There’s a koan in the “Blue Cliff Record” (case 17) that goes like this:
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)
In a commentary on the koan, the 12th century Chinese abbot Yuanwu wrote:
If you understand this way, you are “turning to the left, turning to the right, following up behind.”
I go into some of the details of Yuanwu’s commentary, here.
I would like now to add one more pair of teachings to the paired teachings of Gautama, Rujing, and Dogen that I mentioned in my explanation of Yuanwu’s commentary. T’ai Chi master Cheng Man Ch’ing wrote:
When the beginner starts to learn T’ai Chi Ch’uan, he should secure his mind and ch’i in the tan-t’ien. Do not forget this, but also do not coerce it… 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.
(“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)
In Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s “Pleasant Way of Living”, I described the kinesthesiology that underlies Cheng’s description:
It happens that the stretch and resile of ligaments in the lower abdomen (paralleling the stretch and resile of the fascia behind the sacrum) can sometimes focus at or immediately above the pubic region. Perhaps in a bent-leg posture, there comes a moment when the initiation of …support through the displacement of the fascia of the lower back is necessary, and the distinction of the senses allows pressure in the fluid ball to complete what the extensors behind the sacrum initiate.
Cheng mentioned the coccyx (the tailbone). Ease in the nerve exits between the coccyx and the bottom-most vertebrae of the sacrum provides an ability to feel on the surface of the skin, not below or behind the coccyx, but behind the center of the sacrum. There, the muscle-mass of the left and right extensors as they contract in alternation affects the stretch of the lower-back fascia (just below the skin), and can serve to initiate the displacement of the fascial sheet behind the lower spine. That it is the push of the mass of the extensors behind the sacrum that adds critical stretch to the lower back fascia, rather than the pull, is the source of statements such as Fuxi’s “the empty hand grasps the hoe-handle”.
Cheng also recounted the following saying from the classics of Tai Chi:
rooted in the feet
sprouts in the legs
mastered by the waist
functions through the fingers
(T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Cheng Man-Ching, North Atlantic Books pg 14-15)
Here there is no mention of either the tailbone or the top of the head. The ability to feel place and weight in the feet becomes a reciprocal innervation in the legs, a reciprocal innervation that is focused through the waist and “functions” in the fingers.
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, 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. At the same time, the action in the satorius and tensor muscles translates into stretch and resile in the attachments of the abdominals, and that stretch and resile generates activity in the abdominals that serves to pressurize the “fluid ball” of the abdomen. Pressure in the “fluid ball” in turn controls the displacement of fascia behind the lower spine.
The activity in the abdominals can engender stretch and resile in the fascial connections of the latissimus dorsi muscles, both in the fascia behind the lower back and at the bones of the upper arms. Through the latissimus dorsi, the angle of the arms to the body, of the upper arm to the lower arm, and of the hands to one another can enter into the stretch and resile of the ligaments of the abdominals, at the same time stretch and resile is occasioned in these same ligaments by the reciprocal activity of the tensor and gluteous muscles from below. What is “mastered in the waist” functions through the fingers, and that function through the fingers is a part of the mastery in the waist.
Yuanwu described the feeling of the reciprocal innervation in the legs as “walking the old road”. Fuxi described it as “walking along, I ride the ox”, accentuating the way reciprocal innervation in the legs both originates with and contributes to stretch and resile in the ilio-sacral ligaments.
Fuxi’s “the ox crosses the wooden bridge” analogizes the experience of stretch and resile in the ilio-sacral ligaments accompanied by reciprocal innervation in the muscles along the centerline of the pelvic basin. The involuntary alternation in the contraction and relaxation of the muscles between the pubic bones and the tailbone can help to align the tailbone and sacrum, and facilitate reciprocal innervation in both the piriformis muscles and in the left and right extensors behind the sacrum.
Ease in the nerve exits between the bottom-most vertebrae of the chest and the top-most vertebrae of the lower spine informs the ability to feel along an unusual pair of bands of skin. Ease in these nerve exits provides feeling on the surface of the skin from near the two vertebrae behind the spine, diagonally down the sides of the abdomen to the groin below the genitals, and along the inside of the groin and upper thighs to below and behind the tailbone. The ability to feel in this area guides the alignment of the lower spine and chest, so that the displacement of fascia behind the sacrum can become the displacement of fascia behind the entire lower back.
My writing titled The Mudra of Zen included a description of the correspondence between the placement of the arms and hands and a one-pointedness of self-location, a one-pointedness with an associated flow in the ability to feel. In light of D. L. Bartilink’s research, I would perhaps modify that description now, as follows:
The placement of the fingers near the centerline of the abdomen provides a sense of the ligaments of the internal oblique muscles, the muscles that run diagonally from the pelvis upward to the rectus; if the little fingers leave the abdomen, awareness of the forward and backward motion wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can restore the little fingers to the abdomen. Similarly, the placement of the little fingers provides a sense of the ligaments of the transverse muscles, the muscles that run horizontally from the abdomen around the sides to the fascia behind the lower spine; if the elbows lose their angle from the body, awareness of the side-to-side motion wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can restore the angle. Likewise, the placement of the little fingers against the abdomen provides a sense of the ligaments of the external oblique muscles, the muscles that run from the rectus diagonally upward to the ribcage; if the shoulders lose their roundedness, awareness of the turn left, turn right wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can help restore the round to the shoulders.
D. L. Bartilink measured activity in the abdominal muscles of weight-lifters, and determined that activity in the rectus muscles was not part of the activity that pressurized the “fluid ball” in support of the spine; that’s the basis for the change in my instructions.
That a “forward and backward motion wherever consciousness takes place” could inform and be informed by “a sense of the ligaments of the internal oblique muscles, running diagonally from the pelvis upward to the rectus” may seem odd, yet when a distinction between inhalation and exhalation is made as the forward and backward motion is observed, the stretch and resile of the ligaments of the internal obliques becomes evident. The support of the ilio-lumbar ligaments 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. 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. That stretch and resile returns to the abdomen through the “turning to the left, turning to the right” reciprocation of the sartorius, gluteous, and tensor muscles, and to the ligaments of the internal obliques.
Bartilink pointed out that in mammals, the activity of the abdominals that generates pressure in the “fluid ball” to support the spine can occur without impinging on the activity of the diaphragm. Gautama’s paired instructions bring awareness to such a separation, initiating mindfulness of the activity of the diaphragm (through intuition of the long or short of inhalation or exhalation), and subsequently mindfulness of the activity of the body apart from the diaphragm (through the experience of the “whole (breath-)body” in inhalation or exhalation).
Yuanwu wrote, “you fall into sevens and eights”. Counter-intuitively, the reciprocation of the sartorius and tensor muscles in “turning to the left, turning to the right” carries upward into the abdominals through the experience of gravity, and makes possible “following up behind” as the displacement of fascia behind the sacrum facilitates the displacement of fascia behind the lower spine.
“Mastered at the waist” could be said to be a reference to the incorporation of the sense of gravity in the experience of the senses, particularly in conjunction with the ability to feel, and to the influence of gravity in the experience of self-location as a source of activity in the movement of breath.
The elements of Gautama’s “way of living” are said to unfold in the course of either an inhalation or an exhalation, with “beholding cessation” and “beholding relinquishment” the final two elements. The incorporation of the experience of the senses that allows self-location as a source of activity is the engine of the cessation of habitual activity with respect to inhalation and exhalation. The witness of such a cessation, along with the witness of a relinquishment of the identification of self with activity of the body, can return the mind first to inhalation and exhalation and then to a selfless examination of phenomena that occur as a part of inhalation and exhalation.
…making self-surrender (one’s) object of thought, (one) lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness of mind.
(SN V 200, Pali Text Society SN volume V pg 176)