Sunday, September 23, 2012

Walking Meditation and the Principles of T'ai Chi

Most people, I suspect, need no convincing regarding the potentially meditative qualities of walking. We discover them easily enough on our own just as soon as we’re old enough to take our first long and solitary stroll. We come to realize quite naturally that the repetitive rhythm of breath and step has a way of inducing stillness of mind, deep contemplation, and an appreciation of the present moment.

Labyrinth walking at Chartes Cathedral, France
Notwithstanding the fact that the meditative qualities of walking arise quite spontaneously, many practices have arisen that either utilize those qualities or serve to deepen them. We might refer to these practices as forms of walking meditation in order to differentiate them from the much more informal practice of “going for a walk.” Perhaps some readers are already familiar with the benefits of walking meditation after having been introduced to it via the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, for
T. N. Hanh & A. H. Nguyen
instance. Others might have been introduced to the deep contemplative quality of labyrinth walking – a form of walking meditation largely considered to be rooted in medieval Christianity (but which might be much older). Muslims, as well, culminate their pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca with a prayerful circumambulation of the Kaaba.
Circumambulation of the Kaaba
My own first experience with walking meditation was within the context of prolonged Zen practice, as a “break” between periods of seated meditation – though not a break in meditation – allowing for the rejuvenating effects of physical activity even as the meditative stillness of seated meditation is maintained.


Kinhin at Kanzeon Zen Center

Spinning prayer wheels during circumambulation of Lhagong monastery 
A full accounting of the varieties of Buddhist walking meditation should probably include the undertaking of pilgrimages to distant holy places as well as the circumambulation of stupas, monasteries, and mountains. For all practical purposes, though, at least in the West, there seem to be just two primary forms of Buddhist walking meditation – the kinhin of Zen practice and the “mindfulness” approach usually associated with the practice of Vipassana. The latter approach often involves – within an enclosed space, anyway – selecting a spot where one might walk to and fro without obstruction, while noting to oneself: “I am lifting my foot. I am moving my foot. I am placing my foot.” And so on. The interested reader might enjoy Venerable Silananda's exposition of this Vipassana-style of walking meditation. 
Hands in shashu
The former, kinhin, is usually performed in the same room as seated meditation, zazen. Upon hearing the appropriate signal, practitioners rise from zazen and orient themselves in a clockwise direction, holding their hands in shashu, described by the official Soto Zen website as follows: "Put the thumb of your left hand in the middle of the palm and make a fist around it. Place the fist in front of your chest. Cover the fist with your right hand. Keep your elbows away from your body forming a straight line with both forearms." Kinhin practitioners then proceed clockwise, half step by half step, one breath per half step, until the end of kinhin is signaled. Reverend Shikai Zuiko's exposition of the Soto Zen-style of walking meditation provides an interesting contrast to the Vipassana-style that Venerable Silananda describes.
Walking Meditation and the Principles of T'ai Chi
I’m certainly not the only Zen practitioner to have also studied t'ai chi. For some reason, however, there seems to be an utter absence of information related to how one may bring the principles of t'ai chi to bear upon the practice of kinhin. Consider what follows, then, to be just such a guide. It is my contention that if you put forth the effort to understand and apply these principles as you go about the practice of kinhin, you will find your practice becoming more fluid, more deeply meditative, and more enjoyable.
It has been said that walking is a process of falling forward and catching oneself over and over again. Laurie Anderson articulated this in Walking and Falling, one of the songs from her groundbreaking Big Science release. Ernest Trova implied it some twenty years earlier with the inception of his Falling Man series. Perhaps others have said or thought as much over the course of human history. After all, it is true. And the reason it is true, as we shall see, is that we almost never walk in accord with the principles of t'ai chi.
I first learned the principles of t'ai chi from one who learned them from Benjamin Lo. Benjamin Lo, in turn, learned them from Cheng Man-ch'ing. These principles are given a more in-depth treatment in an interview with Benjamin Lo, but I will state them briefly here:

The Principles of T'ai Chi
1.      Relax, relax, relax.
2.      Separate the weight.
3.      Initiate movement from the waist.
4.      Maintain upright posture.
5.      Maintain "beautiful lady’s hands."
Relaxation is a principle that permeates all others. You can always be more relaxed. Become aware of where and how your body stores tension and learn to allow that tension to dissolve as soon as it arises into awareness. Separating the weight is a simplification of what Benjamin Lo refers to as “separating ying from yang.” For our current purposes we can think of this as a focus on alternating between having 100% of our weight on the left foot (left foot “full”) and 0% on the right (right foot “empty”), to having 100% of our weight on the right foot and 0% on the left. Initiating movements from the waist refers to the fact that any shifting of weight begins in the pelvic area, with the upper body “going along for the ride.” This is as if you were sliding a stack of dominoes across a table by moving the bottom one (the pelvis) and allowing all those stacked above (the torso) to move along with it. Facilitate this by keeping the knees slightly bent and the tailbone tucked in – relax. Notice how this tips the bowl of the pelvis back somewhat, which facilitates upright posture. Keep your wrists in line with your forearms. The t’ai chi form would have us keeping our fingers extended and together, as well, but that would potentially conflict with the positioning of hands in shashu (see above). Okay, we’re ready for a simple exercise:

Simple Standing Exercise

1.      Stand upright with feet shoulder width apart and arms at your sides or in shashu.
2.      Begin with weight equally supported by both feet.
3.      Keep your knees slightly bent and your tailbone tucked in.
4.      Take a moment to be still – breathing with your diaphragm and allowing tension to dissolve.
5.      Inhale slowly and evenly.
6.      Slowly shift weight to your left foot – initiating the movement from the waist.
7.      Exhale slowly as you shift your weight – as if the exhalation of your breath were driving a pneumatic piston supporting the increasing weight supported by your left foot.
8.      Continue until your right foot is “empty” – supporting 0% of your weight. Note that once your foot is empty you can pick it up and move it without having to move your torso in order to compensate.
9.      With your left foot “full”, inhale at the same rate as you just exhaled.
10.  Slowly shift weight to your right foot – initiating the movement from the waist and exhaling slowly as you do.
11.  Repeat for as long as you would like.

The astute reader might have already realized that the standing exercise described above can become the practice of kinhin simply by taking a half step forward with whatever foot happens to become “empty”. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been practicing kinhin in a crowded zendo and have essentially walked in place due to the slow pace of movement. It is possible to receive the full rejuvenating benefits of walking even while standing in place by practicing kinhin in this way – never losing meditative awareness all the while.

As simple as this is, not everybody has the same kinesthetic intelligence. Let me then present this in a more diagrammatic form. The following diagrams show how the standing exercise outlined above becomes the forward movement of kinhin.
Steps 1-3 above describe movement from the standing posture to the initiation of the first step.
Steps 1-4 above describe the completion of the first step and the initiation of the second step.

As you work your way through these various components of the overall form, focus on the evenness and fluidity of both breath and step, and your awareness thereof. Be patient with yourself as you learn this new regimen. Though it is ultimately a very simple process it might not become fluid for you the first time that you try it. Please stay with it, though. I think you will come to agree that it provides an excellent vehicle for the experience of the seamless integration of body, breath, mind, and environment.
Thank you for staying with me for the duration of this detail-oriented post! I hope that the information conveyed herein allows you to deepen your practice of kinhin, or whatever other form of walking meditation you might practice.


Image Credits

Walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France via:
Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Anh Huong Nguyen via:
The Muslim circumambulation of Kaaba on the last day of Hajj by Omar Chatriwala via:
Members of Kanzeon Zen Center during kinhin by Kanzeon Zen Center via:
Tibetan pilgrims spinning prayer wheels during the circumambulation of Lhagong monastery by alsalama via:
Monk with hands in shashu from Soto Zen website via:
Labyrinth diagram by Nordisk familjebok via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Politics and Spirituality

The election season is a tough one for us Buddhists here in the United States – especially when it involves the presidency. Talk about putting our practice to the test! Is there any better time to see how well we can abide in equanimity, or how sincerely we take the practice of loving-kindness? Is there any better time to test the limits of our compassion? You’ve seen the ads. You’ve heard the quotes. Indeed, it’s a tough season – and one that we’d just as soon not have to contend with!

We Buddhists tend to shy away from conflict – generally speaking, anyway.  We much prefer staying focused on living peaceful daily lives – diligently attending to the spiritual path laid out before us – over getting involved with any of the “messiness” of conflict. So maybe the toughest thing about all of this election season nonsense is how it draws us into such unwanted conflict and forces us to deal with all of the “messiness” of life – thereby nudging us toward the self-realization that maybe we’re not quite as far along that spiritual path as we might have thought.

Yes, it’s difficult to speak of the oneness of all things in one moment and then opine about how big an idiot or a liar the “other guy” is in the next! Of course, I see my own schizoidal self staring back at me as I review the recent accumulation of my social media postings: Buddhist blog post here; snide political fact-check commentary there. Here a spiritual quotation pointing towards a new way of seeing reality; there a reposting of a bitingly satirical send-up of one of our candidates for office.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman

Actually, I don’t see this as being as contradictory as it might seem. Buddhist practice is a process of striving to move forward into more wakeful living only to be pulled back again and again by our karma – our habit energy. All we can do is keep striving and keep paying attention so that each time we move forward we move just a little bit farther forward, and each time we step backward it’s not quite so far as the last time, and maybe not so clumsily, either. We’re complex beings – experiencing profound spiritual realizations in one moment, engaging in dualistic mud-wrestling the next.

We also have rather complex motivations for wanting to stay beyond the fray. First of all, most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion, right? They keep us stirred up and ensnared in the realm of samsara. Unfortunately, though, if politics is good for anything at all, it’s good for making us aware of our aversions. To a much lesser degree it makes us aware of our attachments, as well; but, sadly, it almost never makes us aware of our delusions! By the way, one of the attachments that Buddhism specifically warns about is that of attachment to one’s views. Ha! Politics is nothing if it’s not about views! And woe betide the politician who fails to convey appropriately strong attachment to his or her views!

But these are merely doctrinal reasons for our wanting to stay beyond the fray. I actually think there’s a much more psychological reason at play – one that I alluded to above: We fancy ourselves walking down a pristine spiritual path, but this political stuff is just like stepping in so much dog shit along the way! And it’s not the kind of dog shit that we can simply wipe from the bottoms of our shoes that we might be on our merry way once more. No, this dog shit is much more difficult to remove. This is none other than the mess that lurks deep within our psyches – the incongruence of thinking that we’re beyond these feelings when, in fact, we are not. No, far better than involving ourselves in such stinkiness is to avoid any political involvement whatsoever. That way we might appear to exhibit great depth of equanimity (just as long as we keep the world at arm’s length), we might appear to be so loving toward everyone we meet (just as long as we very judiciously choose those with whom we interact), and we might appear to have a great wellspring of compassion (just as long as we’re not reminded of all of those conniving suits out there who are only interested in making the world better for themselves). If discussion turns political, we’ll turn silent – or, better yet, turn tail! And yet…

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing. – Simon Wiesenthal

Oh, yeah…, there’s that pesky bodhisattva vow, isn’t there – the one in which we say that we’re going to eschew enlightenment for our own sake in order that we might “stay behind” for the sake of all beings? But, how can we even begin to claim that we’re serious about such a vow if we won’t even allow ourselves to get politically “messy” from time to time – to add our voice to the others that are pointing out the potential harm to be caused by various policies – to help point out the falsehoods put forth by candidates who would like nothing better than to get elected and begin putting those policies in place? Ah, but it’s such a mess! Where do we begin? Or, perhaps more importantly, where do we stop once we’ve begun? Might we become so fervent in our desire to embody the bodhisattva vow that we lose all perspective and end up doing more harm than good – to ourselves and others!

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. – Thomas Merton

We each must find the right balance – a balance that allows us to remain centered while continuing to be engaged with and in our community and the world. Toward that end, I’ll try to provide a few tips for navigating this contentious political season. Oh, but first let me tell you a story: Back when the Iraq War was brand new to us all, and the world seemed even more black and white than it appears right now, I had the pleasure to be involved with the peace initiative of the local Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers. This work brought me into contact with many extremely caring, dedicated, and deeply spiritual individuals, but I would especially like to mention here, one Tedford P. Lewis. Tedford had been a conscientious objector during World War II. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to have maintained such a position in the face of such overwhelming condemnation? Tedford served time as a smoke-jumper out west due to his anti-war convictions. You might be interested to read about his experiences in the University of Missouri – St. Louis’s oral history collection. Anyway, one day I was lamenting to Tedford how the Iraq War had come between me and some of my oldest friends, how I almost couldn’t stand to be around them anymore because of how toxic our interactions had become – at least for me. I’ll never forget what he said:

Banter with them! – Tedford P. Lewis   

Yes, banter with them. Keep it light..., keep it witty..., keep it on point..., and remain engaged. And so I dedicate this list of tips for navigating this contentious political season, and any other for that matter, to Tedford P. Lewis. I may not embody all of them all of the time, but they represent those higher qualities that I am striving to embody. Here goes:

A Spiritual Practitioner's Tips For Navigating The Political Season

  1. Never stray from those spiritual practices that allow you to remain “centered.”
  2. Do not become attached to any specific outcome.
  3. Engage in that which is right to do simply because it is right to do.
  4. Take comfort in having proceeded in an upstanding manner as opposed to having been “successful.”
  5. Never forget the humanity of those who hold the views that you oppose.
  6. Continue to love the individual even if you despise his or her behavior or views. Or at least try to stay open to loving them!
  7. Keep in mind that ignorance – delusion – is at the heart of all of the destructive human forces that we unleash upon each other and the world.
  8. Keep in mind that it is at least conceivable that someone could hold the views that you oppose after having reflected on them with great depth and sincerity. Hey, it could happen!
  9. Keep in mind that those whose views you oppose might be trying just as hard to maintain respect and love and compassion for YOU as you are for them!
  10. Banter with those whose views you oppose!

In memory of Tedford P. Lewis (1919-2007) 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. – Rumi


Image Credits

All American Buddha, copyright Multielvi, accessed from Flikr via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank