Sunday, May 20, 2007

Something About My History: Part Two

My previous post was primarily about my personal experiences as a Daoist. There are several issues that come out of this story, so I thought I'd take the time to discuss them.

People who are involved in religious quests make a big deal about credentials. I suppose that this is understandable because people take so much of what they are taught "on faith" that they want to know that they being exposed to the "real deal". In the case of oriental religion/philosophy/martial arts this usually involves coming up with some sort of statement about a teacher's lineage.

After I left the Fung Loy Kok and eventually regained some interest in the subject, I wanted to learn something about its relationship to other Temples in China, and, where Moy Lin Shin fit into to the grand scheme of things.

This was not a trivial task, as I found it very hard to hear anything except "wild history". Some folks talked about him being afflicted by a deadly illness as a child and being given to a Temple to raise as the only means of saving his life. Others talked about some sort of dwarf, Daoist Master he'd met in a park who taught him all he knew about martial arts. Others talked about a temple that he had build in Hong Kong after escaping from the Reds. Others suggested that he was some sort of shady character who had some connection to organized crime. One person I connected with over the internet even sent me a lineage chart that someone had given to her that listed Moy Lin Shin at the bottom of long chain starting with both Laozi and Bodhidarma!

Not knowing what to make of all this, I took a page from Zhuangzi and simply accepted the fact that I would never really know the true story.

What I have learned from my studies and in conversation with academics is that there are several things we need to remember when we look at claims about oriental "teachers".

First of all, we have to accept that naive Westerners have developed a weird attitude about oriental wisdom traditions. North Americans are programmed by our popular culture to assume that truly wise, "enlightened" people speak in enigmatic phrases and manifest strange quirks. The trope is very well established in characters like "Yoda" from "Starwars" and the Shaolin Monks from the television program "Kungfu". This means that people looking for meditation, martial arts, etc, teachers are expecting to find incomprehensible, absurd behaviour from someone who says that they "know". The best discussion of this is by Jane Naomi Iwamura and is titled The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.

Secondly, weird stories about Daoist teachers is not only an artifact of Hollywood. They are also part of the way Chinese culture has traditionally described Daoist teachers. I found this out when I tried to make my way through the book that purports to be an autobiography of a modern Daoist---Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard. The experiences and practices described were so "over the top" that I went to the point of emailing a famous academic who studies Chinese religion to see if this is a modern fake. He made the interesting point to me that whatever one may think about whether what described actually happened, it is definitely the sort of book that is traditionally written about Daoist Xians. As such, it is authentically representative of an ancient genre.

Finally, it is the case that there has been a tremendous explosion of self-styled "gurus", "wizards", qi-gong masters, etc, in modern China. Some are simply confidence men who are out to fleece the gullible. Others have created movements large enough to frighten the Communist Party, i.e. Falon Gong. So when it comes to anyone who describes themselves as a "Daoist", let the buyer beware.

But having said all of that, I have found some interesting tidbits that have led me to a "working hypothesis" about Moy Lin Shin. First of all, I came across the Yuen Yuen Institute. I have met some people who argued quite adamantly that this is not a "real" Daoist organization because it has made several significant accomodations with modern society, most notably with regard to lineages. But it is a very large Temple complex in Hong Kong that has extensive charitable and educational projects. I have been told by a couple people that the Fung Loy Kok was a very minor sub-temple in the Yuen Yuen complex. (I have since been told that it has folded.) Recently this large organization has started a huge program aimed at spreading information about Daoism through a website that posts information written by many Chinese and a few Western scholars of Daoism.

As a result of bitter on-line discussions about what is and is not a "real" Daoist, and the role of the Yuen Yuen Institute in this, an American Daoist of Chinese ancestry sent me an article (since lost when the fan on my computer melted over the CPU) that describe a form of "grass-roots" popular Daoism that emerged in China during the 18th century. This emerging movement was populist, ecumenical, and had something like a "social gospel". It appears to have been an attempt to create a lay-movement around the hitherto strictly monastic Quanzhen Daoist tradition. The suggestion was that the Yuen Yuen Institute was a modern manifestation of this movement. This certainly made sense to me, as Moy Lin Shin's Fun Loy Kok was a committed to respecting all religions and charitable acts towards the greater community.

So the end result seems to be that the Fung Loy Kok is a modern manifestation of a religious movement that began in the peasantry of 18th century China, was stamped out by the Communist government in the mainland, yet spread to Hong Kong where it flourished. It since "jumped the ocean" to spread to North America, and from there around the world. In the process, a few individuals like myself "got tapped" to be insiders yet decided that we weren't "team players" and jumped ship. In the process, however, we "got the bug" and have continued to get more and more involved in the religion. Since recluses and hermits are so essential to the tradition, it strikes me that this is almost an inevitable part to the spead of Daoism to North America.


Paul said...

Everyone speaks about Daoist tradition, and the various ways it is being spread to North America and places beyond. In this regard, Moy Lin-shin being a prime player, there is a huge amount of information about what Master Moy has accomplished. There are shady tidbits here and there in the internet discourse about Moy Lin-shin, but anytime someone discusses who this man was as a person the information is vague and the discussion usually turns into something about Daoism.


rufus said...

I am perplexed by the intrigue around Mr Moy. I studied with his students in Hamilton Ont and on occasion with him when I was 16 , 26 years ago. There are always petty people in large institutions, and sick people trying to get better, and although i never went too deep into the practise several of my friends did. i can tell you from first hand experience Mr Moy healed a lot of people. He was very generous with his energy and after living in New York for a while I can also tell you that what he was offering is A LOT less expensive then what people with comparable knowledge teach today in New York City. Even some of his students could take full blown kicks and punches .... An 80 year old woman with full spinal movement and decalsification of the sternum coxics and sacrum! Personally i think you missed a good opportunity by getting hung up on the packaging. I wish i had studied more with him when i was a kid, but then i didn't really know what was in front of me... kind of like you. One thing should be clear however, Mr Moy only wanted to help people and i personally watched him care for people with parkinsons and stroke and other illnesses. he gave away alot of his chi through direct transmission to sick people that not many people would be willing to do. He was a rare combination of a monk AND student of the great lay practitioners. Specifically his practise of lok-hup ( sometimes called water boxing) was very special.I understand peoples reservations. i think it is hard to transmit asian (please not "oriental"......wrong region)cultural practises to the west without it becoming confused with protestant evangelism by the practitioners but he is gone now so out of respect i think people would do well to either benefit from his teachings or go their own way.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I think I might not have been as explicit in my original post as I could have been---.

My concern about Mr. Moy was never in terms of money. It was more about the way he treated the people around him and his relationship to the modern world. He was authoritarian and unscientific. I don't really blame him for this, as he was a child of the culture he grew up in.

But in the same way, I am a child of the enlightenment and a Master in the lineage of Socrates.

As for the sights you saw, I obviously also believe that there is value in what Moy taught, or else I wouldn't have kept up my regular practice for three decades. But I don't think that you are recognizing that "the man makes the art, the art doesn't make the man." Ultimately, that 80 year old woman who unfroze her tailbone did it herself, Mr. Moy didn't "direct his chi" and do it for her.

That is the gap that existed between Moy Lin Shin and myself.

Finally, as to the use of "orient". My understanding is that the term was originally used to mean "far East". In the late medieval and early modern period it took on the meaning of what we now call "middle East", because at that time, that was the "far East". Since then, it has reverted to the original meeting and taken on the meaning of "East Asia". I would suggest that trying to reassert the older, but not oldest, meaning is an attempt at pedantry.

Words are ultimately like fish traps. Once we catch the fish, who needs a fish trap?

sshisheng said...

Shameful is all I can say.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I wish you'd posted a little more. It is hard to understand exactly what you are trying to say.

mitch said...

Found your post most interesting and share many of your views and feel much the same about religion an d such. Learned the basic tai chi set five or six years ago, and practice three or four times a week, mostly in the winter monthes. I like it for relaxeation and light meditation- anyway i have been looking at some of the "energy arts" products of bruce frantzis and am looking at his dragon ans tiger medical chi gung--do you have any thoughts on this?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Good to hear from you. I don't know much about Bruce Frantzis, but the videos on this link make him look like the real deal. I also don't know a lot about Qi Gong, so I don't know a lot about Mr. Frantzcis' style. I tend towards skepticism in general because I have seen fraud. I also suggest caution because a lot of meditation and "internal" can build the ego in unhealthy ways. But life is fraut with peril and the prognosis is universally terminal---.

mitch said...

Cloud walking owl

thanks for your reply, and thanks for the links, i hope you will let us know sometime about how your tai chi is going--you have been practicing a long time--i have heard others say that the first twenty years was just the warm up-- ha ha--i dont know, but when i hear of people practicing for so many years i have to think that it's still produceing benefits for them.

I'm at the age now where i really don't want to do alot of the strenuous type of exercises i did when younger(57) and the tai chi has the full range type movements that i know are important - but then again i still pump a little iron and jump on the excersise bike for a mile or two-- the tai chi kind of spices it up a little bit---and i guess it does at times do a little spiritually to. at times it does give a sense of calm.

thanks for the reading and such-which i will check out further -take care.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure how long you stayed around for your training but I suspect not long enough to understand that the path of Taoism is about making youself a better person both physically and psychologically to enable yourself to help other regain their health. A basic principle perhaps you missed. rslick

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Based on your own criteria, an outside observor might be tempted to ask you how much work you've put into the subject. ;-)