Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Discourse on the grading/sash system

This year I have put great thought into the development of a sash system that would reflect the Taoist roots of our art as well a provide a sensible system for martial development within it. I looked at many other systems for inspiration and corroboration. In the end, I wanted something that was truly reflective of my beliefs, in line with other martial arts, progressive and developmental as well as serious and effective.

A couple of months ago, we began implementing this system with the students at the dojo. The system that I have developed is only applicable to students that are studying Taiji as a complete martial art. This may be incongruous with some people’s beliefs that Taiji is not only a martial art, but it is my belief and opinion that to study any aspect of this art requires that you must study all of its aspects. With all of that in mind the following system was developed, the basics of which have already been shared with current students. I wanted to post a more in-depth explanation of the system, its underlying philosophical derivation and its relation to internal martial arts.

First, I was totally at odds with myself over the need for a ranking structure for quite some time. Taoism and truly traditional Chinese martial arts as I understand it had no formal ranking or belt designations. You were either recognized as senior or junior and followed the Wude (Martial Etiuette of the School). For this reason, I had resisted a grading system for some time. I did however recognize the positive benefit a ranking system had when it came to student motivation (although this argument could also be undone by bringing up the issue of ego). Being associated with Musha Dojo however gave me a different view on the ranking and tests in general. Every time a student tests, he or she demonstrates competency in all the skills leading up to and comprising the rank that they are testing for. In other words, when testing for a blue belt, the student must demonstrate competency on the material needed for a yellow, orange and blue belt. In this way, it preserves the forms and skills of the student as they participate in the testing system.

Blinding flash of the obvious, if I had come up through such a system, I would not have lost the many forms that I had learned and then practiced enough. I would have tested on them periodically after learning them. Voila, that was just the thought that I needed to sway me. Now I needed to either adopt a system, create one from scratch, or modify one that existed to my needs.

I began looking at all of the grading/ranking/sashing systems that I could find for Kung Fu, Taijiquan and Chinese Martial Arts in general. I know that many of the early Chinese Systems that were taught in the US adopted the Japanese ranking system of yellow through brown and then black. I did not think that that was quite the way I wanted to go. The Magic Tortoise School in Chapel Hill has a ranking system based on the Five Element system, now that certainly rang as more Taoist and related to Chinese philosophy. The Yang Family Taijiquan has a ranking system of metal types(silver, gold, platinum) and animals (dragon, tiger, eagle). None of these seemed to fit my need.

With the highest respect to the Magic Tortoise School, Dr. Jay Dunbar, Almanzo “Lao Ma” Lamaroux and Kathleen Cusick, I decided that the 5 element system would be what I would use. With the emphasis on Martial Arts that I teach and hold, I did need to modify it. With no further ado, here it and its justification are:

After 6 months of training the student is eligible to test for their green sash. The green sash represents wood. This representation further shows the commitment to the art, the commitment to have taken the time to plant the seed, the commitment to nourish that seed through continued study, the commitment to grow in the art, as a seed grows into a tree. This commitment is measured through testing of some very basic knowledge and applications and knowing the choreography of the first section of the Yang style form.

1 year of continuous study after receiving the green sash, participants are eligible to test for the yellow sash. The yellow sash represents earth, and as such is all about learning the foundation of the art. Whereas the green sash acknowledges the planting of the seed, the yellow sash is about the cultivation of the foundation represented by knowledge and competency in stances, chansijing(silk reeling), the 8 gates or eight applications of Taiji, the 5 directions or steps, etc. It is this foundation that will allow the student to reach higher skill level in Taiji than practitioners that focus excessively on form or application.

1 year of continuous study after receiving the yellow sash, participants are eligible to test for the silver sash. The silver/grey sash represents the element metal; it is representative of intention and shown through application. Once the foundation is complete, elements from the earth are brought forth, applications of forms are integral to this stage. Practitioners will be tested on their first weapon, they will also show competency in one step sparring. This focus on application will ensure that practitioners move towards a level of knowledge that allows for martial self defense and effectiveness.

1 year of continuous study after receiving the silver sash, participants are eligible to test for the red sash. The red sash represents the element Fire. This stage indicates effectiveness. It is fire that forges the elements from the earth into weapons. At this level the practitioner will demonstrate two person form work, utilization of internal principles in a sparring environment, and two person live weapon play(in the form of the san cai jian). If it isn’t obvious, this is the stage that martial development comes together. Fire’s representation of effectiveness translates in the practitioner’s ability to utilize Taijiquan in self defense, combat and competition. The Red Sash should indicate the transition from the Hand Stage of learning and performing Taijiquan to the Whole Body stage. Red Sash holders will be eligible to be assistant instructors for any Rou Long Ma program. Those interested in teaching will participate in additional teaching curriculum.

1 year of continuous study after receiving the red sash, participants are eligible to test for the purple sash. The purple sash represents water. This stage is all about flowing and non-resistance. Participants are tested on more weapons forms, and are expected to show self-defense against multiple attackers. Participants should embody the master key to taiji, shou e bagua, jiao ta wuxing. This will be demonstrated through the Bagua eight direction application drill. Water’s representation of flow is exhibited in the soft overcoming the hard; this sash is awarded when the practitioner’s movements flow like water. Purple sash holders that are involved in the teaching curriculum will be eligible/able to act as instructors for classes.

1 year of continuous study after receiving the purple sash, participants are eligible to test for the black sash. The black sash is representative of the return to wuji(balance, nothingness, void). At this stage the practitioner will be tested through additional weapons forms, will embody nothingness with efficacy in two person work (San Shou, Tui Shou, Sparring), will be tested in multiple opponent sparring and the dantien penny toss. Two person work with black sash participants should be like fighting air. This stage represents the transition to the mind stage of Taijiquan learning. Participants holding the black sash that have completed the teaching curriculum will be considered Shifu and will be eligible/able to open their own school to train others. Promotion and testing to the rank of purple and black sashes will be overseen by the head of the school system. Black Sash holders with permission from the head of the school system will be able to confer sashes below those ranks to students.

Junior age students will focus on the Tang Quan system and will have a different sash system.

Those that have digested this system to this point should be notified that this represents my musings on this program to date. It seems that revisions to date have been almost continuous, but since the implementation of the program have been minor. What I have tried to focus on in this discourse are the framework and intent of the program.

I do not anticipate graded levels above the black sash, it is my current opinion that participants that reach the level of black sash will have risen above the need for arbitrary ranking. Certainly any input to any of my thoughts in this discourse is welcome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

the week's lessons - basics and mastery

I am sitting here eating my Shrimp Mei Fun with spicy curry sauce reflecting on the week so far, and thinking about some things that have been standing out.

1. So much of the martial arts that we learn, as beginners, is not understood for years to come. I have experienced this myself, I have read about it, and heard it from students. Specifically, sharing this past weekend with one of my favorite students, who is also a student of Aikido, we were talking about a quote she had found in Aikido Journal. The quote was about focusing on kozushi. (Kuzushi (崩し:くずし) is a Japanese term for unbalancing an opponent in the martial arts.)I shared the quote with others, but not before I did more research (remember, I do not practice a Japanese Martial Art, nor do I speak Japanese.)During my research I found numerous stories of teachers that had shared an exercise called Happo No Kuzushi with students. In most cases, these students felt, at the time of learning it, that the exercise was just basic, only to realize years later that this basic was really a key to advanced martial arts.

I have my own Taiji based stories about this. How the more advanced I get, the more I appreciate and find that further advancement comes from additional practice and work with the basics. Interestingly enough, this view is in direct opposition to many folks, even those that have taken martial arts for quite a while. Many artists want to learn more, more techniques, more tricks, more moves, more forms. If we go back to the Taiji Classics, we should recall the Song of the Thirteen Postures. 8 gates representing applications, 5 energies relate to directions of stepping, these 13 postures are it, the most basic of Taiji. It all stems from the 13 original postures. It is all contained in the 13 original postures.

2. So much of mastery in anything that we do comes back to the basics.

Just like the students that took years to appreciate the basic exercises that we are given, my realization for a while is that Mastery truly is about the basics; understanding the basics, truly internalizing them, and utilizing them. One of my business associates shared the definition of mastery as the uncommon application of the basics.

Isn’t that really what Taiji teaches us, to take the basics and adapt them? Isn’t that really what the five families have done? Taken the 13 postures and shown us many more ways to apply them. I think it is.

I have even been reminded about this recently in Taiji. Ll of my current students are beginners. My classes focus on the basics, stances, leg strength, and the form. Daily I practice these with my students, and after a year of having not seen someone, they viewed a video of me, and noticed improvement. I attribute this visible improvement in my Taiji, not to any new forms, exercises or knowledge, but to an increased understanding an practice of the basics.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Not Taiji, but I just had to share.

I just had to share the email that I just got.

The following questions were set in last year's GED examination These are genuine answers (from 16 year olds)....and they WILL breed!!

Q. Name the four seasons.
A. Salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar.

Q. Explain one of the processes by which water can be made safe to drink.
A. Flirtation makes water safe to drink because it removes large pollutants like grit, sand, dead sheep and canoeists.

Q. How is dew formed?
A. The sun shines down on the leaves and makes them perspire.

Q. What causes the tides in the oceans?
A. The tides are a fight between the earth and the moon. All water tends to flow towards the moon, because there is no water on the moon, and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the sun joins the fight.

Q. What are steroids?
A. Things for keeping carpets still on the stairs.

Q. Name a major disease associated with cigarettes.
A. Premature death

Q. How can you delay milk turning sour?
A. Keep it in the cow.

Q. How are the main 20 parts of the body categorised (e.g. The abdomen)?
A. The body is consisted into 3 parts - the brainium, the borax and the abdominal cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs and the abdominal cavity contains the five bowels: A, E, I,O,U.

Q. What is the fibula?
A. A small lie.

Q. What does 'varicose' mean?
A. Nearby.

Q. Give the meaning of the term Caesarean section.
A. The caesarean section is a district in Rome.

Q. What is a seizure?
A. A Roman Emperor.

Q. What is a terminal illness?
A. When you are sick at the airport.

Q. Give an example of a fungus. What is a characteristic feature?
A. Mushrooms. They always grow in damp places and they look like umbrellas

Q. Use the word 'judicious' in a sentence to show you understand its meaning. A. Hands that judicious can be soft as your face.

Q. What does the word 'benign' mean?
A. Benign is what you will be after you be eight.

Q. What is a turbine?
A. Something an Arab or Shreik wears on his head.

I laughed the whole way through this.