Originally written by: Allan Belsheim published Nov 2007
During one of our full time Taijiquan course sessions with Master Chen Zhonghua, we were talking about secrets. As we were all of the opinion that there are no secrets, he went along with us. However, he pointed out, “There is a difference between inside and outside.”
A disciple is considered to be inside while a student is considered to be outside. By way of analogy, he referred to ancient Chinese dwellings, made of wooden frames and paper covered windows. “The paper is very thin and almost transparent, but if you are outside of the house, you cannot possibly see what goes on inside. You can only see silhouettes and hear noises. In the same way, in learning Taiji, until certain knowledge has been transmitted to you, you are on the outside. You think you see and hear, you believe you know and understand, but you actually don’t! The difference between knowing and not knowing is as thin as the paper on the Chinese window.”
Master Chen portrayed the challenge of poking through this thin layer, to peep into the inner world of Taijiquan, as next to impossible. During his youth and early years of Taijiquan training, teachers frequently used this image of “poking through the paper”. Not that other words could not convey this concept, but the analogy seems to capture the flavor, to best convey the meaning.
Our group was still confused. We seemed to understand everything he said. But we failed to see how this would ever help us with our taiji practice. At times it felt like mental gymnastics. Some of the full time students were ready to quit.
He gathered all of us in front of his office, so we could participate in a simple experiment. Pulling a key from his pocket, he opened the door to his office. Then he went inside, inviting one of the students to go in with him. In a few minutes, they both came out. We were asked what they did in the office. Of course, we didn’t have a clue.
“There was no way for you to know”, he said. It would be too difficult to guess.
“If we were allowed to go into the office, we would know”, one of the students quipped.
“Exactly, that is correct. You are smart! Whatever we did in that office is not difficult to understand, if you were there to see and hear it. But you were not! Tell me, how could you enter the room yourself, to find out?” At this point his assistant (the student who went in with him) pointed out, “The key is on the desk, in the office. If you can get the key, you can open the door.”
“That is the paradox of taiji”, master Chen declared “You need a key to open the door. But the key is behind the door you are supposed to open.” All knowledge is like this. Learning can be viewed as a process of solving this paradox. Some people accept this as the challenge of learning, while others become frustrated, and give up.
Words, explanations, principles and theories might be likened to “codes” made up by people who are “inside”, knowing what lies behind the door. These “codes” make sense to the people who are “insiders”. They don’t make sense to the people who are “outside”.
The knowledge of taiji belongs to those who can see through the paradox. It takes more than just intelligence to gain this understanding. It requires strict adherence to a practice, including the flexibility to change the way we do things. The process is like a “key” to the codes. It provides methods for the students, to gradually “unlock” the essence of the paradox.
According to Chen Zhonghua there are 6 steps in this process.
- Do not assume that you understand. If you casually believe that you understand, you are setting yourself up for failure. The words and explanations might often sound no different from other things you have learned and heard. But this is a traditional art. It is based on ancient principles and experiences, which may be quite different from our common frame of reference in modern life.
- Listen carefully and pay attention to what you hear. The ability to listen and to pay attention is really only natural and effortless for young children. As an adult, with conditioned responses, you must recognize the fact that to listen and to pay attention, are tasks which require constant effort and vigilance. Otherwise you cannot discriminate what is “true”, in what you hear. Those who have heard Master Chen say for the “millionth” time, “Do not move your hand!” can appreciate the fact that you HAVE NOT heard him. That is why he is saying it to you again. If you believe this urging is merely for the benefit of others in the class, guess again — you are wrong.
- Observe every detail, even minute, subtle, or even “unnoticeable” moves. When the master demonstrates something that you cannot see, it might be you are not looking carefully, or you are looking in the wrong place. (I had an epiphany the other night in class, when Master Chen told me to put my hand on him. It turned out that he was pointing to a very precise location the size of a finger tip, when he said, “Put your hand here!” I had casually put my hand in the rough location that he was pointing at. A simple example of the need for more heightened alertness.)
- Inquire. It is better not to questions too early. At the beginning stage, if you follow points 1 to 3, you may find most questions are answered in due time. Then, after three years, you will have a real NEED to ask questions. At this stage, you will be at a level where questions beg for answers beyond the knowledge gained from the first three stages.
- Work with what you learn. If you are lucky, you should always find every opportunity to try the techniques out with your master. This is crucial for establishing connections, between what you hear, what you see, what you learn— discerning between what you think, and what it actually is correct. Without this step, you are still totally in the realm of “guessing”.
- Practice. You need to practice everything you have learned with someone else. You start the practice with partners in your own class, then with your friends, and finally with martial artists outside of your school. These steps test the validity of what you have learned. After everything is said and done, whatever doesn’t work, tells you it is time to return to the drawing board.