My copy of Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain — the essence of T'ai Chi sat on the mantle for the past few decades, covered with dust. It had positive vibes, as far as I can recall my first reading of it. But recently upon reopening it, the fuzziness that floated up was overwhelming. The book, according to the Introduction by editor-publishers Barry and John Stevens, is based on transcripts of a week-long 1971 workshop at Esalen led by Al Chung-liang Huang.
Perhaps it was better in person than on paper. Perhaps I've become too critical over the years. Perhaps there is less "there" there than originally met my eye. Unlike the similarly transcript-based Shunryu Suzuki books Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, the language in Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain often lacks poetic power.
But there are some striking bits, among the T'ai Chi wave-hands-like-clouds mysticism. From Chapter V, for instance, appears a musing on negative space:
Now raise your arms in front of you and make a circle with your arms by touching the tips of your fingers together. Do you see the empty circle in front of you? This is also a part of your body. Look at the solid circle of your arms. But what about the space in between your arms? Do you negate that? Do you say that's not your body, that it has nothing to do with you? It has everything to do with you. You are enclosing it; it becomes you.
The space between your legs also gives you balance in the t'ai chi base. If you concentrate on the yin space, you relieve your anxiety and the tension in your legs. Then the muscles will relax. Otherwise your thighs may get very tight and sore.
... and after a few paragraphs of describing a particular pose:
With each lift, each transformation of your shape, think of the movement in the space around you. As you lift up, think of your arm and leg resting on the space underneath. Balance must be that mutual cooperation of yin space and yang space. This will relieve you of the anxiety of trying to reach a particular position and then having to hold it. Imagine that the space beneath you pushes you up as you move. As you do this, keep feeling the energy going upwards, between the legs, lifting to the center. Each rebound and kneebend should have that feeling of uplift. Otherwise you feel squat, and pretty soon you will be walking like a duck.
... and in the next chapter of the book, "Calligraphy", the same theme returns during a description of how to prepare to do brushwork:
Now draw an empty circle in space. This is the horizontal t'ui sho circle that we were doing. Now, reverse it and make a loop, an S-shape, an 8-shape, an infinity shape. See if you can continue the loop easily and still maintain that same sense of flow. And then get a little closer to the surface of the paper. Don't touch the paper yet, but just enjoy looking at its nice blankness.
The paper is still completely open and free. This is a good time to think of the distinction between a solid line and a suggested line. Which is more real? When I make a broken stroke, as in painting bamboo, the empty spaces between bamboo become very suggestive of something solid, like the joints of the bamboo. We describe this technique as "brush absent, idea present." We allow the white parts of the paper to suggest sky, snow, water or mist by painting dark areas of earth, mountain and trees. This way of utilizing the original whiteness of the paper corresponds to t'ai chi practice, in which we allow the moving empty space to complement the solid body—the yin and yang.