In the 1980’s a geminian friend Loye Loye introduced me to a Tai Chi class in Canterbury, run by a Han Chinese Indonesian man Simon Lim. Last night I read the online account of his class by a later fellow student Patrick McGowan, who has written a book about his experience, One Tao.
Tai Chi, as it is practised in Australia is a variegated flower. Originally Tai Chi was the martial arts practice devised by peace loving Buddhist monks to defend themselves from unscrupulous, violent men. So, from the first, it was a mix of hard [action] and soft [meditation]. Those who might think this a hypothetical situation should remember an incident that occured in Sydney Town Hall square in the 1980’s. A van driven by some Hell’s Angels pulled up in front of a group of Hare Krishnas dancing and chanting, the back doors opened and two thugs grabbed a couple of women devotees and drove away, leaving the peace-loving chanters behind, helpless. From that time, some of the male Hare Krishnas learned karate and became bodyguards for their people.
Simon’s class was an extraordinary group of people. First, you learned the core five movements; once mastered, they allowed you to begin learning the hundred plus postures of the seven cycles. My teacher was a turbulent senior student of Simon’s, and always seemed to be in dispute with his teacher. In fact, the class seemed to divide itself uneasily, like oil and vinegar, between hippie types who were in denial about the serious martial arts movements, and advanced students who as they progressed became conflicted about the nature of the POWER they generated during the flow. An example of the former was a guy who mimicked his student/teacher performing the grand, to the four directions movement that was at the centre of the 7 cycles, it was a beheading circular flow that ended cycles 3 and 4. So complex were its movements and reversals that, if you were not completely concentrating, you became hopelessly entangled. The teacher unfortunately described the flow as chopping off the head of the chicken, so our comedian whirled around the room decapitating poultry.
Like my querulous student/teacher, as I progressed, I found leading a class more and more irksome. I used to come to class straight from a day at the office and a workday indoors consisted of several coffees, so my flow was a tad impatient and hyper. Like that of my teacher, my style was seen as expressive, tho a bit more Martha Graham than Tao.
The nature of action, even violence, was not something Simon addressed directly; as with most things, he began in the centre. Go to the centre, he would say, collect yourself, sum up everything, all your experience, and express that, push it to the five extremities, thru the top of your head, thru yr hands and feet. Be at the centre of the universe and at the same time at its extremities. Tai Chi was a system of unlearning, the movements were complex but you should not memorise them, instead you unlearned all the mistakes of posture and experience you had accumulated so far. The Alexander technique, I believe, says similar things.
However, as you got to know Simon, he told you about his training and his teachers. Indonesia is characterised by types of hard style martial arts, whereby practitioners put on spectacular displays: chopping into stacks of roof tiles with the edge of your hand, arm or leg. Simon warned however, that the inevitable longterm result of such practice was thousands of small bone fractures that became extremely painful. These guys became addicted to injecting morphine to remove the pain. Meanwhile, his first teacher was such a hard style practitioner, angry and arrogant. He would say to his students, I have made you, if you leave me I will take it all away, that is to say, I will take your life. Simon never explained how he left this class, even though he had been his teacher’s favourite student. He became drawn to Tai Chi, however his teacher Mr Chen? had no time to give classes, Simon learned the movements imitating his teacher, who had come home from one job, showered then did the 7 cycles to replenish his energy before he hurried away to job #2.
Looking back, Simon’s powerful style was clearly a fusion of the elusive, archetypal taoist and the dour, take no prisoners, martial artist. This certainly explained how many of Simon’s students evolved, myself included. As a rural migrant, working class boy, there was plenty of violence in my past that I needed to confront. Chopping the heads of chickens was just one example from my childhood.
In Australia Simon’s students came and went; his job at the Uni of NSW was running a health food shop, another means of meeting/interacting with countercultural types. Once, when I went looking for a property outside of Sydney, where eventually I could retire, Simon suggested we could split the property, dual occupy. He said I could run the Tai Chi classes, he would grow herbs and do healing sessions. This was in accord with the principles of Tai Chi: it promoted teaching, harmony and healing, three paths a student might take to develop their power.
Now, in terms of the title of this chapter, taking care of the cow is a phrase from the I Ching. It exhorts one to nurture the weaker, gentler beings. It fits neatly with other Taoist sayings, like: know the yang but live in the yin. That is to say: know your strength but approach life generally with a gentler, submissive attitude.
Simon once told me firmly, not to tell others about the experiences I had while practising Tai Chi; I hope this blog is not too contrary to his instruction. Once, I went to stay at my younger brother’s place outside of Brisbane; midmorning, it was sunny but not too warm, I began to work the 7 cycles. Nearby in the garden was tethered a beautiful golden cow, I suddenly became aware at the end of my practice that the cow had gone down onto its knees, its face was on the ground, it was snoring, deeply hypnotised. I need to remind myself that this beautiful placid being had stood and watched my meditation, slowly she became absorbed and hypnotised. What a perfectly miraculous communication across two different species.
At the other end of the garden, my youngest brother Stefan was doing a riotous caricature of my flowing movements. My arms are long and thin, someone once described my flows as the waving of sticks. Life’s like that, ain’t it? Farce and profundity side by side. Incidentally a friend once took photos of one of our Tai Chi sessions, but many of the stills look deceptively angular; Simon would say to NEVER break down the movements, teach and practise them as continuous movement.
Maybe I should just take Anthony’s advice.