“You’re cool with learning some qigong, right Father Smith?” I asked.
Although he wasn’t wearing his clerical garb, I already knew that he was an ordained Catholic priest. He had traveled hundreds of miles to learn Shaolin Kung Fu from me, and we had communicated via email.
But qigong is a big part of the kung fu that I teach, and I wanted to be sure he understood what he was learning.
“Yes Sifu,” he said with a big smile. “We’re cool.”
And that’s how our lessons progressed, with me calling him Father, and him calling me Sifu. I’m not Catholic, but I used his title out of respect. And I assume that he called me Sifu for the same reasons.
When I taught a Sufi Sheik, I called him Sheik.
When I taught a Protestant minister, I used the title Reverend.
When I taught in a synagogue in New York, I used the title, Rabbi.
This should give you a pretty good idea about whether you need to be Buddhist or Taoist to practice qigong, but my aim in today’s walk-and-talk is to clear up any confusion about the relationship between qigong and spirituality/religion.
Hopefully, what I share with you in this video will not only satisfy your curiosity but also give you a good explanation to share when people ask you about qigong!
Now I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about the intersection of spirituality and qigong? Let me know in the comments below!
Do you need to be Buddhist or Taoist to practice qigong and tai chi? We’ll talk about that and more in today’s walk and talk video.
I’m Sifu Anthony, and I’m here in Monterey, California and it’s absolutely breathtaking here. So I just had to go grab the camera and take you guys for a walk and we’ll talk about this question, which I get all the time and I just got today, so I thought it’d be a good topic to talk about.
So, we’ll go for a nice long walk and we’ll talk about this topic: Do you need to be Buddhist or Taoist in order to practice qigong or tai chi?
So first I’ll give you a simple answer and I’ll give it to you in terms of my own school of qigong. The type of Qigong I practice is called Flowing Zen Qigong. So that’s my amalgam of the many different styles and techniques that I learned from many different masters over many different years. I call what I teach Flowing Zen Qigong.
Do you need to be Buddhist or Taoist to practice Flowing Zen Qigong? The answer is hell no! Absolutely not! That is not how I teach. I mean anybody who knows me knows that I’m just a very no-nonsense kind of teacher. I will teach some of the ancient philosophies but there’s no way you need to be Buddhist or Taoist and my teaching itself is not religious.
Now, this gets confusing in the West because we muck up the difference between religions and philosophies and so again, from my school, my perspective– absolutely not. I do not teach anything religious.
Is what I teach sometimes spiritual? Well, yeah that’s the nature of things. I mean, especially meditative arts when you get into this place it can be spiritual. But you know what? Look, walking here out in nature. That can be a spiritual thing. Why is that? It’s because you just connect with something larger than yourself. It doesn’t mean that this place is a religious institution, it’s not. Spirituality is a connection with nature. That can be spirituality, for sure.
So, if you’re practicing Flowing Zen Qigong and you connect with nature or you connect with something larger than yourself you might have a spiritual experience. That doesn’t make me a religious leader and it doesn’t make you a Buddhist or Taoist, right?
And in fact, I think to just drive the point home I’ll mention that I have taught religious leaders of many different traditions. So, Catholic priests, Buddhists, and Taoists including a monk, a Sufi Sheikh, so a Sufi leader, lots of you know, Protestant ministers, and some rabbis. In fact, I was invited to teach at a rabbi’s synagogue, so I taught qigong in his synagogue!
I mention this because it proves that the Qigong I teach is not religious, that these religious leaders feel safe learning it and even sharing it with their people. So, you know, you can stop worrying about it so much.
Why is there so much confusion in this world, though? So, this is clear from my school of Qigong– it’s not religious. But why is there so much confusion? Well, part of the confusion is that we have different types of Qigong that are categorized as either Buddhist or Taoist.
We have Buddhist qigong- like an example is the Eighteen Luohan Hands that I teach.
We have Taoist qigong. An example is the Twelve Qigong Treasures that I also teach and they’re characteristically a little bit different.
So characteristically, Buddhist Qigong that came from the Shaolin Temple, in particular, is a little bit more staccato. So, there are stops and starts to it, like lifting the sky, where it’s not completely circular to the movement. So, it goes up, there’s a little pause at the top and then comes back down.
And then Taoist Qigong, especially if it’s dynamic qigong, that you can see… you can see the movement tends to be more circular. So, the movements themselves– there’s no stopping and starting, it’s just circular completely. That’s a very cursory explanation of the difference between Buddhist and Taoist Qigong.
There are these different categories, or they’re really just lineages of Qigong. You’ve got lineages that came from the Shaolin Temple- and I belong to, that’s one of the lineages that I claim, right back to the Shaolin Temple. And then there are lineages that came from the various Taoist temples throughout China and we’ve got a very long history.
But here’s what you also need to know (especially the Shaolin Temple) it was sort of a crossroads of sorts where a lot of things went to Shaolin. There’s a saying in China that all roads (they’re referring to martial arts) lead back to Shaolin. And that may or may not be true, but I think that we can also say that all roads lead to Shaolin in the sense that it was just a place where lots of different techniques and traditions came and parked for a while, and then the monks there took what was useful.
They didn’t care if it was Taoist Qigong, if it was useful to them, they mixed it in with what they did. So, even separating the difference between Taoist and Buddhist Qigong is not always easy, they cross paths many times. They’ve been bred together many, many times for hundreds, probably thousands of years. So, you can’t just point to this type of Qigong as being Taoist and this type being Buddhist. It’s just not that simple.
This is where some of the confusion comes from though, is that there are these different schools or lineages of qigong. And then we also talk (as Qigong teachers) we talk about these philosophies, right? So, we talk about, for example, the philosophy of yin and yang. Which is what? Right, it’s a circle, you know, the yin and yang symbol. The circle with the black and the white. So, what is that philosophy? Where does that come from?
Well, that comes from Taoism. That’s one of the original Taoist philosophies. It happens to be very, very useful for both qigong and tai chi. It’s something that can help you to get more out of your practice.
Okay, so the Buddhist and Taoist thing is there, but it’s maybe not that important, it’s not that relevant, it’s more of a historical thing. The philosophies are important, so you may learn about yin and yang in your qigong, but that does not make you Taoist. Not by any means. That’s not a Taoist ritual, that’s just a basic philosophy that really is not… you’re hard-pressed to call it religious. And nobody’s asking you to convert to it.
If you want to translate the philosophy of yin and yang into your own other philosophy, that’s fine. But what we’re trying to do when we mention that, like the theory of yin and yang, is to help you to understand what you’re doing with qigong so that you can get better results. At least that’s what I’m doing with my teaching.
If I’m going to present to you a philosophy like yin and yang, or let’s say the theory of five elements, which is not necessarily Taoist although it connects to Taoist traditions. If I’m gonna teach you the theory of five elements, it’s so that you can get some benefit from it because it’s gonna help you with your practice, help you get better results, that’s what I want. Right? That’s what I want as a teacher, so that’s why I would be sharing it with you.
So, I think, for the most part, we as Qigong teachers are sharing these ideas with you to help you, not to convert you or to spread some sort of religious ideas or anything like that.
Let me also make it clear that there are some teachers out there who do incorporate more of a spiritual tint into their teaching. My teaching for many years has been mostly about healing. What we would call medical qigong. That was you know, what drew me to qigong, that was a lot of my early success with qigong.
Now the older I get and the more I teach I would say the more and more spiritual I get for myself, and it leaks out into my teaching. But it’s non-religious. It’s just you know, connecting with something larger, it’s mindfulness, things like this. Being a good person- that’s spirituality.
So, there are some teachers out there though, that incorporate more of a spiritual angle into their qigong teaching. I’m not one of them, I don’t push it hard.
But to give you an example: Falun Gong (which is a famous style of qigong) was really persecuted in China because the leader (the founder) was not only very, very spiritual, but he was political in some of the things that he was saying, and you know in communist China that’s a no-no, you can’t do that. So, they cracked down on Falun Gong.
But there is a religious tint to it and you have to decide for yourself whether you like that or not. Or, sorry, let me correct that. There is a spiritual tint to it. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it’s religious. I think it could go either way in terms of Falun Gong, and that would be the same for some of the other types of qigong out there. It’s really up to you to decide whether or not you’re comfortable.
So, that’s what it really comes down to, is are you comfortable with the teacher and the way they present it? Qigong is not one thing. You can’t just say Qigong is this or that. There are so many different styles, different ways of presenting, different teachers. So, you can’t say qigong is this or that.
But I think we can very safely say, especially in the West, that qigong is not really religious, it’s not something that you should worry about. You definitely don’t need to be Buddhist or Taoist. That’s not what’s going on here. There’ll be no Buddhist chanting in my school. I think in most schools. I’m trying to think of any of the teachers I had that. If they incorporate that. Maybe sometimes.
But you just have to decide whether you’re comfortable or not, and I think that this is a good way to figure out whether or not you connect with your teacher or not. So, you can ask them questions and if you don’t get good answers from your teacher, if you don’t get answers that you like, I think you should find another teacher.
I think it’s very important to connect with your teacher, to understand them, they should understand you. You should be able to ask questions like this, like, “Hey, what did you mean by this when you said that in class” or “Is that a Buddhist thing? Is that a Taoist thing? What are you asking of me?” You should be able to ask questions like that and get satisfactory answers from your teacher.
And if you don’t get satisfactory answers, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher, but maybe they’re just not the teacher for you, and I think it’s very important for you to go find a teacher that you connect with, that you can feel comfortable within class, that you can relax totally, because that’s such a fundamental thing in pretty much every school of qigong, you need to relax deeply.
If you can’t relax, if you’re like, worried about “Is that a Buddhist thing? “Is that a Taoist thing?” “What are we doing today?” “I don’t feel comfortable.” You’re not going to get the best benefits from Qigong. Go find another teacher.
There are so many teachers out there these days. You can learn online, you can learn in person, you can shop around. It’s not like the old days. I mean, I had to travel to Asia to learn this stuff. Those days are gone.
So, find a teacher that you connect with and ask them the questions that you want to ask them. If you’re my student and you’re wondering, I think I’ll give you a pretty good answer, but the simple answer is no. You do not need to be Buddhist or Taoist to practice qigong in my school, nor tai chi.
We’re just a bunch of people trying to get healthier and happier through these ancient arts, make them our own. We may have spiritual experiences, like, I think that coming here at dawn and practicing some qigong could be pretty spiritual, but I wouldn’t call that “religious”.
So, there you go. I hope that answer is helpful for you and I look forward to connecting with you again in another walk and talk.
From the heart, Sifu Anthony