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Guan Yin: Buddhist symbol of compassion, from the Nelson Atkins Museum
Guan Yin: Buddhist symbol of compassion, from the Nelson Atkins Museum Kansas City


I define health as connectedness. Scientific evidence demonstrates that in a state of optimal health all parts of the body work together (or communicate) mechanically (intelligent organization of posture, breathing, and movement, including factors such as relaxation, alignment, and flow), energetically (via bioelectric, biochemical, and biophoton signals), and in harmony with the physical, social, and spiritual environment. Healing is the realization, restoration, and/or expression of that state of connectedness, wholeness, and harmony.

Although aspects of healing may be measurable, the final goal of healing may not be, as it includes unity with the ineffable and mysterious. The process of healing fosters an interaction between persons (healer and patient), place, and time. Thus the following factors are important for healing: healing presence, compassion, placebo, ability of the healer, receptiveness of the patient, positive influence of place, and the correct timing of treatment. Because of so many unique factors, there are many non-standard or non-replicable conditions, and experiments in healing can only be suggestive, not conclusive.



Early draft published in the Dragon's Mouth (Spring 2000), Journal of the British Taoist Association and this revision in The Empty Vessel (Winter 2008)

The Philosophy

Hunyuan is an ancient, central concept of Daoist philosophy and meditation practice. Hun means undifferentiated unity, the state of mind and being that occurs when one does not divide the world into concepts. In other words, hun is equivalent to inner silence. Yuan means origin or original. The importance of Yuan is attested by the fact that it is the opening word of Qian, the first chapter of the Yi Jing (The Classic of Change). "Original [Yuan], Penetrating [Heng], Auspicious [Li], Correct [Zhen]." This mantric phrase may be interpreted as four stages in the creation or evolution of an idea or phenomenon; or it may represent the four seasons.

Yuan is the root or antecedent of any action. It is the creative spark or impulse, like a seed planted in Spring which is just ready to sprout. Heng is the Summer, and represents germination and development. The character heng originally meant a sacrificial cup used to make offerings to the Gods. Most commentators explain heng as tong, penetrating or reaching to the Gods. Li means to cut grain, to harvest or reap the benefits of what was grown. It is thus the Autumn season. Zhen, which originally included the character for tripod means steady and correct. It also means divination. Zhen is the winter season, when the energies of life retreat back into the ground and people return from the fields to their homes. The spark of yang is hidden in the yin. Winter is a time for inner work rather than outer work, a time to perfect one's character and prepare for the coming year by consulting oracles.

The character yuan was originally a composite of shang the word "above" with ren, the word "person." Hence, yuan means the upper part of a person's body, the head, or, as we say in English to go ahead, to be first. Interestingly, the Chinese character Dao also contains an element that means both head and first, shou. One of my Daoist teachers, the late B. P. Chan, defined Dao as "the path to the origin." We could also interpret this as returning to the origin. When the body Returns to the Origin, it renews itself with the energy of life, the all pervading qi of the universe. It becomes like an uncarved block of wood-- the Daoist symbol of a person uncorrupted by the stresses and worries of life. As Lao Zi says, "See the unbleached silk, embrace the uncarved block; reduce selfishness, lessen desire." (When the mind Returns to the Origin, it becomes simple and pure like a newborn babe, able to perceive the world with a fresh innocence.)

Hun with yuan becomes the concept Hunyuan, the Primordial State of Being. The term is synonymous with the word Dao itself and also with Taiji (the Undifferentiated, as in Taiji Quan, a martial art and healing art that blends yin and yang, suppleness with strength). Philosophy and personal cultivation are not separate categories in Daoist thought. Thus, Hunyuan is the Primal Being (God) or Beingness that both precedes and underlies all creation. It is also the spiritual state of a person who practices Daoist meditation. That is, a meditator's goal is to become Hunyuan. We see evidence of this in the two classic terms for Daoist meditation: xin zhai and zuo wang:

  • Xin Zhai, "the fasting of the mind" --the body fasts and is refreshed when it doesn't eat; the mind fasts and is refreshed when it doesn't think (Or as my old friend Alan Watts used to say, "If you are always thinking, you have nothing to think about except thoughts! There needs to be a break for experience.")
  • Zuo Wang, "sitting and forgetting," an old term found in the Daoist Zhang Zi classic: the mind forgets judgment and worries and returns to a state of peace and clarity

We find references to Hunyuan throughout Daoist literature. Zhang Boduan (983-1082), founder of the Complete Reality (Quan Zhen) sect of Daoism, learned "the Dao of Hunyuan". Lao Zi, the founder of Daoist philosophy was known as Hunyuan Sheng, the Sage of the Primordial. (A famous biography of Lao Zi written in 1191 A.D. is titled Hunyuan Shengji, Chronicle of the Sage of the Primordial.) Lao Zi's Dao De Jing is still the most important source for information about the philosophy of Hunyuan.

Dao De Jing, Chapter 25

There was something formed by the Primordial (hun)
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent, so formless! It stands alone and unchanging
It circulates and revolves throughout the Cosmos, without tiring
We can consider it the mother of all under Heaven
I do not know its name, but I designate it "Dao"

Dao De Jing, Chapter 42

The Dao [the primordial] gave birth to the concept of One
The One gave birth to the Two (Yin and Yang)
The Two gave birth to the Three (Yin, Yang, and Qi)
The Three gave birth to all things.
All things have yin on their backs
And yang embraced within
They blend with the Qi to find harmony.

My Commentary: The Hunyuan, also designated Dao, creates Two, a polarity of complementary opposites known as Yin and Yang. Two creates Three: Yang forms the heavens, Yin forms the earth; and Qi creates life. The three could also be considered Heaven, Earth, and Human, the famous trinity of Chinese philosophy. The interactions between the Three create all things. Thus, all beings have yang and yin aspects: front and back, inside and outside, positive and negative, light and shadow, obvious and hidden, masculine and feminine, and so on. When a human being wishes to commune with the Hunyuan, he or she has only to center the mind on Qi, the energy of life.

What is the meaning of "blend with the Qi"? To understand this phrase we need to grasp a basic principle of Daoist qigong exercises and meditations. The Yang of Heaven or shen exists in the body as the light of the eyes. Normally the light of the eyes rises like fire and moves outward towards things, "illuminating" them and bringing them into awareness. In qigong meditation, the eyes turn inward to observe the microcosm.

The Yin of Earth exists in the body as sexual vitality. In everyday life, it is natural that this energy seek expression; it flows down like water, toward earthly objects of desire. In qigong meditation, the yin sexual vitality is withdrawn; it is made to physically rise into the lower dan tian by a special breathing practice. This is sometimes called "The Yellow River reverses its course." Sexual passion becomes a passion for spiritual growth, the power of perseverance and dedication. Thus Yang and Yin join, fire and water meet. When fire and water meet, they create steam. This steam, representing the unity of opposites, is the Qi, a Chinese character that shows steam rising from cooking rice.

The meaning of "blend with the qi" may be summarized as follows: In Daoist metaphysics the one creates the many. In Daoist meditation, the many returns to the one or to the Primordial. As Lao Zi says in chapter 40, "Returning is the movement of the Dao."

Similar themes are found in Zhuang Zi .

Zhuang Zi, Chapter 7
the story of Mr./Ms. Hundun , a personification of Hunyuan

The Lord of the Southern Ocean was bright Yang. The Lord of the Northern Ocean was dark Yin. The Lord of the Center was Hundun. Yang and Yin loved to meet at Hudun's home.

According to the story, Hundun was very hospitable to Yang and Yin, and to return the favor, Yang and Yin offered to drill seven holes in Hundun so that, like humans, he/she could see, hear, breathe, and eat. Each day they drilled an opening. One day a mouth, one day an ear, and so on. On the seventh day, as they completed their task, Hundun died.

My Commentary: If we are too much concerned with the world, qi leaks out, and, drained of life energy, we die. This is the meaning of the phrase: "if you let it flow, you die; if you reverse the current, you become an Immortal." The senses are wonderful gifts, but they are tyrants if we lose the center, the Primordial foundation of being. A person who is aware of the center acts in a centered way. Lao Zi says in chapter 47, "Without going out the door, you can know the world." The doors are the senses, the gateways of perception. We can paraphrase this sentence: "You can understand reality more deeply if you do not lose yourself in sensation and thinking."

Primordial Soup Anyone?

Hunyuan, Hundun, and Taiji may all be translated "Chaos," because they suggest a primal "soup" in which individual things cannot be distinguished. According to A. C. Graham's translation of Zhuang Zi, "In Chinese cosmology, the primordial is not a chaos reduced to order by imposed law, it is a blend of everything rolled up together; the word is reduplicative of the type of English 'hotchpotch' and 'rolypoly'..." (Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, p. 99).

At Chinese restaurants people routinely enjoy a manifestation of the Primordial in a most mundane form, hundun soup (Cantonese pronunciation: wonton soup)! This is the same hundun that we have been discussing. Here it means both Primordial and Dumplings. There is a proverb in Beijing that states that at winter solstice one should eat hundun soup. At winter solstice, the dark yin is exactly balanced with the light yang; as solstice passes yang is once more on the ascendancy, and the nights grow shorter. In the microcosm, we harmonize with the seasonal change by drinking/eating hundun soup, in which a variety of indistinguishable ingredients are cooked into the broth, and to more directly symbolize the Primordial itself, amorphous dumplings (the hundun or wontons) contain a mixture of minced ingredients. Professor N.J. Girardot writes in his inspiring work Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism, "Wonton dumplings, lumpy and wrinkled, contain the basic elements for life. They float across a primordial sea waiting for their sacrificial and consumptive contribution to the continuation of the human world of alimentation." (p.30)

A similar ingestion of the Primordial occurred in ancient China around the time of the summer solstice, the period when yin and yang are again balanced. In southern China, it was customary to drink owl broth on the fifth or fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month (June). The owl was the creature of hundun and the night, the time of day when forms become indistinct. The number five and fifteen also have significance here. According to Daoist numerology, five represents the combination of yin (2) and yang (3). Fifteen represents the numerical sum of the energy of the five major organs and is thus the primal or embryonic state from which life emerges and to which it returns.

However, the preferred way for Daoists to enter the Primordial is neither through the digestive tract nor through philosophical inquiry. Rather, they practice ways of meditatively returning to the Primordial. They plumb the depths of their minds, bodies, and Being itself through qigong practice.

Ken Cohen with respected Masters (left to right)
Feng Zhiqiang and Gao Fu

The Practice

Hunyuan Gong, Primordial Qigong, is a system of twelve meditative exercises, generally attributed to the famous Daoist priest Hu Yaozhen (1879-1973) and his disciple, Chen Style Taiji Quan Master Feng Zhiqiang. Feng studied with Hu for approximately nine years. I learned this system originally from one of Master Feng's senior Taiji Quan and Qigong students, Madame Gao Fu (1916-2005) and also from Master Feng himself.

Hu was equally versed in Daoism, martial arts (specializing in Liu He Xinyi), and Chinese medicine. Hu's Daoist training came primarlily from Peng Tingjun, a disciple of Shanxi Province Daoist Priest Huo Chengguang. Hu was also a student of Zhang Qinlin (born 1887), another Daoist and martial artist, who had been initiated into the Golden Elixir School of Daoism under Daoist Zuo Laipeng and trained in Yang Style Taiji Quan with Yang Jianhou (1843-1917). In 1959, when Hu was 80 years old, he added a new technique to his repertoire, reporting that he studied Taiji Ruler with Zhao Zhongdao, then age 114! (Zhao passed on four years later).

Among Hu Yaozhen's famous writings are Wu Qin Xi "The Five Animal Frolics," written in 1963 (a system he learned from Peng Tingjun) and Qigong Ji Bao Jian Gong "Qigong and Health Preservation Training" (1959). The latter work, reissued as Bao Jian Qigong "Preserving Health Qigong," includes instruction in classical qigong systems, including Standing Post (Zhan Zhuang), Self-Massage (An Mo Gong), Qi Circulation (Zhou Tian Gong), Muscle-Tendon Transformation (Yi Jin Jing), Twenty Movements for Dispelling Disease and Lengthening Life (Que Bing Yan Nian Er Shi Shi), as well as advice on eating, sleeping, and spiritual cultivation .

I once met a Wudang Sect Daoist priest who showed me a series of exericses, which he also called "Hunyuan Gong," nearly identical to what I had learned from Madame Gao. He stated that these exercises were part of his Daoist training on Mount Wudang. Thus, Primordial Qigong may be far older than Hu Yaozhen or his personal teachers. At the same time, it could be considered far more recent. Qigong, like other Chinese healing and spiritual arts, changes, evolves, and often improves over time. Feng Zhiqiang expanded on Hu's teachings, combining his lifetime of experience and research into a system he calls Taiji Hunyuan Nei Gong (Undifferentiated Primordial Inner Work) or Primordial Qigong for short. In 1998, Master Feng published details of his system in Chen Shi Xinyi Hun Yuan Taiji Quan Jiao Cheng "Chen Style Mind-Intent Primordial Taiji Quan Instruction Manual" (Qingdao Publishing Company).

After practicing various qigong styles for more than 40 years, I consider Primordial Qigong to be one of the most powerful and comprehensive methods I have ever studied. Like other qigong systems, it focuses on well being and longevity, correcting all sorts of imbalance, whether the body is too yang (as in autoimmune disease or inflammatory conditions) or too yin (as in immune deficiency conditions or depletion). From my experience teaching many students and physician-referred clients, Primordial Qigong has the most dramatic effect on cancer. Several years ago a Boulder, Colorado-based radio station interviewed several students who had recently completed an eight week "Primordial Qigong" series with me. One reported complete remission from Stage 4 Breast Cancer and admitted to the radio journalist that she had not expected to even live to the end of the course. Another reported a 25% decrease in the strength of her eyeglass prescription. Other students noted a general improvement in energy and well-being.

Primordial Qigong has three roots, reflecting the three major facets of qigong: martial arts conditioning, health, and Daoist spiritual cultivation.

  1. Feng's version of Primordial Qigong may be practiced as part of martial arts training (wu gong ) because it includes Chen Style Taiji Quan principles and skills. Master Feng relates movements in Primordial Qigong to the Thirteen Postures (fundamental postures and skills in Taiji Quan) and to various Taiji principles such as zhong ding "central equilibrium," xu ling "empty and alert," and song chen "relaxed and sunk." The connection between Taiji Quan and the philosophy of the Primordial has a historical precedent. We know that the founder of Chen style, Chen Wangting, was interested in the concept of the Primordial because he studied the classic of Daoist meditation, the Yellow Court Canon (Huang Ting Jing, also translated "The Gold Pavilion Classic"). He wrote, "At present, I am old and nearing the last breaths of my life. My only remaining companion is the Yellow Court Canon." The Yellow Court Canon probably inspired Chen to incorporate Daoist principles of meditation and alchemy into Taiji Quan. The Yellow Court Canon is the earliest source of the term dan tian, the elixir field of vital energy in the abdomen, an important concept in modern Taiji Quan training.

  2. Primordial Qigong is a method of healing qigong (yi gong). Among the many benefits of Primordial Qigong, Master Feng includes:
    1. improving the function of the respiratory system, digestive system, circulatory system, and nervouse system
    2. strengthening the internal organs
    3. increasing elimination of toxins
    4. clearing the acupuncture meridians

  3. Primordial Qigong also belongs to the Daoist qigong (dao gong) category because it incorporates concepts and practices from Daoism, such as xing ming shuang xiu "body and spirit cultivated in balance," shui huo xiang jiao "fire and water meet," and lian dan "cultivating the elixir." Like Chen Style Taiji Quan, Primordial Qigong emphasizes learning how to concentrate on the dan tian (and how to turn the dan tian to generate movement). External movement is always accompanied by internal movement, and for this reason Primordial Qigong may be considered "inner work". To a large extent, the dan tian is the hunyuan. It is the place in the body where yin and yang, hun (yang soul) and po (yin soul) and the three treasures (jing, qi, and shen; essence, breath, and spirit) are harmonized and unified. Primordial Qigong is Daoist meditation in action.

One of the most interesting aspects of Primordial Qigong is that it can, according to master Feng's book, "strengthen the prenatal primordial qi." I was happy to see that Master Feng agrees with a theory that I proposed on page 33 of my book The Way of Qigong-- original or constitutional qi is not fixed at birth, as is often claimed in Chinese medicine; rather, it can be strengthened and increased through qigong practice. According to Chinese medicine, we have three major sources of qi: air, food, and our ancestors. First, we can absorb qi from the environment, primarily as air, but also as light and the energy of nature. From a scientific perspective, the earth's natural electromagnetic field helps to maintain biological cycles, including the release of hormones that control the need for sleep and food. A person who spends more time in nature is naturally healthier. Second, we absorb qi from food. Thus, diet is a major facet of Chinese medicine and qigong, and many ancient Chinese dietary theories are now confirmed by western nutritional science. Third, we inherit qi from our parents and ancestors. This is called "original or constitutional qi".

Practitioners of Chinese and western medicine agree that we can improve our health by paying attention to breathing, exercise, and diet. However, they also claim that our genetic inheritance and thus our basic constitution cannot be changed. A child who is born with weak original qi is destined to disease susceptibility. Our biology shapes our destiny. Daoism takes a different viewpoint. We inherit original qi not only from our ancestors, but also from the universe We cannot change our ancestors, but we can change our relationship to Heaven and Earth. Primordial Qigong exercises and meditations teach the student to blend the subtle qi of the universe with the denser qi within the body, "like fog blending with dew," as Madame Gao Fu once explained to me. The practitioner creates a fluid boundary between inside and outside and learns to tap into an infinite well of Healing Power. Not only does the body's original qi increase; ultimately, the practitioner becomes one with the Primordial, the spirit and healing power of all that is.



It is hard to believe that I ever began Qigong-- it is so much a part of my life. Nor can I conceive of a time when the practice will end or-- God forbid-- when the learning will stop. I was first exposed to Chinese culture through a "mistake." In 1968, a friend recommended a book called Sound and Symbol by a German musicologist. As I rode home on the subway that afternoon, I realized that in my haste I had mistakenly purchased another book of the same title but by a different author. Instead of a book about music, I found myself reading one of the rarest and finest introductions to the Chinese language, Sound and Symbol by Bernhard Karlgren. Before the subway ride was ended, I was hooked. I realized that by studying a truly foreign language I could learn how language and concept influence one's perception of reality. Perhaps I could, in the process, free myself of the preconceptions hidden in my own language, English, and learn to perceive the world silently and thus, more truly. Within a few months, I began to study the Chinese language and, not long thereafter, Qigong.

As I reflect on this story, I realize that it explains not only how I began Qigong but why I have continued. Foreign language study can clear the mind of culture-bound assumptions. Similarly, Qigong liberates the student from preconceptions held in the body: the immature and inappropriate strategies for living embodied in posture and breathing.

Lifelong student—Ken Cohen, age 17,
Practicing Tai Chi (Taiji Quan)

To stand straight is to give up the burden of insecurity. To breathe slowly is to take life as it comes, without allowing memory or expectation to interfere. As the body becomes quiet, the mind becomes quiet. The qi flows not only within the body, but between oneself and Nature. In breathing, the external world becomes you. Yet you do not own it, you let it go and return breath to its source-- what Chinese people call the Tao.

I had another beginning, a renaissance of Qi, several years later. I was teaching my first seminar at a growth center in Amherst, Massachusetts. One evening, during a break, I decided to take a walk outside; snow was falling and hanging heavy on the pine trees. Wouldn't it be wonderful to practice Qigong in this setting? As I began practicing, something very odd happened. Normally, I experienced Qigong movements as arising from deep within, seemingly generated by the breath and by the slow shifting of the weight. But this time I disappeared; I felt that I was not doing Qigong. Rather, the falling snow, the trees, the air, the ground itself were unfolding through the various postures. I became a sphere of energy whose center was everywhere. This was a kind of spiritual rebirth in Qigong; I learned that mind and body could become truly empty, that inside and outside could become a unified field of awareness. I cannot claim the experience as my own, because the experience was without "I". But I do know that Qigong has never been the same. Thus, another key to my motivation and, I hope, to your motivation: practice qigong to learn that you are part of Nature. When you breathe, it is the wisdom of nature that breathes you!

Finally, I have continued practicing because of the dramatic effect Qigong has had on my own health. I was a weak and sickly child and a victim of the poor medical practices of the time. Antibiotics were prescribed for every cold and scratchy throat, leading to a downward spiral of poorer and poorer health. Qigong cured my chronic bronchitis, weak immune system, poor sleep, and low energy. I look for ways to bring these same benefits to my students.

I applaud the scientists who are looking for the mechanism of Qigong-- how it works-- and who are designing experiments to validate Qigong's efficacy as a form of complementary medicine. Science has already demonstrated Qigong's powerful healing effects on cancer, heart disease, and chronic pain. However, people who practice Qigong with an open mind do not need proof to know that it works. They experience it. Science has yet to prove that the sun exists. Yet this does not prevent us from enjoying its light and warmth. Yes, trust science. But trust yourself even more.


An earlier version of this essay was published in T'ai Chi: The International Magazine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, September 1997 © 1999 Kenneth S. Cohen

All natural things curl, swirl, twist, and flow in patterns like flowing water. Thus we sense something similar in clouds, smoke, streams, the wind-blown waves of sand on the beach, the pattern of branches against the sky, the shape of summer grasses, the markings on rocks, the movement of animals. Even solid bones have lines of flow on their exterior and in their spongy interior. Spiders build their webs, caterpillars their cocoons in water-like spirals. The rings in an exposed log look like a whirlpool. And looking up in the night sky we can see a river of stars. Alan Watts once remarked to me, "In nature, the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line, but a wiggle." One need only follow a deer through the woods to verify this; animal trails meander like dried stream beds.

The Chinese call this water-like pattern which is everywhere different, yet everywhere the same, li. Li originally meant the natural markings on jade. By extension, the Chinese character came to mean the asymmetrical pattern and order of nature, an order that grows from the inside-out, the way a tree grows from a seed. Artistic creations may also express li-- for instance a sculpture that incorporates the natural shape and texture of stone or a hand shaped pottery bowl on which the glaze has dripped into beautiful random patterns. The opposite of li is zi, the rigid order of logic or of things that are clearly the result of human manipulation, such as an automobile. A perfectly round bowl with a symmetrical design along its circumference demonstrates zi and soon bores the eye.

I learned about the difference between li and zi the first time I tried to draw a bamboo with a Chinese brush. My teacher gazed at my work and frowned, "This is not a bamboo, but a lamp-post! Have you ever seen a bamboo straight up and down or with exactly the same number of leaves on each side?" The teacher took my brush and dipped it in the inkwell. Then he lifted the brush and immediately pressed it onto the rice paper. He asked himself, "What is it? Ah, I think it is a sparrow." Adding a few brush strokes the "splotch" turned into a marvelous sparrow, ready to fly off the paper! My teacher remarked, "The mind must be natural!"

Human beings are part of nature and are thus capable of manifesting the natural beauty of li. The philosopher Lao Zi (fourth century B.C.) says, "People follow the earth; earth follows heaven, heaven follows Tao, Tao follows its own nature." Li is inborn; zi is acquired -- unfortunately it is too easily acquired in a society that urges us to follow clocks rather than the cycles of nature. Rushing about from one place to the next, spending more time reading or thinking about life than living it, we lose the grace of our animal-nature. "Slowness is beauty," declared the artist, Rodin.

The flowing, graceful exercises of Taiji Quan help us to slow down and pay attention, to recapture and express that part of ourselves that we share with the animals and the rest of nature. Even the mind becomes supple and more alive. Flowing internal energy creates flowing consciousness, the mind freed of ruts.

River Flow

Taiji Quan has been compared to a great river because each posture flows smoothly into the next without break. More precisely, Yang and Wu Style Taiji Quan are like a river or stream, but the ancient Chen Style is like the ocean, with changing rhythm and power, like crashing waves and slow retreating tides. Confucius said, "Could one but go on and on like this, never stopping day or night!" Rivers are the veins of the earth, carrying nutrients from one place to the next, dissolving and reforming the elements of nature. Similarly, as long as our inner streams -- veins that carry blood, meridians that carry qi -- remain open and flowing, we enjoy vibrant health.

The Taiji Quan master may not have large muscles. His or her strength is concealed within, like a steel bar wrapped in cotton. Suppleness is necessary to develop strength. The more relaxed you are, the stronger you can become. Tension constricts the blood vessels and qi meridians, resulting in impeded circulation, malnourished tissues, and weakness. Lao Zi says, "People are supple and soft while alive, but hard and stiff when dead. Grass and trees are supple and pliant while alive, but dried and withered when dead." A living tree has sap and water flowing through it. Similarly, a living person has blood and vital breath (qi) flowing through the body.

Taiji Quan cultivates "internal strength" (nei jing), the supple power of flowing water. When attacked, the martial artist moves out of the way, "neutralizing" the opponent, like water flowing around a rock. The attacker is frustrated as he discovers that the object of his attack has disappeared. His strike lands on empty space. But when the Taiji Quan fighter counters, his power is amassed like a tidal wave. His whole body strikes as one unit, his fist hitting like the end of a battering ram. If his punch is blocked, he slips around the block, again like flowing water, and strikes again.

Water has no fixed shape of its own, but rather takes the shape of the terrain over which it flows or of the container that holds it. It adapts itself to both season and place: freezing in winter, dissolving in summer, becoming mist and dew in the heavens, springs and lakes on the earth. Similarly, the Taiji Quan student is flexible and adaptable. Her mind is empty of preconceptions and able to understand without the filter of belief systems. She greets life without rehearsal or fixed strategy.

While practicing Yang Style Taiji Quan, the body moves on a plane, with little up or down motion. Hips, shoulders and eyes are level, as though the pelvis is a basin of water filled to the brim -- any inclining or bobbing up and down would spill the water. Level movement stills the waves of the mind. The mind becomes like a quiet pond, the surface reflecting things just as they are, without prejudice or partiality.

Water is also a symbol of humility. It seeks the lowest ground, following the path of least resistance. There is a Chinese saying, "Going with gravity is wisdom." Thus, while practicing Taiji Quan every part of the body should relax (song) and sink (chen), seeking its lowest level, like water flowing down hill. It is important to note, however, that sinking does not mean collapsing or slouching. Rather, the body should feel like a tall, graceful tree with deep roots. The shoulders are dropped, the chest relaxed with the ribs just hanging effortlessly; the lower abdomen is allowed to protrude naturally; the knees are bent so that the weight of the body can be felt dropping down through the legs; the feet adhere to the ground. Even the breath feels as though it is "sitting" in the lower abdomen. As you inhale, the lower abdomen and lower back expand gently; as you exhale, they contract naturally. This way of breathing massages the internal organs and allows more efficient gaseous exchange. The breathing rate slows down, and the heart beat becomes more regular.

Quality, Not Quantity

Taiji Quan emphasizes quality rather than quantity. How can you move more intelligently, with less wasted effort? Where can you let go? How do you feel? Rather than: how far can you stretch, how many repetitions can you perform, how quickly can you move? Not that speed, flexibility, and power are unimportant for a martial artist! A boxer who can deliver two punches in a second is superior to one who is only halfway to the target in the same period of time. However, the primary way to achieve quantitative improvement is by paying attention to small qualitative factors. The rule in Taiji Quan is wu wei, "non-striving, no unnecessary force." The practice of Taiji Quan teaches you to tense only those muscles needed for any given task, and with only the exact amount of tension required. If four ounces of force is required, do not use five! That one extra ounce is stress, resulting in loss of fluidity, impaired coordination and reaction time, and a break in your defenses that can be taken advantage of by a sparring partner.

The Power of the Circle

Taiji Quan movements imitate the circular and coiling shapes found in ponds, clouds, dewdrops, and meandering streams. The circle conserves and circulates energy within the body. Because of circular movement, the Taiji Quan student feels more energized after practice than before.

The circle is also the strongest shape, the most resistant to external force. Hold your arm in front of your chest, with the elbow bent at a 90 degree angle. If someone pushes against your bent arm, he can easily topple you. But if your arm is held in a circle in front of your body--as though embracing a sphere--it is difficult to push. This is called peng jing, resilient or buoyant force. Qi fills a rounded shape and creates peng jing, like water flowing through a rounded hose. If the hose is sharply bent, the "energy" become blocked.

If you push against someone who has mastered peng jing, you rebound with doubled force, as though hitting a tightly inflated basketball, or as though buoyed up by a deep well of qi. The fuller the body's supply of qi, the more weight it can float, that is, the more powerful an incoming force it can repel. Peng jing is one of the secrets behind the ability of Taiji Quan masters to withstand injury from falls, flying objects, or fists! Peng jing prevents or lessens the likelihood of injury during the practice of any sport.

Cultivating the Spirit

Water is the most impressionable natural element. Throw a pebble in a lake and watch the ripples. A slight breeze will send a wave of vibration through even a puddle. Water is sensitive to heavenly energy as well. The heat and light of the sun cause fluids to rise and fall in trees, creating the seasonal changes. We all know that the moon determines the ocean's tides. Lumberjacks find it difficult to control logs on a river during the full moon, as the logs tend to get washed ashore. However, during the new moon, logs flow towards the middle of the river. Similarly, the moon controls the tides of blood in the human body, causing menstruation to synchronize with a particular phase of the moon and affecting the thinking and dreaming of both men and women.

This impressionable quality of water allows us to see and know the world. Water forms a transparent film through which light enters the eyes. It transmits sounds through the inner ear. As mucous and saliva, it allows smell and taste. Without water to help carry messages across the synapses, there would be no sense of touch. When the whole body moves like water, as in the practice of Taiji Quan, we cultivate sensitivity and permeability to the qi of heaven and earth. We becomes aware of what the Lakota Indians call the wochangi, "the spiritual influences of nature."

To move like water is to return to the source of being. Mankind evolved from a watery environment. The human embryo looks like a fish during its early development. The first crawling movement of an infant is an undulation, like a tadpole learning to swim. According to most religious traditions, water is the first element (in both importance and order of creation). "God breathed over the face of the waters." Brahma, the world creator, floats on a lotus in Vishnu's abdomen. In the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra, the "universal mind" (alaya-vijnana) is compared to a great ocean.

Perhaps the most important message of water is change itself. "Everything flows," said Heraclitus, "You can't step twice into the same river." The human body, like the body of the earth, consists mostly of water and is therefore in a state of constant flux. The intellect creates an illusion of permanence; we freeze the changing processes of life into concepts. But for health of body and mind, we must learn to flow with life, to ride the currents. We discover that the Buddhist principle of "impermanence" presents not a reason for despair but an opportunity for more sensitive and intelligent living. Taiji Quan can help us to, in the words of the Diamond Sutra, "Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere." Through Taiji Quan practice we discover that "Go with the flow" is more than a metaphor. It is a spiritual practice and a way of life.


(May 30, 1922- March 17, 2002)

This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2002 edition of
Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness
Photo left: B.P. Chan and Ken Cohen, 1985

On March 17, 2002, B P. Chan, one of the first generation of qigong teachers in North America, passed into spirit. Chan was born in 1922 in Fujian Province, China, lived for many years in the Philippines, and, finally, moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.

When Chan arrived in New York City in 1974, he planned to stay for about six months, long enough to teach a basic course in Bagua Zhang, one of the "inner martial arts" (nei jia quan) related to Taiji Quan, at the studio of his friend and colleague, William C. C. Chen. Not wishing to miss the rare opportunity to study with a teacher and person of Chan's caliber, students flocked to his classes. Six months later, he decided to "visit" a bit longer, to teach the next level of Bagua Zhang, as well as an introductory course in Xing Yi Quan and Chen Style Taiji Quan. Within a year, he had decided to remain in the United States.

Chan began studying Chinese healing, contemplative, and martial arts as a young child. He learned Taoist meditation and qigong from monks at the An De Guan (Monastery of Peaceful Virtue), not far from his home. He also studied with the famed Master Chen Jin Ming, from whom he learned Fujian White Crane Boxing, Standing Meditation (Zhan Zhuang), and various qigong techniques. At age 11, Chan began training in Northern Shaolin Boxing with Master Lian Dak Fung, and not long thereafter learned Taiji Ruler Qigong from Lui Chow-Munk, a direct student of the system's greatest proponent, Zhao Zhongdao. In the Philippines, he perfected his Xingyi Quan with Master Chow Chang-Hoon, and his Bagua Zhang with Liu Hing-Chow and Liang Kay Chi, with whom he taught for many years. Chan was an avid reader and deep thinker; he was constantly refining his practice and teaching style.

A biographical sketch gives little indication of the extraordinary range of B. P. Chan's skills. When I lived in New York City during the 1970s, he was teaching classes in Yang and Chen Style Taiji Quan; Bagua Zhang; Xingyi Quan; Yunan Boxing; Taoist Meditation; Taiji Ruler Qigong; Lying Down Qigong (Wo Gong); Standing Meditation, and more. Yet, Chan was no dilettante. He had a comprehensive understanding of the systems he taught, and when students were ready, he organized intermediate and advanced level classes. Xing Yi Quan students progressed from the Five Element Exercises to the Twelve Animals, to fluid "linking forms" that combined elements and animals in graceful choreography, and, finally, to two-person martial application sets. The Taiji Ruler course, typical of his qigong, included multiple levels of training. At first students learned gentle rocking exercises in which the hands make vertical or horizontal circles, designed to build a strong reservoir of qi in the dan tian. Later they learned the rarely-taught advanced techniques, such as the Taiji Ball. While standing, the student holds a stone or wooden ball (today, a bowling ball) between the fingers or palms, several inches in front of the dan tian. This develops qi and strength. Or he or she rolls the ball on a table top to develop sensitivity and "listening" (ting) ability-- a student who can "listen," that is sense energy, can feel blockages and detect illness in the body (one's own or another's), and, in the martial arts or other sports, can anticipate an opponent's moves.

I enrolled in Chan's very first class, and also took weekly private classes for several years. He was my first qigong teacher, and if I have been able to reach any heights in qigong, it is only because of the deep foundation Chan gave me. Because I spoke Chinese and had similar interests and values, we developed a special bond of friendship, and I believe that I got to know him well. Chan balanced wu gong, martial ability, with wu de, martial virtue. Unlike so many teachers, who expect their students to take pride in their teacher's name, reputation, and lineage, Chan preferred to remain anonymous. He was a "no name teacher" (wu ming shi). When I asked Chan what B.P. stood for or if he would write the Chinese characters for his name, he replied, "Do you want to learn the martial arts or my name?" "Then how can students verify my lineage or find out if I am authorized to teach?" I asked. Chan replied, "Teach when you know. Good qigong follows qigong principles and creates health and happiness; it is not a matter of lineage. You do not become good because of the name of your teacher. Do not mention my name." As you can see from this essay, I am a very poor student, who cannot help mentioning the name of his beloved teacher. Perhaps, since he was also my friend, it is permissible. I was very touched when, about twenty years ago, Chan gave me a photograph of himself, on the back of which he wrote, in Chinese, "To my classmate Ken Cohen," signing it with the Chinese characters for his first name. In any case, about a decade later, Chan admitted publicly that B.P. stood for Bun Piac (in Fujian dialect).

Chan was always "Mr. Chan" to his students. He wouldn't allow us to call him "Master," though sometimes I got away with "Chan Laoshi," Teacher Chan, in Chinese. Chan was what ninth century Chinese Buddhist Master Linji called "A True Person Of No Rank" (Wu Wei Jen Ren): "True" because his inside matched his outside-- he walked his talk, lived his spirituality every day; "Of No Rank" because he wouldn't accept titles and he saw each human being as having equal beauty and value.

The following sayings, stories, and anecdotes may give insight into Chan's teachings and character.

Linguist Extraordinaire

Chan loved language. He spoke several fluently: Fujian and Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, and English. He told me that the Chinese terms used to describe qigong and Taiji Quan posture have hidden meanings. Sometimes the meaning is tied in to the very sound and energy of the Chinese words. For example, while practicing qigong students should han xiong ba bei, release the chest and extend the back. Chan taught that when you say "han xiong," your chest automatically loosens, becoming yin; when you say "ba bei," it is easy to feel energy rising up the spine and lengthening it. Another example: Xu ling ding jing, "Empty spirited energy is maintained at the crown of the head." When you say, " xu" (empty), the body and mind become light and empty. As you say "ling" qi rises to the crown. With "ding jing," the energy is maintained at the crown. Chan always stressed that we should have the feet firmly rooted in the ground, while the head lightly reaches towards the heavens. "The feeling of a suspended head is the secret of speed in combat," he once commented.

English words also have power. Chan felt that "relax" was an unfortunate translation for the Chinese word song. "The word 'relax' makes people tense," he said. "Better to say loosen and release."

Standing Meditation

At my first private class, Chan revealed a "secret technique" called "Standing Meditation" (Zhan Zhuang). He said that it was the most important exercise in qigong. I stood with bent knees, straight back, and arms rounded in front of my chest. After ten minutes, my legs began shaking. Chan told me to take a break. We sat together and chatted about martial arts. Then I tried it again, with the same effect. He told me that, in the beginning stages of qigong, shaking was natural. "It means that there's water in the pressure cooker, but the lid is not properly sealed or tight- it is bobbing up and down. In other words, your body is not yet strong or stable enough to hold the qi." He told me to go home and practice every day. At next week's lesson, I could stand for twenty minutes, but then both my hands and legs shook! This went on every week, stand a little, shake a little. I felt like a fool. But until I could stand for a full hour, without moving, he wouldn't teach me anything else. "If you can't stand, how can you walk or move? If you don't have enough energy to stand for an hour, how can you practice martial arts?" He told me that to master qigong, you must master the "Four Virtues" (Si De): lying, sitting, standing, and walking.

Some Principles of Standing Meditation

"What is the meaning of song kua, yuan dang (release the inguinal area, round the groin)? Be aware of the crease between the thigh and hip--keep this area soft, and imagine that your legs and hips form a rounded arch way. An arch can support more weight than a pillar. Conversely, if you imagine that your legs are pillars, you will tire more easily.

"Practice the Four Empties (Si Kong): Use intent (yi) to make the feet, palms, chest, and mind empty. 'Empty' means open and receptive.

"Practice the Three Levels (San Ping) Keep three areas level: eyes, hips, shoulders. (Level movement is also important in "walking the circle," the basic practice in Bagua Zhang. Sometimes, while Chan was practicing, his teacher held a wooden block with a nail through it just above his crown. If he rose up, he would be skewered!)

"Keep the crown point (bai hui) and perineum point (hui yin) on one line. Gradually qi in the vertical axis will reach the feet, and then the hands.

"Never correct yourself by looking at yourself. Use nei shi, 'inner gazing.' Be like a sentinel on a wall. To see the enemy, look out, not down the wall."

Bagua Zhang and Standing

Chan exemplified the qigong principle of "a steel bar wrapped in cotton." He was soft and flexible, like water, but he could hit like a tidal wave. Sometimes, during Bagua Zhang practice, I felt that his grip was like a steel vise, and was thankful that he never tightened it beyond my tolerance! Because I had probably watched too many martial arts movies, I was beginning to suspect the "real reason" for Chan's martial arts prowess. He undoubtedly did finger pushups and spent hours each day slapping bricks and thrusting his fingers into heated sand, probably followed by the application of herbal liniments. One day, during a private class, I decided to ask Chan about his personal training. "Why are your fingers so strong?" He immediately dropped into a low squat and struck his fingers full force onto the concrete floor. Then he stood up, rolled and tapped his fingers in the air and said, "You see, no pain, and I can still play piano." "Yes, I can see that," I said, "But how?" He replied, "You won't believe me," whereupon he bent his knees and raised his arms into a rounded shape, as though embracing a tree. "Standing," he said, "is the secret. And the only reason the old masters had such great ability is because they had more patience than people today. They stood!"

Keep On Learning

One Sunday afternoon, the esteemed Taiji Quan teacher, T. T. Liang, then in his late seventies and directing a school in Boston, dropped in unexpectedly at the end of one of Chan's martial arts classes. He was probably looking for his old friend, William C. C. Chen. Chan shook Liang's hand warmly, introduced his students, and then, to our astonishment, asked Liang, "Could you give me some correction on my Taiji Quan form? Perhaps one or two words of advice?" Our teacher was asking for correction! Liang tried to refuse, but Chan insisted. Chan admonished us, "What's wrong? What kind of teacher would I be if I didn't take advantage of this golden opportunity?"
I have always believed that a great teacher is a great student, and the two roles are often interchangeable. Sometimes one is a student, sometimes a teacher. One of Chan's ingenious teaching devices was to ask a student who had just learned a technique to "play teacher" and teach it to the other students. As the student attempted to teach through both demonstration and explanation, Chan would offer gentle correction. It was a great learning experience for everyone.

The Greatest Secret of All

I had just had an exhausting lesson in which Chan corrected every tiny detail of my Bagua Zhang form--- aligning the index finger of my left hand exactly with my nose, the thumb of my right exactly with my navel, making sure that my heels were on an imaginary circle, with my feet pointing at a specific angle, and so on, and so on. At the end of the class, Chan asked me, "What is the reason for all this complicated choreography? You know-- hold your hand this or that way, step exactly here, not there." It was obvious that Chan wanted to answer his own question, so I hesitated. He continued, "The reason we learn qigong and martial arts is to find out 'is this arm my arm, is this leg my leg?' A person might think that, of course, my leg is my leg. But if this is true, if he is one with his leg, why can't he do this?" at which point Chan slid into a low stance, one knee bent and the other leg stretched out along the floor, his hands grasping an invisible opponent-- an exquisite Bagua Zhang move called "sparrow skims the water." Chan then paid me a great complement. "I can tell you these things because you think for yourself, like me. Other students might believe I am crazy." I assured him that many students would understand. He then summarized his philosophy. "The purpose of qigong is nei wai, shang xia he yi (inside and outside, upper and lower harmonized in unity)." He continued, "This is easy to say, difficult to practice."

A Great Heart

I asked Chan about the meaning of the ancient philosopher Lao Zi's saying "Do without doing." (wei wu wei). He said, "Do and act for the earth, including the environment. Do for heaven by developing yourself spiritually. And do for all living beings."

After teaching a group of students some powerful martial arts grappling and striking techniques, a young woman asked, "Which technique is best? Which should we use in a dangerous situation?" Chan said, "Here's what you do. First, spit in the attacker's eye. This will startle him. Then do a shin kick, turn around, and run away. And always remember that we do martial arts to make friends, not enemies."

I asked Chan if he had any special guidelines for teachers. He said, "You should always remember that teachers are easy to find. But true students are hard to find. And class payment is just a token. Real payment is in character."

"Your brain doesn't control your body. Your heart controls your body. We should use our hearts more." Chan lived from the heart more and more during the last years of his life. His kindness was catching, and our relationship was transformed by it. Sometimes, when he phoned, if no one was at home, he would leave a beautiful message for me and my wife. "This is Chan. I love you." We told him the same. Life is too short, and I am too old, to waste time not saying what I am really thinking and feeling. Love is a greater power than qi.

B.P. Chan is survived by six daughters and two sons. His rich legacy was passed on to thousands of students.


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