Some people want to learn “secrets”, and look for secrets, but at the same time, they don’t want to put in the time and effort to develop any kind of skill. They are eager to “understand” secrets in a pure intellectual manner and would love to dissect them like how a curious spectator of a magic show tries to reveal the magicians and understand their technical devices. They want to “know” but mostly, they have very little wish to put in the work to develop any kind of impressive skill.
But first they must find the “secrets” in order to dissect them. Most people don’t know where to search and what to look for. Ironically, those who hunt for secrets are those who are most easy to cheat and pull money from. Some people are even willing to spend a lot of money to learn about “secrets” without having to practice anything at all. I would suspect that some of them are in for a disappointment, unless they buy it from a well known “Master” and can use that masters name to boast about his secret knowledge and use it to earn even more money.
But what secrets are there in Tai Chi Chuan? What is “Indoor practice” and what does a “disciple” learn that is different from a common student? Personally, I don’t really approve of “secrets”. But of course, if there are any secrets that I don’t know about, then I don’t know about them. Here I will not reveal anything that could be appreciated as a secret, but instead, I will try to summarise my own thoughts about secrecy in Tai Chi, and try to explain to you why I believe it’s wrong.
What is Indoor Practice in Tai Chi Chuan?
An indoor student is not the same as a disciple. Some teachers consider only their disciples as indoor students, so for them, it is about the same thing. Some people teach any advanced student advanced material or indoor practice. So an indoor student is not automatically a disciple. So what is indoor practice?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. People who earn a living on their teaching and take disciples often like the concept of indoor practice. Here, it means that some type of material is only taught to a few chosen students. And who doesn’t want to be the chosen one?
If I chose to be a student of one of those very famous teachers who had built a big organisation and only show themselves in public in shiny silk pyjama, I might find the competition fun in order to chase a close position to the teacher, so I could stand close behind him in the next school photo with one hundred students crammed into the picture.
However, many traditional teachers who don’t care about if they can swim or sleep in piles of dollar bills, say that that “indoor” doesn’t mean any secrets at all. Are you feeling disappointed yet? I like how Sun Jianyun explained “indoor” practice. She is the daughter of Sun Lutang, the creator of Sun Style Tai Chi which is regarded as one of the big five Tai Chi styles.
Mrs Sun was very well known for her generosity. I have met a few people who studied for her. According to them, she never asked for anything and taught anyone who wanted. Her students often had to force gifts and things she needed on her, because she had an old Chinese type of relationship to her students and to her art.
What she said is that there are no secrets and that there is no practice that is hold for chosen students only. For her “inside the door” just meant students that stays for longer periods. Because if a person come and goes, you can only teach them rudimentary things. You need to stay with a teacher for a longer time and build a foundation of your art, otherwise you could not benefit from any type of more advanced teaching.
What is a Disciple in Tai Chi Chuan?
Being a disciple means that you are officially made a disciple. Far from every teacher believe in this type of endorsement. Often, there is a so called baishi ceremony which includes an official dinner where the teacher gathers together with his senior students and disciples. It’s often a big ceremony with a lots of people and lots of food. You, and maybe others who will become disciples at the same time, are the ones who will pay for the festivities.
The new relationship is formally written down and you’ll have this as a proof that you are a disciple. Nowadays, a disciple means that you have an obligation to your teachers. You have the obligation to teach what the teacher teaches and carry the lineage forward. You will also have earned your right to use the teacher’s name in your own school and to officially teach his branch of the art.
If you are a disciple to a highly famous teacher, you should not worry if the baishi ceremony costs a small fortune, because in return, there might be a lot of money for the greedy to make. To be a disciple sounds very good and special for the outsider, as you have become one of the chosen ones.
However, despite how special you might look in other people’s eyes, being a disciple does not always mean that you will learn any special knowledge, or anything considered “indoor” material. This really depends on what teacher you have. Reading an interview with Chen Zhenglei, one of the Chen village masters, I can see that he has at least two hundred close students all over the world. So despite not being able to continuously studying with a teacher, and sharing exactly the same knowledge with hundreds of other people all over the world, you can still be a “disciple”. This kind of relationship doesn’t seem very special, or what?
Why secrets protect themselves
I like the saying “secrets protect themselves”. It is a very similar to the christian expression “he who have ears to hear with and eyes to see” or “He who has ears, let him hear.” Those expressions are very true when it comes to more advanced Tai chi methods and teaching.
The reason for this is that you really need to have achieved a certain level and growth before you can understand things. Small children usually don’t understand irony or when adults are fooling them before they have reached a certain intellectual growth. And you need to train a very long time before you can achieve things as playing the violin effortlessly or do rope walking.
Take a look at different videos of older and maybe newer “masters” scattered all over the internet and easily found on YouTube and Facebook. You can see masters throw around with people, handling them just as easy and effortless as leaves in a storm. But what is going on? And can you see what is genuine skills or not?
A person who hasn’t learned the mechanics behind those methods shown obviously can not understand what is going on. Compare with watching a magic show. You always know that what you see is trickery, but mostly you don’t really know exact what mechanics lie behind those tricks. However, if you have studied professional illusionism you would easily see what is going on and what they do.
For the same reasons there is no need to worry about people stealing your stuff. If it’s truly genuine skills of higher level, you can show and speak about them how much you want. You can show things in detail and people would still not be able to reproduce what you can do. And soon, they will forget exactly what you have shown. The knowledge and the skills need to have become the property of the body, first then the “secrets” can reveal themselves.
This is why Master T.T. Liang named his book “Steal My Art.” He was teasing the reader, saying “go ahead, try to steal my art if you can”. Because he knew that only the worthy of his art would be able to catch it.
My teacher said: “Go and live in a tree if you want to keep your secrets to yourself.”
I myself wouldn’t claim that I know any secrets. However, I’ve had the great opportunity and privilege to study for a Chinese teacher who was born in a Martial Arts family. His family practiced mostly internal arts, focusing on both old “internal” Shaolin traditions and what could be called “Neijia” or “Tai Chi”.
Who he is or exactly what he taught is not important for this topic. But he had some real old knowledge and more skill than anyone I’ve met. His art was not magic, and he didn’t boast about his “qi”. But instead, his method was subtle and his movements precise.
What I liked with him (which ironically was completely opposite to the attitude of the person who invited him to teach us) was his generous and sensible approach, and attitude, towards “secrets”. He really didn’t believe in secrets and he would often show his dislike towards secrecy and mystification. He would often give examples of “Qigong” masters and their performance acts, and explain what they did so to reveal their “trickery”.
People who gave an illusion of knowing secrets, but wanted to keep it for themselves, was what he disliked most of all. Once, he said that if you don’t want to share your knowledge and keep it for yourself, you better move away to live alone, maybe on a mountain or in a tree. He himself wanted to be open with everything he had and he wanted his students to do the same.
He explained that the skills and knowledge there are to be found in the Chinese Martial arts have developed for a very long time, from generation to generation. Because of this, no one can be said to have the right to “own” the knowledge more than anyone else. No one owns this knowledge. Instead, he thought that it belongs to mankind, to all of humanity. And therefore it should all be openly shared.
And as he was looking back, he thought that secrecy had hurt further development of skills and knowledge more than it had helped. He recited a Chinese saying that every new generation must be better than the older one. He explained that traditional Chinese teachers only want their students to become better than they are. And they look upon their students as they have a duty to try to become even better.
This is the only way there will be a progress, every old generation need to help the younger generation to become even better. One time, when he spoke about these things, he showed sadness. He was annoyed and felt embarrassed because he thought that he had not been able to reach the level of his own teacher, thus he felt as he had let his teacher down.
Why sharing and generosity is important for your own personal growth
For your own sake, you should really share your “secrets” and advanced knowledge. This is the correct way to be selfish, because you will always gain from it yourself. It’s ok if you only want to share to a few, because if it’s genuine and advanced knowledge that you have learned, then you will probably have a hard time to find people who are committed to the art and willing to spend enough time to achieve the needed goals. But it’s very important that you teach and share what you have learned.
Why? The reason is simple. Every kind of practical knowledge needs to be tested and developed. If you only “know” things intellectually or have learned things, but don’t practice it, how can you keep on developing? Or even – how can you keep your skill?
But also, how do you even know that you have understood everything correctly if you don’t test you knowledge in some way? The best way to better understand what you yourself understand, is always by explaining, showing and teaching others.