The question was asked by Gregory in Carborro, North Carolina. This week, after spending two weeks on more advanced level material, I am going to answer a more personal question for all of you.
My question is not so much of a question as a request. Would you write a piece about Master Cheng’s joyful presence and how it affected your thinking about the grace that can be accomplished by devotion to the practice of Tai Chi?
Professor Cheng was a very special, unique, man. I was a very young man when I came to know him in my 20’s. He was in his 70’s, so there was a generation gap as well as a language and culture gap, yet my memories of him are fond ones. You can see his smile in the header of this web site and on our DVDs. I took it before a lecture class. He saw me with my camera and looked at me and smiled. That smile was just for me… and for all those I am now able to share it with.
He also had an a very singular laugh. It gave a sense of joy, and the sharpness of his understandings of the humor in the situation he was describing. I have that laugh, as I have many of the lectures he gave, on audio tape. One day I hope to be able to share it with you all.
Professor Cheng taught in a methodical, and careful way. It will help, perhaps, if I speak of how he taught us calligraphy to illustrate the point of how he taught Tai Chi. First we made ink. For a long time we made ink. We ground the Chinese ink and water to a thick goo. Then we got the New York Times or a Chinese paper of similar page size and started to draw horizontal lines. We covered sheet after sheet with tight, horizontal lines. When we had 50 or so pages done, we started to draw smoother lines, not great ones, but we had the idea of the technique, how to practice, and the goal. He then indicated that we would do something else (finally, I thought, some Chinese characters). The something else was to draw vertical lines on all the sheets on which we had drawn horizontal lines. When we did that on all of our pages, it was time for another change. Since we had made all these small boxes, he now had us draw circles in the boxes. I stopped Calligraphy at that point, but I have a feeling that x’s were not far behind.
He taught Tai Chi this way as well. Methodical and with good humor and loving care. He gave me Tai Chi for my health and and understanding of how it could be used as self-defense, but I was not ready then, too tense, and besides, my cup was kind of full, to pour any knowledge into. But Professor was kind to blind people like me, and undaunted, he assigned a senior student to me to teach me to relax. This was not a small task for someone whose entire background was Judo, Karate and Ju Jitsu.
He tolerated my tension, my unrelaxedness, with humor, once pretending to be hanging on an arm while trying to correct the quality of my relaxedness while correcting my form, with me thinking I should hold the posture and not give way to his arm. Eventually I understood. Though he spoke in Chinese, he encouraged me to always ask questions, and so was always available to me. Because of the need for translators this was no easy task. When two of the seniors students, who were his main translators, tried to protect him from my incessant questioning, the wife of a third took up the challenge, and I asked more questions. He sometimes answered with humor, but always with honesty. He gave me more information than I could use, but later, after he was no longer with us, it began to make sense, this additional information.
He gave us Chun Yun for our ethical well-being. Chun Yun was understood as the “Doctrine of the Mean.” He did not give it to us that way. He gave us his own unique take on it. He said do things, not too early or too late, not too much or too little. He thought we could see how you could add up too little and too much and divide by two and get the mean, but also you could get what he thought Confucius meant, to do the exact appropriate thing at the exact appropriate time. I am sure that scholars will argue it forever. However doing and saying the exact appropriate thing at the exact appropriate time has been one of the ethical constructs of my life. I always fail in this upon retrospection, but I am getting better with the years, I hope.
So he gave me health, and self-defense and how to teach them. And he gave me his understanding of how to be a good human being. Those are some of the gifts of Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing to humanity, and to me, and now hopefully in some measure, to you.
In T’ai Chi,