Echoes of Emptiness (虚之響)
by Jacob Newell (Gu Shen Yu Daoshi)
Gongfu (功夫) is a Chinese term which refers to special skill acquired by long, hard practice. While often equated with martial art, it actually applies equally to any kind of skill, such as excelling in competitive sports, creating beautiful works of art, or delivering eloquent speech. Understanding the process of developing gongfu is important if we want to achieve excellence in our chosen field of practice – if we want our art to be a free expression of our inner nature.
The process of developing gongfu involves three essential ingredients: natural capacity, proper direction, and diligent practice. To develop gongfu, we need some degree of each; however a deficiency of one can sometimes be overcome by an abundance of another. Since I am a Taijiquan practitioner, I’ll use the process of developing Taiji gongfu as an example.
Natural capacity – We each have our own natural capacity for different arts. Maybe we have an ear for music but cannot swing a baseball bat. When selecting a practice, we want to consider where our capacities are directing us. On one hand, we may want to challenge ourselves by pursuing something that doesn’t come naturally; on the other it may be senseless to waste our time pursuing an art that is ill-suited to our nature.
If we are undertaking the practice of Taijiquan, our natural capacity is going to have a very strong influence on our ability to learn and effectively practice the art. We can’t do anything about our natural capacity – it is inborn into our genetics and astrology and may change with age. It is important for us to have a sense of our capacity and to practice a suitable system of cultivation.
Proper direction – Some people may have such a high natural capacity for particular arts that they need little to no direction or practice to achieve excellence. Even the most gifted, however, benefit from a coach or teacher who can perceive our capacity and show us where we are weak, where we are strong, and help us to refine our skills. Even if we are pursuing an art without a teacher, the issue of direction is still there, but we are providing it ourselves. This of course would be ill-advised if we’re undertaking a subtle art like Taijiquan.
In learning Taijiquan, it is very important for us to find an appropriate teacher. This doesn’t necessarily mean the teacher with the most students, trophies, or trips to China. The right teacher needs to have discovered their own natural capacity, to have had the proper direction themselves, and to have diligently practiced until their own gongfu ripened into a free expression of their inner nature – and they need to be someone who we resonate with on some level, someone we believe in. Our teachers leave a lasting imprint on our practice, so we are well-advised not to choose them lightly.
Diligent practice – Unless we are a true prodigy, and maybe not even then, regardless of how good our instruction is, we’re not going to develop any meaningful gongfu unless we practice diligently over a long period of time. This is literally the “gong” in gongfu. If we have a low natural capacity but good direction, then diligent practice may lead us to higher levels than a prodigy who neglects hard practice.
In the context of Taijiquan, this traditionally means that we must practice every day. Like Laozi says, “In learning, daily gain” (Dao De Jing Chapter 48). Many people who attend Taiji classes don’t practice on their own. That’s fine, I suppose, but without practicing regularly we’re just not going to get results. The Chinese have a saying: “If you want to taste sweet, you need to eat bitter.” The irony in Taijiquan is that our version of eating bitter is relaxing into the postures, continuously finding comfort, proper alignment, and smooth flow of energy. The Taiji form is actually very, very easy. The difficulty and bitterness is only in confronting our habits as we transition to a Taiji-way of composing ourselves. Like Laozi says: “Much ease requires much difficulty” (Dao De Jing Chapter 63).
People often get excited about the prospect of developing some kind of gongfu skill. I think this stems from our desire to stand out and feel special. Over the years I have realized that special skills may boost our confidence and reputation but they don’t necessarily bring about inner peace. Gongfu alone cannot establish or sustain contentment. What is fueling our drive to develop gongfu? If it is the desire to feel special then our gongfu may actually just inflate our ego and create a greater obstacle to overcome down the road.
In my view, developing gongfu is less about becoming special and more about finding a way to express ourselves so as to resolve our karma and die content. Personally, I needed to develop a certain level of Taiji gongfu before I experienced much contentment in my practice. But as I advanced and observed others more advanced than myself, I realized that whatever our level, there is always an edge, always room for improvement, so if we’re basing our inner peace on achieving perfection, we may be setting ourselves up for continuous discontent. At some point one of my teachers dislodged the self-reference from my Taiji practice; at that point I started to experience greater beauty in the art and less pride as “my” Taiji gongfu continued to develop. I conclude that if we can drop the self-reference from our practice, then it can become a flawless expression of nature itself – true beauty, true virtue… true gongfu.
Jacob Newell (Gu Shen Yu Daoshi) teaches Taijiquan in Sonoma County, California through Old Oak Taiji School. His instruction emphasizes Laozi’s approach to meditation and qi-cultivation: wuwei-ziran. Jacob has been practicing Taijiquan and related arts since the early 1990’s and is an ordained Daoist priest. His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website, www.oldoakdao.org.