T'ai Chi as a Path of Wisdom
by Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt

 

Shambhala Books, 2001 $16.95

Available through Plum Publications: yes

At last, a book that gives a "gentler side" to T'ai Chi without compromising the integrity of the exercise. Ms. Lehrhaupt brings insight, humor and experience to this series of essays all revolving around the art of T'ai Chi. She explains her experiences from both standpoints: teacher and seeker. She glides gracefully the one role where she brings tasks to her class then places herself in the position of a student searching for finer levels of understanding. Ms. Lehrhaupt has taught the art since 1982. An ordained Zen priest, she is the co-founder of La Martinie a center in France where Zen and other meditative arts are studied.

Many of these essays, rendered by someone else, might have been too sweet; but there is a strong yet gentle spirit here. The author touches important subjects, the kind that twist every T'ai Chi student's arms. Her general topics include inspirational pieces on the secrets of practice. She keeps returning to the core idea not of practicing T'ai Chi but of practice itself.

The author has an open-hearted view of the relationships of teacher and student. While she advocates that students should take martial arts for their own reasons she also believes that the substance of teaching should be firmly grounded in the real art. With a feminine strength Ms. Lehrhaupt walks a line confusing and treacherous to many instructors. The respects the autonomy of the student while now lowering her standards. This is illustrated by one story in which she brings a camera to film her class. On seeing themselves they surprise her. She assumed they would see themselves critically and be forced to realize how much practice they neededTo her astonishment they are happy with their performance. Her conclusion was that her students, "Éhad discovered that they didn't need to search somewhere else for the treasure." A the T'ai Chi Classics suggest, her students were not "seeking the far and forgetting the near".

She likens the T'ai Chi teacher or student to the gardener who must know things can only grow at a certain pace. You should no more rush during T'ai Chi as you should rush trying to master T'ai Chi. She quotes freely from people in the field like William Chen and other sources of knowledge outside the sphere like Scott Peck, Sharon Salzberg and Roshi Dennis Genpo Merzel. She even feels free to cite martial arts movies and legends. As we read we are reminded that martial arts - at its best - is the kind of practice that keeps spilling over into daily life. It's the same as being a painter, after hours in the studio even normal trees appear altered. Teacher Lehrhaupt looks for the links between her practice and any other source of understanding and insight. As a meditation practitioner she has the unchallenged openness of the alert journeyman. Without mixing everything into soup she sees experiences informing one another. Like a detective assembling clues she sees parallels everywhere.

Each essay has a little arch of meaning. Some deal with simple exercises such as following the path of the T'ai Chi diagram to create a feeling of reeling energy. Others tell of her experiences with different teachers in Taiwan and Europe and the challenges presented by different approaches to T'ai Chi. The author often owns up to her frustration at levels of information she can't initially absorb. But she also shows us how she comes to grips with these experiences.

Her own ability to accept and absorb is summed up in a chapter that talks about practice.

"Can you make it lighter? Is a question that doesn't flow only through one's T'ai Chi practice. The ripples of this quiet but persistent inquiry can spread to other areas of our lives. The next time you change your baby's diapers, chop a carrot, embrace your partner as he or she returns home, carry the garbage out, put your shoes back on, ask: "Can I make it lighter?" This question awakens that part of us that smiles as butterflies alight in front of us, as leaves dance in the wind. In time we may sense how all life is a T'ai Chi dance - and that all the beings of this world, even the tiniest ant, are our dancing partners."

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