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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kung Fu Fighting II

Since starting to practice at least semi-seriously again I've been remembering instructions I was given many years ago --not in any particular order; some things just pop into my head, usually when I'm walking back from the park in the morning. One of the most interesting memories I have has to do with what it means --or anyone, what it can be interpreted to mean --to think of practices like tai chi and xingyi (I know I'm not being terribly consistent with the romanization --should be taijiquan and xingyquan. Maybe I'll just stick with them and let the chips fall where they may.) as Taoist martial arts.

Taoism is a funny thing; there isn't really a monolithic entity with a canon of beliefs and practices that everyone who calls themselves a Taoist adheres to, anymore than Pure Land, Vajrayana, Zen/Ch'an, or Theraveda buddhist practitioners believe and practice the same thing. The best you could probably do as far as Taoism is concerned is that most Taoists would agree that Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching is pretty darned interesting. Taoism has an impressive plethora of gods, demons, spirits, and what have you but my exposure to it has largely been limited to what the Tao Teh Ching can be interpreted to mean with respect to martial arts practice --and as a non-native speaker who's unable to read one of the most elastically interpretable of the Chinese classics in the original, I certainly can't claim to have anything definitive or authoritative to offer, but that's never stopped me before.

Anyway, the whole idea behind the Tao Teh Ching is that the mind and body (see? we're already in trouble) have a natural state which if allowed to express itself, will be in harmony with what's poetically called Heaven and Earth --that Yin and Yang, the two fundamental aspects of nature, can be made to harmonize internally and externally. Now, as in Zen/Ch'an buddhism, the idea is not so much that you can _try_ to be natural --in fact, by definition you can't, you must, so to speak, get out of your own way and let the natural tendency of the mind and body to exist in a state of harmony and equanimity exert itself.

This is obviously easier said than done, and one of the enduring paradoxes of both Zen practice and Taoist practice (the two informed each other extensively when Zen came to China from India --according to legend, Buddhism was brought from India to China by a very hardcore cat named Bodhidharma, but that's another story) is that while Buddha-nature is inherent in all sentient beings, and the Tao emerges naturally from the ground of existence, you actually can't just, you know, sit around and say, well, that's that. For some reason we find ourselves far from expressing Buddha-nature, and far from behaving in the natural way expressed by the Tao Teh Ching when it says, "doing nothing, the sage leaves nothing undone."

So, we need a method. That we need a method, and need to make an effort, to express our inherent nature is a head-scratcher, but there's no use crying over spilt milk; that's just the way it is. (One of my teachers, when discussing this point, said, "Look, I don't make the news, I just report it.") This is neatly expressed in a Zen parable --the idea of "selling water by the river." The river is there, and it's full of water and yet we somehow still need to sell water by the river. As my teacher said, I don't make the news, I just report it.

So what does all this have to do with martial arts? Well, as with Zen meditation, the basic idea is that the method --the taijiquan form, sword form, or the xingyi five elements techniques, standing meditation practice, and so on) is a "frame," so to speak; it's as if you are constructing a lab in which certain experiments and reactions can happen. The challenge is not so much that you have to make an effort to achieve anything; the real challenge is that you have to stay with the practice. Chogyam Trungpa Rincpoche, the famous and very controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher (he wasn't exactly the stereotype of the abstemious, austere anchorite but he was also a brilliant observer of the human condition --an infuriating, paradoxical man) used to say that practice was like a train. There is an element of faith involved in practice --that's the faith that you've gotten on the right train and that when your teacher says it's headed for a certain destination, he or she's not jerking you around. Your job, then, is to stay on the train long enough to get somewhere. You don't have to worry about _making_anything happen, you have to stay on the train. That's where the effort is.

This is not so easy. Standing meditation --an indispensable part of taijiquan and xingyiquan --is actually extremely painful and boring a lot of the time. (Trungpa Rinpoche used to talk about the importance of boredom. He was fond of remarking that at a certain point in meditation practice, it's important to get extremely, powerfully, transcendentally bored.) The problem is that once you take away all the millions of little blips of stimulation --the constant oscillating between attraction and aversion, to put it in Buddhist terms --you are left with the experience of your own inner landscape, which is often not so easy to tolerate. My taijiquan teacher used to say that the single most interesting aspect of taijiquan was that it taught you to better tolerate your own experiences.

This is, again, often agonizingly difficult. I remember on more than one occasion seeing someone learning standing meditation practice burst into tears --not from physical pain, but simply from the need to release the stress of actually feeling what they were feeling for the first time. You have to stay with the method but you have to be patient, too --freaking yourself out so badly you can't practice isn't such a hot idea either. If you do stick with it though, some interesting things start to happen. And, for better or worse (or neither; this is just how it is) that's the point where talking about it just starts to get in the way.

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