DISCHARGE – ITS USE AND ABUSE
By Robert Amacker
Of all of the techniques and skills of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, probably the most misunderstood is that of discharge. Before we even begin to talk about it, we should make a semantic distinction, confusion over which is sometimes the source of useless argument.
The most tangible fruit of years of T’ai Chi practice is the eventual acquisition of the skill required to produce a kind of short range, extremely powerful force, called jing. Although the possible catalogue of various specific types of jing can be quite long, they may all be characterized as some sort of variation on the principle of vibration. In my opinion, T’ai Chi Ch’uan concerns itself with three principle types, p’eng jing, characterized by the action of an elastic ball, t’ing jing, by the action of a whip, and ch’an-su-jing, by that of a spring. One might say that T’ai Chi practice is intended to result in, and is also dependant on, one’s ability to “vibrate” in these three ways.
Any one of these types of jing has the capability of injuring an opponent, with p’eng jing being the most benign, and ch’an-su-jing being the most powerful. When this force is released in such a manner, whether by arbitrary act of will or as a direct result of the opponent’s action, it is called fa-jing. The cultivation of this skill is far from monopolized by T’ai Chi Ch’uan; it is the holy grail of many martial arts, the referenced skill in Bruce Lee’s famous “one inch punch,” and that needed for dim mak, otherwise known as the delayed death touch. But a careful study of the practices and expectations of these other arts shows a propensity to assume that the result of these releases of force is injury or death of the opponent. Only in T’ai chi Ch’uan is there such an emphasis upon the relatively harmless discharge of the opponent’s whole body through space.
I remember coming up with this word in 1971 when Martin Inn and I were trying to find a way to say in English what we were being taught by Chu, Ch’u-fang, and we subsequently started using it in all our publications. I don’t know if this was the actual origin of the term or if it was the result of a similar logical choice by many others, but it is in common use today to describe a variety of practices, most horribly misguided, but all satisfying the vague requirement of somebody flying across the room.
The semantic distinction to which I referred earlier was that between fa-jing and discharge. It is perhaps logical for many to assume that discharge is simply the expression of the natural extension of fa-jing power, finally reaching the point where it is so powerful that it hurls opponents backwards, rather than merely killing them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The more powerful jing becomes, the less likely it is to exert any sort of “long force” upon the opponent. Even when used against bricks and other hard objects, it never propels them great distances, it breaks them. It can only throw them away when they have an elastic condition of their own, like a soccer ball. This phenomenon of discharging the ball is really dependant upon the condition and action of the ball. Likewise, the phenomenon of discharge in T’ai Chi Ch’uan is dependant upon the condition and action of the opponent. Just as the ball utilizes its elasticity and softness to avoid being broken, instead dissipating the striker’s energy by its movement through space, so does a skillful opponent. The phenomenon of discharge is not found in T’ai Chi Ch’uan because T’ai Chi is so much more powerful than its rivals, but because it is a cultivated technique of its practice. Chu, Ch’u-fang used to say, “Discharge means ‘make him jump.’” The fact that discharge may legitimately happen even when the opponent is not skillful is because many of the requirements for its occurrence are natural results of the kind of behavior that occurs in fights, and this results in the occasional “real” discharge that is not deliberately cooperative. T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice is not, however, the simple pursuit of this skill as a weapon, but the deliberately cooperative use of it as a guide to the proper pursuit and execution of all higher techniques.
To qualify this, I would like to expand on the simple definition of discharge that I offered earlier, that somebody goes flying, and add some further requirements. One is that this phenomenon is the result of actual fa-jing on the part of the discharger. I mentioned that it was natural to assume a direct link between fa-jing and discharge, which would produce the mistaken assumption that any fa-jing, if sufficiently powerful, will discharge the opponent, and the more unconscious assumption that “discharges” of the opponent, simply defined as before, automatically authenticate the “fa-jing” of the discharger. Well, men have been knocking each other over and out of rings scratched in the dirt for, what? – five hundred thousand years? Were these all T’ai Chi masters? Was this jing? As I have stated, unless we specifically qualify “discharging” as requiring fa-jing, there is no necessary connection between the two. Lack of recognition of this fact, deliberately in some cases, I suspect, has produced current t’ui-shou “competition.”
Further, for actual qualification as a discharge, the transfer of power must be almost entirely energetic; that is, the phenomenon is produced by the attempt of the opponent to move the energetic release of the discharger through his body until it reaches his feet. It is this actual action on his part that produces the movement causing him to fly backwards. As Cheng, Man-ch’ing said, “Not even the greatest master can discharge a statue.” A corollary to this is that the intention of the discharger is at no time necessarily to discharge. He tries to neutralize the opponent’s movement, and where he cannot, he absorbs it and tries to reflect it back. Whether this results in the phenomenon of discharge occurring, either to himself or to his opponent, is not something that he can either predict or even consider. Nor need he. Advanced practice brings the enlightening realization that, although double weightedness is a frequent ingredient of one’s susceptibility to being discharged, a discharge may also occur when one is doing nothing wrong whatsoever, and actually result in one attaining the superior position.
One of the keys to understanding discharge, I believe, is to realize that when it legitimately occurs (by which I mean that it satisfies my more strict definition), the actual condition of both players is exactly the same, as is also their intended behavior. It is only their physical relationship that determines who leaves the ground and who does not. This is true not only leading up to the discharge, but also during and after it. The condition of the dischargee while flying through space is exactly the same as would be the case if he had instead been the discharger, or at least, it should ideally be (unless he is double weighted, not, as I stated, a necessary condition for discharge to occur, although frequently a sufficient one).
Students should also understand that in fact the player emitting the jing may be the one to be discharged, if by this we mean the one who leaves his feet, effectively discharging himself off of the opponent. The opponent may in this case be the one who is double weighted, which means that when the player actually emitting the jing lands, he will do so in the superior position and at exactly the right time. In boxing, this is what counts, nothing else. Ideally, in the most sophisticated and desirable situation, even when only one player is discharged, both players are emitting jing, but one of the players at least must exhibit the skill also of receiving it. It is his received and reflected jing that actually causes him to jump; he is, in fact, discharging himself off of the floor, but using the opponent’s energy to do so.
For this reason the beautiful techniques found in the Sanshou exercise of the Yang family cannot be faked, walked through, or even deliberately jumped through. Only this process of sending and receiving jing produces the correct timing and an execution that does not appear visibly clumsy or affectedly elegant. It is perhaps because of this “exchange of jing” that Chang-san-feng was said to have referred to T’ai Chi Ch’uan as “sex between men.” Or, at least, we may hope so. Actually, since being discharged reveals more movement, and is a skill in itself, with recognizable characteristics that distinguish it from merely being overpowered and shoved backwards, it is more difficult to fake than discharging. When discharging my students, I am not simply asking them to help me demonstrate my own skill, but I am looking for their skill in receiving this discharge. Only when they can correctly receive energy can they have a hope of reflecting it.
The entire phenomenon of discharge is not intended as representing the development of an ultimate weapon, but the development of an ultimate tool for advanced study. It serves beautifully two ideals of the martial arts. It creates a situation where boxers may increase their power to very realistic levels, allowing them to make full contact, and at very short, very realistic ranges; and it also results, for the previous reason and several others, in allowing the boxer to do in real combat exactly what he would do in training with a friend, with highly successful consequences.
This accounts for the great misunderstanding found not only in students but in outside observers of the art. In watching a demonstration of discharge it is natural for the audience to assume that they are witnessing a demonstration of great power, against which the victim is assumed to be making every possible effort. What one sees, instead, is an apparent stooge visibly cooperating with an “attack” against which even the most unsophisticated of observers could imagine a multitude of ways to resist. His assumption is that he is expected to believe that these measures would prove fruitless, and that the final result (discharge) would be the same. This, one should realize, is the underlying assumption to all hand pushing tournaments. In fact, there are about a million ways in which the “victim” can prevent being discharged, but not, however, without worsening his position. He has been “trapped” in a certain way by the opponent, to the point where being discharged is his best option, and he is now showing his skill in doing it.
What I have just described, of course, is a demonstration of discharge on a very sophisticated level (the only level at which it can be legitimately demonstrated), but the irony is that the more sophisticated that level becomes, the more it appears to the average observer as “fake.” The natural extension of this cooperative effort, if one simply escalated the level of sophistication, would imply a developing sensitivity to being “trapped” at greater and greater distances, due to the fact that the neutralization lessons learned in t’ui-shou go directly to the eyes, which will ultimately interpret the data with the same reliability as the skin (Cheng, Man-ch’ing once remarked that without this effect, T’ai Chi Ch’uan would be a great health exercise but a worthless martial art). Taking the skill to this level, or at least the idea of doing so, is the logical basis for the practice (notice I call it, like discharge, a practice, not a power) of so-called empty force. Now, nothing could look more fake than this, and yet, viewed in the correct light, it has certain legitimacy. However, like the phenomenon of discharge, it is profoundly not what it appears to be to the observer. I have yet, for example, to ever see a demonstration of this “force” when the victim’s eyes were closed, except in examples of obvious rehearsal. Even if it were proven that there was some kind of subtle energy emitted and detected, “ch’i,” or something else, it would be just that – subtle - nothing that would discipline the neighbor’s dog or even keep the cigarette smoke out of your girlfriend’s eyes. The substance of the exercise would remain the same, a cooperative effort.
It should be remembered that all boxing is, to some degree, a cooperative effort. Following any rules whatsoever, even just agreeing not to kill each other, is a form of cooperation. Prohibitive rules (no eye gouging, biting, etc.), extends this cooperation further. Stylistic agreement is extreme cooperation. Actually, the more sophisticated the form of boxing, the more sophisticated the rules. As we move up this ladder, we are trading “realism” for the deliberate study of certain specialized abilities, abilities that could not develop under real conditions, but are intended, under real conditions, to prevail, once they are developed.
Any such hierarchy of complexity and sophistication would have to place T’ai Chi Ch’uan at the top. The expected promise of any martial art is to modify and extend one’s behavior in very deliberate and restrictive ways, and then, in direct proportion to the energy thus invested, to offer eventual freedom, not just to express the art, but to express oneself, as well. It is my opinion that the rewards of freedom are also directly proportional to the sophistication of the art, which is in turn directly proportional to the time needed for its development. In the case of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it takes years to even understand what the rules are. One of them, the first one you ever hear, but perhaps the most difficult of all to truly understand and follow, is to give up using strength. In one sense, all of the other techniques of T’ai Chi Ch’uan may be thought of as simply facilitating that result. In the Classics, the rewards of such devotion are clearly stated: “Certainly you must give up using strength for a long, long, time; then, do as you like.” (I intend no insult to the reader’s intelligence by pointing out that this does not mean going back to using strength.)
I hope that the foregoing has oriented the reader to thinking of discharge, not as a power exerted by one player over another, but rather as a kind of event that takes place, the very nature of which defies both planning and predictability on the part of either player. Not only that, it quite literally represents the exact opposite of what we are in fact trying to do. In a wonderful paradox of both training and application, it is a failure of our intended technique, of everything that we in fact practice, or at least are supposed to practice. All of my own teachers and virtually everyone who has ever made any real achievement in T’ai Chi Ch’uan are unanimous in asserting that no progress is made through attempts to demonstrate or practice jing, or to “discharge” classroom opponents, but only by the relentless pursuit of skill in neutralizing all incoming force, which only results in discharge when it is unsuccessful.
Further, this is not a practice for the classroom only, to be abandoned when facing “real” opponents; it is the one and only priority of our behavior, and, if totally successful, means that our opponent feels nothing, and is never discharged or even injured in any way. It is perhaps the greatest paradox of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which boasts a plethora of such, that success, in terms of fighting, only occurs in the event of failure, in terms of attempted technique. It is a feature of the technique that, no matter how anxious we are for it to fail, and for the fight to end, this cannot be rushed; its very success depends upon a perfectly balanced position with respect to the opponent, and is accomplished only by a sincere effort to continue to neutralize until the last possible moment. Ironically, the better we are at this neutralization process, the more quickly it proceeds to this perfect balance, and, strangely enough, the sooner it fails. This is why great masters discharge their opponents almost immediately upon contact. As I mentioned before, a great deal of this process may take place by use of the eyes, and may be therefore almost entirely completed by the time this contact is made. All boxers understand that this is necessary, but only T’ai Chi Ch’uan has this method of training the cerebellum through a different mechanism, that of touch (t’ui-shou), and making use of its natural connection and extension to the eyes.
There is another mostly unconscious presumption that keeps many players from fully understanding discharge, and more importantly, its proper use. They limit their expectation of the result of a discharge event to the single case of one player being perfectly thrown directly backwards, separating the players and effectively putting a conclusion to that particular encounter – or not. In other words, the result is either success, or failure. This whole approach is wrong headed; discharges are the result of a kind of willing acceptance of our failure to neutralize, and as such must be regarded as a kind of fortunate accident, which appears, as the Classics state, like a lightning bolt (“suddenly appears; suddenly disappears”), and is a surprise to both players. Discharges are not either “successful” or “unsuccessful;” they either happen or they don’t. The very word success implies a plan to do it. There is no plan. Even our neutralization is not a plan. It is a moment to moment change of plans, so continuous that effectively none can exist, an ongoing application of the t’ai chi principle, a process that substitutes for a plan, telling us where to go even though we have no idea where we are going.
There is a wonderful analogy here to Zen, and the whole idea and process of enlightenment. Every action of a Zen monk is directed towards the purpose of eventual enlightenment, and yet he (or she) must deal with the fact that this very desire for it is an impediment, because it involves a preconception of what it is. Because of this, one cannot plan their actual enlightenment, but only develop a process that effectively brings it about, when and where one has no way of knowing, or planning. Enlightenment represents a break in that process, the sudden replacement of emptiness with realization. If one replaces meditation, the mechanism of which is to concentrate on one thing until it becomes emptiness, with the following of the t’ai chi principle in relation to others, and the achievement of that emptiness with the “emptiness” the is implied by successful neutralization, it is easy to see that the discharge event is a kind of enlightenment. There is, however, one important difference.
When monks are enlightened, it is absolutely accepted that this may be a large or small enlightenment, and further, that the size of the enlightenment, or depth, or whatever, was generally connected to the length of time one took to get there. The late Yasutani Roshi, for example, considered to be the greatest Zen Master in five hundred years, was a completely unnoticed monk for decades, a grandfather, before receiving his first enlightenment, and this is cited often as one reason for its extraordinary depth. On the other hand, one reason given for the relative antipathy towards women in monasteries is not that they cannot be enlightened, but that they are enlightened too easily. Every time one “gets” a joke, one is experiencing a small enlightenment (one possible reason that Zen monks are not famous for their jokes, but that laughter is a frequent accompaniment to enlightenment). This compares well with discharge, which may be either powerful or mild, and which becomes more powerful the longer it is delayed. However, enlightenment may be either big or small, in terms of the depth of the realization, but the realization is complete. One is either enlightened about something profound (the enlightenment of the Buddha), or about something minor (getting a joke), but whatever it is, one, by definition, “gets” it completely.
We might compare this completeness to the aforementioned presumption, that all discharges, if “successful,” end in the complete ejection of one player from the space. There is no such thing as partial enlightenment (or if there is, then our analogy becomes complete), but there is such a thing as partial discharge. What does this mean, and how does it come about?
Ideally, we can picture our two opponents as two elastic objects that may or may not collide with each other enough to deform their elasticity, thereby storing energy and transmitting it in the form of a wave, first to the floor, and then back. Perfect neutralization is synonymous with complete lack of deformity due to pressure. Remember that the changes and even the distortions that occur in t’ui-shou are not supposed to be actually caused by the force of an increase in pressure, but are designed to react to the slightest movement, with the purpose of keeping that force from ever actually being increased. It is only when this process fails that any energy has the potential for actually being stored. In the t’ui-shou exercise, the size of the movements, the slow speed associated with that size, and the resultant long force normally prohibit such pressurized distortions from storing any energy, which is dissipated in external movement.
As the speed of an encounter increases, with more and more force being exerted through smaller and smaller distances, a wave of higher frequency and smaller wavelength is possible to be produced, one which is transmitted with the speed necessary to store and reflect energy in a very short space of time. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to describe in detail the dynamics and mechanism of fa-jing, it should be understood that, although it is a discrete event, actually an anomaly in our process, it is nevertheless simply a special case of the kind of larger waves that are the natural result of the give and take of t’ui-shou. This is why t’ui-shou is training for it. Yang, Cheng-fu said that in order to qualify as real fa-jing, the range of vibration must be within the space of one inch. Even when the forceful pushes seen in t’ui-shou competition are coordinated with long neutralizations of the opponent’s force, and therefore can be legitimately called waves, their amplitude is far too great to meet this qualification. It is only at this shorter level that we can start to refer to the exchange as a transfer of energy, because, since it moves very little but at a very high speed, it contains energy that does not substantially dissipate through the external motion of the opponent, but instead causes an internal change in the object being struck. It qualifies as a discharge to the direct degree that it does not qualify as a conventional push. The opponent, if he is skillful, converts this into something that looks like the result of a conventional push by transmitting the energy through his body, and reflecting it off the floor, dissipating the energy by the movement of his whole body, in an action that looks like he is jumping.
So, when two elastic balls collide, there are two forces to consider, one generated by their external movement, which would be present whatever the balls were made of, and the other the force generated by the elastic deformations caused by their collision, which is proportional to the degree of their elasticity. We may refer to this as their internal force. The situation between two boxers is somewhat more sophisticated. While the highest probability will be that potential internal force results from the interception (and incomplete neutralization) of long force, such long force being produced either intentionally by one player or as an accidental result of high speed contact, it (internal force) may also be deliberately produced and, if received, result in a discharge that is not the result of any external motion (greater than one inch). This would be analogous to the balls touching each other in a motionless state, and one of them suddenly vibrating violently, generating enough force for a reaction between the two balls. Despite the poverty of this analogy, it will do for our purposes. Regardless of the source of the force causing the discharge, whether jing produced by a conditioned response to the interception of long force, or coming directly from the other player, it has a direction, and may be represented by a definite vector. When a three dimensional neutralization of the incoming vector is accomplished, it is analogous to a perfectly “square” collision of the balls, that is, one in which the vector of force perfectly connects their centers. However, this collision may not be square, but oblique, analogous to a release of jing occurring before neutralization is complete. When a discharge results from this situation, I refer to it as a partial discharge.
In reality, these partial discharges are much more likely than either perfect neutralization or perfect discharge. However, the results of these partial discharges are not as conclusive as with a perfect discharge, as they allow skillful players to remain in contact at one point at least, and are subject to an analysis of the resultant positions and timing. As I have said, the player who loses contact with the ground should not by any means be prematurely considered the loser of the encounter, except where the discharge is perfect and the separation complete.
I should point out that this analogy to elastic balls is true not only in the postures that seem to suggest it, but in every posture. Most suspect might be roll back, which would seem at first glance to be carrying the opponent from in front of you to behind you. In reality, the correct rollback, which is crafted from a very canny knowledge of just how far idealized neutralization can actually go, and where situations appear that distort this process, storing energy and exchanging jing, turns from the waist perfectly, with the pull following this source and the split never crossing the line connecting the two players central axes. He is always in front of you, with his forearm in the center between you. I do not want to give the impression from this that things only work when someone is in front of you; they may work from the side or even behind. What is significant is that the points of contact between you and the other player are evolving in such a way that they always lie on a line connecting the players' centers, whatever their orientation. This suggests the power to uproot at any moment, including through forces not covered by our elastic ball analogy, such as pull.
The discussion threatens to become highly technical at this point, but I would hope that the reader understands that the finer points of boxing revealed by the proper use of discharge as a safety measure or, if you will, an ultimate form of escape from actual injury, are a far greater treasure than any simple pursuit of more powerful “pushes” can ever be. But this is only its most obvious virtue. Its proper use is the key to all of the higher techniques of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. When first learning the San shou exercise, thirty-five years ago, I assumed that the final pull was the only true discharge contained in the sequence. Now I realize that there are several moves that absolutely require a real exchange of jing between players, hence a real discharge, to loose a patently awkward look that otherwise inevitably appears. When both players more or less forget about discharge and simply pursue the precondition for its appearance, that is, proper neutralization, that appearance serves as both a diagnostic tool and as a guide to proper execution of the technique being studied. By this mechanism its potential power is also naturally increased, but in the manner of intelligent weightlifting, by observing proper form rather than just going for the heaviest thing you can pick up.
Discharge is, then, the greatest thing you ever didn’t want to happen. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is likewise the worst thing you could ever want to have happen, at least whenever it might have a chance of happening. This is Taoism. Go figure.