Tai Chi: “To be Nothing is Good”

Mr Liu drawing on ground

Mr Liu drawing on ground

A shout out to Roy Wilson, a long-time Tai Chi practitioner who trained with me in England. He interviewed me about Cheng Man-ching, my teacher Liu Hsi-heng, and my time in Taiwan. From that interview I have adapted another short excerpt:

Roy: You note that Mr Liu’s way of being was imbued with his Tai Chi practice. Robert Smith, in his book ‘Martial Musings’ quotes Mr Liu as saying: ‘The important thing to remember is that which one sometimes gains from intense study or long practice. Gongfu is time, Xinde is awakening, but your Xinde can only come from correct principles and not just from yourself’ (p.310). Smith also quotes Mr Liu as saying: ‘To be nothing is good! The Daoists still have an idea of self; in Tai Chi you must lose it’ (p.314). These two quotes hint at something very profound that may be gained from Tai Chi practice. From your close association with Mr Liu is it possible to say more about what he meant by Xinde, and how he conceptualised the ultimate benefits of Tai Chi?

William: First, looking at the word xinde, `xin’ is heart or mind, and `de’ is to receive or to gain. Together they refer to gaining or achieving insight, usually from time put in practising a skill or studying a subject. If Tai Chi insight is not grounded in practise, then it may merely be speculation or imagination — empty theorizing.  I think Mr Liu was reminding people to always check our understanding and insight against the principles of Tai Chi, so that we not go astray. If you feel you have some insight, see if it accords with the principles. He was not a radical innovator; in Tai Chi he worked from a sense of tradition and a reverence for his teacher, Cheng Man-ching, and what he taught.

If I recall correctly, I was the interpreter when Robert Smith interviewed Mr Liu, and the word Mr Liu used was `wudao’, which can be translated as sudden insight instead of awakening. And the context, I believe, (mind it was twenty years ago) was a discussion about Mr Liu making a significant step up in his Tai Chi after Cheng died, and explaining the breakthrough.

As to Mr Liu’s idea of the ultimate benefits of Tai Chi, that is a big question, and anything I say should be taken solely as my interpretation. Tai Chi certainly seemed to bring him robust health, more energy than his students who were less than half his age, and this was after a childhood of less than robust health. But he did not dwell on health benefits, saying that it was a likely by-product of Tai Chi practice. Tai Chi was for Mr Liu a discipline that was as much spiritual as physical. It had expression and test in the physical, especially in pushing hands, but it was as a manifestation of Daoist principles that it had its deeper meaning. Using the word Daoist I hesitate because that is not the whole picture, but Daoist ideas that he often brought up were: `Letting go of one’s self and following others’, `Doing through not doing’, `Little and you will get it, much and you will get confused’ `Being desire-less or without a pre-set intention’ and `The best attitude is like water’. His goal was to embody those ideas in his Tai Chi, to be able to give them expression in solo practise, pushing hands, and everyday life. That said, he was a long time Buddhist, following guidance from a Pure Land sect teacher, and he carried on a daily practice of meditation and chanting.


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