Twenty-second Case: Hsueh Feng’s Turtle-Nosed Snake

Hsueh Feng taught the assembly saying, “On South
Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake. All of you
people must take a good look.”

Ch’ang Ch’ing said, “In the hall today there certainly are people who are losing their bodies and their lives.”

A monk related this to Hsuan Sha. Hsuan Sha said, “It takes Elder Brother Leng (Ch’ang Ch’ing) to be like this. Nevertheless, I am not this way.” The monk asked, “What about you, Teacher?” Hsuan Sha said, “Why make use of ‘South Mountain’?”

Yun Men took his staff and threw it down in front of Hsueh Feng, making a gesture
of fright. (1)

Ch’ang Ch’ing’s “In the hall today there certainly are people who are losing their bodies and their lives” implies that some people in the hall might gain their bodies and their lives, were they to heed Hsueh Feng’s advice.

Hsuan Sha takes issue, not with the “turtle-nosed snake”, but with locating the snake on “South Mountain”. Yuanwu comments:

When Hsueh Feng speaks this way, ‘On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,’ tell me, where is it? (2)

Yun Men throws his staff down in front of Hsueh Feng and pretends to be frightened. People do tend to be frightened of snakes, but to be frightened of Hsueh Feng’s “turtle-nose
snake” is to be frightened of one’s own self.

Yuanwu offers some words from his teacher:

My late teacher Wu Tsu said, “With this turtle-nosed snake, you must have the ability not to get your hands or legs bitten. Hold him tight by the back of the neck with one quick grab. Then you can join hands and walk along with me.” (3)

Where a snake can be said to have something perhaps resembling a nose, a turtle has essentially the holes in its skull with a thin covering. Awareness of the movement of breath
where the breath passes through the skull can accentuate the role of the joint between the skull and the neck in the extension and flexion of the spine, under the right circumstances.

I have previously written:

The support of the ilio-lumbar ligaments (a) to the bottom-most lumbar vertebrae as the spine extends (the accent in exhalation) and to the second-lowest vertebrae as the spine flexes (the accent in inhalation) is influenced by the reciprocal innervation of the sides of the psoas, so that the weight of the spine passes to the sacrum and to the left and right ilio-sacral joint fascias smoothly (f). The stretch and resile of the fascia of the ilio-sacral joints on the left and right initiates stretch and resile in the other ilio-sacral ligaments, and in the fascia and ligaments of the pelvis and legs on the left and right. (4)

Stretch in the pelvis and legs returns activity to the pelvis:

The obturators connect from the inside and outside of the pelvis to the rear of the hips (e), and when they reciprocate in response to stretch in the sacro-spinous ligaments and in the fascia of the hip joints, they tend to open the joints between the pelvis and the hips and tilt the front of the pelvis downward (g). Flexibility side-to-side at the hip joints stretches the ilio-tibial fascial bands, and initiates reciprocal activity in the quadricep and hamstring muscles. The quadricep muscles have fascial connections with the ilio-tibial bands just above the knee (h), and reciprocal activity in the hamstrings and quadriceps can add stretch to the ilio-tibial bands through these connections. Stretch in the ilio-tibial bands can also initiate reciprocal activity in the sartorius muscles (from the lower leg to the wings of the pelvis along the inside of each leg) (j) to rotate the pelvis slightly around the vertical axis of the spine. (5)

The Tai-chi teacher Cheng Man-Ch’ing offers a Chinese saying that describes the feeling in the legs as activity related to flexion and extension and the movement of breath takes place:

The sage breathes from his heels. (6)

I wrote:

The activity that Yuanwu described as “turning to the left, turning to the right”, I have ascribed to action in the sartorius, gluteous, and tensor muscles (tensor fascia
latae), in response to stretch in the ilio-tibial bands. The action in the gluteous muscles in particular is crucial to the stretch and resile of the fascia behind the sacrum, setting up the subtle role of the alternating mass of the left and right extensors in the displacement of the fascia behind the sacrum (k). At the same time, the action in the sartorius and tensor muscles translates into stretch and resile in the attachments of the abdominals (b)(c)(d), and that stretch and resile generates activity in the abdominals that serves to pressurize the “fluid ball” of the abdomen (m)(o)(p). Pressure in the “fluid ball” in turn controls the displacement of fascia behind the lower spine (n)(q) and the alignment of vertebrae. (4)

The stretch added to the fascia behind the sacrum by the mass of the extensor muscles as they contract depends in part on the angle of the tailbone and sacrum relative to the spine.  As the sacrotuberous ligaments stretch and resile with the rotation of the pelvis, activity is generated in the muscles of the pelvic floor that can tuck the tailbone and rotate the sacrum slightly . A pivot of the sacrum angles the mass of the extensors into the lumbodorsal fascia (behind the sacrum and the lower back) slightly lower than otherwise, and in turn the lower rearward press on the fascia changes the angle required for the relaxed carriage of weight between the neck and skull.

Here’s Cheng Man-Ching’s description:

After a long time, the ch’i naturally passes through the coccyx, spreads along the backbone, and travels up through the occipital region to the top of the head. Then it
descends to the tan-t’ien. …you cannot force it! It must be completely natural. (7)

The extensors are in three sets, from the sacrum to the rib cage, behind the rib cage, and behind the neck to the sides and rear of the skull. Just as the reciprocal activity of the gluteous and tensor muscles stretches the fascia behind the sacrum and amplifies the effect of the mass of the extensors as they contract in alternation, so too stretch behind the neck and skull may amplify the effect of the mass of the extensors pressing rearward on the fascia there.


☞ PDF, A Natural Mindfulness


1) The Blue Cliff Record, trans. Cleary Cleary, pg 144
2) Ibid, pg 149
3) Ibid, pg 151
4) “Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind”, Zazen Notes, Dec. 11, 2016
5), “Fuxi’s Poem”, amended
6) “Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man-Ching trans. Douglas Wile,
pg. 55
7) “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man Ch’ing, translation by Benjamin
Pang, Jeng Lo, and Martin Inn, pg 41