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.

wtcqd-1

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.

angela-wong-douglas

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:

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.

 

shen-zhou-poet-in-the-mountains

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.

4dd8c9e03ee649334f4e7bde372b6d4d

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.

 

139502101319403937601664

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 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.

Foto-Cheng-Man-Ching_4

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 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.

lao-tzu

“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.

mountain-sunrise

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.

 

The Backgrounders

Before setting out to cover the story of America’s evolving Tai Chi adventure, I am filling in information gaps in the history and philosophy of the Taoist martial arts, of which Tai Chi is one. I welcome any suggestions from fellow travelers, and those busy reading on the sidelines.

I recommend building on a literary tradition that includes good translations of Tao Te Ch’ing, I Ch’ing and The Art of War, as well as the Tai Chi Classics that lay out the principles of the practice. Other important works are available in English, reflecting the American experience.

 

Tai Chi Books

Some of the essential Tai Chi books in my library.

My old school in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, The Tai Chi Center, used a text written by its founder, Robert W. Smith, a student of the legendary Cheng Man-Ch’ing, who brought his simplified Yang form from Taiwan to New York in 1964.

Cheng is featured in a new film documentary, “The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West,” originally a Kickstarter project like this one. The film is in New York this week for a one-night showing, and premiered in Los Angeles last month. The Professor was a poet, calligrapher and a healer practicing Chinese medicine. He considered Tai Chi, the martial art, his greatest accomplishment.

 

Robert Smith worked with the Professor in co-authoring “T’ai-Chi: The ‘Supreme Ultimate’ Exercise for Health, Sport and Self-defense,” which takes you through the Cheng Man-Ch’ing form, step by step. While there is no substitute for a hands-on teacher, “T’ai-Chi” lays out the principles and practice of Tai Chi as well as any text I’ve seen.

I was assigned other books written by the Professor’s students, including Ben Lo’s translation of “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises.…,” Cheng’s principles for marshaling energy (qi) for martial arts applications, and Wolfe Lowenthal’s “There Are No Secrets,” showing how Cheng had broken down the “closed door” teaching that cloaked Tai Chi with mystery in China. Ben Lo was a key editor in an excellent translation of the Tai Chi classics, “The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.”

This is my Tai Chi literary base, which I’m always trying to expand. I am thankful for my friends in Facebook forums, and supporters of my journey in search of the New Dharma Bums, who have suggested different books that would serve as good background, or inspiration, for my trip. Some are translating obscure works, while others have written books, which they naturally recommend.

I recently finished Bruce Frantzis’s Taoist meditation classic, “Relaxing into Your Being,” and am ready for Volume 2, “The Great Stillness.” I’m just starting Jennifer St. John’s “Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times,” while also reading Rick Barrett’s “Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate,” both of which promise to help bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western philosophies.

Barrett’s work is particularly intriguing in how it parses the Western cultural barrier to communicate the philosophies and practices of Eastern people. We each have our own “Gate” of perception, and it’s not easy to penetrate those traditions with genuine innovations. Fittingly, Barrett begins his book with a quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Indeed. Discovery requires seeing things differently, and I will be challenged to communicate the differences. Unlike Barrett, I have the advantage of studying the Chinese language and living for a period in Taiwan, but I do not have his expertise and training in Tai Chi. I am learning much from his approach in “Through the Western Gate.”

A book can take you only so far on a voyage of discovery, and I realize I will be challenged to feel things differently, not just see them, and communicate those feelings in language that can be understood. But the literary tradition is very much a part of Tai Chi, as well as the odyssey of discovery, as in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. There is always the mystery of what will happen next:

Any journey begins with a single step, but eventually I expect to be bounding down the mountain like Japhy Ryder.  With the support of readers like you, there will be many more stories to tell, more mountains to climb. I deeply appreciate any and all contributions, suggestions and advice, and I hope to meet many of you along the way.