Have you ever wondered what a Tai Chi master really is? It’s a fascinating question—and needless to say, there is no definitive answer.
Still, if you are at all interested in Tai Chi, or a “Tai Chi Master’s Strategy of Life,” some of these observations may be helpful for you to consider.
The most common ideas on what a Tai Chi master really is usually center around the following characteristics:
The Tai Chi Master is:
1) someone who performs the Tai Chi Forms perfectly, with elegance, focus, precision, and power.
2) someone who knows the entire Tai Chi System to a high level. **
3) someone who is an excellent fighter and can overcome any adversary.
4) someone who combines all the above qualities.
All of these qualities would indeed define a high-level Tai Chi master. But I would suggest there is something even more, perhaps a more elusive and intangible quality.
The following story might begin to illustrate just what this might be…
Some years ago, I was taking cooking lessons with a renowned Japanese chef in the Boston area. One of my fellow students was a young Japanese who was quite proficient in Goju Ryu Karate-do. He was visiting the United States for a while to learn English and to experience American life.
One evening, we went to a local Karate exhibition offered by one of the schools in the city. As the demonstration began, the head of the school came onstage and was addressed as “Master_______.” I have forgotten his name, since this happened several decades ago. He was an American, in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He began showing some Karate kata (solo formal exercises), and I was very impressed by his power, speed, and skill.
My Japanese friend, however, seemed to be getting more and more agitated. When there was a pause in the demonstrations, I asked my Japanese friend what was disturbing him so much. He replied in limited English, “Cannot be master; cannot be master…”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
He went on to explain as best he could that the youthful Karate teacher was “too young” to be a master. He said that a “master” had to be at least sixty years old. I was stunned to hear this, because I had been very impressed by the teacher’s demonstration.
A week or two later, my Japanese friend and I visited a scholar who was fluent in both Japanese and English. Remembering my experience at the Karate demonstration, I asked my friend and the scholar WHY a young American could not be a “master.”
The scholar replied that it had nothing to do with the teacher’s nationality, but that he was “too young.” As our conversation continued, the scholar told me that in the Far East, a “master” was assumed to be someone who had a wide experience in life and skills in many areas, and that accumulating this level of skill and life-experience required many decades. A “master” had to have more than technical martial arts skills.
A few years after that, when I myself began studying Karate, my teacher said something which seemed to confirm what the scholar had said earlier. “Don’t make the dojo (training hall) your world; make the world your dojo.” The force and depth of that comment hit me hard, and I have not forgotten it to this day. From that moment, I personally vowed to “make the world my dojo.”
Later still, when I began studying Tai Chi, I came to realize that each of my teachers seemed to have a quality and charisma which transcended mere skill in the Forms.
After many years of observing my Tai Chi teachers, and masters in other areas, I arrived at a general idea of what the term “master” means to me.
I came to realize that a true Master is someone who can help students in any area of life, from the skills of the art itself to health, life-attitude, and even spirituality. Many Tai Chi masters of the past were also highly skilled in Chinese medicine and herbs. Some of them could do Qi healing. Others were experts in military strategy.
A modern example comes to mind--the late Grandmaster Cheng Man Ch’ing, who was a “Master of the Five Excellences.” He was a high-level master of Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, painting, calligraphy, and even wei qi, or Chinese “chess,” (similar to the game of GO in Japan).
Master T.T. Liang was another Tai Chi adept who excelled in painting and calligraphy, and was taking university courses in English literature in his mid 80’s!
Many Tai Chi masters excelled in Chinese medicine. Traditionally, if a student fell ill, the well-rounded Tai Chi master could offer remedies for the illness; if a student sustained an injury while training, the master could heal that injury. When a student needed advice on some pressing life problem, the Master could offer wise counsel, based on years of observation and experience.
(I was beginning to comprehend why the Japanese scholar years earlier had said that a “master” needed to be a mature and seasoned individual).
A master also has “kung fu.” In America, we think of “kung fu” as a form of martial art, or a set of forms or techniques. Actually, “kung fu” really means something more like “inner development of skill refined after years of study.” And ‘kung fu” is not restricted to martial arts.
A supremely skilled Chinese physician who can deftly place a needle with perfect precision on an acupuncture point, or who can create an elegant and effective herbal formula, has kung fu in medicine. A superb cook has kung fu in the kitchen; and an expert calligrapher or painter has kung fu with the brush.
Developing profound kung fu requires years, if not decades.
I have personally come to believe that a Tai Chi Master should also understand Yin/Yang on many levels, since Yin and Yang and their transmutations are the very essence of Tai Chi. So a Tai Chi master could relate the Universal Principle of Yin/Yang to nutrition, medicine, meditation, and even social events and personal economy.
Most often, a well-rounded master is also a highly skilled teacher. And there is truly an exalted kung fu in the art of teaching! A real master is always compassionate and caring for students, even though the teaching and discipline may be strict. There is absolutely no excuse for a master harming or exploiting a student in any way.
A master is also supremely perceptive and can unfailingly perceive precisely what a student needs to progress. If a student’s best interest demands that s/he go on to a different teacher, the master is detached and can “let go” when the student is ready to move on.
Many students are surprised to learn that the genuine masters are still the MOST TEACHABLE of students. No real master ever pretends to know it all, since the very process of achieving mastery reveals that there is always a far horizon where there is more learning yet to attain.
I am reminded of a story told to me by my martial arts brother, Sifu Ray Hayward.
He was studying with the late B.P. Chan in New York City when T.T. Liang stopped in for a visit. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Chan promptly asked Liang to observe his Form and offer corrections. Some of his students were shocked. Chan, after all, was a master of five entire “systems” of Chinese martial arts, each “system” being roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. in the West.
After Liang had left, Chan’s students demanded to know why in the world he, an eminent master in his own right, would ask another master for “corrections.” Chan replied, “What kind of teacher would I be if I failed to try to perfect myself? The best teacher must also be the most humble student.”
That attitude is the hallmark of a true master, and an interesting contrast to the young student of meager experience who comes to a teacher and demands to learn the “good stuff,” or advanced material, claiming that he already “knows” all about the basics. A master in any art is ALWAYS practicing and refining the “basics.”
In the end, I believe that studying with a master is essential to acquire true depth in Tai Chi. It is possible to learn forms and techniques from a less skilled teacher, or even from a video presentation. But there is another dimension altogether which one senses in the energy orbit around a true master. The great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki characterized it well when he called it a “transmission from warm hand to warm hand.” There is really no substitute.
Another of my teachers, in a totally different area of study, once told me “When you enter a room, you either brighten the room or you dim the room.” In my experience, I have found that a genuine master always brightens the room.
** To learn more about the Tai Chi System, you can check out my book Drawing Silk