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Learning T’ai chi ch’uan; the slower the better

A great Zen sword master in Japan was visited by an eager prospective student. The student asked how long it would take to become a Zen sword master if he trained really hard and worked with the Master every day. The master said perhaps ten years. The student said that was too long; if he trained night and day and managed on four hours sleep, how long would it take? The Master said about twenty years. So the student was perplexed and asked how long would it take if he survived on only two hours sleep and trained unstintingly? The Master said, “In that case, forty years.”

This story illuminates the problem of over attachment to goals and outcomes, and of trying too hard. It is losing sight of the fact that martial arts are a form of “deep play”; pursued for their intrinsic value, not for the realising of distant goals. I discuss the notion of T’ai chi as play further in my book, T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Wisdom in Action in a Chinese Martial Art.

In the context of T’ai chi ch’uan in application and combat, the less you do, the more effective you become. T’ai chi as a Taoist-based system is about the way of minimum effort and the way of least resistance. In combat terms, it is a case of acting naturally and responding appropriately to incoming force. Of course, it takes years of serious practice to develop those abilities fully. If the training is over influenced by attachment to the goal of becoming a great T’ai chi Master, then something is getting in the way. People often asked Master Cheng Man Ch’ing what his secret was. He usually replied along the lines, “relax and sink” or “don’t use force”, or “breath from the belly”, or “invest in loss”. People often thought he was being evasive, “surely that sounds too simple”. It is simple to say, but difficult to learn in the context of a martial art, and especially within combat or even friendly pushing hands or sparring.

Treating T’ai chi as the play system (da) it really is, helps to achieve the relaxed but focussed state of mind required for effective training. The focus however needs to be right. Not a focus on the goal or even “outcomes” or effectiveness, but on the reality of the present moment. The real focus is your own body and awareness, not on what looks good, or on a pre-learned technique.

Master Cheng was echoing the teaching of Chapter 43 of the Tao Te Ching:

The softest thing in the world can overcome the hardest,

That without substance can enter where there is no space.

I know the value of action through no action.

That there can be teaching without words

And action through no action

Few indeed understand.

Some people misunderstand the use of the term ‘soft’ in relation to T’ai chi ch’uan and especially Master Cheng’s system. Soft does not mean weak. It means not using an unnecessary amount of force and energy in order to be effective. Many students tried to beat Master Cheng pushing hands practice, by using strength and varied techniques. They could never do it because he was sunk and relaxed, and above all did not resist when pressure was applied. In other words, the pressure was not allowed to build up and be transmitted to him. From that basis, he could respond with complete flexibility to whatever challenge was set. The film record of Master Cheng’s form and the reports of his pushing hands skills, testify to his high level of mastery. When he was asked why so many of his students failed to reach his level of skill, he replied, “Not enough faith”.

All the best,


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