the Church's traditions and beliefs, he replied: "The bible says this, and the Church says that. I ask you, what can you say?" To my argumentative friends in the Taiji world, I ask you a similar question. You say, "the classics say this, your teacher says that; according to history, Taiji should be (whatever); our founder Chen-Yang-Wu-Hao-Whomever said we should...." I ask you, what do you say? Instead of rumbling around, quoting the classics, arguing over history, who invented Taiji in what village on whatever mountaintop, etc... Look into yourself. See what Taiji really says to you. Try another form, another style. Really try it. Practice your slow form fast, with fajin. Practice your fast form slow, in small frame with extra emphasis on Song. Whatever. I'm not asking for a re-invention of Taiji, here. I'm just hoping that maybe we can all get along and think for ourselves at the same time. In an art that has so much to offer, it's a shame to see the artists imprisoned by dogmatism.