What a fascinating discussion! As can probably be surmised from my posts, I love words and delving into their meanings and contexts. I often feel at a loss because I don’t have access to the facets of Chinese terminology except for the generosity of those on this board and at the tai chi school.
Tai chi is about balance and there are many different kinds of people who practice the art, from many different cultures. Of course, we are concerned about tradition, conservation, and transmission on the one hand; but Masters Yang Zhen Duo and Yang Jun also talk about “development” of the art, and have themselves changed their teaching style to adapt to circumstances and locations as they teach around the world. Any art that stays exactly the same and is concerned _only_ with replication eventually stagnates and dies. We have a rich tradition and heritage from which to draw in our studies, but ultimately, for mastery, each person must practice and gain _personal_ physical/energetic/spiritual understanding of what the classics mean. This leaves vast room for individual experience and interpretation.
Personally, I think that some of the most interesting growth and development occur in places where cultures mix. Everywhere the art of tai chi chuan goes, it is adopted and changed very slightly or quite drastically to suit the needs, preferences, and understanding of each place and group of people. There are tons of different types of people practicing tai chi in the world and I don’t think the art suffers for its increase in exposure. Yes, there will be those practitioners and teachers who don’t delve as far into the art, but I think their “lighter” understanding is still of benefit to them and the general awareness of tai chi chuan out on the airwaves. The people who are called to practice long and diligently will still do so, still seek out master teachers, and still try to refine their personal understanding.
When cultures meet—whether it’s Chinese tai chi masters meeting Westerners; or airy-fairy New Age hippies meeting hard-core, strict-regimen, do-or-die martial artists with military training; or tactile sense-oriented people meeting those who operate more from their heads—there’s always a great opportunity for exchange. Coming up against someone who does things completely differently from the way we do things forces us to reevaluate our core operating principles, our relative cultural understanding of “truth” or how things ought to be. Part of the balancing act of tai chi practice is to explore other people’s truths to see what applies and what doesn’t for us personally. But unless the mind is open, it’s too easy to reject other approaches without first opening to experience them as if they were true.
I’m not advocating adopting everything one comes across, willy-nilly. We can be guided by our teachers, by our study of the classics, by our understanding of fundamental principles and by our own body awareness of what works for us and what doesn’t. But I really believe that exploration—exploration of the self and exploration of the other is at the heart of this discipline.
Jerry, the "airy-fairy" comment hit home for me and I feel like responding just to give another side of things, even though I understand you were not aiming at me and I know you respect me. There’s no denying that I’m in the kookier range of practitioners out there (as defined by those who prefer structure, rules, order, proof): I’m a woman, I’m a poet--my practice is regularly guided by visions, dreams, and the sensory experience of energy flow. This is normal for me. These aspects of myself are things I cannot help but bring to my tai chi practice, and there’s nothing wrong with it—for me. I have a physical/visual understanding of energy, so when I describe things in more poetic, word-focused terms I’m trying to put into speech an energy experience or vision that’s fundamentally inexpressible with language. I’m not speculating off in the stratosphere; I’m trying to describe things that actually happen to me. I naturally have a more yin perspective than many writing here. My gift is for fluidity, yielding, listening. But I struggle with more yang elements like structured if-this, then-that responses; and with structure in general—not so much the shape of postures because I can flow into that and feel how things should align, but with maintaining an internal structure that won’t collapse. It’s what I need for balance. So it’s the opposite of many men who struggle to soften a sturdy structure so that it can be more yielding.
I think we need to be careful to distinguish between what’s yin and what’s yang in our practice attitudes and honor the full range of what’s out there with the understanding that all practitioners, regardless of focus (martial, health, spiritual, whatever) are seeking balance when they come to this art. This is an art that has the space and capacity for a full range of people to practice. There’s room for people with rigid 1-2-3 learning styles that want to know the precise angle of everything, who remember everything their teacher has ever said but have a hard time relaxing and yielding. There’s room for the poets and artists who leap and flow and channel energy but struggle to maintain a contained focus in the here-and-now. There are all sorts of “songs” and “poems” of this and that in the tai chi tradition and many calligraphers and painters in the Chinese martial tradition. The images in poetry are more than “mnemonic devices” (although one can certainly use them as such)—they’re designed to stretch the imagination and thus engage the spirit. There’s room for earthy, grounded, salt-of-the-earth type people who are practical and want to know how tai chi is useful but who can get stuck when they clutch at information and can’t let go. There’s room for airy-fairy flighty types who get lost in the spiritual ecstasy of Wave Hands Like Clouds but who cannot ground to save their lives. There’s room for fierce “life is a battleground” warriors who struggle to learn that the self is the greatest opponent and once mastered, there’s no need to fight everything.
I believe that mastery is having access to the full range of human capacity—all of the gifts outlined above. It’s a balance of the elements: the centered, stable, grounding of earth; the fierce scorching of flame; the fluidity and inexorable power of water; the resilience of wood; the honed steel of metal; the expansive vast infinite spirit of air.
The greatest barrier to our own mastery is a too-limited focus on what we have instead of what we might gain if we opened to other approaches, other personalities’ ways of operating in the world. (Audi, I’m not saying to go off and combine styles and methodologies, so let’s not open that can of worms again!
) There are advantages and disadvantages to the different personalities, approaches and world-views. Part of balancing the elements is giving up the self to study the other. And to know the other, one must become as the other…at least for a little while.
[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 06-21-2005).]