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.