Practicing with uncertainty: ‘Joshu’s dog spreads wings’

More than twenty years ago, I was a member of an amateur choral group that performed a Mozart Litany (K. 125). While it may have lacked the grandeur of the Verdi Requiem or the Beethoven Choral, it was the most challenging piece I ever attempted in my limited career as a utility bass. I have a very good sense of pitch, but rhythm and I are not always in sync, so the snappier passages were problematic in rehearsals, often leaving me in a cone of personal silence as I tried to figure it out. Then I had an insight: This was Mozart, after all, so rather than fret, I could put my trust in him, follow the notes on the page in only the most general way, and just sing what seemed right in the surrounding sound field and the flow of the moment. Astonishingly, it worked. I can remember feeling surprise, humility, gratitude, even a touch of ecstasy, both in rehearsal and in our sole performance one springtime Sunday afternoon.

At the time, I recognized that this experience reinforced the oxymoron of cultivating spontaneity. It was only later that I realized it was also very Taoist, very Zen. Or at the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, it was like following the general pattern of a sequence of tai chi postures, without getting too concerned with whether a hand or leg was at just the right angle, but instead with whether there was a sense of rightness, of one posture leading smoothly to another, even if I wasn’t at all sure that I knew what I was doing.

In the intervening years, I have continually expanded my solo exploration of Zen and Taoism, first with a decade of intellectual immersion; then with the next decade on the meditation cushions when I acceded to the experiential imperative; and then, six months ago, with my first koan. Independently of all that, I began doing a cut-and-paste tai chi routine a couple of years ago, purely for exercise. If I thought about a Taoist connection of that new routine, it was to say, uh, not interested. Or at least not interested until I read ‘Three Perspectives on Balance’, by Paul Read, a long-time tai chi teacher, in his Taoist-colored blog, The Bean Curd Boxer:

Conceptual Balance: Bean Curd Boxing shows how to sit comfortably alongside paradox; how it can be constructive to embrace contradictions and give inconsistencies a hearty hug; how to glory in diversity and difference, and to celebrate the variety of micro-systems that give meaning and substance to our inter-connected world. Bean Curd Boxing teaches us to put trust in our unique adaptability to not just live with conflict, but embrace it as a positive opportunity for changing the direction we are otherwise heading.

Wait a minute — paradox, contradictions, inconsistencies — that first sentence sounds like the unmet goal of a beginning student puzzling over a koan. And the second sentence — trust, adaptability, opportunity — invoked the long-ago memory of myself singing Mozart! The neural tumblers clicked, and from that paltry start I found myself asking an unexpected question: Is there a deep connection between koans and tai chi?

The surficial connection is the important historical and systemic one between Taoism and Zen. Heinrich Dumoulin (Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning) explores this with academic rigor and then concludes (p. 28) that “The Taoist streak in Zen is by and large identical with the sinification of Mahayana Buddhism in the Central Kingdom.” As an academic myself, I’m glad to have his nuanced arguments and backing references, but, as a practitioner, I resonate much more to the lyrical prose of Ray Grigg (The Tao of Zen and several other wonderful books), who prefigured his conclusion simply and with little exaggeration (p. xiv): “Zen is Taoism.”

To a knowledgable observer, organized practice by a like-minded group can resemble a “cargo cult,” in John Tarrant’s irreverent description of his own training as a Zen student in Hawaii (Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life). In Zen, this often means wearing black robes and “pretending to be Japanese” (p. 29); in tai chi, the parallel would be wearing a white silk suit and pretending to be Chinese.

And to take that comparison of organized practice a step farther, there are “flavors” of each, rooted in historical evolution and cultural bifurcation. These are the Zen schools, of which Rinzai and Soto from Japan are most familiar in the West, with their (supposed) differing sensibilities to the use and importance of koans. The parallel is with tai chi styles, in particular Yang and Chen, named for the broadly-defined families that assembled the elements of each form. Here, too, there are apparently differing sensibilities, in this case to the emphasis on martial arts, number of postures, and so on.

The one place where comparison eluded me was in the popular characterization of each practice. Koans have seeped into the fabric of Western culture, with their one-handed claps and road-kill buddhas, lovable dogs and polished tiles. They are variously, if inaptly, described as puzzles, riddles, paradoxes, or problems. They are presumed to have well-honed answers or solutions awaiting discovery by the perplexed student. In some sense, the same is true of Zen itself, of course, with even more problematic applications and attributions. (Tennis, anyone?) But I am not aware of a similar penetration of Taoism, other than the yin-yang symbol perhaps, and certainly not of tai chi per se. There is no Tai chi and the art of motorcycle maintenance, for instance.

But at the deeper, personal level of individual practice, there are some significant similarities between forms/postures and koans:
● Learning is almost always slow in the beginning.
● The practice can easily amplify fear of failure.
● It may take months or even years to master an element (koan, posture) to the satisfaction of one’s teacher; only then is another assigned.
● As a result, practice becomes a lifetime pursuit.
● The mind is generally a hindrance, not a help.

Without my experience of the Mozart Litany, I’m not sure I would have thought the final bullet applied to tai chi. But with it, from my first viewing of a DVD with the solo forms, I recognized that trying to follow the on-screen teacher in my head wasn’t going to work. Even at his slowed-down pace and with a rewind button, I couldn’t keep it all straight. In fact, part of the problem was surely my brain knowing that I could rewind-and-repeat indefinitely. Instead, whether it was subliminal or conscious, “just sing what seemed right” quickly emerged as the strategy of choice for ‘Parting the horse’s mane’ and ‘White crane spreads wings’. The first time that my arms and hands truly flowed into a wind-up at the start of ‘Brush knee and push’ was a minor rush, and it remains so to this day.

All of this leads me to the belated realization that embodied practice can be done with the body in motion just as easily as with the body in zazen. The challenge in both is to distract the mind, to make it a non-hindrance. In a still meditative practice, that may be with the breath or a mantra or an ambient sound, or with a koan; in tai chi, it is with the relaxed flow of one posture into the next. Said differently, the challenge is all about relinquishing the need for certainty that often grips us. It is about embracing uncertainty, or at least practicing with it. It is about realizing that maybe, just maybe, Joshu’s dog could spread its wings.

For now, my hope is that I will gestate these insights in background mode, that each practice will illuminate the other, and especially that seeing how to “solve” a tai chi posture will show me how to “flow” with a koan. Until that time, I have created this couplet as an aphoristic reminder, literally a prompt for my hindering mind, the absurdity of which would surely give Chuang-tzu a laugh:

Tai chi postures are Zen koans for the kinetic body;
Zen koans are tai chi forms for the poetic mind.


There matters could rest, except for one more thing. Still having my academic’s sensitivity for priority and attribution, I inquired of two sources. Firstly, I sent an email to the aforementioned John Tarrant, whom I had met at a retreat in California last December. I included none of the detail above but asked more generally if this was familiar ground, if there is some well-defined parallel between koan and tai chi practice that I had just missed. He replied that he had noticed what I was talking about when he was practicing tai chi “for some years long ago… but [I] wasn’t systematic about connecting the two.” And then this: “There is an old Chinese Zen tradition of responding to koans by dance movements, which is supposed to be still in existence in some places in China.” Cool.

Secondly, I gave Google this search string — zen koans “tai chi” forms — and came up mostly empty, even though the search returned roughly 400,000 hits. In fact, the few tens that I looked at were almost entirely “accidental” concatenations: an upcoming Zen retreat would include a tai chi session as a break from zazen; a student in a tai chi class brought along a visiting friend, who just happened to be a Zen priest; a Zen (or tai chi) website offered a list of links to other Asian traditions, including tai chi (or Zen); and so on.

The one exception was a link — third down on the first page, which is a very strong measure of relevance in Google-speak — to a blog called Tai Chi New York City and a post from March 15 of last year entitled ‘Tai Chi Chuan – A Koan Like Mu’. The author, Tom Daly, told of sharing with another tai chi practitioner a review from Buddhadharma of a volume of essays, The Book of Mu: Essential Writing on Zen’s Most Important Koan. The other, unnamed practitioner

noted that one [essay] discussed the approach to Mu through six strategies and these six strategies are useful for solving the tai chi koan. That is, for practicing the tai chi form.

Who knew? I think he’s right….

Mr. Daly then listed those six strategies (exactly as they were given by the reviewer, I discovered later), replacing “koan” with “form” in each, and adding a few comments of his own about their application to tai chi. The first, for example is “Finding the form by eliminating distractions”; and indeed all six could apply interchangeably to kinetic forms or poetic koans. So to that anonymous practitioner I say “Great job,” and of course “Thanks” to Tom Daly.

That left me only one loose end to resolve. I have The Book of Mu, but I must confess that I didn’t recall the list of six strategies. I do remember thinking as I read Tom Daly’s second one, “Seeing that any part of the form contains the whole,” that John Tarrant would like it. At that retreat in California last December, he said to us a couple of times that we could focus on any part of a koan that spoke to us, even just a word or two. But because the context now was completely different, I didn’t take it for more than a coincidence, until I leafed through my copy of the book and — surely you could see this coming? — there in John’s essay were the six strategies.

The same John Tarrant who gave me my first koan. Apparently the flowing Tao washes away all coincidences.

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1 Response to Practicing with uncertainty: ‘Joshu’s dog spreads wings’

  1. Paul Read says:

    Thankyou Steve for your gentle insights and flowering revelations. An inspiring and thoughtful article that prompted much reflection, until…I concluded I would be better to leave such noble words : Untouched. In the best Lin Yutang tradition.

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