Strengthness with a Twist: A blog about internal martial arts, theatricality and Daoist ritual emptiness
Brand New Book: TAI CHI, BAGUAZHANG AND THE GOLDEN ELIXIR, Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising. By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($30.00), Digital ($9.99)
Also buy: Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion, (2016) By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($18.95), Digital ($9.99)
Workshop Travel Schedule
Daodejing Online Open for New Members - Click for Info: Next meeting, Sunday May 19th, 8am to 10am (MT) (5/19, 6/16, 7/14, 8/18)
Portland, OR—June 1-2 PURE ANIMAL Workshop
Los Angles: 5th International Martial Arts Studies Conference (May 23rd-24th)
Los Angles: 13th International Daoist Studies Conference (June 20th-23rd)
I don’t know what God was possessing the Tangki, or even if he was possessed, perhaps not, or only a little bit (I did not see him “fall” out of trance at the end). He did a martial arts like dance holding a bunch of incense in one hand. It was already going when I entered the temple and continued for about 10 minutes. Using the incense, at times he appeared to be writing Chinese characters in the air around the body of the guy in the wheelchair while making sword fingers with the other hand. Sometimes he held a posture while pointing his sword fingers at his own abdomen. Sometimes he touched the man, at one point he pushed vigorously on the back of his head. He shook and did fajing (explosive power release) a lot. His breathing was somewhat erratic and audible.
Toward the end, the Tangki had someone bring him a paper cup of something, probably water, and he pointed at it (concentrating his qi into it?) and danced with it for a while before giving it to the guy and having him spill it and spread it around on his legs.
When he was done he went over to the side and sat down on a bench, he was pouring sweat. Then the guy in the wheelchair jumped up and started dancing. Just kidding. During the ritual I talked to one of several people who were watching, a young man who seemed upset and said the man in the wheelchair was his uncle.
There are many similarities between the Qigong master I saw the other night and the Tangki. Both are self taught. Both are called. Both discover their gift. Both poke and prod. Both are doing mysterious healing on someone else. I believe Tangki’s will accept trivial donations of money, but they essentially, accept a life of poverty along with the job/role of being Tangki, they both express the importance of keeping money out of the ritual.
Frankly, the gongfu performance I saw in the park the morning in between the two had some similarities to the Tangki exorcism too. The dancing around in martial postures, the importance given to breathing, and the fajing.
The blended ritual I saw is not in these two videos, but a lot of other Tangki stuff is, and Youtube is amazing:
Also, to continue with my stating the obvious jag; There is an enormous wealth of video about Chinese ritual on youtube or google video search if you use Chinese Characters. ?? (Tangki)
Meeting Master Lin Miaohua I was immediately struck by his long neck relaxed shoulders and open chest. He had the same drum I use in his house and he had a lot of weapons. Next door was his painting studio, all traditional, lots of great looking flower scrolls and calligraphy. He is 71 years old.
He took us to the park and we did a little warm up. Then he demonstrated his Baguazhang. He is a student of Zhang Cilong who was a student of Sun Lutang (1861-1933). So this was great stuff to see. Sun Lutang was famous for his fighting ability, for creating a synthesis of Baguazhang, Xingyiquan and Taijiquan. He taught with "Yang Shao-hou, Yang Shao-hou, Yang Ch'eng-fu, and Wu Chien-ch'üan on the faculty of the Physical Education Research Institute where they taught T'ai Chi to the public after 1914. Sun taught there until 1928, a seminal period in the development of modern Yang, Wu and Sun style T'ai Chi Ch'uan. (quote from Wikipedia) Man, even I’d go back to school for that!
Master Lin is a master of hard and soft. Feeling him attack is like fighting with an electric switch. If he touches you he is sure to give you a shock. He specializes in two legs off the ground fajing explosive power. He has shaking power too. He showed me a whole bunch of forms including some Shaolin and a low ground fighting system called Diliang (I think, it means lay down on the ground). His baguazhang uses small steps and focuses on explosive power. The key to his power is in making the torso like a vacuum which can suddenly suck in the limbs and then cause them to pop out like a fire cracker. Here is a quick video with more to come.
Most Taiwanese have little idea where they would get knowledge about Daoism if they wanted it. He Jing-Han's sources like writer Nan Huai Jin have put a filter on access to that knowledge. In effect they appear to stop most people from further inquiry.
Daoism does not have an open door. But that doesn't mean no one ever comes in or out of the door. If He would have accepted some of my earlier definitions of Jing he might have accepted my declaration that the story of the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian) is precisely to let people know that there are as many ways to cultivate Dao as there are people. The point of the Talisman (fu) of the 60 Cloud Fates is the same, that there are many ways to become an immortal. Everyone has Jing. Every being's jing is already pure and perfect. It is reproduced by our healthy habits, and it also reproduces us. The differentiation of Jing and Qi happens in stillness, it has no special requirements, it requires no effort.
Han Wudi, was known as the Martial Emperor and he lived during the last part of the first half of the Han Dynasty (2000 years ago). He was said to have a solid gold practice room, and Xiguanmu (The Queen Mother of the West) as his private tutor. Yet he was unable to cultivate Dao because he was haunted by the ghosts of all the people he had killed in the process of expanding and then consolidating the Empire.
The point? If you deal with your ghosts you can cultivate Dao. If you don't, even a solid gold practice room and Xiguanmu as a teacher will not be enough. Conflating the process of Cultivating Dao with Purification leads to elitism, an Earthly Hierarchy--and there are no true earthly hierarchies. Hierarchy is a process of imagination--thus the only true hierarchies are of Heaven.
I know this can sound obscure, but it's not that hard to get. The most basic act of Chinese religion is to make sacrifice. The sacrifice to Heaven, as a totality, was always performed by the emperor. Everyone else sacrified to their little piece of heaven, that is, their ancestors and their local gods. Hierarchies are maintained by acts of subordination and dominance, which are made real through ritual.
Daoist Priests are forbiden by precept to subordinate. Every other choice will eventually lead to freedom, it just takes longer. Daoism is a short cut. Freedom has a physiology. That physiology is our true nature and it is revealed through the cultivation of weakness, stillness, openness, and lacking pretence.
I'm in Tainan, which is the old capital of Taiwan, meaning it was a place of early settlement. I get the sense that governance was not universal until about halfway into the Japanese occupation, say 1920.
My first night here I met up with a friend of Professor Hsieh named Sharon Lee, who generously offered to translate for me. We went to Luzhu to meet a Qigong master who was treating people for free at a steel bolt factory. Sharon is getting regular treatments from him. I watched him treat several people with a minute long vigorous painful massage which was heavy on the vibratory poking side of things. We then sat in an office and drank tea for over an hour. The tea was good. I got to ask a lot of questions, but there were about 10 people in the room and most of them were asking questions too.
If I got the story right, he did begin studying with a Daoist teacher in the forest but he then went on to do his own practice which is a sitting still practice of some sort. At a certain point he realized he could heal people and so naturally he started studying Buddhism as that is the biggest cult here which has a doctrine of compassion that involves fixing/curing people.
However, he side stepped Buddhism too, after realized that he found it impossible to memorize Sutras. At some point after he had been treating people he looked into Chinese Herbal medicine and found it easy to understand. He soon began writing long herbal prescriptions. Interestingly he doesn't actually write the prescriptions himself, he channels Yao Wang (Medicine King) a Tang Dynasty God who does the prescriptions for him.
But besides this, he said no gods are involved in his healing ceremonies. He is a vegetarian and encourages others to be also, he often tells people to skip dinner, and he does not allow payment for healings. He does drive a fancy German car however, so he has some big donors. While he says he can not teach what he does, he holds ceremonies for an inner circle at his home, which has some sort of altar. At these ceremonies he has other people read the Heart Sutra.
He said I have a kidney problem which is manifesting in my chest. He is clearly from what I would call the "Structure School" of Chinese medicine. I don't know if he thought my problem was acute or chronic, but that's how he operates. The heat in Southern Taiwan undoubtedly has given me an acute kidney problem, but I recover instantly in the presence of air conditioning, which by the way he says is bad for everyone's health. He didn't give me a full one minute treatment, I got only the 15 second version on my sternum, but that was three days ago and I can still feel it. Last time I had a treatment like this I think I was 13. Back then we called in a chest "nuggie."
My long time readers know that I call this kind of guy a Qi Jock, and I'm generally not impressed. But as a student of religion I think he has an interesting take on what a body is. He refused to be pinned down on any definitions of things like jing, qi and shen. He does have the idea that in stillness jing and qi differentiate and that leads to an extraordinary type of freedom. I think he is fulfilling a real need in people's lives.
The orthodox Daoist in me says don't get in the way of other people subordinating themselves with the idea that they need extraordinary powers of healing. I can make this point very simple. At the end of the day, after violating the most basic of Daoist precepts--"don't waste jing and qi"--a person wants to give in to something. Some people rent "Die Hard 3" and fantasize about being Bruce Willis, others go and get a Qigong treatment. Which is more effective is a question of perspective and circumstance.
UPDATE: I must have temporarily blocked this out. In addition to saying I had a kidney problem he said, "Ni shi tai peng." (You're too fat.)
I went on a reading frenzy in the two months before I came and it has continued since I arrived. On Friday I met with professor Paul Katz in his office at the Academia Sinica and he gave me three papers to read and made a number of further suggestions for future reading. Two of the papers were on the organization of martial cults, dance procession groups dedicated to martial deities and exorcistic rites. The third paper was on the roll of justice and judicial thinking in Daoist ritual and its relationship to a wide range of social institutions including martial cults. He has been very helpful in introducing me to other scholars here too. Our talk was less than an hour but it gave me a lot to think about and helped me organize my ideas from the point of view of a research project which is turning out to be essential for speaking with other scholars.
The next day I met with Dave Chesser of the blog Formosa Neijia. We had a wide ranging talk about life in Taiwan, martial arts gossip, and business. As readers of his blog know, he has a real talent for encouraging friendly open debate and we talked about how he can use that skill and experience to build a school integrating kettle ball training and martial arts skills. He has read all my father’s books on business so we really got into how to translate my father’s ideas about what makes a business flourish into the Taiwanese context. As all business people know, being in business means constantly refining and adapting what you do through trial and error. And that takes time. In my opinion he has what it takes to be successful and he’s off to a good start.
Dave convinced me to take a class with He Jing-Han (his blog is: http://tw.myblog.yahoo.com/hejinghan-bagua). Master He taught a three hour class in the park behind the big public library (where students on the weekend line up 2 hours before opening time, just to make sure they have an air conditioned place to study). The class was focused on a linear form of baguazhang he calls baguaquan, the form can be seen on his Youtube channel. This form is just a small part of what he teaches year round and I got the impression that his style of baguazhang is organized very differently than mine. In fact, of all the things I’ve studied it most resembled the mixed internal/external Lanshou system I originally learned from George Xu 20 years ago. I would love to come back and get a sense of the full scope of what he teaches, this guy is a living treasure.
Shirfu He is a warm and gracious guy. After class we went to lunch for two hours and had a wonderful talk about Daoism and the history of internal martial arts. When I told him about my project He suggested that martial cults were created for group fighting while martial arts are focused on individual fighting, but he conceded that it was quite possible that historically people practiced and taught both together. He also made the important point that what he teaches has changed dramatically from what his teacher, born in 1906, taught. He suggested it was nearly possible to comprehend how his teacher thought about the arts, considering he lived through such different and turbulent times. Going back 5 or 6 generations is really stretching credulity. I know he is right and yet the project seems important anyway. I think it is worth while trying to understand not only what teachings have been discarded or changed, but why.
I also had the opportunity to meet twice with Marcus Brinkman. Once for a Chinese Medical Cupping treatment (my whole back got cupped with more suction than I’ve felt before!) and once for a Baguazhang lesson on his roof. He is a fun guy with an in depth knowledge of Chinese medicine and substantial martial prowess. He gave me some really good theoretical explanations about the relationship of internal martial arts and medicine, but I’ll save them for some future blogs. (I need time to digest them!)
Yesterday I met with a Professor of Daoism named Hsieh Shi-Wei. I honestly believe he is the first person to really understand the full scope of my project and he was very encouraging! More on that later.
People are warm, kind and helpful. The subway and bus system in Taipei works like a charm. I don’t even have to pull my pass out of my wallet because it has a radio chip in it, I don’t even have to slow my stride when entering and exiting the subway! Taipei is much cleaner than I imagined it would be, public bathrooms are much cleaner here than they are in America. I went drinking at an outdoor beer factory and a dinosaur bone covered bar. I’ve enjoyed asparagus juice, salt-coffee, a mug-bean smoothie, tons of interesting street food, seaweed chips, a harrowing scooter ride, and I stubbed my middle toe black and blue hiking in the mountains.
I have one more meeting here in Taipei tomorrow and then I think I’m headed for the south.