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.
(The Blue Cliff Record, trans. Cleary Cleary, pg 144)
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?
(Ibid, pg 149)
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.’
(Ibid, pg 151)
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.
In my post “Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind”, I wrote:
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.
(Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind, Zazen Notes, Dec. 11, 2016)
In “Fuxi’s Poem”, I offered a summary of how stretch in the fascia and ligaments of 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, 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. Flexibility side-to-side at the hip joints stretches the sacro-spinous ligaments and 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, and activity in the 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) to rotate the pelvis slightly around the vertical axis of the spine.
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.
(“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man-Ching trans. Douglas Wile, pg. 55)
Again in the post “Turning to the Left, Turning to the Right, Following Up Behind”, 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. At the same time, the action in the sartorius 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 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. The stretch and resile of the sacrotuberous ligaments and the consequent reciprocal activity in the left and right muscles of the pelvic floor is described by Fuxi as “the ox crosses the wooden bridge” (see “Fuxi’s Poem”).
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.
(“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)
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.
Wu Tsu’s direction to “hold (the snake) tight by the back of the neck with one quick grab” is for me a description of the feeling at the back of the neck when “the ox crosses the wooden bridge”.
The classics of Tai Chi point out:
When (our thoughts) are on the ch’i, then it is blocked.
(“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man-Ching trans. Douglas Wile, pg. 12)
Although I have made a study of the kinesthesiology of the body, the kinesthesiology really only serves to help me relax. Gautama spoke of thought applied to the experience of the whole body of an inhalation or the whole body of an exhalation; in such an experience, activity in the body that responds to relaxation to allow a feeling of ease can emerge.
As I have described, the experience of the three motions (forward and back, side to side, left and right) at the location of awareness tends not only to physically shift awareness (as the influence of the eyes is attenuated), but also to bring forward activity that responds to relaxation. The discrimination of the influence of the eyes on the location of awareness and the experience of the location of awareness as separate from the proprioceptive consciousness of the activity of the body can condition a responsiveness of the body to relaxation, and an ease.
Gautama outlined the cultivation of equalibrioception, proprioception, and graviception through an analogy, using the image of a ball collected from soap powder sprinkled inside a basin and moistened with water:
…(one) steeps and drenches and suffuses this body with a zest and ease, born of solitude, so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this lone-born zest and ease. …as a handy bathman or attendant might strew bath-powder in some copper basin and, gradually sprinkling water, knead it together so that the bath-ball gathered up the moisture, became enveloped in moisture and saturated both in and out, but did not ooze moisture; even so (one) steeps, drenches, fills and suffuses this body with zest and ease, born of solitude, so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this lone-born zest and ease.
(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19)
The emphasis is on three of the four senses that neurobiologists Blanke and Mohr identified as coordinating to provide the feeling of self: equalibrioception (“the bath-ball”), proprioception (“so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded…”), and graviception (“steeps, drenches, fills and suffuses).
In the analogies Gautama used for his three subsequent meditative states, he pointed to an alternation between states centered around equalibrioception with proprioception and graviception, and states centered around proprioception and graviception only. Equalibrioception accompanied by proprioception and graviception (the bath-ball) becomes proprioception and graviception (a spring-fed pool with no visible source), then three senses again (lotuses that never break the surface of the water), and finally proprioception and graviception connected with the surface of the skin (as a “cloth… wrapt from head to foot”).
As Cheng Man-Ching wrote:
The one word, ‘relax’, is the most difficult to achieve. All the rest follows naturally. When we are able to relax completely, this is sinking.
(“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man-Ching trans. Douglas Wile, pg. 66)
There can be a panic that comes in feeling the necessity of the whole body of an inhalation or of the whole body of an exhalation without finding relaxation, without finding ease (see The Case of the Suffocating Woman, Zazen Notes, May 2, 2017). A surrender of “habits of mind” sufficient to experience activity in those senses necessary for the movement of breath is required, as Yuanwu points out:
You must strive with all your might to bite through here and cut off conditioned habits of mind. Be like a person who has died the great death*: after your breath is cut off, then you come back to life. Only then do you realize that it is as open as empty space. Only then do you reach the point where your feet are walking on the ground of reality.
(“Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu”, translated by J.C. and Thomas Cleary, pg 84)
I wrote previously about what happens for me after the “breath is cut off”:
Coming back to life is coming back to my senses (including equalibrioception, proprioception, and graviception). When I come back to my senses, the location of my awareness can move even if the rest of me is still, that is “open as empty space”; the rest of me can move when the location of my awareness is still (“the millstone turns but the mind does not”), that is “feet walking on the ground of reality”. I can breathe.
(An Image in the Place of an Image, Zazen Notes, Feb. 6, 2016)
At the same time, because contact in the necessary senses is a part of the natural movement of breath, Dogen can say that sustained effort need not be applied:
Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the way is perfectly pervasive; how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is naturally unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely, the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it?
(Dogen, “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”, Koroku Fukan zazen gi, from “Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation by Carl Bielefeldt, pg 175, ed. 1988)
The passage from the third of Gautama’s initial states, a state marked by the cessation of ease apart from equanimity, to the fourth of his initial states, marked by the cessation of happiness apart from equanimity, is made in part by the abandonment of ease. The abandonment of ease comes in spite of the suffocation response, with a relaxation or “sinking” that allows the movement of breath to become the source of the action of the body, as though the action were a part of the autonomic activity of breath.
The experience of the whole body of an inhalation or an exhalation, of relaxation of the activity of the body (in inhalation or exhalation), and of a feeling of ease (in inhalation or exhalation) are the third, fourth, and sixth parts of Gautama’s way of living (see Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s ‘Pleasant Way of Living’ for more about Gautama’s way of living).
*”People who have died the great death are all free of the Buddha-Dharma, free from its principles and its abstruseness, free from gain and loss, right and wrong, merit and demerit; they have reached here and rest in this way.”
(Yuanwu, from “Critical Sermons of the Zen Tradition: Hismatsu’s Talks on Linji”, pg 155)