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.