Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind (Original)

There’s a passage in the ‘Blue Cliff Record’ where the Chinese Zen master Yuanwu is discussing a koan, and he adds a little something from his own experience.  The koan is case 17, and goes as follows:

A monk asked Hsiang Lin, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?”

Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes toilsome.”

(Yuanwu, ‘Blue Cliff Record’, Shambala publications pg 110)

At the close of his commentary on the koan, Yuanwu said this:

Answering the monk who asked, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?”, Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes toilsome.”  If you understand this way, you are “turning to the left, turning to the right, following up behind.”

(Ibid, pg 114)

Yuanwu repeated his response and elaborated in the eighteenth case of the “Blue Cliff Record”, where he commented on the verse of another master:

Your whole body is an eye. You fall into sevens and eights. Two by two, three by three, walking the old road, turning to the left, turning to the right, following up behind.

(Ibid, pg 121)

Yuanwu’s remarks concern phenomena that is observed as habitual activity ceases, in particular as unconscious habitual activity in inhalation or exhalation ceases. To enter a state where the only activity in sitting upright is the autonomic activity of inhalation or exhalation is to remain awake while essentially falling asleep, or to remain essentially asleep while waking up; just as in sleep, the activity of the mind no longer generates activity in the body, yet the activity of the posture still takes place.

Kobun Chino Otogawa described an odd thing that can happen when habitual activity in the movement of breath ceases:

You know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around.

(Kobun said this in a lecture he gave at S. F. Zen Center that I attended, in the 1980’s)

Just as some people can walk in their sleep, some people can continue in a state where the activity of the mind no longer generates activity in the body even as their body gets up and walks around.

I’d like to take Yuanwu’s commentary line by line:

“Your whole body is an eye”—the eye can reset what is described in the literature of neuroscience as the “self-location”.  Consciousness generated by the proprioceptors in the muscles, joints, and ligaments can also influence the “self-location”, especially in connection with the experience of weight.  The whole body is an eye, not because we use it to see forms, but because consciousness generated by the parts of the body influences the “self-location” just like the eyes.

“You fall into sevens and eights”—the “seven” that matters in seated meditation are the six ligamentous connections of the sacrum to the pelvis along with the fascia behind the extensor muscles at the sacrum (a).  The “eight” would be the seven plus the place where the ligaments of the abdominal muscles are of equal lengths in their attachments to the rectus, about two inches below the navel (b). As with the “empty hand” in the first line of Fuxi’s poem (“the empty hand grasps the hoe-handle”), a person can only “fall” into sevens and eights.

“Two by two…”—the arrangement of muscles and ligaments/fascia in the body is largely in pairs, so that the stretch of the ligaments and the activity of muscle groups on one side of the body is offset by the stretch of ligaments and the activity of muscle groups on the opposite side of the body.

“Three by three…”—in some cases the agonist/antagonist pairs of muscles act to stretch a band of fascia, or a sheet of fascia.  This is the case for reciprocation between the hamstring and quadratus muscles, especially because the contraction of the quadratus muscles can add tension to the ilio-tibial tract through a fascial connection above the knee (c).

“Walking the old road”—the explanation here is the same as the explanation of the second line of Fuxi’s poem, “walking along, I ride the ox”, especially with regard to the tensor fascia latae and gluteous muscles:

The tensor and gluteous muscles connect from the ilio-tibial bands to the pelvis (c), and the gluteous muscles also connect to the rear of the sacrum and to the fascia behind the sacrum and the lower back (d). Stretch in the ilio-tibial bands and rotation of the pelvis by the sartorius muscles (e) can initiate reciprocal activity in the tensor and gluteous muscles…

(from my essay, Fuxi’s Poem)

“Turning to the left, turning to the right, following up behind”—stretch in the ilio-tibial bands sets off “reciprocal innervation”* of the sartorious muscles, and consequently reciprocal activity in the tensor and gluteous muscles.  The result is a subtle “turning to the left, turning to the right” in an upright posture, and a stretch in both the ligaments that connect the abdominals to the rectus and in the fascia behind the sacrum and lower back. “Following up behind” is literally to follow the stretch and resile from behind the sacrum upward behind the spine.

Some knowledge of anatomy and kinesthesiology can be helpful in relaxing the activity of the body in inhalation and exhalation. That is perhaps why Yuanwu saw fit to temper Hsiang Lin’s reply that “sitting for a long time becomes toilsome” with a sentence about “turning to the left, turning to the right, following up behind”.

There’s another aspect to “following up behind”. I’ve talked about the two elements in Gautama’s “way of living” that particularly pertain to the comprehension and experience of breath, about Rujing’s characterization of the breath as “entering and reaching” or “emerging” from the tanden, and about Dogen’s “actualization of the fundamental point” through “finding the place where you are” and “finding your way at this moment”.   There’s a similarity in these descriptions that speaks to the two physiological mechanisms of support for the spine that I have found in the literature of medical research:

Stretch and resile in the lumbardorsal fascia behind the sacrum—Gautama’s “comprehending” the long and short of inhalation and exhalation, Rujing’s “reaching” the tanden, and Dogen’s “finding the place where you are” facilitate stretch and resile behind the sacrum by engaging a sense of one-pointed equalibrium (and thereby, the pivots of the sacrum).

Stretch and resile in the lumbodorsal fascia behind the lower spine—Gautama’s “experiencing the whole (breath-)body”, Rujing’s “entering” and “emerging” from the tanden, and Dogen’s “finding your way at this moment” facilitate stretch and resile behind the lower spine by engaging the (multi-sensory) surroundings of one-pointed equilibrium (and thereby, the surface pressure of the “fluid ball” of the abdomen).

The seamless coordination of the two mechanisms in posture (f) is autonomic in the natural movement of breath.  The first part of the koan of the eighteenth case in the ‘Blue Cliff Record’ is this:

Emperor Su Tsung asked National Teacher Hui Chung, “After you die, what will you need?”

The National Teacher said, “Build a seamless monument to me.”

The Emperor said, “Please tell me, Master, what the monument would look like.”

The National Teacher was silent for a long time; then he asked, “Do you understand?”



* Dr. John Upledger’s description of reciprocal innervation, as he experienced it lying in an isolation tank: “At some point my body began to make fish-like movements, as though my pelvis and legs were the lower part of a fish moving its tail from side to side. This movement was nice and easy. The neurophysiologist in me related these movements to an expression of what we call ‘reciprocal innervation.’ The principle here is that, when your trunk is bent to the side in one direction past a certain threshold, the muscles on the other side of the trunk contract. In doing so, the nerve impulses are diverted from the side to which you are bent, and those muscles relax. Your trunk now bends in the opposite direction until that side-bending threshold is passed. The nerve impulses are then diverted again to the opposite side, causing muscle contraction and side bending in that direction.”–“Your Inner Physician and You: Craniosacral Therapy and Somatoemotional Release”, John E. Upledger, p. 165


copyright 2016 Mark A. Foote