Taiwan ‘Action Zen’ on the Mainland

During June and July 2012, I participated in a series of training weekends organized by ‘Huan-ting Zen’ 黃庭禪. Huan-ting Zen is a Taiwan-based spiritual organisation that seeks to facilitate individual emotional transformation. Through a series of lectures, games and experiments, I was introduced to huangting 黃庭 (literally, ‘the yellow court’), the energy centre Huan-ting Zen believes to be located in the chest of every human being. According to Huan-ting Zen, energy, or qi 氣 is regulated by, and felt most acutely in, the huangting and flows through our body in a number of ways, most notably manifesting as emotions.

Huan-ting Zen’s founder and head teacher Chang Ching-xiang 張慶祥 believes one particular emotion – anxiety – to be a global scourge:

The greatest enemy facing mankind today is not cancer, it is ‘anxiety’! Anxiety does not have national boundaries; it does not distinguish age or race, nor is confined to a particular group or sect. Anxiety is omnipresent, hardly anyone can escape it. It is the most intractable problem of modern man!


Huan-ting Zen is best seen as part of a burgeoning ‘Body Mind Spirit’ 身心靈 practices in Taiwan and the People’s Republic. ‘Body Mind Spirit’ draws on concepts derived from New Age writings and ideas related to human potential that have been made available through translated texts since the 1970s. It is a school of thought or a cluster of practices that also draws on elements of Chinese religion, philosophy and body cultivation techniques.

There are some similarities between huangting and chakras (from the Sanskrit cakra, and Pali cakka), a concept originating in Indian yogic traditions and popular in New Age literature. Chakras are believed to be points of energy located throughout the body and can be enacted through practices such as yoga or reiki. The Theosophical Society, through writers such as Helena Petrova Blavatsky, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, were early proponents of chakras in the West. While the qualities and potential of chakras vary from tradition to tradition, Leadbeater’s description of the heart chakra – like huangting located in the chest – as ‘of a glowing golden colour’[2] is not dissimilar to Chang’s representation of huangting.

Through an admixture of Buddhist and Daoist scriptures, along with canonical Confucian texts, and by rendering their arcane language into a form more palatable for the contemporary world, Chang has also developed a method that he says allows practitioners to experience the huangting directly. Despite drawing heavily on religious thought, Huan-ting Zen claims that it is not a religious group. Rather, they position themselves as purveyors of a form of ‘inner zen’ 內心禪.

The ‘zen’ 禪 in the name Huan-ting Zen might inspire contemplative, peaceful images, or evoke visions of earnest meditators struggling with the intricacies of a ko’an, or dealing with the irritation of sitting still for hours at a time. Huan-ting Zen participants do partake in some meditation and energy cultivation sessions, its curriculum is distinguished by its more active, and at times unsettling, techniques.

On training weekends in which I participated, each exercise and lecture focused on huangting, from its origins in the classics of Chinese culture to how we may best feel its subtle undulations and palpitations in ourselves. Once aware of huangting, the practitioner is supposed to understand better and mitigate the emotional turbulence of daily life.

There are two activities that I feel best exemplify the Huan-ting Zen method. The first involves a series of high-wire climbing and abseiling activities conducted at an adventure camp near Miaoli County 苗栗縣 in central Taiwan. The logic behind these activities is that: when one faces the sublime discomfort of being in a precarious position metres above the ground (even though safety harnesses are worn), a person’s huangting goes into overdrive and the emotions faced when inching across a ten-metre-high pole (fear, dread, anxiety, confusion, etc) are so extreme that, once safely back on the ground, mundane emotions can be more easily detected. Participants are told to be mindful of the changes in their huangting before, during and after each exercise.

A similar, although less extreme, exercise involved participants falling backwards on to a net.

Retreat participants ‘engage their huangting’. Instructor Chang (hands on hips), is standing on the left. Photograph by Paul Farrelly

To simply use courage (as in mentally being brave enough) was not enough. The heart/mind 心, or huangting, had to be engaged to truly succeed in these activities. The following video below shows the high-rise pole walk:

The second exercise that struck me for the startling effect it had on participants was ‘one-word zen’ 一句禪. This exercise involves the class splitting into two lines. The lines face each other and practitioners pair up. The instructions are simple, using English one person says ‘yes’ and the other responds with ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are generating feelings of pleading, of seeking assistance in a humble way. Those saying ‘no’ are demonstrating an unwillingness to forgive and an unrelenting refusal to submit. Beyond saying the word, participants are also instructed to express the requisite sentiments through their body language.

Retreat participants practice ‘one-word zen’. Photograph courtesy of Huang-ting Zen


This exercise had a remarkable result. Within minutes several participants were in tears, some sobbing profusely. By completely immersing themselves in the affirming, accepting role of ‘yes’, they shifted their awareness from the brain to the huangting. Entering such a state of utter emotional vulnerability meant participants subjugated their normal ability to stay calm by repressing emotions. My emotional register did not experience such drastic changes, although I did feel a tad guilty when my partner started to cry. Possibly because I was saying ‘no’ in the most over-the-top Australian accent I could muster, doing my best to channel the Ocker icon Alf Stewart from the TV soap Home and Away.

Body Mind Spirit groups from Taiwan like Huan-ting Zen are now active in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Relying on a potentially fraught legitimacy of either (pseudo-) scientific discourse or preservation of cultural heritage, these groups are able to teach classes and offer other associated clinical services. However the Communist Party’s ever-present anxiety over the appearance of the next ‘evil cult’ is of concern. Party paranoia was evident in the raid of Chinese ‘Body Mind Spirit’ teacher Qing Mingyuan’s 秦铭远 base in Shenzhen in early 2012. Trained in the teachings of the controversial Indian guru Osho (Rendered in Chinese as 奧修 and formerly known around the world as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), Qing supposedly advocated wife swapping and other sexual activities as part of tantric yoga practices, drawing the ire of local authorities.[3]

At the three Huan-ting Zen retreats I attended in Taiwan, the presence of students from the PRC was significant. At the advanced retreat, ten of the thirty students were from the Mainland. Having been exposed to Huan-ting Zen through the regular retreats that have been held in Chinese metropolises since 2009, these students were availing themselves of the relaxation of Taiwan visa requirements for residents in eight of the PRC’s largest cities.[4]

Today, all too often exchanges between travellers from the PRC and Taiwan are beclouded by fears that this is the beginning of a tidal wave Mainlanders that will eventually swamp Taiwan, despoil its culture and destroy its hard-won democracy. The ‘micro-connections’ evident at Huan-ting Zen retreats are of an entirely different order. Mainland students travel to Taiwan at considerable expense and inconvenience. They do so to immerse themselves wholeheartedly in a spiritual practice, and discursive environment, that would be almost impossible to enjoy in the PRC. It is fascinating to listen to Mainland visitors marvel at Taiwan’s relatively free religious environment. Repeated visits see friendships develop and Huan-ting Zen appears to now have dual centres of devoted practitioners on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

It is tempting to speculate that the ongoing integration of the economies and societies of the PRC and Taiwan is only a one-way traffic. The sizes of the two regions means that some disparity is inevitable, be it the realms of economics or politics, or indeed, inside the baseball diamond. What the examples of Huan-ting Zen and other similar ‘religious but not really religious’ Body Mind Spirit groups demonstrate is that this is one aspect of cultural production where Taiwan has the edge. Beyond the tears elicited by ‘one-word zen’ and the terror of the high-rise balance beam, the ‘action zen’ of Huan-ting Zen represents a particular kind of interweaving and rapprochement between the two sides.



[1] Chang Ching-xiang 張慶祥, ‘Original Intention and Vision for the Future’ 初衷與願景.
[2] C.W. Leadbeater, The Chakras: a monograph, Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1927: 7.
[3] ‘The Dark Secrets of Spiritual Cultivation: The Craze for Depraved Tantra Classes’ 灵修培训黑幕重重 开办涉淫谭崔课程疯狂圈钱, Yangcheng Evening Post 羊城晚报, 20 March 2012.
[4] Lee Hsin-Yin, ‘Individual Travel Program to be Expanded Soon’, The Central News Agency, 19 July 2012.