An Interview with Matthew Sieradski
Holos: Forum for a New Worldview
Vol. 7, No. 1 (2014)
Matt Sieradski began martial arts training in 1990 at the age of 14. In 2001, he was fortunate to meet and begin studies with Taiji master and Daoist adept Harrison Moretz, director of the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle, Washington. In 2006, he was accepted by Master Moretz as a lineage disciple in the Chen Shi Xinyi Hunyuan Taijiquan system during a ceremony in Beijing, China with lineage founder Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, who passed in May 2012. He has studied with numerous other spiritual masters, most notably the gnostic Joel Morwood, spiritual director of the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon. Under Morwood’s guidance, Matthew had a decisive awakening to the true nature of reality in 2009 and was given authorization to teach. Matthew practices as an acupuncturist, herbalist, and craniosacral therapist in Eugene, teaches taijiquan, qigong, and baguazhang, and serves as a spiritual teacher and minister for the Center for Sacred Sciences. He is married to his wife of thirteen years, Hiromi, and they have two children: a son Daishin and a daughter Mina.
[Note: As a convenience to readers, some names and technical terms in this document are linked to external web resources. These links, however, do not constitute an implicit or explicit endorsement of any information found on those external pages.]
TOM: By way of introduction to your article in this issue of Holos, it would be helpful to our readers if you could explain some of the ideas in your article and how they relate to other spiritual traditions. But before we get into that, first I would like to start by introducing you. Could you share briefly with us a bit about your upbringing, and how you came to study and practice in the Daoist tradition?
MATT: I was raised without a religious upbringing, but with a strong moral code. Also, taking care of one’s own health was a big emphasis from my father’s side. My mother always stressed self-discipline. I became interested in the martial arts at a young age (probably age 8 or so) but didn’t begin training until age 14. It became a very important part of my life. Martial arts training – if properly undertaken – teaches discipline, respect for elders and tradition, gentleness, compassion, and how to hone our aggressive instincts towards constructive (rather than destructive) ends. It is also remarkably good for dealing with depression and over-thinking, both of which I was prone to.
After over ten years studying the external styles of Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin and Eagle Claw Kung Fu, including participating in some tournament circuit fighting and forms competitions, I had reached the end of the road for my personal development in that style of practice. External styles (waijia, 外家 in Chinese) emphasize training with speed and strength to overcome force. I became interested in the internal styles (neijia, 內家 in Chinese) which include Taiji (Tai Chi, 太極), Bagua (八卦), and Xing Yi (行意 or Xinyi 心意). Some people also include Aikido in this list, despite it being of Japanese origin. Internal styles emphasize slow practice that develops what is called neijin (內勁), or internal strength. Internal strength is strength that comes from relaxed connectedness. The opponent’s force is overcome without resisting it. It takes many years of training to develop, but is just as effective as the force-against-force method of external systems, and is better for your health, as practice doesn’t commonly cause injuries as it does in external practice. Internal training is also conducive to meditative practice, and has its roots in the Daoist tradition.
The teacher that I have had the good fortune to study with, Harrison Moretz, is an American-born Daoist practitioner and teacher, and director of the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle. The system that he emphasized and which I became a teacher in, Hunyuan Taijiquan, is a container for the transmission of Daoist cultivation methods. Actually, prior to studying with Harrison I studied a Korean form of Daoist yoga for one year with Hyunoong Sunim, a realized Zen Master of the Korean Rinzai lineage who is also a Daoist practitioner. This is how I became a Daoist practitioner. I’ve been practicing these methods for about thirteen years now.
TOM: And now, in addition to practicing as an acupuncturist and herbalist, you are a teacher in the Hunyuan Taijiquan lineage?
MATT: Yes, I’ve been teaching since 2005.
TOM: What teachings and practices from other traditions had an important influence on your own spiritual development?
MATT: I’ve studied personally with Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and the teachers at the Center for Sacred Sciences: Joel Morwood, Todd Corbett, Fred Chambers, and our friend and auxiliary sangha member Tom Kurzka, who teaches his own students in a modern Satsang format. But there comes a point when you must step beyond relation altogether. The teacher shows you the door to this radical aloneness, you could say.
As for written teachings, I’ve studied Mahayana Buddhism, primarily Zen and Tibetan, as well as some Tantra and Dzogchen texts. I’ve also read in classical Advaita Vedanta and Daoism. I’m not an Eastern religions scholar, but I’m familiar with the philosophy and some of the mystical practices from these traditions. I’ve studied a smattering of Rumi, though I haven’t penetrated the Sufi teachings beyond him. I have never been attracted to studying mystical Judaism, beyond the Kabbalah I learned in the context of the Western occult tradition when I was working with the Tarot, or Christianity, beyond the Gospel of Thomas and Meister Eckhart. I have read some of the contemporary nondual teachers – Gangaji and Adyashanti have been helpful to me. I like the old masters best: Shakyamuni Buddha, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Shankara, Huineng, Dogen, Longchenpa, Huangpo, and of course Ramana Maharshi, arguably the greatest mystic in modern history.
Again, as far as teachings go, they are pointers and must eventually be transmuted into understanding, which is wordless. My interest from the beginning of my conscious pursuit of the spiritual path has been to obtain an experiential understanding of what the traditions are pointing to. I’m happy to report that the mystics are right. The truth is Goodness beyond the dualism of good and bad.
As for practices, I’ve employed a variety of sitting meditation methods, and still do. Cultivating the subtle energy, or qi, at the navel chakra, or dantian, is a great foundation for insight practice. What we at the Center for Sacred Sciences call Spacious Awareness and in Dzogchen is referred to as undistracted nonmeditation, seems to me to be the pinnacle of spiritual practice which is no practice. I’ve lately been attempting to maintain a Shinkantaza (“just sitting”) practice, in the context of a group I was leading where we were studying some of the classical Zen texts.
Also, I have been working with precepts and moral teachings my whole life, beginning with my parents’ guidance, as well as the influence of my teachers beginning at a young age. My studies and work in psychological counseling and hands-on healing work have been excellent practice in regards to cultivating love and compassion while simultaneously learning how to hold safe and sane boundaries with those I am attempting to help. And my service to my family as husband and father has been invaluable in exploring the depths of my own selfishness. I would say that the precepts and compassion side of practice has been in some ways even more important and difficult than all the study, meditation, and qigong that can be done. Although without the latter, I would not have had the context for insight which is ultimately what frees us. Both wings of the bird – Love and Truth – are required for flight, as our teacher Joel likes to remind us!
TOM: In what ways did your personal experiences in other traditions cross-fertilize with your study and practice of the Hunyuan Taijiquan system? Perhaps you could give a concrete example or two of a teaching or practice in Hunyuan Taijiquan system that was illuminated by your practices in other traditions, and vice versa.
MATT: Hunyuan Taijiquan includes sitting practice as part of its curriculum, and my sitting meditation practice in general has been greatly influenced by taiji and qigong practice. Cultivating the body’s subtle energy engenders a very comfortable and stable sitting posture. Also, when the qi is relaxed, then the mind is relaxed, which leads to greater ability to concentrate the attention. On the other hand, cultivating spacious states of consciousness through choiceless awareness (the Center’s insight meditation), has expanded my ability to remain in a state of relaxed presence both during sitting or taiji practice, as well as in-between practice sessions. Ultimately, the result of all practices becomes one, and so this question is difficult to answer as I am personally pulled more and more to an integration and purification of all phenomena. But students should understand the reason behind each type of practice. Working with subtle energy and attention as we do in Hunyuan Taijiquan is extremely powerful and conducive to deep states of stillness. I feel that it is similar to Tantric Buddhist practice in effect – it cleans out the energy channels and cultivates attention at the same time. Working directly with awareness as in Dzogchen, Vipassana, or Choiceless Awareness leads directly to the door of the awareness of awareness which is what frees us from the delusion of separation, but it depends on the practitioner also being of highest caliber. We all start relatively middling at best, so why not cultivate on all levels – body, mind, and heart?
TOM: Are there specific practices that you find to be particularly valuable?
MATT: The practices that have been most valuable? That’s an interesting question, and one in which I attempt to address in my article on Nourishing in Taijiquan Practice. Really there is only one practice, and that is to pay attention. Everything else follows from this. And who is paying attention and why? Those are some interesting questions to look into. The idea of practice is a fallacy, just like the ideas of liberation and bondage. Practice is a way to put a stop to habit energy in order to gain insight into the predicament of human life.
Still, practices, just like all behaviors, have results. These results, in the context of spiritual practice, bring us the opportunity to wake up. They also bring us other results, such as – in the context of Taijiquan – health or martial abilities. Some Tibetan Buddhist practices are said to bring psychic powers and so forth. The types of results derived from a set of practices is part of the culture of that tradition. Health and longevity have long been important to the Chinese, and so the practices of the indigenous Daoist tradition are geared around cultivating these benefits.
TOM: Could you say a few words about the ultimate goal of practice in the Hunyuan Taiji system, as you see it?
MATT: The goal of Hunyuan Taiji is “One Body of Hunyuan Qi.” This literally means bodily merging with the ground of the universe. I think it is as I said earlier, that ultimately we are cultivating our attention. In the Hunyuan Taiji system and Chinese in general, this is referred Xinyi, or “Heart-mind intention.” In fact, the full name for the system is Chen-style Xinyi Hunyuan Taijiquan (陳式心意混元太極拳). Xinyi is foremost (Chen-style is used out of respect for our ancestors’ taiji style, whose frame we use but elaborate upon). How can we purify ourselves to the level of hunyuan, which literally means “primordial origin,” and reach the goal of true taiji, which means “supreme polarity,” the basis for the cosmos? Really, this is a big practice, a lofty goal. I don’t think anyone can do it by force of effort! So ultimately, who is there that thinks they can do this? This practice, this goal is too big for us as separate beings. So we pay attention and realize that we are not here to be doing anything. It is all just happening. Big goal, small goal, same story: nobody here! But without the goal, without the context of the whole shebang – in Buddhism, the problem of suffering; in Daoism, the return to the origin – we will never be set up to fail so epically that we will realize completely our non-existence.
Now, I know that some Daoist practitioners will disagree with me here. They still have some idea of self that will enter into the Dao. And certainly some masters have powers and presence far beyond that of normal people, but truly what is it we hope to accomplish here? We as a life-form are only a piece of a grand design: the miracle of the cosmos, the breath of the Dao! Our Taiji practice ought to take us to non-practice, which is beyond the sense of someone separate here to practice. There really isn’t a separate person at all! That is how we attain the Dao, by already being it. We practice true Taiji by transcending practice, which is what I attempt to communicate in my article.
TOM: Many spiritually savvy westerners these days have heard of the Daoist terms yin, yang, and qi. Yet, I would venture to say that understanding the meaning of these concepts is difficult for westerners. To help the general reader, could you explain from your perspective the meaning of these terms and how they relate to each other?
MATT: This problem of understanding yin, yang, and qi is compounded by the fact that these terms are used in many different contexts and their meaning varies relative to the content and the context. They are essentially philosophical terms but they are Chinese, and Chinese is a poetic language, so their meaning is vague and expansive, yet essential to understanding Daoist practice as well as Chinese medicine. So, thanks, Tom, for asking such an easy question!
Basically, yin and yang are taiji, which is the supreme polarity, or what you could call the principle of opposites. You have written quite a bit about this yourself in the context of mathematics, using the term ‘the play of distinction’. I think you would agree that it can be usefully said that the cosmos is created by the primary division of nothing into something, of that which defies definition into mutually interacting complementarities. This happens at the beginning of time, which is always now. Yin and yang is a way of describing this process. Taiji, or yin and yang, arises from wuji, which literally means ‘without polarity.’ Wuji is taiji merged back into the source, you could say, and which will eventually give rise to taiji again.
The thing about yin and yang, or this stuff that is created, is that it is not static. The principles of yin and yang have qualities, but only in relationship to one another: For instance, yin is the nourishing, receptive, still, wet, or dark aspect. And in this context, yang is the activating, creative, moving, dry, or light aspect. But more importantly, yin is always transforming into yang, and yang into yin. Rain (yin) falls from the heavens and nourishes life. Vapor (yang) rises from the lakes and oceans and creates the clouds. Day becomes night, night day, and on it rolls. Creatures are born, grow old, die and are echoed onward! In Buddhism and Hinduism this is called cyclic existence, or samsara. But it is not just a theory! It is in our own present moment experience. Your awareness is yang, your body is yin. The movement of your eyes is yang, the sense percept of these words is yin. The text itself is yin, and the conveyed meaning is yang. Every relationship can be described by the principle of mutual complementarity. Without taiji, there is nothing! Which is wuji, of course, and is exactly where we want to look to truly understand reality!
This interaction between yin and yang, between the mutually creative principles, is what qi is. Qi is not a thing, it is a relationship, a transmission of information, or a force, if you like. So there are different types of qi. The qi of the stars is quite different from the qi of a computer monitor, although similar in being illuminating. The qi that keeps the organs of your body functioning is quite different from the qi of the ocean, although both move fluids around. You see, Chinese is a poetic language, but it can describe the most amazing aspects of our experience.
TOM: Are there analogous concepts in other traditions to the Daoist concepts of yin, yang, and qi? For example, how is qi similar to and different from prana or kundalini in the Hindu tradition?
MATT:I know of no other similar expression to yin and yang. There are many traditions which describe spiritual and cosmological concepts using triads. I suppose the ancient Greeks spoke to dyads in some way, although I am not familiar enough with them to draw a comparison. Other common mystical dyads such as samsara vs. nirvana, or love vs. truth are not equivalent. Shiva and Shakti in Hinduism is similar but not the same.
As for qi, I believe it is a bit more of a universal concept and is equivalent to prana in Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist terms. Kundalini is prana in the central channel in my understanding. Also it was referred to as pneuma in ancient Greek thought. Both of these terms are related to the breath, incidentally, and practices that work with the breath are the way to begin engaging the body’s qi. Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst of some renown in the earlier part of the twentieth century, coined the term orgone to describe this energy. It could also be called ‘life force’, although for many this doesn’t have the same expanse of cosmological description, unless you broaden your definition of life to include the entire cosmos, which can be sensibly argued.
TOM: Qi is sometimes referred to as subtle energy, as distinct from gross energy that is studied by physics. Is subtle energy comprehensible within a materialistic worldview, or must we expand our idea of reality beyond the physical in order to comprehend it?
MATT: I don’t think a materialistic worldview is comprehensible to the human heart, so I would suggest anyone still stuck in what Buddhists would call nihilism expand their idea of reality for emotional health reasons if nothing else. That is not to deride physics in the least, for which I have great respect. As you yourself are expert at pointing out, science has no need for a materialistic worldview.
Certainly subtle energy falls outside of a materialistic framework, but so does love, and anything else that cannot be directly measured. Our deepest and most important experiences are not gross material objects. So, yes, if your idea of reality is constrained to the physical, then please do, let’s all expand a bit before we read on!
TOM: To help readers understand what qi refers to, could you give some examples of experiences of qi that most people could relate to?
MATT: The thing is that it is so obvious! When you wake up in the morning well rested, and hop out of bed, you are full of qi. When you have the stomach flu, and have lain in bed for days but can still hardly get up to use the toilet, you are depleted of qi. These are the most obvious. Also we all experience emotions that are manifestations of qi movement patterns: When you are excited, the qi goes up to the heart and usually out through the mouth. When you are sad, the qi is depressed in the lungs and the voice is weak. When you are angry, the qi shoots up to your head and out of your eyes. When you are frustrated, the qi is stuck in the diaphragm and your jaw tightens. These emotions are subtle energy phenomena that can be felt by you, but also anyone skilled in palpation or sensitive to emotions can feel them as well. In my clinical work as an acupuncturist and practitioner of craniosacral therapy, I feel others’ emotions resonate within my own body as a matter of course.
TOM: Your article deals with what you call nourishing, or cultivation of qi. Could you say what you mean by these terms, and how this notion relates to similar concepts in other traditions? Also, could you describe the experience of such nourishing or cultivation?
MATT: What I call nourishing in this article includes cultivation of qi but goes beyond it to describe the movement of the Dao which creates the cosmos out of itself and then returns to itself. Essentially, the intention of nourishing practice aligns us with the mystical principle of creation and dissolution. In the context of Daoist taijiquan practice, the return happens not with dissolution of the body, but through the practice of aligning with the creative movement itself, which never really leaves the uncreated. Qi cultivation is the aspect of nourishing practice that augments, refines, and restores the body’s natural physiological processes and results in the storing of energy at the dantian. Nourishing intent goes beyond that to include the entire cosmos, ones friends and relations, and the whole of time. It is the attitude of compassion and the virtue – or you could say the activity – of the Dao which is ceaselessly selfless.
Nourishing intent transcends the duality of practice and attainment, the duality of health and disease, and the duality of being and non-being. The purpose of the article is to show the way through Taijiquan practice to understanding reality. Most Taijiquan practitioners are probably not all that interested in enlightenment, but of those that are, many may be confused as to how to proceed. My article intends to show the way through to the culmination of the spiritual path in this context. This may be a bit brazen of me, but I see no alternative to attempting to understand this mystery and share what of it I can in this context of Taijiquan – which has been so important to my spiritual path and awakening.
Other traditions speak of cultivation but the path is slightly different. Often health is not a big part of the practice, such as in many Buddhist sects, or it is accomplished in different ways. For instance, the focus in Hindu and Buddhist Tantric meditation on the navel chakra is basically the same, but it is usually applied with a more aggressive mindset and breathing methods than Hunyuan Taijiquan practice. It should be noted that the Tibetan Buddhist foundational Tantric practices called the Six Yogas of Naropa begin with a similar type of energy cultivation (called Tummo in Tibetan or Chandali in Sanskrit). Hindu yogis use other pranayama methods to much the same effect. The most unique Daoist contribution, I believe, is the use of standing and walking movements as an aid to concentration, health cultivation, and of course manipulation of energy for healing others or self-defense. This said, there are similar but rarer practices in other traditions.
The goal in all authentic mystical traditions is the same in that we are seeking to remove the mistaken identification with phenomena – a practitioner – and recognize our eternal identity with the ground of all, which is the Dao in Chinese. As I said before, side effects vary with the culture or style of the practice.
As for the experience of practice, this is difficult to describe, but there a few things to look for with authentic taijiquan practice: First, a sense of physical lightness accompanied by a calm and peaceful feeling, which is a relaxation that is not collapsed but is energetic though not excitable. Secondly, a gradual pacification of emotional turmoil throughout daily life which eliminates many questions and concerns over life’s smaller problems. Also, in Hunyuan Taijiquan, most intermediate practitioners develop warmth at the naval chakra, followed later by sensations of physical bliss. It is impossible to describe certain qualities of internal strength that develop, although I can demonstrate their martial effects up to the level I have reached, which is not actually that high in relation to my teachers. There are certainly levels of phenomenal attainment beyond that which I have experience of, such as degrees of energetic attainment and health benefits and so forth. It is important to realize that these experiences are not themselves spiritual freedom, although they may precede awakening, especially in the context of this type of practice.
TOM: In your article you discuss the principles of softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness in practice. Could you say a bit more about these and give some concrete examples of what it is like to experience each of these?
MATT: These are terms that come from the system’s founder Grandmaster Feng himself, and refer to proper practice. I tried to describe them in the article but I suppose some concrete examples will be useful.
Softness is opposed to hardness, which is stiff and unrelenting. Softness is persistent but gentle. For instance if you make a fist and squeeze it as hard as you can, how long can you do that? But if you make a fist gently, you can hold it that way indefinitely. Another example: If you are hiking and you are stamping your feet and forcing your stride as hard and as far as you can in the effort to go quickly, how many hours can you keep that up, versus walking with a relaxed stride? In the end, softness overcomes hardness, just as the water of the Colorado River washed away the stone to make the Grand Canyon.
Lengthening is what happens in the context of movement when softness matures. As you move your body in space, if you resist the movement, that is a hard, clumsy movement. The stomping hiker, while stretching his leg out, is actually resisting the walk. Lengthening may or may not manifest as a longer physical movement in space, but the lengthening quality allows the movement to penetrate without resistance. The relaxed hiker, with less energy expended, walks farther, for instance. Another example is people’s lifespan: if people live hard and fast, they tend to die young; while those that live soft and consciously, tend to make it a bit further before they kick the bucket. This is lengthening.
Roundness is what happens when lengthening culminates. Any movement in creation has the propensity to turn around, to come back around the center. Life becomes death becomes life. What goes up comes down. What goes around comes around. In movement practice, we are essentially making circles, but if we don’t soften and allow our movements to reach the natural end (lengthen), we won’t truly be finding roundness. We will be making stiff circles. True roundness is soft and natural. It is as if you aren’t moving at all, but the circles just appear. Just like the natural cycles of life – nobody is doing them, they just happen.
Liveliness is the manifestation of these principles in their fullness. When life happens unimpeded by resistance, it is soft, round, long and therefore it is Life! Slime-molds don’t question their purpose! Only under delusion do we struggle so hard against life and thus end up feeling thwarting by it. Liveliness is what happens in the context of taijiquan practice when we allow life to move through us, to nourish us.
I hope this helps. I know these are unusual concepts for many readers and usually they are taught in the context of Taijiquan training.
TOM: Do the principles of softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness have any analogues in other spiritual traditions?
MATT: In the context of movement practice, I don’t know, but in the context of life, as I just explained, they are universal. The natural movements of babies, for instance, are mirrored by the unrestrained natural activities of the sage. Many animals also exhibit these principles. Cats, for instance, are very soft, yet strong, especially for their size. And they can sure lengthen out, turn around thoroughly, and are full of life!
These principles are descriptions of the movement of ultimate reality, as it produces something from nothing which returns to nothing after having never left. They are universal. The Daoists really developed the martial arts to a high degree through understanding these principles.
TOM: For our readers who are familiar with the practice of sitting meditation, how would the principles of softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness be applied in that context?
MATT: Two examples of ways these principles could be usefully understood are with the posture and with the breath.
In the case of posture, the body must be extremely relaxed, but not collapsed. This is the definition of softness: there is presence of attention within the structure, but non-resistance to change. As the body becomes soft yet non-collapsed, the mind relaxes yet remains lucid and awake. Lengthening foremost takes the form of the quality of uprightness through the spine. We find this in the standing and moving forms of practice in taijiquan, as well. Lengthening also happens through the legs, particularly the pelvis to the knees, to form the foundation of the structure used during sitting practice. Actually there is lengthening everywhere, in each joint, at a certain level of practice. This is talked about in the Buddhist tradition as well, where they talk about developing mental as well as physical pliancy during concentration practice. This pliancy includes a sense of vitality that will develop along these lines we are discussing. Next we have roundness. Roundness is key in sitting posture. Without roundness, the structure is stiff and disconnected. The qi rises up the back and sinks down the front, it goes along the lateral and posterior legs to the knees and returns along the medial and anterior portion to the groin (in a cross-legged posture). Whatever the posture, the qi ultimately returns to the navel, while the intent returns to wherever the attention is directed for that particular style of sitting practice. But no matter what style of meditation, you don’t want the qi to stay in the head or chest – you want the energy to settle in the belly so that the heart returns to its natural state, un-harrassed by movements of the emotional-vital body, which is what the qi is. Of course, this is the ultimate roundness – the return to stillness. Finally, liveliness is the result of meditation – cultivation of vitality and awareness of the numinous ground of life within this present body. Also, as I said, the full development of pliancy, which can be likened to liveliness, is the state where the body becomes comfortably warm and a sense of subtle but pervasive bliss pervades the body, while the mind becomes calm, lucid, and unwavering. This is the cultivation of a serviceable body-mind, and the foundation for insight into ultimate reality.
In the case of the breath, the principles of soft, long, round, and lively are also very pertinent but simple. When the breath is soft, it becomes very fine and easy, as if there is no breath at all. In fact, in meditation we want to hardly feel and never hear the breath as it passes through the nose. It then can become long, as each cycle of breath takes longer for it to turn around. But if it is really soft, it won’t feel like you have to catch your breath, it will naturally lengthen; so be patient! And of course the breath is always going round and round – there is an in-breath and an out-breath. These gradually become continuous, as if there is no break between them, and often the pause as well lengthens so that it is hard to tell where one cycle of in-pause to out-pause begins or ends (and vice-versa). At this point the breath begins to become very lively, and what this means is that it becomes pervasive. This happens simultaneously with what I discussed above about pliancy, and the physical bliss sensation, as the breath begins to pervade every pore of the body. It is sometimes a feeling of being filled with light, of warm, soft, heavenly energy. It is very nice. Of course don’t be distracted by it. These are qualities we look for as we develop our sensitivity to the nature of our being, but are not the ultimate goal in themselves. The goal remains knowledge of our identity with the ground of all being, and the ability to remain in that recognition permanently.
TOM: Can taiji be viewed as a self-contained path to mystical Realization? How can the practice of taiji benefit someone who is seeking spiritual Awakening?
MATT: I don’t think taiji practice alone is enough. One would most likely study sacred scriptures, cultivate compassionate motivation, practice seated meditation, and of course meet a realized teacher. Most taiji teachers are not realized mystics. Also, the complexity of taiji practice can be a distraction from the simplicity of truth. That said, nourishing taijiquan practice as I outline it in my article is one path to mystical Realization.
As for how it could be of benefit, Taiji practice helps to train the attention, which is extremely important for spiritual Awakening. It is also an excellent practice for purifying the body and mind of subtle conditioning, such as negative emotional patterns like aggression, self-loathing, and anxiety. The way it does this is that it works directly with the subtle body, where many of these patterns are stored, and clears them out while promoting healthy circulation. Thus taiji practice helps create a serviceable mind and body, capable of experiencing deeper states of consciousness. It is also fun, which is never a bad thing!
TOM: Thank you, Matt. Now I invite our readers to continue with the reading of your article.
MATT: My pleasure, Tom. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
Nourishing in Taijiquan Practice
By Matthew Sieradski
Winter Solstice, 2013
Taijiquan practice, properly understood, is Daoist practice. Daoist practice nourishes oneself, one’s friends, and all beings. Nourishing in Taijiquan practice brings great benefits in terms of health, martial and spiritual goals. Nourishing is the conscious implementation of the virtue of the Dao. To employ nourishing methods, it is required that one understand how to merge movement with stillness, and this requires softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness in practice. Although not difficult to grasp, understanding nourishing practice is far from the mark of actually virtuously cultivating it. To go beyond practice through practicing is necessary to activate the mysterious nature through Taijiquan. Practice is a concept, while practicing takes us beyond activity. In this way we forget our conceptual understanding and merge with the Dao, we attain true understanding. This article aims to introduce the reader to this sublime Dao of nourishing in Taijiquan practice.
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Taijiquan is one of the deepest and most profound arts in the human cultural heritage. Its depth and profundity is a tribute to the sophistication of the traditional culture of China. Today, Taijiquan has become an inheritance of the world – one of the great gifts to modern people from Chinese tradition. However, Taijiquan as it is often practiced is not complete because it is not well understood. To understand Taijiquan in its completeness, one must learn to embody the virtue of the ancestors from whom it has been passed down, and in order to do this, one must practice, practice, and practice.
Indeed, when one spends time engaged in Taijiquan, it is usually called “practicing.” So clearly, if one loves Taijiquan, then one must know a thing or two about practice. But this begs the question: how ought we to properly practice virtuously the way that the ancients did? In the lineage of Hunyuan Taiji created by the late great Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, the answer to this question is not kept a secret. The proper way to practice Taijiquan is to nourish – to nourish oneself, to nourish one’s friends, and to nourish all beings.
Taijiquan has its roots deep in the indigenous Chinese spiritual tradition of Daoism. Like all mystical traditions, Daoism maintains that reality at its core is fundamentally nondual, i.e., “not-two,” or unitary. Also, like other mystical traditions, Daoism maintains that in order for human beings to find ultimate fulfillment, this real condition of things is to be realized. In Daoism, this goal is often termed “being in accord with” the natural way of things. Taijiquan is one method for practicing the Dao (道), for being in accord with the interconnectedness of all being.
Taijiquan means “yin and yang boxing.” Literally, “taiji” (太極) refers to the polarity inherent in all manifest existence. The entire cosmos, mystics tell us, originates from the process of making distinctions – from dividing the ground of conscious being into parts, into this and that. In Chinese philosophy, these polar opposites are called yin (陰) and yang (陽). In Chinese cosmology, the initial distinction is usually referred to as the division between heaven and earth. Humanity is a manifestation of this distinction, and yet it is also our opportunity to rectify this divide, to unite heaven and earth within ourselves. The energy of heaven and earth, of the cosmos, in traditional Chinese cosmology, is called qi (氣). This qi forms the stars and galaxies as well as the subtle energy within our own bodies. Taijiquan practice is thus, at its highest, a means for manifesting the original wholeness, the One Primordial Qi of the universe, through the union of heaven and earth within the body of humanity. In order to accomplish this, we must practice in a way which accords with the Dao of heaven and earth. We must use our practice to nourish ourselves and all beings. As the Dao De Jing says:
Thus the Way gives them life and rears them;
Brings them to fruition and maturity;
Feeds and shelters them.
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It is the steward yet exercises no authority.
Such is called the mysterious virtue.
(Dao LI:115-116 p 112)
THE BENEFITS OF NOURISHING IN TAIJIQUAN PRACTICE
Nourishing is the way of practicing Taijiquan that accords with the highest reality and thus has the potential for inculcating within us the fulfillment of realizing the Dao in our own being. To this end, there are three specific beneficial aspects to nourishing that should be mentioned: nonresistance, sustainability, and energetic accomplishment. After examining these benefits, in the second section of this article we will discuss the methods for their development. And finally, in part three, we will touch upon the proper motivation for the practice of Taijiquan, and what it means to cultivate the mysterious virtue of the Dao.
First, nourishing is the path of nonresistance. Nonresistance is one aspect of the correct way to cultivate the Dao and the supreme means to martial skill in Taijiquan. Nonresistance is to be found between the two extremes of grasping and pushing away. It is sometimes called detachment, or non-attachment. In the mystical traditions, it is understood that human suffering comes from identification with separation first, and secondly, with the grasping and pushing away of phenomena, be they thoughts, emotions, or external circumstances. Freedom is the absence of this resistance to experience. In Taijiquan, we practice this free and easy way of being in the context of our art. The full implementation of this requires not just physical relaxation, but mental alertness and calmness as well. This state of being is supremely nourishing to body and mind.
In relaxing with full attention to our present-moment experience, we form the foundation for successful nourishing, and thus successful practice of Taijiquan. We, in our own attentive awareness, give our body and mind the space needed to be rejuvenated by Heaven and Earth, by the qi of the universe. And by learning more deeply to not resist, we come to find that life is something that moves through us, and that our happiness in truth depends upon allowing this natural process to unfold in all its mysterious complexity. In this way we find peace. Nonresistance is thus the supreme means to happiness in life.
Nonresistance is necessary to achieve martial skill in Taijiquan, for the very reason that it is the method of applying internal power. Without nonresistance, there can be no merging, and without merging, there can be no application of internal force. The Taijiquan classics say: “My opponent moves, and I move first.” This miraculous boxing method cannot be applied without the function of nonresistance. Thus, through nonresistance we cultivate the empty mind and relaxed body that allows response to occur naturally, without artifice, and in this way we can be the most effective, both in self-defense and in life.
Second, nourishing is a sustainable way to practice. A human cannot live for more than 4 days without water, or 40 days without food; but even more importantly, we must constantly consume qi to survive. In reality, qi is the force of life. Without it, we are dead. Therefore, for our practice of Taijiquan to support itself, we must nourish our qi. There are many martial and qigong methods that cultivate power, especially in the external styles, but that are not ultimately nourishing. The practitioner’s health is not benefited from them. These are not sustainable practice methods. Too often they not only fail to improve the practitioner’s health but actually cause injury. They damage and expend the qi of the body and exhaust the heart-mind. In any case, they are strenuous and not suitable to those with older bodies. Proper Taijiquan practice can be maintained throughout the lifespan, and is not just for the youthful. Nourishing practice helps us to maintain our youthfulness into our middle and later years. If properly practiced, internal strength and martial skill in Taijiquan ought to continue to improve with practice, even into old age. Just as with the nature of the universe, when we align our practice with the virtue of selfless giving and nourishing, our practice becomes as inexhaustible as the movements of heaven and as stable as the foundation of the earth.
The third result of nourishing in Taijiquan practice is energetic accomplishment. Energetic accomplishment, or internal gongfu, is the key to true skill in Taijiquan. Many modern practitioners of Taijiquan ignore the teachings about qi cultivation, dismissing them as pre-modern or non-scientific. This is an unfortunate error that often results from a combination of poor transmission of the art and a materialistic delusion about reality, a view which denies subjective dimensions of experience. The delusion of materialism states that I am separate from the universe, and objects alone exist. The truth is actually the opposite on both counts – there is neither separation nor objects, and all phenomena is of one movement with our experience of it. But based upon these errors of cognition, the materialist denies aspects of experience that defy their preordained assumption of an objective body and world. This is because, in general, we ignore our perceptible experience that falls outside our cognitive framework. In so doing, we limit our experience to the reality matrix to which we have been accustomed. Becoming aware of subtle energy can be for many a step towards a more expansive understanding of reality and, in the context of Daoist practice, is the means for developing control of the mind, which is the source of all cognitive obscurations. Modern science has measured and recorded benefits of subtle energy phenomena for many decades. Studies of qigong healers, meditation experts, and Taijiquan masters have all demonstrated significant changes in electromagnetic fields in congruence with the reported experience of the subjects. We needn’t look to research for our answers, however, because Taijiquan and qigong masters have been perfecting these benefits for millennia. It is also true that while an ancient art, the practice of Taijiquan and its foundation of qi cultivation is very alive and well in our time.
Without the proper understanding of qi and its cultivation, it is impossible to reach the intermediate, let alone advanced, levels of Taijiquan practice. Qi, or subtle energy, is one way to speak about the patterns of life as they emerge from the unmanifest ground of being. This expression of movement from stillness is created through the principle of distinction – of yin and yang. Distinctions are never final, however, and continue to interact to form further distinctions and further movement. In the manifest universe, the only relative constant is change. Subtle energy is this change. In other words, the interaction between yin and yang is what qi is.
Since the foundation of the manifestation of the universe is taiji, or yin and yang, and the inherent interaction between yin and yang is subtle energy or qi, then clearly to study Taijiquan – yin and yang boxing – is to study qi. The study of qi is commonly known as qigong. This is why it is said: “Study boxing your whole life without studying (qi)gong, and your field will be empty.” (You will have accomplished little.) In other words, Taijiquan is a form of qigong; a very sophisticated form, in fact. In Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang’s Hunyuan Taiji system, we practice several fundamental qigong sets as well as forms, two-person training (push-hands and other exercises) and weapons methods. All of these practice methods are geared around the foundation of Taiji accomplishment, which is an application of qigong, or internal energy cultivation.
The only way to reach the highest levels of qigong and skill in Taijiquan is through practice, guided by the heart-mind intention of nourishing. Another term for nourishing in this context is qi cultivation. There are two main aspects of qi cultivation which produce the three goals of complete Taijiquan skill. The two aspects are qi-circulation and qi-storing; and the three goals are martial skill, health promotion, and spiritual attainment. Nourishing practice is the means to circulate qi; nourishing practice is the means to store qi; and therefore nourishing practice is the means to martial skill, health and spiritual attainment. Indeed, true attainment of Taijiquan is the result of mastery of the body’s qi through nourishing heart-mind intent.
Without going into theoretical details or practical instruction, it can be said that the human body is a polarized system. Just as with the separation of yin and yang into earth and heaven, throughout our bodies we have a microcosm of energetic interaction. Qigong, properly practiced, harmonizes and augments this energetic alignment. What is light goes up, what is heavy sinks. Movement is conveyed naturally and without effort – this is the expression of unimpeded qi circulation. Through sustained, nonresistant and nourishing practice, our qi-field becomes more harmonious and powerful – this is the result of nourishing and storing qi. Consequently, our health improves, old injuries and illnesses fade, and we gain internal strength. Our martial abilities manifest, we find firmness in softness, and we learn to merge with conflict and transform it. And most importantly, we form an energetic foundation for a clear, calm, and peaceful mind. We learn that we already possess everything we seek, and we find tranquility amidst movement.
Thus, nourishing Taijiquan practice is the path to nonresistant, sustainable, and energetically complete accomplishment of martial, health, and spiritual benefits. These benefits are real, experiential results that anyone with good character, motivation, teacher, and method can attain. These benefits are the great treasures left to us by our ancestors.
So how do we practice in a nourishing way so that we may attain to the highest benefits of true cultivation of Taijiquan? The next section will address this topic.
PART 2: THE WAY OF NOURISHING IN TAIJIQUAN PRACTICE
The methods of the ancients have been passed down to us through an unbroken tradition. There are Taijiquan schools representative of these ancient teachings among us today, and the highest of these flourish with the innovations of modern masters. Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang’s school is one such of these. His innovative synthesis of ancient Hunyuan neigong methods, xinyiquan, and Chen-style Taijiquan produced the modern Hunyuan Taiji system. It is rare in its comprehensiveness: its vast scope of methods, the elegance and refinement of its forms, and the depth and profundity of its transmission. It is truly a complete system. Yet method and even elegance are nothing without a living transmission of discipline. Transmission is the heart-mind to heart-mind connection that establishes true lineage. It is the foundation for proper practice; for without a teacher, no method can be followed. Method without the living example of a master is stale, without life. A living tradition is one where mastery flourishes. The Hunyuan Taiji lineage is one such tradition, as modern masters such as the author’s teacher Harrison Moretz attest. A living teacher and a connection to him or her establish the foundation for entrance into the discipline of Taijiquan. Finding this, we have access to the proper methods. All we have to do then is to practice.
Why is transmission so important to proper method? Because it is the living example of the teacher’s nourishing virtue that gives sprout to the student’s understanding. Virtue does not survive without attention to it; and this attention must be inculcated by a kind friend. This is the true meaning of mastery and discipleship: without the transmission of virtue, there is nothing sublime about the relationship, and it is not a meeting in the Dao.
And, as we have discussed, nourishing is the preeminent principle of all proper practice. Nourishing is an expression of the highest principle of reality, the selflessness of all phenomena. Wanting nothing, giving all, the Dao pours forth unceasing. The sage accords with this principle unreservedly. In classical Chinese thought, one way to understand this selfless origin of all is through the principle wuji sheng taiji, which means that Taiji is generated from Wuji (無極). Wuji means literally, “without polarity,” or the original formless source of all existence. Taiji, as we have discussed, is the “supreme polarity,” or the principle of distinction – of yin and yang – behind all creation. So in other words, the formless void gives birth to all creation. Or alternatively, movement comes from stillness.
In Hunyuan Taiji, we hold no axiom of proper practice transmission as more profound than the understanding that “wuji generates taiji.” It is from this single ancient mystical Daoist principle that all methods of proper practice are based. While the implications are vast, the basic meaning in the context of the art of Taijiquan is that cultivating stillness is the foundation for attaining skill in the movements of Taijiquan. Taijiquan, after all, is the study of the interaction in the body between yin and yang, between empty and full, between light and heavy. Just as with day and night, before movement comes stillness. The alterations between empty and full, light and heavy that are cultivated by the Taiji boxer rely upon the deeper alteration between movement and stillness. In the context of cultivation of the qi skill underlying Taiji form movements, we are speaking about stillness of body and heart-mind, and stillness of original nature. We cultivate stillness of the body and heart-mind in order to merge with the stillness of original nature. We seek to release all resistance to movement in order to align with the inherent upright principle of constancy within all movement.
Constancy of body and heart-mind in Taijiquan manifests as an upright and internally coherent form, calmness of mind and emotions, and presence of spirit that transcends concepts. This is the ultimate cause and result of nourishing in Taijiquan practice: by returning to stillness continually, we nourish ourselves from the fount of the unlimited potential of this very present moment. By being present in this non-attached way, we constantly re-invigorate our store of mental and physical vitality.
So how do we cultivate stillness, the source of all movement, in movement’s ever-present midst? The secret to this fundamental principle of proper practice is simple: intention. Proper xinyi or “heart-mind intention” is the key to all successful Taijiquan practice. The ancient wisdom that “the qi follows the intent” is paramount to understanding qi cultivation. The movements of our attention influence the world, beginning in the world within our own bodies.
By settling our attention at the dantian, located in the abdomen behind the navel, we stabilize our body and heart-mind in stillness. Dantian literally means “elixir field,” and is so-called because of the process of internal alchemy which occurs over time during this practice. The grosser physical essences are transformed into subtler energy (qi) and spiritual brightness (shenming) through this practice. Spiritual brightness is in essence simply calm unwavering awareness. Watching the dantian in this stillness of this awareness, eventually movement arises. When movement arises from stillness, intention leads, and the qi follows; as the qi moves, the body follows. This is the proper way to practice Taijiquan.
How should we train our intent, qi, and body in movement, and how should we return to stillness? Through four key principles of movement, we can find both the essence of stillness within movement, and the meaning of movement within stillness. These key principles are: softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness. These four, taken together, are the definition of nourishing movement, the application of sustainable, nonresistant qi cultivation, and the method of returning to stillness. We will discuss them next:
When people are born they are soft and supple;
When they perish they are hard and stiff.
When plants shoot forth they are soft and tender;
When they die they are withered and dry.
Thus it is said the hard and strong are followers of death;
The soft and weak are followers of life.
When an army becomes strong it suffers defeat;
When a plant becomes hard it snaps.
The hard and strong dwell below;
The soft and weak dwell above.
—Dao De Jing, Chapter 76 (trans. by Red Pine)
The first principal of nourishing movement is softness. Softness accords with the virtuous activity of the Dao. Just as a mother cares for her children with gentleness, and the sage cares for all beings with compassion, the Taijiquan practitioner uses softness of bodily movement to nourish his vitality and spirit. Softness harmonizes the rough edges of habitual movement, helps heal illness, and promotes resiliency, martial skill, and long life.
Negative habit is overcome by softness, because softness requires the presence of awareness that relaxes the restrained movements of our negative habitual tendencies. Negative habit is largely non-conscious and arises from resistance to experience; positive habit leads to greater awareness of experience. Softness is the essence of all positive habits. By employing our nourishing intent through softness, we release our physical resistance or patterning that prevents movement. This is because softening is expansive and promotes circulation of qi, while resistance is contractive and hinders circulation of qi. In learning the movements of Taijiquan we are continuously required to confront this habitual conditioning of the body and mind. We are required to soften, to relax, and to be present and aware of our moment-to-moment state of being. Besides re-patterning the conditioning of body and mind, leading to greater ease, this softening also helps heal the body.
As the Dao De Jing intimates, those who practice hardness are practicing death and dispersion, while those who practice softness are practicing the way of longevity and vitality. The dance of life can be resisted, whereby it becomes an interminable series of calamities; or joined, whereby it becomes a joyful merging in blissful creativity. By practicing Taijiquan with nourishing softness, we cultivate this merging with the Dao in the field of the body as well as the heart and mind. By merging physically, we align our body’s physical structures with the essence of life itself. We promote healing, health, and wholeness.
In the martial realm, softness is the method of acquiring internal strength. Without great softness, the great hardness of the master internal martial artist will never develop. This inner hardness comes from aligning with the essence of movement through softness, and in no other way. To practice martial arts by grasping for hardness injures the body of the practitioner and can easily injure his friends and family as well. Hard and tense practice results in tension and a physical binding that inhibits the flow of qi. The qi-field produced by this hard practice invites inner and outer conflict and disharmony – weaker people feel threatened by it and injuries are aggravated. The qi-field produced by softness welcomes weakness and protects from injury. Ultimately, through softness, great strength and vitality is achieved, and life is lived to its fullest.
At its essence, hardness is a resistance to life. It is a recoiling against movement and an attempt to control experience, which never succeeds. The fundamental reality of manifest existence is change, and wisdom is to understand this. By being soft, we allow movement to arise and we allow the space of awareness to include all dimensions of experience. In the body, this allowing is fundamental to the growth of awareness of subtle movement. This subtle proprioceptive understanding is the path to integration of the body-mind – the way to skill in Taijiquan. In the spiritual realm, softness is the manifestation of non-resistance to thoughts and emotions. Rather than resist these mental waves, we ride them out with presence and non-attachment. We thus become one with the greater movement of the ocean of life itself. Thus softness is a key principle in cultivating martial skill, vitality, and happiness.
When we are soft, we cease resisting movement. We then allow movement to continue to its fullest expression. This is the meaning of lengthening in the context of Taijiquan practice. When something natural is created, the energy of its initial movement conveys it to its natural expression and ultimately to its transformation into another movement. When we resist movement, we alter it and confine it, we create separation. Lengthening arises in Taijiquan practice when softness allows movement to continue to its natural expression. This is always by nature an expression of wholeness.
When a movement is allowed to fully manifest, a communication is opened. The pathway for that movement has become unobstructed. This is known as throughness (tong). In qigong, this is the principle of opening the channels for qi to flow. In Taijiquan, this is how the connections for internal strength are developed. Developing throughness requires the moment-to-moment cultivation of softness within movement. As the movement changes, so does the dynamic postural relationship; softening must continuously be applied so that softness and integrated posture blend. Over time, this process becomes habitual and gradually deepens. Deepening skill in Taijiquan thus requires continuous application of nourishing intent to soften into throughness. As throughness develops, greater wholeness is embodied.
The deepening of communication opened by lengthening extends outside of the practitioner’s body. We begin to merge with our environment – we connect with heaven, earth, and the natural world. We sense the shared qi of all life. We become nourished as our intent blends with the natural order.
Connecting into the environment is a fundamental aspect of cultivating the martial skills of Taijiquan. This skill is developed in two-person exercises. As skill grows, the ability to sense into your partner’s body develops. By not resisting in softness, we can detect resistance greater than our own in our partner’s body. This develops the martial ability to apply the principle: “When my opponent moves, I move first,” and uproot our partner. It also allows us to learn from each other by sensing intention to movement.
In relationship, open communication is essential for vitality. The ability to complete movement naturally provides the support of reality to any process. In essence, yin constantly changes into yang and then back again. Our intent must be to allow this process to occur in both Taijiquan practice and in our lives. In our relationships with loved ones, by softening our body, heart, and mind into and through the relationship, we find communion, a shared life. We overcome conflict and habitual conditioning, we embody wholeness through relationship. This is the Virtue, or the expression of the Dao in our daily intimate lives.
Cultivating throughness is the gateway to the profound – both in cultivating Taijiquan skill and in cultivating the Dao. In Taijiquan, when we manifest wholeness by finding the connections through, we develop extraordinary skill, we nourish ourselves and our partners. In relationship, we find communion. And in life, when we meet all change with softness, when we resist nothing, we are conveyed through all obstruction without being altered. This is the profound meaning of lengthening into throughness. Ultimately, we extend our intent throughout all time and space. We cease being separate and find ourselves always and everywhere. We merge with the Dao.
The movement of the Dao is to return.
—Dao De Jing, Ch. 40
Spring follows winter, day follows night, life follows death. At the furthest extent of any movement is stillness, and within that stillness is the seed of fresh movement. This is the true miracle of the Dao – that there is anything at all. Life manifests continuously, ever-present, constantly moving. There is nothing to seek – this is it. What a miracle, how sublime, how nourishing!
Taijiquan practice is the expression of the abundance inherent in this miracle of life – the principle of return, of roundness. In our practice, we begin in stillness. This stillness gives birth to movement. We don’t resist movement, but soften through it into lengthening. This lengthening continues to its ultimate extent and, for an instant, touches the void. It vanishes from time and space. The apex of the parabola reached, a new movement arises. Actually, it is not another movement at all. By moving through into stillness we find that there is only one movement, and this movement is none other than stillness. By releasing resistance to movement, we soften and this allows us to reach through to the end, returning to stillness and the source of all movement. Thus, proper practice aligns us with the principle of movement, grounded in stillness. In this way, all movement is constantly new, constantly nourishing us.
When we are soft and long, movement reaches its fullest extent and then turns around on its own. This produces roundness. All of the circles of Taijiquan arise from softness and lengthening. Roundness arises as stillness and movement naturally interact, as wuji generates taiji. This roundness creates all of the movements of Taijiquan. And, by natural law, these movements must be round. Roundness of form reflects interaction between yin and yang – movement and stillness – within. Movement’s source in stillness is expressed in the understanding that the Taijiquan Classic’s exhortation to “Stand like a mountain, move like a river,” if practiced correctly, happens simultaneously. Both mountain and river are present always, and this is the secret to Taijiquan’s many benefits, and a key to understanding the true nature of reality.
During practice of Taijiquan form movements, we must maintain continuous awareness in the constant attention on the present moment required to soften into throughness, and to embody the stillness at the end of each movement as it turns around. This attention must be absolutely present, unruffled by changes of time and space. It must be still. Thus we cultivate stillness throughout all movement with our xinyi or heart-mind intent. This is the stillness that is always present, and whether the body is moving or still, in proper Taijiquan practice we are always cultivating it.
A basic Taijiquan exercise is zhan zhuang, or standing meditation – also known as “Wuji Standing.” We cultivate stillness, or the state of non-polarity, in our standing frame. We cultivate the mountain. But this mountain is full of movement, as our internal experience attests. The qi field is constantly humming as we follow dantian-intent into stillness. True stillness, remember, is non-resistance to movement. To enter the state of wuji stillness, we must release all resistance to movement. Let the river run free.
The Xin Xin Ming, by the Third Chan (Zen) Patriarch Seng Can, says:
止動歸止 止更彌動 唯滯兩邊 寧知一種
If you stop motion to return to stillness,
Stillness even more fills with movement.
You will merely stagnate in dualism,
Rather than realize oneness.
多言多慮 轉不相應 絕言絕慮 無處不通
Excess words excess concern
Result in losing mutual connection,
Sever words sever worry
There will be no place that is not through.
Realizing oneness, or attaining the Dao, has the same principle as that of cultivating the bodily awareness required in Taijiquan practice. That is why it is said: “cultivate the small Dao (the way of Taiji boxing) to know the Big Dao.” When we are nonresistant to movements of body, we can enter stillness of body. We merge with the movement of the body. When we are nonresistant to all changes before us and all movements of the heart-mind, we instantly step beyond life and death altogether. In finding no place that is not through, we merge with the Dao.
Roundness, the principle of the movement of the Dao to return, is the gateway to true Taijiquan understanding, and a basic truth of reality. By nourishing intent we cultivate nonresistance, which allows us to soften through into lengthening and to let go into stillness. This stillness generates all movement. We thus find stillness as the nonresistance to movement and the source of all movement. Ultimately, in letting go of resistance to every experience, we find the fount of eternal life – the principle of the constancy of return. This reveals the mystery of the essence of life, and brings us to our final principle of movement in Taijiquan practice: liveliness.
When we are soft, long, and round, movement is expressed naturally, fully, and exuberantly. We then can experience the liveliness – the qi-fullness – in all movement. We become buoyant, expansive, and full of vitality. This is the root of the energy of peng in the context of Taijiquan. Peng in this basic sense – expansive buoyancy – forms the foundation for the four basic energies of Taijiquan. These four energies – peng (掤), lu (履), ji (擠), an (按) – are contained in all movements that are properly called Taijiquan. Without liveliness, without the basic peng-force, these four will not manifest, and it is not true Taijiquan.
The four energies of Taijiquan, peng, lu, ji, an, represent the four directions of movement – up, back, forward, and down. Properly understood, they are four sets of polarities. In Taijiquan, yin and yang manifest in the primary distinction of stillness and movement. Following that is empty and full. From empty and full we can produce changes in the body. These changes manifest in space in the four movements. Each movement is created by a polarity. To go forward, we must also go backward. To go up, down, and so forth. These principles must be communicated to and understood in our body for us to uncover the true meaning of Taijiquan. Their discovery requires the fundamental development of liveliness, and this skill rests upon softness, lengthening, and roundness, and the fundamental orientation of a nourishing intent.
Ultimately, skill in Taijiquan is a manifestation of liveliness, of fullness and circulation of qi. Taijiquan is an art, a discipline, and a means for manifesting this mystery of life, the sublime creative potency of the Dao. It takes the frame of a martial art in order to surpass all conflict, all distinction, by embodying the essence of distinction, of change. In essence, Taijiquan is a refined way of cultivating body and heart-mind in order to accord with the way things are. The flower of this pursuit is liveliness.
Liveliness in Taijiquan practice thus arises from nourishing intent to nonresistance, by allowing the miracle of movement to manifest. Likewise, the joyfulness of the sage arises from his nonresistance to experience, his fullness with all life. Wanting nothing, merging with all, each moment is full and complete. Each moment of experience is pure, unique, and not other than the absolute. Sorrow gone, all life is recognized as one with primordial energy, perfect stillness, and peace. This is the highest liveliness, the fullness with all life.
The four fundamental principles – softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness – describe the way of nourishing in Taijiquan practice. They describe the intent to practice, the way to skill, and the understanding of the essence of Taijiquan. They also point to the way to attain the Dao, to uncover the truth of our being. However, they fall short of describing the ultimate orientation to life. They do not fully explain our nourishing intent towards cultivation of qi, practicing of Taijiquan, or embodiment of the Dao. To penetrate our subject completely, we must discuss the simple questions of why we practice and to what end. We must understand the virtue of nourishing in Taijiquan practice, and this topic will be the subject of the third and final section of this article.
PART 3: THE VIRTUE OF NOURISHING IN TAIJIQUAN PRACTICE
The practice of Taijiquan is not ultimately a way to improve ourselves. Although we speak of self-cultivation, we are not separate from the universe. Where does the flower end and the honey bee begin? Where does the perceiver conclude and the percept commence? The depth of the Dao is beyond the conceptual frameworks of self and other, beginning and end, heaven and earth. The virtue of nourishing in Taijiquan practice is this: diligent practice is the Dao of simultaneously nourishing oneself, nourishing ones friends and family, and nourishing all beings. This is upright practice, and through this virtue the mystery of the Dao harmonizes our body and mind with the profundity of absolute evenness, while we accomplish nothing at all. Practice short of this may accomplish many skills but will never ultimately satisfy us. Practice short of this is actually improper and will not ultimately bring us into harmony with the Dao.
You cannot nourish yourself – what you experience as your body and mind – without simultaneously nourishing the entire cosmos and all beings. It is impossible. Each practice session requires this careful attention to the reality of selflessness. Without recognizing your inseparability from what you experience as the world around you, you miss the mark completely. Taijiquan ultimately requires the conscious merger of form and function, of body-mind and environment, of conscious will and spontaneous emergence. Taijiquan practice is merger in the Dao, in the sublime omnipresence which is far beyond all these written phrases which are like hollow echoes, and yet completely intimate with the reader’s intention to understand.
One way to speak of this profound truth of virtuous practice is the ancient Daoist maxim: xing ming shuang xiu (性命雙修), or “nature and destiny together cultivated.” Nature in this sense is ultimate reality, the non-differentiated essence which is both source and substance. Destiny is life, health, vitality, and individual expression of the essence. Together means they were never separate to begin with. What we experience as our separate being is a wave in the ocean of oneness. Cultivated means understanding this in every moment. We allow full expression of our waveness, without resisting the natural movements of differentiation and subsidence in the ocean. Thus we simultaneously nurture our individuality and return to our root in constancy, in oneness with the Dao. Understanding this, every moment is virtuous practice. Taijiquan is one gateway to this, one avenue of expression for what this is, and one in this single movement which is all life.
The idea that someone practices Taijiquan is actually antithetical to the Virtue of nourishing practice. Actually, Taijiquan practices Taijiquan. Movement practices movement. Stillness practices stillness. This is how to proceed unhindered. When you understand that Taijiquan practicing Taijiquan is true practice, then movement practices stillness. In this virtuous nourishing, nature and destiny don’t exist, and stillness practices movement. In this way all beings are nourished. Actually, all beings are practicing Taijiquan and you are doing nothing! They are nourishing you! How wondrous! How delightful!
To practice with desire is also not the virtuous way. Instead, practice not wanting to practice, but practice delighted in practicing. This is lively, virtuous practice! Virtuous practitioners never practice wanting to attain skill. Unfortunately, it is impossible not to want skill in the beginning, as skill is associated with practice until practicing removes practice, but realize that nobody ever attains skill. True skill comes from the Dao, it has nothing to do with anybody. It has only to do with practicing for the benefit of other beings. There is a kind of small skill that comes from desire, but this is the way to practice becoming a demon, and is destructive and dangerous, and has nothing to do with the Dao of Nourishing. So by all means don’t desire to practice! Just practice practicing. Then the gate will open to Taijiquan nourishing all beings.
With these themes in mind, we can investigate deeper into the virtue of nourishing in Taijiquan practice. It may seem difficult to understand that unless nobody practices just practicing it is not true practice, but actually all practice is nobody just practicing. This is just usually not understood in the moment, and that is why it is not true practice. To understand “nobody practicing Taijiquan practice” we must examine the motivation for Taijiquan practice, for nourishing.
WHY PRACTICE TAIJIQUAN?
It may seem strange to ask this question at the end of such a treatise, but truly it is the most profound and difficult question one can ask. To ask, “why practice?” is as if to ask, “why be aware?” These are actually the same question, and neither is as strange as it may seem. The truth is that while you cannot help but be aware, you continuously interrupt this natural faculty with dualistic notions that generate all manner of hair-brained habitual activity! Fortunately, we have Taijiquan awareness-practice as a solution to this problem.
The real mystery is “how do people so completely prevent themselves from awareness-practice?” The answer lies in the complexity of the solution of Taijiquan! People fall so far from the natural state of the Dao, which is simply naked to their own present moment awareness, that they require guidance from the ground up. In Taijiquan practice we start by learning how to stand and how to walk again! We learn all over again what it is to have a body, a mind, a beating heart! We learn how to be with others, how to touch, feel, follow, play, love, and laugh again! We take ourselves back to ourselves by learning to merge with ourselves. This is why we practice!
To practice thus is to be aware, to allow awareness in a true and profound sense. This requires understanding the benefits of practice, but not grasping them, understanding the methods of practice, but forgetting them, and finally, understanding the goal of practice, but not thinking of it as something outside of yourself.
We discussed the benefits of practice, but how do we cease grasping at them? And who is grasping? Nonresistance, sustainability, and energetic accomplishment are certainly beneficial, but to whom? In virtuous practice, these belong to all beings. Nonresistance is simply recognizing the opponents’ natural right to move in a certain direction, and to allow it with full cooperation. Merging and uprooting occur in response to violence as a way of protecting the attacker from the misfortune of causing harm due to his own tension and resistance. In one’s own personal frame it is allowing expression of natural movement, however it may occur, and in this way there never was any imbalance. Thus, understanding nobody grasping is the means to cease grasping nonresistance and thus to practice virtuously.
Speaking of sustainability incurs the idea of succession. Grasping at succession creates time, birth, and death, destroying the sustenance of stillness. True sustainability is the timeless moment of Taijiquan practicing Taijiquan. Bodily sustainability is ever fresh. True youthfulness is bodilessness. Health is fundamentally balanced movement, which is ever-even stillness. Ever-even stillness is not simply quietude, as it is balanced movement. Sustainability is thus fundamentally not accomplishment, it is primordial awareness of activity. Awareness of activity is only clouded by grasping. Thus don’t grasp at activity to practice virtuously – this is true sustainability.
Energetic accomplishment, the creation and movement of the dantian, the bliss of inner energy, the power to know and move people without their knowledge, the perfection of form, the attraction of a host of ripe and eager students, and perfect knowledge of the subtle realm – these are all distractions from the Virtue of nourishing. In fact, these are only side effects of practicing Taijiquan, and have little to do with Taijiquan practicing Taijiquan. Grasping them is shallow and unfortunate. See them for what they are, activate their functions for all beings, and all beings will nourish you!
The methods of practice – softness, lengthening, roundness, and liveliness – are profound. You should forget them completely! To be soft is fundamentally to never begin. To never begin is much more advanced than to stop before it’s too late, and can only be done if you forget completely! So don’t think about it. Just be soft.
To lengthen requires complete presence. Only complete presence is capable of lengthening. Nobody is ever completely present – only presence can do that! So forget all about lengthening.
To be round is not an activity. Stillness is completely outside of your reach. You simply cannot do it. It only appears when you don’t. So just watch reverently as roundness arises without any forethought on your part.
Likewise nobody can be lively. Only life is lively. Taijiquan is life, but only if Taijiquan is forgotten.
So, you see, fundamentally to reach the level of practicing virtuous Taijiquan you simply cannot think about method. Only this is completely understanding method. Practice not-practicing in this way for a long time and this understanding will gradually blossom.
How can you speak about reaching that which is always immanent? How can you lose yourself if you are already found? Even the clumsy movements of the beginner contain the master’s glance. Even the bitter fruit contains saliva’s sweetness.
Taijiquan is profound not because it is the deepest study of physical movement humanity has developed. It is profound not because it transcends culture, language, time, and place. It is profound not because it produces excellent skills and benefits. It is fundamentally profound because it is a living transmission of the Dao.
The Dao runs through all things. Only people do not see it. Seeing it is return; living it is life. Only this is completely satisfying. Taijiquan is profound because it is satisfying.
The purpose of this article has been to expose the reader to the depth of nourishing in Taijiquan practice. Many people think they understand Taijiquan and none of them do. Those who realize understanding is dry and useless really do understand. Nourishing is more than the means to an end. Taijiquan is more than an art. The movement that arises from stillness never really left. May all beings, Taijiquan practitioners and the rest, find peace in the Dao and share its virtue in the world!