The Three Degrees of Chi Kung
In the West, we tend to boldly demark the concepts of body and mind from one another — the physical from the psychical (mental and/or spiritual). The traditional Chinese perspective looks at the body (or one’s being) being a composite, with the physical body as a component of one’s self. It’s not merely a shell, and certainly not sinful or oppositional by nature as in Western traditions.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a simple Body-Mind duality. The Square is about actions and is used to measure relationships in a three-dimensional existence; the Compasses are a drafting tool for discernment and willful boundaries.
But perhaps a more pertinent model for our various Degrees is the trinity of body, mind, and spirit. According to George Harold Steinmetz, in “The Royal Arch, its Hidden Meaning”, as well as other Masonic authors in various works, the Degrees show a progression of growth through those parts of our being. It isn’t hard to see how the Entered Apprentice Degree deals with the physical, the Fellowcraft with the mental, and Master Mason Degree with the Spiritual. We go from the quarries of measuring and manipulating the objects of the physical world, to the arts and sciences, to the transformation of our mortal, yet immortal existence.
It is no wonder the Square takes precedence in the configuration we first behold at the Altar, the Compasses at last, and a partial transcendence of the physical into the spiritual when we are Passed. The ritual describes our progression in our Moral Science as being — by necessity — by degrees.
So why bring up an Eastern model of human existence? Because there are aspects of the model that grant us other insights. Any framework of understanding can yield results unique to it, and Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of them, particularly in its Taoist roots.
The ancient Taoist physiology focuses on the “Triple Burner” system — three energy fields in the body called dan tiens. These are NOT point-like chakras and are often poorly equated with them or other Indian concepts. And most martial arts don’t even mention there are three of them, as only the lower one is used in martial training.
The lower dan tien, just below the navel, could be described as the home of jing, physical essence. I teach my students that it is the geographic center of the physical body, and if it were stiff, dead weight, that’s where you could place a fulcrum to balance it like a see-saw. (Don’t try this at home.)
The middle dan tien, around the diaphragm, is the home of chi, literally meaning breath. Of course, the concept of breath is hardly limited to moving oxygen but is an energetic, whole body (or even body-and-beyond) experience. (I’ve written on this subject before, but won’t get into its metaphysical nature or theological implications here, as it would detract from the point of this article.)
The upper dan tien could be thought of as the “third eye”, or seat of spirit. This completes a trinity of places to focus the physical (body), the non-physical (spiritual), and the bridge between them (chi).
So, where am I going with this? The ancient Taoist text, “Cultivating Stillness”*, expounds a regimen of chi kung (roughly meaning “breath training”) for the purpose of immortality. Let’s not argue over how literal or possible its goal is intended to be. The important thing is that this is a journey for the whole person. Every aspect of one’s being affects the others. The progression described is an effort to use the jing to “purify” the chi, and then the chi to purify shen.
Like the deep lessons of our degrees, you can’t jump ahead. It would devastate the impact of the Third Degree by not having experienced the first two. The power of the Royal Arch Degrees would be wasted if endowed upon the profane — there’s a reason you have to be a Master Mason to receive them (and be a Past Master, but let’s not bog ourselves down here explaining that).
Each Degree builds on the former. The First sets the foundation for the Second, which in turn prepares you for the Third. We can’t move on until we have purified the baser part of ourselves. We must use simple tools to circumscribe and divest our physical actions and passions to be ready to cultivate intellect. Then we must use our learning to cultivate our faith.
But do we have truly suitable proficiency before moving on? If we appreciate any of this, we must admit a Progressive Moral Science that can only be taught and experienced by Degrees. How could one-day classes even be considered acceptable? (Although some Brothers have succeeded in spite of them.)
We give little or no thought to why we do the Degrees in their order, They are simply dates on a Trestle Board, a train with three stops. Saying the journey is important isn’t a cliche. The process is the work, and the work is the whole point.
But it’s never too late. Each time we see the Degrees, we have a chance to revisit where we are and know better where we need to be. Just like an advanced practitioner of chi kung or martial arts can always deepen their practice through the simplest exercises, we can allow ourselves to be an Apprentice or Fellowcraft again.
*First translated into English by Eva Wong, who incidentally is local to my area and a student of Master Moy of the Taoist Tai Chi Society. His art is the first of many styles of Tai Chi that I have studied over the years.
by Midnight Freemason
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski is a member of West Seneca Lodge No.1111 and recently served as Master of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186. As webmaster for NYMasons.Org he is on the Communications and Technology Committees for the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He is also a Royal Arch Mason and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, serving his second term as Sovereign Prince of Palmoni Council in the Valley of Buffalo, NMJ. He also coordinates a Downtown Square Club monthly lunch in Buffalo, NY. He and his wife served as Patron and Matron of Pond Chapter No.853 Order of the Eastern Star and considered himself a “Masonic Feminist”.