Quaker Universalist Conversations

What Eastern Religion Has Taught Me about the Body and My Own Tradition

Scott Martin is a member of Centre Friends Meeting in Centreville, DE. In March he invited us to republish “Ensuring the Future of Liberal Quakerism: Transmission or Transformation?” from his blog The Jungian Quaker .

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine Like many of my generation, my first exposure to eastern religion was watching the TV program Kung Fu. Aired between 1972 and 1975, Kung Fu was the story of Kwai Chang Caine (played by Keith Carradine), an American orphan trained as a Shaolin1 monk in China, who then returns to the American West in search of his half-brother. Along the way, Caine has many adventures which he survives through a combination of Taoist2 wisdom and martial arts prowess.

Inspired by the program, I decided in my 20’s to seek out my own master. As luck would have it, I found Master Dee Chou, a retired army general from Taiwan and an internationally renowned teacher of tai chi3 who lived no more than a 15-minute drive from my home in Delaware.

Master Chou was a man in his 80’s but he had the body and reflexes of a 20-year old. But it had not always been so. Earlier in his life he was overweight and suffered from arthritis so badly that he could hardly dress himself without help from his wife. He decided to take up the practice of tai chi and his health rapidly improved.

In their Taoist spirituality…the body
was actually the locus of spiritual development.

"Single whip" move from taoist tai chi What impressed me about Kwai Chang Caine and Master Chou was how important a role the body played in their Taoist spirituality. The body was actually the locus of spiritual development.

My traditional Christian upbringing had not really prepared me to understand this. I had been taught that the body was more an impediment than help to spiritual growth. The body with its instincts needed to be chastened. Spirit and body were not one, but separate and opposing things.

Later in life I took my interest in Asian culture a step further by being trained as a Shiatsu practitioner. Shiatsu is a Japanese form of body work that involves finger, palm and elbow pressure applied to acupuncture points and meridians. Key to shiatsu is the idea of “chi”, or life energy. When there is a sufficient volume of chi flowing freely throughout the body we are healthy. When chi is deficient and stagnant we get sick.

Traditional Chinese character qì (ch'i)
By this point in my life I had become a Friend and I became very interested if there was anything in early Quakerism that resembled the eastern concept of chi. In reading early Friends I soon encountered the notion of “the power,” and I wrote an article for the Friends Journal with the title “‘The Power,’ Quaking and the Rediscovery of Primitive Quakerism.” (For access to full article, subscribe to Friends Journal.)

The article began with these words:

‘The Power of the Lord,’ or just simply, ‘The Power,’ was a very important concept to the early Quakers, but it is virtually unknown among Friends today…Friends would experience this power surrounding them or flowing through their bodies under a variety of conditions, but most often at the point of convincement, when facing a trial, or during meeting for worship.

An experience of the power was often associated with some kind of involuntary physical or mental phenomenon. When seized by the power, some Friends quaked, vocalized, or fell unconscious to the floor, while other Friends saw brilliant light, had visions, experienced healing, or felt a force emanating from them that was capable of subduing an angry and hostile mob.

Quite aside from whether you buy the concept of life energy or the power, it is clear that early Quaker experience, like eastern religion, involved the body.

In fact, George Fox’s use of the term “celestial flesh” would seem to imply that he, at least, did not buy into a spirit/matter dualism.

Where is there an awareness of
the importance of the body in Quakerism today?

But where is there an awareness of the importance of the body in Quakerism today? Certainly, Friends are mindful of the body’s role in Meeting for Worship. Quakers tend to focus on maintaining good body posture and finding a variety of ways to still the body-mind.

But I wonder if there isn’t still something more that we have lost along the way.


Notes & Image Sources

Image: “Kwai Chang Caine” from “David Carradine’s Legacy to be Honored at Martial Arts Museum,” on the website of Martial Arts History Museum (12/10/2014).

1 See “A Brief History of Shaolin-Do” on the website of the Shaolin-Do Association.

The Shaolin Temple was a Buddhist temple orginally built sometime between 386 and 534 A.D., but most agree that it was completed around 495 A.D. At its peak, the Shaolin Temple was one of the largest monestaries in all of China…. The Shaolin Temples were the equivalent of universities for the martial arts…. Over the course of time, an untold amount of martial knowledge was housed at the Shaolin temples.

2 See “Taoism Origins, Taoism History, Taoism Beliefs” on the website of Patheos.

Taoism, also known as Daoism, is an indigenous Chinese religion often associated with the Daode jing (Tao Te Ching), a philosophical and political text purportedly written by Laozi (Lao Tzu) sometime in the 3rd or 4th centuries B.C.E. The Daode jing focuses on dao as a “way” or “path“—that is, the appropriate way to behave and to lead others—but [it] also refers to Tao as something that existed “before Heaven and Earth,” a primal and chaotic matrix from which all forms emerged.

3 See “History of Tai Chi” on the website of Tai Chi for Health Institute. See also the YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9BFWJsrmSY.

Tai Chi is one of the best known martial arts of the Internal systems from ancient China. Based on Qigong and martial art techniques from thousands of years ago, Chen Wangting developed the Chen Style Tai Chi around 1670. It is characterised by contrasting and complimentary movements-slow and soft versus fast and hard. It contains explosive power and low stances….

Yang Lu-chan learned Tai Chi from the Chen village. He later modified it with higher stances, gentle and slow movements, making it much more suitable for more people. From Yang and Chen style, three other major styles developed – Wu, Hao, and Sun.

Image: “Single whip” movement, from “List of 108 Taoist Tai Chi moves” on Pinterest.

Image: “Traditional Chinese character qì,” also used in Korean hanja. In Japanese kanji, this character was used until 1946, when it was changed to 気. By chris 論 (http://www.create.org/healingarts/kanji_an_2.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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