Letting Go

5 09 2009

濘道 Muddy Road

Zen Monks on pilgrimage - art by Sato Zenchu

Zen Monks on pilgrimage – art by Sato Zenchu

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones complied by Paul Reps

I recently began studying tai chi with a new teacher after 12 years at the previous school. My former teacher is world class in forms competition, and was very precise in correcting us.

My new teacher is…different. His postures are not the same even if the form is one I have studied for years. I spent a long time making my postures and movements as precise as my old 60-years-plus body would allow me.

Now things are not the same. The sword may be held at a different level or the footwork is slightly changed. In the most difficult instances, the transition from one movement to the next is different.

No, the hardest thing is letting go. I firmly believe that what goes around comes around. Over the years, every sin I have ever committed against someone else has, in turn, been committed against me.

When teaching taijiquan, some of the most difficult students are those who have studied a different martial art. You show them a movement and their brain relates it to something they have learned in this other art and makes an often incorrect connection. Brains are funny that way.

“No,” I say, “that move looks the same but it is not, and the intent is different as well.”

So, here I am trying to equate what I have learned with what I am trying to learn. Fortunately, I am old enough to keep my mouth shut…well, at least some of the time. I am also lucky to have read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones umpty-gazillion times, and I give thanks that “Muddy Road” is one of my very favorites from that excellent book.

Actually, letting go of the old tai chi chuan forms is good practice for life. As we progress from birth to death we must let go of many things, more, I suspect, than all of the newer things we grasp.

To paraphrase a Harlan Ellison story, “Sometimes you have to let-be, a little.”

On top of all the good I get out of playing tai chi I am also playing at letting go. But, ai-ya, it is not easy.

Note: the Chinese characters for Muddy Road at the beginning of this are not the same as those used in the Tuttle edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. If my grammar creates some enormous faux pas, blame me.

Zhang San Feng

Zhang San Feng


意 Yi–Intent

22 08 2009
Pushing Hands tow.com

Pushing Hands tow.com

This was originally going to be called “moving” or “movement.” After a long period of sloth, continuing to play the tai chi chuan forms but lazily, not pushing myself, I have entered a new era of physical activity. It gets harder as one ages but easier, at the same time because the muscles are there, they just need to be reminded of their purpose.

This morning I arrived at tai chi class and my teacher, Dr. Wang, was standing by himself. He lifted his right hand in invitation and we began to play at pushing hands. Very quickly, my legs started to burn and my shoulder ached. He is a doctor, and he sensed this and we changed sides. Then we began the two handed pushing hands and I was clumsy and somewhat confused, but good old memory came through again and soon we were playing pretty smoothly, considering my under-used muscles.
Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Then into the class itself with the 42 Standard International Competition Form with shaking legs, I had to rest, often, and finally the 42 Standard International Competition Sword Form. Trying to stand on one leg with the other knee raised, pointing a sword, well I was pretty pathetic. But in the end I felt really good, more lively. I knew that more oxygen was entering my muscles and my qi was flowing better.

Driving home in the mid-morning coolness, enjoying the late-summer blue skies, I almost glowed with happiness. It feels so good to move and with purpose, and to accomplish goals–we take the glory of our bodies for granted far too often.

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

功夫 Gongfu (Kungfu), to achieve, to acquire skill through hard work, what a splendid concept. So, I was moving again and it felt good. Then why Yi, intent? In Chinese martial arts Yi is a primary concept. Simply put, without intent nothing can be accomplished. If you want a drink of water, your intention to pick up a glass must come first before your hand reaches for it. Before we acquire skill at tai chi chuan, we must begin with intent. I have a friend who “intended” on taking this class, but he said he was afraid, it had been so long and now new students and a new teacher…he did not come today. Did he have Yi? Probably not.

Driving home today I passed a young woman. She was clad in comfortable but very nice clothing and she was walking on the sidewalk. The way she carried herself, her stride her posture, her Yi and its culmination told me she was comfortable with physical activity and with her body.

Shortly thereafter, several blocks behind, along came another woman. She was decked out in what I assume is the latest jogging gear, headband, iPod strapped to her bicep, and her shoulders were lifted and tense and her elbows were thrust out and up and her body parts did not work in unison. Each section of her body was singing its own song and it was not harmonious when played together. This woman was obviously not comfortable with her body.

So we have to have the intent and then we must follow through. Just thinking about that drink of water is not enough. Intent and then the appropriate action. Two sayings come to mind: Yi 意, Chi 氣, Li 力. Intent then Internal Energy then strength or power. It all starts with intent.
Dr. John Painter, my Grand Shifu–teacher–says “The mind commands, the body moves, qi (chi) flows.” This makes the most sense to me. Intent then movement and movement produces energy. Of course this means proper movement like the young woman walking.
When I began studying the Yijing (I Ching) many, many years ago, it spoke often of the “Superior Man.” For modern times I change that, and my favorite passage is “The Superior Person stakes the force of life on following the force of will.” Ha! I tried to follow this and was knocked on my ass so many times…I did not understand the most important part, “Superior.” This didn’t work if one was not superior meaning upstanding, honest, gentle, strong…following the four virtues–Honesty, Humility, Patience, Sincerity. So equate “proper” movement with the “superior” person.
This was going to be about the glory of movement, and it still is, but first we must have Yi. Then go forward with the four virtues and celebrate your body and movement. Taijiquan is sometimes called “The Dance of Life.” Regardless of how you move, make it a dance, relax and enjoy yourself.

Dr. Painter on Yi: http://seattlesilverdragon.wordpress.com/2009/02/01/yi-intention-a-key-to-chinese-internal-martial-arts/