“If you want what I have, then do what I do.”
Bend before breaking,
Weigh before bending,
Enter before Weighing,
and don’t think about seizing;
It’s a subtle insight,
four ounces defeat a thousand pounds.
Like a fish hidden in deep waters,
the final chapter needs not be revealed.
–(Tao Te Ching Chapter 36)
All famous translations I have checked seem to botch this chapter. They give a direct translation, which disjoints the first and second parts of the chapter. Examples abound; Leary, DT Suzuki, Leggae, Lin Yutang, even Red Pine, none of them seem to understand the author’s intention is to convey what the subtle insight is to the reader.
Spoiler alert, the subtle insight is not “the weak defeats the strong”. That is, rather, an effect — or, enabled by — the understanding and application of the subtle insight.
For example, which translation explains the nature of the imagery of the fish in a deep pool of water (not merely in “a pool of water”, but a “deep pool”)? It is like water moved by an unseen fish; the fish cannot leave the pool, but nonetheless it’s effect is seen from outside. I think catching that fish goes a great way towards making a meal out of the subtle insight of Chapter 36. Another harmonious proverb is the story of the doctor who treats people before they get sick.
Here I have rewritten the chapter to apply to traditional martial arts such as Tai Chi, or Aikido, in an attempt to point out this “subtle insight.”
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Tai Chi Test!
Instructions: Read and answer the questions. The test begins at 5am and you must turn in your papers between 7am and 7:30am. You must answer all questions fully and you may not leave before the allotted time.
- Carrying body and soul and embracing the one, can you avoid separation?
- Attending fully and becoming supple, can you be as a newborn babe?
- Washing and cleansing the primal vision, can you be without stain?
- Loving all men and ruling the country, can you be without cleverness?
- Opening and closing the gates of heaven, can you play the role of woman?
- Understanding and being open to all things, are you able to do nothing?
- Giving birth and nourishing, bearing yet not possessing, working yet not taking credit, leading yet not dominating, this is the primal virtue.
Wait a moment. Number seven isn’t a question! Ahh, so that’s why we have to read them all first. The answer is hidden in the test questions.
So let’s see, what did Sifu teach me? Think back. What would Sifu say about this?
1. In Wuji posture, avoid separation, i.e. into yin and yang. This means relax everything. So you don’t have weight on one leg or another; you don’t have tension in one shoulder or another, both hands are equally relaxed. There is no preference or readiness in your posture, no idea informing directionality. It’s just a relaxation posture.
2. We can let go of our shape, and become like a newborn babe. This will allow us to more easily observe the small. Similar to No. 1.
3. The primal vision is probably the vision which can see the primal unity. It must be without stain. One may not be tired, and one must avoid alcohol, smoking, even coffee and sugar. In our modern life we are simply not as relaxed as in prior generations. So we must take special care to relax and fang song.
4. Trying to win, or trying to impose your will (like, applying a technique) can end up hurting people. Therefore it is better to follow than to lead.
5. In utilization (opening and closing) this would mean in use. We could consider form or push hands. Playing the role of woman is the “asking hand”, the 試應手 (shi4 ying4 shou3); “yose-miru”, or (sorry, wrong word) “yosu-mi”, in Japanese. It is a term from the game of Go (Wei-qi). So instead of initiating upon touch, play the role of the receiver. Ex. in push hands one must play the follower. These are good first steps.
6. Once you have ingrained all eight directions, do not intend to follow any one of them, but allow the direction to emerge on it’s own.
7. It is said then, that it must be flowing and continuous, without breaks, stops or starts. But if this is forced, it is not the best way. For example if one moves in a straight line it is surely because one has overlaid their own mental imagery over their body, placing it into subjugation by the will of the mind, instead of following the natural surroundings.
Overall, we should pay special attention to the principle of mercy and not the principle of cruelness. Be grateful and stand before the teacher and wait, with attention, smile and listen! This way is easier to learn more. Thus only those with good morals will achieve success.
I had joined the Taoist Tai Chi society at Age 16 after a few years of experimenting with meditation and yoga. I had read that Tai Chi was the supreme ultimate martial art. I wanted to be able to defend myself, and I figured that if I learned Tai Chi I would be able to defend myself against bullies, even if they knew another martial art — like Tae Kwon Do, or Karate. In fact I had initially gone to the local Tae Kwon Do school. However, it just did not sit right with me. My heart was set on learning Tai Chi so after the first month I went and joined.
As a matter of fact, some of my father’s co-workers were senior members of the club. This helped me get on the good side of the teachers in the club and I dedicated myself to it. I went to every class.
After the first year I moved to Winnipeg and spent the next two years volunteering in the Winnipeg Taoist Tai Chi Society. I would just go there after school and stay until 8 or 9pm when they closed. I would work at the front desk and when no one was around I would practice Taoist Tai Chi. Although I had avoided weapons forms and workshops until that point (as I was just a poor high school student,) I did try to learn some push hands from the senior members of the club. They were reluctant and showed me something, but with no one to practice and with no real interest from the club that idea died down quickly. I investigated the “Lok Hup” and “Hsing I” and sword forms that the club taught to advanced students, but found them wanting. Frankly, they weren’t very good. I began to feel something missing. I had been told by senior club members by that point that Tai Chi wasn’t really a martial art. I had heard tales of other styles of Tai Chi that had been corrupted, and that only the Taoist Tai Chi society had the real art. I didn’t really understand or accept these statements, being young, but I went with them, being young. But it was when Moy Lin-Shin himself sent a memo to all clubs which was posted to the wall that Taoist Tai Chi was definately not a martial art, and had no martial art in it — that I realized I did not belong in that club. You see what happened was, some schools in Toronto broke away from the Taoist Tai Chi society and Mr. Moy became very angry that his deception had been exposed. He sent out the notice that anyone who practiced any other style of tai chi was to be placed upder suspicion and maybe kicked out of the club. And he was very explicit that it was not a martial art.
The growth of the CTF in those days was stimulated by the lack of alternatives to the TTCS. Happily, those alternatives exist today. The entire martial arts and Tai Chi landscape has changed. The continuing challenge for the CTF is to adapt to these changes and to continue to serve the needs of the Tai Chi community at large.
Things were a little different in Winnipeg. At least at that time, there was really only the one school of Tai Chi.
Sifu Patrick Kelly
I decided to look up Chinese Kungfu schools in the Yellow Pages. There were two; Temple Knights and the Ching Wu Athletic Association. There was also a Muay Thai club that a friend of mine was interested in, and a Tae Kwon Do school. In those days, Winnipeg only had 600,000 people living in it, so there were not many options. So the choice I made was easy, I went to the Ching Wu Athletic association. The first time I walked in, I saw Sifu David Cliffe practising a form in what you might consider a shuai jiao outfit — kind of like a karate gi on top but with kungfu pants. He told me to come back at a different time because as it turned out it was a holiday (or something) and the school was closed.
When I came back at the appointed time, I was the first one there. And up the stairs came Sifu Patrick Kelly, although I did not know it at the time. He was in a way unassuming and I didn’t realize he was a teacher there. He took me into the front room where there was a desk and I sat opposite him. He asked me why I wanted to learn Kung Fu. I told him I liked Jacky Chan and I wanted to learn how to defend myself. He had a binder with information on different styles. One of them was praying mantis, another was five elders. There may have been a few others. I told him I wanted to learn Tai Chi. He had also asked me if I learned martial arts before, so I told him about my time at the Taoist Tai Chi society. Well by this time other people had started to come in so he asked me to start along with the class. What followed was a pretty standard karate school warmup but then we did wushu line exercises. Kicks, punches, and so forth.
The two forms I was taught were Lohan Shiba Shou — the 18 hands of Lohan, and the Ba Bu Lian Quan — eight step linked fist. I was told these were the two foundation styles of both Eagle Claw and Praying Mantis — and were, overall, excellent beginner kungfu forms. I found the forms challenging but also exhilirating. The requirements of these forms — deep stances, strong endurance and leg strength, power and precision, were at once the same as and also completely unlike the Taoist Tai Chi I had been learning. Over the next several months Sifu Patrick Kelly explained many things to me such as, you must first learn to be hard before you can learn to be soft, lessons about “mothering”, and so on. Many guidance. But the one thing that struck me the greatest is that he expressed the fire of kung fu. There was something about him — something about the way he did his forms — which was special. Apart from others.
Sadly, after only perhaps five months I had to move away for my university. It was a very sad day for me. I won’t forget what he said to me when I left — that it was a pity I had to go because he was just starting to like me. It’s things like this that defined Sifu Patrick Kelly — an uncompromising, almost Killik flair, a precision and a lively energy that shone off of him. I have to this day never met anyone else with the same visible skill as his — except…
In any case, I had made friends at that school and I will always remember those times fondly, even though they are in the past.
The magic begins to fade
After I had left University I went back to visit Ching Wu for a while, but things had changed. They didn’t really teach Kung Fu any more the way they did previously. In fact the people there seemed to have changed their tune and were of the opinion that Kung Fu couldn’t really be used to fight. In stead I was asked to spar with boxing gloves. I did it, but it wasn’t my style, not really. I wanted to go back and continue my education there. But I could not. Also, as I had fallen upon some hard times, I had to give up my practice almost a year earlier. I was not in the best of shape, and when Patrick Kelly came to visit the club, despite my enthusiasm about meeting him and learning again, he was at best lukewarm. It was understandable, as I did not live up to his expectations. I was deflated but not crushed over that. It was more of a push to resolve myself to resume my practice.
Over the next three years I had found myself living in Toronto, struggling to survive as a 19 to 21 year old (or so). I had many adventures in Toronto in those days. I lived in many different places, made many different friends. I had resumed the practice of the two forms Patrick Kelly taught me, and to this day I retain a passing familiarity with them, and will not forget them — but as it turned out I would never meet him again. I do not know what happened to him. And now that I live in Taiwan I have finally given up on contacting him. But, someday, it would be nice to just be able to say thank you. It is important because he was my first real Sifu, if even only for a short time. I recognized his value, somehow, and that had an effect on me which lasted. And for that he does deserve many thanks.
It takes three years to find a master.
I had spent many years touring the Tai Chi clubs of Toronto. Li Lairen, Rising Sun, Andy James, Eddie Wu’s, Ji Hong — you name it — even some other clubs, like Augusta Hung Gar, Hong Luck, and basically everything. If it was taught I visited it. I even rooted out some special gems, like one of Wan Lai-Sheng’s students in Alexandra, and one of Feng’s disciples that was hiding out in Toronto at the time. I even met a monk that did a strange form of internal arts that was like a combination of Sun Style and Chen Style. Never seen it since. But no one ever really struck me as being a match to Patrick Kelly. This doesn’t mean they were not good. In retrospect I might have been better off just going to Eddie Wu’s school — There’s really nothing wrong with that! But it’s just not how things worked out. During this time I spent many long hours in the parks of Chinatown learning from the older generation, following various groups throughout the morning.
I had gotten involved in Taoism and Buddhism as a way to escape my depressing living conditions. I remember attending sunday lunch at the Chinese Buddhist temple near the park, because I did not have any money for food. They gave me some free books. Sutras, I think. I didn’t have a place to live at the time so I couldn’t really keep many things but I held on to those little books for a while. Some of the sutras really appealed to me and were very pretty to read.
I would spend hours in the Toronto Public Library AV section, watching Chinese operas and old martial arts performances. One of my favourites was the 1991 Canadian Taiji and Push Hands tournament which featured a performance by none other than Sifu Patrick Kelly. He was visibly above everyone else on the tape. It was astounding. I would often shed a tear of regret and wonder to myself, “What have I done?” as if all of it was my fault. It probably was, somehow. I could have practiced harder. I could have tried to stay. My life was a failure and I wondered aloud if I had only become a kungfu master instead my life would have been better. My education was a waste. I threw myself into practice even more and would often spend 3 or 4 hours in the park every morning with the seniors. I made progress but it was slow, and there was no one there to really guide me. I fell deeper into depression and almost lost everything.
Life was not working out very well for me. I had managed to graduate Humber College with honors but due to the 1999 tech bubble most people who were applying for the same jobs as I was had many years of experience and I did not. I stuck to my guns about it, and kept a stiff upper lip, but I never did find a job in the computer industry.
Woodgreen Community Center
One day I had heard tale of a Tai Chi instructor in Woodgreen Community Center. Whispers, really. I went to visit and I was utterly astounded. Now, how did I find out? I’m not really sure. It may have been, I was looking for community centers to teach the 24 form in, as a volunteer, as a way to try and build up references for work.
When I went to Woodgreen however, I met two instructors there who had the same if not more energy and liveliness as Sifu Patrick Kelly. They even knew who he was and were fond of him! Apparently he had moved to China and was learning from a master there. Well, that explained why I couldn’t find him.
I recognized the value of what I was being taught but I had a very hard life and I was poor. The fact is I simply could not afford to go to lessons all the time. Nevertheless I practiced hard and within six months I had achieved visible results. Sifu made me demonstrate the form in front of the class but I was mortified with embarrassment so I don’t think I did a good job. But it was experiences like that which defined my time with them. I look back at those days with a certain natsukashiikute — I had spent a long time in the martial arts community of Toronto, visiting various schools — Andy James’ school, Li Lairen’s school, Hong Luck, Augusta Hung Gar, and many others. Finding my sifus was like finally coming home, it was all such a wonderful experience.
Yet, meeting them showed me that in reality I was not yet ready to learn kung fu in the first place.
The Diary of a Failure
In the early years I had tried to learn from Sifu many times and I failed many times because of my karma. Because I was not ready, my life was not ready and needed to be fixed. For a long time I struggled to fix my life. After a long time I was able to return to my Sifus, variously over the years. Finally in 2017 and 2022 I was able to return and finally grasp the most important lessons and to achieve lineage in our family system.
I used to think the most important lesson I was taught was by Patrick Kelly, which is to have the fire to push yourself. Yet now I realize that fixing your life first and taking your time with personal development as well as kung fu development is the greatest lesson. Sometimes, pushing yourself too hard will cause you to hurt yourself. I had never really believed this or understood similar phrases like “reach for the cart before the horse,” but one day I decided that I would accept it even if I did not believe it. It was only then that I realized the truly most important lesson was that I had to fix my life before I would be able to learn kung fu.
Even if you feel sick and horrified that you are not yet good enough, it is no matter, you must relax and take things one step at a time. Panic will not help, it takes time. You can take solace in the idea that walking the road is 99.999% of the art, and as long as you are walking the correct road, does it really matter where you are on it?
“You do not choose a style, you choose a teacher…”
And so I did what I could to just accept the way in which I was taught by my teachers. After so many years, they had made changes to their form. The 20 postures became 24. Moves in Yilu were changed. In fact in the end, I had to learn many things I didn’t want to learn — only to realize later that I actually liked them and to see how helpful they were! It was only when I was able to accept this that I was able to understand everything and make real progress. Not just in Kungfu but in my life. And, I will carry on these important lessons to future generations.
I am now the 4th generation.
This is both a blessing and a curse.
I never forgot anything my Sifus ever taught me. Even Sifu Patrick. I still remember what he said to me.. “The secret of Tai Chi is…” oh, but I can’t reveal the secrets of course. 🙂
I still remember what he said when I left. I still remember those two forms he taught me. Learning from him and Sifu David was a valuable preparation to my later studies; I remember what he said; ‘When you do the form in front of him, do it his way, and when you do the form in front of me, do it my way.’ This didn’t explain what would happen if both of them were there at the same time, but I didn’t ask. Years later I had the same experience with my sifus. But the different approaches taught me quite a lot about what the form is and how it should be done.
When I think about how famous and important my teachers are, and their teachers before them, and Da Shi Wang, I am somewhat stunned. So instead I just look at it as if through a dream; the magnitude of it does not really affect me. What changed is that I came to understand that Sifu is a real person and not a movie star. This changed my perspective and made me understand that I could do it — I could succeed — that anyone could do it and all they needed was a dream.
I am the 4th generation now. There are others but they are not like me. This is a blessing and a curse. Many of them are more successful than me. Many of them trained with sifus longer than me. Many of them are better than me. But there is something about being last that I am very happy with. When I look at the others and see what they have done, and what they are doing, I wonder. We are all a family, but when is the family reunion? I feel like I want to stand up and say, everyone, let’s have a barbecue at my place! But, I live in China now, so no one would come.
The weight and the responsibility is numbing, but with hard work the load feels lighter and lighter.
It is now my responsibility to pass on and preserve these important traditions. It can be both a blessing and a curse; but one of the most important things my sifus taught me is that I get to choose which one it will become.
The new wave is coming! I am so excited!
So I had this friend, and he worked hard. No, I mean, he really worked hard. He trained 4 hours a day, then after that he taught classes at his teacher’s kung fu school. In fact for a while I think he had his own school. This guy was in the zone. He started early, maybe around 9 or 10. He was basically a “master”, or in-the-running to become one. He should have easily baishi’d and gone on to carry the linage.
Then when he was 25 he just stopped.
I mean boom, ok, it’s over. No more kung fu.
Ya wanna know what happened?
Really? You want to know what was the big deal?
He realized he would never make any money doing kung fu so he quit and got a normal job somewhere doing something like a chef or bus driver or accountant. You know, adult continuing education. It worked out for him. he has money now. I think, for a while, he tried (like so many others) to cross-over into some kind of functional training/fitness instruction. But in the end he became something like an accountant or a bus driver.
So yeah that’s it. Another life destroyed. Dreams crushed. A lifetime wasted.
There’s no money in this game. There’s no hope.
Someone once wrote of Taijiquan, “There are no secrets.”
Well, of course, there are secrets. But at the same time, there are no secrets. This is because most of the time knowing something you are not supposed to know just means you know something you aren’t supposed to know yet. To the Chinese this is veiwed as a giant waste of time — “reaching for the far and ignoring the near” — and is considered the cause of most of the failures in the Kungfu world. About 100 years ago, I believe, a teacher in the Jing Wu men (whose name I forget but will look up later) lamented that the major sickness in the kungfu world is that players chase after skills they are simply not ready to express.
Thus, I come to reveal one of Kungfu’s many secrets — a secret you likely will not understand, or appreciate. So then you may wonder why I am coming to reveal this secret. It’s to put a seed in your mind, so that when you are ready you will re-discover what I have said for yourself. The secret is Mala powder. Ma meaning “numbness” and “la” meaning spice. According to Wikipedia:
The term málà is a combination of two Chinese characters: “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (hot)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.
The numbness is caused by Sichuan pepper, which contains 3% hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. The recipe often uses dried red peppers that are less spicy than bird’s eye chili, which is widely used in Southeast Asian cuisines.
Okay, so what’s the secret then? The secret is that this spicy hot pepper flavour releases endorphins, and burns your mouth so much that it can give you an epiphany. Just that, the change of mind and the subsequent devotion to spicy food — becoming a spicy food afficionado, a pepper expert, maybe even growing your own peppers — and also a deepening appreciation of Chinese culture in general, will help your Kungfu. Not much of a secret, is it? Oh, but it is deeper than you can imagine. It probably hasn’t even hit you yet that you just learned two new Chinese words — that is, if you didn’t know Chinese already.
Now I’m going to tell you a deeper secret about Szechuan cooking that is unknown in the west. Szechuan cooking isn’t actually all about burning your tongue off. That’s why they don’t use peppers hotter than bird’s eye. But you need to keep in mind that authentic Szechuan cooking uses peppers of a particular variety called “Chao Tian” (facing heaven).
Here is where western knowledge drops off. You see, Chao Tian (in Chinese) is a term something like Heirloom is (in English) for describing peppers. I.E. most heirloom peppers, as I’ve heard, grow upside down like Chao Tian does. What you need to know therefore is that there are many types of Chao Tian peppers and that only specific ones are used for real, authentic Mala.
First, there is a common “Chao Tian La Jiao”, which looks like a normal cayenne or possibly Thai hot pepper, and is almost twice as hot as a Seranno. These are to be differentiated to the “Kung Pao” peppers being passed around recently which are only as hot as a low-end Seranno. I call these the “long” Chao Tians because they are the longest ones.
- Chao Tian La Jiao (Long) – 15,000 to 30,000 SHU,
- Seranno Pepper – 10,000 to 25,000 SHU
- Kung Pao Pepper (Modern Hybrid) – 10,000 to 15,000 SHU
Next on the Chao Tian list is the Five-Color Pepper. These peppers look like a cross between peppers and cherry tomatoes (they’re not long) and they can come in multiple colors. They are around twice as strong as a seranno pepper. I call these the “round” Chao Tians, and they’re hotter than the Long ones.
- Chao Tian La Jiao (Round) — “Wu Se (Five Color)” variant — 30,000 to 50,000 SHU
There are also many regional variants. In South Taiwan I found the following versions:
- Chao Tian La Jiao (Small) –“Ji Xin (Chicken Heart)” variant — 10,000 to 20,000 SHU
Making Mala Powder
I just started making Mala powder, and what I use is approximately 1/3 Garlic, 1/3 Peppercorns and 1/3 Chilies. I’m experimenting as I go.
Ever since I got back from my April 2017 trip to visit my Sifus in Toronto — and then opened my Kungfu school — I had the idea that I would write a practice diary and give it to my sifus as a gift to let them know I was still training every day.
The fact is, we can’t spend more time together and don’t keep in touch because of the diametric difference in time and distance.
Then I broke my hand and couldn’t practice and had to give up my school. It’s now six months later and my hand is basically okay — it will take another month or two to get really better — but at least I can start practicing again.
The funny thing is, I didn’t practice as much as I wanted, this last six months. I mean, I had health problems — serious health problems, an accident, some kidney stones, I fell, I had repetitive stress injuries. Things like that. It’s been hard.
I still have the moleskin desk diary I bought to record my progress. It’s empty. I’ve thought about all the things I would write in it many times. But the truth is it will probably remain empty, forever. What is the point of such a book? I am the book. If I am lucky enough to spend time with my sifus again I will show them the book — me. That’s all that really matters in the end. And I feel completely inadequate in every way.
Such a difficult road
I know the deal. I know the rules of the game. How is it possible to get to there from here? It doesn’t seem possible. Forty minutes of that. An hour of this. A form, another form, a form and a form. Another style. I know all the important exercises, all the important routines. If not, then what remains is surely recoverable from what I know. I’m not saying I know everything, but to say that at this point I do not know what to do is a mistake. I know what I need to do.
But it feels so empty, it feels so difficult, how can it really work? How can it get me to where I want to go?
Once more I plunge into that hopeless darkness. This time I pray that I have the courage to continue. I’ve had accidents — broken bones, impact shocks from accidents, falls, stress injuries. Is this my last chance? Or is it too late for that? Either way I still have to wait 20 years to know for sure. Why does this feel like starting over? It’s not supposed to be like starting over.
It was supposed to be easier than this.