Learning is Letting Go

A Zen Master on the road to Edo, encountered a man bent nearly double by the massive bundle of sticks he carried on his back. “Brother,” he said, “perhaps it’s time for you to discard part of your bundle; trade a few pieces for food, or burn some at your roadside camp to survive the coming freeze…”

“No,” said the man, “for each stick represents a lesson I learned along my path from childhood. Here, the meaning of hard work,” he said, turning a burled twisted limb of oak – well polished and free of bark. “This supported me through my 12th year with a broken leg,” displaying a well formed crutch of yew wood. “And this” he said, pulling a dark curve of poplar from the bundle, “is the self-reliance which carried me through my wife’s illness and death. Each is a life truth learned in difficulty which sustains me against the scars of fortune. To discard any of them would weaken me, though, at times, I despair of reaching the monastery in Edo, where I hoped to study with the new Master, Basho – for my burden grows heavier each day…”

Weak and chilled, he accepted the monk’s gift of food as they settled in together to camp through the bitter night.

Came the morning. The man awakened, stretched and stood, marveling at the snow and ice outside the tent and at the contrasting warmth that suffused his bones – until he noticed the substantial fire just outside. He quickly turned and discovered his worst fear. During the night to stave off the freeze, his companion had built a fire of the bundle. Through the long hours, he remained awake and dutifully tended it – preserving them both safely into the dawn.

“Betrayal!” cried the man, reaching for the monk’s throat.

The monk, reacting swiftly, struck the man’s shin forcing him to collapse into an angry but helpless heap. Said the Monk, “Being struck by a staff, or by an idea: Both require your full attention! You’ve been blind to the weight of your ‘Bundle of Lessons’ – A burden which made it impossible for you to learn – or move – any further. A fortunate thing though, because the blaze which preserved us both through the freezing night also released you from your burden! And here you sit – safe, independent, and experienced.”

“I bid you farewell sir, for I am off to assume my duties in Edo.”

Experiencing the flash of clarity, the man bowed and took up the way of Zen.




Something hidden. Go and find it.
Something lost beyond the ranges.
Something lost and waiting for you.
Rudyard Kipling

Tai Chi
Tai Chi Chuan
TaiJi Quan
Qui Gong
Kung Fu
Gong Fu
Chuan Fah
Shao Lin
Wudang Shan

It’s a mystery.
It’s a club.
It’s a business. ( A rice bowl…)

Sometimes a scam…

And, It’s a gift.
A puzzle of a thousand pieces. It may require a lifetime to assemble…
Not all teachers are scoundrels. Not all Masters are mean.
Don’t buy the legends, don’t sell the story short.

Proceed and unearth the Truth.


In Plain Sight


“There are no secrets.” But much is hidden; in plain sight.
Shifu Jennifer St.John

Shifu Jennifer St. John

Chi. It’s right there. All around you — you’re swimming in it.

The Force. The Energy of Life.

Yet, all this time, you’ve been noticing — well, everything else.

Like a fish, unaware in water, like a bird, unaware in air
You move and exist within the life force, unconscious.

Until, in a moment of enlightenment, Chi reveals itself to you.
That subtle heat, the little tingle, the pushing back against your query…
“Are you there?”

And Chi responds, not with a voice, or a pronoun
But a presence, a ripple, a push back, a feeling.

It was always there, before words, or names
The thing un-namable, which dissolves when labeled…

Lost it? Mislaid it? Forgotten it?
Go back! Stand! Stop Looking!

And slowly, quietly wait… for the re-union…


Entrust Your Future


Selecting a Master is not hard. Just find someone to whom you’ll entrust your future!
Shifu Jen
House of TaiJi

I went to Taiwan some years ago.
A blue-eyed Quai-Lo girl with no language skills and white-white skin. I was unsure about it. But Grand Master had invited me. I asked Master if he’d come along. With his assent, my fears dissolved.

Such a trip requires the ability to confront changes in everything at once, because everything is upside down: Language. Time Zones. Martial Skill. Money. Philosophy. History. Politics. Custom. Gender. Clothing. Food. Social Expectations. Culture.

While things were for the most part upside down, I wasn’t concerned. I was safe with my Master: Three of them, actually…

We collaborated on little things like food, practice schedules, transportation, locations, colleagues, coaching sessions, meetings, laundry. Then too, we worked on big stuff: museum tours, monastery visits, chop carving, doctor visits, philosophical discussions — and the life changing experience of finding my chi…

There is in the highest sense, no more intimate, life-affecting relationship than that with a Master. Such a bond influences everything that you are, and much of what you hope to become.

So choose carefully. Embrace fully. Give yourself completely. And then; be prepared to discover that your Master is just a human being. Flawed, tortured, ill, jealous and cranky — like any other member of the species. So entrust him with your future, but recognize that though it may be influenced or directed, it can never be given away. In the end, your Master can but point the way. You must get to that higher place on your own two feet.


Illiterate Masters


In earlier times, wisdom was “demonstrated.”

They didn’t talk, write, make movies or take pictures.
They didn’t look like much, but then; they didn’t have to.

We hold “literacy” and “literature” in high regard in the modern world. So much that we’ve started to equate a knowledge of literature and the ability to read and write with intelligence itself. As in, “Well, if that guy can’t read and write, what kind of a useless dude is he?” Of course, in contemporary culture, our access to information is pervasive to the point of being overpowering. Everyone can access everything, and anyone can access anything; so we’re all genius Masters! Or… perhaps, Not!

To have access to something is not the same as actually knowing it. Merely knowing it is not the same as having Mastered it. Seeing lots of movies and reading magazines is not learning, knowledge, or wisdom. Having information in your culture is nice. Having good information in your home is better. But having wisdom in your heart, mind, spirit — acquired through direct experience and practice — that is Mastery. Then, of course, there’s teaching it!

In earlier times, before paper, writing and portable screens were everywhere, wisdom was passed with great care, from someone who was wise; directly to someone who wanted to become wise — over time. The transfer was by word of mouth, but also through repeated demonstrations — hand to hand, mouth to ear. To “study” the Martial Arts meant to live within reach of the teacher, and to talk, practice, watch and do the arts personally, daily, for years — absorbing the lessons while being steeped in the art, the philosophy, the culture — Living a Life in TaiJi.

Today we take classes twice a week

And we call those old masters “illiterate…”


Coming in First


Coming in First! Might mean “winning a foot race.”
Coming in, first; might mean “arriving before the mob.”

Who knows what lesson might appear in the early hours?

As a young player, I came to the dojo early one day and found the door ajar. Up the flight of stairs, I turned the corner onto the practice floor and found Master kneeling in front of a low platform at the front of the room, apparently dusting and re-arranging items. A few minutes later, I emerged from the changing room and encountered him again, in the process of unrolling a scroll. Responding to his quiet gesture, I assisted as he un-mounted the earlier item, and hung the new scroll in its place. He had a flower, which took its place on display. I was detailed the job of rolling the first scroll, and placing it in its storage container for safe keeping.

As I was engaged, I asked, “What’s this all about?” He said, “In our culture, we place an ‘altar’ in our practice space (maybe at home as well…) which is a special location, where we display things of importance to keep them ‘in the center’ of our lives and practice. Perhaps a picture of an elder teacher, a calligraphy scroll with an important lesson, a singing bowl, a bell, a candle, a book, etc. Maybe we also burn incense, to recognize this special time.”

I realized that the altar, and Master’s humble maintenance, was a labor of love and a signal of his dedication. Coming in first revealed an aspect of our practice that had been obscured by my rushed and unconscious comings and goings. He invited me to help after that, and in those special hours, I found the path and began my journey to the center of the art.


Swimming in TaiJi


“We are waves. IT, is the sea”


TaiJi is an Ocean.

The student is a castaway in a small boat, with no path to safety.
The purpose of the Teacher, is to limit the exposure to the art.

To expose only what the student might first comprehend…

TaiJi Quan is very old. Nobody knows all of it.

On any given day, one can touch just the merest fraction

of a sliver of what it encompasses.

So the teacher selects a “path of exposure”
which shows the student a way into the heart of the study —

and provides confidence in her own ability to learn, swim, sail and survive.

Teaching of Unknown Origin


Brewing (and Drinking) Ignorance


“The best of tea in Asia consists of the entire leaf, finished (perhaps scented) to perfection, and vacuum packed immediately to preserve the freshness and flavor which begin instantly to degrade when exposed to oxygen. In this ‘QualiTea’ culture, the pure, unadulterated flavor of the extract, or the finely ground full leaf, is what’s at issue. Then brewed and consumed in the context of an artful, aesthetic ceremony. The aesthetic adds to the experience. At S******** on the other hand, it’s shavings, fragments and dust from the factory floor, packaged in a bag, tossed into the hottest water, capped and served in a waxed paper cup. The Leftovers, served for convenience. Well, it’s hot — and wet.”

Mom started me out with L*****. It was bitter hot swill; sugared and lemoned to some degree of bare palatability. Who would drink this stuff?

The later experience with English “Tea” was a small adventure with cozies, pots and British pomp and ceremony. All right, but the food and presentation was the best part, which somewhat eclipsed the “bitter milk soup” with biscuit crumbs. It was a small, though elegant meal with a drinking beverage…

I really didn’t grok TEA, until I experienced the Tea Ceremony with a Japanese Master. Kneeling to enter the Tea House, sitting humbly on the floor, admiring a small pottery and flower arrangement, and taking in the atmosphere of tranquility and warmth in the rough-beamed but perfect environment. The simple elegance of the Cha No Yu left me absorbed, satisfied, pleased and challenged with its contrasting simplicity and sophistication. It tasted wonderful, it felt wonderful and was presented in excellent, restrained taste.

Then Taiwan. Two hours to the mountain top plantation. Walking among the manicured bushes. Breathing the immaculate air while absorbing the incomparable chi. Watching the harvesting, treating, finishing, packaging and ultimately the serving to my boisterous group of TaiJi Tea pilgrims. Gongfu Style, is high conviviality, a happy giggling group, multiple varieties of tea, many pots, many tastes, much joy and a view of forever. And the true sense that tea is best taken with joyful friends.

It’s not merely the leaf, but the quality, the packaging, the ceremony and the love!

Dessert: Here’s a story of what’s in those Teabags…


Gold Star TaiJi


“The old masters began with their village style, perfected their practice then went on to acquire more information and expand their skills… As they moved and learned; their students followed and began to use family and village names to label and distinguish one “flavor” from another. Today, a single lifetime is not sufficient to encompass the entire range of the art. But in the end, it remains TaiJi.”

—Master Pikshan Ko
Portland, OR

Advertising changes (some say “Pollutes!”) everything it touches.
In ages past, TaiJi was a well known art which reflected the individual style, touch, taste and family history of every practitioner. With sufficient exposure, one could tell the family style, teacher, line, region and focus of a player. They were all different, but all part of the family.

But as the great wide world extended and expanded, advertising found its way into the art. Artificial distinctions and “Associations” became the order of the day. Now, it’s not just Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan or TaiJi; it’s “The Most Popular Form of TaiJi!” Perhaps it’s “TaiJi from the Original Wudang Temple.” Maybe it’s “Taoist Tai Chi!” “Robert Alexander’s Original Tai Chi Chuan at the Main Street Temple.” (“Robert Alexander” is in this case an artificial name to make a literary point. Any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is purely co-incidental…) Of course, “Beijing TaiJi” would have a powerful claim to center stage, if not for the fact that the Party frowns on Chi…

Can “Gold Star TaiJi” be far behind? Red Stripe? Black Robe?
Oh, and let’s separate out Chi Gong, Tao Gong, Boxing and Weapons. All separate, branded, artificially distinct products to be shrink-wrapped, advertised and sold.

One of the classic strategies of advertising is the invention or isolation of distinct features, then claiming them first in public! As in “Quaker Puffed Rice: Shot from Guns!” All puffed rice is “shot from guns!” But because David Ogilvy’s agency claimed it first for Quaker — it was true! “First to Claim, owns the Name!” So be prepared for increasingly shrill claims to have originated Peng Energy, Unique High Frequency Chi, Resonant Chi, Fah Jing Retreats and Condensing Breathing. “You heard it here first!”

As in all things, beware of the advertisement!

To find your genuine teacher, ask around, Google it, then make a list and prepare to visit schools — many of them!

Happiness with your school depends on four things:

* Time: Can they be there when you want to study?

* Place: Can you be happy in this place? The look, sound and feel of the school have a profound effect on your attitude, and sense of safety.

* Teacher: You have to respect, trust and be willing to accept instruction from this person. They will guide your study, provide an example, demonstrate the skills and push you to excel. They have to be more than a mere mortal, and someone to whom you can entrust your future.

* Style: There are so many flavors, and so much to choose from: You have to like the style in all its quirky ancient uniqueness.

Suggestion: Disregard all the advertising and promotion. Stick with 1-4 above and you’ll find a good place. Consider that TaiJi takes a lifetime — at least, so it’s not going to give up all its secrets in six weeks. Now put aside all your gwai-lo criticality, settle in for a while and let it grow on you!