Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is Enlightenment?

Below is an article by Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield on the many varieties of enlightenment. Original article here.

By Jack Kornfield
On a meditation retreat several years ago, late one evening after the Dharma talk, a woman raised her hand and asked one last question: “Is enlightenment just a myth?” When we teachers went back to our evening meeting, we asked each other this question. We exchanged stories about the creative freedom of Ajahn Chah, the enormous field of metta around Dipa Ma, the joyous laughter of Poonja, and of our own awakenings. Of course there is enlightenment.
But the word enlightenment is used in different ways, and that can be confusing. Is Zen, Tibetan, Hindu or Theravada enlightenment the same? What is the difference between an enlightenment experience and full enlightenment? What do enlightened people look like?

Early on in my practice in Asia, I was forced to deal with these questions quite directly. My teachers, Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, were both considered among the most enlightened masters of Theravada Buddhism. While they both described the goal of practice as free-dom from greed, hatred and delusion, they didn’t agree about how to attain enlightenment, nor how it is experienced. I started my monastic training practicing in community with Ajahn Chah. Then I went to study in a monastery of Mahasi Sayadaw, where the path of liberation focuses entirely on long silent meditation retreats.
In the Mahasi system, you sit and walk for weeks in the retreat context and continuously note the arising of breath, thought, feelings and sensations over and over until the mindfulness is so refined there is nothing but instantaneous arising and passing. You pass through stages of luminosity, joy, fear and the dissolution of all you took to be solid. The mind becomes unmoving, resting in a place of stillness and equanimity, transparent to all experience, thoughts and fears, longings and love. Out of this there comes a dropping away of identity with anything in this world, an opening to the unconditioned beyond mind and body; you enter into the stream of liberation. As taught by Mahasi Sayadaw, this first taste of stream-entry to enlightenment requires purification and strong concentration leading to an experience of cessation that begins to uproot greed, hatred and delusion.
When I returned to practice in Ajahn Chah’s community following more than a year of silent Mahasi retreat, I recounted all of these experiences—dissolving my body into light, profound insights into emptiness, hours of vast stillness and freedom. Ajahn Chah understood and appreciated them from his own deep wisdom. Then he smiled and said, “Well, something else to let go of.” His approach to enlightenment was not based on having any particular meditation experience, no matter how profound. As Ajahn Chah described them, meditative states are not important in themselves. Meditation is a way to quiet the mind so you can practice all day long wherever you are; see when there is grasping or aversion, clinging or suffering; and then let it go. What’s left is enlightenment, always found here and now, a release of identification with the changing conditions of the world, a resting in awareness. This involves a simple yet profound shift of identity from the myriad, ever-changing conditioned states to the unconditioned consciousness—the awareness which knows them all. In Ajahn Chah’s approach, release from entanglement in greed, hatred and delusion does not happen through retreat, concentration and cessation but from this profound shift in identity.
How can we understand these seemingly different approaches to enlightenment? The Buddhist texts contain some of the same contrasting descriptions. In many texts, nirvana is described in the language of negation, and as in the approach taught by Mahasi Sayadaw, enlightenment is presented as the end of suffering through the putting out of the fires of craving, the uprooting of all forms of clinging. The elimination of suffering is practiced by purification and concentration, by confronting the forces of greed and hate and overcoming them. When the Buddha was asked, “Do you teach annihilation? Is nirvana the end of things as we know them?” he responded, “I teach only one form of annihilation: the extinction of greed, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of delusion. This I call nirvana.”
There is in the texts, as well, a more positive way of understanding enlightenment. Here nirvana is described as the highest happiness; as peace, freedom, purity, stillness; and as the unconditioned, the timeless, the undying. In this understanding, as in Ajahn Chah’s approach, liberation comes through a shift of identity—a release from attachment to the changing conditions of the world, a resting in consciousness itself, the deathless.
In this understanding, liberation is a shift of identity from taking anything as “self.” Asked, “How is it that one is not to be seen by the king of death?” the Buddha responded, “For one who takes nothing whatsoever as I or me or mine, such a one is freed from the snares of the king of death.” In just this way, Ajahn Chah instructed us to rest in awareness and not identify with any experience as I or mine.
I found a similar practice in Bombay with Sri Nisargadatta, a master of Advaita. His teachings about enlightenment demanded a shift from identifying with any experience to resting in consciousness wherever you are. His focus was not about annihilation of greed and hate. In fact, when asked if he ever got impatient, Nisargadatta joyfully explained, “I see, hear and taste as you do, feel hunger and thirst; if lunch is not served on time, even impatience will arise. All this I perceive quite clearly, but somehow I am not in it. There is awareness of it all and a sense of immense distance. Impatience arises; hunger arises. Even when illness and death of this body arise, they have nothing to do with who I am.” This is enlightenment as a shift in identity.
So here we have different visions of enlightenment. On the one hand, we have the liberation from greed, hatred and delusion attained through powerful concentration and purification, emphasized by many masters from Mahasi and Sunlun Sayadaw to Rinzai Zen. On the other hand, we have the shift of identity reflected in the teachings of Ajahn Chah, Buddhadasa, Soto Zen and Dzogchen. And there are many other approaches; if you practice Pure Land Buddhism, which is the most widespread tradition in China, the approach to enlightenment involves devotion and surrender, being carried by the Buddha’s “grace.”
To understand these differences, it is wisest to speak of enlightenment with the plural s—as enlightenments. It’s the same way with God. There are so many forms: Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Jesus, Kali and so forth. As soon as followers say they know the one true God, conflict arises. Similarly, if you speak of enlightenment as one thing, conflict arises and you miss the truth.
We know that the Buddha taught many different approaches to enlightenment, all as skillful means to release grasping of the limited sense of self and return to the inherent purity of consciousness. Similarly, we will discover that the teachings on enlightened consciousness include many dimensions. When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. But when a teacher or tradition emphasizes only one of these qualities over the others, it is easy to be confused, as if true enlightenment can be tasted in only one way. Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.

So what practices lead to these enlightenments? Most centrally, Buddhism uses the liberating practices of mindfulness and lovingkindness. These are supported by the practice of virtue, which frees us from being caught in reactive energies that would cause harm to ourself or others. Added to this are practices of composure, or concentration, where we learn to quiet the mind; and practices of wisdom, which can see clearly how all things arise and pass, how they cannot be possessed. Through these practices come purification and healing and the arising of profound compassion. Gradually, there is a shift of identity from being the person who is caught in suffering, to liberation. Releasing the sense of self and all the changing conditions of the world brings stream-entry, the first stage of enlightenment.
The most common gates to stream-entry in the Theravada tradition are the gateway of impermanence, the gateway of suffering and the gateway of selflessness. When we open through the gateway of impermanence, we see more and more deeply how every experience is born and dies, how every moment is new. In one monastery where I practiced, we were trained to experience how all of life is vibration. Through long hours of refined concentration, we came to sense all the sounds and sights, the breath, the procession of thoughts—everything we took to be ourself—as a field of changing energy. Experience shimmered, dissolving moment by moment. Then we shifted our attention from the vibrations to restin the spacious heart of awareness. I and other, inside and outside—everything dropped away and we came to know the vast stillness beyond all change. This is enlightenment through the gate of impermanence.
Sometimes we enter enlightenment through the gate of suffering. We sit in the fire of human experience, and instead of running from it, we awaken through it. In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha declares, “All is burning. The eye, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind, the world is burning. With what is it burning? It is burning with the fires of greed, of hatred and of delusion.” Through the gate of suffering we face the fires of desire, hate, war, racism and fear. We open to dissatisfaction, grief and loss. We accept the inherent suffering in life and we are released. We discover that suffering is not “our” pain, it is “the” pain—the pain of the world. A profound dispassion arises, compassion fills the heart, and we find liberation.
My friend Salam, a Palestinian journalist and activist, passed through the gate of suffering when brutally beaten in Israeli prisons. This kind of suffering happens on every side in war. When I first met Salam in San Francisco, he was being honored for his hospice service. I asked him what brought him to this work. “One time I died,” Salam told me. Kicked by a guard, he lay on the floor of the jail with blood coming out of his mouth, and his consciousness floated out of his body. Suddenly, he felt so peaceful—a kind of bliss—as he saw he wasn’t that body. “I was so much more: I was the boot and the guard, the goat calling outside the walls of the police station. I was all of it,” Salam told me. “When I got out of jail, I couldn’t take sides anymore. I married a Jewish woman and had Jewish-Palestinian children. That is my answer.” Salam explains, “Now I sit with people who are dying because they are afraid and I can hold their hands and reassure them that it’s perfectly safe.” He awakened through the gate of suffering.
Sometimes we awaken through the gate of selflessness. The experience of selflessness can happen in the simplest ways. In walking meditation, we notice with every step the unbidden arising of thoughts, feelings, sensations, only to observe them disappear. To whom do they belong? Where do they go? Back into the void, which is where yesterday went, as well as our childhood, Socrates, Genghis Khan and the builders of the pyramids.
As we let go of clinging, we feel the tentative selflessness of things. Sometimes boundaries dissolve, and we can’t separate ourself from the plum tree, the birdsong or the morning traffic. The whole sense of self becomes empty experience arising in consciousness. More and more deeply, we realize the joy of “no self, no problem.” We taste enlightenment through the gate of selflessness and emptiness.
There are many other gates: the gates of compassion, of purity, of surrender, of love. There is also what is called the “gateless gate.” One teacher describes it this way: “I would go for months of retreat training, and nothing spectacular would happen, no great experiences. Yet somehow everything changed. What most transformed me were the endless hours of mindfulness and compassion, giving a caring attention to what I was doing. I discovered how I automatically tighten and grasp, and with that realization I started to let go, to open to an appreciation of whatever was present. I found an ease. I gave up striving. I became less serious, less concerned with myself. My kindness deepened. I experienced a profound freedom, simply the fruit of being present over and over.” This was her gateless gate.

Whatever our gate to enlightenment, the first real taste, stream-entry, is followed by many more tastes as we learn to stabilize, deepen and embody this wisdom in our own unique life. What does it look like? The facets of enlightenment express themselves marvelously in our teachers. Each manifests enlightenment with his or her own flavors.
Dipa Ma, a wonderful grandmother in Calcutta, was one of the great masters of our tradition. A tiny person with a powerfully trained mind, Dipa Ma expressed enlightenment as love. She devotedly instructed her students in mindfulness and lovingkindness and then she hugged them—putting her hands on their head, face and shoulders, whispering metta phrases. They got drunk on love. Like Dipa Ma, Ammachi, a Hindu teacher from South India, manifests enlightenment as the “hugging guru.” She goes into a trance, and all night long she holds people; she might take as many as 2,000 people onto her lap and hug them. This is enlightenment as love.
For Zen Master Suzuki Roshi enlightenment was expressed by being just where you are. A woman told Suzuki Roshi she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a householder: “I feel I am trying to climb a ladder, but for every step upward I slip backward two steps.” “Forget the ladder,” Suzuki Roshi told her. “When you awaken, everything is right here on the ground.” He explained how the desire to gain anything means you miss the reality of the present. “When you realize the truth that everything changes and find your composure in it, there you find yourself in nirvana.” Asked further about enlightenment, Suzuki Roshi said, “Strictly speaking there are no enlightened beings; there is only enlightened activity.” If you think you are enlightened, that is not it. The goal is to let go of being anyone special and meet each moment with beginner’s mind.
Mahasi Sayadaw, the Burmese master, expressed enlightenment as emptiness. Watching him on his visits to America, we saw that he rarely laughed or judged. Instead, he exuded a quiet equanimity. Events and conversations would happen around him while he remained still. He was like space—transparent, nobody there. This is enlightenment as emptiness.
For Ajahn Jumnien, a Thai forest master, awakening is not only empty; it’s full. His robe is covered in hundreds of sacred medallions, and he employs dozens of skillful means to teach—guided meditations, sacred chants, mantras, chakra and energy practices, forest medicines, animal stories and shamanic rituals. His Dharma is all-hours, nonstop, full of life and joy. There’s a sense of abundance in him, and happiness just pours out like a fountain. He expresses enlightenment as fullness.
Thich Nhat Hanh expresses enlightenment as mindfulness. When he comes to teach at Spirit Rock, 3,000 people sit meditatively on the hillside and eat their apples mindfully in preparation for his arrival. A bell is rung, and he walks slowly and deliberately up the road—so mindfully that everyone sighs, “Ahhh.” The consciousness of 3,000 people is transformed just seeing this man walk, each step the whole universe. As we watch, we drop into the reality of the eternal present. This is where we awaken. Enlightenment as mindfulness.
The Dalai Lama expresses enlightenment as compassionate blessing. For instance, once at the end of his stay at a San Francisco hotel, he asked the management to bring out all the employees. This meant the people who chop vegetables in the kitchen, who clean the carpets late at night, who make the beds. The big circular driveway filled with all those who made this hotel work but who were usually unrecognized. One by one, he looked at each one with full presence, took each person’s hand, and said, “Thank you,” moving unhurriedly just to make sure that he connected with each one fully. The Dalai Lama personifies enlightenment as compassionate blessing.
Ajahn Chah’s manifestation was the laughter of wisdom. Whether with generals or ministers, farmers or cooks, he would say, “When I see how much people are struggling, I look at them with great sympathy and ask, ‘Are you suffering? Ahhh, you must be very attached. Why not let go?’” His teachings were deep and straight to the point. He’d say, “If you let go a little, you’ll be a little happy. If you let go a lot, you’ll be a lot happy. If you let go completely, you’ll be completely happy.” He saw suffering, its cause, and that freedom is possible in any moment. He expressed enlightenment as wisdom.
When people read these stories, they might ask, “How do they relate to me? I want these enlightenments. How do I get them? What should I do?” The jewel of enlightenment invites us to awaken through many skillful means. Mahasi Sayadaw would say, “To find emptiness, note every single moment until what you think to be the world dissolves, and you will come to know freedom.” Ajahn Chah would say, “Just let go, and become the awareness, be the one who knows.” Dipa Ma would say, “Love no matter what.” Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “Rest in mindfulness, this moment, the eternal present.” Ajahn Jumnien would say, “Be happy for no cause.” Suzuki Roshi would say, “Just be exactly where you are. Instead of waiting for the bus, realize you are on the bus.”
So, is enlightenment a myth? No. It is not far away. It is freedom here and now, to be tasted whenever you open to it. In my role as a teacher, I have the privilege of seeing the blessing of enlightenments awaken in so many meditators who come to Dharma practice and become transformed through its many expressions. As their initial tension and struggle with life, doubt and distress subsides, I watch their bodies ease, their faces soften, their Dharma vision open, their hearts blossom. Some touch what Buddhadasa called “everyday nirvana.” Others come to know a deep purity of mind and to experience a taste of liberation directly.
The Buddha declares, “If it were not possible to free the heart from entanglement, I would not teach you to do so. Just because it is possible to free the heart, there arise the teachings of the Dharma of liberation, offered openhandedly for the welfare of all beings.”
Aim for nothing less.

Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He is author of many books, including the new title The Buddha Is Still Teaching.
© 2010 Inquiring Mind

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Gift of Small Frame

At the WTBA USA Workshop, earlier this year, I was properly introduced to the small frame version of Yang Taiji by Erle Montaigue. I have been working on it ever since, and I am finally beginning to glimpse the enormity of this gift. I have a long way to go with this, and it is one of my Winter training goals. But even the small breakthrough that I have witnessed is powerful beyond description. And it is, like many internal practices, difficult to describe.

Being primarily a Chen-Hunyuan practitioner, my movements are big and expansive by design. When doing any of my forms, the martial intent is clear in my mind. The moves should be crisp and the intention clear and unambiguous to an outside observer. That is how it should be. However, over time the Taiji practitioner should concentrate more the internal movement and less on the external. As that happens the moves aren't so clear and unambiguous to the outside observer. But they are extremely powerful and moving to the practitioner. Many of us have witnessed a Master performing his form and wondered why it seemed so vague and indirect. That is because his intention was internal and the external movement is a mere reflection of the internal action.

As I have progressed in my Taiji training I have often felt as if I am backing up. It seems the more I learn, the less I know. I feel as if I am in a constant state of 'just beginning'. This is a potent example of that. Doing form at the small frame level is an incredible tool for accumulating internal power. And it is incredibly difficult. However, even to the degree that I understand it and am able to practice it, it has been extremely rewarding. That, I guess, is the trade-off for being an eternal beginner. The thrill of newfound treasure is constantly recurring.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chen Zhonghua and his Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method

Shang Lee has a wonderful blog entitled The Journey Within. He has interpreted a text written by Sun Zhonghua, a 19th generation Chen Style Master and a 2nd generation Hunyuan Style Master, on the Practical Method Chen Taiji of Chen Zhonghua. Not only do I recommend Shang's blog, but I highly recommend this article. It is a great introduction to a true Taiji Master.

The article, in 4 parts, can be found here.

"This is a translation and my interpretation of the text written by Sun Zhonghua. He is the 19th generation master of Chen Style Taijiquan and a 2nd generation master of Hunyuan Tai Ji. I hope I did it justice with my translation, and didn’t lose the spirit he is trying to convey. I have to split it in parts as this is a long article and it’ll probably take me some time to translate. Also, I’m savouring the text. It’s great reading it the second time round. :) Hope you enjoy it. You can find the full text here if you can read Chinese. You can find other parts here: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |


People train in martial arts for a variety of reasons, but if there is someone who is in love with martial arts to the point of addiction, this must be caused by a rare gene in his DNA. The evolution of this gene would most likely come from hunting and the battles that the previous generations have to fight, where those instincts are then secretly passed on to these “martial art addicts”. History has shown that even with the ban on martial arts or the downplay of martial arts to give way to a more “civilized” way of learning, all did not manage to suppress this rare gene from being passed down through the generations.

There are plenty of different martial arts, and Tai Ji Quan is one of them. It has a rich content, focusing both on health and self-defense. All you need to train in Tai Ji is a bit of space. There are no special requirements on how tall you are or how heavy you are. Because of this lack of special requirements, there are now plenty of people choosing this over other forms of martial art, one estimate of practitioners numbering 200 million people!

Now that the benefits of health and general well-being is being recognized in Tai Ji, the application and self-defense part of Tai Ji is largely neglected. There is nothing wrong with this being a personal choice, but do not think that your personal choice of ignoring Tai Ji applications makes what you are learning is Tai Ji. By removing applications from Tai Ji, Tai Ji becomes fake Tai Ji, it losses its intrinsic nature. Just like how you would say that a dance is not a dance because it doesn’t look like dancing. Moreover, if you don’t understand the application, the external movements will be wrong. This can only lead to one conclusion – we are not inheriting and passing on Tai Ji as a complete cultural artifact, instead we are stripping the spirit of Tai Ji from the art, mutating it, and allowing it to be passed on only in name. I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but this inevitable outcome has given me sleepless nights. Whenever I am giving a talk, I always urge my audiences, “To pass on and expand on the real Tai Ji, anyone who is interested and has the necessary conditions to learn the martial aspects of Tai Ji, please devote as much time and effort into it as you can.”

Continued in Part 2…"

Monday, August 30, 2010

Taiji is Qigong is not Taiji

I am often faced with the question, 'What is the difference between Tai Chi and Qigong?' It should be a simple question with a simple answer, something like, 'Taiji is a complete martial art; Qigong is an art within itself, and a component of Taiji.' However, thanks primarily to a long history of misinformation, and dilution of the art, there are lots of things that are taught as Taiji, that are more properly Qigong, and sometimes not even that. I am personally a big fan of Qigong. I often only practice Qigong in my personal sessions, and recommend that everyone who practices these arts spends ample time with the nurturing of Qigong. However, Taiji and Qigong are not the same thing. Trying to equate them only does a disservice to us all.

As noted above, Qigong is a component of Taiji, a crucial component, without which Taiji would be just another martial art. Many of the principles of Taiji are shared with the art of Qigong. In fact one could easily practice Qigong and not ever practice Taiji, and many, many folks do. But one can't properly practice Taiji without practicing Qigong. Qigong is the underlying essence of Taiji. However, there is much more to Taiji than what is found in the practice of Qigong. Taiji is a complete martial art with forms based on combat applications, two-person exercises and drills, and at a certain level should be taught complete with Chin Na, Dim Mak, combat throws, and other martial exercises such as San Shou, Sticky Hands, weapons, and other self defense components.

As is obvious from the above, it's the martial aspect of Taiji that differentiates it. But that does not make Taiji any less of a healing art that Qigong. Quite the contrary. There is much healing energy to be found in Taiji forms. Most forms work to activate the twelve meridians. At a certain level the practitioner should be generating movement from the dantien, which works to circulate Qi throughout the body. And in some systems we learn the forms at the small frame level, which is concerned with internal movement. These movements are small and subtle to the observer, but internally powerful and stimulating to the practitioner. There is also healing energy exchanged in partner exercises, and a general sharing of energy in group form work. But the key in any Taiji system is keeping to Taiji principles. The people who developed this art were extremely intelligent and informed. There are many things happening at any one time in the execution of Taiji.

I often see where some people try to differentiate between "Tai Chi for Health" and "Martial Taijiquan". I don't agree with that approach, nor think it is necessary. The practice of Taiji, in it's entirety, as a complete martial art, as it was intended to be practiced, is a healing art. There is no need to water it down, and create other categories. That does not mean that sixty eight year old grandmothers should be expected to make some of the kicks in the Chen system, or play heavy push hands like twenty-somethings. Everyone can and should learn and practice within their limitations and abilities. But sixty eight year old grandmothers can still do demanding forms, play push hands, and learn the components of self defense as long as the teacher works with them at their level (as one should with any and all students). However, on that note, I will acknowledge there are people who have no interest in martial arts, nor many of the other components of Taiji who can and still want to benefit from the healing capacity of Taiji. We already have an art for them. It's called Qigong. And yes, you can even add parts of the Taiji form, or complete forms, to your Qigong practices. That's OK. Taiji form is Qigong (among other things). I not only practice Qigong in and of itself, I teach it and recommend it to anyone with or without health challenges.

Many people, maybe most people, are drawn to Taiji for health reasons. I know I was. And that is as it should be, I suppose. In my case, I am a big supporter of Taiji for health. However, I practice Taiji as a martial art and reap the healing benefits at the same time. I also practice Qigong as Qigong. I realize that at some level this is only semantics, but I still think it is important. I think it is necessary that we keep our definitions correct for the sake of the art and for the future of the art. And maybe there is no short easy answer to the question after all.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Taking the Plunge

After some time of indecision and general gnashing of teeth, I've made the decision to take the plunge and start teaching Taiji classes. So far it's off to a great start. I am offering two classes at two different locations in basic Chen Hunyuan Taiji. We are taking it slow and focusing a lot on Qigong and basic fundamentals to establish good practice. In keeping with the lineage, I am presenting Taiji as being composed of three basic components: Qigong, Taiji form, and Push-hands.

Specifically, Qigong includes static postures: sitting, lying, and standing meditation, and dynamic movements designed to build gong. For beginning classes, I am teaching a twelve movement short form distilled from the Hunyuan 48. In time I may add a form from another system, or move on to the 48.

I am introducing the concept of Push-hands right from the beginning. We are taking it slow to ensure everyone understands the concepts, but we are moving along in an integral fashion just the same. I am also peppering in little doses of self-defense concepts along the way. In time, I should be able to have balanced classes exploring traditional Taijiquan as it should be.

It is early to judge how effective this will be, but it is starting out to be quite fun. It is my intention to offer specific workshops in the future on Qigong, Push-hands, Self-defense, and various Neijia concepts depending on interests.

Once again, my Taiji world is expanding.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Notes from Taiji Camp: The Art of Smiling, The Science of Motown

I just returned from Yang Yang's Summer Taiji Camp in Blowing Rock, NC. I feel obligated to report on my experiences, but after rummaging through my notes, scanning my poor memory, and buzzing around my home and office with this amazing residual energy, I'm not sure I'm up to relating the depth of my experience. I feel as if I have just had an amazing experience that is beyond words. But on the other hand, the core of that experience was being in the presence of a man who expertly takes the mysterious, the complicated, and the subtle and makes them not only understandable but easily within grasp of us all, regardless of our backgrounds or levels of experience. So in keeping with that spirit, I'll give it a shot.

Taiji Camp ranges over a six day period, Friday evening through Wednesday morning, with four full days and two partial days of training. I have been learning and practicing this system for six years now, but this is my first camp experience. It will not be my last.

"The lessons learned in Taiji are applicable to everyday life, and the way in which you live your life will affect your progress in the art." Yang Yang.

I arrived relatively early on Friday evening, so I had plenty of time to get settled, meet a few folks, and observe as everyone else came together. I noticed quite quickly the fraternal, or better, familial, atmosphere. I felt as if I were at a sort of family reunion. By breakfast of the next day I already felt a part of the family. It was quickly apparent to me that this was going to be more than a couple of days of martial arts training. I was in the presence of people close to one another, who shared not only a lineage, but a philosophy, an approach not only to the martial arts or to health maintenance, but to life in general and the world at large. That is the kind of art this is. It is more than what you do; it becomes a part of who you are: a living art in the literal sense.

"The change of hardness and softness does not happen just on the physical level. It is more important for a student to apply this principle with Yi." Feng Qhiqiang.

Chen-Style Xinyi Hunyuan Taiji was created by Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, a synthesis of Xinyi Liuhe Quan, Qigong, and Chen-Style Taiji. As noted on Grandmaster Feng's website, the fundamental principal of Hunyuan Taiji is that "while designed for health and self-defense, it focuses on health; while alternating movements with stillness, it emphasizes stillness; and while simultaneously training the internal and the external, it gives priority to the internal". While this may seem an odd or obscure approach to those outside the system, it is in fact a very efficient and effective approach to Taijiquan. And understanding that statement is the key to understanding Dr. Yang's approach and the experience of his Summer Taiji Camp. Giving priority to the internal and to stillness leads to effective movement, health, and martial ability.

"I'm not afraid of someone who does a thousand forms; I'm concerned with the person that knows one form very well." Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Saying.

The thing that makes Master Yang stand out is his ability to expand one's knowledge of Taiji through simplification. He breaks down the form to its most fundamental elements so that it is easy to comprehend the intention, but he never compromises the original Taiji principles. Once you understand the intention and the underlying principles, you understand the form; Taiji becomes accessible. Additionally, and what I found to be most impressive, he demystifies the sayings we have all heard or read in the classics but find obscure and ambiguous. Concepts like "nurturing true power in Wuji"; "Move the Qi with Yi"; "Executing movement with your Dantien"; "Nurturing your partner through Push Hands". While this may be obscure on the pages of a book, it all comes out and is clarified through Yang's training regimen.

"If you practice brute strength it will break, if you practice Qi it will be stiff, if you practice Yi it will flow smoothly." Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Saying.

Each day of camp began with Wuji standing meditation, Qigong and sitting meditation, and each day ended with sitting meditation. During the day we alternated between form practice, push hands, and lying Qigong. Lying Qigong, a variation of Wuji, is more than a mid-training excuse for lying down or taking a nap. It is a subtle, active, relaxing, and extremely beneficial Qigong practice. Not only does Lying Qigong lead to relaxation, it is training in moving Qi through the body with Yi, intention. In fact, the concept of giving priority to the internal is more than philosophy with Dr. Yang, it is the practice. The majority of questions on form, application, or push hands addressed to Dr. Yang over the camp were referred back to Wuji. It appears the answer to most Taiji questions are ultimately found in Qigong. The classical conception of Taijiquan has it that Wuji is the mother of Taiji. Again, with Dr. Yang these are more than mere words, they are the rule of efficient practice. If your form or push hands are lacking, you should check your Standing Pole or San Ti stance. But this philosophy could lead one to wonder. The foundation of most martial arts practice is technique, and the rule of efficient practice in many systems is constant repetition of technique and fighting skills. Not so with Taiji, at least in the Hunyuan lineage. So, how does that work?

"Thus the external becomes concentrated in the internal, and the internal expresses itself externally." The Yang Family Forty Chapters.

I once, quite absentmindedly, parked my truck on a slight hill in neutral, and forgot to pull the parking brake. As I got out and began to walk away I noticed it beginning to roll ever so slightly. In keeping with my absentminded nature on that particular day I went to the front of the truck to stop it from moving. Since the decline was slight and it barely moved before I caught it, I was able to stop the motion quite easily. I soon realized my folly and went around and opened the door, jumped in, and pulled the brake. But that's not my point. My point is that for a brief moment I held the truck in place. As I noted, the decline was slight and it's a small Toyota truck, so there was no real danger. But standing there holding the front of that truck I could feel the potential energy. The Earth, in its rotation around the Sun, creates a gravitational pull that worked on the weight of my truck. Left alone, given the slope of that decline, my little truck would have accelerated to the point that should I again put my hands on the front I would have experienced much more than potential energy. I would have been victim to actualized energy, derived from the forces of nature, enough to roll over me, or move me off my spot. This potential energy that I felt on my truck that day is the same energy I felt whenever I played push hands with any of Master Yang's senior students. It is there, it exists. And when I, as I will often foolishly do, pushed a little too much into that potential, it quite quickly became actualized, in a fraction of a second, and moved me off my spot. Every senior student that I played push hands with expressed this same energy, regardless of age, gender, physical size. With every one I felt the same thing: potential, natural energy not unlike what I felt on the hood of my truck. In the case of Master Yang, to paraphrase one of those same senior students, it's like laying hands on a nuclear reactor. But here is the key to the whole system: this power is not accumulated through hour upon hour of push hands, fa jin, or sparring practice each week. Quite the opposite, it is accumulated through Wuji and Qigong, giving priority to the internal. Of course a certain amount of time is necessary for martial training in any system. But in keeping with Dr. Yang's training regimen, giving ultimate priority to Wuji and nurture leads to an unbelievable store of energy, ensuring much martial power if and when needed, a healthy body, and an awakened nature.

"Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now..." James Brown

Still, I knew there was a secret to Dr. Yang's Taiji; a trick of sorts. There is always a secret. And I found Yang's. It's the smile. Dr. Yang is always smiling. It appears he is always happy. And it's contagious, because everybody else was always smiling too, including me. I can honestly say this was six days of the most fun I've had in a long time. But just in case, just to ensure that everybody kept on smiling, Dr. Yang pulled out another secret trick. At the end of each training day, before supper, when everybody's legs were turning to Jello from all the Taiji form, and everybody's minds were turning to mush from trying to remember all the new moves, and everybody's backs were turning into Rice Krispies from all the push hands, when enough is enough, Dr, Yang breaks out the boom box, puts on some classic Motown, and everybody dances. Yes, everybody. Even if you are physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, James Brown has a way of making it all better. By the time the song is over, everyone has a great big smile and is ready for more. It just doesn't get any better.

(1) All quotes taken from Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang Yang; 2005; Zhenwu, Publications, except the last which is taken from the song I Got You (I Feel Good) by James Brown, King Records, 1965.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power

In preparation for Yang Yang's Summer Taiji Camp, I decided to re-read his book, Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. It is a good read for someone interested in the complete art of Taiji. By complete art, I mean not just bits and pieces, as is often the case, at least in the West. According to Yang, Taiji is a martial art, a healing art, a spiritual practice, and a physical regimen. Yang, a disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, finds it odd that there is even a discussion in America as to whether Taiji is a healing or a martial art. The practice of Taijiquan, if one follows a complete curriculum, leads to martial skill and good health concurrently. Attempting to separate the two leads to something that is not balanced, and not Taijiquan.

For Yang, Taiji has three integral components: Qigong; Taiji Form; Push Hands. Of course there is much to each of these individual categories, but they do form the basis of correct Taiji practice. In the Chen Hunyuan System, which Yang teaches, Qigong includes moving and static practices. Of these, the static practices are the most important in building gong, the foundation of Taiji. Static Qigong is basically sitting and standing Wuji meditation. Form of course varies depending on the school, or style one is practicing, but should be composed of the eight forces and five steps noted in the classics, and typical of all Taijiquan. The Taiji form is moving, choreographed Qigong, and it is key to combat applications. Finally, Yang covers push hands. For Yang, push hands is a training tool. It is a tool for learning to fight efficiently--among other things--but it is not fighting. Push hands is a very important partner exercise, and done correctly benefits each partner. Push hands was not intended to be a competitive venture. Yang does not broach this subject here, but the implication is clear.

For Yang, as with Grandmaster Feng, nurturing is primary in the art of Taijiquan. We begin by nurturing ourselves, through meditation and Qigong exercises, which builds gong and provides us with the foundation necessary to practice Taiji. In push hands practice we nurture ourselves and our training partners. There is much to this concept of nurture as an indispensable component of Taiji practice. To be able to function at our highest level, we must attend to our basic needs first. Everything else follows from there. Early in the book Yang quotes the classical Song of Real Meaning to make his point: "With your whole being, develop your life"(1). That kind of says it all.

Most important for Western readers, Yang demystifies Taijiquan and presents hard solid scientific evidence for what is and is not possible. Yang has a Phd. in Kinesiology, and wrote his dissertation on the practical benefits of Taiji practice. There is no magic or superpowers implicit here, no throwing anyone across the room with intention only, or some mysterious Qi power. This is the art we experience explained in a logical fashion that makes a lot of sense. He does not devote a lot of time to the martial application of Taijiquan, but he doesn't overlook it or disregard it either. All-in-all it is a balanced explication.

I realize this is a short summary of an excellent book. But better than reading my review, buy the book. I highly recommend it for any serious practitioner of Taijiquan, regardless of style. It presents a complete holistic view of this wonderful art in a sane no-nonsense manner.

(1) Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang Yang; 2005; Zhenwu Publications.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reflections on the 2010 WTBA USA East Coast Workshop

I attended the 2010 WTBA Workshop in Salisbury, MD. May 8th and 9th. It was amazing, to say the least. I should note this was billed as the WTBA USA Workshop. I prefer to refer to it as the East Coast Workshop because Eli Montaigue will be presenting another workshop in Montana in September of this year.

The workshop was very well attended. There were several students and assorted martial artists from across the globe. In addition to WTBA founder, Erle Montaigue, his son and current head of the WTBA, Eli Montaigue was there; UK Chief Instructor, Nasser Butt; USA Chief Instructor, Al Krych; Canada Chief Instructor, Josephine Anderson; and Workshop host and Maryland WTBA Representative, Brian Alexander. I must say I have never been in the presence of so many talented martial artists at one time. There was no shortage of high caliber instruction and competent assistance.

This was my first workshop with Erle; in fact it was my first WTBA event ever, as there are no active WTBA groups in my immediate area--yet. My exposure to this system has been via books and videos to this point. Apparently the turnout was so great that this is now going to become an annual event. Needless to say I am already planning on next year's event.

The focus of this workshop was the Yang Lu'chan form, or Old Yang form, at the small frame level; The River, a Wudang Dim Mak Cornerstone Form; and Combat Push Hands. Although the majority of the information was new to me, the most challenging aspect was the small frame approach to the form. I learned the first third of this from via video, but not at this level. The movements of small frame are subtle and all but incomprehensible to the observer. We did not spend as much time with this as Erle had intended, or as I personally would have liked. But it was enough to pique my interest. I definitely see this as a future challenge, an addition to my ever-expanding list.

The Wudang Dim Mak Cornerstone forms are predecessors to Taiji and Bagua, but contain noticeable elements of each and lots of Fa Jin. As I have been practicing a Chen style for some time now, Fa Jin is not foreign to me, and not as challenging as it is to some contemporary Yang stylists. This, for me, is one of the more comfortable things about this system. Legend has it that Yang Lu'chan learned Taiji from the Chen family (or along with the Chen family, if you prefer that version). So it follows that his Taiji would be more similar to Chen style than the contemporary Yang versions that dominate the Taiji world. I have always found the contemporary Yang system to be awkward and lacking, thus my attraction to Chen. This system does not have that awkward feel--for many reasons. Although the Wudang forms predate Taiji, and are not a part of Yang-style Taiji, per se, they are a part of the WTBA curriculum. There are four forms, each representing a natural element. We learned The River or Water Form, complete. This is a good fighting form. I like it--a lot. We went over it enough that I retained all the basic moves in memory. Erle has added an overview/outline of the form to his website, which helps to clarify. I will have to work on this for some time to polish it and get it right, but it has definitely become a part of my regular practice.

The WTBA version of Combat Push Hands is also new to me, but not so totally foreign that I had trouble comprehending the intention. It is beyond a doubt a different approach to push hands than I am accustomed to, but the fundamentals are there. I have already shared this with my regular Taiji group and we are integrating it into our training routine. Push Hands is an important practice to me and this system gives me another level of approach. Compared to most common styles of Push Hands, WTBA Push Hands is more direct, faster, and closer to free fighting than most approaches. With the free-style Push Hands that I am accustomed to it is easy to enter and transition to grappling. This is a noticeable trait in Chen Village Push Hands. With the WTBA system, any such attempt at entering should be cut off with a strike. Of course that limits the strategies, but makes those available all the more potent. Again, I am impressed. This system will not supersede my other training methods, but it will be a potent addition.

In summary, I have found a new training regiment. Since injuring my leg in Aikido a few months back, I have not been doing any cross-training. I decided after that accident to focus my training on Taiji. Now I have found an acceptable cross-training system. I will be integrating the WTBA system into my existing--primarily Chen Hunyuan--system. Hopefully I will be able to get together with some of the other workshop attendees for training before next year's event. In any case, I have much new material with which to work, and new challenges to address. My Taiji world has expanded.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Taiji and Grappling

Where does Grappling fit in with today's Taiji?

I was going to explore the question, 'Is there a place for grappling in Taiji?' But before I could write the first word I was reminded of all the places where grappling is found throughout Taiji. A breakdown of the Chen forms reveals numerous throws and locks. And a recently televised Chen Taijiquan tournament, shows the reliance on grappling in sport applications. In fact, the concept of zou found in the Taiji Classics, is translated as "overcoming the strong and the hard by the gentle and soft way"(1), which is the same as Ju in Japanese, as in The Gentle Way: Judo, or The Gentle Art: Jujitsu. So there is indeed much of grappling in Taiji.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Taijiquan is a complete martial art. It has kicks, punches, Dim Mak, grappling, chokes, Chin Na. It was devised as a method of self defense for life and death situations. We often see explications of punches, kicks and armbars taken out of the form. But we rarely--at least in the West--see much instruction or discussion of the grappling side of Taijiquan. Some highly noted exceptions are Erle Montaigue, who addresses grappling, as well as any other conceivable martial application in his teachings; and Tim Cartmell, who integrates Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with his Tai Chi curriculum.

I want to emphasize that I am exploring the relationship between grappling and Taiji. There is a lot I don't know. As always, I welcome comments and insight into this subject. Because I have studied Japanese grappling arts and Taiji, I have an interest in the relationship between the two, historically and practically. I believe there is much martial benefit to be gained from grappling in a controlled and rule-based situation, as one would find in a dojo. Besides being a good aerobic workout, it teaches one how to move, relax, breathe, and anticipate the actions and reactions of one's partner. If done correctly it is a good way to spar using full energy in a relatively safe manner. However, if we keep within the boundaries of Taiji, I can see how it is easy to transition from disciplined movement to all-out wrestling, which at some point is no longer Taiji.

It is my understanding that the creators of Taijiquan preferred to not go to the ground. It is of course preferable to send one's attacker there, just be sure and not join him. There is much wisdom in that. To that end, I think Taiji throws and Chin Na should be drilled so that practitioners know how and when to use them effectively. In a life-threatening situation Dim Mak is generally in order. But there are times when control techniques are appropriate. And there is always the very real possibility that anyone could be attacked and find themselves on the ground with their attacker. Again, knowledge of Dim Mak is valuable in life threatening situations, but for the occasional drunk or unruly brother-in-law, knowing a little groundwork could be valuable.

I guess in the final analysis it all boils down to what the individual Taiji player wishes to do. As I have noted before, there are numerous variations of this art. Looking at it historically and realistically, we should give grappling some deep consideration. Not only because it is part of the overall curriculum, but because it is practical for any and all martial artists.

(1) Jou, Tsung Hwa. The Dao of Taijiquan: Way to Rejuvenation. pp178.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Acceptable Ambiguity and Controlled Folly

At the core of existence is chaos. The things we see and know in our lives appear to be solid, they appear to be the way we perceive them to be. But a closer examination, at the quantum level, reveals what appears to be a chaotic situation. At the quantum level things are not at all as solid and as rational as we think they are. Even though we don't live at the quantum level, we can't deny what science has discovered. And we should assume there is even more yet to our world than we apparently know. A close examination of the writings of Eastern mystics and seers reveals an intrinsic understanding of many of these principles, and indeed some of what rational Western minds have written off in the past, are now understandable in light of quantum science. Ultimately we can surmise the world is not the way it appears. After spending a certain amount of time practicing mindfulness and considering existence from a different perspective, a certain amount of acceptable ambiguity sets in. Things just no longer make sense in the traditional way, via rational science or popular religion. We get to a point where things can't be rationalized and explicated verbally. The world doesn't totally make sense, and that is totally acceptable. At this point we see the interconnectedness and relative unimportance of everything. We also find that discussing it with those who don't understand is useless, and with those who do unnecessary. And we see the folly in the world around us.

In A Separate Reality, Don Juan tries to explain this to Carlos, who of course insists on understanding things verbally. When I first read this book over thirty years ago I was fascinated with almost everything about it, but could understand very little of it in concrete terms. I suspended understanding so I could move on. Of course I still have to do that with much of subject matter, because I am not a Yaqui Brujo. I have not experienced all of the things Don Juan is trying to teach Castaneda, so I can't really understand it all. However, I have grown in my own weird way over the last thirty years, so a lot of what is covered in Castaneda's writings is understandable to me. Perhaps not in the way Don Juan intended, but through my own universalist perspective it resonates. It most definitely means more to me now than it did thirty years ago. Through my practices I have come to understand consciousness, energy, the Universe, and the interconnectedness of everything in a much different way than I did before. Most of these understandings did not come through analytical thought, or rhetorical explication alone. Reason and rhetoric played a part, but the clincher, the real understanding part has come through doing--or not doing; through experience, whether that experience be sitting meditation or exchanging energy with a martial arts partner. I know I've had the experiences, I know they taught me, I know what they taught me, but I can never explain so that another gets it the same way I did. The only way to learn at that level is through experience.

Don Juan also introduces the concept of controlled folly in A Separate Reality. As this acceptable ambiguity sets in, we realize that things have changed for us. We can't go on living the way we have before. Our minds may struggle with the tension between the new understanding and the old comfort, but our bodies know. We can no longer be content pretending things matter that we know in our hearts do not. Chief among the things that don't matter is convincing others. We can reach a place of live and let live. But we still live in the world. We may act on unimportant things anyway. We may need to go through the motions of social life to move along and live our lives in a strategic manner. We do this through controlled folly. We know it's ultimately folly, but it serves our larger purpose. The thing that does matter is living an intentional life, in a purposeful and strategic manner.

I write. That is what I do. Granted, it may be controlled folly but it is ultimately a part of my strategic life because I learn through my writing just as I learn through my Taiji form. The more I learn the more I progress. Ultimately I am only progressing to my death, but the knowledge of my death, in a bow of respect to Don Juan, is what tempers my life. Knowing that death is just over my left shoulder stalking me always, is the impetus for impeccability, my reason for following the way of the warrior. And that is why it matters, even though it doesn't.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Exploring Qigong V: Walking Qigong

Walking Qigong is a very potent form for healing, and is one of the first Qigong methods I learned. Walking Qigong is fairly easy to do. It is good physical exercise, good moving meditation, and good inner alchemy induction. Like most things Qigong, there is no one way to do it. There are endless variations and approaches. But the reason this is a common situation in Qigong is that the combination of movement and mindful intention is the biggest part of the process. Granted there are specific forms and routines that excite and stimulate different meridians, and that address different physiological functions. But, in general, we are working with a peaceful present mind, a moving body, and a healing intention. So the best way to approach Walking Qigong is to do it. Of course one needs to attend to the Three Intentful Corrections, and practice slow and intentionally. But there is no need for arguing over minute details or the number of angels on the head of a pin.

The most famous method of Walking Qigong is Guo Lin Qigong, which was developed in the 1970's for healing cancer. This is a specific form and instruction is recommended for doing this form as intended. However, general Walking Qigong focuses on slow intentful walking. One should practice breathing in time with one's steps, so that one inhales on a right step (for example), and exhales on a left. At the same time the practitioner can move the arms in a rhythmic manner, keeping time with the steps and breathing. For example one can raise the left arm as the right foot steps, and make a big vertical circle as the step is completed. Then as the left foot begins to move forward, the right hand should be in motion to do the same thing on that side in time with the stepping and breathing. A possible variation would be to move both hands gently to the side on which the foot is stepping forward, as in the video above.

Walking Qigong, while a healing form, is a walking meditation. The practitioner should focus on the breath, relax, and perhaps incorporate a mantra or an affirmation. The result for the practitioner is a sense of peaceful wholeness. If one does the research, countless examples of healing and cancer recovery are linked to Qigong. It is possible that this one simple exercise contains the secret to health and longevity. I know I am a believer. It is and has been a part of my routine, and will continue to be.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Will the Real Taiji Players Please Stand?

How many Taiji Players does it take to screw in a light bulb? One hundred. One to screw in the bulb and ninety nine to say, "that's not how we do it."

Let me get to my thesis right off the bat, with due respect and regards to my friends, associates, teachers, and mentors: There is no objective, real, true Taiji, to the exclusion of others.

Through the miracle that is the internet, we all have the opportunity to learn, teach, debate, and share knowledge. And overall I think that is great. However, through forums, and Facebook groups, and blogs, etc... we have all engaged in the "that's not how we do it" verbal exercise. I am as guilty as anyone. And I think that's OK, to a degree. We each need our own objective definition for our own version of Taiji. But like most things in this world, Taiji is subjective. That's what makes it such an interesting and appealing art. However, I think that once we step off into this idea that 'what I'm doing is real, and what you're doing is crap' we ultimately limit ourselves and a do a great disservice to Taijiquan.

Taijiquan is a potent, deadly, devastating Martial Art. At the same time it is a great choreographed from of Qigong, with unbelievable healing powers. It is a mindfulness practice as potent as sitting meditation. It is good overall exercise. It is a beautiful aesthetic art. And there are numerous other definitions that I'm not bringing to mind right now. For some of us, it is all of these things. For some it is only a few, or only one. That's OK. That's great. But if it is only one or a couple of these things for one, that doesn't nullify the other categories for other players.

There are some martial Taiji players whose art is as deadly and effective as any martial art on the face of the planet. At the same time, there are senior citizens doing simple, slow forms in the public parks and nursing homes of world who are proactively addressing their health and adding precious years to their lives. There are competition players, yes even MMA competitors, who add to their art through the practice of Taiji. At the same time there are spiritual-minded people who count Taiji as another meditation practice, another vehicle to Nirvana, or whatever their spiritual goal. The list goes on. And they are all Taiji players, and any and all of their Taiji is as real as any of the others.

I do think that there really are some practices that may be called Taiji that really aren't. But this is because they do not follow established Taiji principles and practices that follow across all forms styles and applications. The Classics are fairly clear on what constitutes Taijiquan. I don't want to go down that path in this entry. Suffice it to say for this post, if we are following the teachings of the Classics and the major schools it is Taiji. Yang Yang, whose system is my primary, has developed an eight movement form for senior citizens and new students based on the Chen Hunyuan System. It is a very simplified form and is extremely different than the original Chen forms. However, it is based on the thirteen movements: the eight forces (peng/lu/ji/an/lie/zhou/kao), and the five directions (advance, retreat, left, right, and central equilibrium). It is probably fair to say that most who learn and practice this art will never get to the point of doing San Shou, Double Push Hands, or Fajin. They may never use their Taiji as self defense, or even think about self defense at all. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing Taiji. At the same time, there are young Chen players whose advanced Push Hands is as potent as any Jujitsu, and whose sparring skills as skillful as any Karateka. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing Taiji either. It's just not the same Taiji as the folks at the nursing home, or in the park, or wherever.

As I said, I am as guilty of categorization and apparent exclusion as anyone. And for that I apologize to any who got the impression that I am coming from this point of view. I am not. I am just as happy playing hard push hands/sticky hands, San Shou, or grappling as I am doing the Yang short form and Zhan Zhuang in the park. For me Taijiquan is a martial art, a healing art, a vehicle for mindfulness, a tool for learning about myself, complete exercise, practical Taoism, self defense, etc... There are folks who practice in ways that I don't and use Taiji for things that I don't and may never. But I don't think their Taiji is any more or less real than mine. It's all Taiji and its all good.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Interview on Meditation How

Benjamin Dean, who has one of the neatest blogs on Zen Poetry at, also has a blog on Meditation instruction. He just interviewed me for a series he is doing on different meditators and meditation styles. While I enjoyed the interview and am glad to contribute, I have to admit the conversation ended up drifting into unexpected areas. Such is the power of communication and vocalized thought.

Here is a link to the interview. Enjoy.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Exploring Qigong IV Continued: More on Standing.

The following is an article by Afshin Mokhtari, an acupuncturist in San Mateo, CA. Afshin offered this as a reply to my last entry on Qigong and I am so impressed I want to share it on this space. This is a very concise explication on the art of standing. The complete article can be accessed on Afshin's website here. In fact, I recommend his website in general. There are some very good articles on Chinese Medicine and healthy lifestyle choices.
And, thanks Afshin!

How to do Standing Qigong

Chen Xiao Wang StandingIn this article I introduce you to one of the most all-around beneficial exercises that you can do. It is a form of qi gong called Standing pole, or just “standing” practice. I’ll give you some background about why its so good for you, and tell you how you can start practicing today!

Standing practice (Zhan Zhuang in mandarin) benefits the whole body. It is effective for the treatment of illness and the development of overall health and fitness, suitable for people of all ages and physical constitution. It is a form of qi gong where the only movement is the natural movement of breathing. To an outsider it looks like you’re practicing to be a statue! Its not really physically demanding, but what makes it hard is cultivating the patience it takes be relaxed and content while doing it, and also the focus it takes to be actively maintaining good posture. It is a complete practice in itself, but also considered a foundational exercise for internal martial arts such as taiji (tai-chi). When done consistently over weeks and months, it provides something that no amount of muscularly oriented exercise can give. Speaking generally, standing practice develops relaxation, focus, and integrated body-mind awareness.

How does it work? From the Western physiological perspective, research has found that the benefits of qi gong come from its effect on the cerebral cortex. As life goes on and we’re faced with various stresses, our bodies build artificial actions and reflexes in response. Such tensions are not easy to get rid of and over time we unconsciously physically hold these stress patterns, to our own detriment. Qi gongs in general give the cerebral cortex a chance to relax and let the body-mind unwind from these chronic stress patterns. When you relax with good posture, all the internal organs settle while all metabolic functions increase, and then the body goes into healing mode.

standing practice

Master Shou-Yu Liang doing his standing practice

From the traditional Chinese medical perspective, free and unobstructed flow of blood and qi around the body is one of the most important elements in the development and maintenance of health. Standing practice trains you to become conscious of the stress patterns you hold and to let them go, thus freeing up the flow. We achieve this with good posture, relaxed breathing, and a calm mind. Its much more than just a power-nap!

Sounds good… but how do we achieve these things? Learn the following guidelines, practice daily, and cultivate patience. The first time, just try it for 30 seconds. As the days go on, you should increase the time you spend. With consistent practice, you’ll start noticing your imbalances.

1. Stand with your feet a shoulder width apart, toes pointing forward, either parallel, or turned slightly outward.

2. Dont stand so straight that you’re locking your knees. Make sure they’re unlocked. Also do not get into a low martial arts horse-stance, you can be standing almost straight up; take a look at the picture above.

3. Let your hands hang loosely by your sides .

There are many standing practice variations where your hands & posture can be in a variety of positions. They’re harder and develop more than what we’re doing here, so for now just let them hang down. For reference, you can see the picture on the right of Mr.Chen Xiao Wang doing a version of standing endearingly referred to as tree-hugging.

4. drop your shoulders

Imagine that, like a puppet, your whole body is hanging, suspended from your head. A string holds your head from a point at the top of your skull, directly in line with the tips of your ears. Feel yourself sinking down, relaxing, as you hang from the string. But dont droop, you want to be relaxed, not limp.

5. Breathe calmly and naturally through the nose. There is no special breathing in this exercise. When relaxed, your breathing should be down in your belly instead of your chest.

6. Look forward and slightly downward, so that chin is not pushed forward

7. Release any tension in your neck. This takes time, at first see if you can tune in to it and you’ll learn how to relax it over time.

8. Relax your hips and belly. Again, relaxed but not limp. Very important also that your lower back is relaxed so that it expands and contracts a little as you breathe. Don’t try to force this, learn to unlock your back if its locked.

9. Straighten your spine, let the bottom of your spine unfold downward so that neither your belly nor your bottom is sticking out.

Different people have different challenges with respect to the above list. Over time you’ll find which problems you tend to exhibit.

A classic description of the posture you’re trying to achieve: “Your center lies 2-4 inches below your navel, one third of the way into your body. It is in line with the suspension point at the top of your head. From below your kneecaps, your roots extend downward. From your knees upward you rise like a tree, resting calmly between the earth and the sky. Your weight is evenly distributed between your left and right feet. These roots sink deep into the earth. The weight of your body rests in the middle of the soles of your feet.”

Rome was not built in a day, and like any skill, this qi gong requires practice and patience. Striving and straining for results will only bring disappointment and tension. This exercise is subtle, and it takes time for you to tune in to yourself. Do not practice when you are full of food, over-tired, over-hungry, or full of alcohol. Its best to pick a practice schedule and stick to it. Wear loose clothes and maybe warm up and stretch a little before, remember the goal is to relax.

During the early stages of practice, you may feel a number of physical reactions, some of them unpleasant! Your hands may tingle or get numb, you might have itches, pain, trembling, and so on. These are the body’s reactions to the unaccustomed use of muscles, physiological changes in metabolism and circulation, and tension release. You will especially start to notice imbalances between your right and left sides. Stay calm and persevere, shake out any tensions you build up. It takes time and some discomfort to work through your chronic tensions. But dont hurt yourself either – be careful if your knees or back start to hurt, these are clues that your posture is not good, make sure you’re not leaning.

Practice daily. Its better to do 5 minutes a day every day than trying to do half an hour once a week. Shoot for 10 minutes in the morning and evening by the end of your first month of practice. If your going to the bathroom schedule is not regular, you’ll find that consistent morning standing practice will help that! Afshin Mokhtari