I’d like to look at how the tai chi chuan of Cheng Man-ching, through it’s naturalness and simplicity, enables us to approach the Tao. The working of the Tao is ineffable, like all mystical experience, as William James tells us in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’. It cannot be captured in language. Traditionally images from the natural world are used to illuminate its nature.
To be aligned with the Tao is to inhabit our true self, the true self that can be obscured by the workings of the ego. As Peter Conradi (2005, pp.80-81) observes - the ego sees itself as vulnerable and spends much time trying to identify a safe personal territory to defend. It dwells on imagined slights, it fears boredom and cooks up passions for itself, is subject to ‘incessant hope and fear’ and runs ahead into the future.
Our true self, on the other hand, cannot be pinned down. It is, rather, a process – elusive, ever-changing and one with all that is. Peter Conradi (2005):
‘For Buddhists the self is not a fixed or changeless product but a dynamic process always seeking an illusory resting place where it might finally become “solid.”
Let’s begin with some ideas about the nature of the self.
‘Just be yourself’. We’ve all likely been given that advice at some point, when nervous about an impending social situation.
But is it so easy to ‘just be yourself’, given the sociological notion that we all play different roles in different situations? A leading exponent of this view is the Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman. In his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1956), Goffman used a metaphor of theatrical performance, theorising face-to-face social interactions as the adoption of roles.
‘According to Goffman, the social actor in many areas of life will take on an already established role, with pre-existing front and props as well as the costume he would wear in front of a specific audience. The actor’s main goal is to keep coherent and adjust to the different settings offered to him’ (Wikipedia).
In the poem (given by Wolfe Lowenthal to attendees at his tai chi Summer workshop), ‘We Are Many’, Pablo Neruda speaks of his difficulty in pinning down one essential identity.
‘Of the many men who I am, whom we are, I cannot settle on a single one. They are lost to me under the cover of clothing They have departed for another city.’
Neruda writes of his envy of ‘dazzling hero figures’ and explains:
‘But when I call upon my dashing being, out comes the same old lazy self, and so I never know just who I am, nor how many I am, nor who we will be being. I would like to be able to touch a bell and call up my real self, the truly me, because if I really need my proper self, I must not allow myself to disappear.’
And yet there does reside in Eastern mysticism, an idea of a truer, more expansive identity that is one with the universe. John Kabat-Zinn attempts to describe this other ‘self’:
‘No-self does not mean being a nobody. What it means is that everything is interdependent and that there is no isolated, independent core “you”. You are only in relationship to all other forces and events in the world…’ (1994, p.238).
Everything is constantly changing, decaying, being reconstructed again, slightly different:
‘This makes the sense of self what is called in chaos theory a “strange attractor,” a pattern which embodies order, yet is also unpredictably disordered. It never repeats itself. Whenever you look , it is slightly different’ (1994, p.240).
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, famously pointed out that everything changes, when he said: ‘You can never bathe in the same river twice’.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2017), in discussing the Buddhist notion of ‘impermanence’, points out that not only is the water in the river changing, but also the swimmer:
‘The river is always flowing, so as soon as we climb out onto the bank and then return again to bathe, the water has already changed. And even in that short space of time we too have changed. In our body, cells are dying and being born every second. Our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and state of mind are also changing from one moment to the next. So we cannot swim twice in the same river; nor can the river receive the same person twice. Our body and mind are an ever-changing continuum… we cannot find anything in our person that remains the same and that we can call a soul or self’ (p.16).
Instead of seeing a separate self, Nhat Hanh sees our true self to be the whole universe. In conceiving ourselves as separate, discrete selves, we are under an illusion.
‘We too are full of so many things and yet empty of a separate self. Like the flower, we contain earth, water, air, sunlight, and warmth. We contain space and consciousness. We contain our ancestors, our parents and grandparents, education, food, and culture. The whole cosmos has come together to create the wonderful manifestation that we are. If we remove any of these “non-us” elements, we will find there is no “us” left’ (2017, p.12).
Carlo Rovelli (2016), gives a view of our oneness with the universe, from the perspective of modern physics:
‘Nature is our home, and in nature we are at home. This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere– is not something that estranges us from our true selves… We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made…’ (p.77).
Perhaps the seeds of our present environmental and humanitarian problems lie in this fundamental misapprehension, this mistaking as to who we truly are.
There is evidence in Cheng Man-ching’s words that he envisaged the possibility of finding your true, your intrinsic self. And one way to do this is through the practice of tai chi chuan, representing a return to naturalness, and simplicity. Naturalness and simplicity are attractive ideas as an antidote to a digital world which is always ‘on’, overloading our nervous systems with incessant demands on our attention.
A scholar and interpreter of Cheng Man-ching’s legacy, Douglas Wile (2007) surveys the breadth of Professor Cheng’s achievement in the field of classical Chinese culture: in the arts, philosophy, medicine and tai chi. He outlines the features of Professor Cheng’s thought: its Confucian foundations, independence, emphasis on self-cultivation, originality, and…its focus on naturalness and simplicity.
For Professor Cheng the practice of tai chi chuan, informed by the spirit of Confucius and Lao Tzu, represented a path to naturalness and simplicity. Naturalness and simplicity are marks of the Tao, qualities of our true self.
In considering the ultimate aim of tai chi practice, Wolfe Lowenthal, faithful to his teacher Cheng Man-ching, wrote recently: ‘Taichi is a method through which we can align ourselves with the Tao’ (Tai Chi Thoughts, February 2018).
He went on to explain that being aligned with the Tao, implies being ‘natural’, returning to our ‘true self’.
‘Naturalness is key… Lao Tzu speaks of being aligned with the Tao as a return to our basic nature, the true self which is unencumbered by the burdens of tension and hardness, of fear and aggression’ (Lowenthal, W., February 2018).
Robert Smith reports Wolfe Lowenthal’s teacher, Cheng Man-ching expressing a similar view about the importance of ‘naturalness’ and the ‘intrinsic you’ in taichi:
‘Professor Zheng would go on to say that structure and flow together – the technique – make up only 30 percent of taiji. He would then ask, “What is the missing 70 percent?” It is the same as in many arts, in calligraphy – the queen of the Chinese fine arts – for instance. Seventy percent of taiji is naturalness, the intrinsic “you,” which can only come from inside you’ (1995, p.56).
And, in Taoist thought, the notion of a natural, true self can be contrasted with a false self which arises from cultural programming.
In writing about the importance of the idea of ‘naturalness’ to Cheng Man-ching, Wile notes:
‘To discover what is natural is to recover our true nature, not our second nature, which is the product of cultural programming. In speaking of naturalness, Zheng is at his most Daoist. Confucians believed in the power of culture to civilize us; Daoists believed civilization was the problem’ (2007, p.80).
In the Tao Te Ching, a foundational text of Taoism, Lao Tzu uses the images of ‘uncarved wood’, and ‘plain silk’ to represent naturalness – the self before it is fashioned, carved – made more decorous - or ‘improved’. In Taoism, the term for our original self is ‘pu’ the uncarved block.
‘Look at plain silk; hold uncarved wood. The self dwindles; desires fade’ (1993, verse19).
Eastern spiritual thinkers draw images from the contemplation of nature to illuminate the notion of naturalness. The image of the moon in Zen Buddhism poetically represents enlightenment, and a flower can call us back to our true self. Buddha’s chief disciple attained enlightenment when the Buddha twirled a flower. Jesus too draws on the image of a flower in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul Reps (1971) records a Zen dialogue in which a university student reads to Zen master Gasan, the words of Jesus from the Gospel of St Mathew:
‘”And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…. Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”’ (p.30).
Perhaps the Straw Man from the Wizard of Oz, too, is approaching enlightenment!
‘I could while away the hours, conversing with the flowers, consulting with the rain…’
Wile allows that in contemporary thought the idea of naturalness is problematic. No modern social scientist would be comfortable with the notion of naturalness as ‘nothing is more unnatural than growing up outside of society’ (2007, p.80). They would recognise no self other than that which has been socially constructed.
However, the core text of Taoism, The Tao Te Ching has its origins in disillusionment with society and the acts of mankind, drawing deeply on the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. Legend has it that the mythic author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, brushed the five thousand characters at the request of the gatekeeper, as he departed the Chou empire, through the Western gate, leaving his troubled social milieu behind:
‘By the year 516 BCE, the old man had seen enough. Now eighty-eight years old, he had been Keeper of the Archives for the ancient Chou dynasty for some decades in the capital of Lo-yang, and over the years had watched the dynasty’s steady decline. For centuries principalities and feudal lords had constantly shifted alliances, titles had been arbitrarily bestowed on those who threw military power behind the aristocrats, stronger states within the empire had swallowed up the weaker ones, and internecine warfare had broken out in the capital’ (William Scott Wilson, 2010, p.xix).
Wilson goes on to tell how Lao Tzu wrote down the wisdom of his eighty-eight years, and continues, in a dramatic style reminiscent of a John Ford film: ‘Then, without further ado, he “lit out for the territories”’ (ibid, xx)… albeit riding an ox.
Wile (2007) notes that Professor Cheng believed:
‘there is a realized state of sagehood that is not supernatural and that everyone can aspire to and work towards’ (pp.55-56).
But, from the Taoist perspective, sagehood is not something that we have to add to our mind or body, like acquired knowledge, or a physical skill. It’s more that we have to lose something that obscures our natural, original nature. Hence, in tai chi’s sensing hands partner work, Professor Cheng advised us to ‘Lose, lose, lose, until you have nothing left to lose’, on the face of it, a paradoxical remark. Then we remember the Tao Te Ching’s advice to emulate water, which does not contend, always seeks the lowest level, and flows around obstacles.
For Professor Cheng, the practice of tai chi, embodying naturalness and simplicity, represented a way to approach sagehood and the true, or intrinsic self. The true self represents our ‘basic nature.’ It emerges as the ‘false’ self dwindles and desires fade.
I think of tai chi practice as a kind of archaeology of the body. The archaeologist digs down, gradually removing the layers of obscuring earth to find the ancient artefacts that lie below it. The tai chi practitioner gradually releases the layers of physical and psychological tension, the layers of artifice, to uncover the true self buried beneath the hardness and fear.
It is not that we are trying to gain something – our true nature. We already have it. We are trying to lose that which obscures it, to uncover what is already there. The Tao Te Ching:
‘Pursue knowledge, gain daily. Pursue Tao, lose daily. Lose and again lose, Arrive at non-doing’ (1993, verse 48).
Tai chi’s difficulty, for Professor Cheng, was due to the necessity to dissolve the false self or ego. Cheng notes:
‘Practicing taijiquan is difficult, and the difficulty is that we are blocked by our own consciousness. My inability to make progress is because I am blocked by my own ego-consciousness and thus cannot make a breakthrough’ (Wile, 2007, p.96).
This view, the necessity to let go of the ‘ego-consciousness’, if you like – the false self - has an echo in Eugen Herrigel’s account of learning the traditional art of Zen archery in Japan:
‘…all right doing is accomplished only in a state of true selflessness, in which the doer cannot be present any longer as “himself”. Only the spirit is present, a kind of awareness which shows no trace of egohood and for that reason ranges without limit through all the distances and depths’ (1982, p.64).
At the end of his five year study of Zen archery, Eugen Herrigel attempts to describe his realisation to the master. It involves a melting of the ego, and the attainment of simplicity:
‘”Bow, arrow, goal and ego all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple….”
“Now at last”, the Master broke in,”the bow-string has cut right through you”’ (1982, p.86).
And for Professor Cheng, letting go of the blocking ego-consciousness is the true meaning of the phrase ‘to relax’, which was repeated so often by his teacher Yang Cheng-fu. Professor Cheng reports that although he had studied tai chi chuan for fifty years, it was only ‘the year before last’ that he finally grasped the meaning of the word ‘relax’ (Wile, 2007, p.95). Professor Cheng explains the meaning thus:
‘If we go into a Buddhist temple, the main hall will have a statue of Maitreya, with a big belly, laughing, and carrying a cloth sack. The inscription over the statue says, “Sitting there is baggage and walking there is baggage. What a joy to put down our baggage.” What does this mean? It means that not only are we ourselves baggage, but everything – sons, daughters, wives, accomplishments, fame, fortune, official positions – are all baggage. But the most difficult baggage to put down is oneself’ (Wile, 2007, p.96).
Wolfe Lowenthal draws on the teaching of Cheng Man-ching when he says that fear is behind most of our emotional ills. Look behind anger and depression and you will find fear. In tai chi our main task is to relax. Cheng Man-ching saw relaxing as leading to a virtuous spiral: the more you relax, the less fearful you are; the less fearful you are, the more you can relax. It’s like peeling an onion, layer after layer. You can always relax more deeply, both body and mind. And in the process of relaxing, we are releasing hardness and tension, putting down the burden of the false self. Relaxation leads too, to simplicity.
Douglas Wile (2007) explains that for Cheng Man-ching, relaxation is necessary for simplicity:
‘The goal of self-cultivation for both Confucians and Daoists is reversion to an original state of sincerity and simplicity… Zheng called his new abbreviated taijiquan form “Simplified Taijiquan” (Jianyi taijiquan). The significance of simplicity here goes beyond just shortening the form, but has to do with structural changes in the postures that facilitate sinking and relaxation. Relaxation is the precondition for true simplicity.’
In the recent documentary film about Cheng Man-ching: ‘The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey to the West’, one of Cheng’s American students remarks of Professor Cheng’s naturalness: ‘It takes a lot of work to become that simple’.
When encountered in life or in art, simplicity can illuminate by cutting through artifice to the heart of the matter. While noodling about on the internet recently I came across a clip of Laura Marling singing a cover version of Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’. She sings it with such pared down simplicity, such a lack of any sense of manipulation or performance, that we seem to glimpse something of her essential nature in all it’s interiority and privacy, even perhaps as she discovers it herself.
Simplicity – uncarved wood, raw silk – plain and undecorated, does not catch the eye. It does not impress in the same way as luxury, opulence and decoration. Historically simplicity has not been the chosen style of emperors and monarchs. Human beings seem to prize power, and wealth, passion, noise and busyness, perhaps as a bulwark against the inevitability of old age, decline and death.
‘The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace’ (Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’).
I am reminded of the mediaeval image of life and death: a sparrow flying through the wintry forest at night, suddenly enters in the window of a ‘mead-hall’. It passes through, high above the blazing fire, the king and court, banqueting, and dancing. All human life is there in its bright intensity. In the blink of an eye the bird exits on the other side of the hall, into the darkness, silence and snow. The Venerable Bede remarks that the sparrow:
‘whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all’’ (AD 731, Ecclesiatical History of the English People).
Professor Cheng writes of, for decades, taking a wrong path in his calligraphy in being influenced by a famous calligrapher, Wang Hsi-chih, who exhibited a certain seductive ease and decorativeness in his work. When this became obvious to professor Cheng, he had to go back to the beginning, to undo everything he had learned about calligraphy. Professor Cheng recounts how his friend Chu Ting told him how his own calligraphy had become ‘so balanced’. It transpired that Chu Ting had spent three years practising a single character (‘yi’, meaning ‘one’) comprising only a horizontal line, and then just practised brushing a vertical line, perfectly straight. Professor Cheng adopted this approach and writes of his own efforts to return his calligraphy to a style with more integrity:
‘I have searched for “stability” for over forty years now and still have trouble writing a balanced horizontal line and a straight vertical line’ (Hennessy, M., 1995, p.12).
Professor Cheng advises:
‘Practice what you know is true regardless of the difficulties – just like Chu Ting who practiced a balanced line for three years. There is certainly nothing eye-catching about a balanced line, and those calligraphic acrobats who disdain the balanced stroke are mistaken. Balance enables the transformation towards transcendence and true sublimity. A straight vertical line must likewise be acquired’ (Hennessy, M., 1995, p.12).
In writing about calligraphy Professor Cheng could just as easily be discussing his approach to tai chi chuan, including his tai chi form’s naturalness and simplicity, its lack of any rococo flourishes, and its emphasis on balance and verticality.
The implication is that the sincere, principled practice of Professor Cheng’s ‘simplified’ tai chi chuan, regardless of the difficulties, can lead us by degrees to relaxation, naturalness, simplicity and balance. In the process we may come closer to our intrinsic nature, to our oneness with the tao.
References Addiss, S., and Lombardo, S. (Trans.), (1993) Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Boulder, Colorado, Shambhala.
Bede (about AD 731) Ecclesiastical History of the English People, n.b. the quotation used in the article was sourced on the internet.
Conradi, P. J. (2005) Going Buddhist: Panic and emptiness, the Buddha and me, London, Short Books.
Goffman, E. (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Wikipedia.
Hennessy, M., (Translation and Commentary ), Cheng Man-ching (1995) Cheng Man-ch’ing: Master of Five Excellences, Berkeley, California, Frog Ltd.
Herrigel, E. (1982) Zen in the Art of Archery, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
James, W. (1983) The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go There You Are, New York, Hyperion.
Lowenthal, W. Tai Chi Thoughts, online journal, February 2018.
Reps, P. (Compiler), (1971) Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Rovelli, C. (2014) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, UK, Penguin.
Smith, R. W. (1995) ‘Zheng Manqing: A Clarification of Role’, in DeMarco, M.A., and LaFredo, T.G. (Eds.), (2015) Cheng Man-ch’ing and T’ai Chi: Echoes in the Hall of Happiness, (pp.49-67), Santa Fe, Via Media
Thich Nhat Hanh (2017) The Art of Living, London, Rider.
Wile, D. (2007) Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writings on Taijiquan, Qigong, and Health, with New Biographical Notes, Milwauki, Sweet Ch’i Press.
Wilson, W. S. (Trans.), (2010) Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Boston, Shambhala.