There are many kinds of martial arts, and their techniques are different. Overall, they do not go beyond the concepts of the strong overcomes the weak and the slow yields to the quick. These attributes all come from abilities one is born with, and bear no relationship to one’s effort of study and achievement. Examine these words: “Four ounces deflect one thousand pounds.” Obviously this cannot be accomplished by strength. Observe how an old man can hold off a crowd of attackers and ask how he could do so with speed?
Stand like a balance scale and move like a cart’s wheel. If one sinks more weight to one side it is easy to move or follow at will; one who is double weighted is stagnant. Whenever one sees those who have practiced tai ji quan for many years and still cannot employ neutralizing and thus are overpowered by opponents, one realizes that these practitioners simply have not yet understood the fault of double weighting. If one wants to avoid this fault, one must understand the balance of yin and yang and that to stick is to yield and to yield is to stick. Yang does not separate from yin; yin does not separate from yang. Yin and yang complete each other. Only then will one understand jin. After understanding energy (jin), more practice will bring greater refinement silently absorb the knowledge and carefully ponder the strategy, and gradually you will gain the ability of what your heart desires to do. The foundation is giving up self and following others. Many mistakenly go for distance and forget what is near, or go for the abstract and forget the obvious, often sacrificing what is near for that which is in the distance. As the saying goes, miss aim by the width of a single hair and you may miss the target by a thousand miles. The practitioner must study the art in detail. This is the treatise.
– Quote from the Taijiquan Treatise
In the final two paragraphs of the treatise, it describes the end result of practicing tai chi correctly when following the principles which we’ve discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series. In these paragraphs tai chi as an internal art is compared to other martial arts which are based on external skills development. It lists some of the skills we want to refine and the common mistakes one makes on the journey of learning tai chi.
Tai Chi versus External Martial Arts
There are many different types of martial arts. The differences lie primarily in the employment of different techniques. However, the fundamental skills of external martial artists remain the same. That is, they all train to be faster, stronger and fluent in their respective techniques.
This reliance on speed and strength means that the faster and stronger opponent wins. The physical human body has its limits. As we age, these physical attributes of speed and strength start to deteriorate. It’s not external skills which make a tai chi master.
The tai chi saying and practice of “four ounces deflect a thousand pounds” obviously cannot be accomplished using brute strength. The tale of the “old man holding off a crowd of attackers” obviously cannot be accomplished based on speed. It’s the internal martial arts skills which makes a tai chi master.
Tai Chi is an internal martial art. At its core, the martial arts philosophy of tai chi is fundamentally different from the other external martial arts. When training, there is no focus on physical speed and strength in tai chi. Instead, tai chi utilizes skills that draw upon the mind, our awareness of the body and our inner core strength. These attributes, in general, do not deteriorate with age as much as our external physical body.
Tai Chi Skills and Pitfalls
Posture is the first and most important skill to acquire in tai chi. “Stand like a balance scale” is to maintain a posture that is constantly balanced and aligned. This means “No inclination no leaning”, a concept which was explored in part 2 of the Taijiquan Treatise Explained series of blogs.
Agility in Movement
The next skill is to “move like a cart’s wheel”, that means movement in tai chi must be agile. To achieve this level of agility, weight needs to be placed over one point instead of two points. Just like a wheel which only ever has one point touching the ground and not two. The condition of “double weighting” causes sluggish movement which we often call “getting caught flat-footed”. This is a pitfall we learn to avoid in tai chi.
This agility allows one to follow and stick to the opponent at will. When we observe someone who has practiced tai chi for many years but still lacks the ability neutralize the opponent’s force, undoubtedly there is a lack of comprehension of being “double weighted”. To correct this, one must return to the first part of the treatise to truly understand the meaning of balancing yin and yang.
Understanding “jin” and Spiritual illumination
Remember that yin and yang co-exist and complement each other. There is no such thing as a yin move or a yang move. It is only when we understand the true meaning of yin and yang that we can practice diligently and begin to learn of and know “jin” (translated as feeling or knowing the energy) or Dǒng jìn (懂勁).
When we start to experience or feel “jin”, we will likely experience it from time to time instead of consistently. As we continue to consciously practice jin, we slowly refine our understanding and increase our consistency of experiencing jin during various forms and movements. The aim is to experience Dǒng jìn (懂勁) or jin consistently and effortlessly whenever we practice tai chi movements. The final stage is when it is second nature or effortless to experience Dǒng jìn (懂勁) or jin every time and at every moment of our practice. The tai chi practitioner has achieved Spiritual Illumination (神明Shén míng) when years of focused practice results in this effortless experience of jin.
To Follow and Stick
It’s a foundational concept to understand that “to stick is to follow and to follow is to stick”. To achieve this skill, one must be willing to give up one’s self and just follow while maintaining the overall balance of yin and yang.
Many of us have witnessed the end result of how a tai chi master is able to effortlessly control the opponent. Tai chi students unwittingly pursue the end goal of controlling the opponent to mimic what they have watched of accomplished masters. This is just the final external result of mastering all the foundational concepts of tai chi. This is not the first step. The first step is simply to follow and stick.
This first step is extremely important. An error at the beginning can become an error of a thousand miles. Tai chi students who make this mistake find it impossible to achieve their goal of mastering tai chi.
Tai chi practitioners must study the art diligently and patiently while paying attention to the fine details. These fine details allow the tai chi practitioner to become proficient with each foundational concept. This is the path to mastering tai chi. This is the Taijiquan Treatise.