Manjusri, destroyer of illusion
“Tell me, Subhuti,” Buddha inquired, “Can an arhat think to himself: ‘I have attained the realization of an arhat’?”
Subhuti, his disciple, replied, “Of course not. With such a thought, he would be grasping to the illusory notions of an ego, a personality, and an individual self. Any so-called arhat who holds these notions is a fake.”
The meaning of “investing in loss”, as originally recommended by the late Tai Chi master Cheng Man-Ching, was to neutralize a superior force through the practice of non-contention:
Now when I say, “Learn to invest in loss,” who is willing to do this? To invest in loss is to permit others to use force to attack while you don’t use even the slightest force to defend yourself. On the contrary, you lead an opponent’s force away so that it is useless.
Against genuinely applied force, the method is so difficult to apply that it usually fails; thus, it is called a loss. After becoming familiar with every misapplication of wuwei, the non-contention principle, one can eventually start using it correctly and effectively; thus, it is called an investment.
Investing in loss can be a tiresome and disheartening method, but it is a reliable one. Sadly, the term is often misapplied as a catch-all justification for fruitless endeavors. Not every loss qualifies as an investment.
Buddhists and non-Buddhists, martial artists and pacifists alike should be especially wary of methods designed to strengthen the ego, insofar as illusions of identity hinder one’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. In the heat of the moment, there is no time to consider whether one is the “type of person” who makes the right move.
Cheng’s Cult of Submission
Each style of martial arts is prone to its own flavor of illusion. When Tai Chi goes wrong, it typically does so by confusing non-contention with submission in the mind of the student.
The internal dialogue sounds something like this:
“I don’t use force, I do not resist others, and this makes me a good person. If I remain good for long enough, Tai Chi skill may eventually be bestowed upon me by the master. In the meantime, although I am physically helpless against aggression, I know that I am spiritually superior to my aggressors. This is my ‘investment in loss.’”
Whether one prefers the Diamond Sutra or the Tai Chi Classics, such neurosis breaks every rule in the book. Tai Chi ability cannot be doled out as a reward for loyalty, much less passive counter-aggression; it is earned, through patient listening and a willingness to abandon limiting conceptions of the Self. (And of course, a mere willingness to be pushed out is no spiritual attainment at all.)
Internalized notions of “an ego, and personality and an individual self” ultimately determine when the Tai Chi student chooses to “follow the curve”, and when they elect to attempt “completion of the circle,” disabling an attacker. And the correctness of these notions—the degree of genuine self-knowledge—determines their likelihood of success.
Ironically, the penchant for submission reveals a distaste for risk, which is a fundamental characteristic of investment. Giving up guarantees the outcome, simultaneously protecting the illusion of the tragic victim.
The hero’s journey starts with self-reinforcement, passes through acceptance and internal quietude, to arrive at listening, learning and perhaps, ultimately, transcendence. This is the common path of spirituality and martial arts. To win, one must first be sincerely willing to lose more than just their footing.