Monday, October 24, 2011

Do you know the Yi Jing(易經)?

This past weekend, I attended a workshop for the Yang style two person set. This is a fundamental set that teaches and includes applications for the postures found in the solo form. This form has contributed greatly to my development as a martial artist in general and specifically as a player of Taijiquan. This isn’t a blog about that form though, instead it is a blog about change.

Every time I go back to a review or workshop of this form, there are subtle(sometimes more than subtle) changes. In the specific case of this form, the changes are refinements made for a variety of reasons, but each has either represented a different way of teaching the application, a refinement of a neutralization or application, or of footwork/direction.

Fundamentally, I am all on board for change, but truth be told, I am not very comfortable with change, once I have something working, and/or I am in charge of the change. Leaving the workshop my Kung Fu brother and I were discussing the refinements that we had gotten, most were minor, but there was one that seemed very major to me, it was a complete redo of the footwork through a neutralization into the follow-on application. Please remember, this was a move that I had learned around 16 years ago, and had been practicing regularly. It was a move that worked for me, even when playing with a level of intention, and non-compliance.

Why would I want to change this move?

I am not 100% sure about why this move changed, I have my ideas. Boiled down to a nutshell, it was probably changed because people were having difficulty executing the other move, the other move to be executed with stability required practice, and knowledge of a non-basic stance. Does that make it better or worse. Does it really matter.

All systems experience this!

At various times I hear practitioners of all systems lamenting the changing of forms. I have even heard many say that the current Yang Style of Taijiquan is no longer martial and that the “Lao Jia”or Old Frame is better. I think my teacher “Lao Ma” summed it up best by telling us a story about T.T. Liang. He said that often students at Liang Shifu’s seminars would lament that he had done something different the last time that they had been with him. Purportedly, Liang Shifu would get real close to them, and ask if they knew the Yi Jing. Everything changes.

If our intent is simply to learn the forms, exactly as they are taught, and preserve them that way, then we have missed one of the real lessons of Taiji.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Skipping to a PhD

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a close friend about her career aspirations and possible educational paths to proceed. The conversation turned to teaching, and then the difference between a Masters Degree and a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). Of course, I started relating this thought process to the martial arts.
A long time ago a friend told me that a Masters Degree was just that, to denote that the recipient had a Mastery of the subject. He went on to discuss that the PhD was expected to grasp a subject on the theoretical level. Mastering a subject does not always mean graping and fully understanding the theory behind it.
As I began relating this to the martial arts, it was easy to see the correlation to most traditional martial arts, but when I examine the primary art that I know and love, this model really did not work. If we use an art like Karate, Tang Soo Do, or Aikido, there is a pretty clear correlation to our academic system. With these arts, the achievement of a Black Belt is like getting into College. The first couple of Black Belt ranks get you through college. Somewhere around the 4th Degree mark, you are recognized as a master just like the graduate from the Masters Program.
It seems that in most martial arts you can be considered a master of the art being a technician.
Now, this also relates directly to another conversation that I was having recently around the concept of menkyo kaiden, a concept found in the older Japanese martial arts. Menkyo kaiden is translated as license of full transmission. Essentially this gives the bearer official permission to teach outside of his school, or to by extension to start his own school. This terminology technically refers to a ranking system that was used prior to the current Japanese model of kyu(levels/grades) and dan(degrees). It seems that one could be considered a master, but not have reached menkyo kaidan(seems to be the PhD). The interesting thing of note is that one could receive this status without being a 10th degree, or even receiving the honorific title of Grandmaster (but this is another topic altogether).
As I thought about this, I really began to wonder about Taijiquan. Chinese martial systems for the most part did not have the structure and ranking systems. In modern times, most have opted for a ranking system, even if it is simply an internal system of curriculum organization and not represented by a colored sash or belt system. It seems that most students crave at least a minimum of structure to enhance their learning experience. I spent much time thinking about this prior to establishing the sash system that we have implemented.
Can Taijiquan be distilled down into the physical only?
The real crux of my thoughts here are about Mastery of Taijiquan. It really seems to me (and by definition) that Taijiquan is inextricably tied to Daoist philosophy. It is named Taiji Fist because it is a martial art designed entirely around the Taijitu (most of the time known as the Yin and Yang symbol). In other martial arts, it seems that you can reach mastery level without delving deeply into theory. It seems to me that theory plays a larger role in Taijiquan. It is almost like Taijiquan is doctoral level studies from day one. Master Jou Tsung Hwa theorized that the practice of any martial art that followed the underlying principles of taiji, was taiji. This is typically seen at the higher levels of mastery
Is it possible to learn Taijiquan without previous martial arts experience, and if you are doing that, won’t you have to learn some base martial art during the process?