Chapter 10 – Tai Chi
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.
It is Wednesday night – as good a day as any for this week’s Tao Te Ching Tuesday. The translation I have chosen for this chapter is Stephen Mitchell’s. I should warn you that I am going to ramble a little, but will focus mainly on the second sentence, which Mitchell translates, “Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s?”
My second tai chi chu’an teacher – half a lifetime ago – was Bataan Faigao (pictured here). Bataan was born in the Phillipines and came to New York City as a child. He and his wife Jane studied tai chi there under legendary grand-master Cheng Man-ching. After Professor Cheng’s death in 1975, the couple moved to Colorado, where they taught at Naropa University and founded the Rocky Mountain Tai Chi Chu’an Foundation. They eventually divorced, but continued to collaborate professionally until Jane’s life was shortened by cancer. Bataan continued his work with tai chi and directed Naropa’s Traditional Eastern Arts program until his own passing last Fall while on a pilgrimage to China.
In New York, Bataan had served as Cheng Man-ching’s personal assistant and chauffeur (Professor Cheng was a master of Chinese medicine, martial arts, calligraphy, painting and poetry; but apparently did not drive). Due to this close association, he had some wonderful stories about Professor Cheng, and I am going to share one of those in moment.
First, let me say a few words about this amazing “Master of the Five Excellences.” In China, he was known and respected as a teacher of medicine and a painter who was honored with many one-man shows throughout the world, as well as being perhaps the most accomplished martial artist on the planet. One of his greatest achievements was the development of a so-called “short” form of Yang-style tai chi. He moved to New York to introduce that form to Americans in the mid-1960s, and it has become his lasting legacy to literally hundreds of thousands of students who practice it for recreation, meditation and as a style of self defense. An excellent and concise biography, or eulogy, was written by Tam Gibbs in 1978, and may be found on the internet at http://sinobarr.com/cheng/cheng_life_bio.htm.
While teaching in China, Professor Cheng composed what has become known as Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan. This excellent work was translated after his death by his most senior student, Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo (I was privileged to have also received some instruction from Ben Lo). To return to this “Tuesday’s” consideration of Chapter 10, I would like to quote from the last part of his Third Treatise:
If the mind and ch’i do not stay together and if they wander aimlessly, you cannot pay attention to the ch’i. …
What is the benefit to you of intensifying the ch’i? Lao-tzu explained this when he said, “To develop the ch’i is to become supple like an infant.” The infant is the young human sprout which will grow up. It is pliable and weak like the seedling of a plant. From the time an infant grows up and becomes a young person, from that time until he grows old; he will never again have this vitality; he will become hard and strong. When wood is strong, it can be broken easily and is not far from death. If people are in this condition, how can they become like an infant again? The infant’s body is pure yang. Being pure yang it has marvelous ch’i. When the ch’i is marvelous, then the blood is full. When the blood is full, then the vessels are supple. Supple blood vessels are unique to infants. A person who is close to death but still hopes to return to being a child can accomplish this only by developing the ch’i to become supple.
The discussion could go in many directions from here. It would be interesting to consider the interaction of the infant who is pure yang with the Tao that is usually given yin attributes. These concepts could be tied into a reflection on the other sentences in this Chapter 10 that are just as important as the one Professor Cheng has quoted. However, I am running out of time for writing and still have not told Bataan’s story; so I am going to do that.
In the mid-1960s, some Americans showed great interest in martial arts, but the exposure to most Oriental forms was somewhat limited. People thought in terms of “hard” arts like karate that could be contrasted with the “gentle” art of Judo. The “softer” or “internal” arts like tai chi, hsing yi and ba gua were seen as esoteric. Many in the martial arts community knew Cheng Man-ching’s reputation, but they did not quite understand what was behind the “exotic” form he had developed.
Shortly after he moved to New York, Professor Cheng scheduled a public demonstration to show what he intended to teach. One of those attending was a well-known local black belt in karate, with rippling muscles and hands hardened and calloused by years of breaking boards and punching buckets of sand. He approached Professor Cheng and asked if the things he had heard about the miraculous powers of chi were true.
Professor Cheng, who was then in his 60s, responded by patting his abdomen and saying, “Hit me.”
The karate black belt felt awkward striking an elderly gentleman, but did as he was asked – but with less than full force. Professor Cheng smiled, again patted his abdomen, and said, “No, hit me hard.”
The other man shrugged, and delivered a hard blow which Professor Cheng received without flinching and with a smile still on his face. He then said, “Now my turn.”
The karate student stiffened to absorb the strike as Professor Cheng merely flicked his wrist and knocked his “opponent” to the floor. As he helped the man up, he said, “I can fix your hands.”
Cheng Man-ching was not a teacher or a student of tai chi ch’uan, he was the embodiment of tai chi ch’uan. From the stories I have heard, it seems too that, like Lao Tzu, he was not a student of the Tao, he was the embodiment of the Tao. The same could be said of Bataan Faigao. Those of us who knew him miss his gentle ways and great stories.
This Chapter 10 also asks, can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? Well, I made many mistakes in my tai chi practice while studying with Bataan, but I do not recall him ever telling me to change anything. He would have his class move from one position to the next, and then hold it. As I stood reasonably still, he would come and touch my hand or my shoulder or my spine. My body would then move to where it should be – no imposition of will, but another lesson internalized.
“Leading and not trying to control: this is the supreme virtue.”