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Guan Yin: Buddhist symbol of compassion, from the Nelson Atkins
Museum Kansas City
DEFINING HEALTH AND HEALING
©2010 KENNETH S. COHEN
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.
HUNYUAN QIGONG: TRACING LIFE TO ITS ROOT
©2007 KENNETH S. COHEN
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)
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
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,
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
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
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
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
- 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
- Primordial Qigong is a method of healing qigong (yi gong).
Among the many benefits of Primordial Qigong, Master Feng includes:
- improving the function of the respiratory system,
digestive system, circulatory system, and nervouse system
- strengthening the internal organs
- increasing elimination of toxins
- clearing the acupuncture meridians
- 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.
A SPIRITUAL RENAISSANCE:
REFLECTIONS ON A QIGONG LIFE
BY KENNETH S. COHEN
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,
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.
THE WISDOM OF WATER
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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"
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
OF MY FIRST QIGONG TEACHER:
B. P. CHAN, A TRUE PERSON OF NO RANK
(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
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
The following sayings, stories, and anecdotes may give insight
into Chan's teachings and character.
THE TEACHINGS OF B. P. CHAN
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."
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
"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
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
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
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,
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.