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.