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The Secrets, and Secrecy, of Chinese Internal Martial Arts

Millions of people around the world practice Tai Chi, mainly for health, but neither they nor the handful of people who practice it for its original martial purpose tend to have any knowledge of the deeper benefits of the tradition, either for maximising health and longevity or for combat.

In fact, without a good fifteen years of practice and the help of a top-notch master – of whom there are perhaps half a dozen outside of China – it’s pretty much impossible to come to grips with the real essence of the art. The same goes for the other two main Chinese internal styles, namely Bagua and Xing Yi. Similar problems obtain in the study of almost any ancient Chinese martial art or health practice or spiritual discipline worth pursuing.

But why are these arts so inaccessible? Why do people who have been taught the forms and practiced them for long periods of time never reach anything like the historical combat potential of these arts, which were used professionally by armies, caravan guards and imperial bodyguards in Chinese history?

Well, the short answer is pretty simple really: the form is not the art.

For the long answer, we need to really look at the histories of these arts:

Going back to the beginning, both Tai Chi and Bagua were created from a small set of Taoist moving meditation exercises. In Bagua, this was circle walking and the Single Palm Change. In Tai Chi, it was five postures similar to the opening movements of most of the later forms, movements that embodied specific energies. Over time, these core elements grew into complex systems.

So what about the forms as we know them now? Well, to understand that, we need to understand that the traditional teaching method is not the one we now use in the West. In the West, people have the idea that it’s all about learning the forms. In the real martial lineages, that never happened.

In Chen Village, spiritual home of the original Chen style of Tai Chi (from which the Yang, Wu and other styles developed later), teaching begins by learning to root and stand in proper posture, followed by exhaustive practice of individual movements long before any forms are taught. Since training begins at eight years old, the ten to fifteen years it takes to reach combat potential are not viewed as a burden. In Bagua, real masters teach their students basic circle walking and the single and double palm changes long before they move on to anything more involved. This attitude of mastering the basics pays dividends later, and such people end up vastly far ahead of anyone who has practiced the form from day one.

In the meantime, masters work on teaching the principles underlying the arts and repetitive individual and partner exercises that are used to practice them. Many traditions employ an easy-to-learn external martial art as the first system to teach children before moving to internal styles. The forms, once introduced, are simply a shell, a way to embody and practice the elements of physical and energetic movement that are the essence of the internal arts.

This is the Neigong or “internal power” system, and it covers everything from postural alignment to breathing to power generation. By focusing on these elements one at a time while practicing the form, the practitioner gradually integrates all of them, improving health, fitness and combat potential. In a combat situation, it is these elements having become second nature that make the art formidable. In previous generations, masters used to tailor the forms specifically for the use of an individual student according to their character and aptitude.

By being aware of these dynamics, we can direct our energies more profitably by:

– Using the forms properly as a tool to embody the Neigong system
– Taking time out from the forms for other exercises
– Focusing attention on fully developing the potential of a small number of key principles and movements

Now here’s the part that applies to Chinese traditions generally. There is always an exoteric tradition for the ignorant masses (which includes many so-called masters) and an esoteric tradition for the real practitioners. There are the strains of Traditional Chinese Medicine that seem able to cure just about anything and do amazing things with the human body… and then there are the deviations that have the masses eating body parts of endangered animals rather than changing their lifestyles to improve their health. There are the Tai Chi masters who teach the internal dynamics, and those who teach nothing but the forms. The same goes for most martial arts, and for Qigong, and for Taoism itself. Finding the real thing is always a challenge.

It has to be admitted that the Chinese approach to knowledge is the major obstacle here. Traditionally in China, any sort of practical knowledge from carpentry to fighting was considered primarily a family inheritance, meaning that the “real secrets” got passed down strictly from father to son, or perhaps to one or two privileged people selected to carry on the lineage. Anyone else only had access to a lower level of teaching. It was also assumed that the lineage disciple would be with the master learning from him until he died, and so the custom of “deathbed secrets” came about, along with very, very long timescales for training. This is beginning to change, but unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done.

For a different take on another factor that has limited transmission of the real Tai Chi in China, watch what Chen style master Joseph Chen has to say:

 

The difficulty in finding the “real thing” applies not only to martial arts, but to any manifestation of Authentic Ancient Traditions, including and especially spiritual teachings and methods. That, however, is a story for another time…

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Dragon Gate Exercises for Self-Cultivation

The deliberate, systematic cultivation of the mind-body organism is the great legacy of the Taoist Complete Reality school. Although it’s easy to get lost in the complexities of the systems, there are plenty of simple ways to put these principles into practice whenever you have a few minutes to spare, or even in the middle of an everyday activity. Jonathan Blank’s book Secrets of Dragon Gate with Dragon Gate sect lineage-holder Dr. Steven Liu provides an accessible overview of some of these exercises:

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The following are a few exercises that can help you to become more effective and maximise your potential in everyday life.

 

Exercise for the Mind

A system of exercises for consciously building up your mind’s inherent abilities is part of the Dragon Gate tradition, and there are some easy preliminary exercises you can practice anytime. Some are related to watchfulness techniques you may already be familiar with through our programs, standing apart from the thought-stream and watching the arising and ending of thoughts. There are also exercises designed to boost attention and memory.

Attention Exercise: This exercise begins in a meditative posture and focuses attention on different senses in turn for one to two minutes. With your eyes closed, reach out with your sense of smell, and note all the different smells you can identify and what they tell you about your environment (this may be best done outdoors). Then the sense of touch- what do you feel? Is there a breeze? Are you warm or cold? What are you sitting on- is it hard or soft? Then the sense of hearing- do you hear cars, birds, insects, the wind in the trees. Finally, open your eyes and take in your surroundings in detail. Notice subtleties of colour and texture, the shapes of plants, the even just the cracks in your wall if you’re indoors.

Memory Exercise: Related to the attention exercise, this memory exercise focuses on a past event that you remember well and have positive associations with. Focus on each of your senses in turn, and try to remember everything that they took in, the small details of your surroundings that you might otherwise have forgotten, just as you did for the attention exercise. This practice can help cultivate powerful observational skills and recall.

Manifesting and Mindset Exercises

The Dragon Gate teaches that the quality of our experiences flows from the way we think about them. As the I Ching says, “The auspicious and the ominous both arise from the same circumstances.” In other words, it is how we respond to our circumstances that most often makes them good or bad. The dualistic practice of assigning judgment to a situation therefore harms us more than it helps us. It is better to “nurture your dreams” with optimism and look for a way to turn a problem into an opportunity. Going along with changes while remaining true to the pattern of the universe is a Taoist paradox that encompasses the dual reality of the cosmos- everything changes, and everything remains the same.

Two specific meditation exercises that are used to aid in manifesting are as follows.

In the first, visualise an empty space in front of you. Then invite whatever you would like to manifest in your life into that space. Observe the manifestation and any thoughts it brings as it is established and ultimately dissolves.

For the second exercise, choose one thing that you have a powerful desire to manifest. Visualise yourself in the state of having manifested what you desire in as much detail as possible. See your surroundings, the clothes you are wearing, the activities you are doing. Employ all of your senses to make it as real as possible. Next, spend several minutes creating a feeling of trust that this manifestation is as real and solid as your everyday world. Focus on the feelings of pleasure you get from having attained your goal. Close out by focusing on a feeling of gratitude for what you are manifesting.

Everyday Intention

Almost any activity can be performed as meditation if you treat it as such, staying mentally present and paying attention to your movements and breathing. Another aspect which Dragon Gate practice introduces is the establishment of proper intention.

For example, when preparing food, breathe deeply and consciously relax your mind and body on the exhale. Set the intention of preparing food that will nourish and sustain you and your family with the nutrients and energy you need to attain your goals. As you prepare the food, focus on your breathing and make an effort to maintain proper abdominal breathing.

A Holistic Approach

While the exercises we have covered relate to only a few areas of self-cultivation, they are part of a larger and deliberate system for enhancing each aspect of the mind-body organism and its relationship with the world, while remaining conscious of the deep interconnections between different aspects. From cultivating energy and absorbing it from the natural world to enhanced perception to all aspects of physical exercise to sexuality, every area of life is encompassed in one way or another in this planned and deliberate approach to life.
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


The “Art of War” in YOUR Life

When people think of ancient texts on strategy like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, they often think of their modern-day application to the cutthroat world of corporate strategy, alongside Machiavelli and Bismarck. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the much more subtle level of consideration on which people like Sun Tzu and Zhu-ge Liang operated.

Like Machiavelli, they lived in a fragmented nation at war with itself. Like him, they developed their strategies for the explicit goal of unification under a single ruler. Like him, they understood the depths of ruthlessness.

Unlike Machiavelli, they understood on a very deep level the reasons why rulers resort to ruthlessness and deception, and the long-term consequences for the nation. For that reason, their approach is not just contrary to Machiavelli’s, it is designed to overcome the Princes of the world.

Here are just a few of the principles they taught that translate very well into modern leadership, warriorship and everyday life:

1. The effective leader creates harmony within an organisation through consistency and attention to the human element.

The very first thing Sun Tzu asks in assessing a combatant nation is whether it has a humane and just leadership, a leadership that has the Way. Without this, discord arises. An ancient commentator on The Art of War quotes the saying, “The one who treats me well is my leader; the one who treats me cruelly is my enemy.”

“Leadership,” Sun Tzu writes, “is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and sternness.” As a commentator explains, “Trustworthiness means to make people sure of punishment or reward.” A leader who is not trustworthy is not trusted. As Zhu-ge Liang likewise emphasises, “It is imperative that rewards and punishments be fair and impartial. When they know rewards are to be given, courageous warriors know what they are dying for; when they know penalties are to be applied, villains know what to fear.”

This is consistency. Humaneness and the Way are more demanding.

One who spies out treachery and disaster, who wins the allegiance of others, is the leader of ten men.

One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family, is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.

These are the low and high ends of Zhu-ge Liang’s classification of leadership. In his world, Machiavelli’s Prince merits only the leadership of ten men. Thus, he also writes,

Good generals of ancient times took care of their people as one might take care of a beloved child… When there was difficulty they would face it first themselves, and when something was achieved they would defer to others. They would sacrifice themselves to feed the hungry and remove their own garments to clothe the cold. They honored the wise and provided for their living; they rewarded and encouraged the brave. If generals can be like this, they can take over anywhere they go.

The upshot of all this is that the leader who cares is the leader who is willingly followed. “Look upon your soldiers as beloved children,” Sun Tzu writes, “and they will willingly die with you.”

2. Fear and anger have no place in decision-making.

For Sun Tzu, anger is a vulnerability to be used to throw the opponent into confusion, or that can cause a general to make disastrous mistakes. As Zhu-ge Liang says,

If you put victory first, you will surely get beaten later; if you start out with anger, you will surely regret it later. One day’s anger can destroy your whole life. Therefore a superior man is stern but not ferocious; he may get angry, but not furious; he may worry, but does not fear; he may rejoice, but not beyond sense.

This is the virtue of patience. Impatient people make decisions out of anger that destroy the basis of their success. Fearful people make “tough decisions” that may seem effective in the short term but ultimately destroy people’s trust.

3. Never fight anyone you don’t have to. Warfare, and by extension any wasteful conflict, is failure.

“To win without fighting is the epitome of skill,” Master Sun says. But it is better not to be in conflict at all, because that carries with it great risk and exertion for everyone. Zhu-ge Liang warns, “Have no hard feelings for anyone who has not shown you enmity, do not fight with anyone who does not oppose you.”

And speaking of things we ought to have figured out by now, Sun Tzu also points out that “It is never beneficial to a nation to have a military operation continue for a long time. Those who use the military skilfully do not raise troops twice.” A quote that should be required reading for every Western head of government…

Even when you have to fight, “Those who win every battle are not really skillful- those who render enemy armies helpless without fighting are best of all.”

4. Emptiness and Fullness.

Attack and defence operate on the Taoist principle also used in Tai Chi- give way to the enemy’s strength to draw him in, while you move into the enemy’s weakness. “Preparedness everywhere means lack everywhere.” If you are dispersed trying to do everything at once, you are much weaker than someone who keeps their forces and energy concentrated. Sun Tzu makes an extensive study of this sort of dynamic.

Sun Tzu focuses on making sure the enemy has to take substantive action first. He recognises that launching a major attack is the moment of greatest vulnerability, both for your supply lines and the areas you leave unattended, and that long campaigns deplete armies. He therefore suggests drawing the enemy toward you, forcing him to move by threatening key vulnerabilities, forcing him to reveal his strengths and weaknesses, and generally tiring himself out. By making the enemy move first and denying battle until you’re in a position to ensure victory, you risk little and gain everything. If you don’t show what you intend to do, if you keep your capabilities obscure, you become “the director of the opponent’s fate.”

This is in a sense a passive, humble strategy, with Sun Tzu comparing a victorious army to water, fluidly adapting and responding to the opponent.

Victory From Within

To ensure the strength of your own position means to attend to your own character and humanity. To conserve your strength means to be patient and not let events throw you into knee-jerk reactions. Real victory is to make conflict unnecessary, or, as a last resort, to put an end to conflict in the most economical way possible. The one who is humble and formless and lets his enemy posture and run around while flowing around him preserves his own strength and wins without effort. These are principles that apply equally well to war, to business, and to everyday life.

For a taste of these strategies in their original context, the epic film Red Cliff, set during the life of Zhu-ge Liang, does an excellent job of portraying both leadership and strategy dynamics from these texts.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Bagua and Tai Chi: Exploring the Potential of Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching

Bruce Kumar Fratzis; Blue Snake Books, 2012.

bagua-and-tai-chi-book

People more in tune with their own preconceptions than the inner teachings of Taoism continually find reasons to dislike Bruce Kumar Frantzis. Here is this blunt-talking, fat American with crazy hair who actually teaches the internal martial arts for use in real self-defence situations and is completely unapologetic about his manner presuming to teach Taoist meditation and philosophy. Given that he has practiced seventeen different Chinese and Japanese martial arts since the 1960s and studied with the most important lineage masters of the internal martial arts, one might conclude that he’s worth listening to anyway.

And we have another reason to listen, because this book is the real thing. In it, every level of the practice and purpose of the Taoist martial arts is aligned and explained. This is the roadmap for anyone serious about practicing the internal martial arts as internal martial arts, period, whether for health, defence or spiritual purposes. Without a doubt, hundreds of thousands of Tai Chi practitioners around the world have practiced for decades without gaining the slightest inkling of the reality laid out in this book.

The Great Enterprise

The greatness of this book is in its integrative alignment of every level of practice in these martial arts. While they can be used for specific health goals or self defence goals, neither of these is the fundamental purpose. The physical body is first healed of its illnesses and then strengthened. The mind is healed of its illnesses and then learns to relax to the point where the temporal conditioning that we mistake for our personality dissolves and we reach the stable, nondual mind, still but infinitely creative. The energy system is systematically activated and strengthened to the point where it can be used for healing and defending others and the spiritual pursuits of inner alchemy. Rather more is happening here than a relaxing form of exercise or relief from chronic disease. It is a carefully methodical sequence leading to the goal of Taoism, the reconciliation of yin and yang and the five elements into the nondual original consciousness.

The Roadmap

This book explains how all the stages of this sequence fit together. It is a guide above all to the practitioner’s attention. Attention is the all-important key to results, and knowing where to put it at each stage is essential.

At the health stage, Frantzis describes not only how to practice, but how to know which art and which exercises in each art will have the most beneficial impact. Bagua, for example, generates more yang energy and is better for low blood pressure, while Tai Chi is better for lowering high blood pressure.

Frantzis goes on to discuss the ways in which energy and power are gathered, and concealed so that with high level practitioners, it is impossible to see how they are generating power.

He describes in detail the use of these martial arts as meditative practices, the links between physical, energetic and mental states and using the forms to deal with blockages, mental resistance and negative emotions. The three stages of this kind of inner work involve restoring psychological health, reaching inner stillness, and finally the great enterprise of merging with the Tao. Each of these is dealt with in detail.

All of these levels of practice are united by the Sixteen Part Neigong System, which allows the practitioner to add layer upon layer of subtlety to their practice of the system by focusing on one element at a time. From basic breathing practices to advanced energy work, this system benefits health, martial prowess, qi development and meditation in turn.

In addition, Frantzis offers plenty of information and advice that’s useful along the way, from how to find a qualified to teacher to why it’s better to perfect one movement than learn a hundred to exactly what the difference is between “small frame” and “large frame.”

So What Is Bagua Anyway?

Bagua is the least known of the three internal martial arts. It was developed originally as a practice for health and meditation in Taoist monasteries, and later expanded into a martial art which reached the Chinese public abruptly during the 19th century and proceeded to become a favourite of caravan guards in northern China. Bagua is named after the circle of eight trigrams, drawn from the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, which represent the possible combinations and transformations of yin and yang energies. A key objective of Bagua practice is to master these changes on physical, energetic and mental levels in order to be able to flow effortlessly through any situation in life.

Frantzis emphasises the root exercise of Bagua, the Single Palm Change, as the key practice for health, energy work and meditation, as it is capable of embodying all of the other energies of the art.

The Hard Truth

Frantzis is known for his bluntness, and he does illuminate some difficult truths along the way. His expectations of what sort of teacher is necessary to actually learn the upper levels of energy work and meditation will and should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks that they’re on the path of the Taoist Immortal just by going to a few Tai Chi lessons put on by their local community center.

Frantzis, writing from deep inside the real inner tradition of Taoism, says straight out that mind-to-mind transmission and direct qi transmission from teacher to student are and must be natural prerequisites of high-level energy work, and especially of bridging from energy work to spiritual work, because these aspects of practice cannot be fully described in language and must be directly experienced. There are also four to five thousand energy channels in the body, and to work with them requires a master who can literally show you how to use them one at a time. This he offers as a defence for the traditional Chinese lineage system, saying that it was a bulwark against people who lacked this direct transmission but would pass themselves off as representatives of the lineage.

Another truth that hits closer to home for people who study these arts is Frantzis’ perspective on spontaneity and adaptability. He describes how the original teacher of Bagua could give each student a version of the movements suited for their own psychoenergetic state. The form was adapted to achieve the energetic content that was needed. This stands in stark contrast to the ossified state of these arts today, in which eternal arguments spring up between different schools about the “right” way to do a movement, while little attention is paid to the energy work it is supposed to embody.

Conclusion

This book can be viewed as a smorgasbord of information that can enrich your practice of the Taoist martial arts no matter what your reason for practicing, but more importantly, it brings you face to face with their full purpose and depth of possibility.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


What is Warriorship Really? Part 2

We continue with Part 2 of our series on warriorship. Today, we use the great classic film Kung Fu and its follow-on series to explore the paradoxes of spiritual warriorship. In order to use the warrior mentality for our benefit in personal development, it is essential to understand that the key to this mindset is in understanding its apparent contradictions.

 

1. Waging Peace

Asoka Maurya, one of the greatest emperors in Indian history, after waging a bloody war of conquest against the state of Kalinga, stood on the battlefield and was sickened by what he saw. The words attributed to him have great meaning for warriors in all eras:

“What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Did I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these the marks of victory or defeat?”

It is the mark of a true warrior to avoid unnecessary and unproductive contention. A warrior shows compassion even for enemies, and like the bodhisattvas of Buddhism, dedicates himself to the liberation of all beings, friends and enemies, from suffering. In order to wage peace in this way, a warrior must truly believe that the only obstacles to peace are those that come from our own thoughts and emotions, our own views of the world. This is not to say that a warrior never stands up for his principles, but that he does so intelligently, that he uses coercive force only as a last resort, when the alternative is worse, and that he regards even the need to use such force as a failure. As Sun Tzu wrote, “To win without fighting is the essence of skill.”

At the heart of this approach is what Taoism calls wu wei. It is an approach that seeks to neutralize contention by going along with the force of the opponent and turning it against him. This approach presents no target, no point of resistance to attack. The Tao Teh Ching likens it to water:

“Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong
This is because nothing can replace it.

“The highest goodness resembles water.
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention.
It stays in places that people dislike.
Therefore it comes near the Tao…
Because it does not contend, it is therefore beyond reproach.”

Today, we can demonstrate conclusively the power of water to overcome the toughest materials on Earth, by using high-pressure water to cut tough alloys that would wear out traditional machine tools.

 

2. Casting Out Fear

 

The big catch with warriorship is that it must never give in to fear, especially in the most dire situations. The essence of warriorship is to refuse to give in to fear, and that requires above all that we reject the logic of fear in favour of the logic of courage.

Our media is saturated with the idea that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” that “tough choices” have to be made, even if it means sacrificing principle. Although often cast as part of this culture’s idea of a warrior mentality, this springs from the logic of fear. The logic of fear is part and parcel of the Newtonian Worldview and its consequent mindset, Survival Mode. It searches constantly for security, for control, for some way to make sure that whatever it fears this week doesn’t happen.

The logic of courage takes the opposite approach. It says, “I stand for the principles I have chosen, come what may, live or die.” Fear has the property of bypassing reason and provoking action – after all, the fight-or-flight response exists for situations in which there is no time to think. The logic of fear promotes an existence of reaction and malice. The logic of courage moves forward without wasting energy on the fear of anything that is not at hand, and actually relishes uncertainty, knowing that it will be victorious. The warrior recognizes that he cannot control the choices of others, that the only thing he can control is his own choice. His business is to live and die as the person he aspires to be. This is why it is impossible to have integrity without embracing the logic of courage.

 

3. Sublimating the Ego

A cornerstone of all warriorship is to divest yourself of ego. This does not mean trying to force a false humility on yourself, but finding a genuine one which proceeds from a clear understanding of your own being. This process relies on the methods of self-cultivation, standing apart from the rational mind in silent awareness and consciously modifying your thoughts, emotions and lifestyle in accordance with the principles on which you want to build your life. But it is not easy. As you begin to consciously remake your life in this way, all kinds of doubts, intrusive thoughts and emotional baggage will be dredged up, and you will have to face whatever you’re carrying and sort through it. When you realise you can’t, you’ll have to surrender it to the Absolute. In that surrender lies the beginning of humility.

As long as the defensive ego is protecting itself, we cannot follow the principle of the Tao described in the video above.

 

4. Conscious Self-Cultivation

Warriorship is fundamentally a path of conscious self-cultivation, grounded in universal principles, stabilized by inner work and discipline, and marked by a courageous and compassionate approach to life. The essential distinction between warriors and ordinary people is not about seeking conflict, but about refusing to be conditioned by either internal or external forces harmful to the goal of a principled life and the quest for self-transformation. A warrior does not conform to the outside world, nor is he a victim of his own passions. He knows what he is seeking, and the principles of life that will get him there.

Conclusion

Spiritual warriorship in the sense meant by Authentic Ancient Traditions is a powerful approach to self-transformation. In its paradoxical nature lies its power. It takes the name of war, but seeks peace. It advocates courage, but without ego. It stands on principle, but does not seek to contend with others. It refuses to be conditioned by harmful influences, not being swept up by the passions and thoughts of its circumstances and fighting an intense inner battle to become what it sets out to be, and yet it approaches the world with humility and compassion. Warriorship is in fact the mindset that was developed to stabilize seekers on the path of self-transformation.

 

~Dr Symeon Rodger

 


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