Myth and Symbolism in T’ai Chi Ch’uan with Tew Bunnag
(30th May – 2nd June)
After a period of some 17 years, I restarted tai chi in January, joining Anne Mackintosh’s short form class in Oxford. Anne spoke of this workshop and said that Tew Bunnag (founder of the ESTCC) was gradually withdrawing from teaching so this would be an increasingly rare opportunity to learn from him.
I didn’t know what to expect but I decided to give it a go and any unconscious expectations or hopes that I had were surpassed by a long way. The welcome was very warm and friendly, the place, Roselidden Farm, lovely. Fellow participants all evidently knew each other well, a number going back many years, some to the 1980’s, and there was a clear strong bond between them, yet they too were all welcoming of this newcomer in their midst. And the food was great!
As one might expect from a typical TCC course, correction and honing of moves – yes, but that was a minor theme; work on the internal feeling doing the form – yes, but still not the core of the programme. More central, as the title suggests, was the focus on the myths and symbols, essentially the stories, that lie behind what might at first seem like the strange names of the various moves of the Tai Chi Long Form.
So, along with qigong and other exercises, we went through the Yang style Long Form in stages over the three days and for each of the moves, Tew, starting from their names, expanded on the stories and myths that underlie the symbols that they embed. Taking, as examples, Grasp Bird’s Tail (Tew suggested it’s more: Gently Stroke the Small Bird’s Tail); White Crane Spreads its Wings (it’s more: White Crane Opens and Cools its Wings – and rises above the fray); Repulse Monkey (more: Redirect and Earth this Persistent Monkey’s Force with one hand and Calm It with the other – rather than repulse it); Fair Lady Works the Shuttles (more: Jade Lady, who controls the 5 elements, Weaves the World and the Human Community); Needle at Sea Bed (more: before Monkey sets out on the long Journey to the West with Tripitaka, he dives to the bottom of the sea where the Jade Lady gives him a magic staff which can grow or shrink to a needle at his command). And so it went for the names of all the other moves. For all the moves Tew then showed how these associated myths and symbols can be used to add depth and focus to the intent of the move.
He also taught what he called ‘internal aesthetics’ – a move has to feel right, neither awkward nor painful: if it hurts, draw back, explore where the edge of pain occurs and don’t go over that edge. Done right, the moves should all feel good: the whole of the tai chi form should be pleasurable, but you have to find that for yourself. And when you do, you’ll practice more and continue to deepen it – a virtuous circle.
Two themes that both surprised and pleased me were the integration of the natural world and the ongoing process of strengthening and balancing the role of women in society.
With the exception of one afternoon when it rained, all sessions where outside: to the beach of a small cove for an hour+ before breakfast, the rest in a large rectangular grass area surrounded by tall trees on two sides and buildings on the other two. We were encouraged at all times to alternate our awareness between everything around us, the sky above and the earth, or sand, beneath our feet, and our interior sensations… and then to integrate the two.
Tew also stressed the importance of balancing female and male aspects. Going beyond that, he noted that many women have internalised the cultural norm that they are weaker than men. Tew had found that in teaching women to relax and let their kicks fly, many reported finding it very liberating. Literally kicking out that internalised ‘weak woman’ stereotype.
Something I wasn’t expecting was an underlying Buddhist theme. Not formal in the religious or organisational sense, but Tew was born in Bangkok and practiced daily meditation from the age of 3. So we had daily sitting meditation sessions in a quiet dedicated upstairs room above the kitchen. I found it encouraged a more settled internal body awareness. I also worked on observing the discomforts in feet, knees and back and detaching from them. They quietened down to a tolerable level. While we stretched our legs at the end of the sessions there was space for open discussions of anything anyone wanted to raise. Topics covered a wide range.
Another Buddhist theme was the emphasis throughout on compassion and humanity. There are no attacks in tai chi, only responses (not unaware reactions) to attacks. Whether physical, emotional or verbal, we were encouraged to meet attacks with open acceptance: what is the pain that lies behind the attack? Feel it and respond to that pain with compassion. But compassion and humanity were illustrated in a more concrete and real way. Interestingly, Tew is now mainly involved with death and dying, supporting those dying, their families and those in the medical professions who support them (often very stressed). His approach is based on presence and acceptance. Tew told us many stories (myths in the making) from his experiences showing how, when confronted with people’s anxieties, fears, anger, grief and unresolved issues, by first being present for them, and hearing and accepting them, it then becomes possible to respond with humanity and compassion. This illustrated how the application of tai chi can be taken to another level.
Finally, as well as rejecting formal religions and the hierarchies they engender, Tew rejected the notion of ‘A Master’ and the associated authority that goes with it. “Please don’t consider me ‘a master’, this is something we are doing together and I act more as a guide. I don’t want to be the only person that talks – please feel free to contribute your experiences and thoughts. We can all gain from this.” And we did.
So many thanks to Tew, but also to all the others there, for generating such an uplifting and memorable event.