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Qigong as Dharma

©2022 Kenneth S. Cohen



"Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere." This famous phrase from the Diamond Sutra could apply equally to the concept of qi, life energy. When the mind is fixed, limited by static words and concepts, it loses touch with the ever changing, fluid reality. Similarly, when the qi is blocked, unable to circulate, it becomes like water behind a dam, too much energy on one side, too little on the other. This imbalance creates disease. Indeed, many early texts on Chinese medicine imply that the mind is qi. The meridians of acupuncture--the energy channels that conduct qi to and from all of the tissues of the body--"are also the routes by which the mind pervades the body.”1 This is made clear in one of the central texts of Chinese medicine, the Ling Shu, "The acupoints are the spots where spirit and qi come and go, enter and leave." (1.4b) When these acupoints are stimulated through either acupuncture or by qigong, the blocked areas are opened. Places that have too much energy (yang) are drained; those that have too little energy (yin) are filled. The energy begins to flow more smoothly. At a deep level of healing, this flow is not only within the body, but between the body and the universe. Mind and qi both become all pervasive, moving without obstruction.

The Buddha himself emphasized these two complementary paths: mind-based practices and body-based practices. Mind practices include meditation and focusing on positive qualities such as compassion and wisdom. Body practices include attentiveness to physical activities and breathing, and, later in Buddhist history, qigong and martial arts. Shakyamuni Buddha advised that a monk should be mindful of the body, so that "when he is walking, standing still, sitting down or lying down he comprehends that he is doing so...however his body is disposed, he comprehends that it is like that...”2


The Zen classic, Shobogenzo, tells us that of the dharma paths, body learning is the more difficult. Perhaps this is because the body cannot lie; it gives immediate feedback about our state of being. Is there pain or pleasure? Do we experience openness or constriction? Are we refreshed by the environment, allowing nature, as air, to enter and leave, thus realizing the reality of impermanence (anicca in Pali) or do we sporadically inhibit and stop the breath? Do we hold onto a self-image, whether positive or negative, confusing who we are with who we think we are, the idea of ourselves? A symbol is not an experienced phenomena any more than a map is the land or a menu is the food. Thus, according to Buddhism, there is no self (anatta) that one can know. We can paraphrase this, life challenges us to trust in the unknown. Body-based practices may be the most efficient way to get out of our heads and move beyond the entrancing illusions of the mind.

The body teaches the Dharma, Buddhist wisdom, incessantly. "All compound things are subject to decay," said the Buddha. Body parts wear out, and some cannot be replaced. Aging reminds us of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: dukkha, suffering, is a characteristic of existence. Although one can deny suffering, one cannot realistically escape from it. Self-centeredness, attachment, and grasping (tanha) make suffering worse. A balanced lifestyle, moderation, and equanimity – the essence of what the Buddha called “the Noble Eightfold Path”—lessens suffering’s hold.

Perhaps most importantly, the body is often a reminder that we can find wisdom in the everyday. Simple perceptions hold the key to greater aliveness. The Xin Xin Ming “Trusting the Heart/Mind”, a sixth century Chinese Zen text says, "The Great Way is not difficult." As the student immerses him/herself in awareness of standing, walking, breathing, she finds that all of nature is similarly standing, walking breathing. Qi, like Mind, is not confined to the body. "If we harmonize the practice of enlightenment with our body the entire world will be seen in its true form.”3

Postscript: Hey, Ken, I thought you were a teacher of Taoism? My answer: The classical Chinese worldview is that Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all work together. A happy human being knows nature (Taoism), self-nature (Buddhism) and an ethical way to live in society (Confucianism). This is called San Jiao Kui Yi: the Three Teachings Return to Unity.


End Notes

1 Ishida, Hidemi "Body and Mind: The Chinese Perspective" in Kohn, Livia, ed. Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press), 1989, p. 59.

2 Majjhima-nikaya I, 55-63 in Conze, Edward. Buddhists Texts Through the Ages (NY: Harper & Row), 1964, p. 57.

3 Nishiyama, Kosen with Stevens, John trans. Dogen Zenji's Shobogenzo Vol. I (Sendai, Japan: Daihokkaikaku), 1975, p. 13.

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