The Tantric Buddhist Roots of Chinese Martial Arts

This could be the title of my next project. It is coming into focus. There is more and more evidence pointing to common roots. Tantra and the Golden Elixir? Invulnerability meets extreme vulnerability? The Diamond Body meets the Cloud Body?
There is already a body of research pointing the way.
Start with this wonderful article in Tricycle Magazine Matthew Gindin, “The Buddhist Roots of Tantric Yoga.”
Then read Meir Shahar’s essay “Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts,” in Perfect Bodies: Sports Medicine and Immortality, Edited by Vivienne Lo. London: British Museum, 2012. It makes parallel arguments to the first article, as if they were coordinating to build a single road connecting different cities and planning to meet in the middle. It’s not on the internet, but there are two copies in my Library loan system and it is available here on Amazon.

The essay I wrote with Daniel Mroz “Daoyin Reimagined” for the Journal of Daoist Studies, also carves out some of the rocky parts of this path of inquiry, (available here with all my free reads.)

I did not take this question on directly in my new book, but I did address the transgressive nature of the God Nezha and the Immortal Zhang Sanfeng and their connections to Martial Arts. It is now possible to carve through time in the other direction and show their connections to Tantric Buddhism. The early textual integration of Tantric Buddhism and Daoism has already been pioneered by many scholars, see for example Christine Mollier’s book Face to Face.

New tasks for the Somatic Historian!


Tai Chi Balancing Miracles

While I was away in the mountains I did some thinking about balance illusions. There are two kinds.

1) The opponent believes/feels they are balanced when in fact they are off-balance. This allows you to freely hit them, even in slow motion.

2) The opponent believes/feels they are off-balance when in fact they are balanced. This allows you to move them around as if tipping a cardboard box or a styrofoam castle.

These two illusions are opposites or reversals of each other, something they have in common with all Golden Elixir progressions (future blog post).

Both illusions work because balance has three main components which can be manipulated to produce perceptual dissonance. The three components of balance are visual, tactile, and vestibular (inner ear).

Balance is an unconscious process, which is to say, it happens instantaneously. When perceptual data from the three components of balance is contradictory it could cause a processing delay. In evolutionary terms, a processing delay could be deadly. It could cause you to fall off a cliff or get eaten by a lion. Instead, the mind instantaneously chooses to dismiss the perceptual data from one of the components of balance in favor of the others.

Scientists have been studying this effect in child developmental and in airplane pilots for some time. Airplane pilots who fly at night and into clouds have to learn to fly exclusively by looking at their instrument panels to assess balance (pitch and roll), otherwise they become disoriented and crash. Perceptual illusions can be created by the ground as well, especially for high speed fighter pilots.

I teach this in the push-hands game (but it can be applied in sparring too). The first version, where the opponent believes they are balanced when they are not, requires the Shanghai push-hands rule-set. Namely that the game ends when one person puts their hand on the other’s neck. Unfortunately, in the West, this does not feel like a natural end to most people. George Xu has a modified ending which is more convincing to Westerners, he clips you with his fist on your chin. In this illusion the opponent is very vulnerable because they have unconsciously given up their structure to maintain their root. This first method is superior to the second method for applied fighting because the opponent does not resist rotational attacks (called “split” in Tai Chi language). The opponent will mis-perceive you as incredibly strong and might allow you to maim them. Fortunately, for my psyche, I have never taken it that far so I do not know for sure.

The second version, where the opponent believes they are unbalanced when they are still balanced is a better con man illusion. It is more universally convincing. The trick is to get the opponent to stick to you in a futile attempt to use you to maintain their balance. This causes them to become rigid, and so easy to tip.

The components of balance, touch (tactile), visual (what the eyes think they see), and vestibular (what feels like “balance” and “unbalance”), are intrinsically linked. By making the physical body empty of intent, most opponents will mis-interpret touch. By moving the center of orientation in counter-intuitive ways, most people will mis-read what they are seeing. Vestibular information is harder to comprehend, it is part of the feedback loop but is not sufficient to produce balance in a dynamic situation.

It is a good idea to practice balancing on one foot with your eyes closed. It is also a good idea to practice stand-up wrestling with your eyes closed. Both of these will help you understand the illusion. But the Golden Elixir is the key because the Golden Elixir produces the four main reversal-tools of the illusion: 1) emptiness, 2) neigong (inward power), 3) qi on the back, and 4) counter-balancing all incoming forces.

The ideal situation for producing both of these Balancing Illusions is the Miracle of having an opponent who has been training the Tai Chi skill called “Tingjin” or “listening power.” Everybody please keep teaching this!

Pacifying Demons

Scott Park Phillips explains the importance of theatrical literature for understanding martial arts. If you know Xuanwu's epic Beiyouji your idea about what you are doing with your Martial Arts will flip. China was conquered from within after the Boxer Uprising by the idea of Tragic Religion. After that, the Comic Religions of Zhang Sanfeng and Nezha that inspired the creation of Internal Martial Arts were suppressed.

The Zhang Sanfeng Conundrum--Taijiquan and Ritual Theater

My latest academic paper, The Zhang Sanfeng Conundrum--Taijiquan and Ritual Theater, published in the Journal of Daoist Studies v.12 is now available for Free Download at

If you want a paperback copy it is still available from Three Pines Press.

More free downloads to come. Feel free to help me market my books by sharing these free articles.

17 Zhang SanfengStraight.jpg


I just love this simple blog/business Cirque Physio:

As some of you know, I recently returned to San Francisco from China, where I had been working as a physio for the Chinese Olympic teams in prep for Rio. In China, the cultural standard of beauty for women is to be small and thin- no curves, no muscles, and definitely NO butt. As a result of this, it was nearly impossible to convince ANY female athlete to do their glute/hip strengthening exercises. “But I don’t want to get a big butt! Big butt not cute!” was the common complaint. It was like. Pulling. Teeth. As a result, the first FULL phrase I learned in Chinese was NOT “Hi, how are you?” or “Nice to meet you!” or any number of other useful phrases one typically learns when starting a new language…the first phrase I learned was “Every day is GLUTE day!” This was much more useful for me and my line of work..I used it at LEAST 10 times per day, way more often than the other standard phrases. I would run around the gym, excitedly exclaiming “every day is glute day! Every day is glute day!” While the Chinese athletes and their coaches looked incredulously at each other, wondering who the white girl was who wanted everyone to grow big butts. This was one of the biggest recurrent battles I fought in China (#battleofthebooty??)

What my readers are probably thinking is that this version of “China” is conflicted and false. It has been historically separated from its martial arts and theatrical roots. Performers in the Opera wear costumes to make their bodies/booties whatever shape they want. Problem solved.

Martial artist need a booty, it is a must for fighters. Non-negotiable. Everyday is a Booty Day. The Nezha-Baguazhang role is a booty role. [For some reason the video time stamp function isn’t working, go straight to 45:57 (45min; 57 sec)]

I would say that all the blog posts at Cirque Physio are worth reading. I particularly enjoyed this one too. THORACIC MOBILITY: YOUR CIRCUSSHOULDER’S KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR

If you like that blog, you’ll love my new book, Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir