Benjamin Pang-Jeng Lo began his studies with Cheng Man Ching in 1949 in Taiwan.  Although many famous disciples like T.T, Liang, Robert W. Smith, and William C.C. Chen followed, Ben Lo was Professor Cheng’s first major disciple and one of his most prominent.

Master Lo was in school at the time and was very weak.  He said he could hardly walk up stairs or cross a street without gasping for breath.  So, he sought out Professor Cheng who was a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner.  While treating his condition, the professor suggested that Ben take up tai chi to make his system strong enough to absorb the herbal medicine he was taking.

After his condition improved, Ben continued his studies with Cheng Man Ching until the Professor moved to New York.  Then in 1974, Ben got a call to join his teacher and help him promote tai chi among American students.  Ben promptly gave up his position with the Taiwanese government and moved to the United States.

He eventually settled in San Francisco where he established his school and where he still resides today at the age of 87.

Hsien Yuan Chen, who leads a small Cheng Man Ching group at Smith Park in San Gabriel, and I drove up to San Francisco to have dinner with Master Lo.  A steep stairway ascends from the garage at street-level to his two-story row home above, which is just a few blocks from Point Lobos and the Cliff House in the northwest corner of the city.

As one might expect, there was a black and white photograph of the Professor with a 25 year-old Ben Lo on the mantle along with calligraphy and Chinese paintings on all the walls.  Stacks of notebooks and photo albums and video racks filled with DVDs were stuffed into the small living room.

Although at 87 his walk is a little wobbly, Master Lo’s spirit, nevertheless, is very much intact and quite infectious.  His internal peng (ward off) energy has not diminished either.  After looking at my form with some displeasure, he proceeded to let me feel his energy.  No matter which way I pushed, I could not uproot him.  Yet, when it was his turn to push, with hardly a touch, my toes were uprooted, and I found myself bounced away.

Ben reiterated Professor Cheng’s five principles or integrities which summarized the tai chi classics: relax, maintain your center, shift your balance (yin and yang), turn your waist (all movements are generated from the waist), and your hands should resemble “beautiful ladies’ hands.”  Ben also added a sixth principle, which is to perform all five integrities together when we do our form.

That fifth principle “beautiful ladies hands” is perhaps the main point of contention among Yang tai chi practitioners.  Most of the Yang stylists descended from Yang Chengfu hold their hands in the “tiger mouth” position with the thumb separated from the fingers.  If the hand is relaxed, then the “tiger mouth” is not an issue.  But Master Lo told a story of an ancient general to illustrate how the “tiger mouth” position can be detrimental if the hand is rigid.

The wayward thumb represents a loose nail on a horseshoe.  The nail gets caught on a rock and is pulled off, the shoe is displaced, the horse stumbles and falls and the general is killed.  The army is defeated, and the war is lost – all because of a loose nail.  Or, in the case of some Yang practitioners, a rigid hand with an extend thumb.

Actually, the idea of “ladies hands” exists in Zhaobao, an early tai chi form which predates Yang style.  Some have even named Zhaobao, the “Fair Lady” form.  Professor Cheng, a scholar as well as an expert in internal energy flow, was simply using what the ancients had known centuries before.   The forearm, wrist and hand held relaxed in a straight line like a lady reaching out actually increases the flow of energy to the fingertips.

Master Lo pointed out that the Professor insisted all beginners incorporate “beautiful ladies hands” into their form to increase the flow of qi and improve its circulation.  Once a student has reached a higher level and increased the qi circulation, the hand can be held in any position as long as it is relaxed.

Ben Lo considers himself on a very low level when compared to Cheng Man Ching.  This is not unusual considering Chinese culture.  It is a matter of deep respect for one’s teachers.  The Professor considered himself on a very low level when compared to his teacher, Yang Chengfu, even though he later reduced the Yang form from 108 postures to 37.

Some say the difference between the Yang and Cheng forms is much more than a reduction of postures but a change in basic fundamentals.  In any case, that is a topic best left for another time.

All in all, the trip was well worth the drive up north to visit with Master Lo and hear him relate the details of his relationship with Cheng Man Ching.  It reinforced my realization that taijiquan is not just an exercise but a way of life to be lived every day to the ultimate.

 

The inspiration for this article came from a discussion I had with one of my Zhaobao brothers.  After practice the other day, we had a conversation about the terms substantial and insubstantial.   We both knew what the terms meant basically.  But did we truly understand the concept at their root?

This very same question can be asked of many terms in Tai Chi such as sung (often translated as relax), yin and yang, heavy and soft, yielding and following, and many more

As it turned out, we both agreed that we did not truly understand substantial and insubstantial, and that was actually a positive not a negative.  So, the title of this article is probably somewhat misleading as I am really writing about NOT understanding Tai Chi as a positive step toward making further progress.

That may seem contradictory as are many of the terms in both Tai Chi and Taoist philosophy, but bear with me and I will explain.

As fate would have it, the next day after our discussion, I sat down to do some meditative reading and came across a passage by Foyan Qingyuan (1067-1120), a notable Chan master during the Sung dynasty when Buddhism flourished in China.

The minute you fixate on recognition that ‘This is it,’ you are immediately bound hand and foot and cannot move around anymore.

So as soon as it is given this recognition, nothing is right, whatever it may be…

It’s like making a boat and outfitting it for a thousand mile journey to a treasure trove; if you drive a stake and tie the boat to it before you jump in and start rowing, you can row till kingdom come and still be on the beach.  You see the boat waving this way and that, and you think you are on the move, but you have never gone a single step.

Tai Chi like Zen Buddhism or Taoism is a lifelong journey that changes daily.  The moment you say to yourself or a teacher tells you that ‘This is it; this is the point,’ all is lost if you buy into that.

Like the I Ching, in the foundation of Tai Chi, there are no points of recognition or understanding, only changes.  The moment you truly believe that you understand, you have driven a stake into the ground and bound yourself hand and foot, tying up all progress.  Your journey has unfortunately come to an end.

Not only students but instructors especially should remember this fact.  It is a great responsibility to have the honor of teaching Tai Chi, an honor and a privilege that many instructors take lightly.

For a few it is a matter of greed.  Once they have received permission to teach from their sifus, they are off to the bank, like college graduates, to make up for all the time and money they spent learning their skills.

For some, their road to mastery is blocked by ignorance.  They ask their students to join them on their journey not realizing their boat is still tied to the dock.

Both types make the mistake of resting their laurels on the teachings they have previously received, believing their knowledge of the fundamentals is complete.

The Bottom Line: No matter how many years you have been practicing, no matter how wonderful your master and grandmaster, no matter how many workshops you have attended or given, don’t think you know it all.  There is always more to learn – much more than you can ever imagine.

“If you seek, how is that different from pursuing sound and form.  If you don’t seek how are you different than soil, wood or stone.  You must seek without seeking.”

-Chan (Zen) Master Foyan

Seek without seeking sounds terribly incongruous in terms of Western logic.  But then isn’t that precisely its purpose – to diminish our dependence on rational thought when we inquire into the nature of being?

Haven’t we been warned time and time again by Laozi, Chaungzi and many Taoist and Buddhist masters that words can never access the nature of reality nor can we grasp it with conventional thought?

On the other hand, take the words attributed to Jesus Christ in the New Testament: “Seek and you shall find, Knock and it will be opened unto you.” 

How comforting, how inviting those words seem in contrast with Master Foyan’s admonition.

Of course, we have no way of knowing if Christ actually said those exact words.  Nevertheless, the saying conforms perfectly to the linear process of Western logic based on cause and effect.  First, there is the Seeking which in turn leads us to the Finding.  First, there is the Knocking which causes the Opening.

But in the Taoist and Buddhist traditions the process is circular not linear.   The Seeking and the Finding are one and the same as are the Knocking and the Opening.  Only when we divide the processes into linear increments of time do we create separation – beginnings and endings.

But a circle has no beginning and no end, the same for the nature of being and reality.  So, Master Foyan is urging us to realize that the Seeking and the Finding are one and the same.

How is this possible?  It becomes a circular process when there is no Seeker.  Christ’s phrase from the New Testament implies a Seeker and a separate Thing Found.  In other words, a subject that does the Seeking and an object that is Found.

However, when the Seeker is no longer the subject but the object, then the Seeking is the Finding.  This occurs the moment we seek within ourselves and not externally.

This is the meaning of Master Foyan’s “Seek without Seeking.  When we seek for things outside of ourselves, we are pursuing sound and form – material objects or situations.  But when we look within to come to terms with the meaning of our very own existence, we are seeking without seeking.

Master Foyan emphasizes this kind of seeking when he states: “Those who will not stop and look into themselves go on looking for intellectual understanding.  That pursuit of intellectual understanding, seeking rationalizations and making comparisons, is all wrong.

“If people would turn their attention back to the self, they would understand everything.”

And if we understand everything, then there is nothing that we could ask for that we would not receive, nothing that we could seek that we would not find, and no door that we could knock on that would not be opened to us.

Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Taoism does not have any commandments.  However, Chuang-Tse, the foremost disciple of Lao-Tse and a leading exponent of Taoist philosophy, some 2400 years ago enumerated the ten attributes of the gentleman sage.  These remain rather pertinent today for martial artists, Buddhists and Taoists alike who are trying to maintain peace and calm in our daily lives amidst the hectic frenzy and ambitiousness of this modern technological age.

Chuang-Tse begins by attributing these ten traits to his master, Lao-Tse:

“The Master says, “Great is Tao.  It canopies and sustains all creation.  The gentleman cannot but purge his mind (of personal gain and desires).  To act by not acting is called heaven.  To express without expression is called character.  To love one’s fellowmen and benefit all is called humanity.  To regard different things as belonging in common is called great.  Not to distinguish oneself by conspicuous behavior is called width of character.  To possess diversity is called wealth.  Therefore to preserve one’s character is called self-discipline.  To have one’s character developed is to have power. To follow the Tao is called being complete.  Not to allow external events to injure one’s mind is called whole.  When a gentleman understands these ten (attributes) then he achieves greatness of mind and all things converge toward him like a flowing stream…”

Chuang-Tse then poses collaries to these ten traits of the sage.  “In this case, he leaves the gold in the mountains and leaves the pearls in the sea.  He does not place value upon material goods, and he keeps away from honor and wealth.  He does not rejoice over long life, nor is he sorry to die young.  He does not regard a high position as honor, nor is he ashamed of poverty and failure.  He does not set his mind on the wealth of the world and appropriate it for his own benefit.  He does not consider ruling the world as his personal glory. And when he is in a p;osition of eminence, he regards the world as one common family.  To him life and death are different aspects of the same thing.”