Peter Ralston on the spirit and essence of Cheng Hsin T’ui Shou
Peter Ralston, circa 1981
“Cheng Hsin T’ui Shou is inclusive and expansive. It’s open. It’s a great thing, not a mediocre thing. That’s what I want it to be as a practice, and it won’t become that, as a solid reality, until more process occurs in the world. I want it to be something that’s not fixed. A practice that has lots of techniques, but I want the spirit to be heard overall.
“I want it to be heard as something that is pliable, that can and should change, that is adaptable. Many differing techniques can be created and still be consistent with Cheng Hsin t’ui shou. Discerning and responsible people can create new techniques – it doesn’t have to remain a set group of techniques, and I don’t want it to become a set group of techniques. It’s a practice, an art, not a collection of techniques.
“On the other hand, I don’t want people to hear it as fixed or as abstract, as airy fairy and superficial. That’s why I keep going back and forth in my speaking. Like when I talk about it as a ritualized art and then invite people to look into what actually works. I don’t want it to be heard as one or the other.
“I want it to be a place where people can get past being stuck in technique and form, as if it is something fixed and solid. On the other hand, I don’t want them to hold it as something “individual,” their own “style,” making stuff up, or being limited to what the stretch of talent and intellect will allow easy access.
“If we say it’s not just the techniques and it’s pliable and open, so that new techniques can be created, then people will say: “Oh, I get to just make it up.” Like a lot of modern-day new age pursuits: “art therapy,” “go with your impulses,” do what you feel. That’s therapy. Cheng Hsin t’ui shou isn’t therapy; it’s a spiritual, mental, physical practice, a training. It’s all right in therapy to go with your own expression and feelings. It’s all right as an adolescent to figure out something that works on your friends. People want what they’ve already got, already believe. Cheng Hsin is not what people already believe; it is beyond belief, and by its very nature can only be grasped in this moment, so it is always new.
“It would horrify me if Cheng Hsin t’ui shou turned into people “doing their own thing.” I’d prefer that it become a meaningless ritual rather than therapy or simply a reflection of one’s own ego. Then at least some perceptive individual could possibly dig out the true meaning at a later time.
“I want Cheng Hsin to be — by definition — beyond where anybody is. If someone is really good at all the techniques, there is still more to open up to, because Cheng Hsin t’ui shou is beyond the techniques. The techniques are fine, but they’re a ground, an anchor, steps, a car, a telephone, the house. Without some form, life has no location in which to appear; it’s not going to take place. If it doesn’t take place in the telephone or house, it takes place in a tree, a bird, the grass, a worm. It occurs somewhere, and the techniques are a place for Cheng Hsin to take place. The life or spirit of Cheng Hsin needs to take place in the techniques just as life takes place in the telephone or house, otherwise there’s really nothing occurring. It’s just form.
“I want people to understand that Cheng Hsin t’ui shou is getting at fundamental principles in which life occurs. It’s getting at principles in which interaction occurs; it’s developing an understanding and insight into these principles.
“The real goal of Cheng Hsin is to understand deeply, bodily, the principles in which this event is taking place. I’m not just speaking of the t’ui shou event. Life takes place out of the principles in which life takes place. So it doesn’t matter much that life takes place in a t’ui shou class, in the house, in music, or wherever. When life occurs, it is governed by the principles in which “life” takes place. Primarily we’re talking about interaction, or simply “being alive.”
“The purpose of Cheng Hsin t’ui shou is to understand the principles in which life and human interaction take place. As with a spiritual practice, people should understand that, no matter how good anybody is, t’ui shou still stands above. This must always be so, unless we actually “be” the principles in which life and interaction take place. This is the purpose — if not necessarily an attainable goal — for the practice.
“That’s one of the reasons Cheng Hsin has to remain pliable. If it becomes rigid it won’t be that kind of practice. But I don’t want it then to flip over into some stupid mediocre practice, strutting of styles, eclectic garbage, or just learning techniques for self-defense.
“Through learning the techniques as a base, we strive to understand how each technique works, the physics, the psychology, the interaction, the energy, and the timing. We practice to understand it, grasp it, align with it. Eventually we start to understand something about the principles in which interaction takes place and life activity takes place. In getting closer to the principle, we can train hard and contemplate so that we have an insight into the principle. Then our training becomes a very different matter, and that’s when we truly start training.
“It’s not until then that we are really training. Before then, we are attempting to train, or practicing to train. We start this real training by working from the principles, by beginning the work of adapting the entire body-being to these principles. Although this is really difficult, it’s also the good part.
“The work that occurs prior to insight, well, it’s hard too. It’s hard like a barrier, like you can’t see anything. It’s as if you’re banging your head on a wall, trying to find the mechanics, the principle. But once found, it takes over. Most people think that’s the end of the story. It’s not. That’s the new beginning, a big beginning. You begin a new phase of training.
“Once you’ve found the principle, and you have some bodily insights, you get it as a living event, not as a thought about something. You see it, feel it, hear it in operation. Once you get the principle, you have insight into it; yet that doesn’t mean that you “be” it, that you are completely aligned to it. It doesn’t mean that the forces of your thinking, your emotion, your bodily impulse, your tendency, your experience and perception are aligned with the principle in which they themselves occur.
“Once you get the principle, then the work begins in transforming all of the habits, impulses, thinking and emotions to align with the principle, and that’s where the real training is. And while you’re doing that, you’re also training to understand more fully, to grasp the principle at a much deeper level.
“Once you have insight into the principle, you keep seeking it out in your actions, your emotions, the techniques, freeplay. When you know it’s there, you can work to train it, bring it out, align to it, rather than have it just become a philosophy.
“That’s what happens to most practices. Something is understood about the principle of it, the spirit of the art, and somebody says something that sounds pretty or moral, and then it becomes pretty and moral. Often the person who says it doesn’t fully grasp what’s occurred, they say it as a place to stand on, and it comes out moral and philosophical. Then the art becomes something that is “accompanied by a philosophy” rather than “lived out of a principle.”
“People are used to listening in this way. They’ve become accustomed and trained to hear everything said about an art as merely “accompanying philosophy,” or as a technical description that requires no deep consideration.
“Then what happens? Good teachers are reduced to speaking in a cryptic manner so that they can say what they want to say. They have to keep it difficult to understand, in order to draw people to move towards something. And then of course, what they attempted to communicate eventually turns into some sort of philosophy or belief system for people.
“Beyond grasping these principles, Cheng Hsin t’ui shou is a great training ground for us to study ourselves. Emotions, ways of movement, patterns of thinking, all have to show up. How you are with sight, spatial geometry, physics, feeling impulse, body movement, people, aggression, emotion, forces, failure, winning, your psychology, how you take things, think things – all of that will be in the t’ui shou. It has to be there, because all of that IS there. So what better place to study how you are? To recognize how your own psychology is designed? To work on seeing where your psychology, your emotion, your way of seeing things, your whole experience, is locked or stuck, and how it came to be that way.
“Cheng Hsin t’ui shou gives us a goal – effortless power and appropriate interaction — out of which we find many goals: whole and appropriate activity throughout a blend, for example; techniques that are effortless; smooth interaction in freeplay that is effective and balanced; a body-being that is centered, grounded, and relaxed, with a life force that is sensitive, powerful, responsive, and connected.
“Being “in touch” that’s the hard part — to be in touch with forces, with another, with motion that’s ever-changing. We can’t come from inflicting a standard set of techniques. We have to be in touch with the principles that are governing the action, the motion, our thinking, the opponent, ourselves, the entire interaction. It’s an alive event!
“An alive event can never be held. An alive event cannot be held, it cannot be trapped. An alive event is always dying. In every moment it’s falling away. You can’t trap it, can’t hold it in a technique, inflict something on it. You can try, but that’s not an in-touchness; it’s not being attuned to the alive event as it is occurring. Cheng Hsin t’ui shou is a training in an alive event because the goal is mastery of effortless interaction.
“When we fail, this practice reveals our position to things. Our emotions will show up when it doesn’t work for us, as will our way of holding things. We get to see these things in our reactions to failure. If nothing else, we can learn by default. If our attempt at something doesn’t work, something must be amiss in our efforts. I may think I’m doing it right, that I’m doing all I can with my thinking, my feeling, my body. I think I understand it, but it doesn’t work and it’s not satisfying, not effortless, so indeed whatever I’m doing can’t be what’s called for. Something else has to appear. Failure gives us the opportunity to discover and transform. That’s training.
“Training leads us to understand the principle. In the training, the only way we can truly solve the problems or reach the goal is to understand the principle; and in understanding the principle, the contrast shows to us our psychology, our impulse, our habits, all the stuff that doesn’t work. And this reveals what we need to overcome or train.
“There’s a danger here, however. Somebody could hear what I just said as a therapy. If it starts to fall into a therapy, it won’t work. The art has to stand by itself, outside of therapy. That’s why it’s a “spiritual” practice, not a therapy. You won’t get at a principle out of a therapy, you’ll just get better. Therapy is to heal you, and will always digress into a certain process, operating out of a particular paradigm. Out of that paradigm, a process will proceed in which you may or may not get better, but you will not understand the paradigm’s principle. That’s fine, but not what this practice is about.
“Cheng Hsin t’ui shou must remain an art — a functional art. Being an effective functional art needs to be its banner, the objective. The practice and contemplation has to remain true to this objective, otherwise it degrades into therapy or into a martial art that is nothing but a practice of ritual, and a mere belief system. The goal must be to deal with the forces as they are in the raw, and it also must remain beyond being human. Cheng Hsin t’ui shou must continue to be an ontological endeavor.
“Another difficulty here: this art has to remain an effective practice, while at the same time, continuing to be a practice beyond itself. You have to be a warrior with it, really trying to learn an art of flipping and throwing people. One that you can take into “battle.”
“You’ve got to remain grounded like that, remain real, otherwise you’ll deceive yourself. You’ll come up with all sorts of philosophy and theories and none of it will actually be in your own body, your own actions, your thinking and feeling. It has to be real, otherwise you will deceive yourself. However, this “reality” must also go beyond your self. You’re not learning the art as a self-defense, but you have to have real interaction, otherwise it won’t be a real practice.
“Once you’ve mastered the art — when it’s real or grounded, and you understand the principles — then an even harder demand arises: you must expand your study beyond the art. This work should not be trapped in the art; it must move into the rest of your life.
“We commonly hold that life is outside of the practice. Workshops, for example, are held as not “real life.” This may come out of the position that we have no intention of doing “real life” like a training. Even so, our consideration must come to the whole event of being alive.
“The spirit and bigness of Cheng Hsin t’ui shou must be beyond us. Not unattainable, not inaccessible, but beyond us. Not like an ancient technique that lives in some other time. Not like a fact that lives somewhere else, beyond reach like inaccessible knowledge. Not like it’s an encyclopedia and we can’t read that much. Not beyond us like physics and we just can’t understand it. Not like it’s there but it’s beyond us because it would take too much work to get at it. It’s like “this here” but beyond our consciousness of this here.
“It has to remain in this very moment, in this very insight. Beyond us right now, like we’re in it and it’s beyond us at the same time. Like it’s here, this is it, right here. This is my own event right here, and yet its scope is beyond me as an individual. So the practice is always reaching beyond where we’re at as individuals.
“What is this thing that grips me when I start talking about it? What is that? Something grips me, takes over my body; I become a different person. Because I’m not just this process. There lies the greatness. It’s something not speakable. I can’t say anything about it. It’s now, quiet, magnificent, nothing, love, God. I want the spirit of Cheng Hsin t’ui shou to lead to that.
“I’m trying to say something not just true, but to bridge the gap — for myself and others — so this is not heard as just a fantasy, a belief, or simply inspiration. We get inspired, but it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t reach deep enough to transform wood into gold. I want Cheng Hsin t’ui shou to be a transfiguring and transforming practice.”