The Third Rep: 2001-02-12
by Jerry Karin
Well, time to whip out the old notepad and scribble a new third rep column. Having had my posterior flamed from here to Yongnian over a previous column entitled Some Other Stuff and subsequent postings in the same vein on the discussion board, you would think I would know better by now, but apparently once begun the habit of letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I shall’ grows ever easier.
Back around 1972 when I was a student at Berkeley, my instructor in a class on Buddhism invited a very high-ranking monk in the hierarchy of a large Buddhist sect in South Korea to speak to the class one day. The monk, a kind, gentle and humble person, used the hour to tell us the story of a famous monk in Korean Buddhist history. I heard this tale nearly thirty years ago so I am undoubtedly going to mangle some of the details of the story, but I think I have got the gist of it.
The events in the story took place early in Korean Buddhist history when teachings about Buddhism were difficult to get in Korea and it was the dream of many a searcher to voyage abroad to China, where they hoped to find more advanced knowledge about Buddhism. A young monk, embarking on this course, traveled from his home to a seaport to begin his long journey to China. The evening before he was to board a ship to China, having had a meal at a local temple, he wandered out into the warm night and came to a beach, where he decided to spend the night. In the middle of the night he awoke with a fierce thirst which simply could not be denied, and started looking around trying to find a puddle of rainwater from which to drink. There was a dim moon out and he suddenly spied its reflection in a large container of water, sitting on a log. Delighted, he picked it up and tasted it. He found it the most delicious thing he had ever tasted and gulped down long draughts of the water until his powerful thirst was satisfied, whereupon the sleepy monk lay back down and was soon snoring.
As the sun rose on the morning his great journey was to begin he awoke and looked around for the container of water that he had found the night before. To his dismay he discovered that he had been sleeping in one of those ‘air burial’ grounds to which Buddhists are partial, where decomposing bodies of the dead are left in the open for birds and animals to eat. The log was a corpse and the container of water which had tasted so delightful the night before turned out to be a human skull, with some vestiges of flesh still clinging to it. His horror rose in him physically and he vomited again and again. Suddenly he experienced a moment of awakening about the nature of existence, illusion and reality. The monk never boarded the ship for China. The answers which it had once seemed necessary to search out far away in another land turned out to lie within himself. This monk went on to become one of the great founders of Buddhist study in Korea.
Now from the sublime to what I hope will not be too ridiculous. I first met the Yangs in 1993, at a seminar they gave at Hood College in Maryland. I remember well my first glimpse of Yang Zhenduo. Chris Pei was escorting Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun to the opening dinner reception. A bunch of students gathered around to greet them and Yang Zhenduo made a little impromptu speech, saying we had a great deal to cover in one week, but that he knew we would succeed because we would work hard….. He spoke in a beautiful, pristine northern mandarin, very reminiscent of my first Chinese language teacher, who had grown up in Peking. His manner, diction, everything about him made him seem the most traditional Chinese person I had ever met, though I had lived in Taiwan for many years. I was powerfully intrigued, and the seminar itself lived up to the expectation I formed at that moment. Here was a teacher steeped in the real tradition.
Over the years I continued to attend seminars, all the while trying to come up with a scheme which would allow me to go to China for an extended period of time and really learn the secrets of Yang style taiji which the Yangs clearly had in such abundance. The demands of work and family never did allow me to follow through on the idea. Then one day a couple of years ago I learned the most astonishing news: through no effort of my own, and unbeknownst to me, Yang Jun had been preparing for some time to move to my very doorstep here in Seattle! I couldn’t believe my luck. When he arrived here I went to classes whenever I could. I learned quite a bit. Still, the demands of work and family did not go away. Yang Jun had moved here but I was still the same person, working full time, taking care of a child, spending time with my wife, doing all the mundane things I have always done. The truth was I rarely had time to attend classes. Practice time was also difficult to find. Gradually my dream of getting the real secrets from the Yangs faded.
About a year ago I had an extended period of unemployment between jobs. Unfortunately, for most of that time, Yang Jun was away giving seminars around the world. I subbed for him in some of his classes in Seattle. Yang Jun had asked me to make a new translation of Yang Chengfu’s essay, “A Talk on Practice” for the Association newsletter, which I did (you can see it in the info section of this web site). Translating focuses your attention on the content in a way that casual reading seldom does. In the essay Yang Chengfu mentions that you really should practice the barehand form seven or eight times a day. I remembered how good it felt working out many hours a day during the seminars. Since I had some time while I was job-hunting, I decided to try seven reps a day. The idea is to consciously work on the ten essentials while doing all those reps. This for me was the beginning of learning the real secrets of taijiquan. I discovered that it had never been necessary to go to China, wonderful as that would have been. Yes, you do need to get the basics from a good teacher. The real secrets, however, are revealed by practice.