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.

 

‘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.

Dharma Bums kickstarter

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.