Mountaindwelling Taoists

Of the well-known martial arts it is often said that only Ba Gua is purely of Taoist origin.47 Dong himself said that he learned his art from a "mountain Taoist." Historical records show that there were mountain Taoists and that they practiced martial arts along with special energetic methods, meditation, and Taoist yogas in the search for physical immortality and union with the Tao. Aspirants left civilization behind to live in these remote locations where they were free to practice esoteric health and mind-training regimens. To get a glimpse into the influence mountain Taoists had on Dong it is useful to examine the life and practices of these Spartan highlanders. In The Secret and Sublime, noted Sinologist John Blofeld describes his meetings with Taoist holy sages and recluses in the mountains of China before the 1949 communist takeover of the mainland. Below is an account of Taoists in mock battle he observed one evening while a guest at a Taoist hermitage:

The climax of the evening was a combat between two pairs of recluses armed with swords. Dark robes billowing in the wind, sleeves flapping like phoenix-wings, they ran and leapt, cut and thrust with such agility that their weapons darting in the moonlight produced spurts of liquid fire. The clash of steel on steel and the flurry of sparks proclaimed that the great swords were no toys; it seemed impossible that the contestants would emerge unwounded from an encounter fierce enough for me to expect to see heads and limbs sundered from their bodies. The blows were not feints, but dealt in earnest in the sure knowledge that the opposing adepts had the speed and skill to protect themselves by parrying or swift avoidance. The combat had the aspect of a frenzied ritual in which the contestants were determined to die beneath one another's swords. By the time it ended, I was sweating with anxiety and could scarcely believe my eyes when the four recluses walked towards the Abbot smiling and unscathed.48

This may very well have been the type of experience that influenced Dong Hai-Chuan. It was an experience of martial expertise, what he would have called gao shou (masterful) replete with lightness, great skill, and inward peace reflected in physical form and Taoist practice. In the same text quoted above, Blofeld questioned the Abbot of the monastery about the relationship of Taoist spirituality to martial arts and mental training. His answer is germane:

This principle of voidness and passivity must be carried over into all affairs. As Lao Tzu says: 'He who excels in combat is one who does not let himself be roused.' That the warriors of old flocked to our peaceful hermitages to foster their martial skills is no paradox; they came to learn how to apply the secret of emptiness, how to ensure that the enemy's sword, though aimed at flesh, encounters void, and how to destroy the foe by striking with dispassion. Hatred arouses wrath; wrath breeds excitement; excitement leads to carelessness which, to a warrior, brings death. A master swordsman can slay ten enemies besetting him simultaneously, by virtue of such dispassion that he is able to judge to perfection how to dodge their thrusts. A swordsman or an archer's aim is surest when his mind, concentrated on the work in hand, is indifferent to failure or success. Stillness in the heart of movement is the secret of all power, [emphasis added]

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