“Its Not Magic, its True”: Cheng Man Ching And His Mehtod

by Don Ethan Miller


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Yet most of us, even in Cheng’s tradition, fail to really invest in this method 100%, thus never attaining the full “intelligence” and efficacy of the body which he had. When asked once why none of his students had attained anywhere near his level, Cheng responded that it was only because they lacked faith—that it, were unwilling to truly use this simple, but profound idea that brings the whole body to life.

Even more than his tremendous abilities, however, what impressed and moved me the most in viewing the tapes over and over was Cheng’s complete engagement in teaching, in paying attention to even the smallest detail. I had heard the line that Cheng was himself an excellent practicioner, but not a great teacher, that he kind of left his students to their own devices to grasp what he was doing. Nothing could be further from the truth: in the tapes you see him physically adjusting the positions of rank beginners in a first-time form class; minutely correcting the practice lines of his calligraphy students, pointing out which of a hundred lines on a grid were made correctly, and which were uneven; repositioning a student’s hand in push hands so that a light push precisely made can uproot an opponent who was previously unmovable. He was as fully engaged, as fully committed to his teaching, as he was to everything else he did—totally in the moment, totally involved, and passionately happy to be so. Nothing was uninteresting to him, and nothing was outside his sphere of engagement.

For commentary on the tapes, I interviewed three of his senior students who appear in the original tapes, and are still teaching Cheng’s Tai Chi almost 40 years later: Maggie Newman, Ken Van Sickle, and Ed Young. Ed tells a beautiful story about Cheng: Ed was driving him to the school one day, Cheng was sitting, eyes closed, muttering to himself, going over some portion of a poem he was working on. Then, suddenly, he opened his eyes, and said, “You know, the air in the left rear tire is a little lower than the others. Check it.” He was so sensitive, so connected with his environment, that he could sense a small differential in the balance of the car’s ride. As Ed described it, “He became a part of the world, and the world became a part of him.”

At one point in the tape, Professor Cheng is explaining how Tai Chi practice can improve your health, by improving the function of the five organs of the body (in Chinese medicine). In fact, he says, fat people (“butterballs”) will become thinner, and thin people more robust, through regular tai chi practice. “It’s not magic,” Cheng says, with his infectious smile, “it’s true.”

So, after 30-plus years of practice, I have found new inspiration to invest even more deeply in Cheng’s method. I leave you with a poem of mine, an attempt to distill what his teachings, and his spirit, have meant for me. For his is an art that can carry us, not only through calm waters and bright times, but through the darker and more tragic seas we must all, at some time, travel:

do not seek to become powerful;
seek only to release fear from the body-mind.
do not chase after joy;
only breathe out your pain, your grief, your loss.
do not ask for mastery;
ask only to shed that which is unnatural and disharmonious.
darkness and day follow each other.
heavy is the root of light, stillness is the mother of movement.
emptiness is the source of ten thousand things.
release, breathe, shed, stand still, un-do
let your tears fall into the earth beneath your feet
let your sorrows sink and become your root
what you thought was weakness will become your strength
where fear has been dissolved, laughter blooms;
after looking inward
the spirit rises

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