A Writing to Reflect Upon

Since I’ve been out of touch a few days, I thought I’d post a longer “Listen to the Masters” piece.

It is from my great-grandteacher of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Cheng Man Ch’ing.    Enjoy and please let me know your thoughts.


Treatise Thirteen

Explanation of the oral secrets with Forward and Commentary

In olden times when martial artists discovered a great technique they would not usually reveal it to others.  The transmission would be by “handing down to the son and not the daughter.”  Not all sons were talented, however, and they often lost the technique.  If the teacher had good disciples he would teach them the secrets but would withhold one secret for emergency situations.  In such a climate, it is impossible to develop the martial arts.I cannot say  that what I learned from my teacher, Professor Yang, was all that he had to transmit.  If I also keep one secret or if I keep all of them, I would then be guilty of saving a pearl while my country went to ruin.  For more than ten years I have tried on many occasions to transcribe these secrets so that they could be spread widely, but each time I had this intention I stopped because I also was afraid of transmitting them to the wrong person.  I thought it over many times.  To share good things with others is my true heart’s desire.  Therefore, I carefully wrote down the following twelve secrets.  These twelve were secrets that my teacher did not lightly pass down to anyone.  Each time he spoke, he reiterated to me, “If I don’t tell you, even in three lifetimes, you will not easily get it.”  These words were uttered many times.  I felt fortunate that my teacher loved me greatly but regret that I could not fulfill his expectations.  I hope that other talented people will study this and spread it so that all people can be healthy and have long lives.  In this way the teaching will benefit the human race.

1.Relax (sung).  My teacher must have repeated these words many times each day. “Relax! Relax! Relax completely! The whole body should completely relax!” Otherwise he said, “Not relaxed.  Not relaxed. If you are not relaxed, then you are like a punching bag.”  To comment on the single word sung is extremely difficult.  If you can relax completely, then the rest is easy.  Here I have written down what my teacher told me daily in order to make his teachings understandable to others.  Relax means to soften the tendons and blood vessels of the whole body.  You cannot permit even a little tension.  This is known as “a soft waist that can fold a hundred times as if it had no bones.” If you had no bones and only ligaments, the ligaments could then relax and open up.

2.Sink (ch’en).  If someone can relax completely, then this is ch’en.  If the ligaments and blood vessels relax, then the whole body (of which they are a part) sinks down.  Basically, ch’en and sung are the same thing.  Ch’en means not floating. Floating violates T’ai Chi Ch’uan.  If your body can sink, this is already good, but you must also make the ch’i sink.  If the ch’i sinks, then the spirit(shen) gathers.  That is very useful.

3.Separate Insubstantial and Substantial.  The Classics say, “Every place has the same insubstantiality and substantiality.”  This is because the right arm and the left leg are one stream of strength.  The right leg and left arm are also the same.  If the right arm and left leg are substantial, then the right leg and left arm are insubstantial, and vice versa.  This is called “clearly separating.” In short, the whole body’s weight rests on only one leg.  If two legs equally carry it, this is double-weightedness.  When the weight is transferred, the sacrum and the upper back must be kept upright in the middle.  Then you will not lose your equilibrium.  This is very important.  The “transfer” of weight is the key to the change of insubstantial and substantial.  If this is not explained then you won’t really know where to begin.  The key point of the transfer of strength from the right hand to the left hand is in the upper back, and the key point in the transference of strength from the left leg to the right is in the sacrum.  The sacrum and the upper back must be straight and upright.  Then you will not lose equilibrium.  You must carefully study these words, otherwise you will not comprehend them.

4.“Raise the strength to the top of the head.”  This means that the energy at the erect top of the head is light and agile.  This is also called suspended head-top.  The process of “suspending the headtop” is similar to tying someone who has a queue to a beam so that his body hangs down in the air [above the ground].  He can rotate his whole body, but he can neither bend back nor drop his head, nor lean it to either side.  This is the meaning of “suspend the strength to the top of the head” and “suspending the headtop.”  When you practice, the occipital bone should be upright.  Then the shen  and thech’i reach the top of the head.

5.“The millstone turns but the axle does not turn.”  The turning of the millstone represents the turning of the waist.  ”The axle not turning” is equivalent to the equilibrium that comes from the sinking of the ch’i to the tan t’ien.  ”The millstone turns but the axle does not turn” is really the transmission of a family secret.  In light of what the Classics tell us (”the waist is like the axle” and “…the waist [is] the banner”), its meaning is obvious.  Since I learned this I find improvement every day.

6.“Grasp Sparrow’s Tail is like two men sawing.”  This is the push-hands sequence of Wardoff, Rollback, Press, and Push.  The action is like that of sawing.  When you saw, the force at both sides should be equal; then the action is smooth.  If one side tries to change the force; the saw’s teeth will bind.  If my partner binds the saw, then even if I were to use force I would not be able to draw it back.  Only if I push it will it saw smoothly as before.  This has two meanings for the push-hands of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.  The first is to give up oneself to follow others.  In following the opponent’s tendency you can learn the marvelous application of hua chin (neutralization) and tsou chin (yielding).  Second, “If others move slightly, I move first.” This refers to the situation wherein my opponent uses force to push me and I obviate his attack by pulling back first.  If the opponent uses pull I preclude this by pushing first.  The principle in the example of pulling the saw brings great clarity.  Through it, I suddenly comprehended how to practice the idea, “if others move slightly, I move first.”  If I am familiar with this, then the push-hands is controlled by me and not by my opponents.  The rest is obvious.

7.“I’m not a meat rack; why do you hang on my body?” T’ai Chi Ch’uan seeks relaxation and agility and to avoid stagnation.  Stagnation is like dead meat hanging on a meat rack.  How can you say it has spirit?  You must criticize this practice severely.  Therefore, we have these words [of admonishment].  This is also a secret family transmission.  It has a very deep meaning that requires careful study.

8. “Being like the upright [punching-bag] doll that cannot be pushed over.” The whole body is light and agile.  the root is in the foot.  If you have not become adept in relaxation and sinking, you cannot easily do this.  The center os weight of the upright doll is located in the lower part.  The Classics say, “Sinking to one side is responsive; being double-weighted is sluggish.”  If both feet use force simultaneously or if the whole body is stiff and sluggish, one push can knock you down.  Generally, the whole body’s weight should sink one hundred percent onto one foot.  The rest of the body is relaxed and light as a feather.  If you can master this, you cannot be pushed down.

9. ”Being able to fa chin (discharge strength).”  Chin (strength) and li (force) are different.  Chin comes from the ligaments and li comes from teh bones.  Therefore, chin is soft, lively, and flexible, while li is hard, dead, and stiff.  What isfa chin?  It is like shooting an arrow.  Shooting an arrow depends on the spring force of the bow and string.  The force of the bow and string is soft, lively, and flexible.  Chin and li are different and the ability to discharge or not derives specifically from this difference.  This, however, is discussing the quality of fa chin but not its function.  Here I’ll transmit the technique of fa chin which my teacher periodically described to me.  It is said, “Seize the moment and opportunity.”  Is is also said, “The feet, legs, and waist must act together simultaneously.”  Old Master Chien-hou liked to repeat these two verses, but “Seize the moment and opportunity” is the more difficult of the two to comprehend.  I now perceive that the action of sawing contains both the “moment” and the “opportunity.”  When the opponent moves forward or back, I already know it.  This is obtaining the “moment.” The opponent’s action of advancing and retreating while being controlled by me is obtaining “opportunity.”  ”The feet, legs and waist must act together simultaneously” means the power is concentrated so that you can discharge your opponent farther.  In the meantime the body will not move dividedly and you can “hit the target.”  This is the function of fa chin.  Students should study it dilligently.

10. ”In practicing the form the body should be level and upright, and the movements should be consistent.”   This sentence is very easy to understand but difficult to practice.  The upright body must be stable and comfortable to be able to absorb [force from the eight directions].  If the movements are consistent, then they are strung together and there is no place where they are broken.  The Classics say “Stand like a balance” and “Mobilize the chin like pulling silk from a cocoon.”  Therefore, students must work hard in studying these principles.

11. “Study conscientiously.  The Song of Push Hands says, “Be conscientious in p’eng, lu, chi, an’.”  If you are not conscientious, then the push-hands won’t be realistic.  Now I’ll tell you, if you Ward Off to your opponent’s body or Rollback to your own body, both are wrong.  If you don’t Ward Off to your opponent’s body and you don’t Rollback to your own body, it is correct.  Chi and an must store up the strength and not lose the equilibrium.  This is correct.  I will comment on the phrase, “study conscientiously.”  Even if after examining the Classics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan many times, I still did not understand them until I received my teacher’s instruction.  Then I realized it had a particular method.  Without the guidance of oral instructions, it was impossible to understand.  Parts of the Classics are like this.  They truly require the secret family transmission.  Students must inquire into this so that they will grasp the key points and not lose their equilibrium.  This is crucial.

12. “Use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.” People do not believe that four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.  It means that you can use four ounces to offset a thousand pounds, after which you apply Push.  So leading and pushing are two different things.  You are not really using four ounces to push a thousand pounds.  We must separate “offset” and “push.”  Then you can explain their marvelous functions.  For example, the water buffalo weighs a thousand pounds, but the rope through its nose is a mere four ounces.  To use the four ounce rope to offset the thousand pound buffalo is precisely the technique of leading.  You can lead as you like, but the buffalo cannot do as it wishes because it is offset by its nose.  If it were led by the horns or leg, it would not work.  Therefore, to lead the opponent is a particular method.  For a buffalo you can use a four ounce rope to lead it.  However, if it were a thousand-pound stone horse, could you do it?  No.  This is the difference between the living and the dead.  Humans have spirit.  When they use a thousand pounds to attack, they have a direction.  If the attack is straight, I use four ounces to lead the end of his hand.  I follow his tendency and shift to the diagonal direction.  This is an example of leading.  After his force dissipates, I push him.  There will be no one who will not be thrown.  Only four ounces of leading force are needed.  The power of the push is then up to me.  The power of the leading force should not be excessive or else the opponent will intuit it and be able to mobilize and escape.  On occasion I can use the leading force to change his direction and attack him.  If he detects my lead he will store up his force and not advance.  When he stores up his force his tendency is to withdraw.  Follow his withdrawal, give up the leading force, and discharge him.  Then there will be no one who will not fall down.  That is the countermove. The above was my teacher’s oral instruction and I do not dare keep it to myself.  I wish to spread and share it with all T’ai Chi Ch’uan friends.

-From Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan

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