Becoming Like a Child

You may have come across the phrase “to return to the source,” or “to become like a child”. Besides the obvious, such as reversing the years of bad posture through therapeutic qigong, not smoking or drinking, and getting a great amount of sleep, I think we can learn a little more from this phrase.

References would include TTC28, 49 and 55 (ex. “Become as a little child once more.” [28]). This is connected with the idea of returning to the source (ex. TTC16 “Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.” and others). We also connect this with another idea in 16; “The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.” We also see in TTC40, “Returning is the motion of the Tao.

I’m pointing all of this out to try and draw a picture that the idea of becoming like a child is central to the practice of Taoism. The context of the first three quotes links the idea of becoming like a child (or “returning” to the state of being like a child) to the idea of returning to the source. And the idea of returning is the motion of the Tao. I.E. the way.

The next thing we should look at is what is this Tao, how is it known, etc.

In TTC25 we read “I do not know its name. Call it Tao.“. Whatever this thing is, is something the reader has found a way to experience, and yet cannot describe it beyond what he has written here. While it’s “true” in a sense that to describe it may be to ruin it (we’ll leave that one alone for now), we can still note it’s properties and thus perhaps play a game of “I spy” with the clues therein presented.

  • Being great, it flows. It flows far away. Having gone far, it returns. [25]
  • He who follows the Tao; Is at one with the Tao. [23]
  • Oh, it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form. [21]
  • Yielding is the way of the Tao. The ten thousand things are born of being. Being is born of not being. [40]
  • The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, [2]
  • The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. They grow and flourish and then return to the source. [16]

Some interesting points are being made here. Following the Tao means following along with a natural external force; i.e. yielding to it. This means one is not intentionally applying a premeditated choice to one’s actions. And yet, out of this yielding form will arise. I.E. it is not necessarily a formless thing; there is indeed form! Secondly, just as form exists within formlessness, formlessness exists within form — meaning, this is not a one way street — the ten thousand things rise and fall without cease. They are constantly being born of nothingness, while at the same time returning to nothingness. All of this requires being “at one” with the Tao. At one with the yielding.

But what is one yielding to? After all, in the practice of one’s solo form one must yield — this is the practice — and out of this practice of yielding must come the energy and the health, the skill in push hands, and at least basic competence in sparring.

An important clue arises in TTC25 which insinuates “man” is the “king”, one of the “four great powers of the universe”. We also hear the important clue “The king is also great”. We then find the following passages;

  • The Tao is forever undefined. Small though it is in the unformed state, it cannot be grasped. If kings and lords could harness it, The ten thousand things would come together And gentle rain fall. Men would need no more instruction and all things would take their course. [32]
  • Tao abides in non-action, Yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, The ten thousand things would develop naturally. [37]
  • The growth of the ten thousand things prevents their drying out. The leadership of kings and lords prevents the downfall of the country. [39]
  • Men hate to be “orphaned,” “widowed,” or “worthless,” But this is how kings and lords describe themselves. [42]

We also link the “sage” and the “king” via TTC60; “Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish. Approach the universe with Tao, […] But the sage himself will also be protected.

The Elephant in the Room

Now we come to a central problem; Tai Chi isn’t a Taoist art. We can be absolutely certain that Tai Chi arose out of the practice of Shaolin Hong Quan, Pao Chui, and other similar arts including the practice of military kung fu as described in Qi Jiguang’s journal of 32 postures. There shouldn’t be any mysteries here — the English translation [local copy] is available and be sure to check out the many internet articles on the subject such as this one from fightland.

The current research links the earliest forms of Tai Chi to the Chen Village (which everyone agrees with — Yangs, Wus, Suns, Etc. all included) but sheds new light on the Li family, and the connection to the nearby Thousand year Temple. “Fighting Words” by Douglas Wile [local copy] is the best introduction to the story I could find online. The point is to say that Tai Chi did not arise directly out of Taoist Theory.

I will also quote M. Chen Zhenglei, Chen Zhonghua, and others in saying that the original method of training in Chen village did not include standing meditation.

I will also, however, note that according to M. Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Fa-Ke did in fact perform standing meditation, sometimes for hours at a time. Since this practice was only spoken of by Feng after he was introduced by Hu Yaozhen, and none of the early stories mentioned this, (but) only the way in which Chen Fa-Ke practiced forms, we may conclude that this practice may have been introduced by Hu Yaozhen and adopted by Chen Fa-Ke. This is not as much of a conjecture as one may think; it is on record that Chen Fa-Ke modified the Chen style he was practicing to incorporate practices of Qigong he learned from Hu Yaozhen; it was Chen Fa-Ke’s conclusion that this allowed him to reach deeper levels. However, it was never a requirement of Chen style at the time he came to Beijing. Note: I’m not trying to put down the practice of standing. The Chens and others are/were aware of the practice, and aware of it’s effects. There are other factors in consideration here. Suffice it to say, whether or not it was originally present in some proto-version or present in some art included to create the Tai Chi of the Chens, it was cut and cut for reason. The reason I have on file currently is that it is not required in the long run; you can get the same benefit from doing the form. Or in otherwords, the practice of standing meditation is simply different from doing the form, and the form is what is required. This is from three sources; my teacher, Chen Zhenglei’s interviews as I recall, and a source I can’t quite place at the moment. But, read the above and you will notice that standing in a static posture isn’t really what is being discussed here, rather a constant rise and fall. A dichotomy. A dualism. Yet, a one. Motion and stillness together — constantly rising, constantly returning. Thus, I do not necessarily hold that the practice of standing is required (as useful as it may be for some aspects of training). No, this constant rising and falling sounds more like another kind of energy training I have heard of!

Becoming like a Child

So how does all this affect us in becoming like a child? I’ve often had various insights into this, and I couldn’t possibly write them all down now. But hearing of a recent scientific study into children and weightlifting kicked something off for me. I was wondering, why is it that people started learning martial arts in Chen village (and other places) at a young age, if their bodies aren’t able to benefit and recover from strenuous exercise until later in life? Then I came across the following:

Research shows that prepubescent children can get stronger following a supervised weightlifting program, but the strength they gain comes from an increase “in the number of motor neurons that are ‘recruited’ to fire with each muscle contraction.” Basically, as your kids practice the barbell lifts, their motor neurons become more efficient, and they’re better able to display strength. Your kids won’t start packing on real muscle from strength training until they reach Tanner Stage 4 puberty.

All of this seemed to come together for me into something my teacher told me many years ago. “If you want the Kungfu of Tai Chi, you have to do (this move) 10,000 times (per day).” That’s going to be around 3 hours of training if you take short breaks every 20 or 30 minutes. The move itself is inconsequential, he was just talking about the core moves in Tai Chi. But it’s the familiarity which is important; the power arises from the familiarity of repetition. This was my third source above; the concept of the familiarity arising from repetition. This concept itself is well-known in kungfu circles, but tying it into a form of power generation is interesting. One must know strength, but keep a woman’s care [TTC28]. For children, they can’t make appreciable gains in strength via muscle mass; instead their power comes entirely from familiarity, from the mind. Seeing things in this light was (is) a big deal for me. It seems to bring a lot of unrelated concepts together for me.

The Purpose of Forms Training

Given that we have been told essentially that everything is present in the practice of the long form (i.e. all forms of qigong and jibengong that you need to develop the basic jings), it now seems that the purpose of the form and teaching the applications of the form is to present to us what formlessness looks and feels like. This striking contradiction, to learn form to appreciate formlessness, could only arise if the formlessness with which we are being presented has some driving external force other than frivolous choice. Obviously, the moves are not done exactly like the combat application. This was a point driven home to us explicitly by Hong Junsheng. But, I believe there is indeed a reason for this beyond mere tradition; the dong li; this driving force; if you have heard of it, or felt it, such a thing must exist behind the mere appearance of form, to inform it. Thus we are introduced to formlessness via following, yielding to this thing.

First you learn the form. Then you feel the energy; which is just the feeling of your body, moving around. Try it yourself; adopt a “crazy” posture, like a crazy fool; make a weird face, hold your arms in a weird position. This isn’t natural! So, then, isn’t it true that you already know what is natural and unnatural, comfortable and uncomfortable? Of course you do. It’s not secret or mysterious, but it only comes from long practice.

With this energy you will begin to be able to correct your own form. First follow the external form of the teacher but make internal changes based on your own energy. If you want to make an external change first make sure that it isn’t easier and more orthodox to make an internal change first! The energy is the teacher — it’s what you will be yielding to in the practice of the form. No move may be uncomfortable. How do you fix an uncomfortable move? Try it slower. Relax more! That’s really about it. But in all things it must be functional, it must adhere to the principles laid out herein. It must be “Tai Chi”. The best guide to what this (“Tai Chi”) looks and feels like is the form of a highly accomplished master.

As your skill increases so will your kungfu eye; soon you will be able to follow what you did not follow before. There will come a time when you have to follow your own way a little more and rely on yourself a little more. If you are doing this correctly your instructor should approve. But there are many mistakes and dead ends on this path and you should always accept the corrections by your instructor. Eventually you will be ready for push hands, which is another kind of teaching. At this point you will not need so many forms corrections yet you will need to practice the form more than ever before. You will find it to be a kind of battery which charges your skill in push hands.

Those who skip the practice of push hands will not be able to develop the energy correctly and risk falling into strange ways.