Robert James Coons. 2015. Internal Elixir Cultivation: The Nature of Daoist Meditation. Tambuli Media. 140 pp. $22.95
Recently Dr. Mark Wiley, who runs Tambuli Media, sent me a copy of a book that he thought I would find interesting. Just for the record I am currently trying to convince Dr. Wiley to visit Kung Fu Tea and present a guest post looking at some of his own academic research on the social history and sociology of the Filipino martial arts. But given my interest in the traditional Chinese martial arts and “new religious movements” he suggested that I take a look at Robert James Coons’ recent volume, Internal Elixir Cultivation: The Nature of Daoist Meditation (Tambuli, 2015).
I was more than happy to agree as this volume touches on a number of subjects that have been on my mind. At first glance this might not seem like the sort of work that I would review here at Kung Fu Tea. Generally I focus on books about the history or sociology of the martial arts rather than manuals of their actual performance. And this text is only tangentially related to the martial arts.
As the title suggests, it is an introduction to Daoist meditation practices written from a practitioners (rather than a religious studies scholars’) perspective. While that sort of subject might be of interest to certain Taijiquan players or students of other internal styles, many martial artists (including those in my own lineage) would be quick to point out that their practice has little to do with Daoism.
The relationship between the Chinese martial arts and religion (usually in the guise of Chan Buddhism or some form of Daoist practice) has been one of the more contentious subjects to emerge in scholarly discussions of the origins and meaning of the traditional Chinese martial arts. Popular wisdom seems to uncritically accept the assumption that all of these fighting systems emerged from the well-spring of religious traditions. This generally dovetails with the often repeated assumption that the martial arts “are not really about fighting” but are instead an embodied technology designed to promote greater discipline, self-actualization and possibly even some sort of “transcendence.”
Various voices in the scholarly community have pushed back against these assertions. Peter Lorge and Stanley Henning have both noted that most of the actual motivations driving people into the martial arts during the late imperial period were of a distinctly pragmatic and non-spiritual nature. The threat (and promise) of economically motivated banditry probably did more to advance the martial arts in China’s 19th century countryside than any other single factor.
Yet as Meir Shahar might remind us, the tendency to see a grand alliance of esoteric medicine, self-defense skills and powerful tools for spiritual transcendence within the TCMA, cannot simply be dismissed as some sort of “New Age” concoction. While a distinct undercurrent for much of the late imperial period, this powerful synthesis, itself a symptom of other forms of philosophical and cultural syncretism which gripped Ming society, is clearly visible in the extent descriptions of the 16th and 17th century Shaolin arts.
This same combination of interest would reemerge in a powerful way during the Republic period (see the development of Sun Lutang’s Taijiquan style as an important example of this trend). And even in the current era of MMA’s ascendancy, the vision of a truly comprehensive fighting, health and spiritual system still exerts a powerful pull on the public’s imagination.
Yet what exactly are individuals imagining? Given the pace of social change and the realities of global translation, it seems unlikely that the martial dreams of a Taiji student in Bryant Park today would be fully compatible with those of his counterpart in Shanghai in the 1920s (to say nothing of a village in Henan in 1710).
This is a question that I have always found to be a bit challenging. My practical interests lay in the field of Southern Kung Fu rather than the classic northern “internal arts.” Further, my academic research has focused on questions of social organization, structural conflict and violence rather than religious history or individual belief.
Yet it is hard to deny the centrality of these associations to the modern perceptions of what the Chinese martial arts are and should be. Coons’ book is interesting to me as a primary text speaking to these questions. How have western students of the TCMA approached Daoism? What sorts of individual practices are currently popular? Which religious texts or media discourses inform these practices? What does this reveal about religious change in western society today? And what hints, if any, does this provide as to the motivations of those who continue to seek out the Chinese martial arts?
A careful reader armed with the appropriate body of critical or social scientific theory may find some interesting answers to each of these questions within the pages of this slim volume. Serious scholarship on these issues will require a much larger body of observation than a single book. Still, the clarity, brevity and careful construction of this work make it a good place to start.
Reviewing the Book
Before delving into a couple of these more theoretical questions, I should begin by saying a couple of words about Coons’ book itself. The author is a long time student of Daoism who has also been involved with a number of other Chinese cultural traditions including the martial arts, poetry, calligraphy and tea appreciation. His biography states that he currently runs a tea import business in Canada and an English school in Henan, China.
His approach to his subject matter is straight forward and refreshingly modest. In a field that is typically dominated by “Masters” he claims only to be a lay student of Daoism (rather than a priest of any sort) whose teacher was also a lay disciple. His grand-teacher, however, was Cao Zhenyang, formerly a leader of the Dragon Gate sect of Quanzhen Daoism and abbot of the Beijing White Cloud Temple.
The book itself is best approached as an introduction to, and manual of, basic Daoist meditation techniques as they emerged during the Republic period. Like other reformers (and one suspects his teachers), Coons goes to some lengths to distance Daoist meditation from either contemporary occult practices or popular religion (which at times he seems to openly disparage). His work also attempts to more closely link meditative practices to the philosophical traditions of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzhi.
At 140 pages the volume is a quick read. I got through the book in an afternoon. Of course reading this book from cover to cover may not be the best approach. Anyone who wants to try the various recommended meditation exercises and integrate them into their daily routines would have a few weeks worth of material to work with.
The exercises themselves are clear and straight forward. No previous knowledge or cultural familiarity is presupposed by this project, and it seems to be intentionally written for true beginners. That said, if you have spent any time around the Chinese martial arts you will probably run into a fair amount that already sounds familiar. A number of black and white illustrations are provided including original photography, technical diagrams and classic works of art.
While this small volume is focused solely on practice and makes no claims to being in any way scholarly, Coons does manage to integrate a fair bit of history into his discussion. Anyone interested in a 10 minute overview of the current “consensus view” on the development of Daoism will want to check out the historical appendix. Readers will also notice asides to historical research throughout his text, though these never distract from the book’s more practical aims. One suspects that Coons’ sectarian loyalties color certain aspects of how he presents this discussion to the reader, but in a book explicitly devoted to promoting a certain approach to Daoist practice, that is probably to be expected.
Indeed, by the end of this volume readers will be left with very few doubts as to Coons’ motivations. His own preface is highly confessional and situates Daoist meditation as a valuable tool it treating practically all of the ills of the modern world, from work related stress and obesity to preventing cancer and other serious diseases. In fact, students of martial arts studies may want to take note of the “medicalization” of this preface, which in some ways is a bit at odds with the more philosophical tone of the rest of the book.
His final historical discussion places a teleological spin on the rise of his own (highly secularized and meditation focused) approach to Daoism while underplaying, or even disparaging, its other manifestations within Chinese society. Note the following remarks on pages 136 and 137:
“After the time of Huang Yuanji, Daoism again went into a lull, and by the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 Daoism had descended into a confused amalgam of folk religions and superstitions mostly popular among the Chinese peasant classes in in rural areas such as Fujian, Shandong, Henan and so on.”….
“Daoism today exists both within the realm of religion and as something that normal people can study.”
Daoist Practice in a Globalized and Secular West
Coons does a good job of presenting his own approach to Daoism in a succinct and clear way. Nor could one claim that such a philosophy is in any way illegitimate. This approach emerged out of reforms that were made during the Republic period and following the Cultural Revolution. Still, it is unlikely that this text would score many points with anthropologists or students of comparative religion.
Western martial artists may also need to approach this discussion with some caution. What Coons outlines may work as a devotional practice. Yet if one is primarily interested in understanding the meaning and the historical evolution of the traditional martial arts, reading this Republic-era philosophy back in time may lead to anachronism and misunderstanding. Religion and ritual have been a critically important organizing forces throughout Chinese history. One suspects that in most instances where we have seen convergence, ritual has been important to the martial arts precisely because it has provided a pathway to larger and more dynamic forms of social organization.
Anyone interested in the often complex nexus between martial culture, Daoist ritual, Ming era novels and patterns of militia organization should check out Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel (University of Hawaii Press, 2015) by Prof. Mark R. E. Meulenbeld. The sort of emphasis on modern philosophical Daoism presented by Coons would do little to prepare a reader for the rich and complicated world of martial values and religion laid out by Meulenbled.
I bring this up to emphasize the following point. Western students of the Chinese martial arts are often very interested in Daoism. Further, we tend to favor the more philosophical approaches to the discipline as outlined by Coons. Yet from a historian’s standpoint, it is dangerous to read these ideas onto the past. This is precisely what led to the sorts of anachronistic myth-making that authors such as Peter Lorge, Brian Kennedy and Stanley Henning have warned against.
Perhaps the more interesting question might be to ask why such approaches, formulated to appeal to both audiences and authorities in the Republic and then Maoist China, have such appeal for Western readers, spiritual seekers and martial artists today? This brings us back to those fundamental questions that emerged in the introduction to this essay. When we see similar ideas separated by geographic, cultural or chronological space, can we be sure that everyone is part of the same conversation?
One suspects that the answer is probably no. On the one hand it is clear that epistemic communities can form uniting groups of practitioners in China and the West. Yet this does not necessarily mean that every value is shared or that all cultural discourses are congruent.
What is often more interesting to me is the way that symbols mutate, cultural concepts are appropriated, and discourses hybridize. The practice of Daoist meditation in Taiwan during the 1960s likely represented a set of conservative values quite different from the meanings that it was assigned by hippies in the American counter culture. Much the same could be said of the Taijiquan of figures like Zheng Manqing or T. T. Liang.
I have often wondered what Zheng, a conservative figure, thought about suddenly finding himself at the center of a counter-culture movement in New York City during the 1970s? At times one wonders if such communities are actually built on a sort of reciprocal exploitation. Teachers receive the resources and prestige that they need to continue their projects (built on one set of values), while students are allowed to appropriate practices and concepts for their own, at times very different, projects. Perhaps this is what is meant by the traditional saying of “One Bed, Two Dreams.”
Coons’ book brings up many of these same questions. Both Daoism and Tajiquan have been associated with counter-culture values in North America since the 1960s. Still, the rise of Qigong in late 1990s, as well as its recent growth in popularity, tracks nicely with other more recent social trends.
Perhaps the most important of these has been the rise of the “nones” in the American religious landscape. Social scientists have noted that the number of people identifying with no specific religious tradition has dropped precipitously within society since the 1990s. Currently more than 23% of Americans do not identify with any religious denomination, an increase from about 8% at the start of the 1990s.
Most of these individuals are not atheists and many of them claim to still observe some sort of spiritual practices or values. What we are seeing here is more of a turn away from traditional organized religions rather than a rapidly spreading disbelief in spirituality. Nor are the reasons behind this trend agreed upon by all researchers. Some (like the Pew Forum) have pointed to increasing religious polarization within the political system, while others have looked at the rise of the internet, increased secularization, privatization, the decline of social networks and cultural fragmentation.
Obviously we will not resolve this important puzzle within this post, though I think that Coons’ book does point towards the importance of fragmentation. It is probably not a coincidence that the popularity of practices like Qingong and Daoist meditation are gaining adherents at this moment in history. Nor is fragmentation (understood as the emergence of a rich pallet of cultural options where previously there was only one) always a bad thing. At times it can allow for the emergence of powerful new discourses that would have been unthinkable in the past.
Consider again the contents of this book. Its techniques and practices are all designed to promote a “spiritualized” approach to self-actualization and embodied transcendence while at the same time avoiding any taint of sectarian religion or deistic belief. Further, a move away from religion and ritual towards the realm of meditation has the effect of stripping much of the specific cultural content out of Daoism (at least at the level that the author is offering it to his readers). No knowledge of the Chinese language, cultural practice or complicated religious rites is necessary. In fact, those things can even be seen as a hindrance to a “purer” (and more commercially viable) approach to Daoist meditation.
The religious reforms instigated in China after 1911 were not created to advance the export of certain forms of Daoist practice on the world markets today. Yet they seem to be doing exactly that. Globalization, it seems, works in mysterious ways.
This does not mean that individually held values across transnational communities will always be congruent. Again, one suspects that there is an element of mutual exploitation here.
Or maybe it would be better to call it “cooperation.” Rather than simply ensuring that the student becomes a carbon copy the teacher, the more exciting and mature approach is to supply them with the needed tools in the hopes that they will create new solutions for their own problems. Perhaps we might be the generation to craft new syncretic cultural discourses as powerful as those that emerged during the Ming dynasty. The fact that so many martial artists will be interested applying what they have learned in Coons’ manual bears powerful testimony to the fact that we are still living in the shadow of that great explosion of creative energy. Just imagine what another burst of such innovation might accomplish for the martial arts?
If you enjoyed this book review you might also want to read: The Chinese Gentle Art Complete: Reviewing the Bible of Ngo Cho Kun (Five Ancestors Boxing)