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Athletic Ch’an–melding movement with meditation for relaxation, health

Taiwan Journal: Only a few months ago Taiwan was in the grip of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Now that the crisis has passed and life is returning to normal, the experience has engendered a positive legacy: realization of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

In the post-SARS period, many have come to see exercise as an essential ingredient in the maintenance of good health and resistance to disease. Consequently, Taiwan has witnessed a marked increase in the number of people doing early-morning exercise in city parks and plazas or working out in gymnasiums.

A newcomer to the many varieties of exercise is one known as “Dharma athletic Ch’an,” promoted by the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Foundation as a way of enhancing mental and physical harmony. The Chinese word Ch’an, a translation of the Sanskrit dhyana, or concentration, names a tradition of Buddhist meditation developed in China, which, since its transmission to Japan, has become known to the world by the Japanese-language equivalent Zen. The word Dharma is a Sanskrit term meaning the fundamental way of things, or Reality, underlying the world of phenomenal appearances.

According to the Dharma Drum Foundation–an enthusiastic advocate of Ch’an meditation–the exercise emphasizes relaxation and harmonious alignment of body structure rather than muscular development. Although Dharma athletic Ch’an is similar in principle to tai chi chuan martial-art training techniques, it emphasizes meditation on the body as a whole rather than chi kung disciplines for cultivating the body’s subtle chi energy flow. “As a way of mastering coordinated physical action, meditation allows practitioners to gain insight into ‘universal oneness of being’ and to thereby attain a physically and mentally balanced state,” read the foundation’s press release.

This new approach to cultivation of mental and physical well-being comprises eight standing movements combined with meditative observation: upright spinal twisting; circular head-and-neck motion; circular hip motion; reaching for sky and ground; shallow squatting with forward-extending arms; rotational left- right lateral reaching with bent waist; circular motion of bent knees; and a forward-stretching motion similar to an epee plunge. “Although the exercise appears very simple and ordinary, only when you actually practice the principles of effortless breathing, rhythmic movement and physical equilibration can you realize its benefits,” said practitioner Chen Wu-hsiung.

“Relaxation is the key to the exercise,” added Chen. “It involves the entire body and mind, so as to ensure that every bone and muscle is relaxed, thereby allowing chi to flow without hindrance and enabling practitioners to be aware of their surroundings and move in rhythm with Nature,” he explained.

Since 1987, when martial law was lifted in Taiwan and religious groups began developing freely, Ch’an has become increasingly popular throughout the island. According to legend, it originated with Siddhartha Gautama–popularly known as the Buddha, or Awakened One–and was transmitted to posterity via his disciple Mahakashyapa and a subsequent lineage of Ch’an masters stretching over the two and a half millennia since then. When the Buddha held out a bouquet of flowers in front of his disciples without uttering a word, nobody knew what the gesture meant except for Mahakashyapa, who just smiled. “Only Mahakashyapa understands the true Dharma and the wondrous mind of nirvana,” said the Buddha.

A reputed link in the chain of Ch’an transmission, Bodhidharma, introduced the precursor of Ch’an to China a millennium later in the 6th century. Though few people know of this story, what attracts them to Ch’an is the possibility of experiencing meditative insight leading to the attainment of enlightenment, or clear perception of one’s true nature.

“To meditate, a practitioner starts by concentrating on inhaling and exhaling. With concentration, one can ignore any thoughts that arise and thus return to a thought-free state,” said Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, founder of the Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Culture and the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Foundation. “The combination of meditation and exercise enables people to become aware of the life energy underlying all achievement and expression,” said the master, who has practiced the exercise for some 20 years.

Practitioners attest to both physical and psychic benefits of Dharma athletic Ch’an. “The relaxation that the exercise brings gets rid of my serious muscle aches and helps me reduce stress,” said a 45-year-old woman surnamed Lee. Another zealous practitioner surnamed Huang claimed that since beginning to do the exercise, he not only has become slimmer but calmer as well. “Before taking up athletic Ch’an, I tended to lose my temper easily, as in traffic jams. Now I’m more patient.” Though Dharma athletic Ch’an is a relatively recent development, debuting in April of this year, this melding of meditation and motion is finding growing favor among Taiwanese, thus far having attracted 4,000 practitioners island-wide. In order to boost the exercise, many enthusiasts have volunteered to teach the technique at hospitals, prisons, companies and schools.

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