Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Medical Studies of Tai Chi

From a very interesting and well documented article in the New York Times today

The many small studies of Tai chi have found health benefits ranging from better balance and prevention of falls to reduced blood pressure, relief of pain and improved immunity.

Dr. Chenchen Wang and colleagues at Tufts Medical Center in Boston reported in August in The New England Journal of Medicine Tai chi reduced pain and fatigue and improved the patients’ ability to move, function physically and sleep. The benefits persisted long after the 12 weeks of Tai chi sessions ended.

Documenting Tai chi’s purported health benefits is a challenge. As an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine  noted, it is virtually impossible to design an ideal study of Tai chi. There is no “fake” version that could serve as a proper control to be tested against the real thing.

And unlike evaluations of drugs, Tai chi studies cannot be double-blinded such that neither patients nor researchers know which group is receiving which treatment. Those guided by a Tai chi master would undoubtedly know who they are and could be influenced by the teacher’s enthusiasm for the practice.

Still, scientists have come to better understand and appreciate the mind-body connection, which for too long was dismissed as a placebo effect, and most doctors are now more willing to accept the possibility that stress-reducing activities can have a profound effect on health.

There is no question that Tai chi can reduce stress. Tai chi “combines meditation with slow, gentle, graceful movements, as well as deep breathing and relaxation to move vital energy (qi by the Chinese, Ki in Japanese) throughout the body.”

If nothing else, this kind of relaxing activity can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve cardiovascular fitness and enhance mood. For example, a review in 2008 found that Tai chi lowered blood pressure in 22 of 26 published studies.

Thus, it can be a useful aid in treating heart disease, high blood pressure and depression, conditions common among older people who may be unable to benefit from more physically demanding exercise.

Regular practitioners of Tai chi report that they sleep better, feel healthier and experience less pain and stiffness, though it cannot be said for certain that Tai chi alone is responsible for such benefits.

Perhaps the best-documented benefit of Tai chi, and one that is easiest to appreciate, is its ability to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls, even in people in their 80s and 90s.

Another benefit, again especially important to older adults, is the apparent ability of tai chi to improve immune function. In a 2007 study also financed by the Complementary and Alternative Medicine center, those who practiced tai chi had a better response to the varicella zoster vaccine that can help prevent shingles.

Finally, attending a few sessions or even a 12-week course is not enough to guarantee lasting health benefits. As with any other form of exercise, tai chi must be practiced regularly and indefinitely to maintain its value.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Zanshin of a Zen Master

Sword Master Yamaoka Tesshu studied Zen under several Masters. The last barrier he had to pass was the "flashing swords" koan given him by Tekisui, abbot of Tenryuji in Kyoto. 

Tekisui was a no-nonsense, hardheaded type of Zen Master required for a strong willed Sword expert such as Tesshu. 
He also was an accomplished martial artist even though he never held a sword in his hands. During their formal encounters at Tesshu's home, the building shook with the sounds of Tekisui's tools :  shouts, iron fists, a heavy stick, pushing Tesshu on the Zen way.

Tesshu's close and senior disciple Murakami Masatada resented Tekisui's rude treatment of his master—after all, Tesshu was a personal adviser to the Emperor himself. And so Murakami secretly vowed to dispose of the arrogant monk. 
One night he followed him, intending to assassinate him.
Unfortunately, whenever Murakami was about to make a move, the Zen Master would suddenly glance over his shoulder, change direction, or disappear in one of the temples along the way. Murakami tried again the next two nights but never could get anywhere close to the very aware Zen master.

When finally Murakami gave up and confessed his plot to Tesshu. Tesshu laughed: "You immature fool! Even with a dozen of accomplices, you'd never be able to get near that Master."

Murakami began Zen training under Tekisui.

Monday, September 20, 2010

40 % of Chinese bodyguards are women.

An interesting article in the Washington Post about the private bodyguard industry in China.

As millions of Chinese have grown richer, so, too, has the resentment increased from those left behind, threatening the ruling Communist Party's stated goal of maintaining social stability. 

Chinese private bodyguards do everything from protecting wealthy celebrities and businessmen to assisting in security for such major events as the Shanghai World Expo.

Unlike American bodyguards, the Chinese are generally not tall and imposing; in fact, about 40 % are women, on the theory that females in the retinue attract less attention. 

The trend in China is for the bodyguards to be smaller in stature. "If they're too big, it would be too obvious. We can get lost in a crowd - you don't recognize us." 

Also unlike in the United States, they are never armed, since private citizens in China are largely prohibited from owning firearms. Rather, Chinese bodyguards are Martial Arts experts, trained to disarm or subdue an attacker with a few quick thrusts, jabs and hand chops...

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Fudo Sutra

The Holy Fudo Sutra as written by Yamaoka Tesshu in "The Sword of No-Sword"

Once during an assembly of the Buddha's followers, Fudo appeared.
This Fudo was tremendously powerful :
Great compassion was evident in his pale dark complexion,
Great stability was obvious as he assumed the Diamond Seat,
And great wisdom was manifest in the flames surrounding him.
Brandishing a sword of insight he cut through the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion;
His samadhi-rope bound the enemies of Buddhism.
Formless like the empty space of the Dharma body,
Fudo settles nowhere but lives in the hearts of sentient beings.
Devoted servant of all, he encourages the well-being and ultimate salvation of sentient beings.
When the entire assembly heard this teaching they joyously believed and received it.

Fudo Myo - the epitome of fiery dynamism and invincible imperturbability, is a Patron saint of Swordsmen. He is also the protector of Buddhism, using his sword to cut the 3 poisons of greed, hate and delusion, and his rope to tie down the enemies of Buddhism.

Fudo-Shin (Japanese: 不動心 - literally and metaphorically, "immovable mind", "immovable heart" or "unmoving heart") is a state of mental equanimity or imperturbability. A spirit of unshakable calm and determination, courage without recklessness, rooted stability in both mental and physical realms. Like a willow tree, powerful roots deep in the ground and a soft, yielding resistance against the winds that blow through it.

In the Fudo Dachi Karate stance, sometimes translated as "Immovable stance", Immovable refers more to this Fudo Shin spirit. Fudo Dachi is a stance that allows for fast moves in every direction. What really is immovable is the resolve to prevail.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Takuan, Musashi and the Snake

Once upon a time the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was practicing zazen beside a stream with his life-long friend and mentor, Zen Master Takuan Soho.

Suddenly, he became aware of another presence nearby. From the corner of his eye, he saw a deadly viper slithering into the clearing toward Takuan.

Knowing that the slightest movement might frighten the venomous snake into attacking his friend, Musashi kept watching the serpent in utter stillness. When Takuan himself became aware of the snake's presence, a faint smile appeared on his face. The snake came toward him, and peacefully crawled across his thighs.

The serpent continued on its course toward Musashi. Several feet away, sensing Musashi's presence, he recoiled, preparing to attack, but suddenly scurried away into the bushes. Musashi had not moved. His fierce spirit undisturbed by the threat of the viper was so palpable that the snake had speedily moved away in fright.

Most men would be proud to possess such an intimidating aura, but Musashi felt only shame as he suddenly understood his own greatest shortcoming.

"What troubles you?" asked Takuan.

"All my life, I have trained myself to develop such skill that no man would ever dare attack me. Now that I have reached my goal, all sentient beings instinctively fear me. You saw how the snake fled from me!"

"I saw it", the priest said. "Since it dared not attack you, you defeated it without striking a blow, and because of that, both the snake and you are alive now. Why does that sadden you?"

"Because I am so strong that no one can ever grow close to me. I can never have true peace." Musashi pointed a finger at the priest. "Not like you", he said with admiration. "You did not fear the snake, nor did the snake fear you. Your spirit is so calm, so natural, that the snake treated you no differently than the rocks, the trees, or the wind. People accept you that way, too."

Takuan smiled and resumed his Zazen.

Musashi spent the last years of his life cultivating Heijoshin, the state of mind demonstrated by Master Takuan.

Please consider the similar story of the contemporary encounter between a Korean Tiger and Master Swordsman Yagyu Munenori, and the same Zen Master Takuan. Their main purpose is to illustrate the power of Heijoshin.

At a lower level, you might also want to ponder the point developed by Master Takuan. Because of the strength demonstrated by Musashi, no confrontation occurred, and no body got hurt. This is somehow the same as the doctrine of military dissuasion : You know that I am soooo strong that if you attack me, you will pay so very dearly that you won't even dream about it. It is in a sense a good thing - nobody gets hurt. However, the reason it occurs is that there is a balance of strength. If for an unknown reason the balance is broken, then there is no more deterrent, and war and destruction happen...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Takuan, Munenori and the Tiger

In November, in the 13th year of Kanyei (1636), a Korean ambassador came to pay tribute to the Third Shogun Tokugawa Iyemitsu. He presented to him various Korean products, among them a live tiger.
One day, the Shogun went to see the tiger with his retainers. Zen Master Takuan and Kenjutsu Master Yagyu Munenori were among them.

The tiger was about 5 feet in height. The Shogun was interested in its fur. "How fine its fur!" he said to his attendants, "Can any of you go and touch it?"

No one answered.

"Does it look so fierce to you?" said the Shogun. "What do you think Yagyu" he inquired."You are a master swordsman and expert at military arts. Surely your kenjutsu ability can overcome the tiger. When you succeed it will do credit to the virtues of Japanese Military expertise and will be an honor to Japan abroad."

Munenori bowed to the Shogun and rose quietly. With an iron fan in hand, he approached the tiger. Munenori stood before the pen, and ordered the gardener to open its door. "Is it safe to open?" inquired the gardener. "It is safe,' replied Munenori. At this, the gardener opened the pen. The tiger held itself in readiness to leap, but Munenori entered the pen fearlessly, holding out the iron fan in front. All looked on with breathless interest, and the Korean envoys stared in amazement.

The animal became very nervous. But Munenori remained calm. He edged along, holding out the iron fan in front pointing it at the animal's eye. It gave a roar. Munenori kept his eye upon its breathing, aimed his fan at the tiger and gave a loud kiai. The tiger reluctantly drew back. The people were astonished. When Munenori shouted once more, the tiger bent its forelegs and stooped with its jaw on the ground. Munenori smiled and walked slowly out of the pen.

The Korean envoys were impressed...

Munenori bowed before his lord.

"You have done well, Lord Yagyu," said Master Takuan. "This display of your ability surely will convince every ruler of foreign lands of the glory of Japanese Military Arts, I have been your friend for many years but had never seen you display your ability to that extent before.

As Takuan had spoken, the Shogun asked him. "The tiger was crushed by Yagyu's swordsmanship. If you could tame it by virtue of Buddhism, it would be the greatest national glory in foreign countries. I wish you to try at once, Takuan."

Takuan laughed and said, "It may not be so interesting or glorious. But as you wish my Lord, let me tame the animal."

He bowed to the Shogun and went down to the yard, walked straight to the tiger and opened the pen himself. When the gardener tried to stop him, he had already entered the pen.

The tiger became roared in anger. Fearless and smiling the Priest entered the pen and closed it himself. He stood before the tiger, turning up his sleeves.

The people opened their eyes in amazement at his boldness, being unable to guess what he intended to do. The tiger at first appeared ready to spring at the intruder, but far from taking the offensive, it stepped back with its back raised and rounded like a rock, overwhelmed by the Priest's friendly manners.

Takuan walked toward the tiger, bent a little forward and thrust out his left hand before the nose of the animal who licked it.

Yagyu Munenori sighed and lowered his head, struck with admiration.

Takuan stroked the tiger on the head, he laid down like a puppy and played with him.

The Master laughed merrily and sat astride the tiger.

In future posts :  
  • The meeting of Master Takuan, Miyamoto Musashi - an other famous sword master - and a venomous snake... 
  • The fight between Master Kaicho Yamamoto - founder of Yoshukai Karate - and an other Tiger.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tai Chi Boosts Immunity to Shingles Virus in Older Adults

"One in five people who have had chickenpox will get shingles later in life, usually after age 50, and the risk increases as people get older,” says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “More research is needed, but this study suggests that the Tai Chi intervention tested, in combination with immunization, may enhance protection of older adults from this painful condition."

For more details. click here