Heal Thyself

All along the road in my search for the Tai Chi revolution I’ve found people who are eager to help me overcome physical weaknesses, ready with advice and helpful criticisms of my structure, postures and form. Some corrections have been repeated a few times over, by different teachers, suggesting that I am not improving my Tai Chi as I travel along. But I believe I am on track for a breakout, thanks to these brilliant teachers and friends.

Most recently, under the care of Wu Tai Chi stylist David Lenkovitzki, my own bone and skeletal problems were the starting point for study – and special attention to my warm-ups, stretching and opening the spine and connective tissue. He had several recommendations, and ideas for me to chew on. I know more now about how the Wu style fits in with Yang, Chen and Sun, and how it’s different. But the most important lesson, in Northwest Arkansas as in other stops along the way, is the healing power of Tai Chi.

In a beginners’ Tai Chi class at his studio in Rogers, Arkansas, Lenkovitzki pulled out his anatomy and skeletal charts to demonstrate proper body alignment, explaining to a new student, a man in his 50s, how to take pressure off his bulging disc and relax his stiff neck. He cautioned him not to do too much, but to keep working at it.

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“We’re going to start at the beginning,” David Lenkovitzki said as he pulled out his anatomy charts to show the proper body alignment to new students.

The man’s wife, who had brought him to his first class, explained that she used a cane when she started learning Tai Chi. “I don’t use that any more, I cut back on my medications, and my balance is much better.” Another student in the class credited Tai Chi training from Lenkovitzki at the city’s Adult Wellness Center with helping him deal with Parkinson’s Disease, reducing the tremors as well as the medication.

This theme has been consistent throughout my tour, beginning with Bill Douglas in Kansas City, where his “Tai Chi Meditation” classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center have given people new hope and, in some cases, a new lease on life. Beth Rosenfeld, who runs Rocky Mountain Tai Chi in Boulder, Colorado, along with husband Lee Fife, overcame severe injuries from an automobile accident just a few years ago, and leads Tai Chi form and sword classes with grace and power.

Etha Behrman, a former student of Michael Paler at the Tai Chi Association of Colorado Springs and now with Ray Abeyta of the Texas School of Tai Chi and Healing, overcame crippling fibromyalgia through years of Tai Chi practice, and now feels much less pain. Behrman, who has a doctorate in physiology and neuroscience, credits Tai Chi for strengthening her body, and is studying how to heal connective tissues with simple exercises, using a method called MELT.

Paler has several students who testify that Tai Chi has helped them overcome health issues. Tom Parker has had two hip replacements and practiced Tai Chi throughout. “The doctor was amazed how much stronger Tom’s bones were between surgeries,” Paler said. “It was harder cutting through for the replacement.”

None of this surprises Lenkovitzki, who has his own testimony. “Tai Chi helped save my life,” he said, recalling how he came to this country, to Los Angeles, suffering from PTSD after fighting in three wars in Israel. “I was in a dark place, where I didn’t really think life was worth living.”

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David Lenkovitzki performs the Wu Tai Chi form at his studio

Fortunately, he met Rock Ng and got in touch with his lost mind-body, lifting the depression over years of practice. He also relished the challenge of Wu Tai Chi, with its explicit martial applications and close-in combat movements. (Learn more about Rock Ng from his student group here.) When Rock moved to Hawaii after five years teaching Lenkovitzki, he advised his student to go find other students and teach.

Thus did Lenkovitzki move his computer software consulting business (have laptop will travel) to Rogers, Arkansas, setting up a Tai Chi and Yoga studio with his wife, Pamela Porch, a yoga and Pilates instructor. “I’m also certified to teach Kundalini Yoga, but it’s not my thing,” Lenkovitzki said. “Tai Chi is my thing.”

They also teach at the Adult Wellness Center, a massive seniors’ activities facility situated adjacent to a retirement community in Rogers, where Tai Chi, Yoga and Pilates compete with workout equipment, a swimming pool, pool tables and walking trails, among other fun. Some members there later become regular students at the studio.

Besides his interest in the physiological value of Tai Chi, Lenkovitzki also is intrigued by the metaphysical aspects, “life at the margins of what we see,” he said. He makes sure he carves out time each day to meditate. I got an opportunity to feel the wow at the end of a yoga class, when Pamela invited me in for the gong closing.  I wish I could conjure up those exquisite 10 minutes whenever I want to, but for my readers’ edification I offer a 15-minute version, from a YouTube search. Click, close your eyes, breathe deep …

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Practice Makes Perfect

I am bombarded with books and links and wisdom written down, sometimes only in Chinese, but with illustrations. Along my route in search of the New Dharma Bums, I am sifting through mountains of information, making a list of everything I must read. So much to learn. And, then, eventually I must practice.

I started my Tai Chi journey 28 years ago with a book of basic postures and descriptions, Cheng Man-Ching’s Yang style short form, as told by his co-author, Robert W. Smith. Smith is an important part of my Tai Chi experience, since he also founded my Tai Chi school in Bethesda, Maryland. This weekend, in Ft. Worth, Texas, I pushed hands with Justin Harris, who actually studied with Bob Smith – and with Patrick Cheng, son of Professor Cheng Man-Ching. It turns out that Harris’s own journey also cycled through Bob Smith’s literary light.

“Bob Smith wrote books on Bagua and Hsing-I, and the history and methods of Chinese boxing,” Harris said. “He was a Gold Glove boxer, a former Marine. He was a real fighter himself.” Besides his textbooks, Smith wrote fiction that parodied martial arts fantasies and shared his actual adventures in a biography, “Martial Musings.” He also served as a CIA agent stationed in Taiwan, where he spent six months pleading with Cheng Man-Ching to take him as his first American student.

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At Ft. Worth’s Botanic Gardens, a panoply of styles and intentions, from White Crane to Bagua to Zhan-Zhuang. Shifu Justin Harris pushes at right rear.

Harris is the go-to guy in Ft. Worth, Texas, if you’re looking for instruction in internal martial arts – from Bagua to Hsing-I to White Crane, and for any style of Tai Chi, although he’s more likely to favor Sun-style Tai Chi because of its connection to his Bagua and Hsing-I training. He is still expert in the Yang styles, and knows some Chen and Wu-style exercises. He even teaches a form of the Old Six Roads, demonstrated to me by one of his students. And he took the time recently to train in Brazilian jujitsu, earning a black belt.

He creates training programs for the city of Ft. Worth, and the YMCA, combining martial arts with fitness. “I teach seniors how to do push-ups, and we do it over a year and a half. You tailor exercises to fit the need, the abilities.”

Harris is only 40 years old, with long hair gathered in a ponytail down his back and a ready smile. He is an imposing figure, at about 6-3 and 300 pounds, but his gentle nature is evident from the first moment you meet him. As a teacher, he takes time for everyone, assigning them exercises as he moves from student to student in his Saturday “free-for-all” get-togethers at the Botanic Gardens in Ft. Worth.

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Justin Harris, left, works with Barret, a senior student, on a Bagua posture.

We had 10 players spread out across the manicured lawn, surrounded by a path of flowers still colorful and fragrant in November’s western breeze.  Two were practicing White Crane Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art form that some believe is the precursor to karate. Most were practicing Bagua, walking in circles or repeating circular movements in the internal martial art that seeks to outflank an opponent.

As for me, Harris suggested that I walk a mile doing “brush knee,” right leg over left leg, each step requiring a nice long, balanced pause. Seriously, he does that – walks a mile or more using a particular Tai Chi posture. I walked across the lawn, one slow step after the other, gathering my brush knee energy, left over right. It was good. Thanks, Justin, I needed that.

Another leg of the journey. Let’s take a step back and clarify the differences among Tai Chi, Bagua and Hsing-I as they’re applied to martial situations. Check out this demonstration by Richard Clear, who teaches in Tennessee:

The Top of the Mountain

Ray Abeyta and Michael Paler are tough guys who survived the mean streets of El Paso, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, respectively. They learned to protect themselves with martial arts. Then they learned to dominate with Tai Chi.

Ray is a Vietnam veteran from a family of boxers, and he reveled in martial arts contests as a youngster, and still does. Michael had to fend for himself in cold, unforgiving Buffalo, discovering he could do it pretty well. Both gravitated toward Tai Chi, Paler when he was a teenager, Abeyta after the war and a series of roughneck jobs in El Paso. Today, they are pursuing their dreams in the mountains of the U.S. Southwest – Paler in Colorado Springs and Abeyta high above his old Air Force base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Both also are disciples of Imperial Yang Family Tai Chi, a mysterious branch of the most popular style of Tai Chi that originated from the Palace staff during the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s. It is characterized by its intense internal work (neigong) and powerful energy release. Here’s how the Imperial Yang school evolved, according to an account by Grandmaster Wei Shu Ren, who carried on the family tradition until his death in 2013:

Master Yang Jian Hou, son of Yang style founder Yang Lu Chan, was summoned to train the royal family and, along with his son Yang Chengfu, used the palace staff to absorb the blows. No one absorbed blows better than Wang Chonglu and his son Wang Yong Quan. After years of pushing them around, the fearsome Yang Chengfu rewarded their courage with lessons in the Yang family secrets, not shared with others.

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Michael Paler leads his class at Tai Chi Colorado Springs in the  Old Six Roads form. I am following along from the back row. (Photo by Julie Paler)

Paler and Abeyta teach the Imperial-style “Old Six Roads” form, along with the Yang long form. I had the opportunity to participate in classes for both at Paler’s Colorado Springs Tai Chi studio, plus push hands play. The Old Six Roads seems distinctly different from the Yang form, with shorter and more compact movements within the larger postures. Paler’s students have plenty of questions, which he answers and illustrates on a giant digital whiteboard. And we do it again.

For decades, Wei Shu Ren traveled China and South Asia to teach and compete. He quickly won over Australian martial artist John Fung, who became a sixth generation disciple of the Yang Imperial style. Fung introduced Abeyta and Paler to the Imperial forms, and to the Wei family. He has pledged to carry on the tradition of his teacher, who dispatches him effortlessly in this video.

On the website he created, Fung describes the essential “Shen-Yi-Qi” fundamentals that underpin the Imperial style, designed to “unite the mind and body to maximize function and harmony.”

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Pushing hands with Ray Abeyta at his New Mexico mountain retreat. (Photo by Etha Behrman)

As Abeyta demonstrated to me, those three centers of the “mind-body” can generate immense power when working in unison, along three rings of countercircular action. Imperial Yang Tai Chi includes sets of Qigong exercises to strengthen each of those dynamic centers. It’s also important to cultivate the “Eye Spirit,” as described by Wei in his book, since it gives you the power to push beyond your opponent, Abeyta said.

Seemingly effortless Herculean powers are the stuff of legend in martial arts, brought to life with old video footage. The most common technique used to dispatch opponents with internal power is called fajin, which requires much internal work to open the fascia in the body, so that the attackers’ force can be absorbed and sent back to them. My friend Justin Harris demonstrates an easy touch with fajin here, pushing hands with fellow Tai Chi traveler Gurinder Singh. I’ll have more from Justin in the next blog.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be a big person to dispatch, or disable, an opponent using internal martial arts. Today the Imperial Yang Family Tai Chi tradition is carried on by Wei Shu Ren’s three daughters, and the youngest, Wei Xi Lan, still packs a wallop at 65, as you can see in the video below. Fung accompanied Abeyta and Paler, and several of their top students, to Beijing to train with Wei Xi Lan last year. Besides getting certified to teach the form, they had a good time:

Now back on their home turf, high in the mountains, Abeyta and Paler are working on building up their own internal power as they continue teaching. “Shifu Wei said it would take a few years of working on our skills before we can master this Tai Chi,” Abeyta said. “I expect we’ll be ready next year when we bring her to the United States to work with other students.”

The Contemplative Culture

Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, is at the nexus of the Beat’s literary “Dharma” adventure and the actual academic pursuit of Traditional Eastern Arts. When Tibetan Buddhist guru Trungpa Rinpoche founded the school in 1974, Beat poets and writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and William Burroughs came to teach, and Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – for creative writing, naturally.

Among the first to join the Naropa faculty were Bataan and Jane Faigao, picking up the Tai Chi program from Judyth Weaver, who pioneered it that first summer. The Faigaos’ goal was to continue the legacy of their famous Tai Chi teacher, Professor Cheng Man-Ching, who died in 1975. It’s no wonder, then, that my own journey to walk back Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums down the path of the traditional Chinese martial arts must go through Naropa and Boulder.

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Beth Rosenfeld and Lee Fife are keeping a Tai Chi tradition alive in Boulder, Colorado

Even after practicing the Cheng form for 28 years, I learned plenty over the three days of instruction at Rocky Mountain Tai Chi, now run by Lee Fife and Beth Rosenfeld. Bataan and Jane trained Lee and Beth to take care of the form, and indeed they do.  In a half-dozen classes, I learned ways big and small to improve my structure and flow. Lee and Beth have been carrying on the traditions since Jane and Bataan were stricken by cancer, Jane in 2001 and Bataan in 2012.

Besides training from Bataan and Jane, Lee and Beth also learned from other Professor disciples, especially Maggie Newman, who is now in her 90s. They’ve studied with Ben Lo and Wolfe Lowenthal, as well as teachers not affiliated with the Cheng school. Their appreciation for the Professor’s legacy can be seen in the studio they built for their Rocky Mountain Tai Chi students, featuring photos and artwork from Cheng’s New York school, including  calligraphy and paintings by Maggie Newman.

Beth invokes the wisdom of Newman during Rocky Mountain Tai Chi trainings, describing her as a “little old lady who can push you across the room.” Jane Faigao had asked Maggie to take on Lee and Beth as students  when she learned she was dying. She welcomed them to her New York studios, “I think she was especially patient with us because of Jane,” Beth said. “She taught us a lot.”

Fife and Rosenfeld are an energetic husband-and-wife team who, like the Faigaos, base their teaching on the three basic components — Form, Push Hands and Sword — that the Professor called “the tripod on which Tai Chi stands.” Lee also teaches a class in Taoism at Naropa, and translates original Chinese Tai Chi texts, including reassessing portions of the Professor’s Thirteen Treatises, which are found on the website they created, www.rockymountaintaichi.com.

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Beth Rosenfeld, left foreground, leads a Rocky Mountain Tai Chi class through the 57 postures of the Yang-style sword form.

The Rocky Mountain Tai Chi practice is booming, and Lee and Beth are stoking the curiosity of potential students with a unique beginner program, “Tai Chi Essentials,” that includes the five Animal Frolics and a set of form sequences. “People are just really depressed about the current political scene,” Beth said. “So we give them a chance to growl with the Animal Frolics. They have fun with it, and that’s a good sign for our program.”

The future strength of Rocky Mountain Tai Chi lies in a corps of dedicated senior students, some of whom have been with the program for a decade or more. Lee and Beth rely on them to keep beginners on course during form exercises, and they are called on to lead some classes. “Our senior students are helping us recruit new students with the Tai Chi Essentials program,” Lee said. “They are an important bridge to the  community.”

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Bataan Faigao and his wife Jane brought the lessons of Professor Cheng to Boulder.

Most of Rocky Mountain Tai Chi’s senior student teachers came through the Naropa program, where Fife and Rosenfeld serve as adjunct faculty members. They are determined to keep Tai Chi alive and well at the university, even as the Traditional Eastern Arts program has faltered in recent years.

“When Bataan asked us to take over Rocky Mountain Tai Chi and the Naropa program, he had one simple request,” Fife said. “’Just pass it on,’ he said. That is our major goal, to pass on a strong Tai Chi legacy here in Boulder.”

When Bataan died on a pilgrimage to Wudang mountain in China, the entire Boulder community mourned his passing. Besides the Tai Chi programs that Lee and Beth are cultivating today, the Faigaos left another legacy to the community. Their daughter is rocking the city by writing music and performing as Wendy Woo. Here she is singing one of her songs from 2013:

The Real (Long) Yang

As I mentioned in previous blogs, my Tai Chi training came from a school founded by students of Professor Cheng Man-Ching, who had studied with celebrated Master Yang Chengfu in China and eventually simplified the Yang long form from 103 to 37 postures. After practicing this short form for 28 years, I am comfortable applying the principles of Tai Chi within the flow of this exercise.

I expected to get out of my comfort zone during this trip, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be to maintain balance and focus learning new postures. My first experience came in Omaha, Nebraska, under the tutelage of Bruno Repetto, who learned the Yang long form in Seattle from Yang Jun, a direct descendant of Yang Chengfu and Yang Lu Chan, the creator of the Yang form, which is the most popular of the five major styles of Tai Chi.

While the Yang long form includes much repetition of the 37 postures I learned, many postures are completely different. For example, “Needle at Sea Bottom,” “Turn Body and Chop with Fist,” “High Pat on the Horse,” “Left and Right Tiger Strikes” and “Turn Body and White Snake Spits Out Tongue” left me somewhat twisted out of shape. It was clear that I would need much study to expand my Yang repertoire. You can watch Yang Jun perform the full 25-minute long form here.

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Yang long form instructor Bruno Repetto, right foreground, leads his class in the saber form in Papillion, Nebraska, near Omaha.

Repetto, a mathematician who helps to ensure that Union Pacific trains run on time, teaches Tai Chi for the love of it, and refuses to consider accepting payment, at least for the time being. “Maybe when I’m retired and moved back to Seattle, I can devote more time to it,” he said. “But I’m not going to make a living off this.”

Many Tai Chi teachers have struggled to make a living off the training, but as Taoist martial arts gain popularity, that could change. In Omaha, Repetto is competing with a number of teachers, particularly those who work with the Cheng Man-Ching form.

“Many students, when they see what I am teaching, are interested in the more complex form,” he said. “And I spend the time necessary to make sure they have the postures just right.”

Repetto was born in Peru, where his family moved from northern Italy in the 1800s. His expertise in mathematics applied to computer technology won him a scholarship in the United States, where he eventually received a PhD in applied mathematics and a job offer from Boeing. He moved his family to Seattle, where he became a U.S. citizen.

Although he had dabbled in judo as a youngster, Repetto knew when he saw a Tai Chi performance by Yang Jun that he had found his passion. “There really is no comparison, for me, between the external martial arts and the internal arts. Tai Chi helps you focus on health as well as your martial arts skills.”

While the sword form includes 67 different postures, the saber form postures are based on a 13-line poem. I stood clear as Repetto led his students through the saber form, which is a martial technique that includes cuts, uppercuts, slices and stabs. Yang Jun demonstrates in this video how the poetry is conveyed in a saber dance that is firmly rooted in the principles of Tai Chi.

Hands Across the World

On the last Saturday of April each year, people all over the world come together for a graceful dance, flowing through Tai Chi and Qigong forms in a mass demonstration of good will and health. World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, founded in 1998, has spread to 80 countries, embraced by people of different beliefs, languages and cultures. The theme, “One World … One Breath,” celebrates the energy gained with proper breathing through Qigong while also speaking to the power of the Taoist martial arts as a vehicle for peace.

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Bill Douglas leads the first World Tai Chi and Qigong Event at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

This global event is the brainchild of a small-town Kansas boy, Bill Douglas, and his Hong Kong-born wife, Angela Wong Douglas, whom he met when they were students at the University of Kansas at Fort Hays. Bill began studying Tai Chi to counter the stress of family and work life in Southern California, including the sudden loss of his infant son and mother. His father, a combat infantry sergeant for nearly three years in World War II, suffered from classic post-traumatic stress disorder, before it got that name.

The whole family was in shock, said Bill, who found relief in a Yang-style Tai Chi form he practiced at every opportunity, including at work in his Los Angeles office. He eventually made his break from that office after a trip to Hong Kong to visit Angela’s family. There, a Taoist monk, consulting the oracle of the I Ching (Book of Changes), told him he would be a teacher. Douglas had never considered the possibility, but suddenly saw his new path forward.

Back in Kansas, his private Tai Chi classes grew quickly, fueled by word of mouth, and he began packing church basements and community halls. He wrote articles that attracted contract offers from local government and hospital administrations, and also an invitation from the McMillan publishing house to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tai Chi and Qigong. The book was praised for helping make Tai Chi and Qigong principles accessible to those who don’t know Chinese culture.

I had an opportunity this week to participate in the Taoist meditation class Douglas runs for the University of Kansas Medical Center Turning Point Center for Hope and Healing, an hour and a half of sitting meditation and standing Qigong exercises with students of all ages. As Douglas explained in a report for the Kansas City public television station, medical research has shown that Tai Chi can ease chronic pain and reduce ailments related to stress:

Douglas originally pitched the idea for a World Tai Chi and Qigong Day in a speech to the National Qigong Association and was encouraged by Master Li Junfeng, a famous wushu coach who had abandoned the sport to promote Qigong and Taoist meditation as global resources to bring people together.

“He told me that if I go ahead with the idea of worldwide day dedicated to Tai Chi and Qigong that I should do it for love, or don’t do it at all,” Douglas recalled. With that encouragement, Douglas began contacting instructors from around the world and organized a seminal event in 1998 on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City.

Douglas did all the promotion for the first several years, spending thousands of dollars for phone and fax outreach around the world, and developed a website, of which he is the webmaster. He also followed up his Tai Chi book with four other self-published books, including two novels, and he’s working on another one, The Gospel of Science. In addition, he also produces a weekly newsletter distributed electronically. I will have more about his books in a later blog.

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Angela Wong Douglas joined husband Bill in reviving Tai Chi and Qigong training she abandoned when she was a young girl growing up in Hong Kong.

After working with World Tai Chi and Qigong Day participants in Israel, Egypt, Iran, Cuba and other countries, including personal appearances, Douglas is convinced that the events rise above the level of health education. They provide “a shining example to the world, so that we can see each other through a different lens than the one the media shows us,” he said.

His vision of breaking down the walls among the world’s people is consistent throughout his work and words. “With World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, we see on a visceral level that these are people just like us,” he said. “They have the same feelings and challenges as us, the same hopes, the same fears, the same dreams, the same love for their children.”

The ultimate goal, Douglas said, is to convince governments around the world that Tai Chi and Qigong should be taught in schools, giving young people a framework for living healthy lives, both physically and emotionally. “We know Tai Chi and Qigong improve people’s brains and their health, improve their balance, give them more energy. Studies have shown there are many benefits of Tai Chi.”

Douglas is proud that he has “become an evangelist” for Tai Chi, and is looking forward to next April’s event, when he will travel to Tunisia and celebrate with practitioners there. Tunisia has special meaning for him because it is one of the beachheads his father fought to secure in World War II. For Douglas, the benefits of the Taoist martial arts include the establishment of common bonds and a road to peace, as the 2016 World Tai Chi and Qigong Day video suggests:

Qi at an Exhibition

When you walk into the Chinese Temple display at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Art Museum you can literally feel its power, if you stop and breathe it in.  Before you is a larger-than-life figure perched on the tree trunk from which it is carved – an enlightened Bodhisattva of the Buddhist tradition who resists nirvana to help others learn, a powerful monk. This is the pivotal work in the permanent exhibition, “Guanyin of the Southern Sea,” set against a full-wall mural of Buddha and his Bodhisattva attendants. Carved Bodhisattva stand silently against the side walls, peering intently across the void.

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The Bodhisattva behind the gate at the Guanyin of the Southern Sea exhibit.

For my friend Bruce Hayden, the exhibit is easily worth the hour-long drive from Topeka, Kansas, to feel the power of the exhibit. He’s taken the tour a half-dozen times. “It’s a beautiful representation of Chinese spirituality,” he said. “It is one of the most powerful shrines I’ve ever seen. You can feel the qi when you walk into the room.”

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A Bodhisattva in another century strikes a meditative pose.

By “qi,” Hayden means “energy,” probably the best translation for the Chinese word that is at the heart of the Taoist martial arts.  Tai Chi practitioners seek to channel qi through their bodies to heal and strengthen, to give their lives new energy and vitality. Your internal energy can be stimulated by external forces, such as a shrine created to store and yield qi.  So these art treasures, lovingly restored and maintained, are presented with an abundance of spiritual power. For the bagua player, a special treat: Look up at the ceiling and you will see dragons in bagua formation.

The most striking religious images – Buddhist and Hindu – are in the Indian exhibits, with the range of colorful and many-appendage gods. Spiritual art works also came from different southeast Asian nations, including Thailand.

Other sculptures celebrate life in ancient times, including a few ribald pokes at the Middle Asian traders along the Silk Road in the 3rd to 5th centuries, long before the Guanyin polychrome wood figures were carved in the 11th and 12th centuries, still ancient. One of my favorites is a carving of an early orchestra, with three different reeds and three drums, arranged in a procession, like a “second line.” There are jade and bronze carvings, and beautiful ceramics – not to mention the centuries of paintings.

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Chinese artists presented Middle Asian traders on the Silk Road in a less than flattering way. This woman is nursing an infant while taking grief from her camel. At rear, the Bodhisattva.

The permanent Asian art display is but one small wing of the vast Nelson-Atkins offerings. The museum, on Oak Street near the downtown Plaza, is striking on the outside for the sculpture of a giant badminton shuttlecock, which lies on the spacious south lawn adjacent to the outdoor sculpture garden.

The south lawn also was the site in 1998 for the very first observance of World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, Bill Douglas’s ambitious campaign to take Tai Chi around the globe. That global campaign to spread the power, peace and healing energy of Tai Chi is still going strong, with Douglas and his wife Angela the primary impetus to spread the good news. More about their story later this week.

If you’re going to Kansas City, you may want to check out the art museums – not only the Nelson-Atkins, but also the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which is only two blocks away. If art isn’t your thing, you can choose between the National Museum of Toys and the National World War I Museum. And if you dig Kansas City, don’t miss the Kansas City Museum, which tracks the history and culture of the city.

Another energized “Bodhisattva” came to Kansas City earlier back in the summer and, appropriately, this is how I learned what the word meant. After hearing this song way back when, I had to look it up.

We Go to the Mountain

As promised, we are resuming the journey to the West, following the ardent steps of Jack Kerouac and his disaffected Beat Generation – still searching for our place in the cosmic order, dharma in the modern world. A new breed of “Dharma Bums” has risen in the United States around the Taoist martial arts, and particularly Tai Chi and Qigong, and they are pointing the way to new vitality, strength and inner peace available to all comers.

So come on along. For those who are new to this blog, you can catch up with this literary adventure by reviewing some preliminaries, including the original proposal that launched the unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. I’ve always intended to forge ahead, no matter what the outcome of that project.

Without the Kickstarter funding, however, this month-long trip will be less extensive than we imagined at the beginning. It will be exhaustive nonetheless, and give us the opportunity to explore the modern applications of these ancient Chinese arts, as well as the fascinating people who teach and practice them.

 

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Poet in the Mountains, by Shen Chou (1427-1509)

On this first leg, we will go to the Mountain, which will bring good fortune according the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes. That was the revelation for me when I consulted the oracle through the I Ching – hexagram 44, Nourishment, with the image of thunder or arousing at the foot of the mountain. I am cautioned to be careful with my words and with what I consume, which is valuable advice for a writer following in the footsteps of that wild and crazy Jack Kerouac. And I should seek guidance and help from others. Perfect!

A second hexagram, No. 9, Innocence, is the image of thunder or arousing under heaven and promises “supreme success” if I am true to my nature, and follow the spiritual path. Taoism is a spiritual path that connects the human body and mind to the universe, and I intend to stay on this path, finding other like-minded seekers.

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Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs at Naropa University in 1976.

The Mountain – in this case, Boulder, Colorado – is home to Naropa University and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, named by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and previously staffed by Beat legends like poet Gary Snyder, who was Kerouac’s muse in “The Dharma Bums.” Writer William Burroughs also haunted Naropa during its seminal years in the early to mid-70s.

Boulder is also home to my friend Lee Fife, a Tai Chi and Qigong instructor who is promising intensive practice in Tai Chi and sword forms, as well as meditation and insightful discussions into the evolution of Chinese martial arts, and the Beat Generation, in the United States. Lee teaches in his own studio, and at Naropa University.

On the way to that Rocky Mountain high, where Neal Cassady grew up and first hitched a ride with Kerouac, we will visit other hopping Tai Chi places and meet the fascinating people who are guiding the Qigong experience in America. Included among these is Bill Douglas, the founder of World Tai Chi and Qigong Day and World Health Day, who has devoted his life to spreading the good word about the health and emotional benefits of Tai Chi.

 

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World Tai Chi and Qigong Day this year made an appearance in Iran, one of nearly 80 countries that have observed this event, running annually since 1998.

Douglas credits Tai Chi and “breathing lessons” for helping him turn away from drugs and despair to find his true calling in becoming a missionary for Tai Chi, Qigong and Taoist meditation around the world. Perhaps no American has done so much to spread the gospel of Tai Chi and Qigong – in government auditoriums and hospitals, in churches, mosques and temples, and even behind prison walls – not only to Americans but to seekers across the globe.

There will be adventures beyond Boulder, as well, but not further West. We are saving the West Coast for another adventure, a second leg on our journey in search of the New Dharma Bums, sometime next year. Besides chronicling the story for the Tai Chi community through this blog, I also hope to expand the story through the media in the areas I visit. So many great stories, so little attention by the media!

Let’s start a new conversation. Breathe deep and let go. That’s lesson No. 1. Come on the road with the New Dharma Bums. I will blog several times a week beginning next week. Let us know what you think.