Chuang Tzu

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu, taken from the book-cover of "Explanation of Chuang Tze's Sayings in Modern Chinese

Question 1

My research on Tai Chi, including reading up your books, reveals that there are many variations. That is not much of an issue because Taiqichuan is form, visible. However, when it comes to qigong, things are very internal and one can't see results and not in a short period of time.

— Kingsley, Australia


Both Taijiquan and qigong have external forms besides their internal dmensions. The main problem today is that a great majority of people practising Taijiquan and qigong, practise only their external forms, and miss their internal dimensions. In my opinion, if the internal dimensions are missing, the two arts cease to be genuine Taijiquan or genuine qigong; they degrade into Taiji and qigong gymnastics or dance.

Question 2

Does still chigong or universal circulation that they teach work or exist at all? I was reading up on hypnosis, honestly I am thinking whether this still chigong is some form of self-hypnosis.


Yes, qigong exists. Qigong can be classified into two main categories, namely quiescient (or still) qigong, and dymanic (or moving) qigong. Universal circulation qigong, which is called the Small Universe in my school, and the Microcosmic Flow in others, is an important type of quiescient qigong.

Qigong is quite different from hypnosis (including self-hypnosis), although when a practitioner enters a “qigong state of mind” he may have abilities similar to what one may get in hypnosis. Nevertheless, auto-suggestion which is commonly used in self-hypnosis is also used in qigong. For want of a better term, I would say that the use of auto-suggestion in self-hypnosis is “passive”, such as repeating “I am getting better and better everyday”, whereas in qigong it is “active”, such as visualizing yourself getting better and better everyday.

Question 3

I am a bit confused about the water method that they claim. The opposite described is the fire method which is said to be more “risky”.


I do not know about the water and fire methods taught by this teacher, so I am answering your question generally. In qigong terminology, “water” often refers to the kidney system, and “fire” to the heart system.

In winter, for example, a qigong practitioner may keep himself warm by “heating his water system” or “lighting up his fire”. In simple language, they mean practising appropriate qigong exercises that focus on the kidney system or the heart system. Generally, it is safer to work on the kidney than on the heart.

Question 4

I understand that you teach Shaolin qigong. Does that fall in the “fire” school? What is the risk involved?


Shaolin Cosmos Qigong, the type of qigong I practise, is very comprehensive; it has both the fire and the water as well as other approaches. One should also note that terms like “fire” and “water” are symbols, and as such they may refer to other concepts besides the “heart” and the “kidney”. For example, if a practitioner emphasizes breathing in his qigong training, his approach may be symbolized as that of “fire”, whereas the approach of his classmate in the same qigong school who emphasizes spontaneous qi movement may be symbolized as that of “water”.

The “fire” system is generally, but not always, faster and more powerful than the “water” system, when “fire” and “water” symbolize the heart and the kidney. As such, it is more “risky” because its side-effects, if it is wrongly practised, are also faster and more powerful. One should also note that when a method is faster and even if it is practised correctly, it is not necessarily better, or even quicker to attain the desired result. If a person's lungs are weak, or if he is infected with harmful bateria or virus, using the “water” approach would be more preferable.

When “fire” symbolizes breathing, and “water” symbolizes spontaneous energy flow, the “fire” approach will generally produce quicker and better result if the purpose is to accumulate energy, but the “water” approach will generally be quicker and better for overcoming illness. In this case, the “fire” approach is also more “risky”. Thus, if your purpose is to accumulate energy but you want to minimize risk, you should choose the “water” approach. Your progress will be slower but you will be safer. This is the main reason why much of chi kung taught en mass does not involve breath control.

Risks occur when knowledge and experience are lacking. Learning even the most powerful chi kung from a master is perfectly safe. The biggest risk occurs, for example, when someone without prior experience and without the guidance of a master, attempts to practise advanced chi kung from books or videos. It is indeed apalling that some people who themselves have no adequate understanding of the art, teach their friends or students exercises like Yi Jin Jing or Small Universe after they have read about the exercises or just learnt them in a week-end seminar.

Question 5

There is always a mention of the proper master. That is the issue in Chinese arts, they are so difficult to evaluate by a laymen. I know that you posted the several criteria to help us. Thanks.


In advanced qigong or kungfu, a master's personal supervision is usually essential. Even at the elementary level, if we are talking about real qigong or real kungfu and not just qigong or kungfu dance or gymnastics, it is difficult to get the real benefits without a master's guidance. In other words, if you are a beginner and learn qigong or kungfu from books, videos or mediocre instructors (who may call themselves “masters”), you may succeed in learning the outward forms, but without benefiting from the very effects these arts are specifically noted to give, i.e. energy management and combat efficiency. Performing these outward forms without their essence is what I call qigong or kungfu dance and gymnastics.

The issue is not only in Chinese arts; it is in all arts — ranging from the arts of music and swimming to the arts of medicine and surgery. You can't be proficient in playing the piano or in swimming, for example, by merely learning from books, videos or from someone who himself does not know how to play the piano or swim. The big joke today is that there are so many people inside and outside China teaching qigong and kungfu (including wushu and taijiquan) but who themselves cannot generate any energy flow or defend against a simple Taekwondo kick.

It is difficult for a layman in the West to evaluate the Chinese arts or their masters because the arts have been much mis-represented and there have been many chalatans. But one excellent way is as follows. Evaluate according to what the arts or the masters are supposed to produce. If the art in question does not work on energy or enable you to defend yourself, then the art is not likely to be qigong or kungfu, and the one teaching it is not likely to be a real master.

combat application

Internal force and combat application are two pillars of our Shaolin and Taijiquan training. I do not want to teach dance or gymnastics.

Question 6

Just a side issue here, for the meantime are you considering transmitting your art through video tapes or other forms?


No. All the time I have said that unless one is already familiar with the art, learning from video tapes or other forms of multi-media merely enables him (or her) to learn the outward forms. I do not want to teach dance or gymnastics.

If a person feels that an art is worthy of learning, he should at the least learn it the right way. It is a fact, although many people choose to ignore it, that real kungfu or qigong was rare, is rare and will be rare. If someone feels it too much a trouble to seek a master, that someone does not deserve to learn and derive the wonderful benefits of a great art.

Question 7

I understand that you wrote about the missing steps between general Chinese martial arts training and the sparring and application. Also there is only a very limited description of various chuan and chigong in the Shaolin book that you have written. I know that the health aspect is more useful to the general public but I think it would be a great loss to our culture if the precious training is lost in future generations. The world is waiting for your future teaching/publications!


This is in line with my philosophy that one should learn (and experience) the essence of kungfu, and not just its outward forms. Had I described a lot of chuan, or kungfu sets, and qigong exercises, I would have contradicted this philosophy.

Actually there are quite a lot of forms explained in my book, "The Art of Shaolin Kungf Fu". The difference with many other kungfu books is that besides showing the forms, I have explained and emphasized their inner significance. As a reader has put it quite nicely, in most kungfu books, you find forms from the first page to the last page; in my book you don't find any forms until you have read many pages.

Moreover, I also explain and show you how you can compose your own chuan or kungfu sets, and suggest some principles to use in your set composition. Once you can do this, you can virtually pick up any forms or sets shown in many other kungfu books.

But even if you can perform well just a portion of the forms explained in my book, and also incorporate their inner significance such as force training, combat application and philosophical considerations, you can attain a master's level.

While the health aspect is important, I have also emphasized in this book, as well as in my other kungfu book, "Introduction to Shaolin Kungfu", that the fundamental objective of kungfu, any kungfu including Taijiquan, is combat efficiency. If one cannot defend himself, then what he practises is just kungfu gymnastics or dance, no matter how well known his art or teacher is. Yet, the greatest aim of great kungfu, like Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan, is not combat efficiency, not even health promotion, but spiritual development.

Question 8

What do you think of this way of talking about chi by a chi kung teacher? “The simple body mechanics are the notes (the what), and the various, ill-defined and often obscurely discussed things that are meant when people talk about ki, are their way of describing the music. Nothing mystical, nothing supernatural, nothing that can't ultimately be described at a lower level, but something that can't be executed while thinking at the lower level of description.”

— Graham, UK


What the teacher has written is correct, but as your have rightly suggested his description is likely to make his readers confused than clear about how to generate chi. This is an example of what Zen masters mean when they advise their students not to be confused with the finger that points towards the moon with the moon itself.

What the above teacher meant may be explained as follows. We may refer to the mechanical movements of chi kung exercises as notes written in a musical score, and the chi kung effect itself as music. When people talk about chi, they are talking about music, but their description of music is ill-defined and often obscure.

Actually, there is nothing mystical or supernatural about music, and there is nothing about music that cannot be ultimately described by using notes. But, while the notes, which operate at a lower level, can be used to describe music, the notes are not music, which is of a higher level. In the same way, people may perform the physical movements of chi kung and talk about chi kung, but they cannot get the real effects of chi kung.

Question 9

What do you think of the following? The mechanical description, while accurate, from a theoretical point of view, is not necessarily the most effective way of conveying to someone how to do something — it is very like technical descriptions of a golf swing, where the swing has been broken down into component parts, with this part and that part being examined (almost to the point of exhaustion).

But in action this method of constructing the swing fails because the mind doesn't operate the body that way. You don't give your mind a series of abstract instructions and expect it to figure out the rest; the mind works directly — you feel it, and you visualise it, and that's how you make it happen.

In a golf swing (as in taiji) the emphasis should be on the smoothness, flow and balance of the movements. If these are reasonable then the technical details will necessarily take care of themselves. Returning to Drysdale's analogy of music — apart from the notes, there's one other, equally important thing — the rhythm — the mortar that holds the building together, or the oil that lets the engine work smoothly — without that, there's just bricks and engines, just bits and pieces.


You are perfectly right about the natural flow of an art compared to the mechanical analysis of its theory. Your analogies of golf playing and music on one hand with chi kung on the other are very apt. Hence, Zen masters advise their students to do away with book learning and focus on practice.

This, of course, does not necessarily suggest that book learning is useless. Book learning is very useful, besides being very pleasant for some people, but by itself book learning cannot give us the practical benefits which the learning is meant to give.

This applies not only to practical arts like chi kung, meditation, golf playing and music, but even to intellectual pursues as well. For example, one may read about helpful techniques on how to philosophize or make sound decisions, but unless he actually puts those techniques into philosophizing and making judgements, the techniques may give some intellectual pleasure but not practical benefits.

Question 10

In a way, this analogy of how the golf swing has been analysed in our culture illustrates perfectly the disjointed mechanistic mentality that has left many westerners disillusioned with our imbalanced way of looking at things, where the overall view has been lost so that people can no longer figure out how to put the pieces together.

There is no holism - the expression that is used is “not being able to see the wood for the trees”. In this way, the more holistic ways, taos, are the perfect corrective for our ways of thinking. That is one of the reasons why this particular approach is becoming so popular in the west - the 'taos' of China, after getting across to Japan and becoming the 'dos' i.e.. ju-do, ken-do, bu-do, aiki-do. These ways are finally getting to us.


This is a noticeable cultural difference between the East and the West. This difference, for the convenience of western analytical thinking, may be viewed from two perspectives.

  1. The intuitive dimension of the East compared with the intellectual dimension of the West.
  2. The holistic approach of the East compared with the analytical approach of the West.

In chi kung and meditation, it is the intuitive and holistic aspects that are crucial in producing the best effects. Hence, in my chi kung classes, when some students attempted to take down notes, I told them to forget about the note taking and just listen to my teaching in a meditative mood. When some students said that they might not remember the important points, I told them not to attempt to remember but just let the points flow in. These examples manifest the intuitive dimension of chi kung practice.

Regarding the holistic approach, when students asked me, for example, whether they should keep their elbows or knees straight, I often told them not to worry about such mechanic factors but just perform the exercises in the manner I instructed them, without even paying attention to whether their physical movements were correct. In this way, they could enter into a chi kung state of mind and work on their energy. This is a manifestation of the holism of form, energy and mind — as distinct from the mechanical and reductionist parts in a chi kung dance.

Neverthless, one should bear in mind that this mentioning of the intuitive and holistic dimensions, does not necessarily mean that the intellectual and analytical dimensions are not important. Indeed, in other situations, such as in scientific research, they may be essential.

Interestingly, my differentiation of “chi kung” and “meditation” above is an example of a useful application of the intellectual and analytical dimensions. It is useful, for example, in letting readers know that when I mentioned “chi kung exercises”, I was referring to some gentle movements of hands and legs. But in practice, there is little or no difference between chi kung and meditation, or, putting it in a language more conducive to most westerners, there is a lot of overlapping between chi kung and meditation.

When one practises chi kung (genuine chi kung, and not chi kung dance) he is also prctising meditation (real meaning of meditation, not merely the mechanical posture of sitting cross-legged). But many people would be confused by this statement, and the differentiation into “chi kung” and “meditation” intellectually and analytically would help to clear the confusion.

Question 11

What do you know of Falun Dafa??


Literally “falun” means the “Wheel of Dharma” and “dafa” means “Great Method”. Here is also an example showing the conciseness of the Chinese language which may be mis-interpreted by uninitiated people. The Chinese character “fa” in “fa lun” and “da fa” is the same, but they refer to different concepts.

The first “fa” refers to “spiritual teaching”, and in its widest sense includes non-Buddhist teachings, as Buddhists have always acknowledged that there are many great spiritual teachers, such as Lao Tzu, Jesus, Moses and Mohamaed, besides Guatama.

“Fa” in this meaning of “spiritual teaching” is sometimes mis-translated as “law”, because the character “fa” in a different context can mean “law”. Indeed, the term “fa shen” of the Buddha, which means the “spiritual body of the Buddha” is often mis-translated as the “Law-Body of the Buddha”, even by world acclaimed writters.

It will be helpful for many people, including some Buddhists, to know that the spiritual body of the Buddha refers not to the physical body of Guatama, but to what most westerners would conceptualize as God the Holy Spirit. In non-religious terms, it refers to the undifferentiated cosmic reality, or the eternal and infinite universe devoid of deluded forms.

The term “Falun Dafa” has been used by different gourps of people in the long history of Chinese spiritual cultivation, chi kung and martial arts. To spiritual cultivators, “falun” means the spread of spiritual teaching. In the Chinese context, the term usually refers to the spread of Mahayana Buddhist teaching, in contrast to Theravada Buddhist teaching.

Chi kung practitioners have used the term to refer to a school of chi kung originated from, or at least inspired by Buddhism. This school of chi kung pays much attention to spiritual cultivation, besides promoting health. “Falun” here may in particular refer to a ball of energy generally focussed at the abdominal energy field. It is the Buddhist equivalent of the Taoist “dan dian”.

In Chinese martial arts, there is a method of focussing the “falun” or ball of energy at the palms instead of at the abdominal energy field. An exponent of this “Falun Dafa” can cause tremendous damage with a single strike of his palm.

Intestine Meridian

An illustration from a classical text showing the big intestine meridian

Question 12

When you talk about the way that the Chinese language works, the way it presents things — more wide-beam, so that simple expressions convey deeper meanings — is there any way of getting to understand this way of looking at the world, so that the translations into English carry the fullness of the original expressions?


There is no short-cut to full understanding. In other words, there is no secret formula which you may use to have a full understanding of what the Chinese language describes concisely. For example, if one does not possess some relevant background knowledge, he would not understand “Falun Dafa” as explained above.

He might, if he takes the dictionary meanings of the four Chinese characters composing the term, mistakenly think it means a famous technique concerning the law of driving on wheels — as the four characters “fa”, “lun”, “da” and “fa” literally mean “law”, “wheel”, “big” and “technique” respectively.

Nevertheless, the following points will be very helpful for those reading classical Chinese, or English translations of classical Chinese.

  1. A Chinese character often has a few meanings.
  2. The Chinese language often conveys in one character what it may take many words to express in English.
  3. Because Chinese and English have different linguistic as well as cultural features, literal translations from Chinese may appear odd, when they are actually meaningful and poetic in the original language.

Question 13

Sometimes I see expressions translated from the Chuang Tzu (my favourite text) among other texts, and I know that they are referring to something deeper, but its hard to figure out what it is. Are there any “rules of thumb” that you can suggest that will help me to move from the sharp, narrow-beam of western thought to the wide-beam of Chinese thought?


As mentioned above, some relevant background knowledge is often necessary to understand Chinese writings deeply. As a rule of thumb, it can be safely said that if one finds the saying or teaching of an established master wrong or shallow, the fault usually lies with him or the translator, and not with the master. Usually it is due to his or the translator's shallowness or mis-understanding that he fails to grasp the truth or depth of the master's saying.

Let us take an example from Chuang Tze for illustration. One of my favourites of Chuang Tzu is a short piece called “Autumn Waters”. The following is a short selection from “Autumn Waters” translated from classical Chinese.

River Spirit said, “Then, to me big is heaven and earth, small is a hair tip. Correct?” North Sea God said, “No.Things are measured without boundry, time without end. Constantly changing. No beginning no end. Hence when great wisdom views myriad things, far and near, big is not big, and small is not small. What man knows is not more than what is not known. When he is alive is shorter than when he is not alive. Using small to attempt the boundless, hence it is delusion, and can obtain nothing. How can one know a hair tip is the smallest, heaven and earth the biggest.

Many people may not understand clearly the above concise translation. The following translation of the same passage but from modern Chinese will make Chuang Tzu clearer.

River Spirit asked, ”If I regard heaven and earth as big, and the tip of a hair as small, is that correct?“ ”Not correct,“ answered North Sea God. ”Should we want to measure the myriad things in the universe, there is no limit to their measurements. Should we want to measure the length of time, there is no such a length as long or short time. Everything in the universe is constantly changing. There is no beginning or ending of time.“

”Hence, when sages with great wisdom view the myriad things of the universe, they realize that the myriad things are infinite and inmeasurable, so they do not consider big what you may regard as big. When they view time, they realize that time has no beginning and ending, so past ages that you may regard as far from the present time, are not considered far by the sages; and present events which you may regard as near, are not considered by them as near.“

”What a person knows is less than what is known by all other people, and is less than what he himself does not know. Hence he views the infinite universe from a narrow, personal perspective. His view, therefore, is deluded by his narrrow perspective, and his gain or knowledge is not much. How can he be sure that there is nothing bigger than heaven and earth, and that there is nothing smaller than the tip of a hair.“

Readers who are still uncertain about the profundity of this appearingly simple story, may have a better concept from what follows.

River Spirit asked, ”Common sense of the world suggests that the smallest does not have any form; the biggest does not have any boundary. Is it right to say like this?“

North Sea God said, ”Not right. Whatever is regarded as the biggest, or the smallest refers to that which has form and which can be defined. How can we employ measurements to differentiate that which has no form or boundary; or employ language to describe it? Hence, measurements cannot measure, and language cannot describe. Thus, there is no big or small, fine or gross."

Chuang Tzu's teaching, as illustrated above, may be interpreted at different levels. River Spirit suggests that if we make something smaller and smaller until we cannot even see its form, can we say that it is the smallest? If we make something bigger and bigger until it has no boundary, can we say it has reached its biggest?

At a lower level of logic, North Sea God answers that the description big or small refers to something that has form or boundary. If something has no form or boundary, we cannot measure or describe it as big or small. Logic operates in the dimensions of intellect and analysis — dimensions which are generally regarded by Chinese sages as inferior to intuition and holism.

At a higher level of intuition and holism, there is no form and boundary because form and boundary are merely mental constructs. At the highest level, the universe is undifferentiated cosmic reality. Constructs like big and small, fine and gross operate only at the phenomenal level.

It is significant to note that the teaching here is not merely hollow words, as much intellectualization or verbalization often is. If one does not understand the teaching, it is because he has not attained the required level of intuition and holism.

Question 14

Would you be kind enough to let me know Sifu Yeong Cheong's contact?

— Andrew, Singapore


Sifu Yeong Cheong's address is as follows: 20 Jalan Oriental Satu, Paya Terupong, Penang 11060, Malaysia. He does not use a phone. Should you write to him, please note that he does not understand English.

Sifu Yeong Cheong, or Cheong Suk meaning Uncle Cheong as he is popularly known in the martial art circles, is probably the most senior Wing Chun master in this part of the world. He is already eighty but is healthy and agile like one at forty! He practises his Wing Choon Kungfu everyday.

Question 15

The Stomach meridian is the only meridian in the body to run opposite, ie a yang meridian running down the (yin) front of the body. There is no similar meridian in the rear of the body. I understand there is always a little yin in every yang and vice versa, but is there something more I am missing here?

— Jeff, USA


Like many other chi kung masters, I am not particularly concerned why the stomach meridian is the only meridian “to run opposite” and whether there are hidden meanings in this unique situation, simply because answers to such intellectual questions are not important for promoting health and vitality or for other benefits practising chi kung can give.

Moreover, every meridian is unique in its own way. No other meridian except the heart meridian, for example, flows the way it flows. The same can be said for any other meridian.

Actually I was not even aware of the situation about the stomach meridian until you mentioned it. Congratulations for being observant. But, as far as I know, no chi kung masters have paid attention to this situation.

Your question illustrates an interesting difference between Eastern and Western thinking. In traditional Eastern thinking, such intellectual questions are often considered a waste of time, because different people may volunteer different answers, but the different answers do not substantially affect the working of the stomach meridian in particular and the promotion of health in general.

In western tradition, one may write a volumous book on the question, earn a doctorate degree for the effort, and be publicly recognized as an expert on the subject. Yet he may be inflicted with diseases connected with the stomach meridian and can do nothing to overcome them.

Question 16

Why is there only one meridian which crosses center line (Large Intestine)? Why (like the stomach meridian) is this phenomenon only on the front of the body, and what is it trying to show us?


It is like asking why you have two eyes but not three, or why your legs are used for walking but not your ears. We can provide many answers, but for me the best answer, without any play of words, is that they are so because that is the way they are.

Actually, many meridians, besides the large intestine meridian, cross the center line. The whole body is inter-connected, and the meridains shown in diagrams present only a very gross picture. It would be impractical to show the complex network of meridians with their branches and sub-branches running across the body in all directions.

Sincerely, I would advise that you should leave such questions for those who are already specialized in the study and practice of meridians, and when they have the answers we would learn and benefit from them. As time is innately limited to everyone, the time you spend on philosophizing on such questions would be better spent on something that can bring practical benefits.


January to June 1999

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