"It was twenty years ago today..."
Actually, it will be forty years ago this July 31st that I met Master T.T. Liang and began my Tai-Chi odyssey. I am planning on having a quiet celebration in Duluth and would like to share with you the story of how I met Master Liang and my current and future plans for Tai-Chi at the Academy.
During the winter of 1977, I was studying Kenpo Karate, Jiu-Jitsu, and Wu-Cho Kung-Fu from Sensei John Duncan in Lynn, Massachusetts. I was scheduled to take my black belt test and during a training session, kicking with ankle weights on, I injured my knee. I was sidelined for a few weeks, and each time I tried to get back into training, I would re-injure myself. I thought my martial arts studies were over. It was then that I heard that Tai-Chi, a gentle martial art, could heal my knee.
Sensei John Duncan
I went to a school called the Hwa Yu Tai Chi Institute. The master there was John Chung-li and I learned from his student. I'll call Mister H. What I didn't know was that I was not learning Tai-Chi, I was learning Liu Ho Pa Fa. Two things happened during the few months I studied there. One, my knee started to heal and become strong again. Two, I heard about a Tai-Chi teacher, Master T.T. Liang, who was teaching my Hwa Yu teacher.
I had read about T.T. Liang in the chapter on Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing in Robert W. Smith's book, Chinese Boxing, Masters and Methods. When I was looking for Tai-Chi, and T.T. Liang, I couldn't find him. Liang didn't openly advertise his classes at that time, and I ended up at the Hwa Yu Institute. At one point, my teacher, Mister H, lent me a thin, red book, Liang's first edition of his seminal work, Tai-Chi Chuan for Health and Self-Defense, published by Redwing Books in Boston.
Master T.T. Liang
There were a few photos, classics, and stories of the Yang's Family. I was hooked! I asked about Liang, but Mister H said Liang didn't do Tai-Chi correctly. He practiced to music and hung tassles on his weapons. I didn't pursue it further and continued my studies there. Then, one day Mister H said that summer was coming and that he needed three months of tuition in advance to cover the rent. Of course I paid, and the next week I went to class and the door was locked. I waited for a long time, then went home. I went to class again and the door was locked, and Mister H did not answer his phone. I guess I was done.
I floundered for a few months,tried to go back to Karate, but I was fascinated with internal martial arts, reading everything I could get my hands on, and wanting to pursue them. Then one day I was walking in downtown Boston with my friend. We were walking from the Boston Common on Boylston street to Copley Square. I noticed a man approaching us and as he walked by I recognized him. It was T.T. Liang! We made eye contact and I wanted to say something but I just froze. Half a block later I said to my friend,"that was that Tai-Chi master."
After hanging out for few hours around Copley Square,and I headed back on Boylston street to the subway. I'll never forget this. As we passed by a closed Pier One Imports store-front, there was T.T. Liang, standing there looking in the window! I wasn't going to miss this opportunity so I stopped and said "hey, are you that Tai-Chi teacher T.T. Liang?" He turned and said "what do you want?" I said I wanted to study with him. He said to come back next Saturday at 2:00 and watch class. He gave me the address and then left without a good bye or anything. I didn't know it at that time, but he was actually going to teach class and could have said to come along with him. I know now that he was thinking I was some street punk and would never show up. Boy was he wrong, at least about the showing up part.
That week I was on edge, nervous, excited, and giddy and I couldn't wait for Saturday. In true karate fashion, I showed up at 1:30 on the dot and sat bolt upright on a chair at Liang's school which was above an ice cream shop on Boylston street. He just looked at me and said "oh, you come." I said, "yes I'm here to watch class." He said "OK you sit there," and that was the last thing he said to me for almost 3 hours! Gradually people came in and I got to see Master Liang teach a solo form class, weapons, two person forms, and ending with an advanced class. They were doing pushing hands against mattress' hung on the wall. I saw Liang pushing people effortlessly into the mattress'. Some were almost twice his size. I also saw his students laugh and become frustrated at not being able to push this little Chinese gentleman into the mattress.
Gradually all the students left except one who was tidying up, and he looked over and saw me still sitting there. I heard him tell Liang that there was still a person waiting to talk to him. The student called me over and Liang spoke to me from behind the newspaper he was reading. He said "what do you want?" I said "would you sign my book and can I study with you?" He said "you want to become Yang Lu-chan. Don't worry about being good or becoming famous, just practice." He signed my book and said I could come back next week and join the beginner's class. I was head over heels in love!
Next week when I promptly arrived 45 minutes before my class, I knocked on the door and Master Liang answered. He was wearing a tank top tee shirt, boxer shorts, socks and slippers. All he said was," too early, comeback in half an hour." I saw one of the advanced students on my way out and he told me that the latest addition of Master Liang's book was in the bookstores. I quickly when out and bought one. I sat on the stairs leading up to Liang's school and read until I heard the door open. And then I had my first Tai-Chi class.
I had the great fortune of being exposed to so many wonderful people, histories, experiences, and insights. Too many to recall here but I would like to give you a few examples from my formal studies with Master T.T. Liang.
At first, I only studied with Master Liang's senior students, and in group classes. There were times when either the seniors couldn't teach the class or they were overwhelmed with how many people were in class. It was then I got a chance to study with the Master himself. He only taught advanced group classes and private classes, both of which I was not eligible for.
After I completed the solo form and was beginning to study pushing-hands, my pushing-hands partner Dinah, called me and told me that she had gotten into a private class of six people and that Master Liang was capping it at eight. She didn't even ask if I wanted to join. She told me to call him immediately, which I did, and that began my private study.
That group was composed of six black belts, my partner Dinah who was an artist and acupuncturist, and myself. The black belts were just beginning the solo form so I was able to relearn the whole solo form in great detail from Master Liang without the worry or anxiety of finishing the sequence. Not only did I relearn the solo form sequence with that group, I also learned one side of the San-Shou, and the sword form.
At some point, the black belts left and Dinah and I continued to learn almost the whole system from Master Liang. At different times, we let other classmates come in, and eventually even Dinah left. But I never saw stopped going to that 6:00 Friday night private class. Sometimes we practiced for 45 minutes and then Master Liang would call for tea. As I put the kettle on and got out the teabags, Master Liang would get out notes or books and start telling stories about the histories, teachings, and techniques from the past masters. After half an hour, we would get back to work and Master Liang would say, "Oh, I've wasted your time, we need to do another hour!" There were many Friday's that my 1 hour private class stretched to over 3 hours. I was not complaining!
I also studied privately with Master Liang in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and stayed for a whole week of private classes in Tampa, Florida. I even spent a long weekend in Los Angeles studying privately with Master Liang and filling pages in my notebook on forms, corrections, principals, and my experiences.
In 1979, I was asked to travel to upstate New York and be Master Liang's assistant for one week at the Omega Institute. This was actually the first paid vacation I had after graduating from high school and spending a week with Master Liang was beyond belief. We were scheduled to do a five day, followed by a two day, seminar on Tai-Chi and the solo form.
I picked up Master Liang at his apartment and we drove from Boston towards Albany. The route we took was scenic and the drive was most pleasant. At that one point Master Liang pulled out a bottle of Tawny Port wine from his China Airlines bag and took a big long drink. I was shocked. I had heard the story many times of Master Liang's alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, and his remarkable recovery through Tai-Chi. Now I saw him drinking again. I was crushed.
At Omega Institute I helped Master Liang teach 6 hours a day. I also ate three meals a day with him and spent the early evening chatting with him until he was ready to go bed. It was at Omega that I met my senior classmate, the editor of Master Liang's book, and a teacher in his own right, Paul Gallagher. Paul was teaching a week long seminar of his own on Taoist practices.
Master Paul would come by and get me after Master Liang retired for the night. Paul and I would talk the whole night discussing martial arts, Taoism, and all things Chinese. He shared what it was like to learn from Master Liang in the early days. ( Paul, along with Alice Crooks and Emil Beaulieu, were Master Liang's first three students in Boston in the early 70's.) I gave him all the updates from my classes. We also had another teacher in common, Master B.P. Chan from New York. Paul shared with me many of Chan's teachings.
That week was filled with Tai-Chi and so much more. I averaged about 4 hours of sleep and couldn't have been any more energized, happy, or content. Except for the food. It was totally vegetarian and for a 19 year old, I was seriously into meat. At the end of the week as we packed up, Master Liang informed me that he needed to refill his Tawny Port bottle. I said there wasn't a liquor store around for miles but we could try to find one. He said," not wine, tea." He had been drinking tea out of that bottle!
When I first learned from Master T.T. Liang, he wouldn't allow me to do pushing hands right away because of my weak lungs due to a childhood of asthma, allergies, and pneumonia. I spent a lot of time learning forms and studying theory until Liang said I was healthy enough to do partner work.
At one demonstration I was asked to assist Master Liang. In the middle of the demonstration Master Liang said to the audience" No one can push my student over. Does anybody want to try"? Immediately a very athletic person jumped out and said that they'd like to try to push me over. Master Liang said that my root would be so strong this person could not move me. I would be rooted like an oak tree. This person walked right up to me, and pushed me over with no problem. He pushed again, I was pushed back again. He pushed a third time, and I was pushed as easily as a small baby. Master Liang scowled at me and then stood in my place and said" come on". As hard as that man tried to push, he couldn't move Master Liang. When that man cleverly changed the angle, Master Liang turned his waist to neutralize and the man stumbled. Driving home, I turned to Master Liang to apologize, but he spoke first saying, "you made me lose face today." It was one of the most shameful times of my life.
I knew a lot about pushing hands in theory, and in conversation, but when the time came to put it to practical use I fell far short .My pushing-hands was a “bounced check.” From that time on, I practiced hard, concentrating on pushing hands and sensitivity in my private classes with Master Liang. I suffered many losses and defeats and was pushed around quite easily, but I learned.
Master Liang always said "small loss-small gain, big loss-big gain". I started to pay attention and began to learn the art of pushing hands. Many times Master Liang would remind me of my defeat which I know now was to intimidate me, to humble me, and fight against my pride and ego. I gradually improved and even got to the point where Master Liang would have me spar with my classmates during our private classes. One day, however, when we were practicing pushing hands he asked me" Remember that man that pushed you so easily?” I said "yes " with a red face. Master Liang said," I don't think he can push you now. You are quite strong, and have learned a lot, but you still have a long way to go."
One of the highlights of my pushing hands experience was at another demonstration, which was attended by most of my senior classmates. Master Liang called for a partner to come out and demonstrate the pushing hands. After two of my senior classmates demonstrated with him, Master Liang dismissed them quickly, then called out to the audience," Where is Ray? He is my student. I will demonstrate with him". After that time, I became his main demonstration partner.
One time I was practicing pushing hands and I was in a bad position. My partner pushed, and I just turned a little and issued. He easily went flying ten feet away. The look of shock on his face told me he was as surprised as I was. My next class I related to Master Liang what had happened using the word “effortless” to describe my push. Master Liang said’ “I’ve been waiting to hear this from you”.
I also learned Tai-Chi from other teachers as well:
Master Paul Gallagher-Old Yang Style
Dr. Leung Kay-chi- Old Yang Style and Chen Style
Master William C.C. Chen- Yang Style
Dr. Wen Zee-Wu Style
Grandmaster Wai-lun Choi-Yang Style (Choi method)
To mark my 40th year, I am doing two things. One, I am having a relaxed celebration and retreat up north around Duluth. Here is the schedule:
730-900AM Practice on Park Point ( meet at the beach house grounds)
Breakfast at Sarah's Table
Drive/Carpool North to Hike Carleton Peak
730-900 Practice at Enger Tower
Breakfast at Duluth Grill
Hike Lester Creek and Chester Bowl in DuluthLunch TBA
The second thing I am doing is making the art of Tai-Chi and the system more accessible. I am shortening the solo form sequence, deleting some of the practices and requirements, and embracing the Choi Method. I will fill you in with a blog completely devoted to the changes and updates to the system and the academy curriculum.
Looking back on 40 years, I can say that Tai-Chi not only saved my life, it changed my life for the very best. You who read this are part of my amazing journey in this time-less art of relaxed power and awareness. Thank you.