Monday, April 9, 2012

Modern Taoist and Zen Practices

When Buddhism arrived in China, Taoism had been established there for a long time, with a tradition of spiritual practices somehow similar to the yogic meditative practices of India. The similarities between the 2 great traditions helped the spread of Buddhism in China. It was also the reason why Taoism greatly influenced the practices of Buddhism in general, and of Chan (that branch of Buddhism mostly interested in sitting meditation) in particular.

A clear example of this influence is to be found in the healing techniques  (So Cream method) described by 17th century Japanese Zen Master Hakuin in his Yasenkana. What Hakuin used to heal himself from what he called « Meditation disease » are classical Qi Gong techniques.

Unfortunately the influence of Taoism in Japanese Zen slowly decreased. There might be several reasons for this.

  • Taoism was usually not interested in being spread to the general population, so its higher teachings are usually recorded in very esoteric language that only initiates can understand.
  • Although there are clearly very valuable practices in Taoism, there are also lots of magical and superstitious practices detrimental to Meditation practices.
  • It may not have been easy to find qualified teachers.

This is unfortunate for us, who mostly have learned Zen through the Japanese influence, for some techniques developed by Taoists are very valuable to Zen practice.

Techniques that request the total participation of our bodies to harness the mind.

Even if harnessing the mind is not the goal, but a tool of Zen practice, it is an important one. The ability to quiet the mind – to harness the Monkey - can bring lots of relief to people who need that before they can concentrate on anything else. After all, most of us came to Zen because of a suffering induced by our inability to control our wandering mind.

Today, I see a strong intellectual current in Zen, people want to understand everything, they read complicated books about everything, and do not spend enough time practicing. I am not sure this is going in the right direction. There are limits to what can be achieved through intellectual understanding. Intellectual, analytical understanding uses systems of words and ideas to explain them. These ideas or words are just symbols, they point to the moon, they are not the moon, but we tend to believe they are the real thing, and we get lost. We are like some food critic who know everything about French cheeses, who could not taste the difference between a Camembert and a Roquefort. There is a time where you need to quit asking questions about this or that, and start doing it. Taoist techniques are here for that.

Most of Taoist practices are related to Qi Gong – a term that can be translated as «Exercises in Energy or Vital Force). Tai Chi – practiced for health purposes – is a Qi Gong. Our Karate Sanchin Kata is also a Qi Gong.

Taoists have developed coherent theories and terminologies to guide the practitioner and describe what is happening during practice. Some of these theories use are highly esoteric and possibly misleading. Fortunately, some of them are easier to use, and their understanding makes practice easier. So they are a good tool to achieve a goal. It does not mean that they are «true». They simply are a description of reality. Once again, the Map is not the Territory, but it can be useful to deal with it.

Note: The practice of the "So Cream" or "Soft Butter" described by Master Hakuin in Yasenkana is inspired from the basic Small Circulation practice of Taoist Yoga.

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