My Story with Sifu

A long winding road brings me to this page. I must confess I had no idea I was beginning it when in 1978 I first walked up the long flight of stairs in the little building on Sixth Avenue which housed The Tai Chi Chuan Center. I could never have known how my body, my mind, my whole life would be changed. When I rounded the corner on the landing and walked into the room, Master Chu had just begun to lead a group of his students in the Tai Chi form. I remember stopping in my tracks. I had never seen anything so powerful and so beautiful before.

Immediately thereafter, when I first attended class with Master Chu I was impressed with his complete lack of pretense. He was totally informal and available to his students, and he had a great sense of humor. I had tried several martial arts styles in the past but I was really put off by the repressive structure of the classes and the militaristic attitudes of the instructors. This school and this teacher were completely different.

I came to tai chi chuan as a typical American who was feverishly trying to stay in shape with weight training, isometrics, calisthenics and all the other types of hard body systems. Every now and then Master Chu reviewed my stiff, tense physique and gave me a poke followed by a big laugh, “You look like a piece of concrete! You can’t move!” Tai Chi changed all of that, as it did the chronic low back problem I had been struggling with for years.

The atmosphere of the school was contagious for me. I took all the classes I could afford and though I never fought in tournaments, I trained with Master Chu’s champion fighters every week. Those were some awesome guys to be around.

I will hold myself back from going on at length about the virtues of true Tai Chi Chuan “soft style” fighting, but let me at least draw this analogy: Imagine two powerful bulls squaring off and charging into each other, force on force. That is “hard style” fighting. Now imagine a matador working another charging bull with a cape, moving with the animal just out of reach of the attacking horns, “sticking” to him until the exact opportunity arrives to lunge with the sword. That is “soft style” fighting. The skilled Tai Chi Chuan fighter is a mighty and beautiful thing to behold.

Master Chu’s champions were grounded in a secret discipline which he taught only to them and the people who trained with them. Nei Kung was the source of the speed, flexibility, striking power and super human endurance which put them several cuts above the hard style traditionalists they would encounter in tournaments.

In the early 80’s, however, Master Chu decided society at large needed this fantastic source of energy and conditioning to heal and help all people and so he began conducting classes for the general public.

By this time I knew Master Chu fairly well and he was aware that I was an aspiring writer. In 1983, he asked me to help him draft a letter related to a complicated business entanglement. I agreed to do it and between the two of us we crafted a highly effective response to the matter which resolved the issue completely. Master Chu was very pleased. Soon after, he approached me with the idea of assisting him with a much bigger project.

Beyond the classes and workshops that he was now holding in Nei Kung, Master Chu wanted to put on paper a record of his synthesis of this remarkable system. He wanted to delineate it exactly, clearly, in an understandable and precise way. He wanted to write The Book of Nei Kung. This had never been done before in either English or Chinese, ever. He offered me the full range of classes at the school free in exchange for helping him put this knowledge into English.

For the next two years I took virtually every class I could during the week and every Saturday Master Chu established the following routine for us: From the early morning until noon I attended the training classes with the other students. At noon, a light meal was ordered in, and then the rest of the day, he and I worked on the book. My job was to pick his brain and record, reference and make sense in English out of all of the various concepts and principles he spoke on. I soon found my western mind stretching across a cultural as well as a linguistic divide.

Throughout, Master Chu was patient and relaxed, bringing his own special brand of scientific method and humor to bear on everything. Slowly, he led me to an understanding of this high art which represented his life’s work. These sessions opened up whole new subjects for me that I never even knew existed and, needless to say, inspired a voluminous amount of note taking and further reading on my part.

Since Nei Kung was the foundation for the entire system of Tai Chi Chuan as he conceived it, the range of subject matter was formidable. It stretched from secret principles of physical conditioning, to theories of fighting and martial art styles; from Chinese history, medicine and acupuncture, to philosophy and meditation technique; and finally to interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, which is the seminal Taoist tract which started it all. The breadth of this man’s knowledge was absolutely enormous. And so, consequently, was the first draft of the book, which after two years of work, totaled over four hundred pages.

Absolute accuracy and precision were paramount in Master Chu’s mind. This book was to be both an explanation and a practical workbook. In addition to the text, illustrations of the core principles of alignment in the system had to be drawn. Also, each of the ten postures had to be photographed and then delineated with exact sequential instructions that would reflect the sequence of the pictures.

This next phase of the project, as a consequence, involved coordinating a small army of Master Chu’s family and student volunteers to pull all of these conceptual elements together and make them real. Eventually, after another year and a half, the massive manuscript got boiled down to a sleek book of seventy-five pages of the essence of Nei Kung.

On those Saturdays during the first couple of years of writing, when we had finished our work for the day, Master Chu would take me down to Chinatown for a meal at one of the many restaurants where he is known simply as Sifu. Here, too, he was full of information, always eager to explain any aspect of Chinese culture to me from every day life to the most esoteric concepts of the great sages. For me, this whole experience was far more than just assisting a man with the text of a book, it was an education.

In 1986, the Book of Nei Kung was published. It has been honored by both martial arts masters and laymen alike as a ground breaking classic.

I stayed on with my classes with Master Chu for a few more years after that until, as with all things, time and circumstances took me elsewhere.

In 1992, I came to a fork in the road in my life. Writing opportunities had brought me to Los Angeles and in the course of business I made the acquaintance of a fellow New Yorker. Somewhere in the middle of a conversation at lunch one day, he mentioned that he had taken a great seminar in Chinese energy exercises in New York with a Tai Chi master. He said he wished the teacher was in L.A. so that he could study here. I asked him what the teacher’s name was and when he said Master Chu I told him my whole story. We both flipped out over the coincidence. He offered right then and there to pay me to teach him Nei Kung.

Although I had been practicing Nei Kung faithfully over the years, I never considered teaching it. I didn’t see myself that way. I said I would love to try it, but that I would have to get Master Chu’s permission. When I called to ask Master Chu his response was simple and direct, “Yes. I certify you. Open a school if you want.” It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

I started teaching. From this one student, others came; and by word of mouth, more came; and now several years later, I have introduced literally hundreds of people to Nei Kung and Tai Chi.

So this is my story. I put it into the best words I could, but we all know this: That no few lines of text can do justice to the impact that the generous, knowledgeable and open minded Master C. K. Chu has had on all of our lives. Through his genius in the martial arts, as well as his example as a human being he deserves our deep and heartfelt gratitude. Thank you, Sifu. Go with Nature.

James Borrelli