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.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Get off your land!

So it seems that the Man will soon be charging us for the use of the ground, and the very air that we breathe. If you check out the link below, you'll see that a London Council is charging fitness
trainers a fee for the use of public park space. This could be bad news for any of you tai chi teachers out there who prefer the Great Outdoors, because great money-making ideas like this tend to spread like wildfire to other councils keen to appear "frugal"...
I love the tone of the beginning of the article, which envisages personal trainers as some kind of wealthy parasite, cackling as Joe Public  forks money out of his threadbare pockets with a pained,confused look: "HAHAHA! WE DON'T PAY BUSINESS RATES SUCKERRRS!HA!" These blackhearted instructors are the new bankers, in my opinion, and are not to be trusted. As our American cousins say... Sheesh.



Monday 18 April 2011

A New Movement

Tai chi chuan is a fighting method: a way of movement in the face of conflict. It isn’t limited to fixed step Pushing Hands, which in itself is training for a mere microsecond’s worth of confrontation, when the adversary first makes contact. It isn’t contained in competition sparring, which has some of the adrenaline and force of a “real” situation, but which lacks the surprise, versatility, openness and the brevity of most likely real situations. Sparring is the “death ground” alluded to in the Sun Tzu, where we have no option but to go toe-to-toe. According to Sun-Tzu, it is to be avoided. Good to do whilst one is young and full of fire, and then good to stop doing. The method of tai chi certainly isn’t contained in the “push the Master in a particular way and he sends you sailing through the air” scenario which abounds in the tai chi world. Absorbing and sinking is good, but try it against a punch, a kick, or a combination of the above. Something more will be needed, namely movement, flowing, thinking-in-all angles movement. Evasion is required, then control of the opponent, then disrupting his balance whether by striking, pulling, sweeping or throwing. To achieve this, listening skills will be needed. Structure will be needed, to make contact without collapsing. The feet really will need to move through the “eight gates” and the hands will need to be able to work together, to work separately, be coordinated with the feet, and apply torque to shock the opponent. It won’t be enough to work on one plane of movement. High and low are needed. Different ranges appear, and sometimes you’ll have no choice but to cover up and take a hit, but all the while moving, brushing past, so as to force the opponent to change angles. Even as he hits you, it’s possible for him to hurt himself if you can manage simultaneous attack and defence.

I say all this because one never reads it, never really hears about it in the tai chi world. Handforms, chi gung, tame Pushing Hands: all these get plenty of press. But the amount of people who assert that tai chi is standing in one place slowly gyrating arms with someone, or feeling for their “centre“, or assert that tai chi is stretching and turning for health far outnumber those who ask how does it really work? Merely copying drills won’t do it. Learning all the applications of the form won’t do it. However much Handform you do, that certainly won’t do it. That’s not to say that these things don’t have worth, and aren’t enjoyable. But aren’t you curious when Four Directions is used? Does it work as it is, “off the peg” as it were? Do any of the fixed or moving drills? Or do they need adapting, breaking down or reversing even? What is Reeling Silk for? Defence against punches, or grabs, or what? What is the link between applications and drills? What is the worth of Fixed Step given that your typical assailant may not be fixed in place as he attacks? What is the difference between a fist and an open hand? What really constitutes a “fight”? Why might “natural” or “subtle” movement be better in a conflict in terms of the law? How does the Handform link in to all this?

Many people, of course, are asking these questions and really mining the rich seams of tai chi chuan. Their voices, by and large, are silent. But please, if you have any light to shed on the real questions of tai chi, it would be excellent to hear about your work, compare notes and see if we can move this art along a little. I personally am ready for some new movement.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Technique of No-technique

 There are those kung- fu wisdom snippets about "technique of no-technique" or "fighting without fighting" and I have never regarded them as more than fortune-cookie nonsense. But they come near to some of the work we've been doing in our Friday night sessions of late.
We've been attempting to boil the syllabus down into essentials, based on honest enquiry and our own experiences of a martial kind. What is tai chi, when you take away the cultural trappings, the philosophies and the mythologies? We have by no means arrived at an answer yet, nor do I suppose we ever will; at least nothing that can be formulated neatly, concisely or even verbally.

It isn't about striking. That doesn't mean there isn't percussion, but it's part of the moving, part of the evasion, part of taking or destroying the oponent's balance. It's not fixing in one place and attacking, then moving on. It's not really grappling, though again this may happen.

As Western boxers have known for years, you fight with your feet, and this is nothing necessarily to do with sweeping or kicking, though those might appear. There's nothing formulaic about it. The recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Sherlock pre-plans how exactly he will strike and defeat his opponent five "moves" in advance, is how many people perhaps envisage the process of the martial arts. This is because we are taught discrete "techniques": he does this, so you do that. Tai chi chuan is as guilty of this as any other art. But the trouble is that, instead of reacting to what's hapening, we attempt to shoehorn various techniques in to the proceeedings to show what we have learnt, and to please the teacher. But the martial arts is only about reacting to exactly what is happening, not defeating someone according to some pre-ordained "style" "school" or "technique". So we are cutting away technique, to see what we are left with. We are ditching the flow-chart and heading out into open water. I'll let you know how it's going.

Friday 8 April 2011

What I did on my holidays

The usual "if you couldn't give a monkey's about Buddhism change channels now" warning applies...

If you've read much of what I write, you'll know that I don't have much truck with much of what passes for "spirituality" around these parts. So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Gaia House in Devon for a three day retreat with two teachers, Vinny Ferraro and Noah Levine.
Being a Zen practitioner, I was expecting this retreat to be...well, a bit lame. A bit hippy-ish maybe. But I'd been curious about Gaia House for a while, and at the moment I am on a bit of a  personal rumspringa , which is an Amish thing where youngsters venture out into the world to see if they want to become full-on Amish or not. Only I'm doing it with Zen, if you get my meaning, by trying out other teachings.
These two rip-roaring teachers,along with my fellow participants, treated me to a weekend-and-a-bit of the most inspiring, useful and goddamned heartfelt practice I've ever done.
My Zen practice has become a little stale, you see, which is no-one's fault but my own.It's become rather a chore, whilst at the same time I'm reaching a point with it where the expectation is that I commit to some degree. Like one of my heroes, Alan Watts, "temperamentally I'm not a joiner". So I have been wrestling with the idea of commitment.
Whilst I'm still not sure about pledging my allegiance, what has been made clear to me is that Buddhist practice is a thing of real value, and real sustenance.
If you don't know anything about these two guys, check out Noah's books "Dharma Punx" and "Against the Stream" as well as a new one that I have yet to read called "The Heart of the Revolution." Vinny apparently has been involved in an MTV production called "If Only You Knew Me" which I've yet to see. Both of them led mixed-up lives as youngsters, getting involved in petty crime and drug misadventures of all kinds. You get the feeling that their involvement with Buddhism is a survival thing, a literal matter of life and death rather than some shallow spiritual trip. You might expect, given their pasts, for them to be somewhat spikey, but I have to say that rarely have I met anyone so open-hearted and kind-natured as these two. Their passion for the teachings, and their black humour and outlook really opened my eyes to what Dharma practice can be: never has "loving-kindness" seemed so cool (!).
Now and then, it's great to take a step outside what you know and see what's on offer.

Buddhist ramblings over and out.