The Empty Vessel Interview Christina Barea (Li Xin)

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Christina is a Daoist priest in both the Zheng Yi Pai and Quan Zhen Pai lineages. She is one of the founding members of the Blue Mountain Monastery, a residential Daoist monastery, opening in 2014. She has published a book of scripture intended for daily practice by ordained Daoists, Scriptures for the Morning and Evening Rites of the Orthodox Oneness. Christina has been involved in qigong for many years, and has become Certified in Medical Qigong Therapy and as an Advanced Qigong Instructor. She dedicates her time to certifying others in these practices. To further her own studies, Christina travels to China to visit Daoist Monasteries and is currently learning the Chinese language. For more information, please visit www.TheRisingLotus.com/www.BlueMountainMonastery.org/www.ASOMedu.com

 
Empty Vessel: We’re speaking today with Christina Barea, a practitioner of medical qigong and an ordained Daoist priest. It was after she had been studying medical qigong for a couple of years that she traveled to China (2005) to Longhu Shan (Dragon Tiger Mountain, JiangXi Province), an ancient Daoist site. It was on this trip that she became introduced in a more deep way with the philosophy and practices of Daoism.

 

Christina:  I have been interested in religion and philosophy from a young age and I think that reaching a level of personal maturity led me to a deeper understanding of spirituality. It wasn’t until I had taken that trip that I realized that this is where I needed to be. That trip was very pivotal for me. It was very transformational on a spiritual level. The transformation that I went through in those 16 days provided an understanding of where I wanted to go with my life and what I wanted to do and who I was; that trip was a big catalyst for it. The environment really lent itself to create sacred space, to be able to sit and contemplate some of the bigger questions that I had and find some meaningful answers.

 

EV: You were not only led to study Daoism but to become ordained as a Daoist priest.

 

Christina: Right. But before I had gotten more deeply into Daoism I had already entertained the thought, when I was part of the Christian faith, of wondering what it would be like to become a nun. But I realized that that was not for me. The limitations of it didn’t seem to fit me just right. I also considered going onto the Buddhist path. I went out and took some Buddhist classes and spent some time in a center in California. It felt like close but not quite right.

 

EV: That was my experience with Buddhism as well. I was sitting with a Zen teacher but, like you say, it didn’t feel quite right. Later I learned that the things I liked most about Zen all came from Daoism!

 

Christina: I think that’s interesting because the things that I enjoyed about Catholicism – the rituals, the liturgy and the ceremonies – are all available in Daoism. And then the idea of the community or the sangha and the compassionate side of Buddhism is also available in Daoism. And so it seemed when I found Daoism that what I was looking for came together in one great piece and I was like, ok. I found it.

 

EV: Now I don’t know too many people in the West who have been ordained into the Daoist priesthood. You were not only led to study Daoism but become ordained into the Tian Shi lineage.

 

Christina: Yes.

 

EV: What were your thoughts about that?

 

Christina: I’ve been a very spiritual person from early on and I really felt like taking that role seriously furthered my commitment to a spiritual path. Instead of talking about it, I was really going to be doing it.  It was a system of checks and balances for me as well as a motivation, like a carrot dangling on the stick in front of me. It keeps me committed to doing my practice and that I am actually doing what I say I am doing, because I am accountable to other people for my actions.

At the same time, I have these people who I hold in high esteem and regard and they are motivators for me to continue with my process of evolutionary development. I think that the idea of becoming ordained came from the idea of my always wanting to be of service to other people. I want to give back. I think that the world could be a much better place if we had enough people who were dedicated to disseminating these ideas and teachings, helping people to understand other ways of living.

So that is my calling. I want to be a person who brings change to the world through the conversation of spirituality. Because I think it is the most powerful. Between jing, qi, shen – yes we have to start with jing – but I think that when we transform the shen it overpowers everything else and makes long-lasting change.

 

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EV: So what kinds of things do you do in your local community? Do you perform rituals at certain times or do you counsel people?

 

Christina: Yes, I have been doing a lot, mostly under the hat of being a therapist. I guess you could say that in many ways a therapist works as a spiritual counselor as well, especially when it comes to Chinese medicine.

In 2013, with the coming of the Chinese New Year, I ended my time, so to speak, of quiet contemplation and preparation for stepping out into my role as priest. I was ordained in 2008 but I wasn’t ready to fulfill that role in the community. I didn’t have all the resources that I needed, didn’t have the mental clarity. I don’t think the process of transformation was complete. I think it was only initiated with the ordination. I didn’t see the ordination as a ceremony of completion but rather as a ceremony of initiation. So it took me from 2008 to 2013, almost five years, to feel like I had done enough practice, enough meditation, enough reading, research, to think that I had matured those energies inside of me enough to where I felt comfortable enough to perform them in service to the community with the name of priest attached to it, which means a lot to me. It’s very significant; I don’t take that lightly. And so I waited.

My friends and people here in the community really encouraged me, saying it was time to step out in that role. So this year, with the Chinese New Year, it really seemed time, with the ceremony I performed, it was really a debut into the community as a priest.

 

EV: And did I see some footage of that on the Internet?

 

Christina: Yes, you can see the whole thing on our website at http://www.BlueMountainMonastery.org.

 

EV: I think that people will find that very interesting.

 

Christina: I think so too. I was very excited that our local TV station was able to record it and allow us to place it on the website. I don’t know of any other American Daoist ceremony that has been recorded and is available publically like that. I’m out there searching the Internet all the time for people doing similar things and I’m having a little difficulty finding things like that here in the U.S.

Since that debut I have been doing a handful of ceremonies. I try to do one a month, offering petitions, incense and fruit to seek guidance from Guan Shi Yin and from Laozi (Tai Shang Lao Jun). I also do a lot of healing and all the healing I do now is by donation to the monastery. I’ve kind of stepped out of my role as a therapist. I’m not really doing that as much anymore. Our goal is to move all of our healing services to be exclusively under the monastery as a donation basis, to move it out of the clinical atmosphere.

 

EV: Interesting.

 

Christina: Yes I think that there are a number of really great practitioners in the greater metro Atlanta area and I am happy to send referrals to them for people that need a primary care physician.

 

EV: Your husband also works with you in this project, right?

 

Christina:  Yes, we work side by side on everything. He’s been a great support for me.  I call him my personal cheering team.  If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be doing a lot of things that I am doing now, honestly. I’d probably be hidden in my cave somewhere, meditating. (Laughter)

 

EV: And you’re still working with medical qigong?

 

Christina: I am. Right now we are in our yin phase. December is a time of transition. You actually caught me at a crossroads. There’s a lot of transformation that is happening in terms of what I do and the organization through which I perform these services.

Traditionally, people know me through Rising Lotus Qigong. But that is going to become a specialized organization, dedicated only to qigong movement and for certification for people who want to teach qigong to other people, communities, centers and different places. The actual qigong therapy – qi emission – will be at what we just organized and unveiled on Jan 1st, the Atlanta School of Oriental Medicine.  My offices are on top of a hospital of Oriental Medicine. We’re very lucky to be in that location, surrounded by excellent practitioners, who have trained in multiple lineages in acupuncture and herbology.  So we got together and started a school that will become a fully accredited acupuncture school in the next five years.

 

EV: That’s a big job!

 

Christina: It’s very exciting and we feel very lucky to be a part of this. We think Georgia is ready for it and it’s really just responding to the needs and the requests of the community. It will be acupuncture, herbs and medical qigong, tuina.

 

EV: I would imagine that you would be bringing in the Daoist aspects, which most TCM schools don’t have. Daoism is not as well known in the West. Part of the reason for this seems to be that many people who are drawn to Daoism are highly individuated non-joiner types. It’s also not as easy as with Buddhism where you join a sangha and have a community and have temples and retreat centers to go to. We don’t really have that in this country with Daoism.

 

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Christina: I agree with you and I think that part of the reason is that we don’t really have any Daoist centers in this country that people can go to.

 

EV: No we don’t.

 

Christina: Not yet. But I’ll share some news with you. As I said, you have caught me at a crossroads. We have been blessed to have a beautiful home these past few years but now our house is up for sale and we are purchasing land here in Georgia to open a Daoist monastery. It’s going to be a residential center where we can have full time Daoists living there. We will have programs that will be for short term stays, from anywhere from a couple of months or weeks or days.

Our goal is to have a fully functioning Daoist monastery, the same way that you would find in China. Where you can come in for the day and pay your respects and leave or you can come and train with some teachers awhile or if you want to actually become ordained you can come and live there.

 

EV: That is exciting. Any idea when that will be up and running?

 

Christina: By fall of 2014 we will be on the property and depending on how it goes with investors we will begin the building phase with residential units and the sanctuary.

 

EV: I get calls from people all the time who are looking for such a place and I have to tell them that there really isn’t anything like it in the country.

 

Christina: Yes, we’re building it.

 

EV: And will it be working with yourselves or will you be bringing in Daoism and qigong teachers from around the country?

 

Christina: Yes, I have been busy communicating with people with different specialties in the Daoism community for the past eight months. And I have a very, very wonderful relationship with a well-known Daoist scholar who happens to live about an hour from my house who is interested in teaching history and medieval Daoism, Dr. Russell Kirkland. I’ve been going over to his place once a week to talk about Daoism and learn what I can from an old master.

We’ve also talked with Michael Rinaldini and have created an alliance between his American Dragon Gate lineage and the Blue Mountain Monastery where we have invited him to come over and give trainings, seminars and workshops and eventually ordain people from this area who want to. I’ve organized with Livia Kohn to have a women’s Daoist practice meeting at her next Daoism conference, which is in May.

 

EV: And where is that going to be?

 

Christina: The Daoist conference will be in Boston, in the last weekend of May. I’ve been busy putting down the foundation for the monastery. My core belief of it is very much related to a sangha.  I don’t think anyone who operates as a lone wolf, so to speak, will go very far. And I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community either. I think each person is brought to the world with a different specialty that they can offer to people and if we can allow them to share that specialty then everyone benefits from that.

So the Blue Mountain monastery is designed to be a platform, a welcoming sangha, a community of Daoist practitioners who find this ground to be a loving, compassionate support for the exploration of Daoism in all of its many paths and ramifications and faces and so on. Where teachers of different specialties and lineages of martial arts and calligraphy and meditation, you name it, can come and share what they know with other people who are interested in learning that.

I feel that the wisdom of the elders must be passed down through the generations. It’s the only way we can get that – from opening up and taking in what somebody else knows, what somebody else has been through and not be so isolated and individualized in our practice. Part of that, I think, is the American mentality. Americans are fundamentally different from the Chinese in that we maintain our autonomy. As in, I am me, I have my own life, I have my own thinking and I am going to do what I think I want to do. A lot of “I’s” in there. Whereas the Chinese were never given that opportunity. For them there is no “I’, it is a “we.”  I think the fundamental difference has been a barrier to the development of Daoism in the United States. But I think that now it has been around long enough and people are open enough now and hearing about the history of it. I think that the world maturity, the collective consciousness, has grown to the point where we can embrace something that is different and understand that I don’t have to lose myself in that path, I can still maintain my integrity of self while I practice with other people.

 

EV: Yes, there is something very special that happens in group practice. You say it will be modeled after a monastery in China but it will have American characteristics?

 

Christina: I think Daoism, as it comes to the United States, has to change. It cannot operate the same way it does in China because we are fundamentally different from the Chinese. We don’t think, speak or act or do things the same way that Chinese people do. And so I think that the monastery has to adapt to local preferences while it still holds integrity to its roots, from where it came from. I think Buddhism has done that here in the West. I think that all of the religions have changed slightly, they have adapted to the local culture and I don’t think that Daoism will be any different.

 

EV: Personally, I am very exited to hear about something like this happening. I am in my 21st year with this magazine now and I have heard little about this kind of thing happening. I have been yearning for it. People have called me over the years hoping there was some kind of Daoist center where they can go and work in the garden and learn some practices and do them with other people.

 

Christina: Yes I would love to be able to do that too and since we didn’t have anything locally, I decided that I had to go out and build it!

 

EV: On a personal level, I am interested in how what your have learned and practiced changed or impacted your own life.

 

Christina: As for my own life, it’s like a flower blossoming. There has been an incredible unfolding and understanding of myself and intense family healing. You know how they say that when you change yourself everybody changes around you?

 

EV: That’s right.

 

Christina: That is the way it has happened in my life. I have changed and through my changes I have shed some of my old skin and in the process a great amount of healing has been able to happen. That has been such a great blessing for me that every day I am humbled by being able to be in this place. I get up and I pray to Guan Shi Yin and I say “thank you, thank you for giving me these opportunities, thank you for leading me and guiding me every day” and then I just sit and listen. It comes what I am supposed to do today. It’s great.

 

EV: And what it is about Daoism that specifically attracted you and continues to attract you?

 

Christina: Integration. Integration into the totality. Daoism can be interpreted in one aspect as super individualistic, because we focus on ourselves and our own personal transformation.  But energetically, when we go through that transformation we realize that there is no separation of ourselves between others and everything else. We are part of this great big huge “ginormous” ball of energy and once it’s embraced and it’s allowed to flow through it’s uplifting and inspiring and motivating.

It’s just like being plugged into universe juice that is never ending. It’s incredible. And then it offers all of these myriad ways to express those energies externally. You can go and do liturgy, you can do meditation, you can do calligraphy, you can do divination, you can do qigong, you can do martial arts. You name it, there is so much. It’s like if you were to visualize the Emperor at the peak of his reign, when gold flourished and there was silk everywhere and fine jade and porcelain and you’re siting in the middle of all this intricacy and elaborate wealth and abundance. To me that’s where Daoism goes. It’s like being immersed in that brilliant, unending, glorious, fantasticness!

 

EV: Like you were saying, there are so many aspects to it. That is something that I’ve always respected, that even in the Daoist monasteries in China, some people are moved toward studying liturgy or texts and others qigong or martial arts or cooking for everyone. The individuality is respected. Of course, for people in the West, they have to be ordained or even change their religion to do many of these practices, which can have a huge impact on their life.

 

Christina: Absolutely. In Daoism, there is the community practice and then there is that honor and respect for exploring one’s potential but also at the same time saying, if you don’t want to do this, fine.

 

EV: I think that as someone who knows about the Daoist roots of many of the practices and can bring in some of the philosophy it just enriches the experience of the students. I think it’s fairly unique that you have such a background in the history and liturgy and the philosophy and the texts of Daoism, you can bring a whole lot more to the table than just teaching movement.

 

Christina: I hope so. I have so much to learn though.

 

EV: Well it’s never ending, which is the beauty of it. I love where Laozi says that in learning Dao every day something is let go, before you reach the kernel of Dao, which is something very simple and profound. But you have to remove a lot of layers to get to it, layers of acculturation and family, all the layers that we have to remove to get at the shining kernel of Dao.

 

Christina: There’s a scripture called the (Qing Jing Jing 清 靜 經) which talks about how when you observe the form you see that there is no form. It’s alluding to the same thing where once we let go of all the constructs and all of the layers that are there you see that there is nothing left. But when you see that there’s nothing left you see that everything is present at the same time.

 

EV: You have some books and materials that people can order from you to learn more about these kinds of things?

 

Christina: Yes I have the scripture of the Morning and Evening Rites of the Orthodox Oneness. That was the first thing that I published. It’s actually more of a practice book. The Daoist priests recite a set of prayers in the morning and then again in the evening. The morning prayers are used to invite deities to reside at the altar during the day so that they can do their practices. The evening prayers are to return the deities back to heaven so that they can rest.

On that trip in 2005 we were all given a copy of the prayers. Naturally they were written in Chinese and naturally I did what any good student would do and I raised my hand and asked if there was an English version of this. They just laughed and said no there was not. So I set out and took the next four years to translate that book. I knew at that time how significant that trip was for me and the things that I needed to do and one of them was, if it’s not available in English and I want to know what’s in there, I’m going to have to translate it. So I did. It was a difficult journey but it was eventually completed and it has revealed such an immense understanding of Daoism that I don’t think I would have gotten if I had not had the practice of translating it myself.

 

EV: Right now I am working on my own interpretation of the Daode Jing and I think to really understand a book like that it’s really helpful to put together your own version and have to look at it line by line, word by word. And what it means to you and how you understand it and experience it. It changes how you read the text.

 

Christina: Yes, because each character has so many multiple layers of meaning. So when we sit down to study it we don’t really understand the fullness of what’s being represented in the scripture.

 

EV: Yes that’s true. I have read translations of Daoist texts that have been done by sinologists or scholars, who have never done any of the practices and they often get little things wrong that they really don’t understand. I think to be a scholar practitioner you bring a lot more to the table and you end up with something that can be a lot more helpful and clear for other people.

 

Christina: I couldn’t agree with you more on that. It’s a shame because they were gifted with the understanding of the language and the ability to read it and yet are missing out on so much of the practice.

 

EV: I don’t know how many times I have seen the practice of tapping the teeth together translated as gnashing the teeth, which is a whole different thing. That’s a perfect example right there.

 

Christina: I’m not sure the effect would be the same as tapping!

 

EV: You have a qigong book don’t you?

 

Christina: Yes, Qigong Illustrated. It’s on an introductory level. It’s breaking it down into the simplest terms possible for people to understand for some concepts that might be difficult to understand if we use flowery language.

 

EV: And with lots of pictures.

Christina: With lots and lots of pictures to make it easy so that you can actually learn something.

 

EV: Do you have any dvds or anything like that?

 

Christina: Yes, Qigong Illustrated now has a DVD that goes with it. We were lucky enough to have a 13 episode series on cable TV locally {AIBTV}. So all of the qigong that is in Qigong Illustrated was recorded for this TV series and it’s available on a DVD. And, next week we start filming Season Two.

 

EV: And Season One is available now?

 

Christina: Yes. You can buy individual episodes or you can buy the whole series through our website, www.TheRisingLotus.com.

 

EV: So, to wrap things up, is there anything that you would like to share with our readers?

 

Christina: Yes, I would say dialogue; community and dialogue. Open communication. I really want to encourage people to talk to each other. People who have inspiration, who have studied, who have had the opportunity to go to China and study, who have learned from people with a lot of experience. I am really speaking to our high level teachers across the world to talk to each other, to foster community, to create a Daoist sangha. The world is ready for it and we need it. The community needs it, the people need it, the students need it. It’s really a time for us to come together and to create a solid network of people who can support each other toward the common goal, which is the practice and learning and the understanding of Daoism.

I think that the world is a very big place and we need all of the individual people with all of their different specialties in order to make it even better, to make it a solid practice that can grow for years to come and for future generations. When I leave and I want to leave a legacy for my son. I hope that this article comes across as a call to action for people to really begin to dialogue and to create. It’s time.

 

EV: One last question. What do you think Daoism in particular has to offer in these modern, very fragmented times?

 

Christina: I think that Daoism offers something that can only be experienced through practice. It’s the energetic matrix that puts us all together. Daoism really emphasizes our connection to nature and to the whole. And as you said, a reflection of these fragmented times means that we are not living in awareness and consciousness of what our actions and reactions are doing to the global unity and to the universal unity.

But Daoism, because its fundamental tenets of interconnectedness to nature and that everything is included in nature, provides a great platform of healing, of connection to others and connection to the divine, which is obviously always an inspiration for humanity. I think Daoism speaks to us on jing, qi, shen and it should, because it’s based on that. And when we can understand it and live from jing, qi, shen then we will thrive.

 

EV: Can you clarify/amplify what you mean here how Daoism speaks to us on jing, qi and shen?

 

Christina: Yes, the Three Treasures of jing, qi and shen are the first three divisions of the Dao after Yin and Yang. Chapter 42 of the DDJ talks about this. If we can raise our awareness, our consciousness to the fullness of what is being described in this simple text, we get a multi-dimensional understanding of the interconnectedness of the totality. If we can understand our jing (physical) actions and consciousness on this level, and match it to the energetic matrix (qi) level with non-physical communication and sensation, and ultimately align that to the higher vibration of (shen) mental/spiritual consciousness and super-consciousness on a consistent basis, then, and only then, do we achieve alignment with the “true” Dao.

Daoism is not just movement, and it’s not just healing and it’s not just liturgy. It’s all of that rolled into one succinct package. That package is called our life and, since we come from the Dao and live in the Dao, the Dao is present in everything. It’s not until we can grasp the entire picture that we can achieve complete harmonious personal unity.  And, since we are merely a reflection of each other, then when we achieve unity, then everyone else achieves it too. That is the Dao – the nature of life.  There is no separation. I am you, you are me. Neither of us can really move forward until both of us realize that there is no separation. As long as one of us believes we are separate, then suffering is inevitable. When we can live in unity, on all levels with nature, with ourselves and with others, then we have achieved complete merging with the Dao.