Applied Wisdom

Picking up our previous thread, we were at a crossroads  looking for the Way across America that tells the Tai Chi and Qigong story, at both the mastery and the mass levels. The road map is beginning to take shape, although we are still trying to summon the resources. We have a deadline.

Meanwhile, my preparation includes more literary adventures, reading and viewing the latest creations that promote the art of the Tao, both martial and meditative. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Jennifer St. John’s Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, and I offer a review here. But first, I have a clarification for a previous blog.

I am surprised and pleased to report that Gary Snyder, the poet who inspired the Japhy Ryder character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, is not the last of the living Dharma Bums. In fact, an original, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and Beat publisher at San Francisco’s City Lights, is alive and well, at 97, and writing his memoirs. Ah, the stories he might tell!

Ferlinghetti inspired many aspiring poets and philosophers, including Jennifer St. John, who is both a Tai Chi master and a corporate consultant, principal of House of Taiji and The Fusion Group, LTD, co-located in Weston, Florida. She was so impressed with Ferlinghetti’s unconventional poetry that she chose as her University of Washington senior project a performance arts piece based on his work.

I never met Ferlinghetti, although I wandered his City Lights bookstore looking for a Kerouac volume (Visions of Gerard, found it!). But you’ve got to love his irreligious take on American society, and life in general. Here he is with his “Loud Prayer” in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, “The Last Waltz.”

St. John’s martial arts journey began when she was 8 years old, bullied coming home from a birthday party. To defend herself, she turned to judo, karate and Kung-fu, and then Aikido before finally finding her home with Tai Chi (taiji). The change to internal martial arts came just after she moved her business to South Florida from New York City. She sought out Sifu Ron Hoffman, who influenced many martial artists in south Florida with his Temple-style Tai Chi, taught by Master Waysun Liao and with further training at a Taoist monastery in Taiwan.

“Ten Zen” is an eloquent synthesis of knowledge and insight that St. John has gathered over the years, as she has applied Taoist philosophy in advising corporations about leadership and management. Like other “Zen stories,” these each conveys a moral – deep truth about life. St. John extends each story with a discussion about the lessons, which you might apply individually, in your home, or at work.

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As St. John tells it, “Ten Zen” began as a single story, “Learning is Letting Go,” about a man who has gathered all the things he has learned, each another stick in the bundle he laboriously carried through the village. He would not relinquish any of the sticks “that represent a lesson I learned along my path since childhood.” However, through good fortune and design, the man loses his entire bundle of sticks and learns a valuable lesson about letting go of the past.

The 10 stories are easy to digest, helped by the editing and design touches by the “editorial team” at The Fusion Group. But they’re also fun to read, as St. John infuses each chapter with life and character. In “When the Master Calls, Go In,” she introduces her story by setting a colorful scene at the “Temple of the Perennial Wisdom”:

“Zen Temple. Massive Formal Gate. Much traffic, dusty itinerant priests arriving from far away. Muscular warrior monks practicing martial skills in the courtyard, and the “kat, kat, kot” sound of martial practice with wooden staves in furious contact. Nuns in gray shirts and tightly wrapped pant legs carry out the business of the temple, their shaven heads indistinguishable from their brothers, but for the softer, delicate, more fluid grace of their carriage.”

It is easy to be carried along by the fluid grace of the stories, but also a pleasure to return and reread, for the language and for the lessons. I am still trying to get in touch with my “Kitchen Tai Chi,” after reading “In the Great Hall,” the final story. Apparently my Tai Chi should enable me to move “smoothly, silently, gracefully at work – moving from wok to kettle to cauldron in a beautiful demonstration of ‘Moving Meditation and Kitchen Tai Chi.” This may take more meditation and much practice on my part..

This slim volume would be a valuable addition to your Zen/Tao collection. You can order it here. You can also get a sense of how St. John applies Taoist principles to workaday complications of corporate life by checking out her blog, “Cornerstones.”

 

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Finding Your Path

“The Dharma can’t be lost, nothing is lost on a well-worn path.”

— Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

Dharma Bums is a relentlessly optimistic book, where enlightenment is there at the top of the mountain, just over the bend. The hard work it would take to get there was an unplanned byproduct of the journey, and Kerouac didn’t linger long over these challenges. Sit and meditate, maybe pass around a cheap bottle of wine, or a joint. It was all good. They were on a mission from god, after all.

Jack Kerouac and his Zen adventurers were looking beyond the dreary world of work, reflecting the disaffection the Beat Generation felt toward the consumer society they were inheriting. Kerouac wrote dismissively of creeping commercialism, and the worship of shiny new things:

“Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume…”

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Dharma Bum poets Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in India in 1962.

Obviously the Beats’ protest didn’t rally a nation, since the consumer society is alive and well. We’ve produced and consumed all those products and more. The same market that underpins this consumer society also is at work in the Tai Chi and Qigong fields, which is why more practices are springing up in communities around the country. Approximately 3 million Americans now practice Tai Chi, according to government surveys.

Still, it’s a lot more difficult to find studios for Tai Chi than for yoga, its energy exercise cousin, which caters to some 10 percent of the U.S. population and has created a $27 billion industry. The search for training has created a new kind of Dharma Bum, Tai Chi enthusiasts who, plugged into social media, are looking for the nearest training program. A recent fellow student in a Qigong workshop in suburban Washington, D.C., had traveled from North Dakota, and previously had moved to Oregon to find a teacher.

Thus, there is a spiritual quest among the New Dharma Bums similar to that experienced by Kerouac and his friends as they rushed up the mountain for certain enlightenment. Where will I find a teacher to guide me to the top of the mountain, to find the inner strength, balance and peace promised in the literature of this Taoist martial art, this moving meditation?

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Tai Chi may have originated on WuDang mountain in the 12th century when, according to legend, Taoist sage Chang San Feng witnessed a deadly fight between a crane and a snake.

In communities across America, Tai Chi teachers are seeking to meet this demand by building practices that straddle the rec centers and the senior centers, balancing the martial art with the exercise and breathing therapy. Some even couple their training with yoga and pilates, or acupuncture and herbal treatments. Tai Chi and Qigong are different things to different people, depending on their goals.

My training was focused on Tai Chi and Qigong for health, and not on the martial qualities of the art. But as my Internet friends remind me repeatedly, the internal strength and vitality that comes from Tai Chi were developed in the context of the martial art. To get the most benefit, you must transform your body through regular and rigorous exercise drawn from centuries of martial arts training.

For those interested in using Tai Chi for self-defense, the simple application from a Tai Chi posture (shown in the video below) gives you an idea of the potential of the “soft” martial art.

My journey in search of the New Dharma Bums will focus on many directions, even as we settle on a path across the country. I hope this blog will serve as a resource and gateway to training no matter what your specific interest. You will learn it all on this trip — Tai Chi and Qigong for health, self-defense or consciousness-raising. Like the original Dharma Bums, we will leave no stone unturned.

Find out how you can get involved here.

 

 

 

Call of the Wild

Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

– “For All,” Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

From the literary tradition of Tai Chi, which goes back many centuries, we take a step forward to the literary tradition of the 1950s Beat Generation, which was celebrated in Jack Kerouac’s novels – and in the books and poetry of his fellow road wayfarers, including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder.

Snyder, the inspiration for the lead character in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder, was a charismatic poet and outdoor adventurer equally drawn to Native American and Zen Buddhist cultures. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for his collection, Turtle Island, which celebrated his beloved Mother Nature and the ecosystem we inhabit.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder is alive and well as a teacher and environmental activist.

As Kerouac’s Dharma Bums ends, Snyder has set sail for Japan and a decade-long odyssey in the Far East, where among other works he translated the Cold Mountain Chen (Zen) poems of Han Shan, a Chinese monk from the Tang Dynasty. At 86, he’s the only one of the “Bums” still alive, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis, and an occasional lecturer.

Years after the Dharma Bums split in California, and after Kerouac’s sad self-destruction, the literary lights of the Beats got together at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg and Snyder were on the faculty for a while, and Ginsberg was instrumental in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, naturally.

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Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in 1955.

In 1975, William Burroughs brought his trippy take on literature and poetry to Naropa in a lecture that has been transcribed and posted in The Ginsberg Project, a fun blog I recommend. In the first installation, Burroughs encourages the students to experiment with language, to conduct exercises that stretch the boundaries of words and images. He invokes a “cut-up” style that might skew Rimbaud’s poetry at random, creating images of a different order.

Being a seminal literary light on the Beats, Naropa Institute is a natural destination on my national search for the New Dharma Bums. My friend Lee Fife is teaching Tai Chi there, and I have a good friend whose son, a student at Naropa, has promised a VIP tour. I’ve talked with other teachers from across the country who are doing innovative work, and I hope to visit many of them.

Much depends on the success of my Kickstarter project. The contributions are trickling in, and I hope to make the trip by the fall, maybe sooner. With $1,430 pledged, the project is now 29 percent funded. Under Kickstarter rules, the project does not receive any funds unless the full $5,000 goal is fulfilled by the deadline – Sunday, July 10. I hope others will want to join me as I answer this call of the wild, and contribute to the project.

Inevitably, my final destination in this saga is California, scene of so much past dharma bumming. Ideally, I will be able to track down Professor Snyder for an interview, to find out more about his lifelong search for dharma. Still reading and writing poetry, Snyder speaks out today as an environmental activist.

With a degree in anthropology, Snyder concedes that, “as a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.”

Here’s Snyder reading his poem, “Riprap,” now 54 years old.

 

The Backgrounders

Before setting out to cover the story of America’s evolving Tai Chi adventure, I am filling in information gaps in the history and philosophy of the Taoist martial arts, of which Tai Chi is one. I welcome any suggestions from fellow travelers, and those busy reading on the sidelines.

I recommend building on a literary tradition that includes good translations of Tao Te Ch’ing, I Ch’ing and The Art of War, as well as the Tai Chi Classics that lay out the principles of the practice. Other important works are available in English, reflecting the American experience.

 

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Some of the essential Tai Chi books in my library.

My old school in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, The Tai Chi Center, used a text written by its founder, Robert W. Smith, a student of the legendary Cheng Man-Ch’ing, who brought his simplified Yang form from Taiwan to New York in 1964.

Cheng is featured in a new film documentary, “The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West,” originally a Kickstarter project like this one. The film is in New York this week for a one-night showing, and premiered in Los Angeles last month. The Professor was a poet, calligrapher and a healer practicing Chinese medicine. He considered Tai Chi, the martial art, his greatest accomplishment.

 

Robert Smith worked with the Professor in co-authoring “T’ai-Chi: The ‘Supreme Ultimate’ Exercise for Health, Sport and Self-defense,” which takes you through the Cheng Man-Ch’ing form, step by step. While there is no substitute for a hands-on teacher, “T’ai-Chi” lays out the principles and practice of Tai Chi as well as any text I’ve seen.

I was assigned other books written by the Professor’s students, including Ben Lo’s translation of “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises.…,” Cheng’s principles for marshaling energy (qi) for martial arts applications, and Wolfe Lowenthal’s “There Are No Secrets,” showing how Cheng had broken down the “closed door” teaching that cloaked Tai Chi with mystery in China. Ben Lo was a key editor in an excellent translation of the Tai Chi classics, “The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.”

This is my Tai Chi literary base, which I’m always trying to expand. I am thankful for my friends in Facebook forums, and supporters of my journey in search of the New Dharma Bums, who have suggested different books that would serve as good background, or inspiration, for my trip. Some are translating obscure works, while others have written books, which they naturally recommend.

I recently finished Bruce Frantzis’s Taoist meditation classic, “Relaxing into Your Being,” and am ready for Volume 2, “The Great Stillness.” I’m just starting Jennifer St. John’s “Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times,” while also reading Rick Barrett’s “Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate,” both of which promise to help bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western philosophies.

Barrett’s work is particularly intriguing in how it parses the Western cultural barrier to communicate the philosophies and practices of Eastern people. We each have our own “Gate” of perception, and it’s not easy to penetrate those traditions with genuine innovations. Fittingly, Barrett begins his book with a quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Indeed. Discovery requires seeing things differently, and I will be challenged to communicate the differences. Unlike Barrett, I have the advantage of studying the Chinese language and living for a period in Taiwan, but I do not have his expertise and training in Tai Chi. I am learning much from his approach in “Through the Western Gate.”

A book can take you only so far on a voyage of discovery, and I realize I will be challenged to feel things differently, not just see them, and communicate those feelings in language that can be understood. But the literary tradition is very much a part of Tai Chi, as well as the odyssey of discovery, as in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. There is always the mystery of what will happen next:

Any journey begins with a single step, but eventually I expect to be bounding down the mountain like Japhy Ryder.  With the support of readers like you, there will be many more stories to tell, more mountains to climb. I deeply appreciate any and all contributions, suggestions and advice, and I hope to meet many of you along the way.