The mOnk (who is not a mOnk) talks about Tai Chi, Sword Play and Early Training with international journalist Gerald Greene (co-author of One Last Thing). This article also features in a new free Sword PDF you can download here.
Early Weapons Training
Greene: People may know you from your online courses, your podcasts and irreverent videos, but you are less well known amongst the Pointy community. Could you tell us something of your background in traditional weapon training?
mOnksy: It all started when I was about 5. My younger brother and I would habitually dress in plastic medieval armour and clash swords over the most minor of reasons: Who got to eat the last Custard Cream biscuit or who got to be goalkeeper when we played footie in the street outside.
Greene: Did you ever evolve beyond plastic weaponry?
mOnksy: No. I don't think so due to an incident that occurred a few years later. Whilst defending myself with a stick from a deadly pillow attack from above, I almost lost sight in one eye. I learnt that weapons could do as much damage to the wielder as the opponent, a lesson reinforced when I began learning the nunchaku in my teen years.
Going Beyond Plastic
Greene: Did you ever receive any training beyond defending yourself with a stick against pillows?
mOnksy: A few years later I began to learn Karate. There I was introduced to the Yawarra sticks, Nunchaku and a shuriken, when someone brought in a fossilised starfish one evening. But these only left me with a thirst for sharper and more pointy weapons. When I finally made it to college, I enrolled in a fencing class.
Greene: So it started there?
mOnksy: It may have started there but it never developed, for I only attended one class. I was 18 and prone to get distracted by other things. A few years passed before I came back to the martial arts, this time learning a little of Gung fu and Aikido. Although neither of these were very pointy activities, I did manage to keep my interest in weapons alive at home, with the cheese board and the bread knife.
Greene: So how did that all that bring you around to Tai Chi sword?
mOnksy: As I was becoming aware of the limits of kitchen training, I started exploring the intriguing depths of the internal arts. You have to remember the context of the mid-1980’s. Globally, it appeared that Reagan and Thatcher were intent on bringing down what little was left of our collective dreams for a better world, replacing concepts such as the social good with individual wealth and personal greed. To deal with this new world order, some sought refuge in Step-Aerobic classes and leg-warmers, others escaped by adopting the Internal Arts. I learnt different Tai Chi styles, including the 32 step combined Sword Form from Wen Lin Jun.
Sword for Beginners
Greene: It is said that the Sword is the Mother of all Arms and that it takes:
“100 days to dominate the Sabre
1000 days to dominate the Lance
10.000 days to dominate the Sword”
Yet you offer tuition to the uninitiated, when others say it should only be learnt after the empty hand Forms.
mOnksy: It’s true that some instructors do like to repeat these time scales. But once again, I and others believe that the sword has too much to offer to be left to advanced students only, and, I believe this advice on time scales and training order derives from times in which learning sword was a matter of life and death. Additionally, swords back then were sharp, not like the ones we train with now. Today, sword teaches other skills, in a way that the empty hand cannot. In my experience, students quickly gain confidence and are more motivated to finish. They feel less naked in the classroom and more equal with others of different skill levels. The sword is a great leveller. It matters less if your balance is not so great or your swirls are not so big. But it isn’t just me that thinks it is a good idea to teach all everyone irrespective of level…
Greene: Who else?
mOnksy: Well, Wen Lin Jun. He didn’t insist on me having done years of Tai Chi training before taking up sword, nor did he enrol me on a course of 10.000 days. Then there are people like Petra Kobayashi author of Classical Tai Chi Sword who said:
“It is not only the advanced Tai Chi student who can learn sword. Tai Chi sword is known in China as an independent path of exercise that doesn't necessarily require knowledge of the other forms of Tai Chi.”
And the encyclopaedic Michael P. Garofalo. We discussed by email a decade back about teaching sword. He was another that offered training to anyone interested.
Greene: But you can see why some other instructors may be worried that you offer to teach the uninitiated?
mOnksy: Not really. As I said before, we don't train with sharp blades. These are practice swords. They are blunt and harmless. A kitchen knife is far more lethal and easier to conceal. Anyway, I’m not offering a weekend teacher training certificate, nor Sifu-Status workshops. I’m offering a basis in sword handling that has little to do with stabbing or duelling, but more to do with tackling the strains and obstacles that arise in our daily life. It matters little if what you wield is a mop or a samurai sword, it's what lies beneath the lessons that are important: principles such as yielding and sticking, rooting and softness, that are understood and tested with greater clarity when using the Sword.
Why Sword is a Welcome Addition in the class
Greene: You said you were teaching Tai Chi before introducing Sword. How did you finally introduce the Sword into your classes?
mOnksy: I did it progressively. I had been teaching empty hand Tai Chi Forms in the UK and Spain for many years, when one week I brought into class 20 bamboo poles I had cut down from the rivers-edge that morning. This was a cheap way to introduce the use of weapon training and a bamboo staff is, at the beginning, more user-friendly than a sword.
Greene: How did they react?
mOnksy: Initially they looked bemused, but curious. Then, within a few weeks, they grew to love it. Over time, we exchanged the bamboo poles for wooden tai chi practice swords.
Greene: Young people do like to play with weapons
mOnksy: These were not youngsters. The average age in my Sword class was 55- 75 plus.
Greene: Well, some men do get excited about such things. It is the age group that buy fast motorbikes as a way of handling their middle aged crisis.
mOnksy: Possibly. I couldn’t say. My class was 99% women.
mOnksy: Anyway, to my surprise they all embraced the Sword. Even those students who had just begun their Tai Chi training. Attendance and class satisfaction remained higher in the sword classes than in the empty hand classes. The exercises and the partner work seemed to encourage greater participation, energy levels and enthusiasm to attend. Either that or people just liked walking down the street with a sword on their backs, like an Urban Ninja Turtle.
Greene: Are you saying the Sword Form doesn’t take 10.000 days to learn?
mOnksy: For beginners, the sword form has more exaggerated and less subtle postures, so in a way the moves are easier to identify and remember. It is a shorter form too, and if you relax, the momentum and swing of the moves can show you what to do. It’s as if the sword is directing you and not the other way round. Additionally, I have to say, that sword is just more fun. It’s promise (if not its practice) of danger makes it thrilling too, and people love to talk about it in the class, joke, laugh and in doing so relax more. Personally, I believe this is the secret to effectively learning - encourage a greater sense of play in the class.
Online Sword Work
Greene: Other than a local class, you are now teaching sword as an online course. What convinced you that the sword, with its complexities and classroom challenges, could be taught in this way?
mOnksy: After having offered a number of other courses online these last few years, I was asked by a number of students to consider offering sword. So that’s what I have done. Yes, of course there are some limitations to online learning, but there are also advantages too.
Greene: What advantages are there to learning sword online?
mOnksy: The same pros and cons that exist for all online courses. Although you don’t get to train with a partner or a group (you can of course do the course with one or more friends) the classes are much cheaper and more convenient. You can study when, where and how often you like. You get to see the form and techniques from all angles without people standing in front of you and blocking your view, and you get to repeat classes as often as you like. You get back-up materials, step-by-step photographic, audio, visual and written instructions. From the feedback so far, this course has turned out to the most popular to date.
What can Sword Teach us?
Greene: You often write about the anachronism of the martial arts, with their need to update their aims and practices. How does sword fighting fit into this overview?
mOnksy: I’ve argued that there needs to be another emphasis with the martial arts for lots of different reasons, not solely to do with effectiveness or not on the street. Today, more instructors attempt to balance these aims in their classes, but we still live in a world chronically out of balance. For most of us, we will never need to defend family or country with our fists or swords. We have a police force and an army for these things. We do, however still live in a world in which 5% of the population have everything whilst the rest of us bicker over the scraps under the table. The Chinese Boxers of the past and the great sword fighters of history come to mind as models for understanding and creatively responding to this imbalance.
Greene: Such as?
mOnksy: Spartacus and Robin Hood spring to mind. Or there is Syrio Forel - the Bravoss Dancer and the Witcher of more recent days. Even the Tao Te Ching is clear on this :
“The Tao of heaven is to take from this that have too much and give to those that do not have enough”
Greene: And Sword can help us do this?
mOnksy: Thats depends on how it is taught. A blade can teach us that was is sharp, can easily become blunt. It can help us in the coordination of mind and body, finding a balance of weight and purpose, and a focus on breath and harmony that many of the empty hand Tai Chi forms lack. Metaphorically, it helps cut away the veil of illusion that social media inserts on your time-line and enables us to focus on other things than the size of our weapons. (See track below). But, as I say, it depends on how it is taught.
Greene: Thanks for your time and unique perspective Mr. mOnk.
mOnksy: My pleasure Gerald.
SWORD EXTRAS: READ AND LISTEN
Challenge your own abilities
Since the online Sword course launched earlier this year, many people have issued me with the usual whatsapp challenges - blades at sunset sort of thing. This not only amuses me, but reminds me of the number of people that still believe traditional martial arts are about ferocity, notions of winning or superiority of technique or style. As many teachers far more capable than I have said: The idea behind all martial arts is not to defeat an opponent, but to challenge your own abilities.
The 2 types of Sword Practitioners
In the field of Tai Chi, this ideology has been keenly embraced by those wishing to focus on the softer, gentler and more harmonious practices of the art. When the time comes to begin sword study, these people physically recoil as though they were attendees at the Court of Transylvania and had been presented with tray of roasted garlic (yum, yum) or someone had opened a curtain and a ray of sunlight had struck their anaemic faces. To these people, just the thought of wielding a metal blade in the air is tantamount to publicly declaring violence as a principle to live by.
But there are others: The whatsapp duelists. Those that salivate over the use of any weapons and see them as essential tools in their arsenal for 21st century living. They collect things like exotic instruments of torture, stuffed wombats and hoard such nonsense on shelves in their underground bunkers, just next to their cans of long-life beans, survivalist manuals, camouflage pyjamas and maps for which countries they will rule the world once democracy has been finally reversed..
But for the rest of us, is there a saner perspective that nestles somewhere between the passive deferrers and the gnashing long-life milk reactionaries?
What are the goals of Tai Chi Sword Practice?
If we put turn down the arguments of those obsessed with invincibility and superiority, and instead listen to our humble inner voice, we will hear a quiet breath and little else. As the Taoists state: Once the rage has gone, the edges blunted from overuse, then the instruments become useless.
In sword classes, we start with blunt edges. We make no mistake that what we do will not count on the battlefield. Those delusions are for others to dream. We don't learn how to wield the weapon in order to slice flesh, study means of amputation, or develop a skill in stabbing. These are not only anachronistic goals,, but dubious ones in which to invest our precious time. So for what purpose do we practice the art of pointy objects?
We may only be using our swords for slicing hard cheese or, in the case of my blunt practice swords - dancing under the night sky as I perform Rhinoceros Gazes at the Moon or Green Dragon Emerges from the Lake. But these activities still have value. For this light-weight nimble sword was always a metaphor for cutting away the veil of illusion that hangs before our eyes. And what better time than right now, to be able to wield such a weapon? A weapon that teaches a coordination of mind and body, a balance of weight and purpose, a focus on breath and harmony that many of the empty hand Tai Chi forms lack. I believe this is related to the concept of "Swing and Momentum" that is seen in certain Yang styles.
Swing and Momentum in Tai Chi Sword Practice
This notion of swing and momentum refers to a way in which energy is employed in the body. Now, before you get carried away with notions of golden beams of light projected from the Dan Tien down into the blade (please keep such images for the movies) I'm referring to the bone, muscle and ligament structure that impels us forward and back or from side to side in an efficient a way as possible.
Obviously this structural lesson is used in empty hand Tai Chi Forms, but in the Sword, the extra weight and .size of the weapon we wield brings this concept alive.. We very quickly learn that by relaxing and listening to our body, we feel the turn, the transfer of weight, as the shoulder relaxes and the hips move back and forth. It is much more difficult to teach these concepts of feeling and sensation with empty hand stances. It is far easier for students to physically hold and then engage with the ideas when wielding an object in front of them. And that ever-evasive notion of RELAX (Watch the video) in Tai Chi is even easier to accomplish with the sword, for if not, our arms tire quickly, our shoulders ache and and body grows weary.
Practice with a light sword, not a heavy two-handed weighty blade. We practice not as a strength building exercise, but one of muscle memory, focus, attention and accuracy,
Want to develop strength? Go do some push.ups. Want to learn about grace, harmony and learn to cut rhough the veil of nonsense washing over the world? Pick up a Sword.
Find out more about the Tai Chi Sword Practice
Discover how to join the teapotmonk and start Learning Sword here - or browse the videos below or download the guide here.
HOW TO START ANY MINDFUL PRACTICE
How do you start your own business, how do you start your car on a cold morning or even, how do you start each and every day?
In Tai Chi we are taught to start - as we mean to go on. But what does that mean? We obviously gather ourselves, check out weight, our position. But is there something else we are overlooking?
So today I want to ask you, before you begin your Tai Chi Form - irrespective of style or school, tradition or trouser length - what is it that you do?
I’m not talking about checking if your show is on correctly, your audience has quieted down, or your dinner has gone down. I’m not talking about ensuring that the crease in your satin suit is in the right place or that your eyebrows have been neatly combed into position.
I’m talking about before that very first posture, that initial move. Before the weight shifts. Before the limbs race ahead
Before the mind moves ahead, rehearsing what you are about to play out.
DID YOUR SIFU NEVER TELL YOU?
Hopefully s/he did. But if not - as it was for many, overlooked, skipped or simply left out of your shaolin training schedule - fear not. The teapotmonk is here to help with this handy check list for all those in search of the Perfect Form.
PLACES TO PUT YOUR LIST
Better still, remember the 5 points and pass them on to someone else.
If you get this right, you can leave behind the nonsense of geometry and angular precision taught incessantly and instead float above the noise, seamlessly fusing one move into another, navigating the twist and turns of the sinews as they propel you forward. The wind behind you, the sun on your face and you, merely watching and riding the breath.
THE TOP 5 CHECKLIST
Watch the video below and for more details about starting and finishing - check out the mOnks online training
This weekend - for just 48 hours - you can pick up something for nothing, for next to nothing or for whatever you think it is worth. Why this weekend?
Well, this weekend I'm traditionally out and about promoting the art to coincide with World Tai Chi Day.
However, this year it´s not been possible, but I'd still like to contribute something - so I've reduced the price of a number of my items on Gumroad down to 0.00 or token payments.
Some are pay what you want (Just add 0 in the pay box) and others are just reduced to the price of the cheapest item in the bundle - such as this collection of 10 Tai Chi books I've reduced from 20 pounds to just 2.95 - that the cost of just one book of the entire 10. Grab it before the weekend is out!
Cycles of rest and activity are built into our DNA, yet it appears that we spend our lives fighting such confines. Is it time now, as we collectively teeter on the edge exhaustion, to finally embrace the Yin?
Why do we fear nothingness? Why do we avoid the hollow man, the dark and unknown places where non-doing and stillness reside? Why do we crave distraction from the emptiness outside and the emptiness within?
Some would argue that is more EFFICIENT to fill every moment, to be always occupied. It is an oft heard mantra: Better to be Busy, than be Bored. Yet, there exist cycles and rhythms in the world that show us another way. Rhythms that tell us another story of productivity, efficiency, balance and fulfilment. Because, though the odd choccy biscuit has its place on the dinner table of life, an exclusive serving of such sweets would challenge even the Board of the Sugar Industry (then again, maybe not).
But for those of us not dependant on the price of sugar stocks, only moments of nothingness can fulfil. For only in emptiness can we see the cycle of giving and taking.
GIVING AND TAKING
Whilst nature takes out time to rest, to incubate, to absorb, to reconnect with its own nature; we the wise ones, resist. Resistance, we tell ourselves, defines us, enables us, and reminds us that we, Homo Sapiens have the divine permission to rise up and challenge the rules nature dictates.
But in moments of silence, when the dark descends , when the battery-light fades, we are reminded once more of our our cosmic size and vulnerability. Only then, in the dark and the quiet, can we take out a moment to embrace the Yin.
WHERE DREAMS ARE FORGED
Olive trees do not fruit thought the year. An olive tree spends most of its life being quiet, resting, absorbing and then when ready, it flowers, fruits deliciously and then in an act of incredible generosity, gives everything it has away. Once it has achieved this, it returns to a state of rest once more. Perhaps that is why Olive trees live so long?
In this state of rest, the world is perceived afresh. Over time, new seeds are created and new dreams are born. Though an Olive tree may be within view of the sprinting Pine, it is never tempted to compete, instead it surrenders to the process and dictates of its own rhythm.
If we do not surrender to our own rhythms of stopping, of non-doing, then we live eternally craving distraction and we forget what and who we are. We imagine we are Pines when we are Olives. We forget our purpose. We forget our relationship with our own self as we are carried away, bobbing up and down helplessly on the stream of data that follows us into our thoughts. We lose the strength to turn down the eternal light, the notification hungry for our attention, even during our most intimate of conversations , even during our darkest of dreams.
Resist not this dark and quiet place when it comes knocking at your door, for it is what we have been looking for. It is our rhythm of breath and creativity, and with it, the breeding ground for new life.
SO EVERY NOW AND THEN CHOOSE
...to be quiet when others shout.
...to reach out, when others fall.
...to yield when others push
...to soften and unclench your fist
Do so, and in doing so others will learn they have nothing to lose
For the world will still turn
WHAT IF...THE VIDEO
We are a small group exploring these cycles of light and dark, rest and activity, in the new online course with the teapotmonk. Find out more - take a look at the intro vids and course details here and join us.
WHAT 10 RULES DO YOU LIVE BY?
There has been considerable talk in some circles of the relevance of Yang Chen Fu's 10 Essential Principles. Some people argue that they embody the essence of living fully in the moment, whilst others put forward the theory that they are nothing but pure gobbledegook. No-one, however, has yet contributed to the debate in a way that has moved the discussion into a contemporary setting. That is, until the discovery last week of a treasure, unearthed in the forgotten dusty cellars of the teapot temple. Recorded on an old VHS tape, and now digitalised for the very first time, this new, ground-shaking perspective offers us all, the chance to reevaluate where we are going, the means of getting there, and whether by making the destination so important, we miss out on being where we are Right Now.
FIRST EVER PUBLIC SHOWING
As the appointed archiver for the mOnks archive during his absence from the world of dust, I have taken it upon myself to release to the general public, for the first time this waist-wiggling message. As the mOnk would often say, 'tis not our role to only interpret the word, but preferably to change it.'
So, here I present for the first time: Yang's Top 10 Tips (as re-defined by the mOnk). Enjoy and share as widely as possible.
Yang 10 Points
And so we bid farewell to the the spirit of the moment with this final climatic episode. On the eve of the monks departure, I discover a dusty, tea-stained document left on my desk: 5 Secrets for Living a Purposeful Life. This, I have recorded as an audio file.
Little remains now but to leave his words to settle, like wind blown snow flakes on an empty landscape. As I look around the quiet training halls of the temple, there is little evidence of his presence, other than Yak prints in the snow.
I even find myself questioning the very existence of the Bean Curd Boxer. Was it all just a figment of our collective imagination, a projection of our collective hunger? A poignant reminder to simply Leave Things Alone?
Who knows? Who can tell these days in this time of transition and dust, what is real and what is fake, what is substantial and what is imaginary . We must all make of it all, as we will.
As for the notion of secrets - are these really secrets? I'm not so sure. People talk a lot in the internal arts about secrets from within the inner-circles, family styles, private transmissions. They are referring to special techniques passed down in the dusty corners of training halls between masters and select students - sworn under a swirling cloud of incense or kneeling alongside a miniature gifted zen garden - secrets that are blood bonds, secrets that were meant to be kept hidden.
This manuscript belongs to another history. These are the secrets that hide in plain site - revealing only what is uncarved, the simple, the obvious, the overlooked.
WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL?
Ultimately, what you or I make of this document is not important. Left here in the spirit of transparency it is no more than a passing farewell from a man and his obsession with tea, as he prepares to leave behind The World of Dust.
And so I fulfil my part. I give you the Top 5 Tips for Living a Purposeful Life amidst the fakery of the 21st century - given here not in exchange for an email address nor a Paypal donation - but as something to laugh at, to prod, to share or to step over, depending on your point of view and style of walking. As the mOnk would often remind me, we were meant to play with them, not study.
Secret No 1: Remove Borders
Do not obsess over styles, Forms, names, borders, currencies, accents or allegiances. The arts depend on such artificial perimeters about as much as Donald Trump depends on a dictionary before tweeting.
Secret No 2: Put Away your Toys
Secret No 3: Comic books are fine...but have their place.
Secret No 4: Let it go
Secret No 5:Do Good
So is that it?
So it seems that is that.
I was left with a dusty and coffee stained document laying on my desk this morning, with the telltale warmed teapot left to one side.
Subtitled: Ways of living for the 21st century - it occurs to me that it may speak of the obvious, but - at the same time, I feel it is a message that still resonates. When the lines between neighbours are clear one day, but intentionally blurred the next, it is a time of concern. Where yesterday we resided in Oceania, today it is, surprise surprise, Eurasia.
As I now peer outside the window of the Temple, I can still see the tell-tale Yak tracks in the snow, but I am not sad - for he leaves in his wake an abundant and fertile crop upon which you may harvest. An inner temple of goodies….
Looking around the teapot temple I can see he has been a busy mOnk this last year. He has produced 4 online courses - he released all his books from the stranglehold of Amazon and distributed them to all digital platforms - iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Gumroad, and to libraries everywhere - he wrote another book or two - recorded 3 audiobooks - organised a summer of free classes in Devon England, Celebrated World Tai Chi Day with the excellent people from Central Tai Chi in Birmingham - and completed this series of 10 podcasts -
For context, best visit the home of the mOnk: https://www.teapotmonk.com/
This month three items of interest to anyone wishing to firm up their bean curd: the long-awaited return of the irreverent Bean Curd Boxer in this special audio-book form, who also appears as a special guest on this month's podcast in the 10 Series. Finally, the give-a-way book of the month - something special for everyone interested in the development of the Tai Chi Form. Read on...
Finally, The Manual of Bean Curd Boxing has been released as a 4 hour audio book. The Bean Curd Boxer was enticed out of retirement to star in this final 4 hour performance. It's working its way out onto Audible and iTunes slowly, but in the meantime you can hear a sample on this months podcast here, or grab the whole delicious 5 item audio pack on Gumroad which includes:
The Beginners Guide to the Tai Chi Form - teapotmOnk's new and deliciously brewed new book will be offered free to download this weekend from Friday the 12th October on your local Amazon store. If you prefer the paperback version that came out last month, you can get that on the same page, and if you'd like to the online course for the Form, you can do that for a special price here. The following week it will be prised out of the grubby hands of Amazon and onto the iTunes store, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and every other ebook store in the known universe. (You may have noticed that all my other books have appeared on these platform these last few weeks as I attempt to disentangle myself from the Bezos tentacles.
The penultimate episode in the 10 series, looks at all the above items, offers up chapter 9 from the Bean Curd Manual (with a little one-off percussion) and discusses plans for life beyond podcasting. Download the podcast from your usual podcast source or get it here. And let me know if you think a remix of the Book with a musical accompaniment would be a good idea - a sort of Moby-esque version. I'm sort of tempted by not convinced but nor sure it would be worth al the effort....
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