Origin of Yi Jin Jing (by Denny K Miu)

This is the third of a three-part series: Origin of Zen, Origin of Chán and Origin of Yi Jin Jing.

Before we discuss the origin (or legend) of Yi Jin Jing (易筋經), we need to first discuss the origin of Qigong (氣功) and Yoga (瑜伽).

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Most think of Qigong as an ancient form of Chinese physical and spiritual exercise.  The truth is that until 1949, until the communists took over China, the term Qigong didn’t even exist.  

The communists had banned all forms of religious practices including exercises and martial arts that were normally practiced by either Buddhist monks or Taoist priests.

But ordinary people continued to see the benefits of these centuries old exercises, especially as a way of strengthening the body and to prevent illness, particularly important during time of extreme poverty and a complete lack of modern medicines.  So they invented a new name.

In traditional Chinese culture, Qi (氣 or air) means “life force” or “energy flow”.  Therefore Qigong is a secular term acceptable to the communist authority, designed to encompass any practices (Qong or 功) that cultivate “Qi”.

In that sense, Yi Yin Jing is a form of Qigong since it is a set of body postures and movements, including breathing and meditation, used for the sole purpose of enhancing health and spirituality.

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On the other hand, Yoga as practiced in the western world was originally known as Hatha Yoga in India.  Hatha meant “force” and consisted of a set of physically strenuous body poses known as “Asanas”.  

Originally Asana was a sitting pose for meditation which meant “steady and comfortable”.  But in the west, sitting meditation is much deemphasized in order to commercialize Yoga and instead, Asana has expanded to include a wide collection of reclining, standing, inverted, twisting, and balancing poses.

In India, Yoga was a very well developed system of physical, mental and spiritual practices and disciplines that originated in the pre-Vedic period which was about 1000 BCE, pre-dating the birth of Buddha.  Yoga in its original form was recognized as one of the six orthodox schools of the Hindu philosophical traditions.

The Sanskrit word योग (yoga) was derived from the root word “yuj” which meant "to attach, join and harness”.  One of its derivatives in the English language is the word “yoke” which is the wooden beam strapped across a pair of oxen as they pull a cart, to ensure that their movement are synchronized.

In that sense, Yi Yin Jing could also be considered as an ancient form of Yoga since through body movement, breathing and mindfulness, its purpose is to synchronize and harness the power of the body and the mind so that they are of oneness (身心合一).

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Interestingly, the word Yoga appeared quite often in Buddhist literatures and there were many discussions (including a series of lectures given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama) where the practices of Buddhism and Yoga were compared and thought to be equivalent in achieving initial enlightenment (for an explanation on Stream-Enterer or Sotapanna, the first stage of enlightenment, please listen to this Podcast).

One famous mention is the all important Mahayana scripture, Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (瑜伽師地論 or The Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners).  

Another incidence is with The Way to Buddhahood (成佛之道) by Venerable Master Yi Shun (印順導師).  In Chapter Four, The Dharma Common to the Three Vehicles (三乘共法), we have the following.

密護於根門 
Closely guarding the gates of the senses;
飲食知節量
Controlling the consumption of food and drink; 
勤修寤<瑜伽>
Diligently practicing wakeful <yoga>;
依正知而住
Abiding by the right knowledge.

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The origin (or more accurately the legend) of Yi Jin Jing is that it was invented by Bodhidharma (菩提達摩) and was left behind secretly either in the cave (where he spent nine years in seclusion) or within the walls of the Shaolin temple upon his departure.  

It was thought that Bodhidharma actually left two sets of writings, Yi Jin Jing (易筋經) which was the method (經 or Jing) for changing/renewing (易 or Yi) tendons and sinews (筋 or Jing) and also Xǐ Suǐ Jing (洗髓經) which was the method (經) for cleansing/washing (洗 or Xǐ) the marrow (髓 or Suǐ).

However, there was great disagreement on whether the two were the same, just a different name, or that they were in fact distinct (with the second lost in perpetuity).  

Moreover, there was great disagreement on whether the writings were strictly practice of Qigong forming the basis for subsequent development of Shaolin martial arts, or that they were the basis for teaching Chán (or Zen) meditation.

But there is no doubt that Bodhidharma who came from North India was an experienced yogi who had practiced the ancient art of Yoga and that his teaching had to be closely related to that of Yoga.  Interestingly, the pronunciation of Yoga in Mandarin (瑜伽) is extremely similar to that of Yi Jin (易筋).

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There are currently two versions of Yi Jin Jing, one practiced in mainland China and one practiced in Taiwan, both of which are very different from each other and from what we learned from Master Jiru.

The most common version practiced in mainland China is called the Twelve Postures of Yi Jin Jing (易筋經十二勢) which was first popularized by Wang Zuyuan (王祖源), a descendant of a disgraced government official hiding out in the Shaolin temple, in the late-19th century during the Qing Dynasty, a time when the Han people (the majority of Chinese) were forbidden to practice martial art.  

However, over the years, historical scholars had pretty much agreed that this version was actually invented by a Taoist priest named 紫凝道人 but mistakenly attributed to Bodhidharma.

The version practiced in Taiwan is based on the Eighteen Poses of Yi Jin Xǐ Suǐ Jing (易筋洗髓十八式) and claimed to pre-date the version by Wang by about 150 years.  Legend was that it was first practiced by a monk named 排雲大師 who had travelled all the way to Nigeria Africa for seclusion (!!!) and later transmitted to another monk 雲草法師 in Vietnam in 1964 before transmitting to yet another monk 自覺法師 in Taiwan in 2002.  

Interestingly, a very popular exercise originated from Taiwan and now practiced in almost all Chinese communities around the world is the Swinging Arms Exercise (平甩功) which is derived from the second movement of this particular version of Yi Jin Jing.

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My purpose here is not to discuss the authenticity of any particular version of the Yi Jin Jing, including the version taught by Master.  My purpose is to simply provide some background information allowing us to broaden our horizon.  However, I do accept the following to be facts (also see above diagram).

  • Master’s version of Yi Jin Jing was first taught by his grandfather starting when he was five years old, along with other forms of Shaolin martial arts practiced by Master’s grandfather.
  • Master was also taught the same Yi Jin Jing by Venerable Ming Chi (敏智法師) who was the founding Chairman of the American Buddhist Society headquartered in New York and overseeing two temples (both of which Master had been the Abbot at different time).  
  • Master Ming Chi was the 48th Abbot of the Tin Ling Temple (天寧寺) in China and had escaped the communists in 1949.  The temple was subsequently completely destroyed by the communists with all monks either persecuted or forced to return to normal life.
  • When Master Ming Chi taught Yi Jin Jing to Master, he explained that this was the physical and mental exercise that all Abbots secretly performed while they were in seclusion, a fact that Master did not previously know.  Only then did Master understand why there are always deep depressions on the stone floors of the small seclusion rooms seen in documentaries.
  • The founding Abbot of the Tin Ling Temple was Venerable Fǎróng (法融禪師) who was a student of Venerable Daoxin (道信禪師), the 4th Patriarch of Chán.  All forty eight Abbots of Tin Ling Temple including Master Fǎróng and Master Ming Chi no doubt learned what they knew through the direct lineage of Bodhidharma.

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What intrigues me the most about Yi Jin Jing and the main reason that I am writing this three-part series is the fictional story about Bodhidharma first visiting the Shaolin temple and joining the monks for their meditation retreat.  

Inside the chamber, he noticed the monks were all sitting quietly and after a few hours, he asked them what they were doing.  They said they were there to practice towards enlightenment.  Then Bodhidharma quietly picked up a rock and started to rub it back and forth across the top of the table.  

The monks were intrigued and asked him what he was doing.  He said he was polishing a mirror out of the rock.  The monks laughed and said how anyone could make a mirror out of rubbing a rock.  

Bodhidharma replied how anyone could gain enlightenment but just sitting.  Then he left and secluded himself in the cave for nine years.

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Yi Jin Jing emerged as the answer but what was the question?

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Master similarily secluded himself for three years living inside a trailer at MABA.

The five breathing exercises was his answer but what was the question?

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I believe the question has to do with “走火入魔”.

走 could mean to go, to leave, to leak or to let out
火 could mean fire or vitality
入 could mean to enter or to mingle
魔 could mean demon, devil or mara

Together it is used to indicate that something has gone wrong in spiritual or martial arts training, often it is applied to describe a physiological or psychological disorder believed to result during meditative practice.

How does someone “leak the fire” and “mingle with the demon”?

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Fire is Qi.  

In Chinese we have the term 血氣 which means blood (血) and Qi (氣).  It is the Qi that is transferred by blood which is oxygen.  A person leaks fire (or vitality) where there is not enough oxygen in his body.  Lack of oxygen means lack of determination and lack of diligence (i.e., lack of AQ).  

Master spoke of “lazy” zen.  

He is against jumping into sitting meditation as the first practice posture in the morning.  For Master, sitting is the earth element and standing is the fire element.  He recommends standing before sitting, cultivating fire to reinforce earth.  

He also recommends the five breathing exercises as a way to increase our lung capacity and to get enough oxygen into our body and to practice deep abdominal breathing as a way to maintain alertness and mindfulness.

For Master, the question was how to avoid “leaking the Qi” so that we could proceed to “knowing the body as body”.

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Bodhidharma was asking the next logical question which was to avoid “mingling with the demon” so that we could “knowing the feeling as feeling.”

The demon (or Māra) is the five hindrances.

As explained by Master Yi Shun in the The Way to Buddhahood, our practice must start with “closely guarding the gates of the senses”.  But our six senses also include our mind root.  

How do we guard against our (thinking) mind?  

That’s the question.

Bodhidharma’s answer is Yi Jin Jing.

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When we were in Taiwan, during one of our sitting sessions.  The head monk of the local temple went up to Master and whispered something in his ears.

Then Master said to the class that the Venerable had just asked him to explain the relationship between meditation and Qigong (i.e., Yi Jin Jing).

Master spoke for about 10 minutes in Mandarin which unfortunately I could not record.

The summary of what he said is that in practicing Mindfulness of Feeling, we have to break it down in two parts: Mindfulness of the Feeling of the Body and Mindfulness of the Feeling of the Mind.  

We have to start with Feeling of the Body and we have avoid Feeling of the Mind at all cost.

It is the only way to guard against the Five Hindrances.  

By Feeling we must stay away from the Three Feelings 三受 (The Feeling of Pain 苦受, The Feeling of Pleasure 樂受 and finally the Feeling of Neither Pain Nor Pleasure 不苦不樂受).

Instead we seek the Feeling of Joy (喜受) as in Empathetic Joy (Muditā) of the Brahmavihara (the Four Immeasurables).

Master then said there is no way to explain it any further.  One has to experience it.

Yi Jin Jing is Master’s way of maintaining the balance of the four elements of our body in order to experience Feeling of Joy on our own.

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「不立文字、以心傳心」

“No need for words, transmit mind to mind”.

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