by Kim Goldberg
(originally published in Journal of Martial Arts & Healing, Fall 2007)
Of all the internal arts from China, Liuhebafa is not only the last to reach Western audiences, it is quite possibly the oldest. It is also the most heavily encrypted with Taoist metaphysical symbolism, all to guard the coveted ancient recipe for internal alchemy and immortality.
Perhaps it was this promise of indestructibility that spurred me to pursue Liuhebafa above the other internal styles when I began studying the form in 1997. Or perhaps, as a writer, I could not resist the challenge to decode a secret language of symbols being dangled in front of me. Whatever the reason for my fascination with this form, my encounter with Liuhebafa has forever altered my path.
Liuhebafa (literally “six combinations, eight methods”) is an internal martial art and Taoist practice dating to tenth-century China. The creator of the form was the Taoist philosopher and mathematician Chen Hsi I (also known as Chen Po and Chen Tuan), who reputedly lived from 871-989 A.D. From his remote hermitage on Mount Hwa in north-central China, he developed the principles and practice of Liuhebafa, although the Taoist concepts and symbolic language of internal alchemy are much older.
Today a Google search yields a small but growing number of Liuhebafa workshops and teachers in North America, Europe, and elsewhere (but still far less than the more familiar internal arts of T’ai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing I). However, for a millennium, this arcane discipline was shrouded in secrecy and taught only to a few cloistered initiates. It was further veiled beneath an image-dense language of metaphor involving wild geese and tigers, sun and cloud, mythical creatures and humble ploughboys. A language that, once decoded, becomes a blueprint for living a life and transforming one’s inner energies.
The main form of Liuhebafa consists of 66 movements. And to the uninitiated, the form looks like a complicated and twisty T’ai Chi set. (Indeed, this is what I am usually asked by passers-by when I am doing my daily practice at the oceanside park near my home.)
The ancient names of the 66 movements ostensibly offer us the formula for internal alchemy. In Taoist practice, internal alchemy refers to energetic transformations within the body, achieved through physical and mental cultivation from the practice of internal arts such as Liuhebafa, T’ai Chi, Chi Gong, and others. According to Taoist theory, these transformations will ultimately lead to a purification and re-unification of our inner energies (basically a consolidation of all the yin/yang divisions of the self). This transformation will theoretically return us to our original state and prepare us for re-unification with the macrocosm – a condition that can be thought of as immortality.
In my own practice, I am interested in applying these principles of energetic transformation to my daily life and my personal development. For me, studying the Liuhebafa “code” has become a potent tool for increasing my self-awareness, channeling my creative energies, and bringing greater coherence to my life and actions.
For example, the opening move – “Stop Cart and Ask Directions” – refers to the microcosmic orbit (often depicted as a waterwheel or water-cart) circulating the waters of life (“jing”) within us. The move is a reminder to keep this inner orbit turning in the rejuvenating direction (sending our generative energy up the back of our bodies and down the front) rather than letting it leak away. In essence, this first move summons us to make a choice between two paths – life and health, or death and decay. If we are ready to choose the first path, we continue with the form.
But the real message of this move is one of personal responsibility – a theme central to the philosophy of Liuhebafa (and indeed to Taoism itself). This first move tells us: We are responsible for our lives – we have the power to choose. And not just once, at the beginning of each practice session, but constantly throughout every day if we seek to be empowered beings living lives of coherence. I use this move as a reminder that I must be ever vigilant, always asking myself: Which path am I on this instant with this action, this word, this thought? The path of life and health? Or death and decay?
Move #6 – “Replace Star with North Star” – is about cultivating stillness. The North Star holds a pre-eminent position in Taoist cosmology and internal alchemy. In the macrocosm (nature), it represents underlying reality (the Tao) because it is stationary in the sky while all other stars travel around it, representing the temporal and fluctuating nature of material existence. In the microcosm (our internal universe), the North Star represents our original self. So when we replace star with North Star, we are replacing the dizzying and chaotic wanderings of our minds and lives with a stable, central pivot point, restoring unity to our being.
For me, this move holds a lesson on looking inward, not outward, for answers – to recognize that I already possess what I need. This move always makes me think of the Zen saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” which refers not to literal homicide, but to turning away from external values and systems of authority so as to discover a deeper and more authentic truth within.
Move #13 – “Make Sounds at East, Strike West” – is a good example of the many levels on which the coded language of Liuhebafa is operating. At a martial level, this move is about deception and faking out your opponent – feinting one direction, then swinging around to nail him on the other side. In terms of internal energetics, it refers to the movement of vital energy across the body, from east to west, thereby uniting the two halves (yin and yang) to bring unity to our lives. These inner winds of energy are stirred up and set in motion by a physical zig-zagging of the spine as the extended arms swing from left to right.
This correspondence between outer physical movement and its effect on the internal landscape with metaphysical consequences runs throughout Liuhebafa. At one level, we are learning a martial art (and indeed each of the 66 moves has multiple devastating martial applications). At a less visible level, we are using a prescribed sequence of external movements to physically manipulate the internal body for improved health, blood flow, organ massage, and musculoskeletal alignment. At a third level, the lessons encoded in the ancient names show us how to live a self-authored life. And at the most esoteric level, the entire package of physical movement plus symbolic meaning is a prescription for internal alchemy and personal transformation.
As you can see, this is far more than a head-trip! My own progress in unifying, channeling and transmuting the energies of my life would have been zilch if my study of the Liuhebafa symbolic code had not been accompanied by daily practice of the form. I don’t claim to understand it, but the interplay between head-learning and body-learning seems to be essential to make the real breakthroughs of insight and ability with any of these internal arts. Forms practice alone is not enough, nor is intellectual study.
How has Liuhebafa changed my life? The esoteric and energetic changes are hard to describe, except to say that I now feel like I am coursing down the center of a powerful river rather than getting buffeted against the rocky shoreline or trapped in stagnant backwaters. My career change, however, is easier to describe.
When I began studying Liuhebafa in 1997, I had been a political journalist and nonfiction author for twenty years. Shortly after I began my study of the form, the words dried up. At least the old words. I could not have written an investigative exposé of a crooked politician or a polluting corporation had my life depended on it. Years passed and still no words landed on the page. Confusion morphed to fear and at times despair as I blew through my savings, cashed out my retirement plan, and began living on a line of credit. Something was shifting inside me, something set in motion by this bumpy journey through Liuhebafa. Something beyond my control.
Then a day arrived when I just let go… of the fear, that is. I quit thinking about money and my future. And that is when my journey into the unknown became an adventure – and an exciting one! I grew addicted to discovery. I couldn’t wait to fall asleep each night, eager for the revelations of the new day.
When the words finally returned, they came as poems. And poetry continues to be the primary form that I am writing and publishing in today. Since my “re-awakening,” I have been successful in winning arts council grants to sustain me in my new creative pursuits. I take this as further evidence that I am now “pushing boat with flow of water,” as move #17 directs us.
Did the alien inner landscape of Liuhebafa re-pattern my mind around its own mysterious topography? Does the transformation of body automatically entail a transformation of mind? Could it be that Liuhebafa, so dense with metaphor, is the physical embodiment of poetry? Or did my ever-mounting discoveries push me out of a Newtonian paradigm of certainty and into a quantum paradigm of fluid reality? And is that also the distinction between nonfiction and poetry – a language of answers versus a language of questions?
I’ll let you decide. But don’t be surprised if I’m not around for the answer. For I am water running, never ceasing.
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Copyright © Kim Goldberg, 2007
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Please contact the author for permission to republish: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Goldberg is an award-winning poet, journalist and author of six books. Her collection of 66 Liuhebafa poems, Ride Backwards on Dragon, was a finalist for Canada’s Lampert Memorial Award for poetry. In a series of endnotes to the book, Kim decodes the Taoist metaphysical symbolism for each of the 66 names of the Liuhebafa movements. She lives in Nanaimo, BC, and has been studying Liuhebafa and other Taoist internal arts since 1997. Visit: https://liuhebafagirl.wordpress.com/