The Teachings of Kenneth S. Cohen
Qigong, Tai Chi, Taoism, Health, Tea & Cultural Arts
On March 17, 2002, B P. Chan, one of the first generation of qigong teachers in North America, passed into spirit. Chan was born in 1922 in Fujian Province, China, lived for many years in the Philippines, and, finally, moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.
When Chan arrived in New York City in 1974, he planned to stay for about six months, long enough to teach a basic course in Bagua Zhang, one of the “inner martial arts” (nei jia quan) related to Taiji Quan, at the studio of his friend and colleague, William C. C. Chen. Not wishing to miss the rare opportunity to study with a teacher and person of Chan’s caliber, students flocked to his classes. Six months later, he decided to “visit” a bit longer, to teach the next level of Bagua Zhang, as well as an introductory course in Xing Yi Quan and Chen Style Taiji Quan. Within a year, he had decided to remain in the United States.
B.P. Chan and Ken Cohen, 1985
Chan began studying Chinese healing, contemplative, and martial arts as a young child. He learned Taoist meditation and qigong from monks at the An De Guan (Monastery of Peaceful Virtue), not far from his home. He also studied with the famed Master Chen Jin Ming, from whom he learned Fujian White Crane Boxing, Standing Meditation (Zhan Zhuang), and various qigong techniques. At age 11, Chan began training in Northern Shaolin Boxing with Master Lian Dak Fung, and not long thereafter learned Taiji Ruler Qigong from Lui Chow-Munk, a direct student of the system’s greatest proponent, Zhao Zhongdao. In the Philippines, he perfected his Xingyi Quan with Master Chow Chang-Hoon, and his Bagua Zhang with Liu Hing-Chow and Liang Kay Chi, with whom he taught for many years. Chan was an avid reader and deep thinker; he was constantly refining his practice and teaching style.
A biographical sketch gives little indication of the extraordinary range of B. P. Chan’s skills. When I lived in New York City during the 1970s, he was teaching classes in Yang and Chen Style Taiji Quan; Bagua Zhang; Xingyi Quan; Yunan Boxing; Taoist Meditation; Taiji Ruler Qigong; Lying Down Qigong (Wo Gong); Standing Meditation, and more. Yet, Chan was no dilettante. He had a comprehensive understanding of the systems he taught, and when students were ready, he organized intermediate and advanced level classes. Xing Yi Quan students progressed from the Five Element Exercises to the Twelve Animals, to fluid “linking forms” that combined elements and animals in graceful choreography, and, finally, to two-person martial application sets. The Taiji Ruler course, typical of his qigong, included multiple levels of training. At first students learned gentle rocking exercises in which the hands make vertical or horizontal circles, designed to build a strong reservoir of qi in the dan tian. Later they learned the rarely-taught advanced techniques, such as the Taiji Ball. While standing, the student holds a stone or wooden ball (today, a bowling ball) between the fingers or palms, several inches in front of the dan tian. This develops qi and strength. Or he or she rolls the ball on a table top to develop sensitivity and “listening” (ting) ability– a student who can “listen,” that is sense energy, can feel blockages and detect illness in the body (one’s own or another’s), and, in the martial arts or other sports, can anticipate an opponent’s moves.
I enrolled in Chan’s very first class, and also took weekly private classes for several years. He was my first qigong teacher, and if I have been able to reach any heights in qigong, it is only because of the deep foundation Chan gave me. Because I spoke Chinese and had similar interests and values, we developed a special bond of friendship, and I believe that I got to know him well. Chan balanced wu gong, martial ability, with wu de, martial virtue. Unlike so many teachers, who expect their students to take pride in their teacher’s name, reputation, and lineage, Chan preferred to remain anonymous. He was a “no name teacher” (wu ming shi). When I asked Chan what B.P. stood for or if he would write the Chinese characters for his name, he replied, “Do you want to learn the martial arts or my name?” “Then how can students verify my lineage or find out if I am authorized to teach?” I asked. Chan replied, “Teach when you know. Good qigong follows qigong principles and creates health and happiness; it is not a matter of lineage. You do not become good because of the name of your teacher. Do not mention my name.” As you can see from this essay, I am a very poor student, who cannot help mentioning the name of his beloved teacher. Perhaps, since he was also my friend, it is permissible. I was very touched when, about twenty years ago, Chan gave me a photograph of himself, on the back of which he wrote, in Chinese, “To my classmate Ken Cohen,” signing it with the Chinese characters for his first name. In any case, about a decade later, Chan admitted publicly that B.P. stood for Bun Piac (in Fujian dialect).
Chan was always “Mr. Chan” to his students. He wouldn’t allow us to call him “Master,” though sometimes I got away with “Chan Laoshi,” Teacher Chan, in Chinese. Chan was what ninth century Chinese Buddhist Master Linji called “A True Person Of No Rank” (Wu Wei Jen Ren): “True” because his inside matched his outside– he walked his talk, lived his spirituality every day; “Of No Rank” because he wouldn’t accept titles and he saw each human being as having equal beauty and value.
The following sayings, stories, and anecdotes may give insight into Chan’s teachings and character.
Chan loved language. He spoke several fluently: Fujian and Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, and English. He told me that the Chinese terms used to describe qigong and Taiji Quan posture have hidden meanings. Sometimes the meaning is tied in to the very sound and energy of the Chinese words. For example, while practicing qigong students should han xiong ba bei, release the chest and extend the back. Chan taught that when you say “han xiong,” your chest automatically loosens, becoming yin; when you say “ba bei,” it is easy to feel energy rising up the spine and lengthening it. Another example: Xu ling ding jing, “Empty spirited energy is maintained at the crown of the head.” When you say, ” xu” (empty), the body and mind become light and empty. As you say “ling” qi rises to the crown. With “ding jing,” the energy is maintained at the crown. Chan always stressed that we should have the feet firmly rooted in the ground, while the head lightly reaches towards the heavens. “The feeling of a suspended head is the secret of speed in combat,” he once commented.
English words also have power. Chan felt that “relax” was an unfortunate translation for the Chinese word song. “The word ‘relax’ makes people tense,” he said. “Better to say loosen and release.”
At my first private class, Chan revealed a “secret technique” called “Standing Meditation” (Zhan Zhuang). He said that it was the most important exercise in qigong. I stood with bent knees, straight back, and arms rounded in front of my chest. After ten minutes, my legs began shaking. Chan told me to take a break. We sat together and chatted about martial arts. Then I tried it again, with the same effect. He told me that, in the beginning stages of qigong, shaking was natural. “It means that there’s water in the pressure cooker, but the lid is not properly sealed or tight- it is bobbing up and down. In other words, your body is not yet strong or stable enough to hold the qi.” He told me to go home and practice every day. At next week’s lesson, I could stand for twenty minutes, but then both my hands and legs shook! This went on every week, stand a little, shake a little. I felt like a fool. But until I could stand for a full hour, without moving, he wouldn’t teach me anything else. “If you can’t stand, how can you walk or move? If you don’t have enough energy to stand for an hour, how can you practice martial arts?” He told me that to master qigong, you must master the “Four Virtues” (Si De): lying, sitting, standing, and walking.
“What is the meaning of song kua, yuan dang (release the inguinal area, round the groin)? Be aware of the crease between the thigh and hip–keep this area soft, and imagine that your legs and hips form a rounded arch way. An arch can support more weight than a pillar. Conversely, if you imagine that your legs are pillars, you will tire more easily.
“Practice the Four Empties (Si Kong): Use intent (yi) to make the feet, palms, chest, and mind empty. ‘Empty’ means open and receptive.
“Practice the Three Levels (San Ping) Keep three areas level: eyes, hips, shoulders. (Level movement is also important in “walking the circle,” the basic practice in Bagua Zhang. Sometimes, while Chan was practicing, his teacher held a wooden block with a nail through it just above his crown. If he rose up, he would be skewered!)
“Keep the crown point (bai hui) and perineum point (hui yin) on one line. Gradually qi in the vertical axis will reach the feet, and then the hands.
“Never correct yourself by looking at yourself. Use nei shi, ‘inner gazing.’ Be like a sentinel on a wall. To see the enemy, look out, not down the wall.”
Chan exemplified the qigong principle of “a steel bar wrapped in cotton.” He was soft and flexible, like water, but he could hit like a tidal wave. Sometimes, during Bagua Zhang practice, I felt that his grip was like a steel vise, and was thankful that he never tightened it beyond my tolerance! Because I had probably watched too many martial arts movies, I was beginning to suspect the “real reason” for Chan’s martial arts prowess. He undoubtedly did finger pushups and spent hours each day slapping bricks and thrusting his fingers into heated sand, probably followed by the application of herbal liniments. One day, during a private class, I decided to ask Chan about his personal training. “Why are your fingers so strong?” He immediately dropped into a low squat and struck his fingers full force onto the concrete floor. Then he stood up, rolled and tapped his fingers in the air and said, “You see, no pain, and I can still play piano.” “Yes, I can see that,” I said, “But how?” He replied, “You won’t believe me,” whereupon he bent his knees and raised his arms into a rounded shape, as though embracing a tree. “Standing,” he said, “is the secret. And the only reason the old masters had such great ability is because they had more patience than people today. They stood!”
One Sunday afternoon, the esteemed Taiji Quan teacher, T. T. Liang, then in his late seventies and directing a school in Boston, dropped in unexpectedly at the end of one of Chan’s martial arts classes. He was probably looking for his old friend, William C. C. Chen. Chan shook Liang’s hand warmly, introduced his students, and then, to our astonishment, asked Liang, “Could you give me some correction on my Taiji Quan form? Perhaps one or two words of advice?” Our teacher was asking for correction! Liang tried to refuse, but Chan insisted. Chan admonished us, “What’s wrong? What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t take advantage of this golden opportunity?”
I have always believed that a great teacher is a great student, and the two roles are often interchangeable. Sometimes one is a student, sometimes a teacher. One of Chan’s ingenious teaching devices was to ask a student who had just learned a technique to “play teacher” and teach it to the other students. As the student attempted to teach through both demonstration and explanation, Chan would offer gentle correction. It was a great learning experience for everyone.
I had just had an exhausting lesson in which Chan corrected every tiny detail of my Bagua Zhang form— aligning the index finger of my left hand exactly with my nose, the thumb of my right exactly with my navel, making sure that my heels were on an imaginary circle, with my feet pointing at a specific angle, and so on, and so on. At the end of the class, Chan asked me, “What is the reason for all this complicated choreography? You know– hold your hand this or that way, step exactly here, not there.” It was obvious that Chan wanted to answer his own question, so I hesitated. He continued, “The reason we learn qigong and martial arts is to find out ‘is this arm my arm, is this leg my leg?’ A person might think that, of course, my leg is my leg. But if this is true, if he is one with his leg, why can’t he do this?” at which point Chan slid into a low stance, one knee bent and the other leg stretched out along the floor, his hands grasping an invisible opponent– an exquisite Bagua Zhang move called “sparrow skims the water.” Chan then paid me a great complement. “I can tell you these things because you think for yourself, like me. Other students might believe I am crazy.” I assured him that many students would understand. He then summarized his philosophy. “The purpose of qigong is nei wai, shang xia he yi (inside and outside, upper and lower harmonized in unity).” He continued, “This is easy to say, difficult to practice.”
I asked Chan about the meaning of the ancient philosopher Lao Zi’s saying “Do without doing.” (wei wu wei). He said, “Do and act for the earth, including the environment. Do for heaven by developing yourself spiritually. And do for all living beings.”
After teaching a group of students some powerful martial arts grappling and striking techniques, a young woman asked, “Which technique is best? Which should we use in a dangerous situation?” Chan said, “Here’s what you do. First, spit in the attacker’s eye. This will startle him. Then do a shin kick, turn around, and run away. And always remember that we do martial arts to make friends, not enemies.”
I asked Chan if he had any special guidelines for teachers. He said, “You should always remember that teachers are easy to find. But true students are hard to find. And class payment is just a token. Real payment is in character.”
“Your brain doesn’t control your body. Your heart controls your body. We should use our hearts more.” Chan lived from the heart more and more during the last years of his life. His kindness was catching, and our relationship was transformed by it. Sometimes, when he phoned, if no one was at home, he would leave a beautiful message for me and my wife. “This is Chan. I love you.” We told him the same. Life is too short, and I am too old, to waste time not saying what I am really thinking and feeling. Love is a greater power than qi.
B.P. Chan is survived by six daughters and two sons. His rich legacy was passed on to thousands of students.