Thursday, April 28, 2016

Immortality

A couple of days ago a friend of mine told me that her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Life immediately became highly focused for her, important decisions have to be made, such as choosing the best treatment options, moments becoming more precious, like taking the dreamed trip, time, or living, got a new meaning.

A stream of thought surfaced in my mind: about Si Kit, an old friend of mine who was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, shortly after his retirement from the math department of the University of Hong Kong, after teaching the stuff in various educational institutes for the better part of his life. For some reasons unknown to me, his siblings had lost touch with him for decades. In his funeral ceremony at the funeral parlor, his younger sister, a Christian, told us that she stumbled into his second elder brother shortly before his cancer diagnosis. She took care of him during the last phase of his life...'I came to understand my brother much more during this short period, God brought him back to me.'

I had not heard from Si Kit for many years. The reason I came into the picture was because I gawve him a few instructions on chi kung after he was diagnosed with cancer. I was therefore included into his list of buddies, to whom he sometimes opened his inner self, which was very infrequent, if not non existent, in his younger age. I was so inspired by one that I included the gist of which into a blog post (In memory of my friend Si Kit)

What is the meaning of life? Traditional Chinese culture put a high value on longevity. Taoist sages wrote about the mythical practice of Immortality, in the classic Neidan texts. Perhaps what the sages really meant was not seeking a repetition of boring and meaningless patterns indefinitely. Rather they might mean seeking the true value of meaning in every moment in life. Immortality at every point of singularity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Why do you need a teacher in the internal arts

Why do you need a teacher in the internal arts? To phrase it differently, we can say: What a good teacher can contribute to a student's practice? Nowadays we have books, videos, seminars by famous masters (free or paid), do we really need a personal coach to teach us the internal art?

Like every physical (or mind-body) discipline, for the internal arts, a good teacher can lead us faster on our path of learning. A tennis coach once told me that it is very difficult for him to correct the incorrect movements of a player whose muscles have ingrained with inappropriate conditioning, more so for tai chi, chi kung and other internal arts. More so because the internal arts are difficult to teach; another side of the coin is: there are not many good teachers who know how to teach effectively!

A feature of the internal arts like tai chi is, the movements are simple. A student doesn't know whether he is doing it right or not by just comparing externally his teacher's and his own movements (unlike tennis, players can see results and any hindrance to his own progress). As a result, a tai chi student may have been practising his art for a number of years but still not able to do tai chi in the correct way and therefore cannot reap its full benefit (if reaping any significant benefit at all).

What is the most important training tool of a good tai chi (or chi kung) teacher? It is the method of creating the correct chi-movement inside a student's body through hand/arm touching. It is no easy skill. Firstly it presupposes that the teacher can "experience and manage his own internal chi movement"  (well, for simple movements like tai chi [or meditation!] a student really can't tell whether his teacher knows his stuff!). Secondly the teacher has to know the art of "listening to the internal chi movements of others" through hand/arm touching. Thirdly the teacher must have the experience to help "create chi movements inside his student's body" through hand/arm touching.

Needless to say in addition to this major training tool, a good teacher must also have other tools (which I shall discuss in future posts).  My opinion is that this major tool is THE qualifying tool for a good teacher of the internal arts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Developing one's personal myth

Carl Jung began his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections by writing, "Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth". Personal myths are our strong internal guiding principles. Some people have strong personal myths, while others weak, and some none, those who live by day in day out seeking  pleasure (or enduring pain, as the case might be). Personal myths are very often unspeakable, like Jung who spoke about his own personal myth at a later stage of his life. The reason is that they are built on highly personal experience, biased by one's own culture, personality and upbringing. Oftentimes, dreams form part of its building blocks. Yet, for spiritually minded people, personal myth are considered very important.

Personal myth has become more important in our contemporary era in which myths created by our organized religions have become faded. Now organized religions ars more about doing tangible social goods, like operating hospitals, schools and at their very best, taking on issues with a more liberal outlook (hopefully). On the personal level, organized religions are now about psychological health, and sometimes physical health too.  "Personal myth" coaching however is difficult if not impossible. The main reason is that personal myth has become more and more "personal" because the diversity of our contemporary cultures. There are all kinds of interest groups, including support groups for all kinds of human misfortunes, thanks to the connecting power of internet social media. Yet, personal myth in most cases fails to carry a common denominator, and oftentimes even laughable (if not despicable or pitiable) from the eyes of an innocent onlooker.

I have shared some elements of my own personal myth in my posts loosely under the title of "stories of no significance". They are not meant to be stories or advice to be taken at face value. My readers be warned.

Follow my dream - another story of no significance

Dreams speak. Either the divine or the folly. I had been occupied with work the last couple of days. Finally I was able to put things down yesterday and last night I had a deep sleep. I dreamed of vivid events, mundane in nature, I found the details of no significance and didn't bother to think about them. The last part though came alive vividly even after I have waken up for some time. In the dream I was telling one of my students to read book of "Just and Pound" for their practice benefits. Puzzled, I Googled the web. No return for "Just" and good returns for Pound. And Pound's Cantos were featured significantly. I clicked in and read Canto 1, absorbed by the beginning part, impressive poem. I found out the the Canto 1 was a poetic translation of Ulysses, specifically part of the journey of Odysseus sailing back to his home town Ithaca. I searched the web further, and discovered this little poem by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. It shed light on this particular juncture of my life. The poem Ithaca I quote in its entirety below:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,                                                                         pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:n
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

To practise in order not to practise

I have often heard students of the internal arts complained that they do not have enough time to practise. As a result, their progress become slow, and when they are busy with other chores in their busy life for a couple of months, they may give up their practice all together. The positive thinkers' approach is to condemn the "lazy" students: "You have to find time to practise!" But how much time is enough? My approach to this issue is "To practise in such a why that you do not need to allocate special time in your daily life to "practise". But how?

One obstacle of the internal arts (like chi kung, tai chi and meditation) is that progress is slow, in particular in the beginning stage (how long is the beginning stage depends on each student and depends on how his sifu teaches; and of course also relevant is his attitude in learning). The reason is that a student needs to loosen his major joints (shoulder and hip) to a certain degree, plus the internal sensation that he can direct his internal chi to nano-ly "move his major joints. In traditional lingo it is called "change of Jing" (換勁). Fair to say, the tradition lingo is not explanatory!

This stage can be jump-started with the good coaching of an experienced sifu. The time needed varies. I have students who can get the gist of it after a few lessons. And I have students who can only get it to a proficient level after more than three years! (Honestly speaking, I have also seen people, not my students, doing the internal art for decades and still failed to get it).

The second stage is a stage of self exploration. In this stage a student, armed with opened major joints (traditional lingo: Song 鬆), will explore changes in his internal sensation (or experience) while doing zhan zhuang, seated motivation or moving forms). At this stage good communication with an experienced sifu will be helpful. Such communications however need not be very frequent, because most of the time a student has to explore rather than to ask. And in asking, chances are that it will be more like: "Sifu, this is my internal sensation, am I on the right track?" In my coaching experience, the best approach for a student in this stage is to focus on healing his specific ailments (like back pain). The reason is that firstly a student will have the necessary motivation, and secondly changes in his internal sensation will come to be experienced as more distinct when he focuses on his own problems.

After these two stages, a student can decide how much time he spends on his practice. To maintain his level of proficiency in the art, he only needs very little to practice. Very often, he can incorporate such fine-tuning in his daily life (for example, when he is commuting in the subway: the way he stands and the way his connects different [his chosen] parts of his body.) If a student wants to further progress, in addition to learning more techniques from his sifu, he should try to teach what he has learned to other people. Teaching the art is far from easy, any one who has taught the art and are honest enough to measure the progress of his students (vis-a-vis time spent in coaching and practice) can appreciate the depth and breath of the internal arts. Yet, to maintain one's level of proficiency at stage two, one really doesn't need to spend much extra time in practice!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The three elements of Buddhist enlightenment in a triangle

When one word or concept is placed at each corner of a triangle, there is a special property. Each word or concept will affect the other two. In Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism, the three components of enlightenment Insight (見地) Practice (修證) and Vows (行願) can be placed in such a way. In this post, I shall briefly tackle their relationships. My approach is Zen (and Tao), without apology, and certainly is far from definitive.

When we talk about Practice in Zen, we have in mind of Zazen (坐禪), or meditation. Meditation however is a common practice for many schools of religious, spiritual and health related (both physical and psychological) disciplines or practices. The special thing about Zen meditative practice is that a proficient practitioner is supposed to be able to get into a certain meditative mode or state while walking, living, sitting and sleeping (行住坐卧).

Koans are special tools related to Zen Insight. They are like case studies. And the Insights are imbued or embedded inside the stories. These stories are oftentimes examples of successful and unsuccessful insights, both are important (for example in the famous story of "Monk slaughters a cat" [NANQUAN KILLS A CAT (南泉斬貓)] one monk got the Insight while the other monks could not). Understanding the koans presupposes the students to have understood relevant theories of the relevant Sutra. Koans are like case studies in business schools. It is easy for students to mistakenly think that they are enlightened/having got the Insight after "understanding" the logic behind the story. The gist of the matter is that the "story" facing each individual will be his personal story of tomorrow. Understanding helps but the test is always our "personal koans" of tomorrow. To take the business school analogy further, having high GPA does not guarantee a student being able to make good business decisions in future. It is always the next decision to judge whether a manager is a good manager.

Now we can answer the question of "How is Practice relevant to Insight?" The simplest way to explain is that with good meditative practice one can be in a better position to be able to do the right thing when one faces one's "personal koan" tomorrow. And likewise, without Insight, a student's Practice will have no influence to what define an enlightened person.

Then "How is Vow relevant to Practice?" The simplest way to put is that Vow is a means to direct one's meditative practice into a deeper zone (as a comparison, free divers have to be trained under different guiding principles to go into deep meditative zone, Without a guiding principle, be it Buddhist Vow or free dive hurdles, going into deep meditation is unnecessary). For common folks (like most of us) who do not intent to make Bohsavista Vow, a simple vow to be more compassionate towards people around us can give us good training direction (and motivation) to our meditative practice.

Further analysis is possible but will probably bring my readers into a purely intellectual journey outside the realm of Zen which will defeat the whole purpose of writing this post.

(edited on 26 Jan 2016)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Zen - poetry or inner experience?

Inner experience when written out in prose or verse very often looks like literature, and may well be. The difference is that an author of inner experience writes down what he considers important spiritually, the truth as he has perceived and the communication (i.e. the piece of writing) is between him and the Divine. An example (in the West) is Carl Jung's The Seven Sermons to the Dead. In literature, it is always a communication between the author and his readers. In the former, failure in communication is not a non-issue, while the latter communication failure is fatal, though in both cases a correct reading needs to be learned.

Zen stories (koans) though are in a special position. They entail enlightenment experience, yet they are embedded in drama. To fully understand the stories, one must mentally participate in the drama. In other words, one must re-enact the inner experience of the each participants in the koan. For example in the famous koan NANQUAN KILLS A CAT (南泉斬貓), a student must put himself separately into the monks, the cat, Nanquan and his famous student monk Zhaozhou 赵州.

Where then is the inner experience of Enlightenment in a koan? The inner experience of Enlightenment, if any, lies within the reader. In this regards, those who have background in literary training, in particular with training in reading plays, will have a definite advantage. That is the reason why Zen is an enlightenment route for intellectuals.
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