Fa Jin

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28th, 2013 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

Today, on Mario Napoli’s very fine Tai Chi Chuan Study Group Facebook page, one of the members, Barry Strugatz, whom I don’t know, posted an interesting Youtube piece from Harvard on the distinctly human mechanics of throwing. And Barry made the analogy of the storing of elastic tension in throwing to Tai Chi, and I’m assuming he means Fa Jin.

But I have to strongly disagree. Fa Jin, or the push, in Tai Chi is not like throwing at all. Throwing necessitates a big “wind up” to generate the elastic tension to throw the object.

You see that in Judo and Aikido, but not in good Tai Chi. And this is one of the reasons why Tai Chi is so completely unique to other arts, aside from the “internal” component. So, I posted this suggestion of difference, and underneath is the link to the Youtube:

Hmmm. Yes, but I would suggest that in Tai Chi the elastic energy you are storing and releasing is in your opponent’s body. That energy in your body is powerful and massive, and so it can be contained and concealed in a small area – and then moved or swiveled around like a canon directed just on your opponent’s center. So – they’re similar, but still miles apart. Tai chi is much more like compressing a balloon against your fingertips to blast it off.

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Professor Cheng’s breakdown of the four component parts of a Fa Jin help us understand the difference. He said a Fa Jin needed four things: 1) strong root, 2) strong internal energy, 3) the wave of resistance from the opponent, and 4) aiming your Jin like an arrow straight through the opponent’s center, and slightly upward.

[I may have this wrong! He may have made one of the four points “the right touch”, i.e. don’t be too heavy, so that you are sensitive to what they are doing.]

Without the first two components, that both come from powerful internal energy cultivation, it won’t work. Your powerful sung energy makes you like a wall, or a tree, a massive immovable object completely disproportionate to your physical stature. (So, big people can imitate this advantage over lightly built skinny people; hence, there’s a lot of big “Tai Chi Masters”.)

Your unusual magnet-like connection to the ground, the root, makes the opponent’s attack against you like a balloon compressing itself on a blunt stick. Once you have weathered the storm of their attack, i.e. neutralized their mass and energy, the huge compressed energy of the “balloon” rests squarely lined up on your person. You have the opportunity at this point, to unleash all of the balloon’s tension against itself, as if the balloon was massively compressed on the stylus of your fingertips. Your “push” is the release of that massive tension build up, that only happens if your root is powerful enough that you are immoveable to them.

If you move, or slip, or shift, the tension pops into release. If you have insufficient root, then the tension never builds up to the amounts required to send them flying away, because you have taken advantage of that law in physics that states, “If you control the center of the object, you control the object.”

[Most of the success in push hands and Tai Chi as a martial art is derived from your ability to manipulate the “movement discussion” between you and your opponent because of your internal power. Your internal power is so strong that they cannot reach to, or find, or manipulate you to give them, your center. And likewise your internal power is so strong that they cannot stop you from touching their center, or do so without producing a situation that makes them tense, without using tension, and thus giving you the wave of resistance that you then dilate with the precisely-timed and exquisitely-aimed pulse of your push.]

All of that compression power is built up by you directly on their center. It takes great internal power or external strength (strength works too, as in the example of the fat master who has no internal cultivation, but the physical mass to partly imitate the physics) to direct the pressure and the direction of force precisely where it needs to be directed, or changed slightly, in accordance with any shift your opponent might make in the moments before the Fa Jin.

That precise, subtle steering and control around the opponent’s center is also something that comes from the internal power. The touch, the great sensitivity, to manage the triggering and aiming of the great power comes from long practice in push hands. Feeling people defend, move, attack, shift, protect. The lighter you work, the more you progress. So, Professors Yang and Cheng, and Ben Lo, both said work light, aka with four ounces.

As light as you can. You will always be too heavy!

And “hearing” the subtle energy of their bodymind react to how you are influencing them and trying to force them to use force against you.

To repeat, the best analogy I have so far is that of compressing a balloon against your fingertips so that the elastic tension of the balloon itself blasts it away from you. You actually do so little!—just create the tension and keep it aimed as you want it. The analogy is easy to grasp when your mass is so much greater than a balloon. What seems too fantastic is to think that the analogy stays exactly the same for you when you confront someone that outweighs you by double or so!

But that is what it is!

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More On Tai Chi Knee Pain; Proper Knee Alignment

Posted in Uncategorized on May 29th, 2013 by Walls-Kaufman

by David Walls-Kaufman

One of the most common problems in the Tai Chi population is knee problems. And it isn’t because of Tai Chi. It’s because of a problem in your own knee – and here’s how to fix it.

I wrote a comprehensive article on the four causes of knee pain for Tai Chi Magazine in rebuttal to a poorly-informed criticism of Yang Style Tai Chi (in the critique called Cheng Man-ching Style) for its alleged “trauma” to the knee.

Aside from massive injury, the four causes are 1) chemical/inflammatory, 2) excess physical stress such as obesity, 3) improper nerve supply so that the knee tissues grow weaker from cellular derangement, and 4) improper knee alignment.

Improper knee alignment is everywhere in the world, let alone in Tai Chi circles. And the fix is so simple – it must be discussed here. Being simple means that there is no individual variation – which is wonderful. And once you are educated to the basic concept – you too will see it everywhere and can help spread the word to prevent costly and unnecessary doctor visits and even surgeries that will yield disappointing results on top of this underlying cause.

First, an anecdote on the effectiveness of proper knee alignment.

I went with Ben Lo down to Virginia Beach nine years ago to his workshop. There, a Tai Chi student of my dear deceased Tai Chi colleague, Larry Mann, told me he had chronic worsening knee pain and was slated for bi-lateral knee replacement surgery in a month.

In class, I stood behind him and saw the ankle alignment you see pictured in the photo below:

Here, you can see the extreme angle of the ankle and Achilles Tendon placing gross abnormal pressure on the foot, ankle and knee. The Achilles Tendon should be straight, not collapsed inward as in this photo.

“I’m going to take a photo of your ankle alignment,” I told him. “Now, I want you to roll out your ankles and cup the soles of your feet upward to form an arch until I tell you to stop.” He began, but kept stopping because this new ankle and foot alignment felt so preposterous. I prompted him, “Keep going. . . . Keep going,” until he was laughing absurdly.

Then, I took this second photo:

When I showed him the two photos, and how his ankles were FINALLY nearly correctly aligned in the second photo, he understood how his brain had accepted the crushed, awful ankle alignment in Photo One as his “normal”.

Why does ankle alignment from foot pronation bear upon the knee?

Because the ankle is the pedestal on which the knee joint rests. A tilting pedestal makes the knee crush inward. Ninety percent of the time the feet roll inward – called pronation. The knee then crushes inward, hyper-stretching and ripping up the cartilage, the meniscus, and ligaments from the inside of the knee bones.

To demo this – hold your fists up with two pens sticking straight up out of each between your fingers. Now, roll your fists inward to imitate foot pronation. See how the pens tilt dramatically inward? The tops of the pens represent the tearing pressure on the knee joint. This is why 90% of knee problems involve the medial (inside) part of the knee, not the outside.

Foot pronation, ankle buckle, knee buckle move hand in glove.

If the ankle pedestal continues to lean after the surgery or any procedure – what outcome do you expect there will be?

I advised my Tai Chi colleague to practice all the time walking around out-rolling and up-cupping his feet. A basic Yoga position.

I told him to see a chiropractor to remove nerve interference from the nervous system because the collapse of the ankles and knees definitely pitches out his low back, and this (at least) creates huge negative feedback for the knee nerve supply from the spine.

And I told him to get Foot Levelers foot orthotics from a chiropractor so that all three arches of his collapsed feet could get the proper low-grade support that allows full foot movement to “breathe”, rather than being imprisoned by conventional Old School orthotics that also only address the pronation of the one arch, when the foot has three arches.

I told him to lose a little weight – he wasn’t at all obese. And to load up on the fruits and veggies and lower the carbs for a more nutrient rich, calorie poor diet to help him on the inflammation/chemical side.

A year later – he beamed at me as he walked me into a big bear hug, saying:

“I’m doing fabulously! I didn’t need the knee surgery! I didn’t need the knee surgery!”

Often, foot pronation is much more subtle than this, which is why you should consult a chiropractor that is good at sports adjusting or extremity adjusting, i.e. works on the rest of the skeleton away from just the spine.

When we combine this simple alignment understanding with our other holistic modalities, it goes a long way to improving our health and body comfort in the way we expect the Holistic Lifestyle to do so. So, plug this in.

In all my decades seeing patients, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a case of chronic knee pain that did not involve an important piece of foot pronation.

Now, go out and help change the world.

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The Amazing and Unique Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Posted in Uncategorized on September 5th, 2012 by Walls-Kaufman

by Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

I was attracted to Tai Chi because of the exceptional abilities of my teacher, Mr. Benjamin Lo, when I first met him in 1975 on his way through DC to join Robert Smith’s Bethesda, Maryland group on the way up to New York City and the memorial for Prof. Cheng on the occasion of his tragic death to be held at the Shih Jung School.

Ben Lo did a demonstration that night that left us all gasping at the fact that he was, indeed, a superman! “No, no!” he sharply retorted in his awful English, in desperate earnestness that our large group not perceive him as exalted. “Not superman! . . . . Super NORMAL!”

Have no doubt about it, my friends – he was superman.

But now, two significant articles on the overarching health benefits of tai chi lead me to inject this, yet another, post into the towering torrent of human internet cogitation. As always, I hope mine are better written than most – the verdict is up to you.

The first article comes from my very good tai chi friend, C.J. Rhoads, in the very fine, and now discontinued Journal of Asian Martial Arts, edited by Mr. Michael DeMarco. This journal was regarded by Mr. Smith as his favorite journal, and he constantly recommended it to all serious students of martial arts. C.J.’s article, entitled TaiJi and Qigong Health Benefits: How and Why They Work, is in Volume 21 Number 1, 2012.

In this article, C.J. and her co-authors, Duane Crider and Dina Hayduk, review the now hundreds of studies on tai chi, and other exercise, to overview the emerging consensus on how exercise and tai chi work, what are the benefits, and how these benefits take shape.

The consensus is that, while there is still great difficulty defining what tai chi is and is not, the research offers up the observation that, clearly, there are no other forms of exercise that come close to the total package of benefits resulting from Yoga and tai chi, and that tai chi is significantly above Yoga, with all others trailing far behind, including meditation by itself, which personally I found interesting since I thought most of tai chi’s benefits were linked to its meditation component.

The reasons are that tai chi and Yoga both emphasize four pieces – relaxation, slow movement, deep slow breathing and “focused intent”.

And this is all minus the extra, ethereal component that nobody believes in – the oh-so-weird and ephemeral “chi”!

So, in a nutshell, students and teachers of tai chi alike should realize that there is no other single exercise, or collection of exercises, that will come close to the total picture of benefits that tai chi alone will bring them. It is the most bang for the buck. . . . So, why ever quit? Don’t be stupid: What else are you going to do? What else are you looking for?

The second article comes from the Stanford Center on Longevity and a ground-breaking interdisciplinary study led by Associate Professor in Orthopedics, Jessica Rose, who imaged the brains of tai chi masters.

I find this important because of the universal concern for the maintenance of our brain and faculties as we age. Here, Rose images the brains of tai chi masters to find clues on how well tai chi preserves the human brain against disease and as a person ages. This article selects what I think is a very telling quote from Rose, in which she “enthusiastically” states:

“They have beautiful brains.”

Apparently, the loveliness and preservation of the tai chi brain leaves the researchers feeling some shade of wonder.

This is truly terrific news! . . . .

I, for one, am blissfully content with the summations in both of these fine articles.

And, for all the damned standing and holding of tai chi postures I do, after the immediate rush of excitement mixed with relief in gratitude for the choice I made so many decades ago to pursue tai chi, and that I am seemingly not wasting my time – there is also a subtle slap-back reaction of – “There better be this kind of result!”

Because the tai chi commitment of anyone serious, as we all know, is huge.

Now watch, for this slip of ingratitude, God will punish me! I will be the only tai chi master left drooling and slouched, lashed with straps to the nursing home wheelchair, prematurely demented, the constant go-to butt of jokes of the cold-hearted staff who feed me scoops of cat shit and Sterno then post it on the internet!

All my decades of work for naught!

In conclusion, these two articles together depict tai chi as probably the preeminent form of human body, mind and spirit activity. All the more encouragement to practice hard, practice often, and persevere – which Prof. Cheng always said, and Ben Lo echoed, was the most important ingredient in tai chi practice.

Practice. Patience. Perseverance.

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Thank You, Alisher

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28th, 2012 by Walls-Kaufman

So nice of you to want to make this post. It is heartwarming to meet someone from so far away who is bringing so enthusiastically back to his Tai Chi compatriots all of his notes, observations and insights!

I wish your Uzbekistan Tai Chi group all the diligence and patience good Tai Chi needs!

Hopefully, we will meet and practice together again, my friend.

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A Letter of Appreciation

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28th, 2012 by Walls-Kaufman

Dear David,

I would like to share some of my observations about your Push Hands skill with the readers of your blog, if you don’t mind. This is a small token of my appreciation of your mastery.

So this is addressed to someone who would like to know you better.

I’ve met Dr. David Walls-Kaufman at one of the Push Hands gatherings hosted by sifu Paul Ramos. I immediately noticed David’s distinctive individual style of Pushing Hands, and obviously wanted to have some practice with him. I was lucky enough to have numerous exercises with him at the Tuesday gatherings during almost two months. I also went to one of his Saturday morning open classes and practiced with him a Tai Chi Form. I have learned some very useful thing from David, and would like to thank him for sharing his experience and knowledge.
Here are some of my observations on David’s style and skills.

First, I (I believe, as many others) experienced David’s enormous power of Push. This is not just a physical power but a power of his Chi. It is extremely difficult to keep your balance under such a Push. Almost impossible.

Second, I noticed his very advanced yielding skill. He could meet any Pushes, even very quick and hard ones, with a gallant yielding and absorbing. After that, of course, the attacker will face an unstoppable Push. David’s Yin and Yang work together and harmoniously.

Third, David has a brilliant skill of redirecting the opponents Pushes. It doesn’t matter, from which sides Pushes come – David will somehow redirects them from his center and then goes to the center of the opponent.

Fourth, I always observed David’s sensitivity, full concentration, or mindfulness, if you will. “Your hands are your antennas,” once he said to me. His antennas are extremely sensitive and work very well indeed.

Fourth, he has stressed the importance of standing meditations, by using different elements of a Form. I believe, his strength is partly based on this practice.

Fifth, David pays a great attention to breathing, circulation of Qi and Qigong as a whole. Once he said during a practice: “Tai Chi is Qigong”. So his approach is clearly internally oriented one.

I also noticed and respect his willingness to teach others and practice with less advanced individuals. So it is not a coincidence that all novices love to learn from him. He is indeed very well-respected Master among all levels of Tai Chi practitioners.

Finally, David is a good storyteller, he can tell many fascinating stories about his teacher and other great Masters. These are inspirational stories, and they can describe not only a beauty of Tai Chi, spirits of Push Hands and skills of great teachers, but David’s dedication to this Art. David, despite of his mastery and 25 years of experience, is a devoted student of Tai Chi. His love of Tai Chi, perhaps, is even bigger than his powerful Push. It is nice to see his determination to continue learning Tai Chi. This quality characterized any real Master.

I guess there might be some critics or skeptics of some aspects of David’s Push Hands style. That is quite normal since every Master has his or her own way of doing things. One thing is clear for me: David has developed a powerful technique of Push Hands and his skill deserves recognition and a huge respect.

Alisher Faizullaev, D.Sc., Ph.D.
PS. Here is the link to Alisher Faizullaev’s article titled “Tai Chi Lessons for Negotiators”: http://isd.georgetown.edu/files/Alisher_Tai_Chi.pdf

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Thistles and Cotton Lint, Root

Posted in Uncategorized on September 4th, 2011 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

My great grand teacher, Yang Cheng-fu, mentioned in his writings that root in a tai chi adept felt like a huge cotton bail. On the outside, it was welcomingly light and soft, but the deeper you pushed into it the more it became apparent that the bail was solid enough to prove immovable.

In the Cheng Man-ch’ing lineage (Cheng being Yang’s student), we hear from our teachers that when we direct our mind (I—pronounced ee) in a certain direction, the chi (chee) will go there. The phenomenon of chi is that simple. Some, depending on how long and how hard they have practiced the Chi Kung of Tai Chi, develop an inkling of what this means.

The description I have offered my students to clarify this question about the chi following the mind is this:

Particles of thought behave like thistles; chi behaves like cotton lint floating free in the “air” of the room inside our being. Now, imagine each “particle” of thought being like the thorns projecting from a dry head of thistle. This thistle head “moves” inside the room of your body wherever or however your consciousness directs it. Your intention (just thinking about it and relaxing) forms the thistle head, and as it moves with your thought, it inevitably catches the cotton lint of your chi is caught on its thorns.

This is a loose approximation of the phenomenon at best. The analogy fails because chi gathers at the behest of thought. It runs to join it, like a dog running when its master whistles.

Be that as it may, the longer you have practiced good Tai Chi methodologies, then the more you will have “grown” or “cultivated” particles of cotton lint floating free inside your being that get caught on the thistles.
Your relaxation and thought/intention in combination make the thistles emerge out of the nothingness of consciousness.

How much lint your thistles pick up is entirely a product of how much cotton lint you’ve got floating around in the air of the room of your being.

If you have a little Kung Fu, then there are very few strands of cotton for the thistle needles to snag. If you have tremendous Kung Fu, then the stirring of the thistle catches a load of cotton lint. The more cotton lint you’ve earned for your years of conscientious work, then the closer you get to Yang Cheng-fu’s analogy of the cotton bail—ever soft on the outside, but progressively heavier, thicker, denser, immovable the deeper the opponent pushes into it.

Without much cotton, your mind catches little lint and you martially function by activating your external frame of muscle.

The muscular shell of you.

Your body is like a shell, a hollow gourd.

When an “empty” person attacks, the feeling is sort of like being attacked by an empty can of coke. The empty can of coke comes rushing in at a toddle, pushing for the center, trying to dislodge you. As relaxation happens, there is a sinking-into-the-ground feeling very much like my teacher Ben Lo described of you being in an elevator coming to a stop. If the mass of my cotton lint surpasses the weight of my attacker’s tin can—then I have the ethereal “mass” to neutralize the pressure of their very corporeal attack; and turn it aside, or repulse it. The choice is at my discretion.

The ability to neutralize and repulse rests entirely on whether my internal stuff metaphysically “weighs” more than their muscular strength and mass.

This is the motile power that determines which one of us gets their hands (or body pressure) on the other’s center—which is the key piece in the trigger mechanism of the push.

If he or she is 6 feet tall and weighs 220lbs., I am more confident than if the person is 6’7” and weighs 400lbs. Can I neutralize? I don’t know. I have to see. With the first person, their speed and technique are less a concern to me than the speed and technique of the second person, because my ethereal “chi” weight and mass and their corporeal muscle and weight mass approximate.

But no matter that I am 5’11” and 174lbs. My technique matters little because the physics of neutralizing are the same. The difference is—do I have the internal mass to subtly overpower (turn aside) the pressure of the push?

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On Practice

Posted in Uncategorized on August 5th, 2011 by Walls-Kaufman

Hi David,

I have been practicing t’ai chi for a long time. When I began I gave it a lot of time every day, but in recent years much less time. As I grow older, I am more aware of the need for the benefit of a regular commitment. Also, through the practice with Julian Chu’s group, I have become aware of the reality of root and of chi in a way that was not apparent to me previously. It is clear that I have no root and no reliable experience of what it means to cultivate chi. I believe that you have both. So I appeal to you — can you explain anything? What will help me to develop these two aspects?

I see that you have a blog. I can easily imagine that other people would also be interested in what you have to say so please feel free to post this question, including my first name, if you wish, on the blog.

All the best,

Maureen

Dear Maureen,

Thanks for the note: Okay, so, yes, Tai Chi takes a regular commitment. I think the best way to think about your Tai Chi commitment and practice is to think of it as your daily ritual of meditation, which medical research tells us is essential for optimum wellbeing. Also, research tells us that physical exercise is also essential—how convenient that with Tai Chi we can kill two birds with one stone! This makes Tai Chi the neatest thing on earth . . .

So, with Tai Chi taking care of the meditation and exercise component of the Holistic Lifestyle—how long should you do it each day to earn better wellbeing? Anything is better than nothing. You know as well as I do that it’s probably longer than you now do it, so get busier.

With this daily commitment, the longer you do it for (your kung fu, i.e. time) you are growing a green plant of energetic internal connection and power that integrates you within yourself physically in a way that nothing else on earth can duplicate, and that connects you to the ground physically also in a way that nothing else can duplicate. Together, these spiritual components are the power of internal martial arts.

You say you can’t feel them—they are growing in you whether you know it or not. Their growing can’t be helped; it’s the Tao. It’s the dividend the universe gives us proportionately for setting aside all else and paying attention so conscientiously that we don’t even move. If you dabble in this practice, then they grow so gradually that it’s hard to notice a difference in yourself week to week, month to month. So, if you want more wellbeing and connectivity, then practice more: Tai chi teaches us that the universe is a perfect Meritocracy on this score. (Actually, on any score, if we look at life through the lens of the Holistic Lifestyle.) You will never cheat yourself if you practice hard—on the other hand there is no free ride if you do not practice, i.e. strip away all the concerns of life down to nothing mentally so that your mind and being are absorbed only with your internal space and energy connecting through your core and your Tan T’ien to the magnificent majesty of everything. It seems meditation is an appreciation of the majesty of what is. It could not be simpler or less adorned.

It is to revere the creation that you are, of all that is—to take it all in at once, and not even move.

So, make Tai Chi shapes your daily meditation, and gradually but steadily your awareness of root and chi will bloom because you are growing more chi. It plays upon itself and grows more substantial. All of this can’t help but pour into your push hands, and you will feel changes and improvements. It has no top end. It has no glass ceiling.

In the beginning, as a beginner (and you will know who you are!), “being there” in that meditative space of chi and relaxation is too fine a point to maintain in the workaday world. Not that you shouldn’t try! But don’t spend years fooling yourself. You need to set aside serious time to be alone with your interiors and the effort and focus of being there. In time, with more chi, it plays naturally upon itself in your interior playground—and just by relaxing your shoulders or thinking of your insides, effortlessly you are authentically “on line” and streaming.

The end of all of this chi cultivation and push hands is that it makes your being a more stable column connecting heaven and earth, standing upright, that turns or absorbs un-troubled the influences of life. The more chi you have, the more genuinely spiritual you become; the more un-troubled you are. It’s all meant to be a wonderful, unique affirmation of the spiritual, and of the unmatched magnificence of the space we live in.

Again, it is so simple. I hope this helps you to practice more.

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Why I Call Him “Lao Ba”

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13th, 2011 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

People have asked me why I call Ben Lo “Lao Ba”. As I write this line, I remember the illuminated, deeply satisfied expression coming over the face of my tai chi nephew, David Chen, when I told him that I called Ben by that name.

David, his wonderful smile spreading across his face, chuckled softly and exclaimed, “That’s a wonderful name to call him. . . . ‘Old Father’.”

David nodded again in deep approval.

The subject had come up because he and I were discussing our concern about the way Ben always behaved so remote and aloof towards us whenever we called him long-distance from Washington DC to San Francisco, Ben in his 1930s bungalow four blocks from Sutro Heights Park and the quietly roaring Pacific Ocean.

David and I, in that conversation, discovered that we both shared the fear that Ben didn’t know how much we loved him and how much he meant to us. More than anyone I ever met in Tai Chi, David shared my passion for practice in the old way that Ben taught and encouraged. Only one other I’ve met recently wishes to practice that hard.

David Chen was a wonderful exponent of Yang Tai Chi. More than myself, David never forgot to regularly call Ben and stay on top of his regular discipline to make sure Ben knew David was thinking about him. I shake my head, wishing even now I was as good as David at this mindfulness.

You can’t let your teacher forget that you love them. For you to let that happen is obscene.

If you don’t do it—it necessarily means that either you or your teacher aren’t worth a damn. . . . You decide.

If your teacher is what the Japanese call “A Living Treasure”, then you pay attention.

David developed a benign brain cancer, had the tumor removed, and then died, so tragically two weeks later of post-surgical complications. His funeral was gigantic. Six hundred people, at least. He was adored. I carried my young son, Kimble, then a little over one year old, past the coffin to have him look in one last time at his Uncle David. . . . I will never forget a night I spoke with Ben about David’s death. Ben, so stoic, began to weep. “He was such a good student,” he whispered.

Ben does not weep. There is no loftier praise.

Plunging on:

In the early 1990s, I told Ben several times that I wanted to go with him on any trip to the Orient. I only hoped I practiced hard enough that my lobbying would not insult Ben. I had heard of the odyssey my San Francisco classmates had taken years before with Ben to Malaysia to observe the 80th birthday of Ben’s fabled classmate, Master Huang Hsing-hsien. Oh, my gosh—the stories.

I wanted some of my own.

Ben gave me my chance in late springtime 1996:

“Day-bee,” Ben said over the long-distance line, “you say you want to go with me to China, right?”

Unhesitatingly: “Yes, Ben.”

“Okay. Now you have chance.” He explained that he was going on a three-week trip to China with Wei Shan, a woman student of his who arranged regular trips every few years with girlfriends of hers, and Ben was tagging along, and one of the lady’s who had committed had to cancel.

In August, I landed in Shanghai with them and we embarked on our journey to ten major cities, seventeen destinations.

At another time I’ll review the highlights of the trip. But the one germane to this journal entry has to deal with the fact that the four ladies on the trip and Ben often spoke Mandarin and I only launched into my study to attain my level of speaking Chinese like a child when I returned from that trip. So I had no idea what they were talking about.

“David”, said Wei Shan—a very attractive, very capable tour leader Chinese woman of forty-something who, I had learned, was Ben’s last student. There was some hope, I later learned, that maybe she and Ben would find their way together. “Do you want to know what we have been laughing about?”

I had noticed how a certain oft-repeated sentence pattern and word-set had regularly got my companions rollicking. Wei Shan was offering to enlighten me now while we were traveling on our hired short bus toward a restaurant in Chunking for the evening meal.

Wei Shan, by the way, was a professional gu-jung player, who had been taken from her parents by the State and placed in the Beijing conservatory. She told of fleeing for her young life out the back of the dormitory one day when screaming Cultural Revolution goons piled in the windows and doors looking to kill these prodigies of China’s past. They dragged more than a couple to ground. At one point, while we were visiting a museum, Wei Shan stepped over the velvet rope keeping visitors away from the gu-jung there on display with other classical instruments. The guard said nothing, gloved hands folded behind his Mao uniform, he looking on curiously as Wei Shan settled on her knees before the instrument, expertly tuned it, adjusted by millimeters the set of the ivory bridges lifting each string to delicate tension. Then, she started to play. The first note captivated the being of each of us fifteen-odd souls lucky enough to be in the room. Her notes swept up like birds, ringing from first to last with utter mastery—and shamed the playing I’ve heard on professional recordings of Chinese classical music.

She gave our ears a glimpse at perfection.

“We are telling everyone that Ben is our father.” Wei Shan waved at Ben sitting placidly at his dusty window seat, gazing out at the untellably congested side street, teeming with people and rinky-dink shops. “And I am the Oldest Sister, Da jie, and Vicky is the Second Sister, Er Jie, and Susan is the Third Sister, San Jie, Emily is the Littlest Sister, Xiao Jie—and you are the son from the concubine!”

The ladies jumped into howls of the exact same modulations of laughter that I mentioned a paragraph ago that I’d been hearing for days.

Enjoying the joke as much as they now, I asked, “Wow! And everybody believes I’m his illegitimate son?”

. . . . I have very dark hair—but I ain’t no Chinee.

“Oh, yes!” my lady comrades chimed together. “We can’t believe it either, but no one even bats an eye!”

Susan then told me that concubines were even then not so uncommon; her own father had two wives. Wei Shan and Vicky corroborated with other examples of somewhat hush-hush polygamy in Taiwan.

“So,” Vicky turned around to urge me, since my seat was always in the back of the short bus, “you keep it going by calling Ben Lao Ba, which means ‘Old Father.’”

And we sealed the deal with another peal of laughter, everyone enjoying the joke even more now that I was in on it.
For the remainder of the trip, I dutifully dropped the “Lao Ba” term in front of the next tour guide in the next city we visited, and then the ladies explained to them our curious genetic intermingling. I had time to accustom myself to the vision of our tour guides easily stepping across the narrow gulf of incredulity regarding my being the concubine-begotten half breed son of Master Benjamin Lo.

The cute habit of calling him Lao Ba engrained itself in me in that time, and was thereafter strongly encouraged by my friend David, as I said, and so my habit continues to this day.

The term of endearment not only makes me feel closer to Ben, but it crosses a bridge of time and culture as well, to the Dowager Empress Middle Kingdom of dog-alleys tinged with the bite of coal smoke in the paper lantern light that has flirted with the sinophile in me since I was eight years old when I first poured over the characters in my mother’s two Chinese language text books that I still have on a shelf near at hand. A flirtation, I’m sure, many of you share.

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The Hall of Happiness

Posted in Uncategorized on December 7th, 2010 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

It was, I believe, summer of 1974. The details of this portrait may be fused from my several trips to Shih Jung School. Dale Ward and I took the train that Sunday from DC to New York, 75¢ one way.

We arrived early and Dale had a regular monthly private lesson scheduled with Tam Gibbs, Professor Cheng’s secretary. We arrived at his tiny apartment and joined Tam at his tiny kitchenette table, where Tam absorbed himself in a bowl of Special K.

I had never seen Tam before without a tie. Tam wore a tie every day out of respect for Professor and Tai Chi, and what they had given him.

Tam was devoted to Professor. He got to sit up with Professor and his poetry buddies while they drank liquor late into the night, discussing the classics, or alchemy and how the procedure needed to wait on the full moon. Tam died prematurely of acute appendicitis in the mid-1980s.

Without looking up, he asked Dale what was the book he was reading.

“Carlos Castenada,” Dale replied.

“Read me some,” Tam directed, off hand.

Dale picked no special passage; just the one there on the page. It was the passage about spiritual snakes and demons writhing in emergence out of the seeker’s belly. The weird portrait in my mind was punctuated by the rifle shot—the rifle shot of Dale’s book smashing on the kitchenette floor. Tam had smacked it from Dale’s grasp with a violence so stark it traced the air.

Tam intoned, “Ideas like that will take you far off the path.”

I sat in the grass in the park under the gorgeous day while Tam gave Dale his lesson on the form and the rollback in push hands. Tam demonstrated the most marvelous sit-back with his rollback arm elbow faithfully engaged on Dale’s. Tam made a special point of emphasis on never missing the elbow-to-elbow connection. His discipline on this score was amazing.

Afterward, Dale, Tam and I went to Shih Jung School in the Bowery. We rang the ground floor doorbell and a key on a ribbon whizzed lightly out of the sky to our feet. Nobody from up there ever looked out at us.

In the school, there must have been ninety people swarmed inside. Like us, they had probably made the trip because today was Professor’s last day before going home again to Taipei for six months. On my previous two trips, I had missed seeing the Old Man, and so I was keen for a glimpse today, finally.

The school was beautiful, like a small narrow So-Ho art gallery. The polished wood floors gleamed in the noonday sun, all the trim and the places with finished walls shone spotless gallery white, there were open windows on the front and one side, and a long open bare brick wall with soft gallery can-lights warming the sealed surface. This area was for push hands. Professor called it The Hall of Happiness. It occupied the middle and back areas of the school. There was in the center-space of the school a bulky white table with an Oriental vase and a spare arrangement of canary-colored orchids. This was the place where Professor taught calligraphy and flower arranging. Peter Kwok, a boy my own age, was the son of a friend of Professor’s who had passed away and Professor had been asked by the mom to help with Peter. Professor made Peter sit at the table after school and practice his calligraphy. Peter was there now, with brush, ink stick, paper.

Toward the front of the school was the floor area where form classes took place, postures and sword. It was practically mobbed with people following Ed Young and arranging their alignment in front of the large mirrors.

No school I’ve ever visited had the class, the beauty, of Professor’s Shih Jung. The man inspired a following big enough to fund such a place.

I got to tag along after Dale and Tam into the little office. Lou Kliensmith sat behind the desk opening mail, Tam took the chair alongside the desk and received the envelopes after Lou gave them first glance.

One envelope contained an invitation for the school to participate in a city-wide martial arts tournament. Lou looked down his nose over his reading glasses and stopped mid-sentence, having derived the gist of the contents, and handed it to Tam, who shaped half his mouth in a particularly sad, disappointed frown and gave a fractional shake of his head, as if to say, “Will they never learn?”

I got the impression that Professor would never approve such a thing.

By now, only more people had managed to fit themselves into the space gilded with sunlight and freshened by the wide open windows.

Lou Kliensmith, a convert to Tai Chi from the renowned New York Aikido Dojo, (founded by Weisheba himself) gave me a tired look when I asked if he would teach me about push hands. Lou was a mid-sized sort of guy, a tad pudgy, way balding and bespectacled with a spectacles cord that looped around the neck of his denim shirt. He put me up against the wall between the windows opposite the Hall of Happiness and blasted me time and time again for a long while. He kept saying, in a way that I could tell was him repeating the litany from Prof. Cheng, “You . . . neutralize, then—push.” Slam I went. “You . . . neutralize, then—push.” Slam I went.

It was not generous instruction. I don’t think Professor would have approved.

I was as inoffensive as any star-struck 17-year old ever could be. But I didn’t get angry; I considered myself very lucky, and after twenty minutes or so of this walkabout, I slumped in fatalistic exasperation and asked, “What can I do?”

Lou paused, looked at me anew—and laughed.
For some reason, now he liked me. His severity sparkled away and he became as open and giving as he hadn’t been before. He showed me how to work back and keep that rollback elbow fixed in position, bone to bone, to keep command of the position as you yield away. He slapped me on the shoulder affectionately at the end and I thanked him with near-rapture in my eyes.

Kliensmith, too, died young, of cancer. He was the only person there I saw smoking, and smoking a lot.

Dale pointed out all the senior students. I believe Stanley Israel was there, Mort Saul, Maggie Newman, Herman Kauz, Bill Phillips, Ed Young.

I was dazzled by the gallery of Tai Chi rock stars. There was no wrestling, ever. Careful, studious Yin and Yang, lots of nodding and discussion, work, sweat, more work, trying it again, laughter. Every iota was cooperative and “Colleagues in the Same Discipline.”

The only other place I have seen the same level of respect for the opponent—a respect really for life—is on the practice clay inside the Sumo house.

I could tell it was all a tribute to the man.

More students arrived; classes and pushing went on and on. No one seemed to share my concern regarding Professor’s location. He was leaving tomorrow, after all. Today was his last day to come to the school and see all these people who were his living legacy.

“When do you think Professor will come?” I asked Dale for probably the third time, this time while he was working against the wall with Morty.

“I know, I know, Grasshopper,” he chuckled.

“Grasshopper” was the pet name for the boy in the temple in the TV show Kung Fu. There is still a scar across my heart from my parents refusing me school night privileges to watch it on Thursday evenings. To this day, I can still see my point that, given my gathering life trajectory, it was “educational”.

I distracted myself by taking a postures class and got some leg burn on.

The room was impossibly crowded with people and the activity never waned. One of Professor’s sons joined us now. I kept looking to the door. Hope stretched from my gut every time a new group or individual strolled in. Thirty times my mind’s eye prefigured the Old Man sauntering in with his goatee, pais-like sideburns and crew-cut, in his self-designed knee-length collarless tunic—the style his symbolic rejection of the collar the Manchu imposed on the conquered Chinese race.

But I had to wait. I had to wait.

A gentle reverse flow of people started happening as the sun began to edge lower over the city. There were fewer arrivals and many more departures. There was less hubbub in the room anymore.

Mostly, people wore their hair long, with a lot of beards, as I’d seen at the May Day Rally in DC in ’68. Not one of the seniors wore their hair long, however.

In a half hour, the school was closing.

Still, I had patience. This was the time.

Some of the seniors were gone.

The door didn’t move much these minutes. . . . He leaves tomorrow. He leaves tomorrow. . . . This is his last chance to say goodbye.

But—what if he’d already said his goodbyes?

Dale walked over to me with his Castenada book and his Panama hat on. The school was closing and we had a train to catch.

“I guess he’s not comin’, Boo-boo.”

I had no words.

Heading down the three or so stories to the street, there was still a chance to bump into him and at least catch a glimpse of him, the sage from a distant culture that I’d grown into fascination of. The source of stories that had changed my life and deepest understanding—guru to me.

On the street, the color of the sky hinted that the interiors of the little restaurants would soon begin lighting up. There was very scarce chance now, depending only on which way we turned.

We started walking, Dale and I.

In the sub-awning gloom, a group of three men approached. . . .

Professor left the next day with his family and Tam for Taipei and never returned to America. While there, he attended a banquet held in his honor and drank from a bottle of liquor that had been boosted with wood alcohol to make greater profit margin on each bottle. Such tamperings are inevitably inexact, and the poison put him into a coma while his driver and maid both had the night off. By the time he was found on the settee by the front door, the situation was grave. Still, Professor rallied—only to be cut down by a subsequent procedure at hospital.

I never met the man.

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On the Central Importance of Chi

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7th, 2010 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman
July 6, 2010

In my very early days studying tai chi with my first teacher Bob Smith, author of the book, Masters and Methods, there was no doubt in our school that chi existed and was the centerpiece of tai chi. Smith had a line in the above-referenced book about how practicing with his teacher, Professor Cheng Man-ching, left one with absolutely no doubt that chi was a real thing.

I fear now that, for most of the tai chi world, chi is thought to be a mythical thing from China’s weird past.
For example, over the past few years reading the posts in a Cheng Man-ching style list-serve, mentions of chi were outright laughed at by all of the outspoken subscribers on the list.

It seemed I was the only defender of the idea that chi is real. The only support I ever saw was from folks contacting me backchannel. One other poster, Cheng Man-ching student Bill Phillips, had a concrete observation that chi was totally real. He said something to the effect that, “When I first started practicing tai chi, I felt no chi. Now, after over twenty-five years practice, I feel chi.”

The sense I derive from tai chi practitioners and researchers is that they regard the idea of chi with embarrassed confusion.

It seems, to the large majority of tai chi practitioners, that “internal power” is a matter of body mechanics and alignment. Some clearly think of chi as states of mind like confidence before a fight or martial spirit or ferocity or focusing all of one’s physical reserves on a strike, kick, push, neutralization.

The idea seems to have been all but lost that chi is a bona fide alternate energy source inside human beings.

This, my friends, is a crying shame.
This means that tai chi is lost. It means that tai chi has been largely reduced to a kind of slow-motion dance; a form of geriatric therapy that helps seniors hold on to their hip sockets, balance and bone density for a few years longer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . .
But if this trend concretizes, then you and I are losing the most brilliant form of bodymind exploration that exists. The world is losing what I like to call the Calisthenics of Enlightenment. We are witnessing the quiet death of the most potent martial art known to humankind.

And the tragic loss is based entirely on the fact that so few of us “believe” in the chi because we have so little functional knowledge of it.

Without genuine chi, there is nothing exceptional or particularly interesting about this exercise. It is slow-motion modern dance.

The difficulty is that a real and important cultivation of chi in the practitioner is probably the hardest thing to achieve in the field of physical culture. I say it’s probably the hardest based on the fact that it’s indisputably the coolest. And it makes sense to me that, in this world that lets us glimpse now and then that it at its core it is based on Meritocracy, then that which is the coolest and most valuable thing comes at the highest price of patience and self discipline.

Another of Professor Cheng’s great students (and the greatest tai chi teacher I have ever met) is Maggie Newman. She said it so eloquently that, “So much of what we talk about in tai chi, ‘the soft overcoming the hard’, ‘four ounces moving a thousand pounds’, ‘the chi’—it seems like a fantasy.”

And that is precisely the reality, and the central problem, for so many tai chi practitioners.

The chi is so elusive and hard to come by without the right practice that it can remain a fantasy even after a number of years. And after some years without ever having experienced an important level of it to have access to—students give up and figure the “internal” must all be in the mechanics and alignment of the body, or the practitioner being “confident and relaxed” in a tense situation.

Or far worse—they have a “teacher” who should be pushing a broom in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant rather than rooking gullible Americans out of their beer money. And so, their teacher has nothing to show them of importance, and all that’s really there for the gullible American is some mongrel mysticism that delivers the same authenticity as a fortune cookie Lucky Number.

My friends, I want to try to restore your faith.

I want us to take tai chi back from the well-meaning physical therapists that are concerned about our parents’ bone density but are rapidly diminishing the most exceptional method of mental and physical culture that exists by their very efforts to popularize the most superficial component of tai chi practice—it’s slow-motion postures. And the physical therapists are diminishing tai chi when their writings focus our attention on the benefits for health and balance and away from the only thing that makes tai chi important in your life—the location and cultivation of your own chi.

The double tragedy of the physical therapists’ unknowing misdirection is that the cultivation of significant chi (which is attainable by anyone) leads to health and thriving gains that dwarf those obtained by slow-motion modern dance.

I realized how dire the tai chi situation is when I recently attended a workshop of an internationally known tai chi master. I had always wondered why this certain teacher (in my opinion) under-emphasized the role of chi and talked of alignment, postural mechanics, physical training in conjunction with tai chi, etc.

I made a special effort to attend this workshop because one of the questions I wanted to ask him was Why did he under-emphasize chi? I never asked him. I realized halfway through the workshop the reason he emphasized mechanics was because he, too, didn’t have enough chi in his own belly to convince him that the mechanics were a relatively insignificant factor.

To realize this about a famous master is a wake-up-call that makes you want to write some articles about tai chi and the central importance of chi. Because there is only one reason that you practice tai chi. There is only one thing that the form, the practice, the discipline, the training tools of tai chi are designed to do. Whatever you want out of tai chi, be it enlightenment, health, martial study, the cultivation of your chi stands between you and the highest achievement of those goals.

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