The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Taijiquan Reading List

Nothing replaces quality instruction and lots of practice, but our practice can be informed through reading. At the New Dharma Bums, there was a post which pretty much amounted to a reading list for Taijiquan practice. 

An except from the post is below. The full post may be read here.

Before setting out to cover the story of America’s evolving Tai Chi adventure, I am filling in information gaps in the history and philosophy of the Taoist martial arts, of which Tai Chi is one. I welcome any suggestions from fellow travelers, and those busy reading on the sidelines.
I recommend building on a literary tradition that includes good translations of Tao Te Ch’ing, I Ch’ing and The Art of War, as well as the Tai Chi Classics that lay out the principles of the practice. Other important works are available in English, reflecting the American experience.

My old school in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, The Tai Chi Center, used a text written by its founder, Robert W. Smith, a student of the legendary Cheng Man-Ch’ing, who brought his simplified Yang form from Taiwan to New York in 1964.

Cheng is featured in a new film documentary, “The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West,” originally a Kickstarter project like this one. The film is in New York this week for a one-night showing, and premiered in Los Angeles last month. The Professor was a poet, calligrapher and a healer practicing Chinese medicine. He considered Tai Chi, the martial art, his greatest accomplishment.

Robert Smith worked with the Professor in co-authoring “T’ai-Chi: The ‘Supreme Ultimate’ Exercise for Health, Sport and Self-defense,” which takes you through the Cheng Man-Ch’ing form, step by step. While there is no substitute for a hands-on teacher, “T’ai-Chi” lays out the principles and practice of Tai Chi as well as any text I’ve seen.

I was assigned other books written by the Professor’s students, including Ben Lo’s translation of “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises.…,” Cheng’s principles for marshaling energy (qi) for martial arts applications, and Wolfe Lowenthal’s “There Are No Secrets,” showing how Cheng had broken down the “closed door” teaching that cloaked Tai Chi with mystery in China. Ben Lo was a key editor in an excellent translation of the Tai Chi classics, “The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.”

This is my Tai Chi literary base, which I’m always trying to expand. I am thankful for my friends in Facebook forums, and supporters of my journey in search of the New Dharma Bums, who have suggested different books that would serve as good background, or inspiration, for my trip. Some are translating obscure works, while others have written books, which they naturally recommend.

I recently finished Bruce Frantzis’s Taoist meditation classic, “Relaxing into Your Being,” and am ready for Volume 2, “The Great Stillness.” I’m just starting Jennifer St. John’s “Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times,” while also reading Rick Barrett’s “Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate,” both of which promise to help bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western philosophies.

Barrett’s work is particularly intriguing in how it parses the Western cultural barrier to communicate the philosophies and practices of Eastern people. We each have our own “Gate” of perception, and it’s not easy to penetrate those traditions with genuine innovations. Fittingly, Barrett begins his book with a quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Indeed. Discovery requires seeing things differently, and I will be challenged to communicate the differences. Unlike Barrett, I have the advantage of studying the Chinese language and living for a period in Taiwan, but I do not have his expertise and training in Tai Chi. I am learning much from his approach in “Through the Western Gate.”

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Four Strengths of Shotokan Karate

Sometimes a dojo may close, the sensei may move. You may move; things happen.

One way to be resilient against these types of things is to train in a martial art that is both widely and consistently practiced. For example, Judo, BJJ, or Shotokan Karate.

Below is an excerpt from a post at The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

#1. It’s global. Like, scary “World Domination”-type global

Visit basically any country in the world, no matter how tiny or weird, and the chances are of epic proportions that you will find a local Shotokan dojo around the corner. The style of Shotokan is most likely the ultimate style for a backpacker, hippie or secret agent (and other people who travel a lot) since you can practise it almost anywhere on the planet.

And the greatest part of it all? It looks very much alike. Everywhere.

Meaning, there isn’t too much discrepancy between Shotokan schools in general (details there are plenty of, though!). Japanese terms, stances, basic techniques, basic kata and sparring is pretty easy to tag along with everywhere. And all of this thanks to a bunch of Japanese youngsters who were sent like missionaries around the world during the last decades to spread the word of Shotokan!

A Shotokan style reverse punch is a Shotokan style reverse punch no matter where in the world you go.

And that’s awesome.

#2: “Biiiig movement make stroooong samurai!” [imagine a Japanese voice]

It can’t be denied that the movements of Shotokan are exaggerated.

Deep stances? Make that extra deep, with some deep-sauce on top! High kicks? Make that super high, with some. Long punches, big steps, deep stances, high kicks and loud yells is what Shotokan is all about.

If you want to become good at Shotokan, you can never, never, cheat. Ever.

Which is exactly why people who have done any of the other three most popular Japanese styles (Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu or Shito-ryu) have a really hard time adapting to Shotokan because they are so used to small and narrow movements!

On the flip side, a Shotokan stylist will have an easier time adapting to other styles, as it is just a matter of shrinking the techniques a bit (well, it’s about much more than that actually, but you gotta start somewhere). Easy peasy, compared to expanding everything.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Taijiquan From of Huang Sheng Shyan

Huang Sheng Shyan was once a White Crane master who challenged Cheng Man Ching to a match. After being decisively beaten by Cheng, Huang became his student; one of his top students.

Huang then moved to Malaysia where he gained fame and many students.

Below is Huang demonstrating his form.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Martial Arts and Music

An analogy can be made in a limited way for a relationship between martial arts and music.

There is a point where one can go beyond forms to express oneself truly.

Take Mozart. His wonderful once in a thousand years genius stayed within the standard musical forms of his time, but he did things within those forms that no one though of before; that no one could have pulled off.

One such was a duet with two violins, with both players reading a sheet of music that laid on a table between them. They were playing the same music, but from different directions.

Over at The Way of Least Resistance blog, Dan Djurdjevic wrote a very good post on the element of time in the mastery of martial arts and made some appropriate analogies to mastery of playing music. 

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here. Please pay a visit.

 There is an old rule of thumb in martial arts: 1,000 repetitions to get the basic idea of a movement, 10,000 repetitions to get it more or less right, 100,000 to get it near perfect.

And that's just a movement.  We've not yet talked about application.  Application takes much, much more practice.

Let's put it in the perspective of some other art - say, music.

You might want to be a world-class jazz guitarist, playing lead solos off the cuff, with no two performances alike.  And that's how jazz is meant to be played.  You're responding to your environment: the other musicians, the crowd, the venue, its atmosphere, your own mood, the time of day... practically anything and everything.

So what does it take to be a good jazz guitarist?  100,000 repetitions of scales won't cut it.  I don't know what the figure in repetitions is, but it's going to be a lot higher.  Actually, it's measured less in terms of repetitions than it is measured in time.  You need time to become a master.

"But I'm super-talented and ultra-focused," you'll hear people say.  "I have an unbelievable work ethic and I'm already doing things that 'masters' can't do!  Check out the speed of this particular solo..."

Yes.  You're good.  Really good.  But you're not Django Reinhardt - yet.  You won't be until you've approached his experience.  Because, in the end, there is no substitute for experience.  However much you wish it were otherwise.

In the case of a jazz guitarist, this experience isn't just about you and the guitar.  It's about you and your band.  It's about playing live.  It's about not "choking" when you suddenly realise that there are 10,000 people watching you.  It's about knowing what to do when you make a "mistake" and taking things in a different direction.  It's about knowing how to deal with the fact that you're having a bad day...

This often has more to do with the passage of time than the literal number of repetitions.  Because that passage of time is often what is needed for something to "bed down".  It's for this reason that sometimes it's best to "sleep on it".  How many times have you found yourself frustrated by a particular technique or skill, mucking it up almost every time, only to find it vastly improved if not "effortless" the next day?  It has happened many times in my life and I'm sure it will keep happening.  Indeed, I've come to trust the principle of "sleeping on it".  I've come to expect less from sheer dogged repetition and more from activities such as visualisation, if not pure "rest": time for my subconscious to process a new technique or skill - time to make it truly mine.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dao De Jing, #60: Occupying the Throne

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #60, Occupying the Throne.

With Dao one may successfully rule the Empire. Ghosts will not frighten, gods will not harm, neither will wise men mislead the people. Since nothing frightens or harms the people, de [teh] will abide.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Spirit of Okinawan Karate

Below is a documentary about traditional karate training in contemporary Okinawa. Enjoy.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mastering the Japanese Spear

 Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The full post may be read here.

For being one of the main battlefield weapons of choice for Samurai and ashigaru throughout the sengoku jidai, there are surprisingly few schools of spearsmanship left today. In fact, there are only two that I know of: Owari Kan-ryu and Hozoin-ryu, . There are other schools that have tangential syllabus points related to the use of the spear, such as Teshinshoden Katori Shinto-ryu, but these two are the only ones that I know of which contain dedicated spear syllabus. With the knowledge of this weapon thus spread thin, here are a few points which might help us to better understand so-jutsu, the art of the spear.

  1. The weapon:
Yari come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and reflected various preferences and trends among the warrior classes over the years. Some spears were also adapted for specific roles on the battlefield. The type of spear that I use is called a sankaku yari. This means that the blade has a triangular cross-section. This robust geometry means that such spears are particularly suited to penetrating armour. The sankaku yari had a different blade design from the su yari, or straight spear. The su yari have two edges like a European spear, whereas the sankaku yari possesses only a point. These simple designs of spear where commonly favoured by warriors of all classes. For those who could afford it, however, the addition of extra, angular blades or parrying bars greatly increased the efficacy of the weapon, enabling the user to trap and often disarm his opponent. These types of spear are very broadly called kama yari, although there are a huge number of categories which clarify the individual style of each spear head. Many hozoin ryu sparof the schools of spear fighting had their own unique design of spear which fitted their particular techniques. Hozoin-ryu favours a long spear, generally around 2.8 metres in length with a horizontal parrying bar near the base of the spear head to allow for the effective blocking and trapping of other spears and weapons. Owari Kan
-ryu meanwhile, often use mobile, tubular grips on the hafts of their spears, allowing greater power on the thrust by eliminating the friction between the warriors hand and the shaft of the spear.
  1. The techniques for the warrior on foot:
Outside of koryu bujutsu, the nearest thing one can find to so-jutsu is jukendo. The rifle and bayonet were, after all, intended to be roughly analogous to the spear in their use and techniques. In both jukendo and so-jutsu, there is generally only one attacking move, the straight thrust. While this is the main killing technique of a spear armed warrior, this does not take into account some of the rarer designs of spear, or battlefield tactics that called for other techniques. The kikuchi yari, for example, was a straight bladed spear that possessed only one cutting edge, essentially a naginata and using many of the same forms and techniques often involving wide, sweeping cuts, but with the added bonus of a more effective thrust.

On the battlefield, soldiers could find themselves up against two types of opposition: infantry and cavalry. Yari were often used by samurai and ashigaru alike in formation whilst on foot and thus what an opponent would normally be facing were a wall of spears. As a result the aim of the individual soldier was to knock the opponent’s spear out of the way either up or down (knocking sideways earned you no favours from your comrades), making the kill, and then attempting to exploit the gap in the enemy formation, perhaps ganging up with an ally on the next man along.  The main techniques in battlefield so-jutsu therefore are knocking away the opponent’s spear, thrusting, and circling movements to trap the opponent’s weapon.

Against cavalry the spearman faces a rather different problem, namely a very large and heavy horse and rider bearing down on you at some speed. If one were to try and meet the target head on in a standing position, you would simply be knocked over by the sheer force of the charge. The technique against horses was, therefore, for the front rank of the spear formation to wait until the opposing cavalry was utterly committed to the charge, then all take one pace to the side and kneel down with their spears leveled at the horse’s chest height. The back end of the spear was braced against the ground meaning that the warrior would not take the full force of the impact. This move would certainly have caused some spears to break, but with the momentum of the charge destroyed, the downed riders and now disorganised attacking force could be much more easily dealt with by the spear wielding warriors.

Anyone who has ever done any work with polearms will know that the secret to performing these techniques effectively and quickly lies in the physics of moments. When I gave a student of mine a real yari to try the other day, he immediately remarked that it was difficult to keep the spear head up and facing his opponent. Admittedly my particular spear has quite a substantial blade on it and it is also a modern reproduction and therefore the tang is only about fifty centimeters long, but even so, what was he expecting? It is after all a lump of metal on the end of a stick. Moment = force x distance from the pivot so of course, the weight of the spear head is going to be a little difficult to manage. This is why it is so important in all spear techniques that the rear hand is the one doing all of the work moving the spear head, while the front hand acts like a guide and support. Try it any other way, and you’re either going to have a very hard time controlling the weapon, or you’re going to get tired incredibly quickly just holding the thing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Usefulness of Internal Resistance

Over at Taoist Mediation, there is a good post on the important of internal resistance. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

 If you ask me what is the most important training concept conducive to good progress in the internal arts, I will say it is the finding of internal resistance (in both the stationery form and the movement form). It is more obvious in the movement forms and less obvious in the stationery forms.

In the "external" arts, which include lifting weights in a gym and moving our body forward as in jogging. External resistance has to overcome in order that exercise effects can be felt and workout benefits can be obtained. In the internal arts, it is all about finding internal resistance to deliver the exercise effects. In the external form, an appropriate resistance has to be used (from light to heavy in lifting weights in a gym and from variation of speed and duration for jogging, still taking these two as examples). On major difference between external and internal: the amount of external resistance can be seen (or externally determined) while the amount of internal resistance requires a student to "experience internally" (made easier with the assistance of good teacher, but not essential for some students).

Hence, when you do your tai chi form (or tai chi chi-kung/nei-gong), if your internal sensation (and your overall workout effects) tells you that "it is so easy to do the movement", most likely you have not been able to find the appropriate amount of internal resistance. In the movement forms, internal resistance should primarily be found in the movement of your major joints (shoulder and hip/pelvic). When you cannot find it, your teacher will tell you to "relax and open" (Song 鬆). And he is right. If he is a good teacher, he will also warn you against, the other-side-of-the-coin, collapse (relax without open, 塌). And he is right again!

Saturday, August 06, 2016

What is Taijiquan Push Hands

Over at Slanted Flying, there was a very good post explaining Taijiquan push hands and what it is for. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Tui Shou (推手), or push-hands, can be used to train many things in the study of Taijiquan (太極拳), and different schools likely have numerous specialized methods for using this training tool. But, since I have seen online forums where practitioners question the fighting usefulness of push-hands (at least as commonly trained, especially as seen in competitions), I though that I would present my understanding of this training method.

Wikipedia does a good job of explaining Taijiquan push-hands (see: The article states that push-hands is the “gateway” to understanding the martial aspects of this art, but does not explain how practitioners would transition from the “gateway” of push-hands into fighting

It makes sense that such qualities as “leverage, reflex, sensitivity, timing, coordination and positioning” would be valuable for a fighter, and that training to “undo a person’s natural instinct to resist force with force, teaching the body to yield to force and redirect it” may differentiate Taijiquan training from many other styles of martial arts.

In addition to the principles mentioned in the Wikipedia article, I would propose that a major aspect of Taijiquan push-hands is training in the middle range. To transition into fighting with Taijiquan, practitioners may need to practice additional methods not commonly taught in the push-hands format

If we look at martial arts fighting in general, the typical distances utilized tend to fall into the two categories of striking (long) range and grappling (short) range.

In both MMA and Chinese Lei Tai competition fighting, it is fairly common to see competitors using primarily striking and grappling/throwing (transitioning to ground fighting in MMA), and there are many styles of fighting around the world that emphasize one or the other of these skills. In Western fighting styles, these would perhaps be best illustrated by boxing and wrestling.

But Taijiquan focuses on a middle range not typically emphasized in other systems, and rarely seen in MMA or Lei Tai fights. While striking and grappling are important aspects of fighting, and should not be ignored by Taijiquan practitioners, the emphasis is initially focused on developing skills in the middle range.

To land a strike, an opponent would need to cross through this middle range. Similarly, grappling would need to get inside this middle range to be effectively employed. From this middle range, with proper body dynamics, both effective strikes and throws can be achieved by skilled Taijiquan practitioners.

The middle range is a difficult range to control (thus its relative rarity), and this is what push-hands seeks to train. To succeed in this middle range, Taijiquan emphasizes sensitivity (“listening” and “understanding” energies) as well as stick and adhere, connect and follow (zhan nian lian sui 粘黏連隨) and other concepts.