Psalchemist, you made a comment awhile back about understanding the Eight Gates (Bamen). Again, I do not want to pretend that I have any great expertise in them, but I fear that my tendency to longwinded posts and lack of writing skill might have contributed to an aura of abstractness and complexity that may be unwarranted. I may be about to commit the same sin again, but let me try a different tack.
Before attacking the Eight Gates directly, let me give some background to my understanding. First, as I understand it, a characteristic of traditional Chinese expression is that indirectness is sometimes thought to be more useful and ultimately more accurate than directness. The sense is that in some ways, the more precisely you state something, the further you are from capturing its real essence. Contrary to this, I am trying to state certain things as plainly and as simply as I can, but I am still trying to imply much more. If you want the real version, read the Classics to contrast and compare. Assume the authors are trying to tell things which are very precise and very important, but which they do not have the words to express directly. They are not necessarily trying to be mysterious and secretive, but merely trying to say as much as possible. If you encounter something mysterious and secretive, assume something is lost in translation and try to look for a more plain meaning behind what you read.
“Pat,” “slap,” “touch,” “caress,” “rub,” and “massage” all refer to actions that one could do with one’s palm and that might look identical in a still photograph. They would be fiendishly difficult to differentiate using only external physical descriptions; nevertheless, they refer to different things that we would not consider mysterious, abstract, or complex. To distinguish them, we could probably explain the different purposes implied by these words and could physically demonstrate variations of motion that would be characteristic to each. To an alien with eight tentacles and an exoskeleton, the difference between these verbs might seem hard to understand or ridiculously vague. To an eight-year-old human, the differences would be easy to understand, since he or she, unlike the Martian, will have experienced the daily situations in which these differences are relevant. Even so, none of the verbs describe a particular fixed configuration of hand and body.
To my understanding, the nature of the Eight Gates is, at its essence, like the differences between these verbs. Purely physical description is too coarse to capture what they are about, but that does not mean that they must be viewed only in abstract or abstruse ways. I realize that some approaches to Taijiquan do this, but I do not think the Yangs approach them primarily in this way. You do simple things, add some principles, and then build from there through practice and experimentation. From what I understand, the descriptions in the Classics presume that the reader has the familiarity of the “eight-year-old” mentioned above and simply needs guidance on the journey rather than a how-to manual or a book of recipes. This is, I believe, one of the reasons that so much of the classic literature stresses the need for oral transmission of teaching, to establish the correct context and framework for what the classics discuss.
The classics were also probably written for an audience that generally shared a specific literary heritage that is not easily accessible to those who have not been educated in the traditional Chinese fashion. Even if the various references are explained, I do not believe it is always easy to understand how the authors meant them. I think that Louis has discussed this sort of thing on numerous occasions.
To give an example of the importance of understanding references, imagine the following. You are watching a movie that shows a mob boss who barely survives an attack by a rival gang lord. As the mob boss pulls himself up from the floor, perhaps flanked by his lieutenant and his mother, he says: “Man, I am not going to take this lying down. I am going to ‘do unto others before they do unto me.’” Two thousand years from now, there is much about this statement that might be misunderstood, but which a contemporary American would have no problem interpreting correctly.
For instance, despite the use of the singular term “Man,” it is likely that the boss is speaking to his entire audience. He might even be directing his words to impress his mother, who is certainly not a “man,” about his determination. The reference to “lying down” is almost certainly not literal, despite the physical circumstances, but might be a “joke” by the screenwriters (as in James Bond movies) that no one would ever attribute to a real-life gang lord. Lastly, “do unto others before they do unto me” is not a misquote of a theologically confused criminal, nor necessarily the cry of an anti-Christian atheist, but merely the statement of someone wanting to show that he intended to react in a way that was anything but meek.
An equivalent reference in Taijiquan might be the phrase: “She3 ji3 sui2 ren2” (“Abandon self and follow the other”). From what Louis has mentioned, this is likely a reference to a Neo-Confucian doctrine. (In a nutshell, many centuries ago (12 century A.D.?), Neo-Confucians changed some of the classic understandings of Confucius (I think he was 6th century B.C.) and incorporated many Daoist ideas in a way more acceptable to Confucian thought.) As I understand this particular saying, it means that the “person of princely virtue” (“Jun1 ren2”), should not act unilaterally, but cede to the wishes of his or her fellow humans. In the Taiji context, however, this saying means anything but showing the opponent “deference” and submitting to his or her wishes. I am not sure you could call it a pun, but the other connotations of the phrase could not have been lost on Chinese readers of the 19th century and before.
The Eight Gates are eight of the thirteen primary “Shi” used in Taijiquan. The word “Shi” (pronounced somewhat like the English word “sure”) is usually translated somewhat misleadingly as “postures.” As has been discussed before on this board, this word can also be translated as: “configuration,” “disposition,” “aspect,” “power,” “influence,” “features,” “gestures,” “circumstance,” “trend,” etc. It can refer to the “imposing ‘aspect’ of a mountain,” “the ‘power’ someone has to abuse underlings,” or “the ‘features’ of a geographical area that determine Feng Shui characteristics.” As I understand it, the core meaning of this word is the “effect that the ‘disposition’ or ‘bearing’ of something has on something else.” For objects incapable of action, the meaning seems to center on the “aspect” or “circumstance” of the thing as seen by observers. For things in motion or for people generally, the meaning centers on the “power,” “impetus,” or “momentum” the particular “disposition” of the thing or person imparts. “Trend” is the power of events in motion. “Momentum” is the power of things in motion.
I have read only a little of the Chinese classics, but presume that anyone encountering the word “Shi” would recall the use of this term in Sunzi’s Art of War and that the authors of the Taiji classics and creators of its terminology did their work with this in mind. I think that Louis posted a bunch about this awhile back, but I cannot locate his post and so will plunge ahead and take the risk that I am duplicating what he has already said.
Chapter 5 of the Art of War is entitled: “Shi.” Here are hyperlinks to English and Chinese versions. I think the entirety is well worth reading, but I would like to call attention to specific parts I discuss below:http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/suntext2.htm#ENERGYhttp://www.zhongwen.com/x/bingfa5.htm
In this Chapter, the word “Shi” appears in numerous places, but it is translated in various ways. First, it appears as “Energy” in the title and many other places in the text. Look at section 10 of the English, where the word rendered “battle” appears in Chinese as the “‘Shi’ of war/battle/warring/battling,” i.e., the “circumstances/dispositions/configurations of war.” In section 12, “Shi” is rendered as “onset.” In sections 13 and 14, it is contrasted with the word “jie2” that I know of as “measuring off.” I am not at all expert in Chinese, let alone classical Chinese, but the sense I get is of saying that “those skilled in war” exhibit the “Shi” (“the force and momentum”) of a “rushing torrent” and the fine-tuned “jie” (“precision”) of a swooping falcon. There is a clear contrast between the impact (“shi”) exerted by a large-scale configuration of lesser components and the “calibration” (“jie”) of taking care of small-scale relationships.
“Shi” is rendered in section 15 as the “energy” of a bending crossbow. Here the reference would be to the “configurational” energy stored up in the weapon, not to its inherent native strength.
In section 18, “Shi” is rendered as “fund of latent energy.” In sections 21 and 22, it is rendered as “combined energy.” In section 23, it is rendered as “energy” and perhaps again as “momentum.”
In Taijiquan, there are many relationships that are important: your joints; your tendons; pressures between you and the opponent; angles; rhythms; distances; flows of Jin, Qi, Yi, and Shen. In my opinion, a term like “Shi” hints at all of this and more. A shorthand way of thinking of all of this is to talk about “mode of action,” “energy,” or “configuration energy,” but the sense is different from the meanings of Qi or of Jin, which are also often translated as “energy.”
Another way of looking at “Shi” is to think of the body as a suspension bridge. Such a bridge does not draw strength merely from its shape, but also from how its materials interact with each other and with gravity. With materials of different characteristics, but the same shape and “strength,” the bridge might not be stable at all. The same bridge that might be stable under the pull of gravity can fail under the sideways stresses or bouncing motions caused by some earthquakes. It is not really the overwhelming strength of the ground motion that destroys the bridge, but the fact that the bridge may not be designed to “harmonize” with such stresses.
Looking at the suspension bridge in this way incorporates the idea that structural stability is created not only by shape and the strength of materials, but also by the energy created by their interaction. A suspension bridge can even flex and sway a fair amount, while retaining structural strength. This interaction is created by the design coming from the mind of an architect that can correctly harness the forces of geometry and nature.
I believe that the Shi of Taijiquan are the same. Their power comes from the mind and design of the practitioner. We cannot control the strength of our “materials,” but we can control our shape and the interaction of our “parts.” The shape is external, but the basis of the interaction is internal.
Imagine that the shoulders during the Push posture form parts of an arch. The strength of an arch is created by the force of gravity and the particular shape of the segments forming the arch. Without the action of gravity acting along a particular vector, the arch is not stable. Next, imagine that the mind changes the characteristics of the shoulders to make them interact as parts of a pulley. (Think of putting a fireplace log in the middle of a towel. As you pull up the ends of the towel, you can make the log spin and roll as you alternately lift and lower the two ends of the towel.) As your upper torso turns, this makes the shoulders reel the left arm inward and push the right arm outward.
Throughout the form, I believe that you are recruiting the power of geometry, gravity, and the opponent’s force to give strength and power to your configuration (“Shi”). Your mind does not create this strength or power directly. The mind merely leads it and controls it. Some of the shape comes from you, but most is determined by the impersonal forces of nature.
It is like the difference between drawing a circle freehand and tying a pencil with a string to a tack and then using the tension on the string to draw a perfect circle. You do not arbitrarily move Jin through the body at will, but call out different inherent characteristics of your body, by concentrating on fairly simple physical things. Your main job is not to attempt to micromanage or over-control the parts of your body and thus thwart the organizing power of nature. You have to feel how your intent can harmonize with these powers. Without the organizing power of your mind, organic integration of your body does not happen.
If your opponent comes at you with the piercing power (“Shi”) of a triangular wedge (perhaps splitting your hands apart and trying to punch along the midline), broad resistance that operates equally on the sides of the triangle will make the “wedge” more piercing and reinforce the strength of the triangle. If you can figure out how to meet the opponent’s “triangle” of force with the power (“Shi”) of a rotating sphere, you can “rotate” the opponent’s “triangle” so that one side is coming toward you, rather than the point. The combined operation of the forces will tend to “explode” the triangle, especially if you can add a “barb” (e.g., a punching arm) that can “reel off” on a tangent from your sphere. For instance, your body impacts the opponent at the outside crook of his or elbow and his structure collapses as you press in to his or her center.
If you can follow my convoluted analogies, you may notice that I am not talking anywhere about unilateral speed or strength, but the interaction of natural forces and geometry. To make this work as a strategy, you have to do many things. First, you cannot operate a Shi that is independent of your opponent’s. If there are two Shi, you are subject to the rules of speed and power. Also, no Shi is appropriate in all circumstances. If, on the other hand, you can join with your opponent to establish one Shi, speed and power become irrelevant, or rather become an inherent component of the combined Shi.
As I see it, one’s job in Push Hands is to establish something like a joint Shi with the opponent and then to change it through something in your own body so that there will be a “structural fault” within the part of the Shi that lies with the opponent. Any energy circulating in the Shi will tend to trigger a collapse at the location of the fault (i.e., in the opponent’s body), and all the energy of the “Shi” will concentrate there. This is a somewhat literal interpretation of the phrase “de2 shi4,” which mains to “obtain the Shi,” or rather “get control of the situation” or “get the upper hand.”
You cannot act first or contrary to the intent of the opponent, because his or her natural tendency, with or without training, will be to change to adapt to your manipulations. If, instead, you go somewhat along with the opponent’s inclinations, you can guide your combined energies (“Shi”) into a new “Shi” with a tendency (also “Shi”) to create a contradiction in the opponent’s portion of the “Shi.” This contradiction is “being double weighted.” The opponent is out of synch with his or her own configuration and thus momentarily stuck. He or she is fighting his or her own geometry and cannot fight any further without first changing his or her intent. Even though you act after the opponent, you understand your combined Shi so thoroughly that you can foresee this outcome. It is embedded in the geometry of forces. “You launch later, but get there first.” When the opponent is stuck, he or she can no longer change. You can now add force to the configuration (Fajin) with impunity.
The Five Steps can be understood as Shi in this sense, since they are “configurations of body energy” or “modes of activating the Jing in your body.” They are not really of the same nature as the Eight Gates, however, since they are governed more by how the legs interact with the opponent and with the ground than with how the arms and hands interact with the opponent and his limbs.
When an opponent comes at you, what must you do? If you study most martial arts, you focus on matching technique with technique. If you are faster and/or harder, you win. If you study Taijiquan, I think you want to avoid this dialectic entirely. You pay attention to the “Shi” (“configuration,” “distribution,” and “layout”) of the opponent’s speed and strength, not to its intensity at a single point in space or time. You pay attention to the distribution of speed and stillness and of strength and weakness. The principle of Taiji means that wherever there is speed, there is stillness; wherever there is strength, there is weakness. Our job is merely to understand its distribution and deployment, because no distribution is invulnerable or indefensible if the interaction of Yin and Yang is correctly understood.
Metaphorically speaking, the most important thing to protect is your center. If your center is intact, all your resources are available to you. You can integrate your power on the largest scale possible.
You protect your center by establishing a Shi that simultaneously absorbs and repels attack. The softness absorbs, and the hardness repels; but the two are not separate and do not have to be thought of only as alternating with each other. The hardness should actually be produced by the softness. This is what I understand by the phrase “steel wrapped in cotton.” This Shi is “rou2” and resilient, neither stiff nor limp. Being resilient also means dynamically exchanging and balancing “Closing”/“Coming together” (“He”) with “Opening”/“Coming Apart” (“Kai”). Something that has a tendency to exchange contraction with expansion is “rou2” (“soft and resilient.” Everything tends to expand out from your center. This is the general sense of the Shi called Peng (Ward Off). Most say it underlies all eight primary Shi in this sense.
In the Yangs’ system as I understand it, you create the Peng by being consciously loose. Unlike what some other authorities apparently teach, the kind of “relaxation” you can achieve by sleeping, daydreaming, or being disengaged from your surroundings is not at all appropriate. To build on a previous exchange between Louis and Lao Pei, I could say that when you leave a chain on the ground there is no Peng. When you swing it over your head, you have Peng. Being unconscious and applying no Yi is like leaving the chain on the ground. Applying your awareness actively and using your Yi is the only way to “swing the chain.” This is what you do with your tendons and joints.
As I understand it, Taijiquan has eight primary variations of this Shi that cover different types of interactions with the opponent. These can be differentiated by typical shape, direction, purpose, contact points, etc.
The attacks that are most dangerous are those from an opponent that is rooted and can draw Qi or strength from the ground. Because of this, a major part of Taijiquan’s tactics involves breaking the opponent’s root. As you bounce or reflect the opponent’s energy away from your center, you do so in ways that will sever the opponent’s root, which often means reflecting his or her energy upward. You want to “lift” the opponent’s technique away from its root. This is Peng in the specific sense. Usually it involves using the inside of your forearm to lift the opponent’s arms up.
When an opponent attempts to punch you, the first technique you will generally use to meet the attack is Peng. You simultaneously absorb some energy to control it, but also bounce some back out to protect your center. Physically, what you do varies over time, but I believe that your intent does not vary. This technique or procedure has many, many applications and is almost always combined with other techniques for offensive and defensive purposes. Although it can look like a simple block or deflection, I do not believe this reflects its actual nature at all.
Either completely “blocking” or completely “deflecting” the opponent’s force away would completely defeat your strategy of combining with the opponent’s energy. Instances of this type of Peng are throughout the form. Obvious examples include: Ward off Left and Right, Roll Back, Single Whip, White Crane Spreads Wings, Apparent Closure, Cross Hands, Fist Under Elbow, Cloud Hands, Separate Foot, Kick with Heel, etc. I am fairly sure there are more subtle instances in the postures I skipped (e.g., Brush Knee transitions?), but they mostly exceed the bounds of my limited knowledge.
The other seven gates proceed in this fashion. Since they cover so much, many people describe them somewhat differently. My own belief is that different teachers also define them slightly differently. As I mentioned near the beginning of my post, sometimes the more specifically you describe something, the less accurate you become.
I have written too much and gone on too long. Let me know if any of this makes any sense.