‘Tai chi comes from nothing so if you are constantly emphasising the “something” that you have, you’re on the wrong track.’ (1996 Koh Ah-tee). I think this intriguing sentence relates to an observation I’ve heard Wolfe Lowenthal make: that Professor Cheng’s tai chi had no ‘style’. At times I have fallen into the syndrome that I call: ‘hey look at me ma, I’m doin’ tai chi’, particularly when others are watching. Almost as if embarrassed by the emptiness of the form.
An essay by Rodney Smith, (2011) ‘Undivided Mind’ sets emptiness at the heart of Buddhist teaching and experience. Smith ponders how our materialistic society encourages us to view spiritual practice like another possession, to bolster our sense of self-worth. Smith notes: ‘The term anatta, which means “no [permanently abiding] self or soul,” is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.’ (p.246). However, ‘The ego has a way of claiming reference to its own demise by saying “Oh, I just had an experience of my own emptiness.”’ Smith tells of his meeting with a sage in Bombay who, pointing to his attachment to being a monk said: ‘You are like a man holding a flashlight, trying to run beyond its beam. The view you are holding… is undermining your intent.’ (p.249).
This emptiness, then, relates to a perception that, when examined, the self is not solid, but a succession of events changing moment by moment – sensations, thoughts, emotions - outside of the control of who we think we are. Alan Watts uses the image of a whirlpool in a stream. The pattern of the self exists for a while, though what flows through it is constantly changing. Going through the movements of the tai chi form seems peculiarly well designed to show us that it is the flow that matters.
It seems to me that the emptiness of no permanently abiding self, is a profound element of the tai chi that Cheng Man-ching handed down to us. Cheng, we are told, advised his students to ‘lose, lose, lose until you have nothing left to lose’. And his notion of relaxation, recounted by Bataan Faigao, points directly to letting go of the trappings of the self:
‘When we go to visit a Buddhist temple we usually see a statue of Me-Lo Buddha… He carries a large bag on his shoulder. On top of this statue we see a motto: “Sit with a bag. Walk with a bag. It would be such a relief to drop the bag.” What does all this mean? To me, a person himself or herself is a bag. Everything he or she owns is baggage, including one’s children, family, position and wealth. It is difficult to drop any of one’s baggage, especially the “self” bag… To relax in practicing T’ai-chi Chuan is the most difficult phase to go through. To relax a person’s mind is the most significant obstacle to overcome in practicing T’ai-Chi. It takes great effort to train and exercise one’s mind to relax (or drop one’s “self” bag)’ (Cheng Man-ching, - Beautiful Whiskers).
The value of emptiness? Chuang Tzu discusses two different scenarios: when a man in a boat on a river collides with a boat carrying another person, he is angrily cursed. On the other hand, when an empty boat drifts with the current into a collision with an occupied boat, there is no one with whom to become angry. Chuang Tzu seems to counsel: empty your boat to more easily cross the river of life.
Sometimes, when practising form, I have an intimation of emptiness; a sense of being part of everything going on around me – the breeze moving the leaves… I think we come to identify ourselves with our patterns of muscular tension, our wanting to have this or that, or be this or that, instead of ‘being nobody, going nowhere’ (1990 Ayya Kheema).
Or do I just read too much?
Jorge Luis Borges, who has read far more than me, sees emptiness at the centre of our greatest playwright’s being: ‘There was no one in him: behind his face… and behind his words… there was nothing but a bit of cold, a dream not dreamed by anyone’ (1972 p.95). He took refuge in the theatre, playing roles, imagining other heroes, leaving clues in obscure corners of his work: ‘Iago curiously says: “I am not what I am”’ (p.96). Borges imagines Shakespeare, before or after death, facing God and wanting to be one man ‘myself alone’. ‘From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dreams was you, who, like me, are many and no one’ (p.96).
References Borges, J. L. (1972) ‘Everything and nothing’ in A Personal Anthology, pp.95-96, Picador, London. Faigao, B. Rocky Mountain Tai Chi website, Beautiful Whiskers. Kheema, A. (1990) 'Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: meditations on the Buddhist path', Wisdom, Boston. Koh Ah-tee, compiled and translated by Sutton, N. (1996) 'The Inner Way: teachings from the tai chi chuan of Cheng Man Ching', Perfect Balance Books, Malaysia. Smith, R. (2010) 'Undivided Mind', in McLeod, M. ed., The Best Buddhist Writing 2011, pp.246-254, Shambhala, Boston and London.