Category Archives: Tao

Wudang Shaolin Kung Fu Secret Qigong


engaged Buddhists have failed

Strong Lessons for
Engaged Buddhists

Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you,
and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?

Have you not learned great lessons from those who reject you,
and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with
contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

Whitman, “Stronger Lessons”

In the middle of the Vietnam war Thich Nhat Hanh and a few other Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople broke with the 2500-year tradition of Buddhist apoliticism and founded the Tiep Hien Order in an effort to relate Buddhist ethical and meditational practice to contemporary social issues. Members of the order organized antiwar demonstrations, underground support for draft resisters, and various relief and social service projects. Though the movement was soon crushed in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh has carried on similar activities from exile in France, and the idea of “socially engaged Buddhism” has spread among Buddhists around the world. One of its main expressions in the West, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, defines its purpose as being “to bring a Buddhist perspective to contemporary peace, environmental, and social action movements” and “to raise peace, environmental, feminist, and social justice concerns among Western Buddhists.”

The emergence of engaged Buddhism is a healthy development. Despite the bullshit that Buddhism shares with all religions (superstition, hierarchy, male chauvinism, complicity with the established order), it has always had a core of genuine insight based on the practice of meditation. It is this vital core, along with its freedom from the enforced dogmas characteristic of Western religions, that has enabled it to catch on so readily even among the most sophisticated milieus in other cultures. People engaged in movements for social change might well benefit from the mindfulness, equanimity and self-discipline fostered by Buddhist practice; and apolitical Buddhists could certainly stand to be confronted with social concerns.

So far, however, the engaged Buddhists’ social awareness has remained extremely limited. If they have begun to recognize certain glaring social realities, they show little understanding of their causes or possible solutions. For some, social engagement simply means doing some sort of volunteer charitable work. Others, taking their cue perhaps from Nhat Hanh’ remarks on arms production or Third World starvation, resolve not to eat meat or not to patronize or work for companies that produce weapons. Such gestures may be personally meaningful to them, but their actual effect on global crises is negligible. If millions of Third World people are allowed to starve, this is not because there is not enough food to go around, but because there are no profits to be made by feeding penniless people. As long as there is big money to be made by producing weapons or ravaging the environment, someone will do it, regardless of moral appeals to people’ good will; if a few conscientious persons refuse, a multitude of others will scramble for the opportunity to do it in their place.

Others, sensing that such individual gestures are not enough, have ventured into more “political” activities. But in so doing they have generally just followed along with the existing peace, ecological and other so-called progressive groups, whose tactics and perspectives are themselves quite limited. With very few exceptions these groups take the present social system for granted and simply jockey within it in favor of their particular issue, often at the expense of other issues. As the situationists put it: “Fragmentary oppositions are like the teeth on cogwheels: they mesh with each other and make the machine go round — the machine of the spectacle, the machine of power.”1

A few of the engaged Buddhists may realize that it is necessary to get beyond the present system; but failing to grasp its entrenched, self-perpetuating nature, they imagine gently and gradually modifying it from within, and then run into continual contradictions. One of the Tiep Hien Precepts says: “Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.”2 How is one to prevent the exploitation of suffering if one “respects” the property that embodies it? And what if the owners of such property fail to relinquish it peacefully?

If the engaged Buddhists have failed to explicitly oppose the socioeconomic system and have limited themselves to trying to alleviate a few of its more appalling effects, this is for two reasons. First, they are not even clear about what it is. Since they are allergic to any analysis that seems “divisive,” they can hardly hope to understand a system based on class divisions and bitter conflicts of interest. Like almost everyone else they have simply swallowed the official version of reality, in which the collapse of the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes in Russia and East Europe supposedly demonstrates the inevitability of the Western form of capitalism.

Secondly, like the peace movement in general they have adopted the notion that “violence” is the one thing that must be avoided at all cost. This attitude is not only simplistic, it is hypocritical: they themselves tacitly rely on all sorts of state violence (armies, police, jails) to protect their loved ones and possessions, and would certainly not passively submit to many of the conditions they reproach others for rebelling against. In practice pacifism usually ends up being more tolerant toward the ruling order than toward its opponents. The same organizers who reject any participant who might spoil the purity of their nonviolent demonstrations often pride themselves on having developed amicable understandings with police. Small wonder that dissidents who have had somewhat different experiences with the police have not been overly impressed with this sort of “Buddhist perspective.”

It is true that many forms of violent struggle, such as terrorism or minority coups, are inconsistent with the sort of open, participatory organization required to create a genuinely liberated global society. An antihierarchical revolution can only be carried out by the people as a whole, not by some group supposedly acting on their behalf; and such an overwhelming majority would have no need for violence except to neutralize any pockets of the ruling minority that may violently try to hold on to their power. But any significant social change inevitably involves some violence. It would seem more sensible to admit this fact, and simply strive to minimize violence as far as possible.

This antiviolence dogmatism goes from the dubious to the ludicrous when it also opposes any form of “spiritual violence.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with trying to act “without anger in your heart” and trying to avoid getting caught up in pointless hatred and revenge; but in practice this ideal often just serves as an excuse to repress virtually any incisive analysis or critique by labeling it as “angry” or “intellectually arrogant.” On the basis of their (correct) impression of the bankruptcy of traditional leftism, the engaged Buddhists have concluded that all “confrontational” tactics and “divisive” theories are misguided and irrelevant. Since this attitude amounts to ignoring virtually the entire history of social struggles, many richly suggestive experiences remain a closed book to them (the anarchist experiments in social organization during the 1936 Spanish revolution, for example, or the situationist tactics that provoked the May 1968 revolt in France), and they are left with nothing but to “share” with each other the most innocuous New-Agey platitudes and to try to drum up interest in the most tepid, lowest-common-denominator “actions.”

It is ironic that people capable of appreciating the classic Zen anecdotes fail to see that sharp wakeup tactics may also be appropriate on other terrains. Despite all the obvious differences, there are certain interesting analogies between Zen and situationist methods: both insist on practical realization of their insights, not just passive assent to some doctrine; both use drastic means, including rejecting pointless dialogue and refusing to offer ready-made “positive alternatives,” in order to pull the rug out from under habitual mindsets; both are therefore predictably accused of “negativity.”

One of the old Zen sayings is: If you meet a Buddha, kill him. Have the engaged Buddhists succeeded in “killing” Thich Nhat Hanh in their minds? Or are they still attached to his image, awed by his mystique, passively consuming his works and uncritically accepting his views? Nhat Hanh may be a wonderful person; his writings may be inspiring and illuminating in certain respects; but his social analysis is na�ve. If he seems slightly radical this is only in contrast to the even greater political na�vet� of most other Buddhists. Many of his admirers will be shocked, perhaps even angered, at the idea that anyone could have the nerve to criticize such a saintly person, and will try to dismiss this leaflet by pigeonholing it as some bizarre sort of “angry leftist ideology” and by assuming (incorrectly) that it was written by someone with no experience of Buddhist meditation.

Others may grant that some of these points are well taken, but will then ask: “Do you have any practical, constructive alternative, or are you just criticizing? What do you suggest that we do?” You don’t need to be a master carpenter to point out that the roof leaks. If a critique stirs even a few people to stop and think, to see through some illusion, perhaps even provokes them to new ventures of their own, this is already a very practical effect. How many “actions” accomplish as much?

As for what you should do: the most important thing is to stop relying on others to tell you what you should do. Better make your own mistakes than follow the most spiritually wise or politically correct leader. It is not only more interesting, it is usually more effective, to pursue your own experiments, however small, than to be a unit in a regiment of units. All hierarchies need to be contested, but the most liberating effect often comes from challenging the ones in which you yourself are most implicated.

One of the May 1968 graffiti was: Be realistic, demand the impossible. “Constructive alternatives” within the context of the present social order are at best limited, temporary, ambiguous; they tend to be coopted and become part of the problem. We may be forced to deal with certain urgent issues such as war or environmental threats, but if we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves to merely reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it. Ultimately we can solve survival issues only by refusing to be blackmailed by them, by aggressively going beyond them to challenge the whole anachronistic social organization of life. Movements that limit themselves to cringing defensive protests will not even achieve the pitiful survival goals they set for themselves.

October 1993



1Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 124 [Basic Banalities].

2The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Parallax Press, 1988), p. 152.

Evading the
Transformation of Reality

— Engaged Buddhism at an Impasse — 

“A very popular error: having the courage of your convictions. The point is to have the courage for an attack on your convictions!”


In 1993 I wrote Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists, a leaflet welcoming the emergence of socially engaged Buddhism as a healthy development but also pointing out a number of its shortcomings. Several thousand copies were handed out at Thich Nhat Hanh appearances in Berkeley and San Francisco or mailed to engaged Buddhist groups around the world, and over the next few years my friends and I continued to distribute it at local appearances of Gary Snyder, Robert Aitken, the Dalai Lama, etc. It has been reprinted several times, including in Turning Wheel: Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Summer 1994), and can now be found online at this website.

Despite the predictable negative reactions (“How dare you criticize Thich Nhat Hanh!”) and even a few unsuccessful attempts to prevent the circulation of the text, the great majority of the responses were positive (“It’s about time someone raised these issues!”). Unfortunately, most of these positive responses do not seem to have had much practical follow-through. While many people, including several BPF authors and board members, privately informed me that they agreed with much of what I said, their subsequent public writings have contained no mention of the leaflet and scarcely any discussion of the issues it posed. I hope that the following remarks will provoke a more public debate.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s stated purpose is “to bring a Buddhist perspective to contemporary peace, environmental, and social action movements” and “to raise peace, environmental, feminist, and social justice concerns among Western Buddhists.” In the most narrow sense, I suppose the BPF has indeed been “raising” such “concerns” over the last two decades. But I doubt if either its founders or most of its subsequent participants intended to limit themselves to such a meager goal as merely making Buddhists passively “aware” that people are socially oppressed in various ways — something that practically everyone in the world is already only too well aware of, even if they have little idea of what to do about it. I think it is fair to say that the spirit of the BPF’s aim could be summed up as:

(1)  Buddhism has some contributions to make to radical social movements.

(2)  Buddhists also have some things to learn from such movements.

I agree with (1) (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even bother to make these critiques), but the point I wish to make here is that engaged Buddhists have largely evaded (2). While they constantly imply that social activists would do well to adopt meditation, mindfulness, compassion, nonviolence and other Buddhist qualities, they rarely acknowledge that they themselves might have anything to learn from non-Buddhists — except for predictable nods to kindred spiritual figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who merely confirm their own preconceptions. If they occasionally venture into the secular realm, it is only to echo a few left-liberal platitudes from trendy commentators like Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Jeremy Rifkin or E.F. Schumacher, none of whom represent any radical challenge to the dominant social order, however cogently they may denounce a few of its more glaring absurdities.

The two aspects are interrelated. The fact that engaged Buddhists have not bothered to investigate truly radical movements is the main reason that such movements have remained equally indifferent to any advice from engaged Buddhism (assuming they are even aware of its existence, which in most cases they are not).

In 1992 a number of Buddhists in various countries, apparently dissatisfied with the level of discussion on these issues in the BPF and INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists), organized a Buddhist Social Analysis Group. More recently some of the same people have formed an online “think tank” called the Think Sangha.(1) The first notable public expression of this seemingly promising development is a book entitled Entering the Realm of Reality: Towards Dhammic Societies (ed. Jonathan Watts, Alan Senauke & Santikaro Bhikkhu; INEB, Bangkok, 1997).

In the Introduction the editors call for new visions, then slip into a myopic pretension:

We urgently need visions and maps. Some of us are on the front lines of social change, working with refugees, prisoners, the homeless, and AIDS victims. Some are campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons, land mines, and handguns, issues that differ in payload but stem from the same source of fear and hatred. Some are protecting our fragile environment, standing up for the trees, the waters, for the wide circle of all beings. [p. 9]

Far from being “on the front lines of social change,” most of these activities have nothing to do with social change. Those listed at the beginning are forms of social service. The rest are defensive reactions against a few of the more glaring symptoms of the social system. This does not necessarily mean that such activities are not worthwhile. It’s simply a matter of being clear about what you are doing and what you are not doing.

These are all social, structural issues that we must meet in an organized social way. Individual heroics will not address the problems. Leave that to the cowboy movies. So we create communities on every scale, lay and monastic, from Dawn Kiam at Suan Mokkh in Siam and Plum Village in France to Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s vast network of self-empowerment communities. [pp. 9-10].

The fact that social issues ultimately need to be dealt with collectively does not imply that the first step is to “create communities.” As a matter of blunt historical fact, most would-be alternative communities over the last two centuries (utopian colonies, communes, coops, affinity groups, etc.) have either failed or, if “successful,” have ended up being coopted and reinforcing the system they wished to transcend. One of the articles in the book in fact admits the failures of Sarvodaya (pp. 256-260), pointing out how such organizations function primarily as temporary stopgaps among sectors neglected by capitalist development and are generally abandoned the moment such development becomes accessible to them.

When people are sick, hungry, or filled with bitterness and hatred, it is not enough to suggest that they let go of attachment to self or to show them how to meditate. . . . Our difficult task is first to understand our complex relationship to their suffering, then help us together to grasp the underlying conditions for collective identity and liberation. And maybe then it is time to teach meditation. [p. 10]

That is well put, except that I would question the priority given to “our complex relationship to their suffering.” In practice such existential, “we-are-all-partly-to-blame” moralizing usually serves as a means to evade real possibilities. Like many other people, engaged Buddhists waste a lot of time guiltily berating themselves for their vague “complicity” in social-systemic evils they can do little about while paying no attention to specific faults that, with a little initiative, they could overcome (such as their passive reliance on leaders or their ignorance of radical history).

Without a social analysis, a Buddhist social analysis, we may not know where our attention and energy should be directed. Without an open, flexible social vision, we have no idea where we are heading. [p. 11]

A social analysis is indeed needed, but the editors are prejudging matters by assuming that it must be a “Buddhist” one. A truly open and flexible analysis, investigating all the factors without attachment to preconceived views, might lead to conclusions that contradict some aspects of Buddhism. Although engaged Buddhists deserve credit for calling attention to discreditable episodes of Buddhist history (an excellent recent example is Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War), they still tend to take it for granted that “Buddhism” itself is inherently good — as if the only problem were that for some strange reason it has sometimes been corrupted or misinterpreted. Like Christians with the Bible, they go into elaborate contortions to fit their political and ethical biases into a Buddhist framework, hunting up some out-of-context scriptural quotation that with a little stretching can be interpreted to accord with their views and ignoring anything that contradicts them. The implication is that authentic Buddhism (if we can just determine what that may be) already has all the answers.

Earlier in the Introduction, for example, the editors flatly declare that “our violent self-centeredness and, by extension, society’s self-centered ills are the root problem” (p. 8). While it is true that a narrow, “unenlightened” self-centeredness can create or exacerbate many problems, the editors’ unmindful Buddhist dogmatism leads them here to overlook the fact that people have also remained oppressed because they have been conditioned into accepting hierarchical conditions without being “self-centered” enough to insist on getting a fair shake. The notion that we must “lower our expectations” and be more self-sacrificing and altruistic is just buying into the system’s con, transferring the blame from an absurd exploitive system onto the victims of that exploitation, as if the problem were that the victims were too greedy.

Similar confusions can be found throughout the book. The “social analyses” are usually na�ve and often crudely dualistic (East versus West, North versus South, “globalization” versus local communities, “modernization” versus traditional practices, “consumerism” versus abstinence). The system’s complex dialectical processes are reduced to simplistic quantitative terms: “The fundamental problem is scale” (p. 230). “Small is the watchword. Huge is ugly” (p. 9). The huge power structures are nevertheless largely taken for granted: since overthrowing them is never even considered, the only option seems to be to convince the system to reform itself. “Once we are more awake, we can join with others to pressure government for changes in policy” (p. 232). Corporations should be made “more accountable”; tax breaks for coops and small businesses will lead to “fuller employment and truly free markets” (p. 236). Korean Buddhist leaders are praised for advising “rich people and employers to share more with the poor and with labor, as well as asking the government to improve the social welfare system and to protect human rights” (p. 203).

Apart from a remarkably trite and insipid utopian fantasy by Ken Jones and a few rather vague speculations in Santikaro’s article as to what would constitute a “Dhammic Socialism,” the book contains little discussion of a possible alternative society. None of the contributors have any serious notion of how a transition to such a society might occur.(2) Jones imagines his utopia being ushered in by a “Great U-Turn” that somehow happened when “a different kind of person started to go into politics” (pp. 282, 284). Aitken envisions “our human network having more and more appeal as the power structure continues to fall apart,” but admits that the latter “might not collapse until it brings everything else down with it” (pp. 7, 9). Most of the others don’t even address the issue. They all seem to hope that the dominant system will simply fade away if only we can develop a sufficiently extensive and inspiring network of NGOs and alternative communities and general good vibes. In the entire book there is scarcely so much as a mention of the movements that have actually challenged the system. The presumption seems to be that such movements are of no relevance because they were too “violent” or too “angry” or too “materialistic,” or simply because so far they have failed. (Has Buddhism succeeded?)

Buddhism sees our problems as ultimately rooted in ignorance. The first step in overcoming ignorance is to be aware of it, to be aware of what we do not know. How much do engaged Buddhists really know about Karl Marx (as opposed to pseudo-Marxist “Communism”)? Or about anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman? Or utopian visionaries such as Charles Fourier and William Morris? Or social-psychological critics such as Wilhelm Reich and Paul Goodman? Or situationists such as Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem? Or popular nonauthoritarian revolutions such as Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Czechoslovakia 1968, Portugal 1974, Poland 1980? Or more recent events such as the Tiananmen Square occupation or last year’s jobless revolt in France? (“We don’t want full employment, we want full lives!”) How many engaged Buddhists have seriously explored any of these movements? How many are even aware of their existence?

It’s not enough to respond, “Okay, so tell me about them — I’ve got five minutes.” Buddhists often carry out their spiritual studies and practices with an exemplary diligence, yet when it comes to social issues they somehow expect a Reader’s Digest level of knowledge to suffice. Millions of people have been trying in a variety of ways to bring about a radical, truly liberating transformation of this society for hundreds of years. It’s a vast and complex process that has included many disasters and dead ends, but also a certain number of still-promising discoveries. It takes careful investigation to discern which tactics were mistaken and which remain potentially useful. Just as you don’t expect to understand Buddhism or Zen by reading one article, you can’t expect to get a real grasp of the range of radical possibilities without a fair amount of exploration — and personal experimentation.

It’s not just a matter of finding out what has happened to other people in other times or places, but of taking a clear look at your own situation. The uncritical adoration and consumption of Buddhist stars like Thich Nhat Hanh or “His Holiness” the Dalai Lama is silly enough when confined to a “spiritual” level; when it is extended to the sociopolitical domain it becomes simply reactionary. But even if overt hierarchical manipulation is not a major problem among the more independent-minded engaged Buddhists, and even if many of their groups are participatory and democratic, a more subtle problem remains. Those who find themselves in positions of responsibility or “leadership” may be relatively free from the desire to cling to those positions, but they generally remain very attached to the idea of protecting their “sanghas” — the communities and organizations they have built up over the years. There is a natural tendency to avoid rocking the boat. Divergent tendencies are discouraged from developing into healthy rivalries. Conflicts are dealt with by trying to bring about “reconciliation” (which, as Saul Alinsky noted, usually means that the people on top remain in power and the people on the bottom are reconciled to it). Critics are mollified and neutralized. (”That’s a very interesting viewpoint! Thank you for sharing your feelings with us. Please join with us in working on these issues.”)

If such attempts at cooption don’t work, criticisms such as mine are often evaded by complaining about their “arrogant” or “contemptuous” tone. I admit that I don’t have a very high opinion of many of the engaged Buddhists’ tactics and ideas. But I have enough respect for the persons themselves to feel that they merit being leveled with. It seems to me that the people who are really being contemptuous are those in positions of influence who avoid publicly discussing important issues on the grounds that their audiences are not capable of understanding them, or are not ready for them and might be upset and scared off. As for arrogance, is there any better term to describe those who claim to be bringing wonderful new perspectives to radical movements while disdainfully ignoring virtually the entire history of such movements?

July 1999


1. Information on these and other engaged Buddhist organizations can be obtained from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, P.O. Box 4650, Berkeley, CA 94704, USA, or at the BPF website:

2. My own views on these topics are summed up in The Joy of Revolution.

Silk Reeling



Chinese reprint of Chen Xin’s book is available through this site – click here!



Translated from Chinese by Jarek Szymanski; © J.Szymanski 1999

In the brackets I either put my own explanations or added certain words for better understanding (if in normal font); or put Pinyin (transliteration) for certain terms (in italics).

Illustrated Explanation of Chen Style Taijiquan

Only after I read about the Taiji circular illustration in ancient classics I realized that to practice Taijiquan one has to understand silk reeling essence. Silk reeling is a method of moving Central Qi (Zhong Qi). If it is not understood, then the boxing is not understood either.

The first white path and black path are like Taiji Yin and Yang existing within Wuji (Limitless). The second white path and black path are like Taiji that gives birth to two Yi; these two Yi are Yin and Yang, e.g. Heaven and Earth. The third white path and black path are like Qi of Yin, Yang and Wuxing (Five Elements) that every man has and needs to live. The fourth white path is what Mengzi called Noble Spirit (Haoran zhi Qi); black path is man’s Animal Spirit (Xue Qi, literally Blood Qi) which, if joins Morality and Justice (Daoyi), becomes Spirit of Righteousness (Zheng Qi, literally Upright Qi), e.g. Noble Spirit. The fifth white path is the Mind of Dao (Dao Xin), the one that governs Qi. Qi can not move without Principle (Li), this Principle is within one’s Character (Xing). Black path is Human Mind (Ren Xin), what sages and men of virtue called Personal Mind (Si Xin). White point inside is Restraining Thought (Ke Nian), while black point is Deceitful Thought (Wang Nian). Only saints are able to keep Restraining Thoughts only and get rid of Deceitful Thoughts. Deceitful Thoughts are what Gaozi called feeding sexual desire (Si Se Xing). All humans have them. If a man could get rid of these selfish thoughts so that they would never appear, then (he would be) of pure heavenly nature (e.g. of pure primordial nature). (If one is) of pure heavenly nature, then while practicing boxing one would move following Nature’s Mystery (Tianji), naturally, lively, the original shape of Taiji would be unintentionally revealed in my body.

Illustration from Chen Xin’s “Illustrated Explanation of Chen Family Taijiquan” showing relation between Taiji and Chansijing (Silk Reeling Essence)

Illustration of Silk Reeling Essence

The words in the second internal circle (outside the little Yin-yang symbol) are: Ke Nian (Restraining Thought; on the right), Wang Nian (Deceitful Thought; on the left), Si Nian (Personal Thought); then, following the spiral, are: Bailu Haoran zhi Qi (White Path Noble Spirit), Heilu ji Xue Qi (Black Path is Animal Spirit), Rensheng zhi Yinyang (Yin and Yang of Human Life), Tiandi zhi Yinyang (Yin and Yang of Heaven and Earth), Taiji zhi Yinyang (Yin and Yang of Taiji)

The three big external circles advance Yin and Yang from their beginnings; three internal circles say what Yin and Yang are being governed by. Three internal circles, e.g. what a man receives, are all within third circle, and originally there was no need to draw any further circles. (However since I) was afraid (that people would) practice boxing without understanding the principle of Qi governing, so there had to be another picture drawn, and (I tentatively) draw it to make it easier to understand. What is important is that three internal circles are all within third circle, third circle is within the second one, the second one is within the first one. This drawing explains particularly the core of guarding life (Wei Sheng), wonderful formula of Qi returning (Huan Qi). (If one) is expert in moving Qi (Yun Qi), only then one can guard one’s life; if one can guard one’s life, then there is support for one’s Character Restoration (Fu Xing), and Qi can rely on (this). Such Taiji Boxing is a study beneficial for body (Shen) and mind (Xin), character (Xing) and life (Ming). Sages say that cultivating one’s moral character lies in Character Restoration, which means guarding life and moving Qi are the core of cultivating one’s moral character and restoring it. (I do) not know (if this is) correct or not, for the time being (I gave) illustrated explanation to make it more funny.



Illustration of Silk Reeling on Human Body – Front View

Coiling power (Chan Jin) is all over the body. Putting it most simply, there is coiling inward (Li Chan) and coiling outward (Wai Chan), which both appear once (one) moves. There is one (kind of coiling) when left hand is in front and right hand is behind; (or when) right hand is in front and left hand is behind; this one closes (He) (the hands) with one conforming (Shun) (movement). There is also one (coiling) that closes the inside of the left (side of the body) and the back of the right (side of the body), and another which uses the through-the-back power (Fanbei Jin) and closes towards the back. All of them should be moved naturally according to the (specific) postures.Once Qi of the hand moves to the back of the foot, then big toe simultaneously closes with the hand and only at this moment (one can) step firmly.

This power (Jin) comes from Heart (Xin), on the inside it enters bones, on the outside it reaches skin, it is one (power), not multiple (powers). Power is Qi that comes from Heart. If it is moved in central and right way, then it is Central Qi (Zhong Qi); when it is nourished, then it is Noble Spirit (Haoran zhi Qi).

Front View of Silk Reeling

On the chest: Heart – the Source

Below: Below Qihai (acupuntcure point) there is Huiyin (point), where Renmai (meridian) has its beginning




At the back (the power of) the head propping up is (called) Propping-up Power (Ding Jin); large vertebra is the dividing line, below (this) dividing line is the back (Lь), the central bone is backbone (Ji), both kidneys are (called) Waist. Whether foot is Empty (Xu) or Solid (Shi) depends on hand, if hand is Empty then foot is also Empty, if hand is Solid then foot is solid too.

Illustration of Silk Reeling on Human Body – Back View

Back View of Silk Reeling

Below: Dumai (Meridian) passes from the front along the dotted line (down) to the bottom of the sea (e.g. below Qihai point)


Taijiquan is the method of silk reeling (coiling).

(There is) coiling forward, coiling backward, coiling leftward and rightward, coiling upward and downward, coiling inward and outward, small and big coiling, conforming (Shun) and contrary (Ni) coiling. Their importance lies in (ability to) coil once (the opponent) is lured (Yin) or once (one) steps forward (“enters” the opponent), and not in using specific applications of specific postures. If specific applications of specific movements are used, then Yin and Yang are not at their (movements and applications) roots. Common people (those who do not know Taijiquan) will see (the practitioner) as a weak (soft) one. This is the impression given on the outside. If talking in terms of the state of mind (Shenyun), when hands are crossed hardness and softness are equally used according to one’s wishes. Those who are not long on this path (of Taijiquan practice) are not able to thouroughly understand these details. Both shoulders (should) drop down, both elbows (should) sink; delicate like a virgin seeing a man, unbridled like a fierce tiger descending a mountain.

Hands are like a balance, weigh something and you know its weight. The path of martial arts practice is to have such a balance in your heart (mind). This invisible balance is to approach (examine) the opponent according to his movements forward and backward and his speed, using the spirit (mind) mastered in everyday practice. To weigh visible signs using invisible balance, and adjust according to what both hands feel, add less or more weight (when necessary), this (who is able to do it) is called Excellent Hand (Miao Shou, master).



SEVEN-CHARACTERS ANCIENT POEM (e.g. poem with seven characters to a line)

In movement Yang is born, stillness is in Yin, movement and stillness combined are the root.

Without doubt you will find joy inside roundness, and see the Truth of Heaven through turns and circular movements performed at will.


Yin and Yang have no beginning nor end, creation resides in coming and going, bending (Qu) and extending (Shen).

Consider thoroughly this information, move the Vital Principle in round turns performed without restraint.


At times it is clear at times it is not, closing (He), opening (Pi), staying at one place (Lai), tearing (Si), lifting (Ti) are linked;

Many moments of ignorance have to pass before the Principle will become clear, but with sudden inspiration it becomes (clear like) a glass.

FIVE-CHARACTERS ANCIENT POEM (e.g. with five characters to a line)

The Principle is without boundaries, but its sources are (even) in (little) ants.

Do not peep at the garden for three years, have one will and focused spirit.

It is necessary to study from a good teacher, and also visit wise friends.

Follow the rules in all respects, and a narrow beam of understanding will appear.

Next level is deeper than the previous one, the meaning within the levels is without boundaries.

Opening (Kai) is linked to Closing (He), Openings (Kai) and Closings (He) pass on from one to another in order.

Sometimes one is guided into victory, and cannot stop practicing even though one wants to.

Time, study and efforts to the utmost, and your skill will grow every day.

If only there is no obstacle, you will suddenly understand Great Void.

Lengthening And Peng

We publish here a translation of the second section of the first chapter of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, a seminal 1963 work by Shen Jiazhen and Gu Liuxin (this part was written by Shen Jiazhen).

I used the text contained in Renmin tiyu chubanshe, Taijiquan Quan Shu, 1988, which is a reprint of the original, 1963 edition plates.

Chinese text: I, II, III


The Second Characteristic: An Exercise of Springy Lengthening of the Body and Limbs

Boxing manuals dictate:

  1. Gently lead the head to press upward (xu ling ding jing), sink the qi to the dantian.
  2. Reserve the chest and pull up the back, sink the shoulders and droop the elbows.
  3. Relax the waist and round the crotch, open the kua and bend the knees.
  4. Spirit collected and qi kept, body and arm lengthened.

From the 4 sayings listed above we can see that “Gently lead the head to press upward (xu ling ding jing), sink the qi to the dantian” are lengthening of the body, “Reserve the chest and pull up the back” is to lengthen the back by using the front of the chest as a support; “sink the shoulders and droop the elbows” is to lengthen the arm and hand; “Relax the waist and round the crotch” as well as “open the kua and bend the knees” cause the legs to freely rotate, which is the result of lengthening the legs under the conditions of this type of special posture. Therefore the footwork of taiji requires, under the conditions of rounded crotch, relaxed waist, open kua and bent knees, the use of rotating ankle and leg in order to alternate full and empty. Externally this is manifest as the silk reeling energy of the legs, but actually internally this tends toward the lengthening of the the legs.

This series of lengthening motions additionally generates a lengthening of the entire body, causing torso and limbs to create a springy flexibility and produce peng energy, and because the entire body is lengthened, this naturally stimulates the spirit to lift. Because of this, you need only have this lengthened posture to avoid generating the defect of strident force (brute force), making favorable conditions for naturally relaxing open and lengthening torso and arms. Therefore “An exercise of springy lengthening of the body and limbs” is the second characteristic of taijiquan.

I. Lengthening the torso and limbs

As mentioned above, when practicing taijiquan you must lengthen the torso and limbs in order to increase the flexibility of the entire body; only with this flexibility can one go on to create peng energy. That is to say, peng energy arises from springy flexibility and flexibility arises from lengthening of torso and limbs. As to how each part of the body is to lengthen, we will now explain according to the boxing manuals:

  1. Gently lead the head to press upward (xu ling ding jing) and sink the qi to the dantian — What is referred to as pushing up energy and gently lead is to take a forward pressing energy (ding jing) and lead it gently upward; sinking the qi to the dantian is to take the qi and make it sink down toward the dantian; combining these two there is an intent to pull apart in opposite directions, which causes the torso to have a feeling of lengthening.
  2. Reserve the chest and pull up the back — “Reserve the chest requires that the chest neither puff out nor cave inward, allowing the chest to function as a support to elongate the backbone, because in physics a weight-bearing column is not allowed to be bent. Relying on this support to pull up the backbone is to elongate the backbone. In this regard, beginners are cautioned not to regard curving or hunching the back as pulling up the back, because if you hunch the back then the chest will cave inward and in this way lose the function of the front of the chest supporting the back, thereby not only causing the back to lose springy flexibility but also harming ones health.
  3. Sink the shoulders and droop the elbows — The main use of sinking the shoulders is to make the arms and shoulders, because they droop downward, become solidly connected. Only if the arms and shoulders are solidly connected can the arms have root. At the same time, owing to the lowering of the elbows, the area from the elbows to shoulders is lengthened. When the arms and hands proceed in spiraling, silk-reeling motions they use the elbow as a center. At the same time, the lowering of elbows and standing of wrists can cause the area between elbows and wrists to lengthen. Therefore the sinking of shoulder, drooping of elbow and standing of wrist is the lengthening of the entire arm.
  4. Rotation with opened kua and bent knees — This is the lengthening of the legs. The legs are standing on the surface of the ground, so lengthening them is relatively difficult. And so setting forth the requirement to open kua and bend knees, we require that within this defined posture (rounding crotch) we use spiraling movement to alternate full and empty, and this mainly manifests itself in the rotations of the knee. In this way, as the outside rotates outward this causes the outside to lengthen and the inside to contract. Matching up this rotation of the leg to the rotations of the arms, hands and body creates whole-body rotation and with gradual improvement one can attain to total body strength such that “the root is in the heels, emitting through the legs, controlled in the waist and manifested in the hands”.

Summing up the above-mentioned four rules, we can see that taijiquan requires lengthening of torso, arms and legs. Hence not only does this springy flexibility through lengthening create the basic peng energy of taijiquan, but it can also naturally lift people’s spirit and avoid the defect of inappropriately rousing strength to create brute force. 1

II. The Physical Function of Lengthening Body and Limbs

When energy is applied to muscle it can undergo a finite elongation, but once the external cause of the lengthening is removed it immediately returns to its original shape. This is the inherent flexibility of muscle tissue. Most common exercises train and improve this kind of flexibility. In accord with human physiology, this type of muscle flexibility in expansion and contraction can give rise to the following four functions:

  1. It can improve the ability of the muscle itself to expand and contract and facilitate circulation in the dense net of capillary vessels within the muscle.
  2. It can increase flow of fuel and waste products within the cells and stimulate the entire metabolism.
  3. It can promote the exchange of gases within the muscles and all other organ systems.
  4. It can increase the amount of oxygen within the body and at the same time raise the rate of oxygen efficiency within each of the organ systems.

Taijiquan is not a simple movement of the limbs. Externally it manifests as the spirit in motion with highly complex postures while hidden within it is the spirit gathered and qi collected, such that the the mind moves the qi. This has been elaborated above in the description of the first characteristic. Additionally, taijiquan not only trains both inner and outer, but also, under the conditions of entire body and limbs elongated, is a process of winding and unwinding, forward and reverse silk reeling. In this way it not only brings about excellent training in flexibility for the muscles, but also raises the rate of blood circulation, thus curing diseases caused by poor circulation. This is an important result of the elongation of body and limbs and the lifting of the spirit in taijiquan. Also, the springy and flexible movements of taijiquan have an observable effect in lowering blood pressure, because as the muscles expand and contract they are able to create adenosine triphosphate (? sanlinsuan and xiantaisuan), substances which are able to dilate the blood vessels. At the same time, as we perform these movements in which each part is connected together, inside the muscles the number of opened capillary vessels increases by several times, thus broadening the cross section of blood vessels carrying the blood and so lowering the blood pressure. Additionally, when you practice taiji, because the muscles are repeatedly expanding and contracting, it is difficult for the blood vessels to harden. The process of winding and unwinding in forward and reverse silk reeling particularly prevents the hardening of blood vessels. People who have practiced taijiquan for many years can, as they practice, feel the blood vessels expanding open in their back and limbs. As soon as they begin to do the exercise they feel loose and comfortable, and if they are unable to practice for a while, there is a sensation of being closed up. These phenomena are the result of the increase and decrease of the number of opened capillaries.

III. The Eight types of Jing and the Springy/Flexible Peng Jing

Taijiquan requires that we use intent rather than brute force, but this is not to say that we use intent but not strength (jing), because taijiquan is constructed of the eight types of jing. All of these eight types of jing contain elongated springy flexibility, that is why they are called jing (energy) rather than li (force). Although these eight jing have different names, in reality there is only a single peng jing, the other seven merely different terms for the same thing in different positions and functions. Therefore taijiquan can also be called by the name peng jing quan. We will now analyze the content of these eight jing in order to further aid in grasping the second characteristic:

  1. Within the context of the entire move, when the palms rotate from facing inward to facing outward, that is called peng jing.
  2. Within the context of the entire move, when the palms rotate from facing outward to facing inward, that is called l� jing.
  3. When both arms simultaneously use peng jing and intersect to peng outward, that is called ji jing.
  4. When the palms press downward encircling somewhat and while not losing contact, exercise peng downward, that is called an jing.
  5. The paired separating peng jing when the two arms cross going left and right or forward and backward is called cai jing.
  6. When peng jing is curled up and then within a short distance fiercely strikes out, that is called lie jing.

[under construction]


[author’s footnotes from original Chinese]

[1] Lengthening causes the body and arms to have an internal sensation of thin and long whereas inappropriately rousing strength causes the body and arms to have a sensation of thick and short. Therefore lengthening body and limbs naturally does not cause the defect of rousing strength and creating brute force.