In memory of Ben Lo

I have just this hour received word of the death of my “big brother” and former teacher, Ben Lo. When this famous student of my first teacher, Zheng Manching, arrived in San Francisco, I went to see him and declared that I would not continue to teach at my San Francisco School, The Inner Research Institute, until I had his full authorization. We met on the basketball court in Dolores Park for many mornings until he granted me his blessing, and for many mornings after. It would be hard to imagine more different personalities than Ben and myself, he so conservative in every way, me, in his eyes, a little bit on the wild side, but I spent literally hundreds of hours doing tuishou with him, and he, confronted with any real dedication to the art of Taijiquan, clearly held nothing back and was finally very open in his affection for me. After two years of meeting every Saturday with Ben, Martin Inn, and Susan Foe, (my partners in the Inner Research Institute), we released a new edition of the Classics of Taijiquan, still, I feel, the best available, and now that he has departed I am forever grateful that our names will be linked by this effort. I am only one of thousands today who are mourning the passing of one of Taijiquan’s most passionate students and teachers. Goodbye, Ben. We love you.

Taijiquan Meditations for the Solo Form is Published!

I am very excited about the release of my new book, Taijiquan Meditations for the Solo Form. In the course of my fifty years of teaching, there is a question that I have been asked many times: “what should I meditate on while doing the form?” This usually indicates a concept of the form as a background for some sort of profound mental state and is, I fear, a rather pervasive temptation for the average student. Unfortunately, it belies a fairly common misunderstanding of meditation in general, in that it seems to presuppose the imposition of a consciousness that represents an elevation above the mundane and ordinary reality of our day-to-day existence. Actually, true meditation is instead the elevation of this mundane and ordinary reality to its proper position in our awareness. The ultimate goal of this practice, in virtually all sophisticated schools of meditation, is emptiness, known as samadhi, shikantaza, or by various other names. And in fact, despite the almost infinite variety of rituals, chants, and even gods themselves that seem to separate these schools from one another, they all actually share the same basic method, known as seeding. 

In the Japanese practice of Zen meditation, which I was privileged to pursue for several years under the guidance of the famous Yasutani Hakunn Roshi (immortalized by Phillip Kapleau in The Three Pillars of Zen), one is presented with two models, the Zen master and the head monk (and, ideally, all the other monks as well). Simply stated, the monk demonstrates how one acts in order to get enlightened, and the roshi demonstrates how one acts when he’s gotten it. Whatever profound mental state the roshi may or may not be enjoying, it is made clear that one does not attain it by imitation, regardless of how well-informed or skillful that imitation might be, but rather through the mechanism of seeds, which, in terms of content, can have a pretty low bar, profundity-wise. The necessary association of proper meditation with any particular seed or situation is a mistaken notion, beautifully expressed by the words of Vimalakirti, the author of the only sutra in the Buddhist Cannon that is written, not just by a lay person, but by someone who is not even a Buddhist. Shortly following the death of the Buddha, this simple woodcutter on the island of Ceylon, when walking past a meditating monk from the nearby enclave of Ananda, the late Buddha’s cousin and now head of the newly formed church, stopped and shouted at him: “You think meditation is sitting under a tree with your legs crossed, but I say to you: meditation is not sitting under a tree with your legs crossed.” The monk immediately experienced kensho (enlightenment). 

Meditation is, put most succinctly, total mental absorption, pretty much the polar opposite of multi-tasking. For mental absorption, one needs a focus, something to be absorbed in. Beyond that, it is doing what you are doing, nothing more, and nothing less. There is no sophistication that supersedes that simple formulation. There are lotus postures, vegetarian diets, compelling religions that may aid meditation, but none of them are what meditation is.  A great Zen master of the last century said once: “I used to meditate; now, I just sit.”

One’s ultimate involvement and mastery of Taijiquan is the result of a gestalt combination of technical details that combine to produce a result that, as I am quite fond of saying, looks like natural talent. Virtually every one of these details cannot be considered learned until they become completely unconscious and internalized habits, so thoroughly internalized, in fact, that they continue to function adequately even under the stress of life-threatening conflict. Anything capable of such a dissolution has met the minimum qualification for a legitimate seed, be it an object or an activity. Many of the technical details mentioned above, the smaller ingredients of the greater whole, are complex reactions to externally generated input, and may be practiced and developed when playing with a partner, but they themselves represent a gestalt of even smaller, totally personal habits that are so internal that both their cultivation and the result of that cultivation is, to all but the most sophisticated eye, simply invisible. These smaller ingredients require a protocol that is slower and more deliberate, undistracted by a partner’s whims, and expanded in size for easier examination. They require the solo form.

From the point of view of meditation, the form may be regarded as a ritual, insomuch as it is deliberately productive of a state that is entirely uncreative and, once sufficiently memorized, without the need for any external direction for a period of twenty minutes or so. I should stipulate without resistance that the form, even learned from totally uninformed observation, executed so as to merely imitate some model’s rendition to a reasonable degree, may be used to dissolve one’s day-to-day stress and personal identity for twenty minutes or so, with corresponding salutary effects on future health and happiness. If this is the extent of your desired involvement with Taijiquan, then this book is definitely not for you. 

Taijiquan Meditations examines the form from the opposite end, the smallest pieces of the gestalt that forms the gestalt that forms the gestalt, the seeds of the seeds. It attempts to inform the student as to the proper use of the solo form, not as a performance or a demonstration, but as a reliable platform for the most effective concentration, the moving version of an old and trusted meditation cushion. Taijiquan Meditations represents only a small sample of the possible targets of our concentration, ones that I have observed, in my years as a teacher, to be perhaps especially useful, or especially difficult. I will be so bold as to say that it should be of equal use and interest for the beginner and the most advanced practitioner alike. 

Hope you like it,

Robert Amacker

Seminar in Prague

June 22 – June 24 2018
Taijiquan school Taiji Pod Lupou (Czech Republic) (http://www.taijipodlupou.cz)

Penglujian and Da Lu variations, Yang Style Sword Form
led by Olesya Amacker. 

In this seminar we explored Penglujian and Da Lu variations, such as cloudy hands, elbow, slanting flight, looked for connections between Penglujian and Da Lu exercises. 

In the Sword class we reviewed the sequence of the form and practiced sword exercises in couples.

My greatest thanks go to the director of the school – Vlasta Pechova for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to be part of the school life. Many thanks to the students for creating a warm and positive atmosphere in class.

Trip to California

Just returning from a very productive trip to California. Most of my time was devoted to private lessons for my advanced students in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I also taught several classes for my student of over forty years, Tom Maxon, at his Tamalpais School in Mill Valley. I was very pleased with the progress there and the appearance of several promising beginners. One of Taijiquan’s biggest problems, from a methodological perspective, is the almost logarithmic progression of skill as one proceeds. From a personal point of view, this is gratifying, especially since one’s initial impression of Taijiquan is that one will never live long enough to master it. But it produces a kind of “expanding universe” effect, in which the gap between students is widening, rather than becoming smaller. This effect almost demands a separate class for every student. However, one of the most important and significant features of Taijiquan is that it concerns itself principally with personal interaction with others. Separate classes for everyone, even if logistically feasible, would be completely missing the point. The only solution to this dilemma is for every student to cultivate the skill of learning, not only from his betters, but from those whose skill is inferior to his own. Since my own teachers are either dead or beyond my immediate reach, only this possibility allows me to continue my own personal improvement. On the contrary, I feel that my own technique has done nothing but accelerate in its progress, more and more in the most recent times. The real technique of Taijiquan is a compilation of a great many skills, and a deficiency in any one of them can make the others seem ineffective. Only when one’s progress is well-rounded does this ever disappear, but once the various elements of one’s training start to work together pieces of the puzzle that seemed far in the distance suddenly fall into place, and what was strange and enigmatic becomes somehow natural and obvious. 

This ability to learn from one’s own students, or at least to improve as a result of interaction with them, is possible precisely by virtue of the discreetness and technical rigor of Taijiquan’s various elements, these fundamentals. The good student seeks not only to improve, but to isolate and clarify the reasons for such improvement, in a specific manner. He should not regard any skill to be sufficiently developed until he can completely control its presence or absence in his technique. At this point he can concentrate on those skills most appropriate to the level of his partner, his own discipline providing positive feedback for them without developing bad habits.  As students learn to make use of such sophistication in the realm of personal interaction, they become more and more capable of offering each other positive reinforcement, rather than utilizing a “zero-sum” concept to punish each other for perceived mistakes. Such an attitude, when acted out physically, leads inevitably to a parallel sophistication of interaction on all levels, including those intellectual and emotional, and such an atmosphere resembles, more than any other model, a family. I am happy to say that the Mill Valley school is starting to demonstrate this level of practice.

I suppose that in the first posting for this blog I should introduce myself and present a forthright declaration of my motivation and intentions regarding this website and my plans, both in a general sense and more specifically as they relate to my efforts in Hawaii. My theories and teachings in the art of Taijiquan are increasingly available in books and articles, and serious technical efforts of this kind will be presented occasionally on this website.

My name is Robert Amacker, and I can truthfully say that I have made the study of Taijiquan the central focus of my life, and eschewed the serious pursuit of any other vocation. This was not a conscious decision so much as the result of uncontrollable fascination. From the age of eleven I have pursued the martial arts, first teaching myself Judo, and then being privileged to study Karate from the legendary Bobby Lowe and the manic Gojuryu master Peter Urban, and Aikido from Master Yoshimitsu Yamada. Ten years of such study equipped me with the necessary perspective to appreciate the extreme elegance and sophistication of Taijiquan, when I first tasted the instruction of Cheng, Man-ch’ing in New York City. This was only expanded and confirmed by my years of study with his two talented students, William Chen and Ben Lo, and deepened immeasurably through further years of study with another direct student of Yang, Cheng-fu, Chu, Ch’u-fang.

For the dedicated student of pugilism, of either the Oriental or Occidental traditions, real Taijiquan seems the practical actualization of many concepts and goals. This extends from the literal creation of taijis, a process that eludes the practice not only of most other martial arts, but of most professed masters of Taijiquan as well, to the development of the so-called “one-inch punch,” which is not only a goal of Taijiquan practice, but indeed so integral to one’s overall development that its acquisition is completely assumed as a condition without which much of Taijiquan practice simply makes no sense. Such possibilities were extremely exciting to me, and for over fifty years now I have had the wonderful experience of seeing Taijiquan deliver, decade after decade, on these promises.

However, in my experience the full fascination and resultant dedication possible are only realized through a complete picture of the art, and this is a picture the entire Yang Style curriculum is masterfully constructed to cultivate and reveal. Accordingly, the “mission” to which I previously alluded, and to which my efforts in Hawaii are primarily dedicated, is not only to teach the formal elements of the Yang Style, but to explain how these elements properly fit together to form the complete art.