More Spirit

The other day I was playing the role of interpretor for George Xu and a boxer who was writing about him. George gave the expression "More Spirit Defeats Less Spirit," as a fundamental martial arts principle-- a principle true for all martial arts.

Now most of my readers will recognize right away that the term "Spirit" here is a translation of the term Shen, in Chinese. But anyone that tells you a particular Chinese word has only one meaning, probably doesn't know. Shen is one of those words which is sometimes used vaguely to bolster a teacher or a doctor's authority. "Do you feel the shen?" "Does he look like he has more shen now" (asked of observers after the treatment/performance). (I wrote about this idea here, the idea comes from Elizabeth Hsu, The Transmission of Chinese Medicine.)

Anyway, at first we thought George was talking about something very obvious. We thought he meant ferociousness, apparent psychic or physical superiority, a kind of prowess. Like for instance, if Mike Tyson got in the ring with Pee Wee Herman--Pee Wee would be instantly overwhelmed by Mike Tyson's spirit.

But that's not what George meant. If I didn't have a background in Daoism, I don't think I would have understood him. What he meant is that a fighter or a predator, can defeat another predator by being able to embody a wider, more encompassing focus.

A predator like a Cheetah who is focused simply on the hunt, has a plural focus. He senses movement, perhaps even the heart beat of the prey. He senses the wind and the shadows, and is careful not to let the prey see, hear, or smell him...until it is too late.

But a predator, like a lion for instance, hunting the cheetah while the cheetah is hunting a deer, will have a more plural focus. In addition to awareness of the deer's movement, the wind and the shadows, he is also making sure the cheetah doesn't see, hear or smell him.

The process of being a great hunter/fighter in this sense, is to effortlessly integrate more aspects of one's awareness. As the Huainanzi puts it, "While traveling-- to be the last one to leave camp in the morning, packing up the kitchen; and the first one to greet everyone as they straggle into the next camp in the evening... with hot water boiling on the stove." (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.)

In mathematical terms: The equation with more factors, is more advanced.

But why would this be called "spirit" or shen? A plural focus means to have a better sense of space, better active and dynamic spacial awareness. When George was trying to explain this, it suddenly struck me that he meant spirits plural, not spirit singular. Perhaps what George Xu should have said was: The fighter with more spirits, defeats the fighter with fewer spirits!

If I'm trapped in a room with 5 attackers, my superior spacial awareness will be tracking and adapting to all 5 attackers simultaneously. There is both a plural aspect to it and a singular aspect.

In Daoist ritual, a priest commands Spirit Troops. These Spirit Troops are both visualized and spatially felt. They surround the priest and answer to his or her commands, marching, running, charging, swirling in chaos, or standing at attention.

The highest ranking priest can have a maximum number of 75 Spirit Troops at his or her command. In the case of a married couple who are both Daoist priests of the highest rank with 75 Spirit Troops each--they are able to share their troops, so they can command up to 15O.

So here we have another clear example of high level internal martial arts being linked to Daoist ritual practice.

(I just spent about 45 minutes looking around for references on my bookshelf so that people could further explore what I just said. They are there but I didn't find them, man...Google is so much easier. Here is a site with a lot of cool stuff about Chinese religion: Singapore Paranormal Investigation. Here is a page from that site which explains Zhuxi's ideas about guishen [I believe the same term I'm using for "Spirit Troops," but maybe someone can correct me, or I'll find a good reference next time I have the time to look. Also the picture of guishen above came from that same site.)