Martial Arts and Meditation

Standing still practices are widespread in the Chinese martial arts world.  Most styles have some type of standing still practice, and most qigong is derived in some degree from these practices.  For the sake of explication I'm going to divide stillness practices into two halves-- meditation and power-stretch.  Power-stretch is a group of methods dealing with the transitions from stillness into movement and will be the subject of a future post.

Meditation is only half of the big subject; "stillness practices."  But meditation in the martial arts happens in both movement and stillness.  The most difficult thing for modern people to understand is that meditation training requires no instruction.  It is not something we do with our minds.  Meditation is not a clearing process or a form of mind-body repair.  The martial arts are loaded with many different types of trance which do such things, but meditation is simply not a mental process.

The most common type of meditation in the martial arts is the practice of a form.  In order to practice meditation using a martial arts form one simply does the form.  (This is true regardless of the style, shaolin, taijiquan, baguazhang, or something else.) Do the form without self-correction.  Do the form without any attempt to make improvements.  Do the form without thinking of applications.  Do the form without any agenda or focus, and you will be practicing the most basic and essential form of martial arts meditation.

Standing meditation is essentially the same.  Stand in a posture which makes it easy to be still and discard the idea that stillness has an agenda, a focus or a reason.  Some postures are easier than others, and for this reason having a teacher to correct your posture is very helpful.  But whether you have a teacher or not, basic standing is practiced daily for one hour.  After about 100 days the posture itself should start to reveal effortlessness.

The subject of trance in the martial arts can be divided into three basic categories, all of which are total sensery experiences.  However; for the purpose of explication, each of them can be distinguished by the ways in which they use visualization.

Before I describe them, let me make it clear that I believe one should first practice a form, devoid of planning, agenda, magic, power, or utility.  However, being a realist, I know that it is a rare student who comes to the martial arts without an agenda of fighting, prowess, heroism, health, vanity, or the desire to dominate.  The old masters got around this by insisting on total subordination to the teacher.  In my world I offer limited fulfillment of these "martial wonders" up front-- from day one.  Through developing a personal relationship with my students I can slowly introduce the practice of emptiness and having a "zero" agenda.

In other words, the "zero" of martial arts meditation, and the one, two, and three of "power-healing trance" (see below), have no inherent order.  They can be taught in any order-- in a disheveled go-with-the-flow way.  However, at some point that zero-emptiness meditation practice must be established or the student will not have a dantian for their practice.  The word dantian (literally cinnabar field) refers to a large empty space for doing ritual.  It is most often described as a location in the center of the body; but as metaphors go, we could also describe it as a container, a vacuum, or silence.

The three types of visualization:

1.  Deities.  These are aspects of truth and nature.  Some have biographies, or histories, and some do not.  They are known by a list of their attributes which are then visualized in front of the martial artist, then above one's head and then descending into and merging with the visualizer.

2.  Environment.  One can visualize walking on a lake, in mud, through clouds or on a high mountain ridge.  There is really no limit here.  In baguazhang for example there are visualizations of walking through a tunnel of spiraling fire, or being surrounded by five mountain peaks.  One can also visualize abstractions like the eight trigrams of the yijing (I-Ching) transforming into each other.  Probably the most common thing to visualize is martial applications of fighting techniques.

3.  Visualizing spaces within the body.  For instance a huge palace can be visualized at the throat notch, or two deities sitting on your kidneys.  Spaces can be empty or full, vacuous or active, dark or light.  Spaces can be finite and solid, or infinite and formless.   Basic "dissolving" practices like ice to water, water to steam fall into this category.

The three categories can overlap each other.  A deity can be both inside and outside the body.  The boundary between inner and outer can dissolve.

Next week I'll deal with the power-stretch half of stillness practices...ways of understanding transitions to movement.


No Word for Trance in Chinese

Fundamentally I believe I’m running into the epistemological debate which is at the foundation of the difference between European and Asian Cosmologies. Namely that external agents cause events (European), verses, all events/things are mutually self-recreating (Asian). The idea that there are external agents responsible for what happens requires that we create a continuum of effect, a measure of just how much a particular agent exerted itself on another agent. Thus we make a distinction between someone in a trance (only partly in control) and and someone possessed (fully in control).... Yes, robots. The science of physiology, the study of anatomical function, is quickly heading in the direction of declaring that we are robots. Free will appears to be an illusion, disconnected from what we actually do. Consciousness is actually fated. Awareness is just a biological mechanism.
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A Challenge

I recently met with professor Yeh Chuen-Rong, an Ethnologist at the Academia Sinica who is a big fan of Clifford Geertz.  I was meeting with professor Chang Hsun and she suggested that I meet her colleague next door because he had a collection of video of folk rituals.  But I misunderstood her, and I thought she was introducing me to the librarian of the multimedia center. (He is the curator of the museum too, so that's how the misunderstanding happened.)

So, I immediately tried to describe what I wanted to see, at his convenience of course-I was expecting to come back another day.  What I didn't realize was that he had something on the order of a thousand videos of folk rituals in his personal collection.  He took me into another room to show me the scale of what he had, and perhaps to make it clear I didn't have any idea how to ask for something specific.

Anyway, we got off to a bad start.  While I was talking to him there was an American graduate student in Green Engineering sitting in, he was there to get some directions actually but he stayed for the first part of our talk.  After about 20 minutes, Professor Yeh looked over at the other students and said he could tell I didn't know the field and he called me Carlos Castaneda.  I retorted that Castaneda was insane.  But Yeh said, no, he was just a practitioner--who lacked rigor and perspective--he just wanted to tell his own story.

He said there is another writer he could compare me to if I didn't like Castaneda.  I wouldn't have heard of her because her book was published in Hong Kong or something...HAh, he turned out to be talking about Margret Chen!  He called her work worthless to scholars like himself, shallow! a nice coffee table picture book perhaps.  I read her book in the two months before coming to Taiwan.  For me it was a marvelous source of information on Tangki Spirit Mediums in Singapore.  But one of the reasons I didn't review it was that her comments about Daoism and the early history of Chinese religion where poorly informed.

Yeh seemed momentarily charmed by knowledge of the book and by my assertion that I also abhor shallowness.  But he quickly went back on the attack.  If I wanted to do this kind of research I would have to know Chinese cosmology really well.  My reaction was, go ahead, test me!  He started listing cosmological ideas, and then we got stuck on a translation.  He was saying ganzhi (stem and branch) which is a way of calculating auspices, so when I figured out what he meant I said, of course I am familiar with the tongshu (the complete almanac of cosmological calculations, also the oldest continuously published book on earth.)

So he pulled one out, then he showed me a drawer full of tongshu from previous years.  As I flipped through the tongshu, I had to admit that although I had spent 7 years following various indicators from the tongshu and observing a few dozen commemorative days each year, most of the tongshu was totally over my head and outside my ability to comprehend.

Having made his point, he gestured toward his collection of Clifford Geertz books.  Did I know of him?  Yes, actually, I've read a few of his books (later I revealed that my father had interviewed him on the radio).  OK, he said, have you eaten?  I don't think the kind of work you are proposing is of any use, but lets continue this conversation over some dumplings.

Over the next four hours we argued.  At one point I fired back that perhaps his work wasn't of much use because as a non-practitioner, he lacked fundamental experience!  I think he liked that. He offered many challenges.  Here are some of them:

  • Gods do not teach people to fight.

  • When people in trance possession cults fight, they are not possessed, they are just fighting.

  • The Chinese literature on the subject does not use the term trance in a continuum the way I do.  Generally trance means a specific deity is present.

  • No one else has proposed that there are different types of trance for different types of deities (Professor Chang also said this).  In other words it could be good that I'm proposing a new direction of thought but the people who belong to these cults don't make such distinctions.  So I'm dangerously close to making stuff up. (My argument is that it is implicit in the different ways trance is invoked and in the different types of movement deities use.  Also, in Daoist ritual all the deities are invoked through the visualization/embodiment of the eight generals.)

By the time I left four hours later, I had learned a lot, and he had conceded a few points too.  I also got asked to help him with a letter to the Louvre (you know that museum in Paris) and he showed me a bunch of videos!  I'll be back!

A Continuum from Meditation to Possession

Qi is a term that has often been used to replace the vocabulary of gods, ghosts, trances and possessions. This abstract, all pervasive, term "qi" functions to take the devotional specificity of religious cults out of the discussion while leaving the dynamic animation aspects of this world view intact.
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Fear vs. Danger: The Real History of Martial Arts and Trance

Sgt. Rory over at Chiron has been talking about the difference between fear management and danger management and the comments are interesting.  Basically Sgt. Rory says that a lot of martial artists are using a fantasy of martial prowess to convince themselves that they are capable of real fighting.  They do this with a combination of bravado, group think, and talismanic power emblems like 'The Black Belt.'  For someone like Sgt. Rory, who does danger management for a job, fantasies can get you killed.

So the real question is, if martial arts were created for real situations, why is everyone acting so dumb?

In other posts and in his book,  Sgt. Rory has made much of the powerful hormone cocktail that takes over your body and mind when you are in a real fight.   How did traditional martial arts deal with this?  They must have known about it.  Why isn't it a part of the average dojo training these days?

Early Chinese martial arts were trance based.  They started from experience and worked backwards.  The first experienced fighters who set out to train students did so by scaring them 'out of there wits.'  As these arts developed they started to include ear splitting metallic gongs and frenetic drumming.  They told frightening war stories and sang haunting songs filled with enmity.  These were soon followed by the invocation of supernatural forces and drunk dancers channeling gruesomely demised soldiers. The teachers were using these techniques to trigger the powerful hormone cocktail in their students so that they would know what to expect.

Cults devoted to martial hero/demons are as old as Chinese civilization itself, and they are still with us.  These days they are more associated with outcast smuggler types, but historically they were the village militia.

Violent situations are full of surprises.  There isn't just one type of trance which is "best" for all fighting situations.  There are many different types of trance.  As martial cults developed they taught different types of trance, often associated with different deities or animal spirits.  Often a movement style or sequence would be taught first and then, after some amount of practice, the spirit would be invoked, at which point the routine would be dropped.   The 'student' was practicing going berserk.  They were practicing being on a high dose of naturally occurring hormone cocktail.  They developed many measures to test if the trance was real including inability to feel cuts or burns and various degrees of memory loss.

When the really fight was about to happen, they would put themselves into trance, essentially preempting the 'shock' or the 'freeze.'

The big problem with this type of training is that it shortens your life.  That hormone cocktail is really bad for your long term health.   The kinds of permission people give themselves when they are in deep trance tend to lead them to bad decisions.  Also the wild movements people do, and injures they ignore, when they are in trance really hurt the day after.

What began as trance invocation movements became dances and martial arts forms.  One of the early purposes of martial training was to make ones body strong enough to survive the more extreme trance possessions the early 'teachers' developed.  Over many generations these martial 'forms' started to include actual 'techniques' and even 'applications.'  It was a slow evolution.  In peaceful times everyone did the forms as entertainment and the music got better, and then as times turned for the worse, they re-invoked the spirits and sanctified the ground with blood.

It isn't hard to see how great performers grew out of this tradition, especially if you know that trances weren't just used for movement but to get people talking and singing.  Poetry was written in trance too.  Imagine a bunch of talented people on stage all in deep trance and each invoking different historical figure improvising their way through history with swords and masks and you are more than half way to Chinese Opera.

It's a long story for another day how all this interacted with the military, but it is an important story because although Chinese armies did sometimes use people in trance, they also had good reasons for discouraging it.

Religion and martial arts parallel each other in that both have had a long history of social movements trying to distance themselves from trance without every totally dropping it.  As we all know, doing these martial arts forms and drills without the trance or the music became a way to train fighting all on their own.  In the religious realm, meditation, stillness without going into trance and without any deity invocation, became a religious practice all on its own.

On the other hand some people became experts in many types of trance.  I believe that Baguazhang was originally a collection of eight classes of god/demon possession.  Each one distinct in its powers but woven together through ritual walking.  Such a collection of forces would have been a very secret transmission.  Althought people would have encountered it, there was no system until someone came along and transformed the god/demon forces into types of qi named after the types of gods each represented --heaven qi, earth qi, wind qi, water qi, thunder qi, fire qi, mountain qi, and lake qi.