A site honoring the teachings of Kuo Lien Ying and the magical time that we were able to learn from Si Fu

Portsmouth Square 1965-1985

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This article was reproduced courtesy of Marilyn Cooper. An article that she wrote for the Guang Ping Yang Association's "Universal Post"


Since the fall of 2006, I have been assisting Fu Tung Cheng, who is both my tai chi cousin and nephew in our lineage, in teaching his students at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. We have been conjoining both the east coast and west coast Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi curriculums, based on the teachings of Y.C. Chiang and Peter Kwok.

My own form has been impacted profoundly from this experience. Listening to Fu Tung describe the feeling of doing tai chi and watching him do his form has been a huge inspiration. His thirty plus years as a disciple of Y.C. Chiang is a testament to his devotion, humility, and patience. The total tai chi experience is made all the more elevating from training in the darkness before dawn, amidst fresh flowers and altars to the Buddha, with monks meditating down the hall.

During morning practice in the late 60s, Kuo Sifu would direct an occasional trip from San Francisco across the bay bridge to the Berkeley area to Y.C. Chiang's Wen Wu School. All the students performed their respective forms together in the parking lot, after which Y.C. and Kuo drank tea and conversed.

In those days, I lived for Shaolin*. Although I studied tai chi philosophy with great interest, I had little patience for tai chi physically. I was captivated by the line in Sifu's little white book -- "A divergence at the center of one inch is equal to a thousand miles at the circumference," and strove to make my Shaolin forms centered and balanced and my arms like whips. Occasionally, I would follow Bing, my senior brother, through the form, and feel miraculously relaxed and calm afterwards, but I never really indulged in tai chi as a primary practice. It remained in the back of my mind, like a forgotten life insurance policy kept in a vault.

The expansive range of motion of Shaolin, with wide, low stances, strides, leaps, high kicks and sweeps was the only antidote sufficient to quell my youthful angst. The linear tan twei in particular gave me the sense of surging forward, making progress, getting somewhere. The longer a line, the stronger you get. Sifu told me he had done each line across the Gobi desert for one mile. After that, my city block
per line across Portsmouth Square Park seemed insignificant in comparison.

Before we commenced warming up, we would stand in "Universal Post" for one hour. I had sat in Horse posture at all my kung fu schools, but never did anything like this before. I experienced unusual effects – not tiring from exertion, needing less sleep, and remembering my dreams.

Kuo was the primary source for both the Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi form and standing meditation in the United States. He had trained thousands of students in China before immigrating to the United States. Two of those students were Peter Kwok and Y.C. Chiang.

Though younger by about seven years, Peter Kwok was Y.C. Chiang's "senior brother" under Kuo, having started there several months before Chiang's arrival. Y.C. Chiang studied the GPYTC long form from Wang Zhyr Chen for several years and from Kuo for twenty years. I trained under Kuo for five years. When I moved back east, he sent me to Peter Kwok.

After the sparse curriculum under Kuo, I was thrilled to learn eighteen Shaolin forms under Peter Kwok, and practiced them with unbridled enthusiasm. Peter once said to me, "Why do you like Shaolin so much? It's just a lot of moving around."

I was overwhelmingly inspired by watching Peter Kwok do the forms during my lessons. For many years when I practiced, I would hear his voice giving corrections and see his body moving. I once asked him what he thought about while he did them because it was apparent to me that he had surpassed all his teachers. He told me that he thought about the originator "up in heaven, doing the form."

Y.C. Chiang included movements from both teachers in his form. His opening presents two vertical arm circles while the heel slowly emerges from a hip width stance. Peter Kwok's (and Kuo's) openings are simple and brief, with feet together and sinking the weight while lifting the palms to ask Buddha right away. Other obvious differences are the presses and shoulder strikes, clearly expressed in the Peter Kwok version and only implied in Kuo's and Chiang's. Both the Chiang and Kwok versions include movements from Yang style.

Kuo, and also David Chin's (Kuo's "Open Door" student in America) forms look spare and skeletal in comparison, almost resembling a continuous Xing Yi form more than a soft, flowing tai chi form. When David was first learning, Kuo referred to our form as "Original Style" and not "Guang Ping Yang Style Tai Chi." That tag came later.

As society changed, the forms changed. A pivotal generation of Chinese masters from the mid-twentieth century emphasized exercise and aesthetics over martial content under a new government wanting to centralize its power. Increasing numbers of masters brought their art to the United States where they were free to teach. What better place for the "art of killing" to flourish than the country with the most military bases all over the world?

The "Universal Post" standing meditation changed within my lifetime. I used to stand, not sink, on one leg, with one leg empty, like the picture of Kuo** with which we are so familiar.  After an hour of standing this way, my mind would clear, and I would have lots of energy, but there was no improvement in martial skill, although that could also be attributed to the lack of in-depth instruction regarding usage under Kuo, and to the warrior tradition of withholding information that might be used against him at a later date. Another possibility is that once a student knows what moves do, and they become less mysterious, they want to learn more and different forms.

Sifu choose very few words to learn in English, and he used them interchangeably with Chinese.  He frequently said, "Relax," and "Bend Down" to us, and man man lai, and ting le. The latter two mean "slowly" and "listen." The listening refers to a kind of alert sensitivity to force. "Bend Down" is more aptly referred to as sink
the weight, and definitely not to be confused with bending over.

There was never any doubt as to what Sifu meant despite his lack of English. Sifu would grab the paint brushes and wooden flute (I was enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music) sticking out of my backpack and throw them in the garbage can in the park. He was emphatic about the importance of training, and valued it over everything else – "Miss one day, go back
one-hundred." He was kung fu personified, and he knew he had found a kindred spirit.

The Universal Post posture has since been revised to what feels to someone with a Shaolin background, a tiny pony as opposed to a big horse, weight 50/50, feet hip width. The arms are the same tree-hugging pose. The result is a much more martial frame, primarily because sinking the weight makes it much easier to hollow out the front and elongate the back. This prime factor is crucial for the fighting feeling for any style.

Standing meditation enriches tai chi training exponentially, and also represents the biggest conundrum. If tai chi is a constant flow of changes, then why hold a static position?  The answer is that we are striving for emptiness, so we can be full of "awareness energy."

Stillness on the surface allows us to feel the constant changes within. Even while our bodies look still, our thoughts, blood, respiration and qi are constantly flowing. We are forging new neural pathways, connecting our minds to our bodies through our nerves.

The simultaneous awareness of posture and the feeling of qi within a stable, relaxed structure during standing synchronizes thought and action for subsequent movement. After standing, a build up of mental and physical energy occurs for moving the body in space with tai chi.

Tai chi training aspires to preserve rather than dissipate life force from moving slowly, softly, and continuously, with the emphasis on relaxation and emptiness, With the inclusion of standing meditation, a tai chi training session becomes much more deeply meditative and further integrates the mind into the body. Without standing meditation, even tai chi can become "external" or "just a lot of moving around."

Even with the addition of standing, without prior interactive martial training, most tai chi practitioners are unprepared for fighting. Practicing techniques in real time with a training partner helps prepare for most hostile confrontations, and provides
confidence on the street. This is necessary to preserve tai chi as a martial art rather than only a meditative, healing art.

Peter Kwok held that kung fu had three basic functions: self-defense, health and performance. I regard health as the prime goal, with the added perks of fighting
skill and performance ability.

After our teachers are gone, if we practice in isolation without contacting any other tai chi practitioners, and martial artists of all styles, we risk devolving the form based on erroneous assumptions, practicing non-essential nuances, or imitating other styles. Like a copy of a copy of a copy, the original will loose its authenticity
unless we go back to the source. We need the "reality check" of taking some punches, kicks, throws, sweeps and locks, and using our form to counter them so the form will ring true.

Push hands is especially impacted from standing. After guiding my son through standing, explaining details about the posture, I was unable to off-balance him during push hands and he could off-balance me, when formerly, the opposite was the case.

My favorite Zen Buddhist story (because I am that student!) is about the anxious acolyte who asks the master, "How long will it take me to become enlightened if I
meditate morning, noon and night?" The master answers, "About ten years." The novice persisted. "What if I try harder than any of your previous disciples?"
The answer – "Then it will take you twenty years." Frustrated by the idea of reaching enlightenment so late in life, the student exclaims, "I will meditate day and night!" And the master says calmly, "Then it will take you forty years."

Antithetical to anxiously anticipating the future, tai chi movement exemplifies the precept "Be Here Now." We sink into one leg to move, going back to go forward. Paradoxically, the lower and slower you go, the higher*** you will get, and the faster you will progress. The more you can drop the lower back as you sink and extend your legs, the more you will connect your arms to gravity through your spine.

The main posture in our Guang Ping Yang form, called an L stance, or a Half-Horse, is by nature more centered than the forward-weighted Bow and Arrow stance in Yang Style. The Bow and Arrow directs the force forward, like pushing a car, while the L stance, like the whole form itself, centers the power so force can be generated centrifugally.

This L stance is the distinguishing characteristic of our form. The importance of this stance cannot be over-emphasized. Sinking the weight into gravity, and connecting the head and mind to the heavens, with a long back and relaxed front, integrates our lower and upper halves. This co-mingling of our higher mind -- alert and sensitive, and our automatic physical functions -- heartbeat and breath, this integration of heaven and earth, this grounded, yet elevated state is the gift of taI chi training.

*"Shaolin" is the generic name for "Northern Shaolin," aka "Long Fist," aka "Chuang Chuan."

**Wang Xianzhai in his later years is also in the straight rear leg, front toe out posture, but an earlier picture shows a Japanese student of Wang Xianzhai in the double weighted posture we practice today.

   *** "higher" meaning both higher state of consciousness and elevated mood.