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Interview with Scott M. Rodell

An Interview from The Journal of Well-Being - January, 1991

By Howard D. Parks

Often you'll hear of the importance of "lineage" in martial arts disciplines without really understanding why it's important. Practicing a form the way it has been practiced for centuries can sometimes seem like a slavish adherence to tradition. But the importance of being connected to a lineage goes beyond form, according to Scott Rodell, director and founder of the Great River Taoist Center of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, to the process of learning under the guidance of a teacher who appreciates the art in all its aspects.

Rodell has spent over twenty years studying various Oriental and Occidental martial arts disciplines, devoting the past nine years to the internal art of Taiji Quan (T'ai Chi Chuan). He is a student of Wang Yen-nien in Nei Gong (Taoist meditation) and Old Yang Style Taiji Quan, William C.C. Chen in push hands and free fighting, and T.T. Liang in Taiji Jian (Sword).

Rodell is also one of only thirteen Americans who have "entered the gate" (become initiated) in the Jin Shan Pai, or Gold Mountain School of Taoism. One of the few schools to survive the "Cultural Revolution," the Jin Shan Pai is a branch of the Dragon Gate-one of the original Chinese schools of Taoism. Currently the holder of the bowl and the robe for the Jin Shan Pai is Master Wang Yen-nien of Taiwan, who is also president of the International Taiji Quan Association.

There are many forms of Taiji and many studios that teach Taiji- what should a beginning student look for?

Rodell practicing tuishou with Wang Yen-Nien

Rodell practicing tuishou
with Wang Yen-Nien

Traditionally, a serious student would work with a teacher for three years, and the teacher would watch and train the student for three years. This approach implies a process by which the teacher and student develop a close relationship. Once this bond is formed, then it's almost like a parent-child relationship. During these first few years they're waiting to see if such a relationship develops between them. What we do here is almost like shopping for something-we're looking for the best price or the best of this, the best of that. But Taiji and other Taoist practices are not from our culture, and we find we don't know what standard to hold them to and what to look for. So I think the best thing for beginning students to do is to go to a place and see if they feel comfortable there. The most important thing is do they feel good about the place? Then if they feel that I would say automatically start and study there for a year before making any other judgments. After all they have no Taiji experience so how can they really judge the teacher?

What if the student is trying to be a little more analytical or has some experience- what should a student expect from a program in the long run?

What's important to realize is that Taiji is a big system. There are basic exercises for breathing and flexibility, a basic solo form, and after that, there's Push Hands, fixed-step or moving-step. This two-person work is very important. It's not difficult to understand the idea that Taiji involves being calm and relaxed when you're by yourself doing the solo form. If you go off to practice in a field with your headphones on listening to Kitaro you can be relaxed-that's easy-but anyone would be relaxed in that kind of situation. Push Hands teaches you to be relaxed in a physical combat situation that is controlled. From that experience you can expand to include any other confrontation situation.

Also, it's important that the program include weapons training-the sword at the very least. After you've done Taiji for several years, you've learned to get your balance and stability and developed your sense of body mechanics, started to learn how to neutralize an attack if you've trained in Push Hands. You've gotten centered-if you like that word-but you need something else to draw out what you've got inside you, to make it more difficult again. Then you learn the sword and all of a sudden you're right back to the beginner's stage again. Only now the solo [sword] form is more difficult, more complicated-there's a greater degree of control necessary. You have this heavy thing in your hand which is pulling you off-balance all the time. It's another way you can take your skills and progress them further.

If you can it's best to study all of the weapons. Each of the weapons has some special attribute that you can gain from it. Originally there were only Taiji sword and staff forms, later on the knife and spear forms were developed. Five solo forms in all.

What would be the use, as far as self-defense is concerned, of learning a sword form, or spear or staff form? Or a fan form, for that matter?

Practicing Sword

Rodell & student demonstrate
Yang Style Jian Application
at 10 Anniversary Open House, 1994

  For one thing- it's more aerobically demanding than the solo form. In a fight you have to move quickly-you get pulled off-balance unexpectedly, you have to jump, you have to turn-and the weapons make you do that. Also, in Taiji, we don't use muscle strength as such. In Chinese, there are two ways to talk about using muscle strength. One is "li"; that means muscular strength. That's the kind of strength used in shaolin and karate- the so-called external martial arts. The way you push something, the way you lift something using the muscles of the arm, that's li. In Taiji we use a different kind of strength, and that's called "jing." Jing is said to come from the tendons, to be a tenacious and elastic kind of energy. It's similar to the springy kind of quality when you jump into the air. It's not like pushing; if you try to shove yourself in the air the way you would lift something, you won't go. But you can with little effort spring up in the air, and your muscles are very loose-a different way of using your body. In Taiji we develop a relaxed body in order to go from soft to hard. In Taiji there is hard; the emphasis is on softness because it's difficult to be soft.

Weapons training allows you to develop this jing. In the solo form, you've nothing to push against. If you want to practice your strike, releasing your jing-the Chinese say "fa jing," releasing energy-you can't do it, because if you throw your fist in the air, you'd pull your shoulder out, or wrench your elbow. One analogy I use is when baseball players warm up they put a weight on the bat to counteract their force, because they want to practice swinging. When they step up to bat they take that weight off. In Taiji the way you practice issuing your energy is using weapons. If you look at the Taiji punch, it's the same technique as thrusting with a spear. That's your Taiji weight training, so to speak. The spear technique is the more traditional way of strengthening the body. A common misconception about Taiji is that there's no way of strengthening the body with Taiji. Anybody who picks up a spear-experienced Taiji player or not-and does a few repetitions will quickly feel the arms tiring. That's releasing full energy. And if you think about it, in China they didn't have gymnasiums. In Japan the dojo system developed because under the feudal system they had a warrior class-the peasants weren't allowed to practice weapons training. It wasn't that way in China; mostly people practiced at their teacher's home, in a public place, in the mountains or someplace like that. They went down to the forest, got the right kind of wood, and cut out a straight staff and practiced that way. All they needed was a place-they didn't need a special school, didn't need weights, didn't need punching bags.

Is it counterproductive to be doing other aerobic or hard exercise with Taiji- weightlifting, running, aerobics- all exercises that develop li?

It's not a good combination. In weapons training you're not really trying to make the body hard so maybe I shouldn't say weight training. In Taiji, you're trying to make your body soft and relaxed; this is the Taoist way. Laozi asks, "Can you become like a child?" Think about the way the body of a baby is soft and relaxed; it's still very strong. The mind isn't focused so they can't do anything with it-they can't even stand up, they're so relaxed. But if a baby grabs your finger, you're always surprised how hard it is to get the finger away from the baby. Then, as you age, the body becomes harder and harder. What do older people complain of? They can't see because the retina becomes hard; they worry about falling down because their joints have become hard and brittle and their bones break easily; and they can hardly walk because their legs are stiff and hard. The process of getting older and dying is the process of getting harder. So anything that speeds up this process-weightlifting, running, & so on-hardens your muscles and speeds up the process of dying.

Also, if you think about it, your body is mostly water. Water has to flow; just like any garden hose, if it's crimped down, water won't flow as well. If it's loose and open and soft, the water will flow better. Not only will the body fluids flow better, but also the chi-this intrinsic energy of the body-also flows better. So absolutely go for softness.

So Taiji practitioners can get their aerobic fitness out of Taiji?

Yes, but again the idea of this Taoist practice is to keep the heart tranquil. There is an increased aerobic improvement in a standard Western sense when doing Taiji, but we're not trying to increase the heart rate to the level reached with dancing "aerobic exercise" in a health spa, because you want the heart to remain tranquil. I think it's become quite clear there's a lot of over exercising of certain specific parts of the body. If you look at the bodies of traditional peoples who are very strong, or farmers or laborers-guys who are strong physically, not even talking about a Taiji kind of strength-they don't have these big overdeveloped chests. They don't have big biceps. Overdeveloping certain parts of the body has damaging effects and is simply not necessary.

For a beginning student how important is the concept of lineage, of being connected to a traditional method of teaching Taiji?

As far as ceremony goes, it's unimportant. As far as real knowledge goes, it's very important. A teacher who has a good attitude and loves Taiji will themselves always be studying and learning. Teachers with these qualities probably have a lot to offer a beginning student, but ideally they are in some kind of lineage-in other words, they have a connection with their teacher who is a master and that teacher has a connection back with their teacher and so on. But say you have a teacher who is quite good but not quite a master? You can still learn a lot but what happens when you start getting better and reach your teacher's level? You can only hope your teacher is also getting better, or it will be very hard to continue on.

Also, for a beginner, knowing that a teacher is part of a lineage means you know that the teacher has really worked in the art and stayed with the art long enough to establish that kind of relationship with their teacher. It goes back to what I said about the student studying with a teacher for three years. No matter who your teacher is, at some point, you must go out on your own and develop, but usually this only happens after maybe ten years if you've studied really hard. Then maybe you would go out and teach. And it's perfectly fine for students to politely ask who their prospective teacher's teacher was and what the system is and that kind of thing. Anybody who doesn't know the name of their system or their teacher, or is vague about that, is questionable.

You also teach Nei Gong [Taoist meditation]-- how are Taiji and Nei Gong related and can the practice of Nei Gong improve your Taiji practice?

They are important to do together for a student who is at the intermediate level of Taiji. I think if you're only interested in the kind of development you get from Nei Gong you might be able to practice Nei Gong alone. I have had a couple of students who have done very well with Nei Gong alone. For Taiji people I think it's important that they do both. What Taiji does is loosen up and relax the body, and open the chi meridians. You've probably heard Taiji described as "meditation in motion." But it's hard to do that- it takes beginning students who work hard three years until they can put any "mind" aspect into Taiji, because even with a form that's been condensed it takes that long to learn the movements so that they really do them well. You must keep the mind calm and quiet, your body must be focused, and you're working on all kinds of body problems-getting stronger and more relaxed.

In Nei Gong practice, first you learn how to sit and focus your mind on one point-right away you can work on focusing-then you move on to learn to circulate your chi. After two or three months you're used to sitting. Beginners can sit for forty minutes after two or three months of practice, so they can really focus their minds on what they're doing. Taiji takes three years [to focus the mind into the practice]; Nei Gong takes three months. So you see if Taiji is "stillness in motion," Nei Gong is "motion in stillness." When I first heard that I had been practicing Taiji for years and had gotten to a solid intermediate level. I thought though something was missing-the mind aspect-and I didn't really know what to do about it. I thought, I read, trying to find out things-Taoist teachers are very hard to come by-and finally I met the man who eventually became my teacher, Wang Yen-nien, and he talked about just this very thing. Many people practice Taiji and bring their skill up to only a certain level, he said. Then, they must also practice Nei Gong and the two practiced together pull them up to a higher level. When he said that, all the little bits of information I had heard here and there fell into place. It became obvious that these two practices belong together. Subsequently I found out they always were together, until relatively recent times. Originally, Taoist arts were practiced only by Taoists. When they became popular, they no longer remained attached to the original practice. So, for example, people who practiced herbalism and acupuncture as doctors also would have been practicing Nei Gong. Now that's no longer true; they're entirely separate schools, although the good Chinese doctors I've met usually seem to practice some kind of internal art. In Taiji the same kind of thing happened; the Nei Gong aspect was often kept secret so it hasn't been passed on.

How does the practice of Nei Gong differ from other systems of meditation?

Well, it's hard for me to say, because I don't practice other kinds of meditation. I only have a brief experience with Buddhist meditation so I really can't compare them other than in a textbook kind of fashion. Which is to say that in Buddhist meditation you are interested in the process. There's nothing being created; you are trying to become emptiness. In the "emptiness" of Taoist meditation there is something inside the emptiness and we do want something to happen. Nei Gong means "Internal Work" or "Internal Effort." We are not interested just in experiencing the process; the process does go someplace. The Buddhist and the Taoist paths will end up in the same place, but they get there differently. So it would be unwise to say, well, they both go to the same place so I'll do a little of this and a little of that. You have to really stick with one way and learn it well and keep going. The Taoist way involves working with the body and the spirit- the Chinese say the "xing" and the "ming," the life and the essence. If you look at parallels between Buddhist kinds of physical culture and Taoist kinds of physical culture, you can really see the differences in these paths. In Taoist martial arts, like Taiji, Taoists are very concerned with keeping their bodies well, because their path involves the chi, the jing, and the shen, these three intrinsic energies of the body, and by working with these Taoists move along the Way. The Buddhists do physical exercise to keep their bodies strong enough so they have the stamina to do meditation, but they have no other concern with their bodies. After all, Taoists stay in society. My own teacher lives in a busy section of Taiwan. He's not an acetic in the mountains; he's married, has children, he's raising one of his granddaughters. We'll go out to parties together. He's a very normal everyday kind of man. Buddhists in his position within the school would live in a monastery.

You have mentioned before your concern that Taoist meditation be taught correctly- specifically, because men's and women's practice is different- why is this so important?

Even before you get to the question of men and women specifically, there's the problem of what happens when you practice Nei Gong incorrectly. Here [in America] we like to get things from books, which is fine, but one thing you can't get from books is proper instruction. When you're getting that, what you're getting is the teacher's experience transmitted to the student. It's a subtle thing, the feedback going back and forth between teacher and student. The student has to fully accept the teacher-to trust that the teacher is giving him something real. And the teacher has to feel the student is listening because the teaching comes out of the teacher's own personal experience. This has impressed me the more I've taught publicly. Now I've gotten to the point where I will not take students unless I've known them for some time. And this is because running a Taoist center you get telephone calls from people who've practiced Nei Gong based on what they've learned from books, and who sound as if they're in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Things are always left out of books. It's the Taoist way not to write everything down that's really important and, especially for beginners, to leave something out. If you don't realize that you can hurt yourself. In one case, a guy called up and said, "Give me some techniques to help me disperse all the energy I've built up so I can go to sleep!" I told him, you're abusing this practice, you've hurt yourself. He said "Yeah, but I need it!" It's almost like, well, I get up and take amphetamines in the morning so now give me something at night so I can sleep. And he'd never met me... how does he know I know anything? Just because we're listed in the phone book as the Great River Taoist Center he assumes we know something.

Then you have another problem, which is that men and women's practices are different. Most of the books you see describe only men's practice. Men and women are different in that the front of men is yin and the back is yang. For women it's the other way around; the front is yang and the back is yin. The polarity of the body is different. What happened, historically, was that after the Song dynasty Taoism declined in popularity and Confucianism became more popular and powerful, and there was a reaction against women-an out-and-out book burning. The texts for women's practices were destroyed by the Confucians-some survived but I know of none in English. What's more important to remember is what I first mentioned about books-the real things aren't written in books. The real Taoist teachers who are part of the Taoist lineage from the Taoist schools still have the information. But books don't. Also, I think another reason women are being taught the same way as men is because of a misunderstanding of the teacher-student relationship. Say you were to go to China and by luck or hard searching find a Taoist teacher who would teach you meditation. In two or three years, if you really applied yourself, you could be quite skilled. Some say this takes twenty or thirty years to develop, but actually some old classics say in 100 days you can open up the small orbit. Suppose you study this for 3 years and come back to America, where we've never heard of this stuff before. Your teacher knows you're going back, knows you're not going to stay on another ten years to study further-to go to Taoist graduate school-so you get enough to get you started. If you return, they'll teach you some more. But when you go home, if you haven't been initiated into the school, and if you don't understand the lineage tradition, don't understand that there are steps and steps in the training, you were not taught to be a teacher. So why would a man in this position be told how to practice in the manner a woman practices? He's only a beginner, has not been initiated into the school, is not a teacher-he has no need of that information. The teacher wouldn't clutter up the student's mind with information he doesn't need. The analogy I like to use is if somebody were to travel from a mountain village where there were no schools to learn high school mathematics in America or Europe-calculus, trig, algebra, geometry-that student of mathematics would seem like a genius on returning to the village. But that student doesn't necessarily know the true genius of mathematics-if the student excelled at mathematics, would he or she be encouraged to study quantum mechanics at a university? That's where the real brilliance of mathematics is.

What problems can incorrect practice cause for women and how important is it for women to know the proper way to circulate chi in practicing Nei Gong?

I don't know the specifics of what will happen. I learned things to a certain point with my teacher and there's still much I need to learn. There are always new things to learn when you're in a position of teaching. I know somehow practicing incorrectly will hurt their health, but I don't know the specifics. I do know of one situation, in a different Taoist lineage, where the women were taught to practice in the same way as men. Two women in this other school went to the senior-most woman instructor and said, you know, our chi has started circulating the other way. The woman teacher didn't know what to think, because she had never been told otherwise, although she's the senior woman in that system. Later on, she bumped into one of my Taoist brothers and in discussing it asked, how is your system different from our system. It's basically the same, he said, the specific techniques are different but the old Taoist methods are basically the same. But there is one thing that's different, he told her: women circulate their chi the opposite direction that men do. She was surprised by this and related the story. So I hope they're onto this and they'll straighten it out because it is one thing I feel concerned about.

I think what we're getting at, then, is the Taoist concept of health... Can you describe what is involved in that?

Rodell demonstrating Beat the Tiger with Wang Yen-Nien

Rodell demonstrating 'Beat the Tiger'
with Wang Yen-Nien, Taiwan, 1991

I think you have to go back further-even more basic than this question. Many people approach Taoist practice, particularly Taiji, as only a way to improve their health. That's why the martial part has been left aside, often forgotten or even suppressed in some cases. They say, oh, we just want to improve our health a little bit-although you can't really improve your health without the martial application because there's lack of mind focus and lack of understanding. Ah, I just want to relax a little bit by meditating. To me, this is almost like an abuse of practice. When we're doing Taoist meditation, we're looking for some process to occur, but the process isn't becoming strong and healthy and developing a sharp mind so I can make a million on the stock market. There are people practicing practicing all kinds of traditional arts so that they can get ahead in life. In Taoism we're not interested in getting ahead in life. Laozi said, the way of the scholar is to gain something each day; the way of the sage is to lose something. There's no scheming mind in Taoism. I don't practice Taoism to become healthy so that I can progress myself; I practice this Taoist way because I'm a Taoist and this is my way of life. So to me Taoism can be talked about just as a way of life, a natural way of life. It doesn't mean that Taoists do not accomplish things or that they have not accomplished quite a lot. Laozi says, the sage seems to do nothing but accomplishes everything. Almost all of Chinese science has come from the Taoists-from their inquisitive nature looking in order to understand the pattern of nature. Not to try to dominate nature, not to try to gain from nature. That's why at a certain point the Taoists stopped pushing scientific investigation; there was no reason to go much further. They weren't trying to learn about these things so they could control them. They just wanted to look at nature and enjoy its beauty. Just to practice Taoism for health is missing the point of what it's all about. That's sort of like getting your college degree in mathematics so you can balance your checkbook. Certainly you should be able to balance your checkbook... certainly you'll be stronger and healthier if you follow the Taoist way and pay attention, but that's the small way.

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