Sunday, 30 September 2012

YiQuan and Zen

"When Bodhidharma saw that the monks were physically out of shape from sitting around reading... he developed an exercise regime called the Eighteen Hands of Lohan to give them the stamina they would need to endure the long hours of meditation." p186, Buddha or Bust, Garfinkel (2006)
"When the domain of being is actively cultivated during slow and gentle stretching and strengthening exercises, such as yoga or physical therapy, what people think of traditionally as "exercise" is transformed into meditation." p97, Chapter: Yoga is meditation, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
As I write this I am most of the way through a 12 day residential intensive at TaoLin YiQuan Academy in the countryside north of Beijing. Since beginning to practice YiQuan daily, starting in April 2012, now being 6 Months on, I have learnt the 6 basic 'standing post' health postures involving 6 different hand placements. Next my standing post practice will move on to stances with more martial potential; to open my hips further. Many people stop at the health practices, but additional health benefits can be gained by practicing the martial curriculum.

The author in the 6 basic health standing postures of YiQuan.
It seems there will be likely benefits for my seated mindfulness meditation practice as my martial skills deepen - giving me a clearer physical appreciation of dropping all rigid ideas and forms. The founder of YiQuan, Master Wang XiangZhai, says:
"Like a student of Zen, who starts with religious discipline, becomes skillful in quietude, has an insight, finds evidence of the fountainhead of one's spirit, comprehends the void and then finally reaches the highest achievement; only then can one learn the Tao. What Zen is, the martial arts are aswell." - p7, The Right Path of YiQuan, (2001)
YiQuan Master Wang XiangZhai (1885 - 1963).
Master Wang XiangZhai gained numerous martial achievements during his lifetime - defeating all martial challengers, including a Hungarian Western-style boxer in Shanghai. This event was apparently reported in the London Times 100 years ago.

The author working on his martial 'SanTi' posture at the entrance to the YiQuan school.
As I have been practicing my seated mindfulness meditation over the past few days, I have been feeling more space in my belly; allowing my breath to deepen, and even though it could be due to the decrease in stress while being on holiday from full-time language teaching work, it seems that the posture training - with hips tucked under, thus flattening the lumbar region of the spine, has been contributing to this increased abdominal capacity or depth.

The author practising an exercise in the martial 'SanTi' posture.
Historically, it seems there has been an intimate connection between seated 'zen' mindfulness meditation and these YiQuan postures I have learnt. Wang XiangZhai writes:
"The top of the head as if hanging from the sky (the head... when this vertex is like suspended... the 'white clouds can naturally gather to the peak', and a bit of miraculous brightness hangs from the vertex, this is also the basis of Zen)." p16, The Right Path of YiQuan.
Master Wang XiangZhai assuming an YiQuan standing posture.
 Mindfulness author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, points to the intimate origins between ancient Buddhist, Daoist, and yogic exercises and 'zen' in his book, 'Wherever you go, There you are', when he writes, Part One: The Bloom of the Present Moment:
"Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. [...] The key to this path, which lies at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga, and which we also find in the works of people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and in Native American wisdom, is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment."
This mindful cultivation of awareness of one's being as an ancient ideal is explicity described by YiQuan Master Wang Xiangzhai in Zhan Zhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (2004), p18:
"There is no place without feeling of comfort. You shouldn't ponder over anything. You shouldn't use too much effort. Exercise shouldn't create burden for your heart. Brain should rest. You may think of vast, unlimited space of universe, clearing mind from disturbing feelings and thoughts. There should appear feeling of empty, light agility, a melody which is linking everything. As if you were drunk or as if astounded or stupid. Smiling slightly as if you were playing in water, as if you were a baby again, listening to the nature. In ordinary and usual there is unusual natural pleasure. You should respect teacher's teaching, but you shouldn't follow it in mechanical, rigid way. Here is the unlimited profoundness and sweetness. Moving like fish in water. Natural comfort, natural comfort, true natural comfort. The meaning of teachings of ancient philosophers is not different."

Monday, 24 September 2012


"The perfect mastery of the bow was considered an art by the Samurai, an art that knew no other goal than the highest experience of the here and now, of the moment as it is, beyond any strategies of thought and concept. [...] Each arrow is shot as if it were the only one, just as each moment of one's life is the ultimate moment. ...if the heart is right, each shot clears away some more of the obstacles clouding the vision of one's true nature." - - Standing Zen

A Japanese Kyudo archer.
A traditional Chinese Manchu archer.
 Archery was very popular in China before the use of guns, and Confucius was said to have been an excellent archer. Horseback archery was part of the military exams in ancient China.

A Chinese mounted archer during a military exam.
 The ancient Chinese yoga-like calisthenics practice known as '8 Pieces of Brocade' (BaDuanJin QiGong) includes a posture known as 'Drawing the Bow to Shoot the Hawk', which imitates the drawing of a bow. This practice is one of the most, common, popular and widespread Chinese calisthenics used by people all over the world.

Chinese people performing 'Drawing the Bow to Shoot the Hawk' in a park, China.
 The mindful dimension behind archery of any sort should be obvious - it seems the archer, poised with arrow aimed at the target is symbolic of the meditative state. As states, for example:
"‘Ta' means ‘hitting the centre' or ‘touching the centre', in the same way as when we practise archery, and you shoot the arrow; you touch the centre. This is the meaning of ‘ta' here, in shikantaza [Soto Zen seated meditation]."
There has been a book written, called 'Zen and the Art of Archery', but it seems that book is not a particularly reliable resource on the role of zen in archery in Japan, which is a shame.

In February 2011 my partner and I decided to fulfill a long-held ambition to have a go at archery and so we joined an archery club here in Beijing. We progressed quite quickly but then the club shut down for a few months so that it could move location, and we are eager to return. Here is a picture of myself with some of my language students during an outing to the club we joined:

It is very enjoyable exploring the role of mindfulness while practicing archery - the feeling when an arrow hits the bullseye seems to sometimes hold a kind of perfection - not just as a result, but in the whole aim, release and arrival of the arrow at the target. It becomes a very addictive pastime in this respect.

Recently, during the 2012 Olympics, a South Korean woman, called Kim Jang-Mi, won a gold medal in the women's pistol shooting category. She credited Buddhist Mindfulness meditation as having helped her win. This was specifically because more body control was required for this event.

Kim Jang-Mi Celebrating her Gold Medal win.

Kim Jang-Mi taking part in the pistol shooting during the Olympics, London, 2012.
We would love to have a go at the Japanese art of Kyudo one day, and deepen our appreciation of the Art of Archery.

A Japanese Kyudo Club.

Monday, 17 September 2012

WingChun KungFu

"My instructor Professor Yip Man, head of the Wing Chun School, would come up to me and say, "Loong (Bruce's Chinese name), relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent's movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment." - Bruce Lee in The Bruce Lee Story by Linda Lee and Tom Bleecker.

Bruce Lee practicing WingChun KungFu with Master Yip Man.
WingChun is the most popular kungfu practice in the world, not because of it's pretty or mysterious methods, but because of it's incredibly practical, easy to learn, and accessible form. WingChun was apparently the name of a girl who used a Southern Shaolin Temple KungFu system to defend herself effectively against a stronger male opponent.
A picture of Yim WingChun defending herself.
Northern Shaolin Temple, where Zen/Ch'an is said to have first established itself, has a long history of yogic and martial practices, the former no doubt supporting the monks' (and any nuns') meditative habits, and the latter likely providing them with protection as they moved from place to place. Knowing how to evade attacks and escape could have helped any ordained Mahayana buddhists to continue to work on fulfilling their vows as Bodhisattvas - to practice Buddhism for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings.

Bodhisattvas in various yogic poses painted on the wall of a cave at DunHuang, China.
I began learning WingChun KungFu in 2000 out of an interest in KungFu movies and self defense. My teacher was a black belt in the Kamon WingChun School, the head of which, Kevin Chan, would grade us on our ability as we progressed through the system. I stopped training in 2003 after reaching half way through the course - I felt that I had gained a level of self defense that was good enough for me to feel safe in most situations, and I began looking for a martial system with a deeper spiritual philosophy. It seems that WingChun as it is now taught is disconnected from any Buddhist practices, and is just a fighting or self-defense system.

Kamon WingChun Master Kevin Chan practicing WingChun KungFu with Master Yip Chun, son of Master Yip Man.
In 2011 I regained my interest in WingChun KungFu after my partner expressed a wish to begin practicing, and since then I have been teaching her what I know. I had learnt many of the techniques used to grade the more advanced students, and there is now a wealth of related resources on the internet, so I have been working my way through the system again. Here is a video of me practising a version of the WingChun Wooden Dummy form:


The first pattern of movements learnt in WingChun is the 'Siu Lim Tao' form - roughly translated as 'small idea'. The first third of this form is practiced as slowly as possible, and so this is a kind of meditation. If one's mind wanders, one can easily forget the next step, so keeping one's focus is very important. In the book 'WingChun KungFu: Traditional Chinese KungFu for Self-defence and Health', p129-140, the author, Michael Tse, student of Master Yip Chun, says the following:
 "Your mind should be calm and empty of thought and your muscles relaxed. Breathe normaly through the nose, not the mouth. As you practice your Qi will develop, your strength will increase and you will find that your mind is much calmer and more balanced. You will not easily become overexcited or distracted by other things. [...] The first part of Siu Lim Tao trains the body internally by helping you to develop a calm mind and stillness. Then, when someone attacks you, you will not panic."
 This video shows me doing the meditative beginning of the third section (the right arm repeats what the left arm does, so the clip stops at this point):

As I walk the streets and encounter people who take up potentially aggressive postures, I feel safer having practiced Wing Chun. I think the art is especially useful for women so that they can close the physical performance gap between themselves and men - especially when defending themselves from violent acts.

The author in the WingChun KungFu 'guard' stance.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Xiao Vertical Bamboo Flute

 "Even after the Buddha put the flute down, they could still hear the music. .... No one spoke for a long while. Then the young man to whom the flute belonged asked the Buddha, “Master, you play so wonderfully! I’ve never heard anyone who could play so well. Who did you study with? Would you accept me as your student so that I could learn flute from you?” The Buddha smiled and he said, “I learned to play the flute when I was a boy, but I have not played in nearly seven years. My sound, however, is better than it was before.” “How can that be, Master? How can your playing have improved if you have not practiced in seven years?” “Playing the flute does not depend solely on practicing the flute. I now play better than in the past because I have found my true self. You cannot reach lofty heights in art if you do not first discover the unsurpassable beauty in your own heart. If you would like to play the flute truly well, you must find your true self on the Path of Awakening.” - p218-219 , Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Siddartha Gautama playing the flute as a youth before he became a Buddha.
When I was a child I became quite attached to playing the recorder and intended to go on to play clarinet in highschool, but lost an interest in it as an idea not even having touched a clarinet. After this, any enthusiasm for playing music whithered until I tried and failed to take up the guitar in my mid teens. A few years later I became a breakbeat and techno fan, and saw music as more of a dancefloor phenomenon. I began producing breakbeat music as an amateur - making music that I felt was 'missing' from the dancefloor, until in my later twenties I started to feel that the dance music I was creating was out of sync with my lifestyle.

In 2006, during a tour of China, as my partner and myself made our way up through a forest on a side of a sacred mountain, we heard the soft beautiful tones of a bamboo flute coming from a hidden location - a cliché of sorts, but a very vivid and touching one. That experience left me with a desire to recreate something of that experience for myself and others, and I made a promise to myself to learn Chinese flute at some point in the future.

Photographs taken on KongDongShan Mountain and HuangShan Mountain by the author in 2006.
In 2008, in South China, I bought a relatively cheap transverse bamboo flute called a dízi from a local music store. I took 5 lessons and then practiced on my own, but became frustrated at the difficulty of practicing the dízi, only to later find out that the instrument I had been sold was pretty badly made, and my teacher was not particularly dedicated to me making progress. Here is a video of me playing a simple song on my Chinese transverse flute:
A buffalo boy playing a transverse flute, by Master Gyokusei Jikihara - part of the Zen 'Ox-herding Sequence'.
In December 2011 I bought a new Chinese flute - a vertical bamboo Xiāo, after trying a few and getting a feel for them. This new flute was much more to my liking - it had a lower, more sombre tone, and was much easier for me to play than the dízi. The shop owner said he would give me some lessons in exchange for English classes, and so I attended a brief crash-course.

The bamboo xiāo flute the author bought in 2011.
The tunes I was practicing as I learnt were not touching me much, and I felt my enthusiasm waning. I longed for a relaxing, mysterious sound which I connected with the chinese paintings of craggy landscapes, fir trees, and small humble temples, so I looked online and came across a few accessible tunes that had elements that touched me more than the melodies in the exercise book I had bought.
A Chinese goddess playing a vertical flute.
I had specifically set out to find a xiāo because I had read that it was a very near cousin of the Japanese shakuhachi - the flute played by some Fuke sect Zen monks in Japan. This seemed a lot closer to the tradition and sound that I imagined would recreate my experience on that mountain forest path.

Fuke Zen 'Blowing Meditation' Master Hisamatsu Masagorô, in his essay titled Dokugen (c.1830), writes:
"Whoever studies the shakuhachi must rid himself of worldly thoughts, separate himself from his desires and put aside [the idea of] being superior or inferior. He must concentrate his mind in his stomach, so that he can hear the sound of the bamboo. That is the most important thing."

Japanese mendicant monk of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism, playing a vertical bamboo flute called a Shakuhachi.
 The connection between the ancient Chinese and Japanese vertical bamboo flute (the Japanese one having come from from China originally) inspires me greatly to explore my xiāo with mindfulness, and I would love to study the shakuhachi if I get the chance to meet a good teacher.

These days I am happy exploring the instrument without a teacher, while looking for underlying connections between my meditative practice and my flute playing. The breathing and relaxation is an obvious link, and yet there appears to be so much more to discover - the reflexive connection between one's heart, hands, and breath. If I have time, I will look for a good teacher who has a spiritual practice here in Beijing - perhaps someone at a temple, or has a meditation practice of sorts.

Here is a video of me playing a tune I like on the xiāo - it's called 'Starry Night of Parting':

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Carving a Calligraphy Seal

"a seal not only establishes authorship, but also provides balance to the composition and adds interest by virtue of its own value as an artistic creation. Seals are so important in Chinese art that they are referred to as the “eyes of the artwork." A piece of art without a seal is like a face without eyes." - p170, Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press)

An ancient Chinese seal stamp.

Yesterday we carved our calligraphy seals. The seal name is traditionally presented in Bronzeware Style. 

Ancient Chinese characters on a bronze cup.

The author's Chinese name given to him by his Insight Calligraphy teacher. Rendered in ancient Bronzeware Style by Paul Wang in preparation for carving a seal.
We wrote the characters for our names backwards straight onto the stone in ink, and then used a sharp steel tool to engrave the characters into the stone. It can get a bit tiring, and slip-ups can happen, like the tool suddenly jumping and scratching a smooth area. The stone is relatively soft and the tool etches into it quite effectively.

The author and partner carving their calligraphy seals.

The stone seal carved by the author with his Chinese name on it.
The seal is pressed into a red oily paste called ‘Yìn Ní’ (印泥) and then placed on the paper below one’s name written in ink. Pressure is initially applied in the centre, and then one moves one’s weight around to the four corners. Here’s how mine turned out:

The name is read from right to left in the ancient traditional way. I want to carve another seal with my name in relief. It will be more time consuming than carving this one, but will look a bit better I think, and I would like to get more practice using the special tools.

From Chinese Writing & Calligraphy, p171:
"Seal carving is an art in and of itself. Carvers must be skillful in three specific areas: calligraphy, composition, and handiwork. The engraver today must be proficient in the ancient Seal Script in order to design a seal. He or she must also be skillful enough to shape a number of characters into a small space to achieve a vigorous or graceful effect in perfect balance. Familiarity with the various seal materials is another requirement, so that the right exertion, technique, and rhythm are applied with the cutting knife. Every seal is unique; the material and character style can be chosen to match the personality of the owner. For these reasons, engravers are considered artists. Some famous calligraphers are also known for their engraving abilities."

Saturday, 1 September 2012

External 'Hard Style' Martial Arts

"Though one conquers a million people in battle, he is the noblest victor who has conquered himself" - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Chapter 8, Verse 103.
"The Buddha continued taking slow, stable steps. He knew from the sound of Angulimala's footsteps that he had slowed down to a brisk walk and was not far behind. Although the Buddha was now fifty-six years old, his sight and hearing were keener than ever. He held nothing but his begging bowl. He smiled as he recollected how quick and agile he had been in martial arts as a young prince. The other young men were never able to deliver him a blow. The Buddha knew that Angulimala was very close now and was surely carrying a weapon. The Buddha continued to walk with ease." p62-63, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh.
"I loved science, and when I discovered Buddhist meditative practices and martial arts, I was able to bridge those ways of knowing the world into my own unique way. From that grew the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program" - DR. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness in the Modern World: An Interview With Jon Kabat-Zinn (2012), Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.
"In ancient times the perfect officer wasn't armed, the perfect warrior wasn't angry,
the perfect victor wasn't hostile, the perfect commander acted humble,
this is the virtue of nonaggression, this is using the strength of others, this is uniting with Heaven which was the ancient end.

In warfare there is a saying "rather than a host, better to be a guest, rather than advance an inch, better to retreat a foot",
this means to form no column, to wear no armour, to brandish no weapon, to repulse no enemy,
no fate is worse than to have no enemy, without an enemy we would lose our treasure,
thus when opponents are evenly matched the remorseful one prevails." -Daoist Sage LaoZi, Dao De Jing (~5th Century BC), Transl. Red Pine.
Caring for oneself seems to go beyond reducing stress, eating well, and doing yoga. There are physical dangers posed by other human beings in society which can limit one's options and capacity to feel safe. By practicing kindness and encouraging spiritual growth, one can easily become a target for aggression - Ghandi's assassination appears to be a pretty good example. In Thich Nhat Hanh's 'Old Path, White Clouds', he describes one of the reported assassination attempts on the Buddha, p286:
"One afternoon, as the Buddha stood on the mountain slope admiring the evening sky, he suddenly heard a shout from below, Watch out, Lord! A boulder is about to crash behind you! The Buddha looked back to see the boulder the size of a cattle cart crashing down the mountain towards him. [...] ...the impact of rock against rock sent a fragment flying which pierced the Buddha's foot. Blood gushed from his wound and stained his robes. Looking up, the Buddha saw a man at the top of the mountain running quickly away."

It seems even being enlightened does not keep one safe from the ill intentions of others. Earlier in the story, an assassin was sent to kill the Buddha with a sword:
"Late one night, while sitting in meditation on Vulture Peak, the Buddha opened his eyes to see a man half-concealed behind a nearby tree. The Buddha called to him. Beneath the bright moonlight, the man came forward, laid a sword at the Buddha’s feet, and prostrated himself as if making an offering. The Buddha asked, “Who are you and why have you come here?” The man exclaimed, “Allow me to bow before you, Teacher Gautama! I was ordered to come and kill you but I cannot do it. I raised this sword in my two hands more than ten times while you were meditating, but I was unable to take even one step towards you.” p273

Until one has the ability to constantly radiate the compassion of a Buddha, it seems one must take other precautions against close-range would-be assailants or bullies. Aggressive posturing - advertising possible physical consequences - can often be used on the streets or in workplaces. Having the confidence to defend oneself adequately against such people can be all that is needed to avoid physical conflicts, and then more noble resolutions can be encouraged or sought.

I began training in martial arts in 1997 - taking up TAGB TaeKwonDo for 3 years. Disillusioned with the effectiveness of what appeared to be more a sport than an effective self-defence discipline, I began training in WingChun KungFu with Bristol Kamon WingChun in 2000. I passed the pressure test to get my black t-shirt and stopped attending classes in 2003 after gaining what I felt to be an adequate level of self-defense capability for daily life. I was also a little unnerved that I was beginning to develop a kind of thuggish attitude - wanting to put my skills to the test, to see if I really had learnt something of value.

This is a video of my old TaeKwonDo teacher:

I began looking for a more spiritually-grounded martial perspective. The KungFu classes, although having their origin in Chinese Buddhist traditions, lacked any obvious link to spiritual practice. The training sessions I had been attending had a heavy competitive element - this was especially present as I moved on to training the 'Sticking Hands' Chi Sau exercises which required relaxed sensitivity in a kind of simulated close-range combat setting. I continued to practice WingChun very loosely after this, but since 2011 I have regained my enthusiasm for the art - especially after my partner expressed a keen interest in it, and I felt it was time to refresh my confidence in my self-defence abilities.

Here is a video of the Master of the Wing Chun school who graded me as I progressed through the system:

I see martial arts as a kind of 'desperation resource' - something to fall back on when one (or those one can protect) cannot leave the scene of a certain physical conflict. I want to learn Aikido in the future, as I like the non-lethal and neutralising responses the art teaches. WingChun KungFu can be pretty destructive, and it would be nice to have something more compassionate to use.

Master Morihei Ueshiba - Founder of Aikido in Japan.
Aikido puts an emphasis on seated meditation practice and Wing Chun has a mindful, incredibly slow section at the beginning of the first form. Eastern 'external' martial arts - especially those of Buddhist origin - are famous for their emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, along with a relaxed mind, and so their relationship with mindfulness is long-standing and incredibly intimate. Even in Plum Village, France, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is protected by a 'KungFu monk' - a bodyguard who travels with him, and one of the older monks teaches a bamboo pole martial art stick form for health. I learnt some of that pole form during my stay there.
Wing Chun KungFu Master Ip Man performing the mindful section of the first movement form 'Siu Nim Tao', Hong Kong.
External martial arts aim for the same ultimate goal as that of the internal 'soft style' martial arts - reflexive, fluid, instinctive and effective self defence. The internal martial arts take a lot longer to be martially effective, however, and so the external styles can provide what is needed until one arrives in that place if soft and hard styles are practiced alongside each other - something which, in my experience, seems to help both of them along in various ways.

One blog, called 'Zen's Sekai', seems to states what it says is the Buddhist approach to martial disciplines, in the post titled 'Kung Fu beyond combat: the series – Shaolin Chan':

"The pursuit of good “Kung Fu” in Shaolin is not just Fighting, Kicking, Punching. Even... in Kung fu the compassionate principles of Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill reside. Because all life is precious nor can any be replaced, this comes into Shaolin’s use of martial Kung Fu. Shaolin is about balance and compassion, of oneness of Mind, Body and Spirit. The oneness of everything…Chan is one".

During my visit to Shaolin Temple in 2006, after watching a Wushu acrobatic martial art show, I asked one of the monks to pretend to kick me in the stomach so that my partner could take a kind of comedy photograph. The monk politely refused as it was against his ethics. I suppose it wouldn't have been good for tourism, either, if that picture had had got out.

The author with a Shaolin martial monk at Shaolin Temple, China, 2006.
I believe martial arts should provide people with effective, tangible skills which give them confidence and a sense of security. Unfortunately it seems the majority of disciplines are either ineffective or brutal - to both the defender and attacker. Disciplines really need to tested for the potential they hold for life-long health and  competency.