Friday, December 18, 2015

The Dao of Forgiveness….

A blog about essential text in the Daoist tradition and tai ji is in the works, but for now I love this quick story about forgiveness from Derek Lin's "The Tao of Daily Life." The essential part of the story for me is that the practice of forgiveness never ends until we let go of the ego, let go of our sense of self-importance, and become one with the dao.

                                                 Prayer ribbons and locks on Mt. Hua in China. 

One day, the sage gave the disciple an empty sack and a basket of potatoes. 

"Think of all the people who have done or said something against you in the recent past, especially those you cannot forgive. For each of them, inscribe the name on a potato and put it in the sack."

The disciple came up with quite a few names, and soon his sack was heavy with potatoes.

"Carry the sack with you wherever you go for a week," said the sage. "We'll talk after that."

At first, the disciple thought nothing of it. Carrying the sack was not particularly difficult. But after a while, it became more of a burden. It sometimes got in the way, and it seemed to require more effort to carry as time went on, even though its weight remained the same.

After a few days, the sack began to smell. The carved potatoes gave off a ripe odor. Not only were they increasingly inconvenient to carry around, they were also becoming rather unpleasant.

Finally, the week was over. The sage summoned the disciple. "Any thoughts about all this?"

"Yes, Master," the disciple replied. "When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers."

"Yes, that is exactly what happens when one holds a grudge. So, how can we lighten the load?"

"We must strive to forgive."

"Forgiving someone is the equivalent of removing the corresponding potato from the sack. How many of your transgressors are you able to forgive?"

"I've thought about it quite a bit, Master," the disciple said. "It required much effort, but I have decided to forgive all of them."

"Very well, we can remove all the potatoes. Were there any more people who transgressed against you this last week?"

The disciple thought for a while and admitted there were. Then he felt panic when he realized his empty sack was about to get filled up again.

"Master," he asked, "if we continue like this, wouldn't there always be potatoes in the sack week after week?"

"Yes, as long as people speak or act against you in some way, you will always have potatoes."

"But Master, we can never control what others do. So what good is the Tao in this case?"

"We're not at the realm of the Tao yet. Everything we have talked about so far is the conventional approach to forgiveness. It is the same thing that many philosophies and most religions preach – we must constantly strive to forgive, for it is an important virtue. This is not the Tao because there is no striving in the Tao."

"Then what is the Tao, Master?"

"You can figure it out. If the potatoes are negative feelings, then what is the sack?"

"The sack is... that which allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is something within us that makes us dwell on feeling offended.... Ah, it is my inflated sense of self-importance."

"And what will happen if you let go of it?"

"Then... the things that people do or say against me no longer seem like such a major issue."

"In that case, you won't have any names to inscribe on potatoes. That means no more weight to carry around, and no more bad smells. The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to not just to remove some potatoes... but to relinquish the entire sack."

Friday, December 11, 2015

Important lessons in tai ji

Yang Cheng Fu became the standard bearer for the Yang family in the early part of the 20th century, and published many materials about the art. Essential reading for any tai ji student. 

Narrated by Yang Cheng Fu 
Recorded by Zhang Hong Kui

Yang Cheng Fu Application - Vancouver Tai ChiThere are many schools of Chinese wushu (martial arts), all with technical skills based on philosophy. Since ancient times, many people have devoted their lifetime and energy to probing the nature and essence of wushu and mastering the maximum skills, but few have succeeded. However, a learner can improve his skill if he keeps on practicing and someday he will become an expert. As the saying goes: Drops falling, if they fall constantly, will bore through a stone.
Taijiquan is a part of the rich cultural heritage of China. It is an art in whose slow and gentle movements are embodied vigour and force. As a Chinese saying aptly puts it, “Inside the cotton is hidden a needle”. Its technical, physiological and mechanical qualities all have a philosophical basis. For learners, the guidance of a good teacher and discussions of the skills and techniques with friends are necessary, but the most important thing is persistent and untiring practice. Indeed, there is nothing like practice, and learners of taijiquan, men and women, young and old, will get the best possible results if they keep at it all the year round.
In recent years, the number of people studying taijiquan in various parts of China has been increasing. This is an indication of the bright prospects of wushu. Many learners are conscientious and persistent in training, which will enable them to attain a high level of achievement. It should be pointed out that two wrong tendencies should be guarded against. The first is that some some people who are young and talented acquired a quicker understanding than most other people and so become complacent and stop half way. These people can never achieve great success. The second wrong tendency is that some learners are too anxious to achieve quick success and get instant benefits. They want to learn everything in a short time, from shadow boxing to wielding the sword, broadsword, spear and other weapons. They know a smattering of each, but do not grasp the essence and their movements and postures are full of flaws to the expert eye. It is difficult to correct their movements, for a thorough “overhaul” is needed and , as often as not, they might change in the morning and return to the old habits in the evening. Hence the saying in Chinese boxing circles: “Learning taijiquan is easy but to correct a wrong style is difficult”. In other words, more haste less speed. And if these people pass on their mistakes to others, they will be doing a great harm.
In learning taijiquan, one should first of all start from the quan jia or frame of boxing; he should practice according to the routines and follow the master’s every movement carefully, and keep each action in mind. Meanwhile, he should pay attention to the nei, wai, shang and xia. Nei means using the mind rather than force. Wai means the relaxation of the limbs, shoulders and elbows, making the movements from the foot to the leg to the waist gentle and continuous. Shang means straightening the head, and xia means sinking the breath to the lower belly.
For a beginner, the most important thing is to remember these points, grasp their essence and practice each basic movement correctly over and over again, never seeking quick success and instant benefit. It is advisable to make slow and steady progress, for this will pay in the long run. In practicing taijiquan, it is necessary to keep all the joints in the body relaxed, so that the movements will be natural and unrestrained. Do not hold your breath (that may lead to puff and blow), and do not use stiff strength in moving the arms, legs and waist and body, but try to make your movements gentle and continuous. These two points are well-known among the wushu experts, but many trainees have difficulty putting them into practice.

The learners should bear in mind the following points:

1. Keep your head erect and do not incline it forward or backward. As the saying goes, “Its like there is something on your head, and you should take care not to let it fall”. But you should not hold your head in a stiff manner, and though your eyes look straight ahead, they should follow the movements of the limbs and body. Although your eyes look into vacancy, they are an important component of the movements of the body as whole. Your mouth should remain half open and half closed, with the nose breathing in and mouth breathing out naturally. If saliva is produced in the mouth swallow it.

2. Hold the torso straight and the backbone and free end of the sacrum vertical. When moving, always keep the chest slightly inward and the back upright. The beginners should keep these key points in mind, otherwise their movements will become mere formality or dull-looking, and they will not be able to make much progress in spite of long years of practice. 

3. Relax the joints of both arms, letting the shoulders droop and the elbows curve naturally; the palms should be slightly extended and the fingers slightly bent. Move the arms by consciousness and send qi (breath or vital energy) to the fingers. Remember these key points and success will be yours.

4. Take not of the difference in stance between the two legs which move as gently as those of a cat. When one foot is planted firmly on the ground,the other is in an empty stance. When you shift the weight on to the left leg, then the left foot is firmly on the ground, while the right foot is in an empty stance, and vice verse. though the foot is in an empty stance it is always ready to move. When the foot is firmly on the ground, it does not not mean that you should exert too much force on that leg, for if you do so, your body will incline forward and you will lose your balance.

5. The action of the feet is divided into kicking upward and kicking downward. When you kick upward, pay attention to your toes, and when you kick downward, pay attention to the sole; consciousness of the action will be followed by vital energy, and vital energy will be followed by strength. When you do all this, you should relax the joints and avoid stiffness.

In practicing taijiquan, one should first master and practice the “frame” as above mention (bare-handed forms), such as Taiji shadow boxing and changquan (long shadow boxing); then one can proceed to single-hand pushing, one-site pushing, pushing with feet moving and free-hand fighting, and after a period one can take exercises with weapons such as taiji sword, taiji scimitar and taiji spear.

Learners should practice regularly every morning or before going to bed. It is preferable to practice seven or eight times during the daytime; if one is hard pressed for time, then at least once in the morning and once in the evening. Do not practice immediately after meals or after drinking. The best place is in the gardens or parks where the air is fresh and the environment conducive to health. Do not practice on windy days or in a filthy place. For when you do exercise, you might breathe in too much dust or dirt which is harmful to your lungs. It is advisable to put on sportswear and comfortable cloth or rubber shoes. When you sweat, don’t take off your clothes or wipe with cold towels, lest you catch cold and fall ill.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Building relationships in China

In my many years of martial arts training, and my time in Chinese medicine school I have often heard teachers and other students claim that there are no more masters left in China, or the communists ruined Chinese medicine, and other such things. Usually those views were expressed by people who had visited China once, or maybe not at all. My experience has proven otherwise….

In 2005 and 2006, I made several trips to Sri Lanka with a small group of friends to do aid work. Everyone involved was a martial artist or yoga teacher, and one of them was my tai ji teacher. The work there had deep meaning for all. On each one of these trips I felt some major spiritual shifts, and on my last trip there, in the winter of 2006, I decided to make some big life changes - to devote my life to healing, Chinese medicine, and martial arts. Embedded in that commitment was the desire to travel to China to see for myself what was there. In planning my first trip I decided to go with Michael Winn of Healing Dao USA. Winn had been traveling to China since 1983, and had sponsored a number of trips to visit Daoist holy sites and mountains, to practice qigong, and to learn about Chinese culture. I was in!! Visiting China for the first time with someone who had already built relationships was and still is essential.

The Chinese have a word for relationships, guan xi, and without it you will get nowhere in China. It has deep cultural significance implying networking, connections, and favors. There is an inherent trust, and a bit of give and take for all concerned parties. Some people think this just involves cash, and payoffs, and indeed that can be part of it. But it is often more subtle, and can be as simple as lunch or a small token of appreciation from the visitors home country. Whatever form it comes in, developing guan xi takes time. The Chinese are cautious to enter into a relationship with someone they don't know as guan xi also involves responsibility, and the possibility of losing face if something goes wrong.

In the martial arts world, developing these relationships involves showing up more than once or twice. Imagine how many westerners have visited China or Taiwan, learned a couple of forms, and then returned home declaring themselves a master with secret forms they learned from unnamed teachers in Asia. Now imagine you're the Chinese teacher who may have gotten $100 for a weeks worth of training, and receives no credit for the work. It's disrespectful, and goes against Chinese culture which pays immense respect to lineage, and ancestors.

I ended up going to China 3 times with Michael to visit as many Daoist sites as I could with him, and to meet with hermits, monks and nuns. I met several of the abbots who run the main Daoist centers in China, and continued to travel there on my own as often as possible, sometimes 2 or 3 times per year. But really, China opened up for me about 4 years ago. Through friendships I had developed, I started to meet and visit with various teachers, and to gain access to people that I never knew existed or would never have met without the proper introductions.

For example, during my first trip to Nanjing in 2010 I was able to visit a friend's father in the hospital. He was older, about 88, and had had heart valve replacement when he was younger. However, the valves were beginning to leak, and at his age another surgery was too dangerous. At the hospital his chart was split into two sections - on one side was a list of western medications, and on the other was his Chinese herbal formula, as well as acupuncture points. I got to visit him several days in a row and observe his progress, and eventual release from the hospital. Afterward, we played mahjong at his home, and he shared his medicinal wine with me. Known as jiu, his recipe involved ginseng, goji, and red wine. Our time together also included a dissertation on how to choose ginseng, and how to make the tonic for myself. He also tutored me in the reading of the Dao de Jing in Chinese, and we spent time comparing the simplified characters to the traditional and classical Chinese characters, often referencing calligraphy books he used in his own painting.

On my next trip to Nanjing, I was taken to a Chinese medicine clinic run by the students of the Nanjing TCM University. It was setup one weekend a month in an herbal pharmacy off campus. The cool part was that the Chinese TCM students were scouring the countryside to find the older generation of Chinese medicine practitioners, barefoot doctors, who had been trained prior to Mao, and the formulation of TCM. The doctors would see patients, diagnose, and offer herbal prescriptions while the students observed and notated everything these doctors said and did. I was able to observe for the day, ask questions, take notes, and at the end of the day received acupuncture for the first time in China. It was vigorous to say the least, but the effects were long lasting.

And on yet another trip we decided to visit the Daoist temples on Maoshan. On the way there I mentioned what history I knew of the place, and the practices there. When my Chinese friends heard the excitement and interest I had about the mountain they made some quick phone calls, and within 10 minutes had secured meetings with the abbott and some of the top practitioners outside the typical tourist route. Again, guan xi is what made all of these experiences possible.

These are but a few priceless memories, but none are as meaningful as the meeting of my Chinese martial arts teachers detailed earlier in this blog. China can really kick your ass. It's crowded, dirty, and the people often just run you over. Language is a huge issue, and there is definitely a level of distrust for foreigners. But if you keep showing up, remain humble, and work hard you will find that doors open up for you, and with even just a taste of the rich history that China has to offer you will be a better practitioner for it.