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.

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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.

 

‘New Journalism’ Hits the Road

Picking up on the thread about Neal Cassady with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the evolution of the Beats with the hippy culture of the late 1960s, we have a detailed account left by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe caught up with the Pranksters in 1964 as they awaited Kesey’s release from jail for marijuana possession – a year after the Pranksters took their wild cross-country bus ride for an ill-fated rendezvous with Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac, and the manic Cassady at the wheel, forever tempting fate.

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Tom Wolfe in his element: Taking a literary approach to journalism.

While Wolfe was not on the bus, literally or figuratively, in that drug-fueled mad dash across the country, he was an eyewitness to later trips as Kesey hosted the Hell’s Angels and Grateful Dead for parties, and met the infamous Owsley Stanley, grandson of a U.S. senator from Kentucky and principal LSD manufacturer on the West Coast, providing enough acid to supply a running series of Kesey “acid tests,” and finance a run by the Dead into the music consciousness of the era. Wolfe documents all the craziness.

Among the cultural collisions occurring during this period was the intersection of the “New Journalists,” and Wolfe was foremost in this category of reporters using the techniques of the novel, with the author becoming a player in the story. As the Hell’s Angels were preparing to invade the Pranksters’ encampment in La Honda, California, for a party, Wolfe and Kesey met with Hunter S. Thompson, who was imbedded with the Angels working on his own New Journalism account, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, just the beginning of his “Fear and Loathing” reports. My favorite, a Thompson article for the now-defunct Ramparts magazine, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” deconstructed here.

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Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the saga of Hell’s Angels,  Kentucky Derby and Presidential  Campaign Trails, among other American vulgarities.

For his part, Wolfe went on to write The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, both made into movies, and continued to report from his elitist, socially conservative point of view, criticizing the styles of modern art and architecture, for example. One of his earliest works, Radical Chic, pillories Leonard Bernstein in reporting on a fundraising gala for the Black Panthers. Most recently, Wolfe, now 85, has sought to debunk well-researched theories of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in “The Kingdom of Speech,” introducing his own rather preposterous theory about the origin of language.

With the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Wolfe seemed to fall in love with his chief protagonist, Ken Kesey, whose muscular prose and personality were pure poetry in Wolfe’s telling. It was Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the follow-up publication of Sometimes a Great Notion that drew him to the Pranksters and Kesey’s release from jail. Wolfe’s critics accuse him of deifying Kesey, making him a Christ-like figure in the evolving counterculture. While Wolfe clearly was a fan of Kesey the author, he swears he never drank the Kool-Aid.

Fifty years later, the story is different. People have moved beyond the psychedelic craze and, while drug abuse may be rampant in some communities, we are seeing the revival of natural approaches to improving human strength and balance. That is the story of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, and it is compelling. The New Dharma Bums are leading a spiritual and cultural quest for mind-body balance, for new Taoist sensibilities, yin and yang, building harmony within and out. They are also teaching a serious martial arts form, an intense mind-body exercise, providing a clear answer to the nagging question of balance.

My plan is to write about the promise of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, telling the stories of teachers and students who are opening new channels of energy and vitality. This strikes me as a grand adventure in New Journalism, and I look forward to becoming part of this story.

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New Journalist Michael Byrne, stepping into single whip, ready to help push Tai Chi into the mainstream

Thanks to all those who have supported this journey, either via the Kickstarter campaign or joining in the conversation on this blog or the Facebook page or group. I welcome all insights, such as the recent message from a hardwired Deadhead who wanted to make sure I understood just how close Neal Cassady was to the Grateful Dead. The band celebrated his memory in the eminently jammable “Cassidy,” which also referred to a love child of the Grateful Dead family, as explained by the lyricist.

Here’s how “Cassidy” went down at New York’s Radio Music Hall on Halloween, 1980.

 

 

The Professor

We interrupt this journey to present an important milestone recently produced by a Kickstarter campaign, a fine documentary film about the man who helped popularize Tai Chi Ch’uan in the United States. It began in the turbulent ‘60s when martial artists and hippies invaded a studio in New York’s Chinatown in equal parts, all interested in drawing from the power of Tai Chi.

Cheng Man Ch’ing was 63 years old in 1964 when he uprooted his family from Taiwan to inhabit that New York studio and teach Tai Chi, the “soft” Chinese martial art he had mastered during a lifetime of study. Over the next decade, until his death in Taiwan in 1975, Cheng effectively kick-started the American quest for better health, strength and balance through Tai Chi and other Qigong (energy work) exercises.

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Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s students in New York recall his humanity, his “genuine” nature.

Cheng’s legacy is the subject of The Professor: Tai-Chi’s Journey West, a new documentary that provides an intimate and affectionate view of the Tai Chi master, through the eyes of many of his students. The video also uses the opportunity to explain and promote the Taoist martial art.

Cheng was a man of tiny stature but giant accomplishments, a healer practiced in Chinese medicine, a poet, painter and calligrapher. His American students towered over him, but he easily dispatched them in “push-hands” exercises. The film includes many original clips showing the Professor in playful exercises with his students, from teaching brushstrokes to swordplay.

“The Professor” is the Kickstarter brainstorm of filmmaker Barry Strugatz, who quickly collected $35,000 from more than 300 donors to get the film off the ground. Many of the contributors were key to the story, Cheng’s students. Those who participated in the film all had fond memories and stories about lessons learned, even today.

“I think the devotion we felt, and the communication we had came from the fact he was a genuine person,” said former student Myles Angus MacVane. “His genuine reality came through so that communication was not a problem even though he spoke a different language.”

Cheng student Ed Young, who grew up in China interested in martial arts, but not Tai Chi, became a Cheng and Tai Chi devotee in New York, also serving as Cheng’s translator during the daily six-hour lessons that covered the Yang-style form, push hands and sword form, with time out for Chinese medicine and calligraphy. “He came to the United States to teach Americans, and he taught everyone,” Young said.

Another student, Ken Van Sickle, who joined director Strugatz as a producer of the new film, described his odyssey from karate to other martial arts, seeking “something with a philosophy and meaning.” When he walked into Cheng’s studio and saw him gently launching people into the air during push hands exercises, he knew he had found his place.

The former students described how Cheng insisted that they relax their bodies to properly practice Tai Chi, concentrating on balance and structure, and to never use force. “In an interview with the Daily News, he stressed the importance of listening,” recalled Bill Phillips. “I didn’t realize until later that he was talking about listening with your hands, not your ears.”

The Professor had the power to “sense your balance just through touch,” MacVane said, “to unbalance you by yielding.” Because he was so “soft” in his approach to martial arts, some of his contemporaries in China “didn’t think he had the ‘real stuff,’” Van Sickle said.

“When he came to the United States, Cheng was much more interested in the health aspects of Tai Chi, rather than the martial part,” Van Sickle said. “He understood that the ‘real stuff’ was the stuff that helped you live longer, that gave you vitality. He regarded Tai Chi as his most important accomplishment because it let people achieve good health on their own.”

Although the Professor periodically traveled back to Taiwan (the local Chinese men’s organization locked out Cheng’s students during one such visit), his students said they had a sense of foreboding in 1975 when he left the final time – in a hurry to get back and finish his book on the I Ching. Their fears were realized when he died unexpectedly in Taiwan.

His students have worked hard to carry on his work – some taking the martial arts track and others focusing more on internal energy (Qigong) and health. One of Cheng’s students in Taiwan, Robert W. Smith, co-wrote with Cheng a basic text in Tai Chi Ch’uan, and helped to popularize the practice with schools in Washington, DC, where I studied, and in North Carolina.

“The Professor” succeeds as a documentary but also as an introduction to Tai Chi and the Taoist principles that underlie the martial art. You are taken through the 37-posture Cheng Yang form, push hands and the Yang sword form, as well as such principles as qi (life force) and the Tao (Way).

Only one nit I would pick with the filmmakers is the decision to open the piece with an interview with Bruce Lee, the “hard” martial artist movie star who applauds the rise of Tai Chi among the masses, who perform the exercise on rooftops all across China. Although he bows to those people using Tai Chi “to take care of their bodies,” his was not the best introduction to the story, in my opinion.

I recommend “The Professor” for anyone interested in Tai Chi and Chinese culture, including practitioners seeking other views on the Way. You can order the DVD here. Check out the trailer:

The Round Trip

Neal Cassady was a magnetic character in Jack Kerouac’s books — a wild West antihero  who was ultra-cool and ultra-hot, a walking contradiction. He was also an object of affection for many Beats and their followers, the model for the charismatic Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road, and known as Cody Pomeray in his later works. Besides the many women he loved and left, Cassady for many years had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Allen Ginsberg. He went back and forth, from coast to coast.

For all his babbling bop poetry, a muse for Kerouac, Ginsberg and latter-day Beats, Cassady never published anything. He inspired Kerouac to write like the wind, in a stream-of-consciousness style, with his constant patter, and no doubt induced Ginsberg to “Howl” and make other poetic sounds, but Cassady’s own writings were little more than notes left here and there.

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Neal Cassady in the driver’s seat of “Further,” Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus. Pulled over many times, Cassady was able to talk his way out of every situation, distracting officers as he directed video crews filming the officers — as seen in the 2011 movie, Magic Trip.

Still, before his sudden death in Mexico in 1968, Cassady played a major role in the evolution of the Beat culture as it was transformed in the psychedelic brew of California. That’s where he was in 1963, falling in with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they prepared a cross-country trip to the East Coast to meet Kerouac, Timothy Leary and their East Coast countercultural counterparts, whoever they were.

As shown in Alex Gibney’s 2011 film, Magic Trip, which integrated original clips from the trip, Cassady was the self-proclaimed “protector” of the Pranksters, and sole driver of the well-painted bus, “Further.” He was the hyper engine of a bus that seemed to be careening wildly across the countryside, a speed freak leading wacky meditations on LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

The trip and “graduation ceremonies” are chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a New Journalism classic that I am rereading for context for my own trip in search of the new Dharma bums. Here’s how Wolfe described Cassady, when Wolfe first approaches the Pranksters working on the psychedelic bus:

“Off to one side is a guy about 40 with a lot of muscles, as you can see because he has no shirt on – just a pair of khakis and some red leather boots on and his hell of a build – and he seems to be in a kinetic trance, flipping a small sledge hammer up in the air over and over, always managing to catching the handle on the way down with his arms and legs kicking out the whole time and his shoulders rolling and his head bobbing, all in a jerky beat as if somewhere Joe Cuba is playing ‘Bang Bang’ …”:

Then later, when he learns the kinetic superman is THE Dean Moriarty, he is amused that “Cassady never stops talking. … (He) is a monologist, only he doesn’t seem to care whether anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on the monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions, although not exactly in that order, because we can’t stop here, next rest area 40 miles, you understand, spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression, ‘you understand …’”

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Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters named their psychedelic bus “Further.” Neal Cassady drove it from San Francisco to New York, but didn’t return with the group.

Dabney’s movie, available on YouTube at one hour, 47 minutes, follows the trip in all its creative chaos, with interviews with Kesey and other easy riders while also depicting the denouement of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, who had already begun to slip into an alcoholic stupor when he met Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters. Everyone was in a bit of a stupor, though:

When Kesey mounted his cross-country journey, he had finished up his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which would be panned by media along with his psychedelic adventure. But Kesey already had his masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, hailed as a great American novel, which had opened  on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the role of the all-American rascal Randle McMurphy, later immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the great American movie.

Kesey also had a suitor in Tom Wolfe, the dapper Journalist (Big “J”) from New York City, seemingly always decked out in a white suit. Wolfe was in the midst of pioneering the New Journalism form, along with Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and a few others. The idea is to tell real-life stories in the form of a novel, injecting yourself into the narrative. Wolfe tracks down Kesey in 1965, as he is getting out of jail, having served three months for marijuana possession. That’s where we’ll pick up the thread in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey Continues

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them. That only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Tao Te Ching

The ancient Taoist wisdom as expressed by Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Sun Tzu and other Chinese philosophers contains an abundance of caution, with “do nothing” a common option. Patience as a remedy runs through the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. The concept of wu wei, not acting, is elemental to Taoism, and to the Taoist martial arts. We yield, stay soft, apply four ounces of force to overcome a thousand pounds in seeming effortless power through Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua.

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“Stop trying to leave and you will arrive. Stop seeking and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found,” Lao Tzu advised.

Thus, I’m only slightly disappointed that my Kickstarter project failed to launch me on a nationwide trip in search of the “New Dharma Bums,” and the Tai Chi and Qigong revolution quietly taking place in communities across the country. I will be able to tell this story in due time – in fact, I’ve already been writing about it as I prepared for a trip, spreading the word about how the modern rush to the ancient Taoist martial arts is reminiscent of the earlier quest for enlightenment by the Beat Generation’s Dharma Bums.

Having explored the literary traditions, I don’t intend to end my journey here. I will persevere, making some limited trips that will allow me to gather information and continue both the blog and a New Dharma Bums book in the end. You can still follow the blog here, and I will have updates periodically that I will post on my Facebook page, which I urge you to “like,” and where you can post any suggestions or commentary.

To my friends in the Tai Chi community, thanks for your support and encouragement — and for invites and offers to assist with training and additional insights into the art we know and love. As I proposed, I can help promote your work through the blog or additional outreach to local media. Tell me about your community, and your training program. Tell me about your journey.

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The end of this road is a new beginning. As Lao Tze wrote, “a good traveler has no fixed plans.” My eyes, ears and mind are all wide open as I prepare to be swept away with the natural flow of life. I hope to see many of you along the Way.

 

What I Bring to the Table

I think most of my Facebook friends who teach and study Tai Chi and Qigong don’t know what to make of me, and my search for the New Dharma Bums. In truth, I haven’t been very clear, since the journey has not yet taken shape. But my ultimate goal is to promote the Taoist martial arts in America, focusing on the practices in communities today that are helping people cope, get healthier and find inner peace.

That’s the story that will help Tai Chi grow and prosper here, why an ancient Chinese martial art gets any play in the U.S. media today. The health and emotional benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are being documented every day, and local reporters are taking notice. It’s not the competitions, or the refinement of fighting skills, that will make Tai Chi and Qigong a cultural and business success, even though that’s exciting enough for many practitioners.

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More seniors and community centers are looking for training in Tai Chi and Qigong to improve fitness and balance.

The martial aspects are essential to understanding and experiencing Tai Chi (and Hsing-I and Bagua), and we can’t ignore them. In my blogs, I explain the importance of martial training to structure, rooting and focus, and how Tai Chi masters astound with their martial abilities. But I also want to show Jane Doe and Joe SixPack that this is something for them, and maybe even for Aunt Mabel. You don’t have to be Chuck Norris to benefit from the practice.

Here’s what I know based on decades of work in public relations, surveying audiences and seeking to meet their needs: You want a message that connects to the general public. If you want to win friends and influence people, to grow your business, you first need to pique their interest, to show them what’s in it for them. Connect your work to their needs and interests.

With this project, I’m offering my services to promote the work of Tai Chi teachers in their communities, and even nationally. I can be a communications utility wherever I go; you can plug me in. So, while I am meeting new people and learning from them, I expect to apply my journalistic skills to promote their work, including:

  • Wherever I visit I will analyze the media market, review previous reports, and gather the contact information for the primary reporters/editors.
  • I will send a press release out ahead of each visit, and follow up with personal calls. I will tweet and send Instagrams.
  • I will help teachers create events to draw in allies in the community, to help them tell their story.

Regular push-hands exercises in the park, for example, can be opportunities to connect with the wider community, including health advocates and organizations. For local TV news, you’re offering interesting visuals and an educational message. Before long, you might be filling the park with new students and those who would recommend you.

My career in public relations has involved selling ideas rather than soap products. For nearly 30 years I worked with unions to promote worker rights and economic justice. It was a labor of love right up to the time I retired from the business this year to pursue another love, Taoist martial arts and philosophy. They both involve helping the little guy gain power and equilibrium.

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From my Kickstarter video, stepping into Single Whip.

I’ve focused on writing a blog and eventually writing a book about Tai Chi in America, and haven’t talked enough about the communications assets I bring to the table. As I near the end of the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and nowhere near the starting blocks, I ask you to consider how I can help you. We should talk.

I recognize that very few people teaching Tai Chi and Qigong today are getting rich from the practice, and some tell me they have resorted to teaching for free, or for next to nothing. Many have regular jobs that pay the bills, and their martial arts practice is a sidelight – something they do for the pure enjoyment of it. That is part of the story, too.

The point is that too few Americans are aware of the power and scope of the Taoist martial arts, and I want to change that. I want to put Tai Chi and Qigong into the national discussion about health and vitality, particularly for older Americans looking for ways to stay active and fit. The New Dharma Bums, the blog and the tweets, could help in this regard – especially when combined with a local media strategy.

A New Dharma Bums national tour would be good for Tai Chi. It would expand public interest, and the market for teachers and practitioners. Make it happen by contributing here.

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.”

 

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.