Friday, August 1, 2014

Buddhism 101 - first lesson: Empiical evidence of reality

For those who are really interested in practicing Buddhism but without (or avoid having) a guru...

Empirical evidence of reality (三法印 [Tri-drsti-namitta-mudra]: 诸行无常、诸法无我、涅槃寂静 )

Unlike Christianity that rests on a belief of an Almighty God, Buddhism (like Taoism) rests upon internal empirical evidence. By which I mean a direct experience (or feeling) of the reality as defined by the religion. In Buddhism, there are three fundamental realities that a practitioner has to experience.

The first is called non-permanence (诸行无常). Living things grow and die. Non-living things give us different perceptual realities depending on our individual subject experience at a certain time-space environment. Not withstanding the requirement of theoretical understanding, a perceptual reality of non-permanence of the false reality of permanency is the empirical evidence that a practitioner has to strive for. Moreover that non-permanency is rested upon specific causes, though the exactness of which is out of our perceptual limitation. One cannot influence the past though one can influence the future. This concept is called karma (缘起), and the resulting behavioral response is good deeds (善行) and rules/disciplines (戒律).

The second is called non-self (诸法无我): After a practitioner has attained the stage of non-permanence understanding (empirical in nature), he has another hurdle to overcome. It is the understanding (empirical in nature) of the non-permanence of the perceiving self itself.  The self is defined as mind-body continuum of a person. Its particularity is defined and constructed by karma or the influence of karma (including nature and nurture). Buddhist practice aiming at such understanding. And the best demonstration of which is for the practitioner to make personal changes towards Enlightenment and the accompanying perception (or perceptual understanding) of the changing or growing self. Such change will be limited to our physical life but will continue in the next life and thereafter. The only permanency is change and karma, which brings about change. One important indication of non-self is a perceptual (and actual) freedom from "holding on to worldly things" (我执).

The third is called nirvana (涅槃寂静): This is the perceptual evidence of Enlightenment. If a Buddhist practitioner cannot feel or experience the calmness and joy of the condition of nirvana, he is not yet Enlightened. However, the pure feeling of calmness and joy is not nirvana if a practitioner cannot perceive himself having achieved the perception of non-permanency and non-self.

So much for this post, in the coming posts I shall talk about the followings:

1. The Buddha's road to Enlightenment

2. Practice procedure

Three realities

Monday, July 28, 2014

Meditation, chi kung and internal martial art as empirical science

In the tradition of Taoist meditation, there is an important concept, mentioned in many classics, called Empirical evidence (實證). What is the meaning of empirical evidence? And is it the same for other internal disciplines like tai chi, other internal martial art, and chi kung?

Empirical evidence (also empirical data, sense experience, empirical knowledge, or the a posteriori) is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation or experimentation. In meditation and other internal arts, the empirical evidence is internal to the observer himself.  More so in meditation. In tai chi, certain degree of empirical evidence can be observed by a trained observer, usually the teacher in a pedagogical environment.  The situation is similar to psychology. The same limitation as in psychology: the subject (or student) may lie, the subject may fail to report accurately and the subject may not know what he is talking about.

In chi kung, it is generally called "chi sensation" (氣感). Initially, irrespective of the particular school, lineage or whatever, a student should learn "what is chi sensation", then "how to make it stronger", and then "how to make it affecting a broader areas/a deeper level".  Empirical evidence is the definitive guideline of the progress of a student, and whether or not he has learned anything (in the name of chi kung) at all.

In meditation, chi sensation has particular names according to different tradition. Though with different names, the same theory holds: it is also about chi sensation. But the focus is in the manifestation of it in a strong way. For example, in Taoist meditation, there is this first task of doing a microcosmic circulation (小周天) which is a strong chi sensation rising up one's spinal cord; and for Chakra mediation, the task is called chakra opening which is a strong chi sensation "liberating" a blocked spot at a specific chakra area.

In the initial feeling, empirical evidence will be mild in both meditation and chi kung. In the advanced level, a strong chi sensation when a large blockage is going to open (or opening) can be quite shocking to the observer himself. The guidance of a teacher will be very useful in the advanced level. Metaphorically speaking, the initial feeling of chi sensation is like a breeze over the sea and we see the ripples. In the most advanced stage, it can be like a tsunami! Outside our body, there is no chi sensation, and therefore there is no chi (and outside heat is just incidental side effect of no importance, for example non-contact chi healing is just healing-by-belief rather than empirical).

Chi as wave

Friday, July 18, 2014

Zen Enlightenment - the result of sudden insight, in depth study or intense practice?

To understand the essence of Zen Enlightenment, a student does not need to go beyond the Platform Sutra. What I am talking about is intellectual understanding and not the actual attainment of such Enlightenment, which is another thing. Any further reading with the objective of a better understanding will likely to yield diminishing returns, except writings (like this post) that aim at promoting a better reading of the Platform Sutra.

On the subject of actual attainment of Zen Enlightenment, any reading (including reading the Platform Sutra and this post) cannot deliver the results. Enlightenment is a human experience rather than intellectual understanding, as I shall explain below.

In the Platform Sutra, there is one important example of Zen Enlightenment, as delivered by the Sixth Patriarch Huineng himself.  When the former general Hui Ming caught up with Master Hu Neng, the former was shocked out of his worldly-self (ego) into a statement of personality suspension (between ego and Unconscious) by the following definitive enlightenment statement:


Huineng said: When you are not thinking of doing good, and not thinking of doing bad, at this particular state,  what is your original self, my honorable Ming?

The above is not too difficult to comprehend.  Our original self is one that is not subjected to any karma influence which shapes our thinking.

A few questions: How is a person being enlightened when in such a state? Can a personal be in that state 24/7? Can a person enter such a state at will? How does such a state having anything to do with our physical existence where karma rules?

When in such a state, Honorable Ming was in the reality of Emptiness (空), a situation in which we know the fullness of the situation yet we are void of any cause/effect or karma influence. Decision making (in our normal logical sense) is impossible when in such a state, which, when our mind is active, raises the possibility of change. Psychologically speaking, we are out of our ego, yet we are not at the mercy of our Unconscious (in dreams, our Unconscious raises its (sometimes ugly) head). For honorable Ming, he got it and he was immediately out of that state, and told Master Huineng that he got it! Perhaps we can all have moments of entering that state in our lives, but our minds are just not prepared for THAT. Anyway the answer to the second question is obvious: one cannot (and need not) be in that state 24/7.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama once told of a Zen koan appeared in Tibetan Buddhist literature. Once a learned Zen-master from China visited Tibet. The Tibetan Buddhist monks welcomed him and his followers to live in a famous temple. They took good care of him and learned from him. One day (being naughty), the Tibetan monks wanted to test the learning of one of the Zen master's students. They asked him, referring to the teaching of Huineng "Isn't it that by being 'not thinking of doing good, and not thinking of doing bad', you'll be in the state of enlightenment."  He answered yes. "Isn't it in your Zen teaching a practitioner should be in the state of enlightenment in walking, living, sitting, and sleeping (行住坐臥)?" He answered yes. "Doesn't it follow that one should not be thinking of, and therefore not doing, good (deeds) all the time?"

I should not try to explain the koan here. Anyway, any explanation of a koan, like this one, that is worth-its-salt cannot be fully explained by any singular explanation without contradicting oneself. The gist of the matter is firstly one has to recognize (and be prepared for) such Enlightenment opportunity. After one is being enlightened, he doesn't need to seek other opportunities. He got it then he got it; he didn't get it then he didn't get it. What he needs to do is to learn (a practice) how to create that state at will.

In the Platform Sutra, the following statement clearly talked about the secrecy of deep meditation:


Huineng said, "What can be said cannot be a hidden secret (teaching). If you look inside yourself, the hidden secret (teaching) is within".

Now the way of practice is deep meditation and the details of which were not mentioned in the Platform Sutra. Deep meditation is a private affair and has different routes that the depend on the particular characteristics of an individual. The omission of such details in the Sutra is totally needed and understandable. So much so Vajrayana whose foundation rested upon deep meditation is also called Secret Mantra and in Chinese it is named as such: 密宗.

Where to practice? Master Huineng suggested Ming to practice among the mountains.

In conclusion: How can a student of Zen Buddhism get his enlightenment through more and more readings?

The preserved body of Master Huineng

Monday, July 14, 2014

Chi kung training for mobility

We stretch because we want to increase our mobility. The most important areas that a practitioner of any sports wants to tackle are the mobility of his shoulder and hip joints. When I was a boy, my father told me that it was a heart-breaking scene, when he was a young boy, seeing kids trained for mobility in the Cantonese opera group his younger uncle ran in Canton (Guangzhou). That was a forced kind of stretching. The quickest and most effective method for kids, and most painful too – all the kids cried, my father told me. For adults training for mobility for a fitter body and mind, fortunately there is a better way – chi stretching.

The essence of training for mobility is relaxing, lengthening and strengthening each piece of muscle around a targeted joint. The degree of flexibility required depends on the objective of our training. The gist of learning stretching is to learn a method (or methods) that can do the relaxing, lengthening and strengthening. Forced splitting and chi stretching are only two methods out of many. The former is most suitable for kids with an objective for maximum flexibility while the latter is most suitable for adults who want to achieve good (not maximum) flexibility while training for whole body fitness at the same time. I shall explain the latter further below.

Tai chi and chi kung is all abouit training our internal sensitivity. When we say chi flowing stronger inside our body we also mean we can feel the tiny bits of individual muscles and muscle/body tissue groups. When we have achieve a heightened level of chi sensitivity we can feel the more targeted or isolated muscles that we need to focus our attention on. And with each hurdle being overcome, we can feel another, deeper, level of blockages (muscles that need to be tampered) that we should work on. This understanding is most important in the training of flexibility the chi kung way. In order to do chi-flexibility training, you must begin with an initial training to cultivate your chi sensitivity. Some training of zhan zhuang is the best way to achieve this initial training objective.

Assuming that you have achieved a certain level of chi sensitivity (which might take about six months’ training time), you can do your own healing. While doing your regular tai chi or chi kung exercises, you should start focusing on identifying specific area of blockages in your body, and you target them for healing. In other words, chi flexibility can be included into your regular training, with different mind-focusing during the exercise.

How to heal (open/strength 松沉) your blockages? It is by synchronizing your breathing with the specific blocked area(s). By single-mindedly focusing on the mechanism of your breathing (abdominal breathing that activates both your diaphragm and your pelvic floor muscles, with your Dantian [a few inches behind your belly button, the exact location varies with individuals] as your focused power point) and your blocked area, you will be able to use your Dantian powerhouse to gradually open your blockage. Synchronization is the key, learning from a teacher will be helpful.

It is a two step method that has to be trained in that order. That means if you have not been trained to have a certain level of chi sensitivity, you cannot be trained using the healing method as taught above. Needless to say, having learned the training method itself is only the beginning. In my father’s day it was called entering the door (入門). And an essential quality for a student to called inner circle student (入室弟子) was that he has entered the door. Entering the door is not everything. It is only the beginning a fruitful journey.

No pain no gain?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In search of esoteric practice

Recently a friend of mine sent me a video to watch. It is called Yogis of Tibet. Among many interesting themes (that I most likely will discuss further in some future posts), there was a short footage of a Tibetan yogis doing stunning yoga/meditative practice in folded leg position. Truly esoteric practice. A practice not to be imitated even by advanced practitioner if without guidance of a qualified teacher. It is just the outside form of the practice. The more inner practice, or areas to focus or manage, were not explained in the video, with good reasons.

Nowadays there are people who just love esoteric practices. Some of these people probably think that by learning some “secret practice” they can take the shorter, and much easier, route to achieve a higher level of perfection. This video footage convinced me that speedy practices are always with hidden danger. Try them at your own risk.

The Tibetan yogis also convinced me that Tibetan monks are highly devoted religious people who would take any risk to achieve their objective of spiritual enlightenment. No wonder many lamas who have fled from Tibet via Dharamsala to the West enjoyed much honors and followers. Truly impressive people of high spirituality.

Chinese practice of spirituality on the other hand has most of its followers seeking a better health. A different contribution to human culture. There are also traditions of esoteric practice developed along certain Taoist or Buddhist tradition.  Such traditions had not been openly discussed in classic texts. Many classical Taoist Neidan texts also condemned some specific esoteric practices. The reason is that there was a parallel tradition of esoteric practice called sexual chi kung (Chamber techniques 房中朮) passed along for the benefits of wealthy royalties or merchants who could afford to have a number of concubines. It is also a historical fact that some of these teachers were (condemned) lamas and Taoist masters (beginning in South Song and becoming more popular in the Mongal Yuen and Han Ming Dynasties). This is also a main reason why some Western folks are keen to “unveil the hidden secret of esoteric Taoist practice"!

Certain mainstream esoteric practices have been passed along the path of martial art. One passed along Taoist-related internal martial art and one passed along Shaolin monks. Recently I read a Chinese book by a lineage master of one lineage of Shaolin kung fu. The master mentioned some esoteric practice of increasing a practitioner’s internal chi energy.  It includes massaging one’s perineum, massaging and pressing one’s scrotum to stimulate chi, and with one easy trick – hold your breath while peeing (I am not joking and the master was serious about that)! It was so written, and it was so reported by your author. I don’t want to mention the name of this book because I am not an advocate of esoteric practice. There are ample easier and safer ways to achieve the same results for most practice objectives.

There is one now more well-known mainstream esoteric practice passed the martial art path. It is sometimes called Golden Shield 金鈡罩. The purpose is to shield a fighter's scrotum from being hit. In deep meditation, a practitioner learns how to control his internal muscles around his Dantian - between diaphragm and pelvic floor. One is cremaster muscle which, when trained, can be used to pull up one's scrotum. In Taoist yoga it is poetically called Hiding the horse's genital 馬陰藏相. Interested readers can search Youtube and watch some practitioners demonstrating such skills of shielding one's scrotum from being hit. A Japanese author Yasuo Yoshifuku in his book Science of martial arts "mystery" - the essence of the technique (in Japanese) mentioned this as an esoteric defense method against groin kick (in addition to the traditional methods of leg block and San-Zhan 三戰 stance shield). The author claimed he has tested its effectiveness. Needless to say, practitioner does it at his own risk if he has decided to use it in real combat.

The search of esoteric practice doesn't end here, nor it will ever end....

Tibetan Yogis demonstrating his art - "not to be imitated" as he warned us!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Acupuncture vs chi kung – competitive or complementary practice?

The practice of chi kung has a long history in China, predating tai chi and other internal martial arts.  In ancient China, chi kung practice was the main treatment method for poor people when they were sick. And the teachers of chi kung were sometimes Taoist masters in local Taoist temples. Sometimes such treatments were accompanied with religious faith, more often, it rested upon the trust of a local healer who learned from Taoist masters.

The practice of acupuncture also has a long history. Primarily it was an supporting medical practice for traditional Chinese medical doctors using herbal medicines for healing. In addition to opening internal blockages for healing, another important usage of acupuncture is to suppress the sensation of pain and was used as anesthetic for surgical procedures in Dynasty China.

In our contemporary society chi kung is now practiced as mind body exercise rather than as medical practice. On the other hand acupuncture is practiced as a traditional Chinese medical practice. In Hong Kong, everybody can claim to be a chi kung teacher (whether or not he has any student/"patient" is not an issue here) while practicing acupuncturists are regulated - passing a Licensing Exam with prior Undergraduate degree.  The question is: do these two discipline overlap?

Both acupuncture and chi kung aim at opening blockages in our body. The former aims at reaching finer area to heal specific disease while the latter target as broader area aiming at opening more holistic muscle/body tissue groups. The former depends on the activity and sensitivity of the acupuncturist while the latter depends on the activity and sensitivity of a practitioner (and his teacher). Both need to be trained. The former depends more on “prescribed method” based on classical texts and oral tradition while the latter depends almost exclusively on the inner sensation of a practitioner (or as perceived by his teacher).

Does an acupuncturist need to learn chi kung for his practice? The answer is no. Needling sensitivity is different from chi kung's chi sensitivity. Therefore a chi kung master doing acupuncture has no additional edge (and vice versa). If your acupuncturist tries to impress you with his chi kung background, don’t listen to him. It is just his sales pitch. Judge him on his needling skills only.

When doing acupuncture, a patient is advised not activate his chi (assuming that he has learned how to activate his chi through his chi kung training). He should relax completely so that his acupuncturist can feel or sense his internal chi and manage his needling accordingly. Any internal activation will interfere with, instead of, helping the needle healing process.

One exception that I have heard of from a learned chi kung master and meditator. It is that a certain school of Neidan (Taoist yoga) of the Dragon Gate lineage has a “secret” needling method for stimulating chi going up one’s spinal cord – the classic microcosmic circulation. To properly jump-start the microcosmic circulation, a practitioner needs to boost up a huge amount of concentrated energy. These “needling practitioners” was reported to have a method that uses a special method of needling around the tip of the spinal cord. With the practitioner using such stimulation as a way to activate chi, a massive amount of chi energy was said to be able to boost up to create a proper microcosmic circulation. A speedy way to open the blockages in our spinal cord without the lengthy method of deep meditation, as a proponent of this method proclaimed. I didn’t personally know anybody having tried this method. Therefore I cannot judge its efficacy. Personally I don’t want to have somebody needling the tip of my spinal cord. In theory, this method might just work.

Traditional acupunctural points

Monday, June 16, 2014

Difference faces of tai chi - an agile interpretation

Nowadays when we talk about tai chi, we have in mind of people doing elegant slow movements. Slow movement tai chi is great for health and structural building, a form of moving meditation if viewed from a chi and meditative perspective. Many contemporary practitioners who are interested in tai chi's martial art origin have abdominal punch taking and fa jing (pushing power) in mind (plus some "applications"). Agility being none-of-the-above. An interesting old video tells us that this was not necessarily the case when tai chi was practiced in the past.

The master in the video below is Dr. Chu Mingyi 褚民誼, a famous politician in the Republic era (and infamous, because he was later executed by KMT for treason) and a renowned student of Wu Jianquan the founder of Wu-style tai chi. Chu earned doctorate degree in medicine and pharmacology at the University of Brussels. It clearly showed that agility was the core concept of Chu's practice of tai chi. According to the video, Chu treated pushing hands as an effective form of tai chi conditioning exericse and that it required a partner who could deliver similar strength. Since finding such partner for regular practice was not easy, Chu (a rich man!) created two very interesting gadgets for his own training (see video).

Agility-focus in tai chi was also shown in another practice video (not shown here) by master Wu Dakui (吴大揆), elder son of Wu Gongyi (吳公儀) - father Wu showed his agility in his famous ring-fight with a White Crane master in Macau, son Wu was famous for his street level combat experience. Not too surprisingly, because in combat, one has to be agile and be able to deliver power at the same time. Power without agility gets one into trouble in real combat situations.

Anyway, it is refreshing to see that tai chi can also be practised in an agile manner, in addition to its slow movement chi-meditation and power generation training (of course and still other methods).  Needless to say, one doesn't need to follow all approaches in practising tai chi. Each student should choose his own cup of tea, as Dr. Chu certainly did so decades ago.

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