Sunday, August 2, 2015

A meditation upon the Thirteen Postures Song 十三勢歌

image: Wikimedia commons (link), cropped and with added text of the Song of the Thirteen Dynamics (or Song of the Thirteen Postures).

The Wudang Mountains of China are associated with the ancient internal arts: practices and disciplines designed to facilitate one's cultivation of and connection with chi.

Whether or not they actually originated there, the association between the internal arts and the Wudang region is justifiable, because the area has been a center for both ascetic and monastic pursuit of the Way of the Tao for at least 1200 years and possibly even longer than that. There are direct parallels between concepts conveyed in the Tao Te Ching and teachings associated with the specific "internal" martial arts and disciplines associated with Wudang.

According to legend, it was to the Wudang Mountains that the mysterious Zhang Sanfeng retired to live an ascetic life, leaving a promising career in the government ministries and giving away all his possessions. The traditions say that Zhang was already an accomplished martial artist who became more and more attracted to the development of internal kung fu, and whose prowess became greater and greater even as he became less and less interested in external displays of power, until he eventually made his way to the mountains . . .

There, he would in time master the internal arts, develop one (or more) of the most famous systems for cultivating internal power, and ultimately become a Taoist immortal or -- a word that is pronounced Xian in Mandarin and Sin in Cantonese, and which when used as a verb means "to ascend" or "to transcend," and which thus when used as a noun means by extension "a transcendent one" or "an ascended one" (the character itself is composed of the symbol on the left for person and the three-pronged symbol on the right which means "mountain").

Among the many texts sometimes attributed to this legendary personage or associated with the internal arts he imparted, one intriguing representative of their style and content is the Song of the Thirteen Postures, a short poem whose actual origin and date and author(s) are all unknown, but which is counted among the Tai Chi Classics: texts belonging to the art of Tai Chi Chuan, one of the three main Chinese martial arts associated most closely with Wudang and with the practice of attuning oneself to the flow of chi. The other two are Xing-Yi Chuan (形意拳 -- pronounced Jing Ji Kyun in Cantonese, and translating to something like "Form and Conscience Fighting Style [literally "fist"]") and Bagua Chuan (八卦掌  -- pronounced Baat Gwaa Jeung in Cantonese, and translating to something like "The Eight Divination-Trigrams Palm").

Zhang Sanfeng is traditionally credited with creating the original system of Tai Chi Chuan itself. An earlier name for Tai Chi Chuan was in fact "The Thirteen Postures" or 十三勢  -- the first two characters and syllables of which literally mean "Ten - Three" (which is the standard way of saying "thirteen") and the final character and word translating more literally as "powers" or "energies" or "forces" or "dynamics." Thus, "The Thirteen Dynamics" or "The Thirteen Forces" might be a more accurate translation of the sense of the original, although it is so commonly referred to in English as "The Thirteen Postures" that this is probably what we should use to refer to the poem in question.

It is also worth noting that the reason for the "Thirteen" in the title comes from the connection of the different "forces" or projections of energy used in the motions of Tai Chi were traditionally eight in number and connected to the eight angles or Eight Divinatory Trigrams of the BaGua, and to these were added five directions or ways of stepping or directing the body (going forward, going backwards, going left, going right, and holding at the center), to bring the total to thirteen.

The Thirteen Postures Song is reproduced in the Wudang Mountains image above, and is available in various English translations (some more literal than others) in a variety of places on the web, including here and here and here. Borrowing from these sources as well as from the literal meanings of the characters themselves (with apologies for any misinterpretations which I myself introduce in the process), a fairly literal translation might be:


Thirteen Collected Dynamics: Do Not Lightly Esteem ["do not take them lightly"].

[Their] Life-Heart and Head: [It] Issues from the Waist / Kidney Region.

The Transformations and Turnings of Empty and Solid: [You] Must Keep in Heart-Soul-Mind.

Chi Everywhere in the Body, the Human Body: Not Steered into an Obstacle [usually translated to mean "not hindered or obstructed"].

Stillness [in the] Center of Initiating-Action: Action Like Stillness.

Because of it, the way that you Adapt to the Opponent's Moves: Indeed Mysterious and Uncanny.  

Each Posture [each "dynamic" or "force"] Learn by Heart: Come to Know its Usefulness and its Deepest Essence.

Acquire / Will Come all-Unconscious: Effortless Mastery or Advanced Skill [literally "kung fu"].

Deeply Engrave and Hold the Heart-Mind in the Place of the Waist / Kidney Region.

In the Abdomen area [be] Relaxed and Still: Chi Gallops, Flying-up -- Yes!

Tailbone Centered and Straight: Divine Energy [from there up through] The Top of the Head (like a string through a thousand coins).

The Benefit of a Body Filled with Lightness and Agility: [it is achieved by] Hoisting or Suspending the Top of the Head (as if hanging from above).

Follow the Slender Thread [perhaps meaning "to the deepest, thinnest ends of the roots"]: Push Towards what you Seek.

Flexing and Opening and Closing: You will Hear it or Know it from Within Yourself.

The One who Begins this Path: Must necessarily have this teaching Transmitted from the Mouth [of a teacher].

Practice your Skill [literally "kung fu"] Without Stopping, Without Resting: the Way is by Your Own Study -- your own Cultivation.

Regarding the Usefulness of this System: What Guideline or Standard shall we Make or Observe?

The Heart-soul and the Chi Arrive as the Sovereign: the Bones and the Flesh are the Monarch's Ministers and Officials.

Towards What Goal does all of this Push or Impel us?

The Benefit of Desired Long Life and Delay of Aging: a Never-Aging Springtime.

A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh! A Hundred and Forty.

These Written Characters -- Genuine, Clear-cut: Right in Conduct, Without any Suspicion.

If one does Not Toward this Direction Push, Seek, and Go . . .

In Vain all that is Spent on Achieving Skill [literally "kung fu"]: Sighing, Loss, and Regret.  


This is a remarkable poem, filled with important teachings with far-reaching implications.

Foremost among them, perhaps: the connection of the cultivation of chi and the concept of stillness in the midst of action.

The poem imparts specific images to aid in attuning oneself to the invisible force of chi. Chi itself is written 氣 and it is pronounced hei in Cantonese: both chi and hei mean "breath" and "spirit," which just as in English can refer to either literal breathing and also to the entire realm of spirit, the life-force, that which animates all beings (the inspiration) and which also permeates all things in the cosmos.

While the actual date and authorship of this specific poem is unknown (and some scholars place its origin to within only the past few hundred years or so), texts which explicitly refer to the raising of chi exist from as early as 380 BC, as Professor Victor H. Mair (an accomplished scholar of Chinese culture, language and history who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania since 1979) notes in his valuable translation of the Ma Wang Deui "silk texts" containing an early arrangement of the Tao Te Ching (discovered in 1972). Describing an inscription on ten pieces of jade which once formed a small knob, he gives this translation:
In moving the vital breath (hsing ch'i) [through the body, hold it deep and] thereby accumulate it. Having accumulated it, let it extend (shen). When it extends, it goes downward. After it goes downward, it settles. Once it is settled, it becomes firm. Having become firm, it sprouts [compare Yogic bija ("seed" or "germ")]. After it sprouts, it grows. Once grown, then it withdraws. Having withdrawn, it becomes celestial [that is, yang]. The celestial potency presses upward, the terrestrial potency presses downward. [He who] follows along [with this natural propensity of the vital breath] lives; [he who] goes against it dies. [cited on page 159 of the paperback edition of 1990 of Victor H. Mair's translation of Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way]. 
The harmonies in this jade inscription from 380 BC and the teachings contained in The Song of the Thirteen Postures should be self-evident.

Additionally, as Professor Mair references in a bracketed parenthetical comment upon one specific part of the above-quoted jade inscription, some clear connections can be perceived between the teachings in these ancient Chinese texts and the teachings preserved in the Yogic traditions and texts. Professor Mair addresses in some detail these conceptual connections in the Afterword and the Appendix of his translation of the Tao Te Ching -- not referring specifically to the Thirteen Postures Song but rather to the Tao Te Ching itself, which also contains numerous admonitions to have stillness or inaction even in the midst of action.

Professor Mair points out some of the passages in the Tao Te Ching concerning action-inaction, and connects their teachings directly to the direction given by the Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. For example, in the section of the Tao Te Ching traditionally numbered 38 (but in fact arranged as the very first section in the Ma Wang Deui texts), we read -- in part -- that:
The person of superior integrity takes no action, nor has he a purpose for acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action, but has no purpose for acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action, but has a purpose for acting. [From the passage found on page 3 of Professor Mair's 1990 translation].
All this taking action and taking no action, without a purpose for acting, may seem confusing, but when we examine (as Professor Mair does) the words of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, we may begin to understand what is being advised.

And again, a few sections later in that part of the Tao Te Ching traditionally numbered 43 but arranged as section 6 in the older Ma Wang Deui texts, we read:
The softest thing under heaven
gallops triumphantly over
The hardest thing under heaven.
Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.
I know the advantages of non action.

The doctrine without words,
The advantage of nonaction --
few under heaven can realize these! [page 11].
It is interesting to wonder, given the explicit description in the tenth line of the Thirteen Postures Song of chi as "galloping," whether the Tao Te Ching in this passage is not referring to the invisible spirit-force of chi when it describes the triumphant nature of "the softest thing under heaven."

For a fairly detailed examination of the importance of the teachings given to Arjuna by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, see this previous post (which also contains a video).

That post examines the fact that Krishna's direction to Arjuna, given in a variety of different ways using a variety of powerful metaphors, can be summarized as "do what is right, without attachment to the results" and thus, without ulterior motive -- without concern for reward or even without concern for the outcome whatsoever. This can clearly be seen as throwing some light upon the Tao Te Ching's admonitions regarding "taking action" or "taking no action" but having "no reason" (no ulterior motive, no concern for or connection to the results) for it.

Professor Mair explains in his Afterword that the concept of wu-wei or nonaction is one of the most important concepts in the Tao Te Ching, which tells us that "through nonaction, no action is left undone" (see discussion on page 142). He explains that an understanding of the Bhagavad Gita helps us to realize that this teaching about nonaction may in fact mean action -- but action as though not acting (because totally nonattached to the action) [this is at least my interpretation of what Professor Mair is expounding on pages 142 and surrounding].

My earlier post and video discussing the Bhagavad Gita, which on a literal level is portrayed as Krishna's advice to Arjuna prior to entry into the great Battle of Kurukshetra, may in fact be seen as guidance given to the human soul prior to descending into incarnation itself, which is by its very nature a great battle or struggle or interplay between the "forces" of matter and spirit. If so, then the Bhagavad Gita teaches us that one of the most important principles in this life is to do what is right, but without attachment. And, the Bhagavad Gita shows that in order to do this, one must be connected to the divine charioteer -- portrayed in the Gita as the divine Lord Krishna, who in the text of the Gita itself reveals himself to be the Infinite, the Supreme, the Undefinable (beyond words or categorization).

In other words, in order to be able to act without acting (without attachment), we must cultivate connection with the Infinite: with the invisible force which pervades everything.

And this is exactly what the Tao Te Ching teaches as well (note that it describes the Tao as beyond categorization, beyond labeling with words, beyond definition).

And it is exactly what the Song of the Thirteen Postures appears to be telling us also! In order to achieve action without action, we must attune ourselves to the invisible force which is inside us and which permeates the universe around us as well (which it explicitly calls    or chi).

The line which most clearly deals with the concept of action while centered in complete stillness or lack of action (lack of attachment, lack of motion) is the fifth line of the Song of the Thirteen Postures (the line which is highlighted in red in the text shown above, superimposed on the photograph from Wudang), and which translated rather literally reads:

Stillness [in the] Center of Initiating-Action: Action Like Stillness.

The poem could hardly be more clear and direct on this point.

Note also the important third line of the poem, which emphasizes guarding deep in our heart-soul-mind the endless interplay of empty and solid: this, I would argue, could well be the very same interplay or struggle allegorized in the Battle of Kurukshetra -- the endless interplay between the realm of Spirit and the realm of Matter (between "empty" and "solid").

Finally (although there is much more to discuss), we cannot end this brief examination of The Song of the Thirteen Postures without pointing out that fascinating fourth line from the end, which says:

A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh! One Hundred Forty.

What is this supposed to be teaching us? Well, the very next line tells us the meaning of the "one hundred forty": it refers to the characters in the poem itself. So, the first half of that line which says "A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh!" must be talking about the Song of the Thirteen Postures itself.

It is advising, it would seem, a regular repetition of this song to oneself, as a way of calling to mind this important guidance for our struggle in this life. It is telling us that this song is something we should sing to ourselves, perhaps daily -- in much the same way that the sections of the Mahabharata which take place immediately prior to the Bhagavad Gita present us with a hymn to sing in order to summon the goddess Durga, and then tell us that this is a song we should sing to summon the goddess every single morning!

Thus we see that the ancient texts were given as powerful helps for us in this life -- powerful tools to guide us towards the cultivation of our contact with the infinite (which is, in fact, already inside us and already all around us) and our cultivation of an effortless and unattached principle of action: doing what is right, without attachment to the outcome.

And, along with these ancient texts, there were given very specialized disciplines, including the practice of Yoga but also in China of martial arts which have a clear focus upon the cultivation of the internal power of chi.

These practices are for our daily use -- and both the Song of the Thirteen Postures and the jade inscription from 380 BC advise us to pursue them diligently, because the benefits of practicing them are very great, but the penalty for neglecting them include sighing and loss and regret.

We are indeed fortunate that this ancient wisdom has survived and that we can avail ourselves of it, and that doing so does not necessarily entail a life of asceticism in the Wudang Mountains -- although for some it might!

image: Wikimedia commons (link).