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Unfolding Silence

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Pa Tuan Chin

敬禮– Salutation in Kung Fu

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Photo by: Katarina Meister

The ritual of salutation is an integral part of Chinese Kung Fu practice. The codified gestures of salutation embody the practitioner’s genuine feeling of respect towards the masters and the fellow students.

The salutation is performed at the beginning and at the end of each training session, when the practitioner enters or leaves the training space, and when she/he begins or ends any exercise. This ceremony is not meant to be a superficial formality, and is not to be understood as an obsolete routine.

Ching Li (敬禮) is the Chinese term for ‘greeting’, and literally means respect and worship. According to Confucius, the virtue of Li (禮= respect for rituals) is one of the four pillars supporting the moral and spiritual growth of a person. One of the main concerns of the early Confucianism was to re-establish social order, by forming noble and complete human beings. Together with Jen (仁= human sensitivity), Hsiao (孝= respect for parents, and cult of the ancestors), and I (義= righteousness, or the moral disposition to do good), Confucius considered Li as a tool for channelling human emotions into a constructive and positive flow.

In the context of Kung Fu – which developed under the philosophical influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism –, the salutation represents the external expression of an inner attitude of gratitude, worship and respect. Furthermore, this ritual works as a frame to the practice of Kung Fu, facilitating concentration. Each gesture of the salutation is synchronised with an inhalation or with an exhalation, providing an opportunity for training awareness of breath and body.

Beyond the great variety of greeting rituals, in Kung Fu there are two main salutation forms: the standing greeting, and the formal salutation ceremony on the knees. The most renowned standing greeting is Pao Ch’üan Li (抱拳禮), which can be translated as ‘greeting by holding a fist’. As mentioned above, Li (禮) means respect for rituals. This term includes the meanings of courtesy, ceremony, etiquette, and worshiping. Pao (抱) means holding, or embracing. Ch’üan (拳) means fist.

Pao Ch’üan Li is performed in a standing posture. The typical ritual wants that one hand envelops the other, which is closed like a fist. This simple action provides many variations, according to the different Kung Fu schools and traditions. In some schools the right hand holds the left fist, and in other schools the left hand holds the right fist. There are historical and philosophical reasons behind each of these variations, but I have not found a thorough exposition on this topic yet.

Other differences concern the way the hand touches the fist. For example, the hand can be straight, slightly curved, or fully closed on the fist. Furthermore, the two hands can meet at various levels of the body, from the face level to the upper abdomen level. Minor diverging details can be found also in the posture of the feet and legs, as well as in the inclination of the torso.

Master Chang Dsu Yao (1918-1992) – in whose school I have practiced Kung Fu since 1994 –  explained that the fist represents the Sun (the Yang polarity), while the other hand stands for the Moon (the Yin polarity). Therefore, Pao Ch’üan Li symbolises the union of Yin and Yang. In Chinese, the ideogram Ming (明= bright, or clear), is written by putting the Sun (日) and the Moon (月) close to each other. In my first years as a Kung Fu student, I liked to imagine that the brightness coming from the summed light of these two celestial bodies shined through the symbol of Pao Ch’üan Li.

Ming is also the name of the famous Chinese emperors’ dynasty under which the Shaolin Ch’üan – the most renowned style of traditional Kung Fu, born in the legendary Shaolin temple – reached its splendour. After the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for a long period Shaolin monks and masters continued to side with the Ming against the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1912), despite of the repeated destructions of the Shaolin temple. In these historical circumstances, Pao Ch’üan Li represented also a sign of identity between Ming supporters.

Another type of standing greeting is Ch’ü Kung Li (鞠躬禮), where the practitioner simply bows the upper body. Ch’ü (鞠) means to bow and Kung (躬) means body. This form of salutation is generally performed when the hands hold a weapon, and the practitioner has no possibility to put the hands together.

The formal greeting on the knees marks the beginning and the end of a training session. This salutation ritual is called Kuei Pai Li (跪拜禮), which means greeting-ceremony (禮= Li) on the knees (跪= Kuei) by bowing forward, or worshiping (拜= Pai). In the school of Master Chang Dsu Yao, this ceremony includes three bowings: one to the Heaven, one to the ancestors, and the third to the lineage of masters. The archetypical interrelation of Sky, Earth, and Human becomes manifest in these three bowings.

Once, I heard a story about Master Chang Dsu Yao, and the ritual of salutation. One day, in the period of the Chinese civil war (1927-1950), Chang was forced to fight against a warrior of the opposite faction. The two men had never met before, and stared at each other for a long time.

Then, the ceremony of salutation began. With surprise and reverence, the warriors realised they were performing exactly the same gestures. They were students of the same Grand Master!

Another interminable moment of silence followed. Finally, they performed the salutation once more, and left the field. No fight occurred.

This episode reminds me of a basic value in traditional Chinese martial arts: respect. In Kung Fu, a genuine pedagogy of respect starts with the salutation.

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Photo by: Junru Dong

Inner energy: true or false?

The concept of ‘life energy’, or ‘inner energy’, has a paramount importance for understanding some aspects of many oriental psycho-physical disciplines.

My personal concern as a practitioner of meditation and T’ai Chi is the misleading common imaginary about this topic, which feeds ideas of supernatural magic or even superstitious believes.

Ching Chi Shen (2)

In physics, ‘energy’ is a term used to define a property or a potential of objects “which can be transferred to other objects or converted into different forms, but cannot be created or destroyed” (I am quoting Wikipedia, to stay simple). To be honest, physics defines how energy behaves but not what energy actually is. So, energy is a theory or an explanation of certain dynamics or phenomena.

Even though terms like Ch’I (Qi, if we use the Pin Yin system) or prana have wider meanings than the western notion of energy, we will see that in oriental psycho-physical practices too such words are attempting to explain the dynamics of physical phenomena and cannot be considered as objects or a things in themselves. You might argue that all matter is energy or vibration and therefore nothing is existing in itself, quoting the laws of impermanence and interdependence very dear to Buddhist philosophy. But on the daily life -level, we can directly interact only with matter: energy manifests itself through this interaction. Affirming that energy is the cause of our interactions is a belief we cannot prove and neither reject: let us keep it there in the suspended realm of possibilities.

As all practitioners of Raja Yoga, Ch’I Kung or T’ai Chi know, you cannot really feel the energy: all what you can experience are specific physical sensations throughout the body, a different quality in the movements or in the presence and eventually some subtle statuses of the mind characterized by an intensified or ‘expanded’ feeling of awareness, joy or wellbeing. Worshipers of ‘inner energy’ would not hesitate to state that these are marks of the circulation or awakening of the energy. The truth, of course, is that we do not know.

Said this, I do not intend to demolish the theory of ‘inner energy’. Rather, I would like to put it to the right place: a space for research. I would like to stop blindly believing in theories, no matter whether they are old or new, philosophical, spiritual or scientific: dogmas do not help reaching the truth, they just impose a truth.

Many oriental psycho-physical practices are grounded into this theory and they apparently cannot work without the concept of ‘inner energy’. Think of all the disciplines where you are meant to cultivate or circulate energy by means of visualization: you bring your attention towards specific areas of your body, or throughout inner paths; often you combine the visualization process with a precise method of breathing, and with a constant and regular practice you will become aware of subtle physical sensations. This is not the proof that inner energy exists: this is the proof that inner energy is a helpful image, facilitating concentration and awareness on the body or on mental processes. Furthermore, this is the proof that human beings do not know very much about their own inner potential. And you are free to give a spiritual meaning to such experiences, if you are a spiritually oriented person. Inner energy is therefore an attempting to explain what happens within and around you. As far as now this millenarian theory still has good points, because such practices do work.

It is true that in some oriental cultures energy is considered also as a physical substance. Think about the three jewels of Taoism (三寶,San Pao): Ching (精), Ch’I (氣) and Shen (神), the three energies (or maybe three levels of sublimation of the sole inner energy). The first two terms include also a materialistic aspect: Ching, the essence, is often associated with liquid substances present in our body, such as sexual fluids and liquids coming from digestion; Ch’I, the blow, is connected with breathing and air. Only Shen, the spirit, is used to designate a more immaterial form of energy, which sometimes is defined ‘empty’: the mental energy.

Yet, there is no need to believe that inner energy exists: all what you have to do is to behave ‘as if’ it does exist. In other words, you can use this image as a tool in order to focus your attention, developing concentration, becoming aware of bodily and mental processes, expanding your human potential. When you combine such a mental work with specific breathing techniques, some biochemical changes in the body and the mind might occur. But it is interesting to notice that there are many meditation techniques which actually do not make use of special breathing methods and do not give weight to the idea of a life energy. Just to quote some: Zen, Vipassana meditation or some of the various Mindfulness techniques are based on the mere observation of physical and mental processes. Yet, not only they seem to produce the same beneficial effects of energy based trainings, but they are able to make you aware of the same kind of sensations which are attributed to the awakening of inner energy: flow of subtle sensations, expanded awareness and peaceful joy are not foreign experiences to practitioners of self-observation methods.

I am very far from having a precise statement about the existence of inner energy and after two decades of practice my direct experience is still basic and elementary. The purpose of this post was to shake some dogmatic positions that sometimes put one school of meditation against another and science against spirituality. Personally, sometimes when I practice T’ai Chi I find it useful to ‘believe in energy’ and sometimes I just need to get rid of it and stay focused on objective physical sensations, without giving them a name.

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Hermits in Progress – tenth retreat

 

Think of a small flower growing in the remotest spot on the top of a mountain. Nobody ever sees it. Nobody ever rejoices of its perfume. The flower receives nourishment from sun, rain, earth, and lives its own life in tune with the laws of nature, till it gets dry and dies. Why?

 

You can imagine, if you like, that the purpose of such a hidden beautiful life is giving joy to its own Creator. Or you may think the flower is a gift to the whole world, no matter where it is, since all beings are interdependent. If you believe in reincarnation, you could assume that the flower is in the best possible condition, according to its own karma, for its own evolution.

 

All these theories are great tools to win the feeling of powerlessness it may come when you question the meaning of life. Furthermore, they may help you to live fully and with hope, whether by offering you a direction, a goal, the feeling you are beloved, that you are not alone, or encouraging you to focus on the present moment.

 

Of course, you are free to decide that there is no meaning at all, and live happily as well.

 

We do not know if the flower feels alone or not. We do not know if solitude unavoidably carries on a feeling of loneliness or not. Whatever interpretation you may choose, one thing is sure: that flower lives its solitary life.

 

Same thing we could say about a hermit.

 

retreat 10 – June 2014 – sharing practices


Ten months had passed since we began our “Hermits in Progress” –research. It came the moment to gather together and find a way to share some of our discoveries.

 

Throughout the whole research-process we had opportunities to explore several ways of being hermit and we became aware of our own personal approaches. We could deepen and develop unique spiritual practices, fit for our own specific needs. Some of us attended morning prayers, some others had solitary sessions of sitting or dynamic meditation, Tai Chi, ballet-training… in the secret of our early mornings or in the late evenings.

 

Hidden from the rest of the world, every day little miracles happen: there are precious moments of intense awareness, beautiful simple actions through which we worship Life, which are bound to remain unseen. Or is it so?

 

We spent two days at Luova Kasvu (a beautiful retreat-place in the countryside, close to Espoo), sharing, showing or teaching one of our personal daily spiritual/artistic routines to other participants: our solitary flowers growing on the top of a mountain had the chance to be seen at least once, receiving respect, tenderness and love.

 

In between the sessions we observed silence.

Is there any purpose in creating a window through which you can watch at the “hidden flowers”? As an artist, I believe it is my duty to offer the audience a chance to become aware of their own undiscovered beauty. And that often happens whenever I gift something honest of me, when I offer the audience my own hidden flowers.

 

But the second question is: how can the hidden flower remain so pure when it is hidden no more? That was, indeed, our own challenge this time.

 

We decided to start our retreat by preparing lunch together. While eating, our spontaneous conversation naturally ended up to focus on the experience we had just begun. We realized that the retreat did not need any rigid structure, but it should maintain such a nature of spontaneity. After lunch, we found ourselves speechless: it was clear that words were needed no longer and that we would continue in silence. We gave ourselves one-hour-time to rest and think what kind of “hidden flower” we were willing to share.

 

I did not think, I just slept. After one hour, I went to the dance-hall and sat on the floor. Little by little we all gathered together. Without a word, we began to meditate. After another hour, without any common sign, we started to move: someone was stretching, some other was practicing yoga-asanas, I warmed up as I usually do, with the Chinese Pa Tuan Chin –exercises. That was an absolutely unpredicted solution to the challenge of sharing private practices maintaining the freshness of a spontaneous action. We were in the same space, aware of the rising up of a common, powerful dynamic energy, even though each of us was focused on her/his own personal practice.

 

Another hour passed, when one participant wrote that she was going to walk in the forest, looking for special herbs for our dinner. Some of us followed her in her trip. In the forest, we ended up to hug trees, practicing Ch’I Kung and improvising a dance choreography in slow motion, each of us following different needs and impulses.

When we came back I began to practice Tai Chi. Some of us joined the practice and followed my movements. Some others just watched. I felt the mutual trust was already so deep that I never had the feeling of “being on stage”. There was no separation of roles between observers and practitioners. After dinner, we meditated together throughout another hour. I went and sleep in a separate building, where I could be completely alone.

 

When I woke up in the morning, most of the participants were gathered in the dance-hall and moved. I just watched. It felt easy to observe without judgment. I think that we succeeded because we have been very attentive to preserve personal freedom throughout the whole retreat. Silence and shared meditation helped us to attune with each other. Mutual trust followed as a natural consequence.

 

Then we moved upstairs, we sat in front of a cross and we meditated in silence for one hour. Coming down from meditation, I found one of the participant in the dance-hall, in the midst of her daily ballet-warm up. She was focused in repeating simple and extremely difficult gestures. It was clear she had been repeating same actions throughout an entire life. The energy and concentration she was expressing reminded me the way I usually practice my Kung Fu –basics when I am alone.

 

And I understood that everything may become meditation. Even the simple ritual of washing your face in the morning, if performed with full awareness, no doubt: it is meditation!

 

The second day proceeded with a series of small, beautiful, unexpected events, including a touching duo of authentic movement under a flowering tree. We broke our silence during lunch. I realized that everything that happened there could be considered a performance. But nothing else happened but meditation, in a wide range of possible expressions.

 

I think this has been the first concrete hint about how to develop a performance out of our “Hermits in Progress” –research. Furthermore, the reason of such a performance became very clear to myself: encouraging the world to be aware of its secret beauty. Let us all take care of the hidden flowers which are everywhere, around and inside of us!

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Master Roberto Fassi – in memoriam

On 12th March 2013, the great martial artist Master Roberto Fassi passed away.

FassiChangLeader in an important Italian chemical enterprise, Fassi published many best-sellers among the Italian landscape of martial arts-books, he was columnist in respected magazines of the sector, but most of all Roberto Fassi was one of the most renowned Italian masters of martial arts and one of the European pioneers of Karate, Kobudo, Kung Fu Shaolin and T’ai Chi Ch’üan.

Pupil of Master Chang Dsu Yao, Master Fassi won the first place in Honolulu-Kung Fu-world-championship in 1980, in the competition of  T’ai Chi forms without weapons. In 1991 Master Chang Dsu Yao conferred him the qualification of sixth Chieh of Shaolin Ch’üan  and T’ai Chi Ch’üan: the highest degree ever conferred to a Westerner before.

I had the fortune to participate to his workshops three times in my life: in 1996, in 2002 and in 2008.

My strongest impression has been that Master Fassi appeared to be younger and younger: his spirit was year by year fuller of the curiosity and enthusiasm of a young boy. He was an unstoppable researcher: the last time I saw him, he shared with us pupils his own last discoveries about body and mind -synergy. In his own words, he had “just began” a deep exploration of the smallest connections between physical postures and meridians. I suppose that behind the word “just” there were several decades… His excitement was contagious. He revealed us that he was working in order to fulfill the “small homework” that Master Chang Dsu Yao gave him before his own final depart: deepening his own already remarkable knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, martial arts-history and spirituality.

In the last decades of his life, Master Fassi developed an intense cooperation with the Jesuit Father Davide Magni and with the Cultural Foundation San Fedele of Milan (Italy), for the study and the diffusion of T’ai Chi Ch’üan as a method of meditation and prayer.

Master Roberto Fassi always emphasized the non-violent purpose of martial arts and their own spiritual potential. A typical example he loved to repeat was the explanation of the Chinese ideogram “武”, (Wu), translated as “War” or “Martial”. The Western translation sounds like a violent conflict. But the Chinese ideogram does not represent concepts of fight or competition, as it would be, for example, by painting two swords opposing each other: actually in the picture the deadly weapon, which is a long halberd, is deviated by a bare hand! Here we are, in a powerful visual synthesis, the core of the practice of martial arts: self-defence, not offence. Therefore the study of correct attacks is merely functional to the learning of efficacious defences.

But Master Fassi underlined also that the most important goal of martial arts goes much beyond the aspect of self-defence. As Master Chang Dsu Yao taught, the practitioner of Kung Fu should develop a heart like Buddha’s: all qualities of gentleness, respect, compassion, canalization and control of negative emotions, that you learn throughout your classes of Kung Fu, should blossom in your own daily life. Martial arts are meant to improve spiritual growth, and a good practitioner should behave same way in and outside the class.

The most astonishing quality of Master Roberto Fassi was, in my opinion, his own humbleness. He never showed proudness for his own successes, and he had no mercy in pointing out his own limits, smiling with compassion at his own weak points. He often repeated that he had still much work to do on himself, underlining the importance of the help of partners and friends as mirrors or reminders: the confrontation with others may bring out all those “rooms for improving” still abiding inside of us.

I wish to myself and to all my teachers, pupils and martial arts -fellows to maintain alive in us the same humbleness, the same enthusiasm and passion and the same dedication and will for growing that made out of Master Fassi the great Man he was.

Pa Tuan Chin and Energization Exercises – warming up body and mind

The purpose of this article is to compare two fascinating systems of warming up, respectively  belonging to Kung Fu and Yoga paths: Pa Tuan Chin (八段錦, literally: Eight Pieces of Brocade), structured in twelfth century by master Yüeh Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142), and Energization Exercises, developed in 1916 by guru Paramahansa Yogananda. I will also attempt to share my personal experience with both practices, sharing my opinion about the benefit deriving from an alternate training.

Pa Tuan Chin was originally developed by a famous Chinese hero: master Yüeh Fei. He was a military general, expert in medicine, calligraphy and martial arts, best known for fighting the long campaign against the invading Jurchens, standing himself on the side of the Song emperor. Paradoxically, he was put to death by the Song government in 1142, betrayed by the emperor’s Chancellor. Legend attributes to Yüeh Fei the birth of several Kung Fu –styles. Pa Tuan Chin was meant to prepare mind and body to the practice of martial arts.

Yueh FeiPa Tuan Chin (Baduanjin, in the Pinyin transliteration) is nowadays one of the most renowned methods of warming up belonging to Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. The name “Eight Pieces of Brocade” refers to the fact that the form is composed of eight different exercises. Brocade is a precious tissue. Filaments composing the tissue symbolise meridians (channels delivering energy throughout the body). Each exercise is meant to stimulate some specific body-organ, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But firstly, Pa Tuan Chin presents three basic goals: warming up the body, training the basic postures of Kung Fu, and exploring the interconnection between movement and breathing.

Throughout many centuries, Pa Tuan Chin spread all around China and eastern countries, and ultimately it reached other continents too. At the present moment there are many different forms displaying same name and it is impossible to be sure about their closeness to the original sequence. I have been practicing the Pa Tuan Chin taught by master Chang Dsu Yao (1918-1992), for about twenty years.

Chien Hou Wan Yao - 6th exercice of Pa Tuan ChinI find it especially effective whenever I feel contracted, nervous or uncomfortable with my body and mind: Pa Tuan Chin –exercises, with their remarkable component of lengthening and stretching, re-establish my inner balance and open my attention. After the practice, I feel more rooted into “real” world and I feel open and stable, but also flexible and relaxed. Traditional Chinese Medicine  teaches that contractions and obstructions throughout meridians obstacle the circulation of inner energy, producing sickness and diseases. Therefore, good health is related to a free flow of energy.

Pa Tuan Chin is an art which combines inner work (breathing, meridians, concentration …) with a very detailed and sophisticated body-technique. The characteristic postures and gestures of Pa Tuan Chin challenge our skills in precision, balance, resistance and body-coordination.

Energization Exercises have been developed in 1916 by Paramahansa Yogananda: the first great Indian master who spent most of his life in the West, author of the spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi”, and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Energization Exercises are based on ancient Yoga-techniques and are meant to prepare the body for meditation.

By means of a proper use of breath, life force, and concentrated attention, Energization Exercises allow to draw abundant energy consciously into the body, purifying and strengthening all the body parts systematically in turn. The Exercises rely on the basic idea that it is possible to draw Cosmic Energy into the body through the point where the scull joins the spinal column: the “medulla oblongata”, known in the Holy Scriptures as the “Mouth of God”. During the execution of the Exercises breathing is free, exception done for those parts where movements are combined with “double-breathing” technique – a special technique of breathing allowing a greater exchange of air in the lungs.

At the present moment, almost one century later, small differentiations in the teachings concerning Energization Exercises begin to become visible. Just to make an example: the Self-Realization Fellowship, founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, is currently teaching a series of 38 Exercises; the communities of Ananda, founded by Kriyananda (disciple of Yogananda), are teaching a series of 39 Exercises. I learned and practice the 38-series.

From a muscular point of view, the grosser difference between Pa Tuan Chin and Energization Exercises consists in the quality of movements. In Pa Tuan Chin the main stress is in lengthening, while the Exercises provide a constant and gradual alternation of contraction-relaxation. In Energization Exercises, body-parts are treated separately, one by one, while in Pa Tuan Chin body is considered as a whole.

Energization ExercisesI practice the Exercises whenever I feel low-energetic or sleepy: they awaken my body and mind, strengthen my muscles, and fill me with a feeling of “sparkling joy”, typical of activities which increase oxygenation-capacity. They stress the interdependence between will and energy, and they help me to get outof  doziness or depression, empowering my determination.

Pa Tuan Chin makes the inner energy to circulate inside the body. Energization Exercises store extra-energy into the body. Both forms require about ten minutes to be performed. Even though these two practices were conceived as warming up, preparing body and mind for more sophisticated activities, I consider them as arts in themselves, and I give them a special place in my daily routine. Some practitioners of Kung Fu and Yoga do not agree with my training, since many masters advise not to mix different methods. I just can say that I have found a special benefit in practicing both forms, starting from the Exercises and following with Pa Tuan Chin: that is, indeed, a wonderful way to begin my day!

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