I got a Google Alert on a blog post that I found interesting. The post sort of brushed aside people like me who are skeptical and require extraordinary proof of the existence of chi. When a "chi master" does a miraculous feat with his chi, I always want to find out how he cheated. In my opinion, too many in the world of tai chi turn their heads, or say "well maybe it's true because you can't explain everything that happens in nature," or "Western science is biased against chi," or things like that. A lot of folks say, "I've felt and seen strange things I can't explain, so maybe it's true."
Today, another tai chi teacher told me that I was too critical. I admit I'm critical of people who make extraordinary claims that crumble under a test from a skeptic. I'm guilty.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a biography about Houdini (photo at left) on a cable network. He was a magician and escape artist -- one of the fascinating people of history -- and in his final years, he exposed many frauds who claimed to be able to channel spirits of dead people.
The "mediums" hated Houdini and flamed him unmercifully.
I discovered Houdini when I was 11 and saw the movie with Tony Curtis. I read every book I could find on Houdini. I studied magic, put on magic shows for neighborhood kids, and challenged all my friends -- even my dad -- to tie me up with ropes so that I couldn't escape. I always escaped, although I think one of my teachers thought I was a little pervert when she found me on the playground, escaping from some ropes after being tied up by my fellow 6th graders. :)
As an adult, after studying the internal arts for several years, studying acupuncture, training in Iron Palm -- I began to suspect that things weren't all they were cracked up to be, and I began requiring more proof. I never connected my skepticism with Houdini's influence on me until I saw the documentary a couple of weeks ago. Then it made sense. Houdini made me look for proof when people make miraculous claims, whether it's about religion or the martial arts.
When I was in college, the Amazing Kreskin (photo at left) came to the school for a performance. I went onstage with a group of students and he "hypnotized" us so we would clap our hands. Now, I loved Kreskin and had seen him a lot on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. I really wanted to believe Kreskin was psychic. But as we stood there clapping, I thought, "Wait a second, I can stop if I want to." So I stopped clapping, then the peer pressure of being the only person onstage not clapping got to me, and I began clapping again. But Kreskin's cover had been blown. What he did was not hypnotize people. He gave them permission to act out onstage.
I was a journalist for the student newspaper, and after the performance I interviewed Kreskin. I didn't ask him any tough questions because I was young and I liked the guy. I made him laugh once and he slapped my leg so hard it left a red mark.
When a "chi master" performs, the same thing happens that happened in Kreskin's performance. Students play along. They don't want the teacher to look bad, and they don't want to be left out of the miraculous feat of chi. Take a look at this video showing a self-proclaimed "tai chi, chi kung, and nei kung master" moving a student with his chi.
Now, you can see how the "master" is moving his hands to match the student's movements, and then positioning himself so that the student can see how his hands are moving (ironically the student's movements more closely match the hands when he can see them). If you believe this demonstration is honest then move along. There's nothing more for you to see here.
Then there's the "chi master" who could easily demonstrate on his willing students, but he claimed a 200-0 fighting record and offered $5,000 to any fighter who could put his chi skills to the test. This video shows the student demos and then shows the master getting beaten silly by an MMA fighter.
Then there is the Randi Foundation. It has one million dollars in escrow, to be given to the first person who can demonstrate psychic or chi or other powers in a double-blind, clinical trial (in other words, they take away the ability to cheat). Richard Mooney, who has taken a LOT of money from martial arts suckers who want to believe in the supernatural, tried to get the million bucks. He was profiled in magazines showing him knocking his own students down without touching them, and he has hosted many seminars where he "teaches" this empty force art (amazing how few of his students can do it).
You can read about the test here. Mooney failed miserably. The reason -- none of the people who were put in front of him knew what he was trying to do. The test took away the ability for anyone to manipulate the results. This failure didn't stop Mooney from taking money from suckers willing to attend his seminars.
Finally, take a look at this news report from Chicago, showing a "master" doing the same type of crap that George Dillman claims. This time, the TV reporter brought in outsiders. Watch this very well-done news story.
Despite all this, believers will not be swayed.
A lot of folks believe that you can condition your body to withstand terrible punishment. Iron Shirt chi kung is one of the training methods. All you have to do is look at Muhammad Ali and a lot of other boxers to see what abusing your body does over time. When you're young, you bounce back over and over, but it takes a toll that you can't always see immediately. You see it later. If you want to develop callouses on your hands from beating them on rocks for years, you can do that, and you can desensitize yourself to pain. But wait until you get older and try to use your hands to tie a tie or shake someone's hand without the pain of arthritis making you want to scream.
One of my favorite quotes from Chen Xiaowang is about Iron Shirt chi kung. He said, "Iron Shirt good for demonstration, not for fighting." The Chen family doesn't practice Iron Shirt. They can fight, though. How well can an Iron Shirt guy take a good punch to the nose, I wonder? Does his chi protect his eyes? How about his knee? Can it take a good sidekick?
In the fantastic book, American Shaolin, Matthew goes to live and train with the monks in the Shaolin Temple for two years. It's a true story, and he sees what happens to the monks who put on the demonstrations for the public. The monks who break concrete or ice blocks with their heads end up talking in stutters from the damage to their brains. Other injuries are common to the monks.
Sima Nan was a reporter in China who tried to investigate the claims of chi masters. The chi masters didn't want their fraud revealed, so he was beaten and tortured for questioning the claims of these masters. Read about him here.
Here is the bottom line for this post -- you can't abuse your body for very long and you can't use chi to protect you or to move (or knock down) other people. You can't heal people by laying your hands on them. There is plenty of evidence to show that it doesn't work, and very little to prove otherwise. Until we embrace this fact in the internal arts and move away from the supernatural, we will always attract flakes and nuts to our classes and we will continue to be called the "soft" arts.
If we believe it or even say "it might be true," we do a disservice to ourselves and our students.