Practice Makes Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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:

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.

 

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.

 

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.