Friday, March 9, 2018

Awards - Thanks to everyone's support, not the least my dear readers!

Everyone loves receiving awards. Recently I was very pleased to learn that I have received the "Top 10 Tao Blog Awards". It certainly gives me more motivation to write articles here. It is nice that my ideas and thoughts can be of some use to folks living in far away places, though the English-speaking world still dominates as far as viewership is concerned.

Looking back a few years ago, I received another award: "Top Site for Religious Studies". Needless to say, despite being top in religious studies, my blog is practical and experiential in nature rather than academic in nature. This difference is very important for the pursuit of Tao. Many academics failed to comprehend the practice side of Tao. Those who can reap good benefits (like the late Richard Wilhelm) do not need to know much about Chinese classics.

My most treasured award however is the "Bronze Award for Whatever" from a late internet friend. He gave me the award for my creative (and often humorous) comments to his blog posts.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Koan analysis, meditation and dream-healing in Zen

The definitive practice of Zen is meditation and koan analysis. Both aim at dissociating a practitioner from his ingrained pattern of rational thinking. Zen however does not aim at cultivating irrational thought. The theory is that our ingrained patterns of rational thinking will distort our perception. We cannot see our “true self”. To be enlightened we need to break away from such constraints so that we can see our “true self”. Such constraints broadly speaking come from two areas: firstly it is constrained by the concepts we use to understand the world around us, these concepts we learned in our socialization process and solidified by our interactions with our environment which includes people and things; secondly it is constrained by our Unconscious (as understood in Freudian psychoanalysis, a subject worth studying by interested readers).

To be freed from our conceptual constraints, a Zen practitioner questions the assumptions used in our rational thoughts which are presented in the form of the language we use. The process is very much like the process of philosophizing as used in academic analytic (or linguistic) philosophy. We can never get to the bottom of truth of anything but each step of our questioning moves us closer to a state where there are lesser and lesser pre-suppositions and assumptions. Failing to practice "koan analysis/philosophizing" renders an “enlightened master” incapable to move back to “normal everyday life” without being re-constrained by his concepts, his conditioned way of thinking and language . Fair to say nowadays Zen practitioners do less philosophizing than in those in Dynasty China. Some modern Zen texts have a wrong conception: “koan is for seated meditation”. In actual practice it is “thinking clearly” or “philosophizing with a clear mind” on koan, rather than doing seated meditation while analyzing a particular koan, which is an impossible task to do without failing in either (meditation or analysis).

The practice of Zen meditation is not the same as Mindfulness training, as used popularly. I prefer calling the former “deep meditation” to differentiate it from Mindfulness which is getting more popular (because as "advertised": it is easy-to-do)! The possibility of doing deep meditation presupposes the practice of chi-meditation (as trained in tai chi and chi kung) that opens our joints and connects our internal sensation into a holistic chi-sensation that encompasses our entire body. That will take quite a number of years to perfect for the average practitioner (The classic texts said it would be easier for people under the age of sixteen when our body is still growing). After this foundation chi-training, a meditator can get into a dream-like zone while he is doing seated meditation and he will also have some vivid dreams during his normal sleep.

Such dreams (including normal dreams and dreams in meditative dream-like zone) will be vivid for the simple reason that one’s body is chi-connected during seated meditation and (to a lesser extend) during normal sleep. The special thing about vivid dream in Zen practice is that one can feel the “reality” of such experience. With a chi-filled body, his Unconscious comes to meet his rational mind. Conflicts can therefore be resolved instead of being repressed. With a good understanding of Buddhism, Taoism or psychoanalysis a practitioner can navigate his “healing process” or “enlightenment process” while he sees his inner psychic development as revealed in his successive dreams (that progresses to resolve conflicts or dissolve away rational constraints or whatever, as defined differently in different practice). Such process is called individuation in Jungian psychology and enlightenment in Zen.

The practice of dream analysis is, needless to say, another topic.

(revised on 29 Dec 17)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mindfulness in tai chi square form and round form

Mindfulness is an important operational concept in the practice of meditation. Yet, it bears different meanings in different schools of meditation. I am not going to discuss that in this post. Here, I shall discuss the meaning of mindfulness as applied in doing tai chi square form and tai chi round form. As with meditation, different schools of tai chi tackle or treat mindfulness differently. No explanation, of course including mine, is definitive. With this preamble, the following is my view on the subject.

For beginning students, they should not overly concern with the concept (and execution) of mindfulness when they learn the tai chi form as a mind-body workout. The best way to learn the form for beginners, in my opinion, is to learn the form together with zhan zhuang and some tai chi chi-kung exercises (like Wu-style 24 styles tai chi nei gong, and/or special supplementary exercises targeted to a student's special needs). It is only when a student has achieved a certain level of progress in firstly Joint-Opening and secondly in Body-connectedness (with breathing controlling to facilitate connectedness) should he learn mindfulness the tai chi way.

I know some tai chi teachers have said that the square form is there in order to set a standard so that different tai chi practitioners will not deviate (too much) away from the standard (like "Received pronunciation RP" in spoken English). This perhaps might be one of the reasons but certainly not the major one, some tai chi teachers also have said that the tai-chi sign is a circle with two round curves (the two fish), and hence true tai chi form should be done in circular rounds, i.e. the round form. Again, this can be regarded as one of the reasons but certainly not the major one.

Square form is sometimes called Form-of-the-joints (関節拳)。The objective is to use (and condition) our joints for chi generation. Mindfulness here means a practitioners shall focus on (the areas around) his joints (primarily his major joints, shoulder and hip). In his mind he should be (or train himself to be) able to FEEL the opening and moving of his joints together with chi-generation arising therefrom. In order to do that effectively, he has to stop momentarily when his joints change to a new direction, as required by the form movements. While he has to find the point-of-maximum-resistance in his joints (and move to overcome such resistance), most of the time, his movement will be in a straight line. Hence, the external appearance of square form. Chi-wise, he will feel chi concentrated more around his major joints (some physical and mental endurance is required for progress - a sign of training effect); and therefore will not be conducive to moving meditation.

Round form presupposes some progress in square form for a practitioner. The reason is that without a certain level of effective joint opening, the round form cannot generate enough chi for mind-body workout purpose, and certainly cannot achieve the objective of further opening the joints and more powerful chi generation. While doing the round form, a practitioner shall focus on the efficient flow and balance of chi inside his body. With efficient flow and balance, his internal sensation will be "full of chi", and therefore conducive to moving meditation. In order to achieve effective whole body chi-balancing, heightened chi generation in the joints need to be dampened (i.e. not done in the square form way). And when chi is thus generated in the joints, such chi shall be mindfully made to flow efficiently to the rest of the body to achieve a state of body-connectedness (as an internal sensation). To achieve the above, the external form will be round.

Last remark: insightful readers might have noticed that, based on the above analysis, a mix of square and round movements (in different degrees and in different choice) can be used in a student's daily practice, based on his own unique mind-body condition - which is exactly what a seasoned practitioner should do!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Japanese Zen and chi

Traditional Japanese art disciplines like Noh (能 theatre), kado (花道 Japanese flower arrangement), shodo (書道 Japanese calligraphy) and Sado (茶道 Japanese tea ceremony) are Zen like, as in some traditional martial arts, like kyudo (弓道) and kanto (劍道). Their graceful movements are activated by chi. Those of us who have learned practising tai chi as moving meditation may wonder: How can quick movements be conducive to chi generation rather than chi dissipation? How can Japanese geidō (The way of arts 藝道) be called Zen-like or meditative-like? Isn’t Zen as a mind-body discipline should be practised as seated meditation?

In the Western world, when a person likes to have some Zen experience, chances are that he will attend a Zen meditation session/class, or go for a Zen-retreat (if he belongs to the middle-class) where he will spend a few days, with his cell phone locked and his mouth shut, doing seated meditation and having vegetarian-meals. The original idea of Zen, as it came from China, was for a Zen-practitioner to be able to practise Zen 24/7: in Zen (Chan 禪) lingo it is called: “Zen in walking, living, sitting and sleeping”. How to accomplish this?

The Japanese way of doing it is through rituals practised into perfection. During such ritual (assuming practised into perfection), a Zen practitioner can free his mind from logical, rational or worldly constraints. In Japanese Zen-lingo, the ability of doing so can be understood through the concept Jo-ha-kyū (序破急), roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. It is important that in the “beginning” chi will be internally generated (how it is done is another story), and then break/release/explode, and finally a sudden stop. The break is the movement with chi, and the final stop is used to stop chi from further release and hence facilitate the effectively regeneration of chi by retaining chi, and (very importantly) by storing or trapping chi which was generated by the momentum of movement itself! One example, in Noh theatre, one way of forward movement is use small steps in which each foot moves forward with sole touching the ground (like Yi-chuen’s friction steps); and in the end of the small forward movement, the toes will tilt the foot slightly upward and then gently tap back on the floor to stop the chi.

Needless to say, to perfect a Japanese geidō, repeated chi-training with great patience is required. “How to ritualize one’s daily life into Zen” will be another story of a future post. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Carl Jung, Nietzsche and meditation

I have a keen interest in Jungian psychology. In his biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung talked about venturing into his own Unconscious mind with a conscious cognitive thinking mind. This is most unexpected from a once disciple of Freud whose psychoanalysis is scientifically oriented. How can one have conscious cognitive thinking in dream? How can one venture into his owe Unconscious mind with (almost) total consciousness? His little book of “Divine revelation” Seven Sermons to the Dead raised eyebrows in the academic community. Jung later said to have regretted publishing this little book of revelation. He did not know where he should stand: scientific respectability or spiritual (or Divine) truthfulness. So much so, there are now two interpretations of Jung: a great psychologist or a great Gnostic (knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means.) And both have followers.

Another major character in our intellectual history is great modern philosopher Nietzsche. His Thus Spoke Zarathustra spoke the language of a person in a deep meditative state in which the meditator’s conscious mind is functioning, co-existing with his Unconscious mind. It was functioning well in the case of Nietzche. Nietzsche faced dilemma similar to Jung. Like Jung he did not want to suppress or deny the meaning of his inner experience, he rationalized it with the reason that the obscurity of his language is to safeguard his great teaching from the people who do not deserve to have such great teaching revealed to them! His Will to power is his morality in direct opposition to Christianity (unlike Jung, Nietzsche's writings are quite muddled and therefore inaccessible to common readers. A good source to understand Nietzsche is Bernard Reginster's The Affirmation of Life - Nietzsche on overcoming nihilism). Yet, he refrained from setting rules of morality, otherwise he will be viewed as a spiritual leader rather than a philosophy, though I suspect that there will be folks who would consider Nietzsche a spiritual leader.

What has that got to do with meditation? You might ask.

For meditators or chi king practitioners who have come to a stage in which he can speedily get into a whole body chi-filled condition when he relaxes, he might encounter similar direct experience. When he falls asleep, since he is relaxed, his body will still be chi-filled. And in deep meditation, since he is relaxed, his body will be chi-filled too. And since his body is in chi-filled state, his conscious mind will still be working, to a certain extent. And the fact that he is asleep or into deep meditation his Unconscious mind will surface. In short, both his conscious and Unconscious mind will be working at the same time! The resulting experience is an interaction between his conscious (rational) and Unconscious (irrational) mind. And from there came Seven Sermons to the Dead and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

On the experiential perspective, it is called vivid dream. Vivid dreams are rich in details and as Jung (and Nietzsche too, without himself being explicit about it) experienced, one’s conscious mind is at work. And at work in such a way that our conscious mind can ask logical questions and explore problems; and in a way that one can sometimes even know that one is dreaming (in Jung's case, knowing he was in the realm of his own Unconscious)! At the same time, our Unconscious mind will exert its impact by trying to “convince” our conscious mind to “accept” conclusion loosely “answered” by images and illogical events. In short, vivid dreams are enlightening but often giving us images or "not-totally-logical" arguments instead of definite answers to our problems. Needless to say only great mind can produce great insights. Common meditators can benefit from such inner experience with some insights and reflections. Pompous people might have the danger of getting themselves into a state of over-confidence. Superstitious people might become more superstitious. And those with inherent mental problems might have a psychotic onset!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mother's Day Sonnet

A woman with love a woman in need.

With whom old mom share her forgotten dreams?

The life she lived were the things she has seen.

How many high mounts climbed and wild grass trimmed?

Understand mom a tough lesson to teach,

She knows you more than your reflection brood'd,

Time to listen is the time to reach,

Caring her a challenge in trust you bragg'd.

Images of your young follies make her sheen,

Stories of your now success let her rest,

Time shall come when the hour stops unforeseen,

Precious moments not too soon, too late lest:

      If these carved in mind and we start to give,

      Our heart forever she will choose to live.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The theory of meditation – for serious practitioners

If you pick up a book on meditation, chances are that you will be told that meditation is easy, and the benefit is huge. Modern man (and of course modern woman too, probably there are more female meditators than male meditators) is busy and commonly scared of anything that sounds unscientific. They love anything that is simple, easy to do and above all scientific. Is meditation really easy and the benefits huge? I shall discuss the theory behind sound practice of meditation.

In popular meditation books, probably you will be told to sit in a quiet place, simply seated or with seated with legs folded, easy pose or half-lotus pose for beginners (with a cushion to elevate your buttocks for comfort), to try your best to empty your mind (if you can’t, just let your thoughts flow), make a certain hand form (called mudra) and recite a mantra, count your breathes or listen to soft music to relax your mind. In your actual practice your might have the benefit of a meditation or mindfulness teacher to guide you (or you might like to choose to learn meditation on your own).

During your first one or two lessons, you will likely to find meditation relaxing and enjoy the process. Your teacher might praise you on your progress and you might begin to be convinced that meditation can have all sorts of benefits including improving your immune system and increase your life expectancy. And most important of all, you like it!

But then after more sessions, you had days, oftentimes in a row, that you could not focus your mind properly. The more nervous you get the more you could not focus your mind. And you might have days that you just feel you are sitting down relaxing (and have intermittent short day dreams during the session), which is the same experience that when you listen to some nice music. You would properly lose your initial enthusiasm and ponder on the new thinking that mediation perhaps not your cup of tea.

The benefits of meditation are indeed huge. It is a pity that many people dropped off this good practice after giving it a try (or continue the practice at home, but can only reap the benefit of simple relaxation that can be probably be obtained through listening to some soft music in a cozy environment). To reap the full benefit of meditation, a practitioner has to understand the theory behind meditation, and put in time and efforts to try his best to obtain the result, which is oftentimes signaled by internal chi-sensations.

The thing to look for in meditative practice is quite simple. In meditation (or mindfulness training) you do everything to put yourself into the zone of Emptiness (Kong ) and simply stay there. “What is Emptiness?” and “How to achieve Emptiness” are the issues.

A layman’s understanding of Emptiness is that there is nothing. For example, you have 10 units of “noise” that bother you, and you want to reduce it to zero (or very close to zero). Zero is Emptiness. Thus answered the “What” question. As for “How”, reduce it through “simple techniques” as mentioned above. This is the theory that many popular books on meditation wants to tell you.

In search of a better theory, let me tackle the “What” issue first. Emptiness () is indeed zero. But it is not Nothingness (there is nothing – 甚麽也沒有).
10 – 10 is zero
+(10) + (-10) is also zero (or in general form +(x)+(-x) = 0 where x is a number
The zero that I am taking about is Emptiness in the sense of the second statement. And (+) means Yang and (-) means Yin. They are opposing forms of energy.

Next, the “Issue” issue. Through techniques (like those in yoga and Zen-Tao meditation) a practitioner firstly tries to increase the value of x and second tries to balance the positive and negative values to achieve Emptiness or “in the zone”.

In the practice of yoga, the first step is through the body postures called Asanas (which aims primarily at aligning our structure for better chi energy generation, i.e. increase the value of x and secondarily at balancing the positive and negative values) , and the second step is breathing exercises called Pranayama (which aims at increasing and balancing x and –x in seated form only with nano-movements powered by our breathing muscles), and the third step meditation proper (which aims at balancing the positive and negative values and managing our thoughts). The classic way is follow the steps. This is a sound system for the most serious practitioners.

In my practice of Zen-Tao meditation, all steps are intertwined together and grow together step by step. For example, on day one we do zhan zhuang which do body alignment to generate chi, with internal movements generated by our breathing muscles and half closed eyes to approach the zone. Once a student has an experiential understanding of the whole concept, he will be introduced to different exercises that will focus on other stationery or simple movement forms to open our major joints to generate chi (i.e. increase x). When such a foundation is built, then a student will go into seated meditation. This is a sound way, I believe, for most serious practitioners.

In short, in sound meditative practice, a student does not jump into seated mediation counting breathes on Day One. One last tip: staying in the zone with a good value of x is not a static process. It is a dynamic process in which the value is not stable at zero but fluctuate between a small plus and a small minus. Our mindfulness has to put into an effort to fluctuate it around zero.

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