The Empty Vessel Interview With B.K. Frantzis

by | Sep 20, 2018 | Taoism | 0 comments

The following is an interview with Bruce Frantzis originally printed in The Empty Vessel, A Journal of Contemporary Taoism, Summer 1998

B. K. Frantzis began training in martial arts, Oriental healing and meditation in 1961. Fluent in Chinese and Japanese, he spent 15 years studying full-time in Asia. After extensive Zen meditation, Shiatsu training and gaining black belts in judo, ju-jitsu, karate and aikido in America, B.K. Frantzis went to Japan for three years of advanced training. Next he studied Yoga and kundalini meditation for two years in India, and martial arts, qi gong tui na, and Taoist meditation for ten years in China. Raised in America, he is a lineage holder in tai ji, hsing-I, ba gua and Taoist meditation through the late Taoist Sage Liu Hung Chieh.

After 20 years of preparatory training with other teachers, he began studying privately with Liu in Beijing in 1981, working with him for many hours a day for more than three years. Mr. Frantzis’ previous teachers included the legendary Wang Shu Jin in Taiwan, and Morihei Ueshiba in Japan, the founder of Aikido. Known both for this unparalleled knowledge, unconventional teaching style and exceptionally clear communication skills, B.K. Frantzis has been teaching students and holding formal teacher training courses throughout America and Europe since his return to the West in 1987. He is the author of the book, The Power of Internal Martial Arts and the qi gong classic, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body.

Empty Vessel: Maybe we could begin with a Iittle explanation of the difference between internal martial arts and external martial arts.

B. K. Frantzis: The first thing is that, the primary aim of the internal martial arts is not so much to cultivate power for self-defense by physicality, but rather to do so by developing internal power, written in English as chi or qi. In external martial arts, you’re very much concerned with your muscles, how hard they are, how you look, your cut, your reflexes, the same thing that an athlete is looking for. In internal martial arts, your primary mandates are to develop qi, and to develop a mind that will be relaxed and able to operate under pressure without difficulty.

On a martial level, they’re really a little more advanced than the average martial art. There is a continuum. At one level all martial arts are about kick, punch, joint lock, throw, nerve strike and footwork. On top of that you may or may not add weapons. All martial arts, at any level, teach you self-discipline. It is only how they do it that is different.

In the first chapter of my book, I have a section on the animal, spiritual and human approaches to martial arts. The animal approach is really quite simple and most external martial arts tend to fit into that category. Now this doesn’t mean people are animals. It is about what people are doing with their physiology, what they’re doing with their mind, what they are actually attempting to accomplish with an effective self-defense technique when facing a perceived danger.

If you train in an animal martial art approach, what you essentially are trying to do is to make your body respond in the most efficient animal fashion possible. If we observe what an animal does when it wishes to fight, we see that it tenses its muscles, its adrenals are stimulated, it roars, it twists its face in all kinds of ways. It goes into a frenzy. The animal martial arts approach has the practitioner go into hyper-drive to accomplish what is needed.

In human martial arts, the goal is to try to make your body turn on without having your glandular system go crazy. You try to use some level of discrimination rather than letting your primal emotions get control of you. There is a range of middle ground between animal and human martial arts. In human martial arts, you don’t really want the animal in yourself to take over because that diminishes your clarity and ability to decide what you are going to do and how. Human martial arts exist along a continuum between external and internal martial arts.

Here is where you want to be able to still have your body turn on, by primarily relying on using your mind without having your glandular system go crazy. At the human level of martial arts, either external or internal martial arts might be doing that. The glandular revving up of the glands is somewhat obvious in a lot of Karate or Tae Kwon Do. Likewise, many people who practice tai ji, although they may philosophically see themselves as being non-violent, begin tensing their muscles, twisting their faces and reverting back to the glandular system when the pressure’s on and they really feel threatened. So the name of the martial art does not necessarily determine if it follows an animal, human or spiritual approach.

Empty Vessel: Tai ji, which a lot of people are familiar with, would then be considered an internal martial art?

B. K. Frantzis: Yes. The difference between external and internal in the classic Chinese sense is in how you get your power, in what way do you attempt to focus your mind. If you have an external martial art you’re going to try and get power by doing a lot of extreme physical exercises, anything that physically puts resistance against your system to either make it become stronger or faster.

Empty Vessel: But you can actually harm the body to do that though.

B. K. Frantzis: That is common. External martial art practitioners in their drive to make the body do what they want often damage themselves. As you move into internal martial arts, you now start working with things that work with qi or the internal energy of the body. One of the primary dictum in all Taoist practices and internal martial arts of China (which are usually classified as Taoist martial arts) is that any practice that you do must be comfortable and healthy for your body. If a practice damages your body, regardless whether it is qigong, sitting meditation or martial arts, it will ultimately damage your qi and be counter-productive.

As such, in Taoist martial arts a person will never do any practice that will hurt the body even if it will enable them, like Superman, to metaphorically jump over buildings in a single bound. Taoist martial arts have the particular goal that a person can use them to the end of their life and it will improve their mind and body well into their eighties and nineties. Within that, as in any martial art, practitioners still manage to have incredible high performance abilities.

When you get to the level of internal martial arts you find that there is a great deal of emphasis on mind-training. The lowest levels of external martial arts have very little mind-training. As you move along the external to internal martial arts continuum there is more and more mind-training as you increasingly rely upon the mind to fuse with energy inside your body to make your power come alive. You work on getting your mind right inside your body, getting your consciousness to go right inside every joint and ligament until you become as sensitive to the inside of your body as you are to the skin on the outside of your body. You learn how to go inside and regulate the energy inside the body.

That’s looking at it from the physical perspective. This is important because it is how you create your power. You can create your power from lifting weights. If a person has lifted a lot of weights, probably when they punch somebody they’ll go down but that kind of power is a certain kind of power. When you train in the internal practices you learn things that are much more subtle. You can develop power that is just as strong as what you have with external martial arts, but is externally invisible. It’s not immediately apparent what kind of power a person is exerting. You can feel it, but you can’t see it.

Empty Vessel: Perhaps you could say that this power is at a more subtle level.

B. K. Frantzis: It’s at a much more subtle level. Just as a computer is more subtle than an adding machine.

Empty Vessel: For a lot of people it’s a case of “l’m not a fighter, I don’t really want to learn how to fight” but there are a lot of other reasons to practice a martiaI art, right?

B. K. Frantzis: The vast amount of people who are studying internal martial arts are not that concerned with fighting. People who are really concerned with fighting can learn how to use a knife or a gun. Why do most people learn to do martial arts? Even the people who become the top full-contact fighters do not reach that level of skill just to defend themselves. They train to be a champion because they want to be the best or find out how far martial art training can go.

In my experience, the main reason Westerners practice an internal martial art is because they want to be healthy, they want their body to work better, they want to learn how to get rid of their stress, and they want to have a way to get into and transcend the very deep emotional and mental spaces that make life uncomfortable and dysfunctional. They want to work those things out. That’s why most people are doing it. There are two hundred million people in China who do tai ji every day of the week. Of that, only about half a percent even practice the fighting techniques.

The majority of people there do tai ji because it really works for physical and mental health. They want their bodies to work, and feel good, and their nervous systems to relax. For them, tai ji is a method for enhancing longevity and getting rid of stress. People in China also practice because they see so many others who were sick and got better after doing tai ji and qigong. They see people who had every kind of physical malady you could name, and every kind of drifting mind problem you could name, they do tai ji, hsing-i or ba gua for a couple of years and they get rid of most of these problems. They do it for very pragmatic reasons. They’re not looking to be Kwai Chang Kaine, of television’s Kung Fu series.

Empty Vessel: So there is whole qigong level to this?

B. K. Frantzis: Yes, the internal martial arts, if you learn the whole tradition, and I must say, that level is not taught very often anymore, at that level the internal martial arts are an extremely sophisticated qigong system, both from the perspective of high performance abilities and from the medical point of view.

Empty Vessel: Especially when you’re talking about subtle energy states.

B. K. Frantzis: It doesn’t even have to be quite so subtle. I taught at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe some years ago. It had suffered the worst prison riots in U.S. prison history. The participants I taught were all lifers, they had all killed somebody. From doing Wu style tai chi, the prisoners chilled out. I was told by the guards that inter-gang warfare had stopped simply because the practice had chilled out the gang leaders in the tai ji class.

Tai ji became the national health exercise of China not because it looks beautiful, not because people had fantasies about it, but because it works on a very simple, mundane health level. At more advanced levels, tai ji is also very sophisticated martial and spiritual art.

Empty Vessel: Very few people in this country study tai ji as a martial art or even as a qigong form. It seems that for most people in this country it’s more for relaxation, stress reduction, low impact aerobics, that kind of thing.

B. K. Frantzis: Yes, but one must realize that we are in an early stage of cultural transference between East and West. Most of the tai ji in America is second- or third-level tai ji. Some people are actually attempting to teach high school level tai ji. Except for rare exceptions, there’s little beyond that being taught here. I believe that my book will help people learn what it is like to move all the way up to the graduate level.

Empty Vessel: TeIl us about the spiritual cultivation aspects.

B. K. Frantzis: When the Taoists did martial arts their concern was in terms of meditation: To find some inner unity, so a human being would become able to be whole and complete. If spirituality is about anything, it’s about a person becoming complete and how at every level of their being to prevent being at dissonance with the rest of the universe. You can call it the spiritual law of the universe, or the underlying reality, whatever words you choose to use.

At each stage of anyone’s spiritual practice, once they get a little more experience, they start realizing times when they are not in this state, the places where they are being dragged back to seeing everything as separate and everything at odds with each other. All the meditation techniques are aimed towards your energy not being at odds with itself and having everything being continuous and comfortable with what’s outside you and what’s inside you.

Balance, compassion, harmony, those things only come out when you are internally smooth at the deepest levels of your self.

Empty Vessel: I liked the part in your book where you talked about using the internal martial arts to become a hands-on healer.

B. K. Frantzis: Methods of cultivating qi are part and parcel of the whole Taoist system. They use the term shen fa, working with the body. Working with the body, working with the energy inside it, working with the mind that inhabits that body. They look at all this. When they physically work with someone they don’t just look at that person’s physical body, they see both the flesh and every other aspect of the human being that’s embodied inside that physical tissue.

At that stage, however, whether you are going to use your body to martially break somebody else’s body, which is an external event or you’re going to use your body to heal another person’s body, which is also an external event, the Taoists see both in the unified context that in effect what you are doing is just using your body, regardless of the specific effects you are attempting to create. Taoists don’t have the dichotomy that from the point of view of body functions that healing and damaging is different. The same tissues, chi and mind are performing both, only the motivations are different, not necessarily the means or results.

In the original qigong work in Taoism, there is a whole qi tradition that comes directly from the Huang Ti Nei Jing, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic. There is a whole way in which you learn how qi specifically affects the body and how what happens in the body affects the mind. They are very, very interrelated. Those bodywork methods which use qi gong to work on someone else are called qigong tui na. Regular tui na bodywork only uses hand techniques, without qi consciously being emitted from the practitioner’s body.

Qigong tui na is how you use the qi coming out of your body, through your hands to work on someone. It has two branches. The first is when you physically put your hands on someone else’s body to cause a therapeutic effect. In the second branch of qigong therapy, after the practitioner puts their healing hands on you to start a healing process, they then teach you very specifically designed qigong techniques which if practiced continue or complete the healing process and are medically specific for your condition.

Qigong tui na techniques are very much found within the internal martial arts tradition. The internal martial arts traditions are just part of Taoist qigong tradition. There are hundreds of schools of qigong in China. There are at least fifty schools of Taoist qigong, many of which are incomplete. But in the compete tradition the healing work was commonly taught along with internal martial arts. You learn a whole way of generating energy within your body so when you give qi to others and work on people, you are able to protect yourself from having another person’s energy drain you when you work on them.

Empty Vessel: Isn’t there an old tradition in the martial arts of people being able to heal as well as kill?

B. K. Frantzis: Yes, but not everyone chose to do that. It would be inaccurate to assume that because a person knew one side of the coin, healing or harming, that they knew the other. A person would have had to put in considerably more effort to learn the other material.

A lot of the Taoist tradition has to do with self cultivation, meaning that the responsibility is on the individual. Teachers were not always easy to find, not always easy to work with, and sometimes you had to prove yourself before you got to the real teaching.

As a matter of fact, if I had not met Liu Hung Chieh, my final teacher in Beijing, and spent a couple of years with him, I do not believe that it would have been possible to get to the bottom of the subject of internal martial arts. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had stayed in China for a hundred years.

Empty Vessel: What about the spiritual aspects of all of this?

B. K. Frantzis: Well the first book I wrote, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body, was about basic qigong. My new book The Power of lnternal Martial Arts is about the qi, combat and mind-training aspects of the internal martial arts, and is not specifically about Taoist spiritual practices. My next book will be on Taoist Meditation and will address the spiritual aspects of Taoism and the methods of its Water School. Taoism is concrete metaphysics. Taoist don’t believe in things too much. My experience of the spiritual style of Taoists in China was that they would say you know something, you have suspicions or you don’t know at all. Everything in Taoism is extremely pragmatic.

The first word I learned in Chinese was watermelon, which I loved at the time. The second word was thank you. The third expression I learned was yung bu neng yung, which means, “Is it useful?” The next question becomes “What can you use it for?”

The Taoists tend to be extremely clear about what specific things or techniques are actually useful for. If you want a practice to be useful for spirituality, it has to be a practice which directly addresses the issues of spirituality. If what you want to do is open a can of peas faster then it has to be something that directly addresses how you can open a can of peas faster. You don’t necessarily expect that a can of peas, or a qigong or internal martial arts method, is automatically going to help you with spiritual matters.

If you have an illness and you want to get rid of it, you need what will be useful for getting rid of that illness. If you want what will heal a physical illness to also be spiritual, your method must directly encompass both of those very clearly. There are areas of ambiguity, which require a person to exercise clarity and insight to discriminate between reality and wishful thinking. The Taoist perspective in China is not based upon belief, it’s based upon what will actually produce a result, what is useful.

For instance, you can be very relaxed physically but be emotionally or spiritually tense or be spiritually relaxed but physically tense. The Taoists are interested in what actually does what, where and how. They’re very direct and not as mysterious as people think. It is so much easier to communicate about the varied aspects of Taoism in vague, general, metaphorical, hypnotic statements, which although true at some level don’t actually attach to something that is useful.

The way in which my teacher, Liu Hung Chieh, transmitted the work to me was to pragmatically explore what the Taoists call the eight energy bodies of human beings. using the methods of internal martial arts, qi gong, healing others and meditation. His methods were concerned with what practices directly interface with those energy bodies and how they coordinated with each other to spiritually balance a human being using full effort without strain.


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