UNBOXING: A blog about FLIPPING THINGS UPSIDE DOWN, internal martial arts, theatricality, Chinese religion, and The Golden Elixir.
Brand New Book: TAI CHI, BAGUAZHANG AND THE GOLDEN ELIXIR, Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising. By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($30.00), Digital ($9.99)
Also buy: Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion, (2016) By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($18.95), Digital ($9.99)
Daodejing Online - Click for Info: Next meeting, Sunday Aug 18th, 8am to 10am (MT) Future Dates 9/15, 10/20, 11/17, 12/15, 1/12. (You can join from anywhere in the world, $50 per month, learn Daoist Meditation through studying Daoism’s most sacred text.)
If you accept my analysis, than you probably agree that thoughtful diplomacy is very important. And we're not just talking about the yabbos at the State Department, all of us have a role to play in diplomacy.
And with that I give you The Great Brawl of China!
More commentary here, and more video here.
And a "welcoming" greeting to Joe Bidden, perhaps taken out of context by 1000's of news outlets:
"The United States has entered a long period of decline," wrote economist Xia Bin, who advises China's Cabinet and central bank, on his blog.
And Gary Locke kicking ass and taking names with his personal "diplomatic pouch" and the courage to wait in line at Starbucks!
But is Gary Locke really Chinese?
It’s as if their body was already dead and they had no attachment to it. The name for this quality in Chinese is Xu. Wang Xiangzai said, Xu Kong Ling Tong: Body as if dead (Xu), emptiness inside (Kong), lively elasticity of the spacial mind outside (Ling), and body functioning as a single liquid mass (Tong). So simply having Xu would not be enough, but it would be a heck of a head start.
It’s my theory that some of the founders of great martial arts systems were tortured or had torturous experiences which showed them that they could separate their spacial mind from their physical body in such a way that pain had no effect. And by no effect I mean that they didn’t feel the need to contract, recoil, or tense up in response to it.
And that brings us to Systema. I haven’t written about systema, or seen much in person or played around with anyone who swore by it, and I keep forgetting to order the book. But it has a lot of devotees and you can watch hours of Systema videos on Youtube.
The founders of Systema were members of the Russian special forces. From first hand accounts I’ve heard, hazing is a constant in the Russian military. So it wouldn't be too surprising to learn that the founders of Systema were tortured at some point. The Russian Orthodox Church kind of has a history of that too. It is my suspicion that they were among those rare individuals who happen to find torture liberating, in the sense that it freed them from fear of body inflicted pain.
Systema training has a lot of different types of hitting and beating, with small sticks, with big sticks, various objects and with hands of course. They have a whole thing about how you have to release the fear with the breath.
We could posit that there is a martial arts history of torturing people to perfection.
OH, go ahead and check out this silly site while your at it! Look at this... Hipster.
Does it cause more problems than it is worth? Is offering criticism a valuable method for improving everyone's skill through the heat of debate? Does the sting of criticism cause us to reflect and correct or is it more likely to drive us back into our shells? Under what circumstances does criticism simply shut down the debate, leaving us all poorer and less informed?
I don't know the answer. I also don't know where the 'do not cross' lines should be. I mean talking about somebody's mama is probably over the line, surely civility is of prime importance, but it's pretty easy for honesty to come into direct conflict with being nice.
So what do you think? Just how far can we go in criticizing other martial artists in public?
I'm guessing most readers already know my default stance. I was raised by wolves who believed that nobody ever changes their behavior unless they are forced to confront moral outrage. My wolf family trained me to argue from absolute truth. If a table full of people covered in beards and books are all arguing their various positions, each as if he or she had sole access to absolute truth, then a whole lot of heat and light is created. Everyone has a chance to view everyone else's ideas in the sharpest possible contrast. Everyone is equal. Everyone is free to add or subtract from everyone else's idea.
If a person doesn't have this training, however, it can be a bit overwhelming. But for me it's the best way to learn. That's probably why I've bonded with George Xu over the years. He loves criticism. He likes being blindsided by a challenging critique. A lot of people tell me that's a rare trait in the martial arts world. Too bad. Sharp criticisms have the power to cause people to think, change and adapt. Even if it turns out I'm totally off base in my criticism, the person being criticized may be inspired to come up with a new way of explaining themselves, or demonstrating their skill, in order to convince me to drop my objections. George Xu has always done this with me, even when I've roamed into areas I really have no place being, like the definition of a Chinese word. And no doubt, sometimes there is more heat than light, but in the long run, I think, the art itself is better for it.
It was 8:30 AM on a warm Thursday. After about 20 seconds of friendly posturing, we squared off for some fixed foot push hands. Seconds after contact I found my hand around the front of his neck, slowly and gently lifting him backwards. “We could do that,” he said and then proceeded to jump around like a feather weight boxer. “No, no,” I said, “I want to learn your game.”
The base idea of Tabby Cat’s theory is that push hands is not a game, it is a single attribute training drill. The attribute it trains is so key to Tai Chi, that until you acquire this attribute, nothing else matters (except money and sex). Before we discuss what that attribute is, lets address the consequences of this type of view.
Since historically speaking it is quite clear that the serious fun of martial arts developed in a social environment with theater, religious ritual, health ideas, and a wide range of prowess inspiring everyday problems, both social and asocial--the notion that a single attribute drill could be at the center of what defines Tai Chi is a profoundly Modern notion.
We tend to think of people like Yang Chengfu and his student, Zheng Man Qing, and his student, Ben Lo (Tabby’s teacher) as representatives of tradition. But Yang Chengfu most likely saw himself as a modernizer, and Zheng Man Qing even more so.
The idea that a profuse, weirdly complex, theatrical fighting art like Chen style Tai Chi could be whittled down to just an attribute drill and a simplified 37 move form with, as Ben Lo put it, “Fair-ladies hands,” could only have come about as the result of a Dr. Spock-like inspired purging of all irrational impurities.
Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it gets weird when all your students think you are the representative of a long and stable tradition. When in fact you represent only a small part of it. When in fact you were just playing around with language, trying to find words to describe your practice which were clear, simple and direct. The huge problem here is that words get stale. “Go with the flow,” was a great expression when it was first uttered, but now it is cracked and tasteless. The instruction, “Just relax,” has become as polysemous as “You’re so spiritual.”
So there we are in the park and I’m trying to understand what this single attribute is and how I can tweak the game of push hands in order to use it as a tool for acquiring this all important attribute. We cross hands again, this time I ignore the fact that Tabby is curving his chest inward making his head and neck vulnerable to any upward expanding movement. I let him lead me around and then suddenly he pushes me and I move my foot. I lose. We do it again, I lose again, and again. He says, “See, you’re really tense.” I reply, “Should I try to melt my tension when you push on me suddenly?” “Yes," he says. I try it, it doesn’t work. Then I push him without giving him a chance to lead me around. It works, I win. He says, “You can’t do it that way.” I’m confused, I say, “Your attacks are all straight forward and sudden. Can you do them slowly?” “Okay, he says.” When he attacks even a little bit slower, I have time to melt, and he has a much harder time getting me at all. His slower attacks sometimes reveal a connection to the ground and I win. But mostly I lose.
He clearly has a special attribute. The attribute is a wave, or surge that hits me before I feel his mass pushing me. But only just before, which is why he can’t do it slowly. If the wave could hit me a full second before his mass did, it would be way more impressive. The surge comes forward from belly height and seems to have influence all the way down to the feet. But it comes in the same way every time, so when it’s slow, or if I’m allowed to move my foot or if I attack any part of his body besides his belly or chest, the “attribute” doesn’t work.
I point this out and challenge him to do push hands flank to flank. He says, “The point of the drill is to acquire the attribute and then you can do anything you want with it.” “Okay,” I say, lets do it on the ground then. “Systema has drills like this, in every possible position and angle.” (Later I learn that he literally wrote the book on Systema!)
He doesn’t want to do it on the ground, so I offer, “I clearly see that you have acquired a valuable attribute, but for it to have any martial significance it would have to work in a surprise attack, in which you begin to fight from a terrible position. Can you do it if I’m grabbing you from behind?” I circle in slowly for the kill but he retreats to, “Ben Lo can do it from any position.” He describes a bunch of examples, but if I understand him correctly, Ben Lo is generally attacking fast.
I’m a little disappointed, I really want to be literally ‘blown away!’ I venture that what he is actually doing is leading me around until I make a mistake and reveal some structure or tension at which point he suddenly attacks. He agrees that he is basically doing this. I counter that it is quite divergent from fighting because in a fight, action trumps inaction. He asserts that it is an essential attribute drill which, once mastered, creates a quantum shift in movement and understanding.
I spend the rest of my time with Tabby in the park trying to do exactly what he is doing. I figure, I might as well try to learn as much as I can right there and then. His preferred position is one hand on my elbow and one hand reaching for my chest. I match this, as well as the inward curve of his chest. He says, “That’s a better position.” We push some more and then he treats me to a wonderful breakfast and an even better extended conversation on everything under the sun.
It’s been about three months since our meeting and I must say that in the process of deeply considering Tabby Cat’s ideas and developing my critic of them, I think I’ve improved a lot. I've been learning from both of our mistakes.
What was happening?
The idea of a single attribute drill is a brilliant Modern innovation. But shouldn’t there be some kind of limit on how long it takes a person to learn it? I mean at least with single attribute zazen, the practice of sitting still is the fruition, so there isn’t much pressure to prove you are enlightened. But with Tai Chi there is a reasonable expectation that at some point some serious ass kicking attributes will kick in. Really, if the single attribute takes more than ten years to acquire is it worth it? If it were only two years of training we were talking about I’d be like, “Yeah that’s the way to go. Attribute drills baby! Drill baby drill!”
But we are talking about less than a handful of Ben Lo’s students having acquired it over a period of 50 years. Yikes. Tabby mentioned that two students were super achievers, Terry Li (recently deceased) and Lenzie Williams. I have yet to meet them, but even if these guys are the cats meow, they are only two in how many 1000's of students?
Zheng Man Qing promoted Tai Chi for health, entertainment, and the cultivation of wuwei generally, and that’s awesome wonderfulness. I’m right there with him. I am not promoting the idea that there is anything special about me or that learning Tai Chi will make us superheros or enlightened or even better people. Tai Chi is art, Tai Chi is beauty. I'm with anyone who recognizes that. But as promoters of beauty we have a duty to make plain our flaws, and to correct them.
The five training principles Tabby promotes are simply inadequate to communicate the internal aspects of the art. They are:
- Body Upright
- Separate Weight
- Turn the waist
- Beautiful Lady's Hand
To illustrate this I will describe two problems Ben Lo has had teaching that I learned about talking with Tabby.
After years of teaching push hands, Ben Lo realized his students were getting worse. Students were simultaneously searching for tension in their opponent, when he found it, he would suddenly blast his opponent. This caused the loser to fear the sudden shock and develop chronic defensive tension. Meanwhile the winner was being rewarded for being more aggressive (more on why this is a problem below). Ben’s solution was to create a new game. He gave each partner a different role, one would only try to look for tension and the other would only try to evade it, after twenty minutes they would reverse. This resulted in improved yielding skills but it didn’t solve the problem. (The first time I pushed hands with a 5 year student of Ben Lo’s, I put my hand on top of his head and he yielded all the way to the ground! We were playing a completely different game.)
The second problem was that two types of students were coming to him, the jocks with “tense” full chests, and nerds with “collapsed” chests. Neither one was relaxed and he told them so, but after a while the “tense” students started to become collapsed too.
Here is what’s going on.
We have two bodies. An outer body, the thing with muscles that most people normally think of as a body, and an inner body. The inner body feels like empty space in the torso. I suspect that the inner body is more primitive in the evolutionary sense. Obviously this implies a composite body theory. The inner body is clumsy, very strong and innocent. It is somewhat like Freud’s Id. It has very simple primal desires. It lacks artifice, memory, and preferences.
Anyway, all normal human activity is a war between these two bodies.
The jock type of movement uses a tough outer body shape with a lifted chest in order to limit, direct, and constrain the inner body; however, the jock type uses the inner body for power. In the battle between the bodies the jock type of movement represents the inner body overpowering the outer body.
The nerd type of movement uses a collapsed but tense chest in order to de-power the arms by disconnecting them from the liquid mass of muscle. This is necessary for fine motor control. The nerd type of body has a strong collapsed chest and weak arms (the chest and arms have different liquid densities). In the nerd type of movement the inner body is sneaky and fairly quiet, but it can also manoever all around evading and repositioning to get to tricky angles. In the battle between the bodies the nerd type movement represents the outer body overpowering the inner.
What we actually want to cultivate in “internal arts” is each body doing a separate job, working together, but completely distilled from each other. So the outer body is dead, totally quiet and devoid of intent. The internal body is totally active and free. The internal body is moved indirectly by the spacial mind moving around in space. Once you have this conceptual framework it is easy to see Tabby Cat’s mistake.
Tabby Cat actually has a dead external body and a free internal body. That part he is doing correct, but he moves his internal body by keeping his mind in his belly. The more he can expand out from his belly in the direction of the ground and his opponent, the more effective his push is. The more his spacial mind extends down, the more force he has to float his opponent. To the extent that his spacial mind extends past his own hands into or beyond the opponent he can move the opponent without them feeling any structure in the attack. This is what we call internal power (neijing). Because his mind stays in his belly it is always pushing his mass, and given a moment to adjust to the unfelt attack, the secondary mass attack is easy to deflect. In fact, if the secondary attack is resisted and he presses it anyway, he will reveal a structure. And structure once revealed, can be crushed.
To use different language, he has huajing (transforming power), but he doesn’t know how to use it (not much ling--inner agility, intelligence). So when he goes to attack he sometimes uses huajing by accident but mostly retreats to anjing (hidden power). In the brief moment his mass is being pushed forward by his mind inside his dantian, he is exposing his jin, his structure and his root. This is why he can not attack slowly. This means that although he has reached the level where he can completely distill jing and qi in solo movement, he still mixes them under pressure.
What he should be doing is keeping his mind outside the body all the time. This will eliminate the initial need to lead the opponent around because the only way an opponent can go directly against outside the body force is if they have the same mind-outside-the-body skill set. His mistake is that he is leading his internal body in a direct way, when in fact he should be leading it in an indirect way.
The strongest indicator that this is Tabby’s problem is that even though it is on his list of 5 training principles above, he doesn’t have a clear upright posture. An upright posture comes from another related force called Central Equilibrium power (Zhongdingjin).
To practice Central Equilibrium power by oneself simply requires that one's liquid mass adjusts in relationship to the the center of liquid mass as any force goes out in any direction. It’s not very complex, but the outer body has to be dead-weight relaxed (xu) in order to do it. If the outer body is not dead-weight-relaxed, posture correcting muscles will be activated to bring the mass back on center, thus pitting the external body against the internal body in a battle. If central equilibrium is maintained exclusively by changes in the spacial mind, in Daoist terms, jing and qi remain distilled.
To apply Central Equilibrium power while fighting, the opponent’s mass must instantaneously be included in one’s liquid mass adjustment. When done correctly, the opponent’s incoming force is dispersed automatically and instantaneously by a continuously adjusting spacial mind. Thus, there is no advantage in evading by yielding the chest and neglecting uprightness.
In other words, yielding the chest is fundamentally an aggressive act because it is a set up for an outward attack (Lu into Ji in classic push hands terms). When we hit someone using Central Equilibrium power we never shoot out to a single point; as our mass spirals and expands to hit, it is moving equally in other directions. To use Wang Xiangzai’s language, “Power never comes out to a point, the body never breaks the qi egg.” Although the opponent gets clobbered, the body doesn't take on the experience of aggression. That's not much consolation for the injured party, but it's an interesting idea. No?
Tabby Cat has been doing a bit of writing lately and I recommend reading it.
I learned a lot from the exchange, and I have more to write about still. I'm still open to the idea of a single attribute drill that would eliminate a lot of wasted time. But in this case I would have to say it failed. There is so much detail to the internal martial arts that putting off learning it in hopes of some holy grail of power ultimately means never learning that detail at all. And Tabby is the case that proves the point, he studied Systema in hopes that it would fill in the gaps, and in the end he has retreated to Western Boxing and Yoga to supplement his Tai Chi. In this case, I think, even Modernity has failed.
Also, here is a cool new blog about what isn't new...ancient Tibet-o-civilization: Early Tibet.
And here is my friend Maija's fun Blog: Sword and Circle.
I don't know the story behind this blog but I like it, maybe you will too. Dark Wingchun.
I found that last blog because Maija published the following article on it (and Facebook), looking around the web she has written on this theme a few times but this is the newest incarnation: Random Flow.
I like her ideas a lot. My view of two person set flow routines (in reference to her random flow routines) is that if they are taught as techniques the purpose is lost. Knowing where the force is going to come from is what makes this type of practice safe even with momentum and power in the mix. Maija quotes her teacher Sonny, “If I know what you are going to do and where you are going to be next, I can beat you no problem!” That would be true if a person could truly know. But to me what exemplifies the great tradition of gongfu is movement which can not be stopped by any technique. It is an incredible presence. This means training two person flow drills until they have no gaps, until one is defended on all four sides while simultaneously attacking. The purpose of two person flow drills is to be able to beat an opponent even when he knows exactly what I am going to do. So in the end we must be talking about an identical experience, we train the form to get as close to totally undifferentiated chaos as is humanly possible. Which also happens to be my definition of the term Tai Chi.
Here is a video of some of my students doing a set flow drill (starts at 44 seconds in).
You also might want to check out this at Daoist Studies.org
And Livia Kohn has a new blog!
Here is the link to her Three Pines Press, and an interesting book on Sex in the Suwen.
I have so many blog posts I'd love to share, but you know what they say, "If you want to get something done, give it to someone who is already busy." I guess I wasn't busy enough! It will all have to wait for the new year.
In the meantime, I read The Body Has a Mind of It's Own, by Sandra Blakeslee. This is a marvelous book. It has no footnotes, which is a big drawback, but it summarizes the scientific literature on body mapping. This is not Body-Mapping the "therapy" I posted about a week or so ago, it is body mapping the theory that there are about 15 different three dimensional maps of space, motion, sensation, and awareness in our brain. Basically we know about the 15 different maps because researchers have been studying the weird stuff that happens to people when they get brain injuries. Years ago Oliver Sachs wrote the book The Man Who Mistook Her Wife for a Hat, and described the process, but a lot has happened since then.
If you want to explain Qi in scientific terms this is the way to go. Body maps, as metaphors, are a bit confining. I don't really think all 15 or so mechanisms should be called maps, and maybe none of them should, but the mechanisms by which Qi, Jing, and Shen can operate in a "quiet body" "active mind" situation have all been roughly sketched out in this book.
So I've started on a new project to become conversant in Kinesiology. I'm reading papers and books, and I'm even working on a paper with Josh Leeger whose blog covers the really interesting edge of new "fitness" experiments.
Speaking of which, the paper I wrote for the conference on Daoism Today about Martial Arts, Theater and Ritual has gotten enough positive feedback from the few readers I gave it to, that I'm going to put some real effort into publishing it. When I get back.
Also, I'm really hoping I can pull together a self-produced class for kids (ages 7-13) after school in the space I'm renting on Geary Street. Tentative start date in February.
Speaking of the space (5841 Geary St.), My Tai Chi and Qigong class there has been going great, feel free to drop in on us when we start up again Jan. 5th 2011.
I'm going to be taking over the renting and scheduling of the space, so if you want to rent it for classes or rehearsals of any kind, drop me a line, it's bright with mirrors, wood floor, and low cost.
And my morning Bagua Class will be open for new students beginning Jan 4th. 2011 so come on down and check out the funnest exercise in the world!
Since people look to me for expertise in the realm of horror films, here is my quick review of Black Swan:
(I'm probably the only one who is going to tell you what this film is about so be sure to hit the "Donate" button in the side bar if you are digging this blog.) Black Swan is about the conflict between technique and expression. A theme martial artists will totally dig. There isn't really any fighting in this film which is crazy, how can they make a film without fighting? Anyway, the film does a great job diving into the nightmare of having awesome skills that everyone recognizes and yet still not being able to dance (martial artists can replace the word fight with the word "dance" in that sentence if they want to). I loved it, anyone who has ever been consumed by "a practice" will relate. (Full disclosure: I closed my eyes whenever the nail clippers came out! Some things are even too much for me.)
If you missed the Kung Fu For Philosophers article in the New York Times, check it out. My first thought, "hey, dude, I could teach that class." In my class each week I would send half the class home with a different philosopher to study and digest. The next week when they returned we would pick two students to get on stage and fight. Richard Rorty verses Charles Taylor one week, Zhuangzi verses Spinoza the next. The students would have to fight and argue at the same time! If a student got tongue tied or beaten down, we'd put in a fresh one to keep the action rolling. (In the article the writer gets Zhuangzi wrong. Zhuangzi says uncertainty is real. The experience of uncertainty is real too. The "transformation of things" is not something to "go along with," it simply is. We are imaginational beings-- as much butterfly as man from one dream to the next.) If you would like me to teach this class post a comment!
I'll be back January 1st, 2011.
Devi Protective Offense is a site dedicated to clearing up the confusions. It is specifically designed by women, for women. Teja is selling a product and a service which looks great.
You can watch a few of her videos for free, and she has this overview (click to enlarge).
She isn't dealing with historical development however, which in my opinion means she is too quick to discard traditional methods and forms. In the video below she says that men have created unrealistic strategies for self-defense because they have trouble comprehending what it is like to be small and weak. She is correct, but to me that is an argument for preserving traditional arts not discarding them. Women were involved in the creation of many traditional martial arts particularly those related to performance and hospitality. But even more importantly, I was a kid once. I know exactly what it is like to fight someone three times my size. Northern Shaolin was designed specifically for kids and it is extraordinarily well designed for kid's self-defense. The internal arts take a long time to learn and require adoption levels of intimacy, but all the techniques I teach do assume that you are fighting a much stronger opponent (weakness with a twist is my motto). Everything else she says is spot on. (hat tip: Chiron)