Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Spiritual Tai Chi II : this time it's internal

This is one of those topics that I just can't enough of. Recently,we had a beginner come and try out the class who had left ninjitsu and come to tai chi for the "healing and spiritual side of things." Though I didn't say anything at the time (it's best for me not to get started on this subject...oops), I always want to know what exactly  is meant by this word which haunts tai chi like an exorcism-resistant poltergeist. I wonder if (and it's a big wonder) people just mean they want to feel what they are doing? Is it that other martial arts tend to numb people to their own bodily sensations? Certainly, those teachers who promote the spiritual angle do seem to do a lot of standing still and feeling their qua or whatever. Inevitably, demonstrations of qi involve standing still and paying attention to the body...Have I cracked it?Is it that simple? No-one ever says "oh, I want to learn magic." This, I think, would be more honest. It's not that I don't think that nothing myterious or inexplicable exists, but I am tempted always to think "so what"? Does it make your life better? Does it make anyone else's life better? This is what interests me. I don't like to weigh in with the Zen quotes, but this one I can't resist:

"When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

‘The founder of our sect,' boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air.

Can you do such a wonderful thing?'

Bankei replied lightly: 'Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.'

Friday 25 March 2011

This from an interview with Luke Shepherd, a tai chi teacher, on the Tai Chi Union For Great Britain website:

What are your views on competition?

"Did you say contemplation or competition? Theoretically, competition could be valuable to test one’s level, if seeking to ascertain if internal practice is truly taking place. Unfortunately, all competitions are judged by external methods i.e. the first to step outside the lines. This may be achieved with either exquisite internal skill or with brute force with no differentiation being made in the points scored. When I see a school has won competitions, I am rarely impressed, as I have no way of knowing if subtle jins are being trained and refined or if the competitors are relying on well co-ordinated contraction and timing to off balance their partner.

I hear of people winning medals after 5-7 years training. Unless they are exceptionally gifted it must be obvious that with this limited training they are using external strength and contracting forces to overpower their opponents. Is this what the classics ask us to train?

To develop stretched elastic forces takes many years of internal mind and body training. To be able to co-ordinate these internal changes (without reverting back to external contracting ie muscular habits) with the timing of one’s partner takes many more years. To empty one’s mind of any idea of pushing and to allow the partner’s force to passively stretch the body takes further training and faith in the deepening process. Will we gain deeper understanding through encouraging the winning of medals – whatever force is used to obtain them?"

First of all, let me make it clear that Mr Shepherd has some twenty years experience over me, and that I have no wish to question his skill, or his commitment to good tai chi chuan.

But I have to take strong exception to many of the points raised above.

 To suggest that “physical” accomplishment can somehow be trumped by something vague and insubstantial is wrong. These words "internal" and "external" make real problems, because they create the illusion that there are somehow two "worlds" in which we practise. The first is the seemingly distasteful, crude and amateurish "physical" world of "well co-ordinated contraction and timing", basically muscles, bones, sinews, leverage, range, timing and intent. Then there's the other world of subtlety, refinement, exquisite skill, and...what exactly? This thinking demonstrates a real Cartesian duality which ill reflects reality. This kind of thinking leads people to tai chi thinking that there is some kind of “power” or “energy” that they should be training. The truth is much simpler: use the body. Use your common sense. Try things out. Lose a lot.

To train skill is to use the muscles, and to use force. Certainly, one can learn to refine the way the force is applied, but if you aren't strong enough to withstand a bit of heave-ho, then you haven't even covered the basics. I will be frank here. To say that you are working “internally”, but are unable to display or enact that work is a good way of doing nothing but pretending that you are. Winning is winning, whether by force or by guile. As martial artists, we are looking to survive conflict by whatever means are pragmatic, and this applies to competitions as well.

I understand. Saying that you have learnt good leverage and balance does not sound very romantic, or glamorous. Understanding range, timing and movement doesn't appear very grand; in all likelihood, it won't attract many new acolytes. But that is what tai chi chuan consists of. Make no mistake. I'm not reducing tai chi chuan to "just" or “merely” the physical: what I'm saying is that the wonderful quality of tai chi is trained through our physicality, not through our concepts. "I am more refined: I should win" is a concept often clung to by tai chi practitioners, even as they are being flung about like ragdolls by uncouth barbarians.

The training and refining of subtle jin is the same as the training of well-coordinated contraction and timing; if there is no ability to attack and defend, whether the opponent uses "external strength" or not, then there is no tai chi ability. Full stop.

Thanks to Mr Shepherd for his comments, and if he should read this, I hope no offense has been caused.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

A good ole' plug for martial Tai Chi Chuan lesson...

I've not mentioned it before, but for any of you out there interested in training with my teacher and I, we run a class on Friday evenings, from 1830-2000 in the Cornerstone Community Centre, on Church road nr. Palmeira Square, Hove.

This is a martial lesson, not a handform session, so expect to sweat a little and do some (light) contact work.
It's fun. Come along.

It's £7 for an hour and a half, roll up, roll up...

That's not a picture of either of us...

Friday 18 March 2011

Wobbly weapons and the Police

We were visited yesterday morning, in the park where we train, by a member of the Constabulary. Apparently, the police had received reports that that there were men wielding metal swords in the park, scaring the kiddy-winks and causing consternation for the populous. The fact that some kind of criminal gang had been roaming about in Brighton had lent an extra edge to such compaints, and the police were duty-bound to investigate. We of course were not the offenders. We are sensible enough to know that using metal weapons is the quickest way of drawing the unwanted attention of the Law. We said we'd spread the word amongst our martial neighbours, and actually we had a pretty good idea who the perps might be. The thing is, the metal sabres that these cats use are of the wibbly-wobbly Bacofoil kind, which to my mind are completely unfit for purpose anyway. The idea seems to be that the wibbliness produces a noise not unlike a Rolf Harris Wobbleboard when you stab. The sabre, having a curved, single-edged blade, is primarily not a stabbing but rather a slashing weapon. So if you want a SWOOOSH you had better be generating it with your scythe-like cutting motion, not your stabbing or thrusting. The thing is if you use such a thin weapon, it will make a noise pretty much whatever you do with it, thus it is no indication of "fa-jin" or any other damn thing apart from the fact that the user is a teensy-bit of a show-off. Now that the Fuzz are on to them though, they'll have to use wooden sabres like the rest of us, which is simply better all round. Hurrah then, for both the fearful populace and our Police officers. To cap it off then, this is a public safety announcement: DON'T WAVE METAL WEAPONS ABOUT ESPECIALLY WAFER-THIN ONES for the love of God. It's bad news for us all.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

The Needle At The Sea Bottom

The game of tai chi chuan is a very human one: evade, divert, escape and survive. What makes the game worth the candle, as the saying goes, I suppose, is the possibility that we may fail. As we are seeing in Japan at the moment, sometimes we face something that can't be played, something which no kind of human cleverness can address in any meaningful way. It's a hollow and horrifying way of learning it, but the best we can generally do is to really appreciate our lives and our world. We all know that we will  be swept away in the end, but to be reminded of this doesn't make it any less painful. For many of us, though, the game goes on. Keep training, keep moving...

Thursday 3 March 2011

The Big Martial Arts Con

The martial arts are a con. The carrot of "fighting ability" is held out on the end of a long, long stick: it's not uncommon to hear or read the following: "tai chi is alright but it takes at least ten years to be able to use it." On one level, there is truth in this. To learn the art takes a long time: the different forms, fighting concepts and so on. But to be able to use it shouldn't take the averagely fit and intelligent person more than a few months. I suppose it depends on your definition of "use".  If by "use", you mean to defeat a slew of assailants who are seriously intent on maiming you, using  the full range of aesthetically pleasing, identifiable techniques of your school whilst barely taking a scratch, you can damn well forget it. If by "use" you mean have the sense to avoid trouble, evade incoming undesirables whilst looking for a handy exit strategy, well you can achieve this relatively quickly.
The point is not to beat or defeat triumphantly and obviously. Life is too messy for this to occur with much frequency. No, the aim is to survive and carry on. Not very glamourous, I know. But tactically, legally and morally, it's the pinnacle of our art. Evade and escape.
It's not always possible to just evade and escape. Maybe you will have to do nastier things. But the odds will be tipped very little even by years and years of training. If after ten months of training you can't handle an attack by four or five assailants on a dark city street, the likelihood is that your way of training won't bear any more fruit in this particular situation ten years down the line. In fact, your own decent instinct to flee might be marred by the added confidence that many martial arts erroneously instil.
It may seem like I am suggesting that no-one need train beyond the initial stages. I am not suggesting this, but rather a change of viewpoint. We don't really accumulate martial skill, but rather we refresh it every single day, as my teacher says "You are only as good as your last training session." We cannot rest on our laurels. Everyday just the basics: evade, divert, disrupt and escape. This is the difference between learning the techniques of  a martial art, and living a martial art.