Jou Tsung Hwa's Teachings
As Grandmaster Jou himself freely admitted, it wasn’t until the last decade of his life, especially in the last few years, that he began to make real progress in taiji. Ever the scholar, he took up the classics as his primary source of learning. In fact, he would often say that his teacher was Zhang San Feng, a reference to the legendary founder of taiji. In addition to the classics, Grandmaster Jou spent considerable time in studying any ancient text, originals or reproductions, written about taiji, qigong, meditation or Daoist energy practices. He revived forgotten systems of practice and borrowed exercises from other martial disciplines, vesting them with internal attributes until they became just one more internal arts exercise. He developed new and unique practice systems, all intended to lead to further progress in taiji. Many of these systems he openly shared with all his students. Some of the more advanced practices he reserved, not as an act of secrecy but simply because they required a minimum level of progress that few attained. Even then he freely shared a vast scope of knowledge and gave anyone who understood them, the tools to master the art of taiji.
His theories were simple though sometimes controversial. The practice of taiji should follow the evolution of the art. Chen Form(s) should always be studied first, its principles understood and mastered. Only then should the Yang Form be studied, for only by mastering Chen could Yang be truly understood. The final stage of evolution was expressed in the Wu/Hao Form, which internalized the principles to its subtlest nuances. Beyond that was pure mind method. These, the “four classic forms,” as he considered them, comprised the heart of his taiji study and teachings. At the same time he made no secret of how he felt about the forms outside of these four. The Wujianquan Form was a less advanced derivative of the Yang Form. The Sun Form was a redundant hodgepodge of the three internal arts. Weapons forms were often learned too early in a student's taiji education -- a waste of time that could be better spent in practice and understanding of the principles. All other variants were simply a distraction from the originals.
Grandmaster Jou approached the study and teaching of taiji holistically, that is, he taught all its aspects: as a martial art, as a spiritual practice, as a philosophy, etc. He disapproved of those who taught the art in a fragmented fashion. Taught properly, he believed that all benefits became an effective byproduct of diligent taiji practice. Taught in fragmented fashion the benefits are equally fragmented. He understood that not everyone was the same. As such he taught people to begin their study by tailoring their practice to their body’s limits. He encouraged everyone, however, to extend those limits to their utmost. Lastly, it saddened him that so many teachers neglected to teach (and often didn't even know) the taiji principles and Daoist energy practices which comprise the heart of taiji.
As Grandmaster Jou’s understanding evolved so did his teachings. He had no illusions about his own abilities and never let ego get in the way of progress. For example, for years he taught his students to perform prebirth, or reverse, breathing during the practice of the form. However, he had also spent much time pondering a phrase which had cropped up in a number of ancient texts relating to qigong. The phrase was “wuxi zhixi,” roughly translated, “breathing without breathing.” Through much meditation and experimentation, Grandmaster Jou came to understand the phrase and, after years of teaching breathing the old way, he took up the practice of “breathing without breathing,” passing the knowledge on to his students (for more information see The Dao of Taijiquan).
As Grandmaster Jou’s understanding of taiji continued to progress he focused more and more on the “simpler is better” approach. He continued to refuse teaching weapons forms and warned his students that if they were to make any serious progress, they had to give up everything they’d learned and go back to the basics, focusing on the pure principles of taijiquan. He focused heavily on basic exercise drills, study of the classics, and the Chen Form. Many of his students abandoned him during this period, instead choosing to pursue easier avenues with quicker gratification. Still Grandmaster Jou would not relent. The dongjing, the “knowing energy” was upon him. He knew he was right and persevered. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was a purist and refused to mix any other martial arts techniques into his practice of taiji. This, he claimed, was what led to his breakthroughs in the Art.
For example, during Grandmaster Jou’s many travels he observed that none of today’s taiji masters are able to effectively spar with taiji alone. In fact, even those who said they could were not actually using pure taiji principles but rather mixing techniques from other arts, such as gongfu, to bolster their sparring. From this observation he believed that he had discovered an almost universal mistake made by contemporaries and students alike. This discovery, in turn, led to one his most controversial breakthroughs. The purpose of practicing the forms, he realized, wasn’t for fighting but rather to be used as a template to become one with the taiji principles. In fact, he eventually became convinced that use of form application would forever lock a practitioner into a level from which no progress would ever be made. This theory did not sit well with people who’d spent their whole lives practicing and teaching application. Yet proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
When sparring, Grandmaster Jou became a showcase for the unpredictable. Attack him and he was behind you. Grab him and he was no longer in your grasp. Push hands became “push air” then suddenly back to push hands and you’d lost. Chin na was useless against him. Hard styles couldn’t compensate for his unpredictable moves. As one former sparring partner put it, “When you sparred with 'Grandmaster' Jou you typically ended up ‘upside down against a pole without remembering how you got there.’” Not for a moment did he “pollute” his taiji with any other martial art. Years of infusing taiji movement into his very being paid dividends -- for when this 81 year old man sparred, he did so with taiji principles alone and could not be beaten.
The death of Grandmaster Jou was especially difficult for those who studied beneath him, for they knew better than any what the world had truly lost. Yet perhaps before leaving us, Grandmaster Jou had already given us the secret to taiji mastery, which, like so many secrets, remains in plain sight. “Go back to the basics and practice.” With that simple fact we come to realize that understanding is the easy part. It’s the mastery that takes a lifetime.
The original article can be found at the Jou Tsung Hwa Memorial Site