Reflections On Formlessness

GM Sam Chin & students demonstrate the 21 Form

Stories of Awareness From “The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber”

By Inst. Jeffrey Wong, Edited by Prof. Nancy Watterson

The Heaven Leaning Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber

In a famous Chinese martial arts novel titled The Heaven Leaning Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber,  (倚天屠龍記 published by Jin Yong in the early 1960s as the final part of the Condor Trilogy), there was a story about how Zhang San-Feng, the fictionalized creator of Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), transmitted his “grand ultimate fighting” style to his grand-student, Zhang Wuji.

sunrise at WudangThe story goes as follows: Wudang Temple was under siege by a gang in possession of the sharpest sword on earth called the Heaven-Leaning Sword. 

Zhang, Sanfeng was still recovering from a previous injury, but was challenged to a duel by a sword expert from the gang. 

Sanfeng’s grand-student Zhang, Wuji volunteered to take on the sword master in place of his injured grandmaster.  The only “weapon” Wuji had was a wooden ceremonial sword in the temple. 

Before the battle, the gang allowed Wuji one hour to learn the newly created Tai Chi sword methods from his grandmaster in front of everyone, because they did not believe anyone would be capable of learning all the techniques from a sword form in such a short time anyway.

Forget The Technique

Instr. Luther Burrell demonstrates a movement from the 21 formUsing the wooden sword, Zhang Sanfeng demonstrated a 54-movement sword form, while Wuji purposely only observed the principles of the form, but did not try to memorize the movements. 

After the demo, Sanfeng asked Wuji whether he had memorized them.  Wuji answered, “I forgot almost half of it.”  Sanfeng replied, “Good, think about it a bit more.” 

After a while, Sanfeng asked again, “What about now?”  Wuji replied again, “Already forgot more than three quarters of it!”

Sanfeng smiled and said, “Good, I’ll repeat once more.”  

He then demonstrated the form again, but this time, none of the movements were the same as the last time he had shown them.  After Sanfeng finished his second demonstration, he asked Wuji again, “Child, how do you feel now?”  Wuji answered, “I still remember three techniques.” 

We should not be just copying or applying the instructions and basic movements rigidly, but changing with timing and spacing appropriate to that to tweet

Sanfeng nodded and sat down, while Wuji paced around the great hall of the temple a little longer, then happily told the grandmaster that he had completely forgotten the entire form. 

Sanfeng was overjoyed, “Not bad, not bad! You are ready now!”

Armed with only the ceremonial wooden sword given by his grandmaster, Zhang Wuji proceeded to defeat the gang’s sword master who was wielding the sharpest sword in the world, doing so by sticking constantly to the ridge and avoiding the sharp edges of the real sword, and when the sword master was finally exhausted and frustrated, he admitted defeat and the gang retreated from the temple.

Remember The Principle

So what can we learn from this fictional, but fun story?


Not only literally about forgetting the sword form itself, but about understanding the nature and principle of things, and not being fixated on either a set of  techniques or any rigid preconceived formation of ideas.

Such an understanding of formlessness is one of our “Three Mental Factors” in the System of Zhong Xin Dao I Liq Chuan, along with “present”, and “neutral”. 

In the story, Wuji learned not by memorizing preset movements that he was shown, but by using his power of observation to realize the principles behind the sword form.  Our own study of the ZXDILC art requires the same learning process:  observing ourselves and the way things are. 

We do train forms and basic movements, but those are instructions — pointers to the principles. 

Do Not Imitate Or Accumulate

I liq Chuan students in AustriaWe should not be just copying or applying the instructions and basic movements rigidly, but changing with timing and spacing appropriate to that moment. 

Only the principles themselves should be constant, then countless movements and applications will emerge — much as Zhang Sanfeng demonstrated 108 different impromptu movements to showcase the sword form to his grand-student, intentionally for them to be forgotten within the hour.

Of course, Grandmaster Sam Chin would not want you to forget his teachings of the 15 Basics, 21-Form, Butterfly Form, and Nine-Point Fists, but it is guaranteed that he would be happier to see that a student can retain the unchanging principles of Zhong Xin Dao I Liq Chuan, even when his movement sets are done differently than what was demonstrated.

The principles should remain the constant center within the infinite changes.

Another interesting part of the story is that the strategy for stickiness—adhering to the ridge of the sword to avoid the sharp ends—is quite similar to our control of the Point of Contact in our level 7-8 top and bottom hand training! 

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The Flight of Icarus, From the ZXD Point of View

image of a feather

image of a feather

Stories of Awareness

by Instructor Jeffrey Wong

According to Greek mythology, there was this man named Icarus, whose father Daedalus was a very talented craftsman. Daedalus built the “Labyrinth” (a maze that no one could exit) for King Minos of Crete to imprison a half-man, half-bull monster called the “Minotaur”.
After the labyrinth was finished, King Minos then imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus inside because Daedalus gave the king’s enemy, Theseus, a clew (clue, a ball of string) to find his way out of the maze after defeating the Minotaur.
In order to escape the labyrinth, Daedalus caught many crows waiting for them to die inside the maze, and used their feathers to create two pairs of large wings for himself and his son Icarus.
Before escaping the labyrinth island, Daedalus warned his son to not fly too close to the sun because the wax he used to glue the wings together would melt, and not fly too close to the sea because the feathers would get wet.

Then, they started their flight to escape the island. As soon as Icarus got used to using the wings, he was eager to show off his newfound flying skills. As he kept soaring higher and higher and too far to hear his father’s calls, the wax on Icarus’s wings started to melt as he flew too close to the sun, and he fell into the ocean and drowned.

Lessons For Zhong Xin Dao Students

There are two lessons we can take from this legend and see them in our Zhong Xin Dao philosophy and practice:
  1. The most obvious lesson that is congruent to our philosophy, we should seek the center path. To not stray too high near the sun, nor too low near the water like Icarus, and we need to stay in the middle; not be blinded by our egos, or by our own preferences, and do not lose awareness of the neutral path.
  2. During the learning process, students need to first follow the path set forth by their teachers/instructors. However, instructors themselves are also never perfect, and they are also students for life. There is no reason to think a student cannot surpass a teacher.

    So when the students understand the principles further, the path set by the teachers may no longer seem the most efficient, then they can adjust it to be more precise to be in the center. But, was the teacher’s planned path not the best route because they are imperfect, or is the student’s view biased to think he/she has found a better way?

    I personally absolutely understood Icarus’s excitement once he felt he has achieved some success, and started thinking I have understood all that there is to know and I can fly my own path, only to be humbled by many failures in applications, and needed to retrace the principle which ultimately should be the most correct path and not according to any person’s opinion of the proper way. We then can start the process again, while hoping the next journey would be more precise. Luckily, our failures in training usually do not have fatal consequences like Icarus’s fall.

Winning Distant Battles

運籌帷幄 決勝千里

運籌帷幄 決勝千里
yun4 chou2 wei2 wo4 jue2 sheng4 qian1 li3

“Strategizing within a military tent, but deciding victories thousands of miles away.”

The origin of the phrase came from a book recording the history of Han Dynasty, described a time at around 180 B.C., a military advisor Zhang Liang, who was fighting for the force which later became the Han Dynasty, was able to create such an efficient command and report system, that he could sit in the middle of a tent, and control battles happening thousands of miles away, and manage all aspects of the war successfully.

Of course, it is now quite common for modern militaries to have advanced communication systems for remotely commanding battles, but for such ancient time two thousand years ago, it was an incredible feat.

image of GM Sam Chin
GM Sam Chin speaking in AZ 2015


The story is similar to what GM Sam Chin describes about a spider sitting in the center of a web, while sensing the vibration on the threads to tell it when/where to attack.
The wider your attention can span, the more things fall within your control.

Beginners in Zhong Xin Dao I Liq Chuan often lose focus and can not do the coordination needed from exercise to exercise in the 15 Basics because their attention cannot hold enough concentration points, but just be patient and keep training. We don’t learn to accumulate or build, we train to see more and sense wider, until we can unify ourselves and the opponent in one joint network… then the opponent becomes a delicious meal.