Encounters with Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing (2003)

This was written for inclusion in a book on the life and work of Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing. My Brief Encounters with Cheng Man-Ch’ing and how his Influence and that of his T’ai Chi Ch’uan Affected my Life.

T'ai Chi Ch'uanI first met Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Chinatown, New York in 1968. Maggie Newman brought me to see him for medicine. I had wanted to meet Professor and study t’ai chi ch’uan three years previously, but the entry was not there for me at that time and soon I left the country to live and study in Japan. Upon my return after three years of studying Japanese classical dance and then sitting in a Zen Buddhist Monastery my knees were in very bad shape. I had initially damaged them while dancing when I was 14 years old and in Japan I had been told I needed three different surgeries (on my two knees??!!!)

I had met Maggie in Japanese Classical Dance class in New York before I left for Japan, and when I returned and met her at class again she agreed to bring me to see Professor Cheng.

His studio was on the second floor and my knees were so painful I remember dragging myself up the stairs with my hands pulling one over the other on the banister. Generally I had to wait to see Professor until the end of the evening when he was finished teaching the sword classes. I was very happy to do so. I often went early so I could just watch him. I especially enjoyed his sense of humor. Even though he did not speak english he would joke and play around with the students

At the beginning Ed Young was the interpreter for me. Professor asked what my complaint was and I told him about my knees. He took a beautiful silk cushion out of a little case and motioned for me to put my wrist on it. As Professor put his fingers lightly on my wrist and closed his eyes I had a most extraordinary experience. The touch that I felt on my wrist from Professor’s fingertips was the lightest touch I had ever experienced…. and at the same time it was the deepest. I could feel him touching me all the way to the depths of my being. I could only describe the quality of the contact as such a complete and pure touch of an infant’s hand on its mother’s breast as it rests completely, nursing, safely, its whole, complete essence in its mother’s arms. It was sublime.

Opening his eyes after some moments, Professor agreed that my knees were a problem but even more troublesome, he said, was my back (I had not told him I had broken my back seven years before). He also noted my gastrointestinal problems that I had not mentioned, and he told me that my menses would come in three days. “Oh, no,” I protested. My period was not due for some time yet. It did come in three days, just as he said, not on schedule. I was astonished.

Professor said he would prescribe some herbal medicine to help my blood and my intestines, and if I didn’t do something about my back I would soon have “bone tuberculosis.” He told me I should study t’ai chi. I replied that I had wanted to do so but did not want to live in New York any longer and I would soon move to San Francisco. Professor said I could still study t’ai chi and I should search for Patrick Watson in San Francisco and ask him to teach me.

When I returned home from that first appointment I was supplied with packets of the combination of Chinese herbs that Professor had prescribed for me along with the accompanying raisins. (I was told the herbs were so bitter the raisins would help me drink the medicine.) I was eager to cook the herbs according to the instructions.

A strange thing happened as I was cooking the herbs that first time. I started belching and feeling funny and had to lie down while they were cooking. Just the odor of the herbs during the cooking was affecting me greatly. It was not that the odor was so bad…in fact I sort of liked it. But there was something in even the smell of the herbal concoction that was working on me already. One cooking time about three batches later I felt affected again and when I inadvertently looked in a mirror I saw that my cheeks were very unusually rosy. This herbal medicine that Professor had prescribed for me was working on many levels. I have saved the prescriptions that he gave me on little pieces of paper. His writing was so strong and beautiful.

Back in San Francisco I found Patrick working as a lifeguard at the YMCA. He said if I could arrange a class full of students he’d be agreeable to teaching it. In a short period of time I had gathered enough people who were interested in learning t’ai chi, and classes began.

JOWRXarmsCR.jpgI had wanted to study t’ai chi ch’uan for many years though where I lived there were no classes. I studied the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching extensively. When I finally moved to New York City in 1957 I looked for a good t’ai chi class to take and eventually took a few classes with Sophia Delza. The form she was teaching did not fulfill my intuition of how I thought t’ai chi would feel nor did the other classes I researched. It was not until I saw Professor’s classes and then of course finally started studying his short yang form that it really felt how I imagined t’ai chi could be. Each time I went for treatment from Professor I happily sat through his classes and observed him teaching until he was ready to see me. Some of them were t’ai chi ch’uan classes; most of them were t’ai chi sword classes. Sometimes when I arrived at the studio on Canal Street he was just finishing a calligraphy or flower arranging class. Just by watching I could feel that this was the form I had imagined, that this was the way I expected t’ai chi to be.

I was very happy that I found the kind of movement, the kind of meditation, the kind of energetics that I had been searching for for so long! I had been a modern dancer in New York and San Francisco before leaving for Asia. In Japan I studied Japanese Classical Dance (Kabuki dance) as well as the dance of the Noh plays and tea ceremony and then entered a Zen Buddhist monastery and sat Zazen for a year and a half. One might say I went from a lot of movement to a lot of stillness. T’ai Chi Ch’uan was the ultimate integration of the two extremes for me….stillness in movement, moving meditation. I had finally found the right integration for me. I was thrilled and I was home!

I recruited many students for Patrick. (I wanted the classes to continue!) Eventually, when I married and moved to Big Sur to live and teach at the Esalen Institute, I arranged classes there for Patrick to come and teach. That is where he heard about the Arica Institute, and the rest is part of Patrick’s history.

For myself, I practiced every day. In the summers of 1970 and 1971 my husband and I stayed in New York City so that I could go to as many classes as I could at Shr Jung.

When I became pregnant in 1970 I was overjoyed and felt that t’ai chi ch’uan would be my support during my pregnancy. Without question I intuitively knew it was the best exercise for me during this time and that it would help me stay limber and relaxed and in touch with the changes I would be going through. I was correct about all those intuitions.

It was fascinating tuning into myself every day as my body changed and as my belly became larger and my balance altered to answer the various developments. It was the daily meditation and moving that kept me attuned to all that was happening and all that I needed to respond to.

Spending as much time as I could at Shr Jung while I was pregnant was a very supportive experience. Classes were wonderful and I never had a problem with my growing, changing body. I was sure it was the best activity for me to do during this incredibly potent, important time and everyone there was helpful and supportive.

I am a very small person, have never been taller than 5 feet, and the baby I was carrying grew very large. People would stop me on the street and ask if I was carrying twins or triplets. The bulge in front of me grew unusually large. I was told I looked as if I had swallowed a very large watermelon. Yet I was also told that I was so graceful and carried myself (and my baby) elegantly. The t’ai chi was serving me well in so many ways

I assumed that I was an earth mother and would birth in a very easy manner. Unfortunately all did not work out as I hoped. But t’ai chi helped me nonetheless. While I was in labor and had back pain t’ai chi supported me throughout the process. Every time I had to get up and relieve my bladder (and that was very often) I did the first section of the form and the pain was also relieved. The birthing process turned out to be an emergency caesarian section, partially, the doctor said, because my daughter was so big. After that shock it was time to do t’ai chi again. The medical professionals were surprised to find me standing and moving around and were amazed at my quick recovery and my ability to care for my infant even so immediately after major surgery

JOWRuparmsE.jpgShortly after my daughter’s birth we moved to a remote island in British Columbia, Canada. Since I had not been practicing t’ai chi ch’uan for very long at all-just a little over two years- I felt insecure at being such a distance from a teacher. Regardless, every morning and evening in the north woods, without exception, I continued my practice of t’ai chi. And here I received some of the most important lessons. Every now and then, as I was playing my form, a question would come to me about one of the movements. My mind would freak out a little and I would worry how I could continue to play my form because there was no one to whom I could ask my question(s). The reality of my situation was that there was no one I could ask and so I had to just continue my practice. Without failure, if I continued to honestly play my form, with awareness and openness, within a day or two the question(s) that I had been concerned with was answered.

The most interesting thing to me about this is that later on, when I was back in New York at Shr Jung or working with some of the other teachers, whenever a question was asked that was one of the ones I had pondered on my own, the answers that I had uncovered were the same answers the other teachers had heard in classes and were repeating. This was a great affirmation for me of the integrity of this form of Cheng Man-Ch’ing.

The summer of 1971 my husband and I stayed a whole month in New York so that I could study with Professor more intensively. Unfortunately Professor decided to stay in Taiwan and I did not see him that time. I did attend all the classes that were possible anyway

The next time I saw Professor was in the winter of 1972/3. Professor was back from Taiwan and so many students wanted to take his classes that a system of levels for participation had to be arranged. Since I was from out of town and not a regular student at Shr Jung I was not at the top of the list to participate in the classes; I would be allowed to observe the classes. I was honored and thrilled.

I had been given permission to teach in 1971. T’ai Chi Ch’uan had done so much for me I was grateful to be able to pass it on and share it with others. Now, from the perspective of being a teacher as well as a student of the form I was very appreciative for the opportunity to watch Professor and observe him teaching others.

At that time, again, I saw Professor regularly for medicine. I was pregnant again and there were difficulties and dangers that he treated me for. He also treated my daughter. She hated the herbal medicine. It took the first half of my day to try to get her to drink her medicine. The latter half of the day was spent at Shr Jung. Professor was always very kind to my two-year old daughter. He allowed her to be at the school, run around and play. Eventually someone brought a playpen in which she could stay and that made my time there much easier.

It was wonderful again for me to be able to watch Professor teach and play push hands night after night. Being in his presence was a great experience for me. I loved just watching him walk around the studio.

Towards the end of my stay in New York that winter I thought if I could ask Professor if there was anything I could offer him for just 15 minutes of private time, hopefully I could get some seminal advice for my form. I was very serious about the teaching and wanted to be as faithful as possible to his form. I really wanted Professor to see my form and get some personal tutorage from him. Tam Gibbs was my translator at that time and I asked him to ask Professor for me. What I got in answer to my request was not the private time I had hoped for. (I realize now what an unreasonable request I was making and how so many others would also have liked to do the same.) But what I received certainly has been solid, clear support for me over the many years. What Tam translated said, “Relax, put your mind in your tan t’ien and you will experience progress.” This, of course, has held me in good stead for all these many years.

I went home with medicine prescribed by Professor and instructions of what to do after the birth of my baby and to come back to see him after the birth

JOWLeftMtCR.jpgThis time during my pregnancy I was teaching regularly. People were amazed how easily I could do the form while growing so large around my middle. Postures such as “Golden cock standing on one leg” and “Snake creeps down” were not more difficult because I was pregnant; in fact the concentration of weight and balance in and around my tan t’ien helped my form and my centering immensely. And the regular playing of t’ai chi ch’uan, morning and evening every day, helped my health, my energy, my limberness and strength as well as my state of mind. I taught t’ai chi until a few days before I went into labor.

And again, the support of t’ai chi was important during labor and birth and also after birth. Trying to birth naturally but having another emergency caesarian section, I was up on my feet the first day after birthing, playing t’ai chi even while still attached to tubes and medical paraphernalia. The medical professionals were astonished that my recovery was so much quicker than my roommate who had experienced a more normal, easier, birth

Two weeks after the birth of my son we flew from California to New York so that Professor could check us out. That was the first and only time I heard Professor speak English. He looked at my two-week old son and said, “T’ai chi baby. T’ai chi baby.” That was also the last time I saw Professor.

During that time, in June 1973, it was very hot in New York City. Professor was giving lectures that I was lucky to attend. I remember him looking around and laughing at everyone looking very limp and sweaty sitting in the audience. He said that practicing t’ai chi would help we students to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

I still have notes from the lectures. As I read them today they constantly inspire and instruct me.

I consider myself to have been extremely lucky to have met Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing and been allowed to study his magnificently simple practice.

My knees that needed so many surgeries have never had an operation. T’ai Chi Ch’uan has strengthened and supported them and me. It has taught me how to use them and my entire body and mind – my life – much more sanely and beneficially. My entire health, well being, and living have all been profoundly affected by T’ai Chi Ch’uan

I have many years of study and practice in energy work and movement and related fields. I have seen many different forms of t’ai chi ch’uan. From my own experiences on the inside and from what I see on the outside of myself and my students, physically and emotionally, I consider Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s short yang form the most energetically, structurally, and functionally correct form in the world. Every day in my practice I learn something, every day I am ever more and more impressed with this specific form and its extensive benefits for life on all levels. I will always be grateful to our wonderful teacher and the grand legacy we have received from him.

© 2003 Judyth O. Weaver, Ph.D.
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