"Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body."
—Friedrich Nietzsche, _Thus Spake Zarathustra_, “The Despisers of the Body”
“And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”
I suppose that I should make it clear that in general I’m unapologetically materialist in my view of reality, and I tend to have no problem reconciling “mental phenomena” with “parts of the body.” In fact, I’m more inclined to have a problem with views that hold mental phenomena as somehow distinct from bodily experience. That sort of Cartesian mind/body split is what the modern thinker Gilbert Ryle critiqued as the “ghost in the machine” construct. In my thinking, the body is no machine, and the mind is not a ghost-like inhabitant isolated in some internal theater. Can there be “mental phenomena” absent neurology? Whether talking about consciousness, cognition, awareness, deduction, or intuition, the body is where the rubber meets the road. With that in mind, it’s interesting that the modern Mandarin terms for “nerves,” “nervous system,” etc. are based on the compound “shen2jing1,” incorporating this same shen character we’re discussing. So the taiji usage of jingshen could perhaps be explained as one’s essential psychological disposition, recognizing that psychology is rooted in, and expressed through, physiology. Taijiquan is, after all, an art that pursues movement that is suffused with consciousness, what is called in several of the Yang Forty texts, “zhijue yundong” (conscious movement).
A lot of terms used in taiji theory can be found in daoist-related texts, and I would argue that in many of those cases they refer to psycho-physiological practices that are likely antecedents or cousins of the kind of psycho-physiological training developed by taijiquan masters. But given the time period and the background of some of the figures involved in writing and transmitting the early taijiquan texts, I think that Neo-Confucianism may be the more likely wellspring for many taijiquan terms. If you’d like to investigate how some of these terms were used in that context, here’s a link to a very good essay by Joseph Alder (slated to appear in a forthcoming book on Confucian Spirituality) that may provide some insights into some of the terms such as “shen,” “qi,” “shenming,” “xuling,” “zhijue,” etc.:http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Reln471/Spirit.htm
You wrote: ‘When the term “jingshen” is described as rising up the spine, do you have any thoughts as to what the implications of this phenomenon is supposed to indicate? In other words, why do I want this thing to rise up my spine? A translation using the word “energy” would seem to imply increasing the reservoir of power available for martial techniques. “Vitality” would seem to imply some sort of “healing power.” To me, “vital spirit” implies something philosophical or even spiritual. Is there a particular reason why you have settled on “vital spirit”?’
I don’t know that I’ve settled on that rendering; it’s provisional and I’m open to other ones. But I’m not really uncomfortable with “vital spirit”—to me “spirit” is not incompatible with the “energy” sense you’re suggesting.
You wrote: ‘This train of thought seems to imply that “Jingshen” is best thought of as something primarily physical, such as “energy” or “vital energy,” rather than as something health-related, spiritual, or philosophical. Again, any comments?’
Again, I would agree that it’s physical, but I don’t find “health-related, spiritual, or philosophical” to be incompatible with this sense of jingshen.
You wrote: ‘As I posted before, Yang Jun used a word or phrase like “shenming” to describe a state of advanced training where when would simply know what was appropriate for a given circumstance. The words I would use to describe such a state would be “the ability to intuit what is right,” although “intuit” might imply too much vagueness or lack of acuity. “The ability to intuit what is right” seems to fit the context of the Taijiquan Treatise quite nicely, where “shengming” is described as a more advanced skill than merely “dong jin” (“understanding energy”), especially since this skill is “attained in stages and through long effort.”
This reminds me of the Sunzi quote: “One who is able to change and transform in accord with the enemy and wrest victory is termed spiritual! [shen]” (Sunzi, Sawyer, p. 168) As for shenming, there are, to be sure, some “ghosty” connotations of this term in some contexts, but in taijiquan I think it just refers to a clarity (ming) of consciousness that enables this ability to change and adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.
Finally, Re: the similarity between Hao Shaoru’s “qi3-cheng2-kai1-he2,” and the literary composition formula, “qi3 cheng2 zhuan3 he2,” I find these kinds of connections all the time, so I’m not surprised that you’ve found this one. Hao Shaoru may well have adopted/adapted the well-known four-character formula prescribing the steps for poetic composition, applying them as technical language to analyze taijiquan movement. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve encountered writings on calligraphy, lute playing, painting, and literary criticism that use formulae similar to, or exactly like formulae found in taiji texts. The vocabulary and reasoning applied to these different pursuits is often remarkably similar, with similar expressions of concern for continuity, coherence, balancing of empty and full, and for uncovering or establishing the most efficacious disposition among elements within the given artistic medium or craft. I think there’s a great deal of work ahead for investigating taijiquan theoretical writings within the context of other existing technical and artistic writings. There are traditions of technical manuals for military arts, archery, carpentry, textiles, calligraphy, painting, etc., some of which were transmitted “secretly” using language that was for all intents encoded, so as to keep the knowledge base within guild or family, and others published and shared with the general public.
I’ve probably recommended it before, but I’ll do it again: for a fascinating investigation into the prevailing preoccupation with shi (configuration, disposition) in seemingly disparate areas of pursuit in Chinese history, read Francois Jullien’s book, _The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China_. You can find it in your local bookstore or library, or on Amazon. This book was like a revelation to me.