Buddhism and Tai Chi

English translation of a Chinese article from 世界太极拳网

太极修身为主,兼而修心。Tai Chi mainly cultivates the body, as a result the mind is cultivated.

佛法修心为主,兼辅修身。Buddhism mainly cultivates the mind and as a result the body is cultivated.

The two are complementary and they share the ultimate goal—return to nature. But if you practice Taijiquan for the purpose of becoming skilled and powerful or if you recite mantra in order to gain merit, then in itself the motives are self-centred and do not constitute a return to nature. How then can we achieve the state of supreme ultimate 太极?Here are three points to contemplate:

  1. Stillness

What Tai Chi and Buddhism have in common is that both methods of cultivation start with stillness. Before practicing Taijiquan, you should calm your body, respect your intentions, and relax your whole body; before practicing Buddhism, you should also calm your body and mind, gradually eliminate distractions and abandon any thoughts of desire.


Why does it start from stillness?

老子说:夫物芸芸,各复归其根,归根曰静,是谓复命。Lao Tzu said: “Every human being will return to his roots, to regain stillness as if being reborn.”

重为轻根,静为躁君。(厚重是轻率的根本,静定是躁动的主宰) “Heaviness is the root of lightness, stillness is the force behind restlessness.”

Lao Tzu claims stillness is the primordial state of life where one is able to know one’s true self, to return to nature and to resist the distractions of the world at large. As far as the mind is concerned, stillness is closer to its innate nature. Taijiquan allows you to 化掉本力dissolve your strength and return to your natural state of being; Buddhism dispels your illusions and awakens your Buddha nature.

Everyone is a grandmaster but due to the perpetual motion of the limbs in everyday life, we have become stiff and unable to relax when encountering external forces. Everyone is a Buddha, but we are caught up in this world. In order to accumulate knowledge, we never stop learning and developing our own brains, we have become tense because we can’t stop thinking. So we need to stop, we need to relax, and becoming still is the first thing to do.

  1. How to be still

Some say if you want to be still, you must first have a quiet mind, what they don’t know is that just this thought alone can wreak havoc in our mind. We are so accustomed to thinking from day to night, like a river that never stops flowing, it has become a habitual pattern like our second nature (just like breathing). Although we think constantly around the clock, we do not have awareness around it. When time comes for us to be quiet, we find that our mind is too ruffled and we are unable to calm down.

Nan Huai-chin once compared this to: “For example, in a house, you usually can’t see the dust, but when the sun shines through, you find dust dancing in the light. You should neither clean it nor find a way to get rid of the dust. As long as you don’t move, you don’t increase or decrease the dust, then the dust will become still and eventually stop flying.”

Therefore, stillness is not adding a thought; the mind and body is just like a container—not moving, it comes to a point of stillness.

3. Movement after stillness

Just being still is not enough to cultivate the Tao. The saying 一阴一阳谓之道”yin and yang is the Tao”, so there has to be movement after stillness. To move is to practice martial arts (Taijiquan and so forth), and to learn the dharma and listen to teachings. 静犹如足赤之金,但质量未必够分量。动犹如千钧之金,但成分未必纯正。Stillness might be pure gold, but it is not without flaw; movement might be like gold that weigh over tonnes, but its composition might not be completely pure.

The reason why you should be still first and then move is because 欲善其事,必先利其器”if you want to do something really well, you need to first sharpen your tools.” 磨刀不误砍柴工Stillness plays the role of sharpening the knife so the effort of chopping the wood is optimized. For example, in “Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons”, Yuan Liaofan asked Master Yun Gu why he did a thousand good deeds for ten years. Master Yun Gu replied that it was because the good deeds were done with rewards in mind, his intentions were impure, and thus, his merits and faults cancel out each other. Therefore, it is in accordance with the laws of nature that one be still before moving in order to achieve optimum results with only half the amount of effort. If you blindly practice Taijiquan or accumulate merits by doing good, without realizing the importance of the nature of mind, then the results will be compromised even with double the amount of effort.

In short, Tai Chi and Buddhism both necessitate a return to nature. Tai Chi is a return to the natural physiological state, that is, 即放松而气敛入骨to relax and allow the chi to permeate the bones; Buddhism is the return to our primordial state and experience the nature of the mind. Cultivating these two practices are equivalent to cultivating life and their power are beyond words.

stillness as return to nature

Allegra’s Speech

On July 11, 2021 Allegra Fuller Snyder passed away, one day before her dad, Buckminster Fuller’s birthday and her parents’ wedding anniversary.

Allegra and her grandson in Korčula, Croatia in 2014 (Photo credit: Stephanie Smith)

I met Allegra for my first and last time during the 28th ICTM (International Council of Traditional Music) Symposium in Korčula, Croatia in 2014. She was accompanied by her grandson on that trip and she gave the closing speech to the symposium. A special address, which I managed to record snippets of. I didn’t know much about her then (I didn’t know much about anything as I was overwhelmed by my first participation in the international conference and being in Croatia for the first time), but I knew enough that she was saying something very important. So I recorded parts of it, on film and audio, thinking “I must listen to this sometime in the future“.

Now, the future has arrived.

“There is a good possibility that this is the last time I may be with you.” Opening of Allegra’s speech, 2014.

What strikes me about the speech she delivered 7 years ago on July 17, 2014 was the timeliness of the contents. She talked about “culture” as being a relatively new concept since the late 19th century — how it grew from a singular to a plural noun, “cultures”, through the work of Franz Boas, who conducted extensive ethnographic work with First Nations people in the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, Canada from 1886 to 1931. In her speech, Allegra warned us:

“Until quite recently, few in the developed world cared much about this cultural holocaust. The prevailing attitude has been that Western science, has little to learn from tribal knowledge… [Now] some scientists are beginning to recognize that the world is losing an enormous amount of basic research as Indigenous people lose their culture and traditions. We may someday be struggling to reconstruct this body of wisdom to secure the developed world’s future.”

Snyder, 2014

On May 27, 2021, Canada mourns as the remains of as many as 215 children were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Since then, there has been a string of similar horrid discoveries across the country. From 1863 to as recent as 1998, more than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forcefully removed from their families and placed in residential schools. The nationwide movement to “kill the Indian in the child” is akin to cultural holocaust, in Allegra’s term, which she has quoted from a Time magazine article in the early 1990s. The Indigenous people were robbed of their language and culture, many of which are at the brink of extinction. As we continue to mourn and struggle to come to terms with this painful colonial history, I am reminded of Allegra’s prophetic claim, that “we may someday be struggling to reconstruct this body of wisdom to secure the developed world’s future. I say we are in that struggle”.

As we speak, we are also living through the consequences of “the ecological issues raised by global warming and rainforest depletion” as mentioned by Allegra in her speech. On June 30, 2021, a massive fire wiped out the historic village of Lytton, which had been experiencing days of highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, reaching 49.6 °C (121.3 °F) the previous day. She ended her speech by saying, “Planet Earth needs you to survive”. This last sentence has somehow been omitted in the published transcript of her speech, but can be heard through the audio recording below:

Audio recording of Snyder’s ending her speech with “Planet Earth needs you to survive”, 2014.

Where do we go from here? What do we do now? Every passing of a legend calls upon a new generation of hope and discoveries made possible by the legacies left behind. I am grateful for the brief encounter we shared on the magical, historical island of Croatia. I pay my respect to this giant of a woman, despite her unassuming height and everything about her that put you at ease in her presence. I thank Allegra for the enormity of her spirit and most of all, for her gentle nudge that wakes us up nonetheless, to the fact how dance, nearly forgotten, remains the very essence of what empowers us as human beings.

Dancing as a disentitlement of political engagement…?

 As the world celebrates America’s first woman vice president in 2020, I am reminded of how Kamala Harris was derided for dancing during her campaigns. Should an interest in dancing negate a woman’s entitlement to political engagement?

As her dancing video went viral on the internet, a disapproving columnist from Wall Street Journal described Harris as lacking in gravity and seriousness, thus ill-fitted for the position she was contending:

“For her part, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is, when on the trail, giddy. She’s dancing with drum lines and beginning rallies with “Wassup, Florida!” She’s throwing her head back and laughing a loud laugh, especially when nobody said anything funny. She’s the younger candidate going for the younger vote, and she’s going for a Happy Warrior vibe, but she’s coming across as insubstantial, frivolous. When she started to dance in the rain onstage, in Jacksonville, Fla., to Mary J. Blige’s “Work That,” it was embarrassing.

Apparently you’re not allowed to say these things because she’s a woman, and she’s doubling down on giddy because you’re not allowed to say them. I, however, take Ms. Blige’s advice to heart: I will not sweat it, I will be myself. Kamala Harris is running for vice president of the United States in an era of heightened and unending crisis. The world, which doubts our strength, our character and our class, is watching. If you can’t imitate gravity, could you at least try for seriousness? I hate the shallowness with which politics is now done, the absolute puerility of it.”

Let’s go back a century ago when the British parliament voted in favour of the Equal Franchise Act in 1928, giving women electoral equality with men; not just to a particular group of women, but to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. The flapper vote was coined in contempt of the new breed of young women who were seen as ‘frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations’ in a Times article of 1920. These women were dismissed for their disregard of sexual proprieties, their interest in fashion and dancing, thus rendering them unfit for political engagement.

How is this discerning attitude different from the recent derision, a hundred years later, towards a woman of colour who dances while running for the second highest position in the U.S. government? Perhaps not so different in the lingering prejudice towards dance, but with an added twist of racism. Kimberley Crenshaw who coined the term intersectionality and leads the African American Policy Forum, responded to the WSJ article with the following tweet:

For too long, dancing has been dismissed as frivolous unless it is ballet or performed in theatres. Times have evidently changed. Kudos to Harris for triumphantly shattering the glass ceiling, not only becoming the first woman and first woman of colour to be elected to the White House, but also for dancing her way unabashedly there.

Source:

  1. Noonan, Peggy. ‘A Good Night for Trump if It’s Not Over.’ Wall Street Journal. October 24, 2020.
  2. https://public.oed.com/blog/resistance-fertile-language-borne-feminist-movement/
  3. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1927/4/13/the-flapper-vote-pin-their-day/

Land Acknowledgement in Vancouver

When I first immigrated to Vancouver and heard people make land acknowledgements at the beginning of ceremonies and events, I often wondered if they were speaking in English and what they meant. It usually goes like this:

“I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples–Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations.”

As I gradually learn more about Indigenous history, I come to realize land acknowledgement is an act of reconciliation with the colonial past of this country we call Canada. It is as much a political statement as it is a personal affiliation towards the place we live, work and play, geographically and socially. So, who are the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people?

Musqueam

The name Musqueam relates to a flowering plant which grows in the Fraser River estuary.  Musqueam people are descendants of the Coast Salish and have lived in what is now called Vancouver, North Vancouver, South Vancouver, Burrard Inlet, New Westminster, Burnaby, and Richmond for thousands of years.

Traditionally, they moved throughout their territory using the resources the land provides through fishing, hunting, trapping and gathering as their livelihood.  Today, they are a growing community of over 1,300 members, many of whom live on the Musqueam Indian Reserve, located south of Marine Drive near the mouth of the Fraser River.

Their traditional language is hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (Halkomelem) and they are closely related to neighbouring peoples of the lower Fraser River.  

(Source: https://www.musqueam.bc.ca/)

Squamish

Squamish Nation are descendants of the Coast Salish Aboriginal Peoples who lived in the present-day Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, all of the cities of North Vancouver and West Vancouver, Port Moody and all of the District of Squamish and the Municipality of Whistler. The total area of Squamish Nation Traditional Territory is 6,732 square kilometers (673,200 hectares). Over 60% of the more than 3,600 Squamish Nation members live on reserve.

The Squamish Nation is a leader in the field of First Nations economic development; their sources of revenue are taxation, leases and Squamish-owned businesses.

They speak the Skwxwú7mesh Snichim (Squamish language) which is a critically endangered language.

(Source: https://www.squamish.net/)

Tsleil-Waututh

Tsleil-Waututh Nation is one of many groups of Coast Salish peoples living in the Pacific Northwest, throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

Tsleil-Waututh Nation are “People of the Inlet” and their traditional territory includes Burrard Inlet and the waters draining into it. The community of over 500 members is now centred on Burrard Inlet, between Maplewood Flats and Deep Cove in North Vancouver.

They are known for their knowledge of the lands and waters as they travelled far and wide.

They speak Hunq’eme’nem/Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the Downriver dialect of the Halkomelem language.

(Source: https://twnation.ca/)

From left to right): Symbols of Musqueam Indian Band (Salmon), Squamish Nation (Thunderbird) and Tsleil-Waututh Nation (Wolf-Man)

The MST (Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh) Development Corporation oversees six properties totaling 160 acres of lands throughout Metro Vancouver, valued at over $1 billion. They consist of:

  1. Marine Drive Lands in West Vancouver
  2. Jericho Lands (west) in Vancouver
  3. Jericho Lands (east) in Vancouver – co-owned with the Canada Lands Company
  4. Heather Street Lands in Vancouver – co-owned with the Canada Lands Company
  5. Former Liquor Distribution Branch site on East Broadway in Vancouver – co-owned with Aquilini Investment Group
  6. Willingdon Lands in Burnaby – co-owned by the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh with Aquilini Investment Group

(Source: http://mstdevelopment.ca/current-initiatives/)

The Fall 2020 MST Nations Membership Newsletter is available for download here:

In January 2021, two of B.C.’s largest cities, Richmond and Surrey rejected instituting territorial acknowledgement which has been made mandatory as the protocol when opening up meetings in major cities across the province of British Columbia such as Vancouver and Burnaby. While it is a topic of heated discussion, I think it helps to approach land acknowledgement as a source of knowledge, memory and connection to a past which is laden with teachings and wisdom. More than just a protocol or a checkbox to be ticked off, land acknowledgement is about building relations and co-existence in harmony. Read the article about decolonial facilitator Ta7talíya Michelle Nahanee here.

The point of diversity and inclusion is making the unfamiliar familiar, and a commitment to hearing out different voices. Needless to say, it is an elephant in the room and a difficult topic no one willingly engages in, yet there is no progress without struggle. As uncomfortable as it can feel to confront a sensitive topic, perhaps it is time we pause and take a few moments to ponder our relationship to the land and what we would like to leave behind for the future generations.

My memory of Professor Andrée Grau (1954-2017)

From left: Egil Bakka, Andrée Grau and author in 2014

It was a sunny day on the campus of University of Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, France in 2014. I was sunbathing on a bench, enjoying coffee with my classmate, Bry Levina Viray when Professor Andrée Grau and Egil Bakka came strolling towards us. Andrée exclaimed, “What a colourful picture you are!”. Later, Bry took this photo, which was one of the many photos I took with her throughout my Choreomundus years of study in Europe.

Colourful is the word to describe Andrée. She was fascinated by cultures, evident through her sartorial choices and paraphernalia of accessories. I vaguely remember a passing comment she made about wearing lipstick even when writing at home. A woman should always be prepared. She was impressive in her command of languages, even though I’m not sure how many she spoke, to be exact. Maybe it was simply her way of talking that convinced me so. In England, I was often embarrassed by my accent as a non-native English speaker, but Andrée never once made me feel uncomfortable about the way I speak or the way I am, as a matter of fact. One could easily tell she was an anthropologist because she knew how to position herself as equal to whomever she was speaking to. From my experience, she never imposed her authority or knowledge upon me and always maintained an open mind. I was a rebellious student with many bones to pick but one piece of wisdom she left me with was that I live an interesting life and that I should keep a journal. Up until today, there would always be a journal on my bedside table, in my bag, in my drawer; how often I write in them is a topic for another day.

Nonetheless, I am writing this entry seven years after the photo has been taken, in my current capacity as a PhD student and editor of a dance publication in Canada. As I recall my time with Andrée from my apartment where I have been confined alone for almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interesting is probably not how I would describe my life in lockdown. Still, Andrée has a point as she always does. I am a woman of colour who build my identity around hybrid spaces of settler colonies. There I was, studying from Andrée how to become a dance anthropologist and learning why cross-cultural research methodologies are important in understanding “dance as a complex holistic, polysemic, multi-sensory and socially/culturally rooted practice” (Grau, 2011). There I was, doing fieldwork with Tibetan refugee monks in the Himalayas, doing tens of thousands of prostrations with them on holy grounds, watching their endless spiraling in ritual dances, joining them in overnight liturgies, trying to learn their language; all while questioning my own identity and my place in the community as a researcher, a devotee, a dancer, a woman and sometimes, even as a human being in the Buddhist discourse. Little did I realize then how pertinent cross-cultural studies would become for someone like me, not just professionally, but also in my personal life as it gradually shapes how I navigate myself in the larger world.

As one of the founding conveners of Choreomundus International Masters in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage, Andrée made it possible and opened doors for countless students across the world, including myself, to study dance anthropology at esteemed universities in Europe on full scholarships. Outside of Choreomundus, there were also many students from different countries she has mentored throughout her illustrious teaching career. She exemplified what cross-cultural research is:

I would argue that as human beings belonging to a single species, it is likely that in some instances our corporeality, spatiality and sensibility overlap, but the ways we perceive these, and conceptualize and talk about them are certainly not identical. Assuming a universality in our sensorial worlds closes doors, and as an anthropologist I want to open these doors, as we have much to learn.

Dancing bodies, spaces/ places and the senses: A cross-cultural investigation. (Grau, 2011)

Of late, Andrée has been coming up in my conversations with friends and colleagues. (I hope this is a sign that I’m back on track). She passed away during a difficult time in my life and news of her death came as a tipping point for me. I quit social media and shunned the academic community for fear of more bad news. I finally mustered up enough courage to attend the ICTM study group/ Choreomundus alumni conference in Hungary the year following her death. It was there I reconnected with the dance community and if it wasn’t for Professor Egil’s encouragement, I would probably have given up my academic pursuits by now.

During the conference, a night celebration was held in memory of Andrée. I remember Professor Egil Bakka and Georgiana Gore gave a speech before opening up the floor. They invited anyone who wished to dance in celebration of Andrée’s life to do so. It was a conference for dance scholars after all, so there was no shortage of dancers in the room. People got up one by one and danced in good spirits. I did an improvisation of Tai Chi and dedicated the performance to Andrée.

Egil Bakka and Georgiana Gore did the opening dance

The journey of a dance scholar is long and arduous. Dance studies is hardly talked about in the academia, let alone in the “real” world. I have a hard time explaining to families and friends what I do. What does a dance scholar do? Why write or research about dance? People want to enjoy dance, who wants to read about dance? This is why we have historical records of literature, music, film and visual arts but a dearth of dance artifacts. Dance is ephemeral, we are always told, this is why we ought to find ways to perpetuate its legacy. Film and technology is preserving and distributing dance in ways that could never have been imagined, but still much work awaits to be done in terms of critical study and vigorous analysis of dance in its various contexts, not to mention conservation of dances and the archiving of them.

To my fellow aspiring dance scholars, it’s common that we get distracted, discouraged and lose hope on the way. On many occasions, it was a word from a peer or a teacher who rescued me from the trenches and kept me going on a path that sometimes seems demanding yet unrewarding. I offer my story as it continues to evolve as my gratitude towards the generosity and kindness teachers like Andrée have showered upon me. I am certain many share my sentiments as one of the many lives she has touched throughout her lifelong dedication to the study of dance anthropology.

I would like to leave my readers with a closing paragraph from Andrée on what role dance scholars are to assume in addressing the gap within the study of dance, cautioning us against parochialism and ethnocentrism in her lingering voice:

[S]cholars focusing on dance often do not sufficiently engage with issues of corporeality and spatiality, assuming that their own understanding pertains to all, and they rarely investigate how dancers experience and talk about them. They often fail to document fully and carry out detailed analyses of bodies in space so that empirical evidence can support their research and be used for cross-cultural comparisons to broaden our understanding of dance. It is indeed only through a combination of efforts, engaging in multidisciplinary frameworks, that the study of dance will reach its full potential.

Dancing bodies, spaces/places and the senses: A cross-cultural investigation. (Grau, 2011)

List of Professor Grau’s publications can be found here:

https://roehampton.academia.edu/AndreeGrau

Tai Chi in Vancouver

Chinese overseas are bound together by notions of collective identity through enactment of a common cultural heritage, such as Tai Chi, that is often stronger than territorial nationalism. In Vancouver, it is not unusual to find Chinese people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere convening in a unified motion of Tai Chi.

I compiled a list of Tai Chi Schools in the Greater Vancouver Area on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/JXozANYiWAEso28M7.

Out of the five schools, the two Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi are the ones that openly combine Daoism such as prayers and chanting with the movement practice. The founder, Master Moy Lin Shin’s family moved from Guangdong, China to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in 1949 and he migrated to Canada in 1970. The other Tai Chi teachers who migrate to Canada from China do not openly promote religious teachings and keep their practices predominantly secular. In comparing the differences of Tai Chi as a religious and secular practice in Canada, there is much to be said about the emergence of a new, deterritorialized identity that emphasizes hybridity and multiple belonging. 

An aspect of Chinese diaspora communities that has been undermined is their self-help ability to rely on their own resources as basic forms of social support. It is their way of overcoming language barriers and cultural gaps in their adopted countries, enabling them to solidify rather than to dissolve into multi-ethnic liberal polities. During the pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020, a lot of Chinese immigrants in Greater Vancouver are taking health into their own hands by turning to Tai Chi. This trend could be the rippling effect of how people are managing the lockdown in China by practising Tai Chi at home and staying healthy. For instance, the Li Rong Academy of Wushu and Qigong have opened new classes since May 2020 catering to Chinese immigrants who only speak Chinese and are keen to improve their physical and mental health through Tai Chi.

It is premature to conclude at this point of my research that religious elements do not weigh as heavy in my discussion of Tai Chi practice among Chinese diaspora in Vancouver. However, on par with the fervour of a religious faith, is what Matti Bunzl (2004) refers to as “deep nostalgia for a world that has disappeared” (6)—the profound yearning for a irrevocable past. There are many things that have been wiped out by the Cultural Revolution in China, but not the memories that human bodies carry, not the heritage that an ethnic culture perpetuates, and certainly not the resilience of the age-old Chinese spirit that uplifts and spreads its people across space and time.

My journey of learning Tai Chi

Four years have gone by since I first took up Tristar Taiji. I came back to Vancouver in October 2015 after being away for ten years. I had then sprained my right wrist. My limbs were always cold and I felt lethargic all the time. I wanted to learn Taiji and Qigong to improve my health. I first took lessons from two instructors. They were teaching the Taiji forms but not the basics. Unsatisfied, I continued my search for the right teacher until I found Li Rong Academy of Wushu and Qigong in September 2016. I will never forget that fateful night I met Master Li Rong for the first time. It was a sense of coming home and I felt instantly drawn to her. During my first class, she only taught me how to stand but I was ecstatic after class that night because I knew my search was over.

时间一晃就过了三年。起初为什么想学太极?2015年10月我隔了十年再回到了温哥华。当时的我右腕损伤,手脚总是冰冷的,气血不足,而且我时常都会感到很沉闷,提不起劲来。我一心想练太极和气功来改善我的健康。开始的时候,我跟两位老师学过太极,但我觉得他们只教套路,而我想学的是基本功法。2016年9月,我在网上搜寻到了李蓉武术气功保健中心。记得第一次见到李蓉老师,我就有一种熟悉,似曾相识的感觉。上第一堂课,李蓉老师只教了我站桩。课后我特别高兴,因为我找到了我一直在寻找的老师。