American Qigong Ethics (updated)

As Americans we have always come face to face with cultures different from our own. Multi-culturalism is an ethic based on our sense of what is right and good and desirable in a society. Unfortunately multiculturalism often gets conflated with cultural relativism.

We acknowledge that people from other cultures have different rituals and customs, as well as different narratives (historical perspectives) and priorities.
Multiculturalism is the idea that we can all benefit from a cosmopolitan environment where there is tolerance for gatherings with culturally distinct attributes and which nurture traditional or historic world views and practices. This is because such an environment leads to a greater good. Through hybridization and cross-cultural integration, we can incubate creativity and innovation.

This idea grows out of a more primitive one, "Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water." An expression which reveals the tension between innovation and tradition found in cosmopolitan environments.

Cultural relativism is the simple idea that what seems real or true to people from one culture may not seem so to people from another. A further corollary to this idea is that the methods people of a particular culture use to test or measure whether something is true or real are often different than those of another culture.

The idea of cultural relativism opens the possibility that we may be wrong about how we decide what is right. Why? Because when we cross a cultural boundary the measure or test which determines what is real or what is true may have changed. Such boundary crossing can happen in a cosmopolitan environment, but multiculturalism as a value stands clearly in my culture, which also happens to value personal freedom and commerce.

Where cultural relativism and multiculturalism become conflated a kind of reluctance or hesitancy to make ethical decisions can lead to a weakening of ethics all around. Fertile ground for cultural and social fundamentalists.

How do we know when subordination of someone else is wrong? How do we know if, indeed, subordinating ourselves is wrong?

This is all pretty relevant to qigong because there really are no qigong traditionalists or qigong conservatives. Everyone is an innovator because qigong as a distinct concept is a new invention. It is a creation of cities. Mainland Chinese cities had explosions of Qigong in the 1980's and 90's, imagine a thousand people all practicing together in a park. The government felt that Qigong was out of control and dangerous so it instituted certifications and regulations. Some teachers went into exile, some went to jail, some styles were made illegal, some went underground, but most found a way to work with the government.
The ethical issues that arise teaching Qigong in America (and elsewhere) are different from those in China. We don't need certifications or oversight. We do need good cross-cultural communication and ways to assess the value of a particular style or teacher.

Historically speaking, it is safe to say gongfu (one of the roots of qigong) has been practiced for a thousand years, and probably longer. People could study and practice movement or meditation or martial arts routines within their families or villages. The Chinese word for village is "cheng," which actually means "wall."  All the people within the city "wall" shared the same body of  ethics.

China also has a long history of itinerant performers, healers and religious teachers. Most often these were also associated with a family and a village. Even a traveling Gongfu-Opera-Circus likely had a home, a family and a particular religious association. The historic conflation of performers, healers, ritual experts and religious teachers makes it difficult to create ethical standards for teaching modern qigong. It has all of these roots.

If you are teaching "qigong healing" and just happen to pull a rabbit out of your hat, is it ethical to say "My qi is feeling jumpy today?" I think not. I think you should say, "I will now attempt to pull a rabbit out of my hat," do the deed, then say, "Ta-Dah!" and take a bow.

The ethic of multiculturalism requires us to tolerate some weird blending of performance and healing, but those same ethics also require us to hybridize by drawing some dotted-lines between, for instance, performance and healing, or stretching and kowtowing.

In trying to understand and practice qigong and gongfu ethically, we should be aware of the religious meaning in these practices, and the relationship our style has to various healing, performing and devotional traditions.