UNBOXING: A blog about FLIPPING THINGS UPSIDE DOWN, internal martial arts, theatricality, Chinese religion, and The Golden Elixir.
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 July 14th, 8am to 10am (MT) (7/14, 8/18)
I'm headed to the University of Connecticut to deliver a paper on Daoyin. It compares Tibetan, Orthodox Daoist, and Animal Role Specialist Opera styles of Daoyin, exploring the commonalities in view, method and fruition.
I'm then headed up to Vermont to work with Paulie Zink's youngest advanced student, Damon Honeycutt.
Then I'm going to Montreal for fun.
And then I'm goign to be teaching for a week in Ottawa with Daniel Mroz.
As usual if there is someone you want me to meet, beat, or have intellectual intercourse with drop me a line! I'm much nicer and more dangerous in person than I seem on the blog.
Here is my schedule 2014:
- Connecticut Oct 4th
- Vermont Oct 6th
- Montreal Oct 10th
- Ottawa Oct 13th
- Back in Boulder Oct 19th
And then I'm going to Chicago to teach Daoyin and Internal Martial Arts in a graduate level Shiatsu Progarm, followed by a week in Traverse City for some workshops.
- Chicago Nov 6th
- Traverse City Nov 11th
- Back in Boulder Colorado Nov 17th
What is the definition of internal in the expression internal martial arts?
A long time student who is also a scientific researcher asked me to answer this question in a way that would put it to rest. Great challenge.
First off, I do not think that because we can do empirical tests, because we understand them and use them to understand the world, that we can jump from that to saying our experience of the world is rational. It is not. Most of what we experience is an illusion. Our human equipment is constantly sorting and focusing and limiting and interpreting our world through our unconscious biases.
So I’m not altogether sure that we can parse this subject enough to give an empirical answer. In other words, what internal means in this context may occupy the space in between empirically testable experiments and the world as we experience it.
So here is my answer.
External means visible, can be copied, explicit, and shown.
Internal means invisible, impossible to copy, counterintuitive, and hidden.
The difference between Internal and Secret is quite simple. Internal is secret until someone tries to reveal it. If they fail, it remains secret, if they succeed, it becomes internal.
What this means for contemporary martial arts is that there is a continuum of what constitutes all three categories. External that is too fast to see is internal until we see it in a slow motion video, or until a particularly talented student figures it out. In that sense there is in general an external way to teach, which is copy the form or copy the application and then spar or grapple.
Because what for one person might be an obvious instruction, to another might be counter intuitive, there is a continuum between what is external and what is Internal. It depends on the student’s perceptions and the teachers intentions.
Also a student who only learns externally but plays a lot of games is going to discover a lot of stuff that is counterintuitive. That’s because games are a strange case of empirical testing.
Internal martial arts didn’t come from nowhere. They came from experiments and games and puzzling things out. They came from examining experiences which did not fit well with conventional explanations. They came from finding or discovering blind spots and then exploring them systematically.
When we think about internal as “technique” it means, the stuff you know or are working on that is not visible. We sometimes call this a trick, and I think that is often the correct word for it. Tricks can kill people, it’s not meant as a diminutive.
The reason internal as technique has been so hard to define is that each teacher has their own ways of doing for instance a tai chi technique like pengjin (ward-off). I’ve probably felt 40 minor variations of pengjin and 5 major variations. They all work more or less. They all have an unseen or counterintuitive martially applicable effect.
There is a multiplying effect of a hidden technique that is really difficult to learn and either looks really amazing or is super martially effective; these we tend to call top secret, or high level internal.
George Xu has been changing the definitions of terms he uses to teach a lot over the years. One of the distinctions he used to make was between Martial Workers, and Martial Artists. That was fun because of the political implications but also because it implied that some people really enjoy what they are doing and some don’t.
Lately he made a distinction between a Martial Practitioner and a Martial Artist. Basically it was a high bar that no one could clear. He has also drawn the same line and called one side Dirty Martial Arts and the other side Pure Internal Martial Arts.
I suppose if we are drawing lines we might consider a line between skill and artistry? or perhaps craft and art?
George Xu’s current definition of Pure Internal means that the physical body’s only purpose is to transfer the opponent’s force completely to the ground. While simultaneously attacking indirectly only with the spatial mind. After that it’s simple physics, mv2 Mass times velocity squared, external inside of internal.
Note, internal does not mean a specific technique and it is not limited to meaning inside the body.
I’ve been having an awful lot of fun. I’m in the coastal mountains of Northern California clearing brush in the afternoon and using the mornings for my practice and writing. I just got an amazon shipment of books, which I will probably review. One of the books I got was more for entertainment but it is turning out to be thought provoking. It is about magic. (see bottom of the post)
There is a quote in there that goes something like, a magician should be so good at misdirection that he doesn’t need sleight of hand, and he should be so good at sleight of hand that he doesn’t need misdirection.
In the modern era, there are two basic types of magician. The ones who tell you there is a supernatural force at work. And the ones who tell you it is a trick.
Within the worldview of modernity, supernatural forces do not exist, so a person claiming them is just seen as a joker. However, most people have a hint of superstition in their worldview and many people have a large heap of it. Others have a romantic desire to believe in the supernatural and so oscillate between world views as a harmless diversion.
Even those who know it is a trick, enjoy being fooled. And that is why the other type of magician has become so popular. If I tell you I’m going to show you a trick and I even tell you how it is done, and yet, you still can’t either see it, or comprehend it, you are left with a feeling of awe.
Daoism both as internal and external alchemy and as ritual has long been associated with magic. Within a worldview where supernatural forces are real, misdirection and sleight of hand often play a role in social harmony. This brings to mind a talisman I read about for attracting women. The Daoist gave the young man a secret talisman to put inside his clothes and explained that the power of the talisman would be activated by the young man’s own emptiness (xu) and non-action (wuwei). The reality is that most young men find it difficult to attract young women for two simple reasons; firstly, they actually are attracting young woman but they don’t notice because they are too excited, and secondly, because they are too aggressive and scare young women away. Thus, the Daoist uses sleight of hand in his explanation, and misdirection in the form of the talisman. All’s well that ends well.
A great ritualist can do this for a whole family after a tragic death, or for a whole community, or even a nation. I’m not trying to say that all religion is misdirection and sleight of hand, I’m just saying that we can use this lens to examine a wide range of human culture.
Of course misdirection and sleight of hand are the tools of pickpockets and politicians too.
I do not gamble at all. The reason is simple. Guilt. When I was about 13 me and a friend set up mirrors around a room each covered with a picture or a calendar with a piece of fishing line attached for the purpose of moving the picture aside leading to a central control on the wall and reachable from under the table. We then invited my friends older bother and his brother’s friends to play poker with us. It was such a stupid trick and it worked so well. We hog whipped them. We cleaned them out. And we didn’t get caught. They were rednecks, so had they caught us, they would surely have beaten us up and taken our money. I don’t gamble because I know how easy it is to cheat, I still feel guilty about how easy it is to cheat.
And that friend actually died in a fist fight.
The magic in Daoism and medicine is mostly used to create tangible benefits for the person seeking help. When someone is cured of a chronic illness by being tricked into changing their diet and lifestyle, the results are still tangible! They are still good. Okay, we of the Modern world view would prefer that the Daoist or Doctor explain why we need to change our diet and lifestyle in bio-medical terms, we want them to level with us, but the simple reality is some of us only change our behavior when we are tricked into it. Others can only see the reality after they have been tricked, and still others, actually prefer being tricked! Sometimes doctors even trick themselves!
Still, Modernity stigmatizes magical claims of supernatural powers as immoral to the degree that people believe in them. I can claim magical powers all day but it isn’t until someone believes me that I have crossed that line leading into the evils of the o’cult.
Theater is all illusion. A person on stage is pretending to be someone they are not. Sleight of hand and misdirection are the tools of the actor too. What if the audience believes? What if, as seems to be true with really good horror, people can’t seem to stop themselves from believing. I hear famous actors are often shocked by how average people think they know them because they’ve watched them play a character on stage. People very easily confuse certain aspects of acting and theater with reality.
When someone uses the tools of acting outside the liminal space known as the theater, we often call that fraud. There are other words for it, impersonation, misrepresentation, identity theft, a con artist.
Martial arts as stage combat is best when the fighting looks so real we believe it. When the pain and the momentum are visceral. That happens when the sleight of hand is so good you don’t need the misdirection, and when the misdirection is so good you don’t need the sleight of hand.
This brings us to a discussing we had at George Xu’s Summer Camp. There is a woman on Youtube who can throw off attackers without even touching them. This is called kongjin or empty force and we have talked about it before on this blog and no doubt most readers have seen these videos on Youtube already (I would link to one but I don’t have a great internet connection so just search those terms and you will see a bunch of it.) This particular woman was the source of outrage both at camp and in the community of martial artists in Beijing who had expelled her from the national Tai Chi association. She was getting some grief from the government too. Now this woman was in her 60’s and she could actually fight, but no one was suggesting she needed to prove herself by entering a Mixed Martial Arts competition. They were just mad because she was saying that it was her supernatural qi powers which were responsible for her martial prowess. Yet, she was actually fooling people. Mainly students and audience members, but if someone got too close she would actually hit them too. The thing is, students want this power, they are studying with her hoping to figure it out. And they believe they are being thrown by her incredible qi.
Now I’m a Modern man. I don’t believe in supernatural powers. So I look at this empty force woman and I think, where is the misdirection happening and what is the sleight of hand doing? I’m not bothered by this kind of thing at all. The antidote is Modernity, not freaking out, not ridicule. What are all these people afraid of?
Oh. I think I know.
There really isn’t that much difference between magicians who claim supernatural powers and the ones who say, “It’s a trick!”
And what of the martial artists who say, “it’s real in every way.” Are we supposed to ignore their misdirections and sleights of hand?
Is there really all that much difference between a martial artist who claims she is doing real martial arts but is in fact using a trick, and a martial artist who admits to using a trick and yet claims his martial arts are real?
Well, yes, there is a difference actually. One is in effect demonstrating that her misdirection is so good she doesn’t need sleight of hand, and the other is demonstrating that his sleight of hand is so good he doesn’t need misdirection.
What I’m about to describe didn’t actually happen in the language I’m describing it. The following few paragraphs is me putting George Xu’s lessons through the filter of misdirection and sleight of hand. It is an illusion.
George Xu is one of those magicians who will show you exactly what he is doing. He shows just the misdirection and gets you to work on just that, explaining that if the misdirection part of your trick is really good you barely need the other part. We call this part emptying. If you touch me, you should not be able to sense any intent. Your sense of touch should go right thru to the ground without gathering any information. He’ll spend hours trying to explain how it works, testing you, letting you test him. Still, misdirection at this level is extraordinary mastery.
And George will show you the sleight of hand too. As fast, and with as much force as you want. And then as slowly and as obviously as you want, as many times as you want to see it or feel it. He puts it right in your face. In your hands. Then he explains that what we call internal is actually a misdirection, that the real effect is happening outside the body. At least it feels that way.
And yet, test him, test yourself, over and over, it still doesn’t work for you. It’s a trick and nobody is getting it.
He says if we get it he will be very happy, but he will have moved on to a more difficult trick by then.
I had two break throughs at the Camp.
One was when I asked him if he could do the trick with his eyes closed. No, he said, with my eyes closed I have to rely entirely on sleight of hand. My sleight of hand has to be perfect, like this feel (ow, that hurt!), the trick will look and feel differently when it is pure sleight of hand.
This form of analysis is very useful for martial arts in general. Forms are misdirection. Power and usage are sleight of hand. Apparent effort is misdirection, position is sleight of hand. Social skills, awareness of human nature, and how to use one’s environment are all misdirection; power, targeting, structure, and techniques are all sleight of hand. Which leads to this fun little maxim: You should be so good at misdirection that you never need to be in a fight; and you should be so good at sleight of hand that you never need to avoid one.
One of the most interesting discussions from Internal Martial Arts Summer Camp was about Dantian* Disease. Now, at first blush one is likely to surmise this is a euphemism for being fat. But actually it was about the specific types of work related injuries internal martial artists get.
First we need to put aside the over eating issue. Any athlete who trains very hard when they are young is going to consume large amounts of food. Most athletes who fail to improve the efficiency of their movement before age 30, get too injured to continue. An athlete who succeeds at improving the efficiency of his movement, must significantly reduce the amount of food he eats by the age of 35 or he will begin gaining a lot of weight. While reducing food intake is certainly an act of will, it does not require an act of will power. As movement becomes more efficient, appetite naturally diminishes. It is quite simply the result of paying attention.
We are also not discussing body type here. All the various body types have intrinsic beauty.
As a person develops internal power (neijin), several changes take place in the body. First of all, the legs do more of the work and the arms do less. Secondly the muscles that run up and down the back closest to the spine become stronger. These muscles are balanced by the iliopsoas muscles which travel in front of the pelvis from the mid- and lower back to the insides of the legs. The softer, and more relaxed one is in the upper body the more efficiently, and effectively internal power is expressed through these muscles and other adjacent muscles as well.
The problem arises because the particular quality of muscle that develops is very dense, it becomes progressively more tendon like. The thicker and denser a tendon is, the more elastic power it stores. Like a strong bow that is very difficult to draw, once it is fully drawn it has immense shooting power. His type of muscle must be lengthened everyday otherwise it will put pressure on the lower back.
Of course the lower back can actually handle an enormous amount of pressure. But over long periods of time, or after some minor injury temporarily makes whole body lengthening difficult, the spinal discs can become compressed. This compression causes the belly, casually referred to as “the lower dantian,” to stick out!
Compression almost always produces some pain, but we have wildly different sensitivities to pain, as well as mechanisms for coping with it. Most people can ignore minor pain for years on end with out any trouble at all. Especially in a case like this where there can be substantial benefits in the way of power.
So, how does one fix this problem? this internal occupational hazard? How does one reduce a bulging dantian? By simply and completely conforming to Daoist precepts; cultivate weakness and emptiness.
*Note: The term dantian, is literally cinnabar field. It refers simultaneously to a long list of concepts. In external alchemy (early chemistry), the composite substance cinnabar was supposed to be refined into mercury and then into gold and other rare elements. In internal alchemy, mixed qi and jing are distilled and then refined into shen (spirit?) which is then refined into xu (emptiness). The term could metaphorically refer simply to a place where change takes place. Tian by itself simply means a field, but the pairing of cinnabar with a field implies a large outdoor space where ritual transformation or rectification takes place. In martial arts the dantian most often refers to the lower third of the torso simultaneously as a location and a function of centralized organization or coordination for the storing and releasing of force. There are other areas occasionally referred to as dantians, for instance the head is sometimes called the upper dantian in reference to its role in inner alchemy. Three dantians an upper lower and middle is also conventional, and some would even venture that the whole body is a dantian.
Very excited about my new secret weapon. It is called plunger power. But of course I can not reveal much more than the name. It makes you back away while making me more healthy!
George Xu was talking this morning about this poem (at the bottom)
And mysteriously yesterday and today they are discussion the same guy Song Shuming on Rum Soaked Fist!
Song, actually claimed that poem and a bunch more that I have yet to find, were written by a famous daoist he was directly descended from, Song Yuanqiao. But on closer examination this Song Yuanqiao was most likely known because he was in a Wuxia (martial arts) novel!
Fun stuff. I hope we find the full text. And if anyone knows more about a real historical figure called Song Yuanqian or has read the novel, please help us out in the comments below!
Also I ordered this book:
Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture)
Update: Found the novel-- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Heaven_Sword_and_Dragon_Saber_characters
I'm here live blogging at the George Xu workshop in Sonoma, California. We are at a beautiful Zen Mountain retreat, I'm staying in a yurt.
Lots of fun people here, an argument about stem cells and qi nearly came to blows. Very funny, but then everyone laughed it off and went to breakfast. It is very stimulating already because there is a high level of skill for me to interact with and a high level of intellect too.
I heard both roosters and coyotes this morning.
George layed out his current iteration of levels, I will briefly state them for the record but I'm not sure if I got it right:
1. loose free and active upper body
1. (alternate) external/physical leads the dantian
2. Dantian leads the body, all types of dantian originating or controlling power
2. (alternate) dantain and body move at the same time
3. feet lead
3. (alternate) whole body is a dantian and empty, allowing the feet to lead
4. mind outside the body attacks opponents weak point (lack of awareness error), [this is seeing dependent] qi rising and sinking at the same time, empty and full at the same time.
5. Internal is bigger then external. (can be done with eyes closed)
These can be found on George's website described in other ways. But they have to be felt, that is the only way to learn/unlearn them.
Mean while I was thinking about a new way to define internal and external.
External: Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to copy it by refining what they already know.
Internal: Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to identify exactly what they are already doing and then just stop doing that thing (discard that power).
This then suggests that original nature, or predator mind, or true nature...whatever we want to call it, is available and discoverable only when we drop our aggression, only when we drop our identity, only when we discard all effort, only when we discard all intention, or focus...etc, etc....
One of the reasons I started this blog was to answer the question, how can a martial art be Taoist? Over the six years I’ve been writing I’ve attempted to answer that question. The question actually comes in many different forms. For instance: Are some martial arts part of Taoism? How did martial arts influence Taoism? Is there a reason why a Taoist can not practice martial arts? Are there specific Taoist practices which are embedded in the martial arts?
In this post I will attempt to offer a grand summary of the issue.
First off, let us look at Daoism* on a 3D grid. John Lagerwey went to Taiwan in the early 1970’s where he became a Daoist priest and wrote a book called, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, in it he describes Daoist Orthodoxy as a continuity of “view” passing back in time for 2000 years and permeating music, movement, mythology, individual conduct, life, death and social institutions. At the same time, Michael Saso, and Kristofer Schipper did the same thing. They each went to different communities in Taiwan and became Daoist priests and they each wrote books making the same point about Orthodoxy and continuity. Except the content of those books is actually quite different. The expression of that “view” in each community was profoundly unique. In one community the main job of Daoist priests is to perform funerals, and in another community Daoist priests performed many different rituals but were forbidden to perform funerals. Was Orthodoxy an illusion?
John Lagerwey went on to publish in Chinese, a thirty volume encyclopedic record of the incredible variety of Orthodox Daoist traditions concentrated exclusively among the Hakka ethnic group in Northern Taiwan. In his most recent book in English, China: A Religious State, “Daoism” is conspicuously left out of the title. That is because it puts Daoism in a historic context where it played many different roles over a long period of time within a much larger culture of state ritual. And then in the second half of the book he looks at the role of Daoism in local ritual culture as an ethnologist and finds enormous diversity of expression. This diversity had elements of continuity like the use of talisman or the Daodejing, but single defining signifiers are almost meaningless because talisman and the Daodejing are not exclusive to Daoism.
So that is the first axis of our 3D grid, call it infinite orthodox diversity.
Many books and articles on Daoism start out by explaining that the English term “Daoism” doesn’t actually exist in Chinese, that there are three or more terms which are conflated: Daoshi (official of the Dao), Daojiao (religion of the dao), and Daoren (a person of the Dao). But these terms are themselves quite mushy. Daoshi most often means “priest” but it can mean “monk” or “hermit” and in some regions it is more likely to be understood as “traveling magician.” Daojiao, is mainly used to distinguish other religions like Buddhism, state ritual, or Islam--it seems to have developed as a default category rather than a self-identifier.
Daoren has come to mean a person who tries to live a life consistent with the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi, which, because of those book’s centrality in Chinese culture have remained readable and in print for 2300 years. But Daoren can be used more generally to mean an artist or artisan whose work is modeled on the natural world. Or even someone who appears to accomplish tasks in an effortless way.
So that is the next axis of our 3D grid, the infinite influence of the Laozi and Zhuangzi spreading out into every aspect of “normal” peoples lives. We’ll call it the Daoren axis.
The third axis of our grid is equally difficult to pin down, it concerns the identity of the practitioner. Because of things like political intrigue and ethnic conflict, at various points in history, people practicing Daoism suddenly decided to start calling what they do Buddhism. And likewise various sorts of shaman, trance-mediums or Buddhists decided to call themselves Daoists.
The same goes for magicians, hermits, poets, artists, performers, and urban eccentrics, sometimes they decided to call themselves Daoist when they really weren’t, and other times they decided to hide the fact that they were Daoist by calling themselves something else. So this category is all the different ways one can be a Daoist, including the better known categories of priests, hermits, and monastics, but also including poets (the most famous poet in Chinese history Li Po, was a Daoist initiate), performers and the super unique like urban-hermit-insect-eating-exorcists.
As you can see, Daoist 3D space is a little bent. With one end of the Daoren axis meeting up with the identity of practitioner axis. And just to show how outside the box one needs to be to even have this discussion, our 3D grid actually has a 4th axis! A fourth dimension we will call the Methods axis.
At one time I would have simply defined methods as either orthodox or unorthodox, with the orthodox methods being zouwang (sitting and forgetting), jindan (the elixir practice), ritual/liturgy, dream practice, and daoyin (exploring the outer limits of movement and stillness); with the unorthodox encompassing all other methods. But now I’m more likely to avoid the orthodox category and think in terms of the transmission or discovery of daoist “view.” I want to avoid sounding cryptic so let me offer some examples. Someone who practices Buddhist meditation can discover the kinesthetic experience of stillness being infinitely and constantly available everywhere. A person practicing the zouwang method of sitting could just as likely not have that experience. The transmission of the experience from teacher to student also does not guarantee that the student has the experience. Even the experience itself does not guarantee that it will be valued or cultivated in different contexts.
So this 4th axis is made up of any method which attempts to transmit or accidentally transmits daoist “view.” This axis is also infinite and simply bends down as the ‘view’ within the method becomes more defuse. Take for example this website explaining daoist talisman. Go ahead and read about the talisman which attracts beautiful women to you. It transmits Daoist “view” in a sneaky way. While most young men want to have the power to attract women to them, this talisman works in the opposite way, it gives the power to the women to see you as attractive. All you have to do is wear the talisman and wait. It doesn’t require any male assertive action. You don’t even have to believe in it! If you see a beautiful woman you can just stop and see if it works. No crude one liners, no posturing, you don’t need to offer to buy her a drink, nothing. Just wait and see what happens! This talisman tricks guys into not doing! Also known as wuwei or non-aggression, the most central of all daoist precepts.
Alright, now that we have a 3D grid for Daoism, let's make a grid for martial arts. On the first axis we have all the possible reasons and ways someone might optimize training the skill of fighting. This axis includes dueling, banditry, militia, assistants of the courts (police, bailiff, guard etc..), body guard, crop guarding, home defense, child self-defense, rebellion, military weapons, drilling with gong and drum, competitions, merchant escort services, etc...
The second axis of the martial arts grid is all the ways we can optimize training for performance, display and ritual. Think everything from staged fights, to martial opera, to exorcism, to games, to militia displays, to self-mortification performances, to shows put on for the gods, to trance possession by fighting gods.
The third axis of the martial arts grid is self-cultivation. This includes all types of personal ritual, the most common being health, fitness and prowess. But it also includes practices for the purpose of instilling virtue, naturalness, kindness, or any of the darker types of attributes like cruelty, invincibility, or to see the future. This particular axis can easily be applied directly to daoism because it can incorporate daoists methods or daoist precepts. For example here are the Xiang’er Daoist precepts from the 200 CE:
Lack falseness or pretense (be honest)
Cultivate weakness and flexibility
Practice being like the feminine
Do not seek fame
Participate in meritorious actions
Cultivate clarity and stillness
Cultivate emptiness and desirelessness
Practice stopping when a thing is complete
Discover wuwei, yield to others
Any activity, including martial arts, can be practiced to express or nurture one or all of these precepts. Would that make a martial art daoist? Hold on, you don’t need to answer that question, we’ll get to it in a minute. But consider here that if following these precepts were the only measure of whether or not a martial artist is Daoist, then not many martial artist would fit the bill.
So now we have a 4 dimensional grid encompassing Daoism, and a 3 dimensional grid encompassing martial arts. All we have to do is put them together and see what lights up! Wherever there is an overlap we have a magical confluence of Daoism and Martial Arts!
We can also look at the spots that don’t light up, like Daoist priests that have specifically taken a precept to never practice martial arts. Or women who read the Daodejing and like to knit. Or hermits who never leave their cave. Oh, but we have a problem there. See there are hermit practices of internal ritual alchemy that involve kinesthetically visualizing demon troops doing battle, or martial deities dancing with a sword.
See the academic question we posed, “Is a given martial art Daoist?” is tied up in answering questions of authenticity and authority. So take note if you are academically inclined, I have just answered all the questions about authenticity and authority for the general case of the question. It is one gigantic infinite multi-dimensional light show. Now the question remains, how do we deal with authenticity and authority in any individual or particular case?
My own experience is that the apophatic kinesthetic revelations of practicing daoyin are totally integrated into my martial arts practice, both internal (Tai Chi, xinyi, bagua) and external (Northern Shaolin, Lanshou). Then again, integration is the name of the game. Jindan, the differentiation of jing, qi and shen in stillness is practiced inside of zouwang, sitting and forgetting, and daoyin. The words of the Daodejing are the source of Daoist precepts, years of chanting them has embedded them in my movement and my dreams. It is as if the sacred texts of Daoism are written on my bones.
The ritual practice of visualizing a deity and his attributes before me, and then floating him up and around and then inside of me, and then moving him to a specific location in my body and then inviting him into action while leaving emptiness behind--this practice is to me the same as practicing taijiquan or baguazhang or xinyiquan. The visualization part of the method itself is not essential, but the changes in perception are how the internal martial arts function. There is an order of action. A procession of jing, qi and shen.
Even the external arts, when practiced as empty forms, are identical to the effortless intrinsic tonifying structural flow of daoyin.
This is true whether the art is "identified" as a Muslim art, like Liuhe Xinyiquan, or a Buddhist art, like Shaolin Quan.
Another way one could ask the question is, can martial arts have daoist fruition? Does practice result in spontaneity (ziran)? effortlessness? healing? a return to baby-like simplicity? potency? awareness?
Lastly, as a teacher looking at what I teach, if I am encouraging students to hold a specific type of intent or intention then I am teaching trance, not wuwei. Likewise, if I am teaching students to assert themselves or improve themselves, then I am teaching pretense; not things as they actually are, not the discovery of constant virtue (daode).
*Note: I inelegantly use Taoism in the title and in the first paragraph to be searchable on Google and then I use Daoism in the rest of the article to be consistent with contemporary scholarly standards.
Every martial artist has heard the expression, ‘Timing is everything!’ I’d like to discuss how people come to this conclusion and why it might be an error.
I recently read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb , and while I believe he makes the enormous error of deciding what his preferences are in advance and then attempting to use his theory to justify them, the book none-the-less got me to think about a wide range of subjects and for that I am deeply grateful.
Before we set off on our journey, here is a measurement primer in case you want to check my results.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the importance of speed in martial arts. If we graph velocity relative to harm on an x/y axis we get an ‘S’ shape. At the bottom we of the ‘S’ we see almost no harm as velocity increases along the horizontal axis until a critical velocity is reached and then we see harm rising very fast until we get to incapacity and death which causes harm on the vertical axis of the graph to level out rather abruptly. You can’t be more harmed than dead.
The reason for this ‘S’ shape is in the equation for kinetic energy which is: half the mass times velocity squared, (0.5)mv². Because velocity is squared this formula gives us an upward moving curve of ever increasing steepness. But the beginning of the curve doesn’t increase very fast at all. That’s why if you want to make practically any martial arts technique safer you can easily remove most of the kinetic energy simply by slowing it down.
In fact, this reveals a large vulnerability. If a given punch has just enough force to do me serious damage, and I can some how slow that punch down just a small amount I may be able to take away most of its kinetic energy, making it impotent. A small change creating a big effect.
This is why timing is so important; without proper timing kinetic energy disappears. It is also why techniques which compromise speed are generally inferior. This leads to some interesting consideration if you practice internal martial arts slowly which we will deal with below, but first let’s look at the other part of the equation: the constant.
In the equation mv² the m for mass is generally assumed to be a constant. We can see this in the equation for momentum which is: mass times velocity, mv. If we graph mv on an x/y axis we get a straight diagonal line, not a curve. Momentum is always measured as a vector force, meaning it has a direction. Kinetic energy is measured in joules and refers to the energy released on contact, it is not a directional reference. In the equation for momentum, if I increase the mass a small amount for any given velocity, the result is simply a small increase in momentum. This is called a direct ratio.
The (obvious?) implication of this is that the person with larger mass usually wins! Big guys hit that critical steep part of the harm curve at slower velocities. They also have more potential energy from the combination of weight and gravity just waiting to drop on you at any moment.
There are important exceptions like blades and vulnerable areas. It doesn’t take very much kinetic energy to poke out an eye, so as long as the finger gets to the eye (position) it can do damage. Very sharp blades act on tiny surface areas allowing very small amounts of velocity to do catastrophic amounts of damage. Likewise the fast speeds attainable by the business end of a club can easily trump larger mass.
Slow martial arts practice is usually very safe. But this doesn’t mean that the mind should become sedate. When we practice Taijiquan or other slow forms practices we must not give up our ability to move at maximum speed. This means that no matter how quiet your body gets in motion, your mind must be totally spatially active. During Tai Chi practice you must be able to jump away instantly in any direction as if your clothes were on fire! It is the same thing with push hands, just because you can move slowly doesn’t mean you have given up the option to move at lightning speed. In fact, to compromise your ability to move fast is a fatal error (it is described in the Tai Chi Classics as a form of “stagnation” which results from directing the qi to lead the body).
So perhaps readers are thinking, bummer, I thought martial arts would give me some advantage over people bigger than me. Don’t despair. Large is of course relative but most large people have less incentive to improve their structure or their ability to attack with whole body liquid mass. Why? Because they can usually win with lousy technique. For this reason being large can be a vulnerability. If you have a mechanism for increasing your smaller mass or decreasing your opponent’s larger mass, you have a way to gain advantage.
No, I don’t mean eating more fatty foods. The way to increase mass is to practice using your entire mass in all your movements. The way all internal martial arts are designed to do. This is a very “anti-fragile” way to practice because if you are good at keeping all of your mass functioning as a liquid unit you have dramatically reduced your vulnerability to changes in timing!
And as everyone already knows, when fighting a dragon, cut off their tail first, then a wing, then go for a leg...or in martial arts terms use your whole body mass to attack their disconnected (lack of whole body liquid mass) arm, leg, or head. Even a 400 pound man does not have an arm as thick as my torso.
So, in conclusion, reliance on timing creates a vulnerability. Methods which give up speed usually sacrifice kinetic energy too. Internal martial arts train the body to be totally quiet and the mind totally active so that maximum speed is available at all times. One of the primary reasons for training slowly is to practice mobilizing whole body liquid mass effectively bring much larger amounts of mass to the fight then is normally possible, thus creating the opportunity to defeat larger opponents.