Taiji Transformation

Four days of intense training with Adam Mizner gives new meaning to the idea of building a “taiji body,” my goal since a seven-state 2016 tour studying the internal martial art. The teachers I met along the way, whom I’ve likened to New Dharma Bums after the Jack Kerouac classic, showed me that, to fully realize the potential of taiji, I must first transform my body. I drew up an exercise regimen based on their advice, but I see now it was not nearly sufficient to the task.

That’s the first thing I learned from Shifu Mizner, who emphasizes rigorous training to open the joints, tendons and fascia of the body, to make room for the qi that can energize you. For several hours each day, we worked to open our bodies, one joint or region at a time. Beginning with the hips and kwa (the inside of the hip socket that folds between the thigh and the groin), then the waist and lower back (the yao, which Mizner calls “the commander”), we left no joint or muscle unstretched.  We’re also pushed by our shifu (the Chinese honorific for teacher) to “eat bitter” in standing exercises, including interminable one-legged postures, enduring any pain or discomfort, willing it to dissolve. Observe, release.

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Adam Mizner provides hands-on instruction as he circles the floor with a portable microphone that allows him to broadcast the lesson room-wide.

Strict discipline is required if we are to take the full step into taijiquan, Adam tells us. No half-measures will work. “The path lies in sincerity alone,” he says repeatedly, reflecting his own sincere approach to the internal arts he teaches. The website for Heaven Man Earth, which Mizner founded in 2004, is open and transparent about the method and goals of the program. Adam’s personal journey began as a spiritual quest – studying Buddhism and Taoism in and out of monasteries, and even in caves in Thailand and Burma, where as a young man he would isolate himself to meditate and practice qigong. Today, he also teaches meditation and Dhamma, the universal law of Buddhism, as a “senior lay disciple of Ajahn Jumnien in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism.”

In our workshop in Washington, DC., Shifu Mizner’s final stop in a whirlwind tour through Europe and the United States, the focus was almost entirely on body transformation. Even the afternoon partner push-hands drills pointed to the body work we needed to play at a high level. Many were like me, looking for opportunities to touch hands with Adam, to see how quickly he took control of our bodies with his gentle touch. I was helpless against his fingertips, feeling but not yet understanding the power of the soft yin release in the body. “There are three reasons to practice taiji,” he tells us, “for fighting, for health and for the cultivation of the Tao. I think this cultivation is a worthy goal in and of itself.”

“Taiji is yinyang together, the harmony of the duality within nature,” Adam says, instructing us to harmonize shen (spirit) with yi (mind/intention), yi with qi (energy), and qi with li (force). Using these three internal harmonies in conjunction with the three external harmonies (feet with hands, hips with shoulders and knees with elbows), we are able to create jin (power), if we work hard enough. Mizner insists on using the Chinese words for the concepts in taijiquan, noting that they originated thousands of years ago within the Chinese culture and don’t have ready English-language equivalents.

“The dantien, where we sink the qi, is not a physical organ in the body,” Shifu Mizner said. “It must be developed from where you center and mobilize qi.” He uses metaphors to describe the terms and processes, referring to qi as a fluid and the body becoming “hydraulic” if we work at it. Unless we are able to clear blockages within the body through rigorous training, we will not be able to sink the qi and create internal power, he said. “Calm the mind, sink the qi and release with song. Then you can do taiji.”

Adam teaches a Yang-style taijiquan that can be traced to the grandson of Yang Lu Chan, the father of the most popular style of taiji. More directly, the Mizner method is related to Grandmaster Huang Sheng Hsien, a Chinese White Crane kungfu champion who “converted” to the internal martial arts after seeing a demonstration of its power. Huang studied with Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Taiwan, then spent decades in Malaysia perfecting the art that Adam cultivates today at Heaven Man Earth, using Huang’s short form and sincere focus on preparing the body. He demonstrates Huang’s “5 Loosening Exercises” (Song Shen Wu Fa) in this video:

At about 3:10 on the video, Adam begins a series of movements that made me sweat profusely during the workshop, with three repetitions each, first slowly harmonizing shen and yi and qi and li down to the feet and slowly drawing long jin up, then bending down for three individual movements loosening the kwa, the “belt” around the waist, and the space between the ribs, one side then the other. “One part moves, all parts move,” he repeats, getting us to focus on the single movements. I don’t remember working so hard in a five-minute exercise.

Through this “eating bitter” process I also learned, despite my convictions to the contrary, that I am capable of doing the “Asian squat,” a phenomenon that once amazed me along the streets of Saigon, Taipei and Bangkok. How do they squat with their haunches just above their heels, flat-footed, balanced between their legs? Was it a cultural or physical anomaly? Why do I fall on my butt when I try it? The answer, it turns out, is that I haven’t tried hard enough. If I turn my feet out at 45 degrees and slowly sit down toward my heels, hands between my legs for balance, I accomplish the squat, not yet comfortably but I’ll persist.

I also participated in “bone-setting” treatment, getting stretched and aligned by Adam’s senior student and assistant, Curtis Brough of Australia. I continue to work through structural issues with my computer neck and separated shoulder, and had hoped for Tui Na treatment, having read about Adam’s study and practice as a healer. Tui Na is an acupressure massage treatment that helps to clear blockages and open channels within the body. It is offered at some Heaven Man Earth workshops.

The participants in the DC workshop, pictured below, are among the fortunate ones who got to train with Shifu Mizner before he goes on retreat for a minimum year and a half. Battling illness and exhaustion at the end of his tour, he was ready to retreat and recharge. Heaven Man Earth students won’t miss a beat, however, since Mizner has created an online video training program called Discover Taiji. “Solo training is the most important,” he said.

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Adam Mizner with students at the Heaven Man Earth workshop in Washington, DC

Besides this step-by-step video series for online, Adam has built a network of Heaven Man Earth affiliates in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia, where hands-on training is available from qualified teachers. Sometime soon, the U.S. workshops will be run by Brough, who is Adam’s most senior student. Also assisting in the Washington, DC., workshop was Ben Sanchez, from Los Angeles, and Patrick Reece, who offers Heaven Man Earth training in Philadelphia, with monthly visits to Washington.

Mizner’s success in creating his global taiji presence so quickly is made more remarkable by the fact that he’s only 39 years old. He has students and acolytes nearly twice his age, many of whom are teachers themselves. Adam said he promised himself he would take a break when he turns 40, which happens in November. He’s off the fast track, but he’ll be back.

 

 

Back to Jack

When last we pondered Jack Kerouac, we were contemplating a trip to the mountains of Colorado, and a school, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, dedicated to extending the literature and spirit of the Beat Generation. Until recently, I was planning a return engagement, as a graduate student. But we are taking a different course as the trip resumes.

Although he inspired many writers of his generation, and their children, Jack Kerouac withdrew from the creative well of the Beats as he hurtled toward his death of liver cirrhosis in 1969, at the age of 47, a victim of his own excess. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with the literary movement he helped create.

In his final years, Kerouac was bitter, hateful and largely incoherent, even in prime time TV appearances, here on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, along with Lewis Yablonsky, a professor who had written a book about hippies, and Ed Sanders, a poet, political activist and leader of The Fugs, a hippy-dippy protest band. Kerouac was out of his element, a bit out of his mind:

That same year, in an interview with Paris Review, Kerouac railed against the left-wing bent of the Beat movement, dismissing the “community” of Beats led by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti by questioning their politics and lifestyles. All those being lined up by the media as Beat Generation artists were different people, he said.

“They are very socialistically minded and want everybody to live in some kind of frenetic kibbutz, solidarity and all that,” Kerouac said. “I was a loner. (Gary) Snyder is not like (Philip) Whalen, Whalen is not like (Michael) McClure, I am not like McClure, McClure is not like Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg is not like Ferlinghetti, but we all had fun over wine anyway. We knew thousands of poets and painters and jazz musicians. There’s no ‘Beat crowd’ like you say … What about Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘lost crowd,’ does that sound right? Or Goethe and his ‘Wilhelm Meister crowd’? The subject is such a bore. Pass me that glass.”

“That glass” helped Kerouac’s escape from the public spotlight that exposed the “confessional” nature of his writing. As he told Ted Berrigan in that 1968 interview, “It’s our work that counts, if anything at all and I’m not too proud of mine or theirs or anybody’s since Thoreau and others like that, maybe because it’s still too close to home for comfort. Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.”

There it is: the fragile ego behind the bravura of Jack Kerouac. He put himself out there, and he’d taken it on the chin. He was like the battered prizefighter bobbing and weaving against the rat-a-tat-tat attack of an opponent that sticks him every time. He was tired and giving up on writing, which he said he never really liked to do anyway.

51XNA5oKR5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kerouac previewed his end of days in the brutally honest biographical novel, Big Sur, as he grappled with alcoholism and the nature of friends and relationships, with the constant party of his life but also deeply alone, there at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the wilderness along California’s rugged Pacific coast. For all his meditation and brooding melancholy on this trip, Kerouac finds solace and inspiration in nature, reflecting truth and light in the words he chooses, or the words that spill out of his mind. Take a minute to read this paragraph from Big Sur out loud. The punctuation will come to you:

“It’s as familiar as an old face in an old photograph as tho I’m gone a million years from all that sun shaded brush on rocks and that heartless blue of the sea washing white on yellow sand, those rills of yellow arroyo running down mighty cliff shoulders, those distant blue meadows, that whole ponderous groaning upheaval so strange to see after the last several days of just looking at little faces and mouths of people – As tho nature had a gargantuan leprous face of its own with broad nostrils and huge bags under its eyes and a mouth big enough to swallow five thousand Jeepster stationwagons and ten thousand Dave Wains and Cody Pomeroys without a sigh of reminiscence or regret – There it is, every sad contour of my valley, the gaps, the Mien Mo captop mountain again, the dreaming woods below our high shelved road, suddenly indeed the sight of poor Alf again far way grazing in the mid afternoon by the corral fence – And there’s the creek bouncing along as tho nothing had ever happened elsewhere and even in the daytime somehow dark and hungry looking in its deeper tangled grass.”

There was something happening here in Jack Kerouac’s brain that defied the caricature of the person we saw in his demise, on TV or in the obituary reports. He took refuge in the work of authors long dead, dismissing his own work as unworthy of the literary tradition he loved, finding little hope in the literary movement that embraced him. And yet he sparkled on the page, and still does.

This sad demise of a literary giant leads me to ask: What if Jack Kerouac didn’t drink himself to death, sitting alone in front of the television at his mother’s house? What if he carried on, in the best of the Beat tradition, to chronicle the personal and cultural transformation that he and his generation were undergoing.

I am imagining a Jack Kerouac who survived, even thrived, and is now telling stories of the Information Age – not Kerouac, per se, but an adventurous Beat spirit that infuses a new “Dharma Bums” quest. This literary light has been my muse in writing this blog, and in planning to pick up the thread that Kerouac let die out there on the road many years ago. Stay tuned.

 

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.

 

‘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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Applied Wisdom

Picking up our previous thread, we were at a crossroads  looking for the Way across America that tells the Tai Chi and Qigong story, at both the mastery and the mass levels. The road map is beginning to take shape, although we are still trying to summon the resources. We have a deadline.

Meanwhile, my preparation includes more literary adventures, reading and viewing the latest creations that promote the art of the Tao, both martial and meditative. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Jennifer St. John’s Ten Zen: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times, and I offer a review here. But first, I have a clarification for a previous blog.

I am surprised and pleased to report that Gary Snyder, the poet who inspired the Japhy Ryder character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, is not the last of the living Dharma Bums. In fact, an original, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and Beat publisher at San Francisco’s City Lights, is alive and well, at 97, and writing his memoirs. Ah, the stories he might tell!

Ferlinghetti inspired many aspiring poets and philosophers, including Jennifer St. John, who is both a Tai Chi master and a corporate consultant, principal of House of Taiji and The Fusion Group, LTD, co-located in Weston, Florida. She was so impressed with Ferlinghetti’s unconventional poetry that she chose as her University of Washington senior project a performance arts piece based on his work.

I never met Ferlinghetti, although I wandered his City Lights bookstore looking for a Kerouac volume (Visions of Gerard, found it!). But you’ve got to love his irreligious take on American society, and life in general. Here he is with his “Loud Prayer” in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, “The Last Waltz.”

St. John’s martial arts journey began when she was 8 years old, bullied coming home from a birthday party. To defend herself, she turned to judo, karate and Kung-fu, and then Aikido before finally finding her home with Tai Chi (taiji). The change to internal martial arts came just after she moved her business to South Florida from New York City. She sought out Sifu Ron Hoffman, who influenced many martial artists in south Florida with his Temple-style Tai Chi, taught by Master Waysun Liao and with further training at a Taoist monastery in Taiwan.

“Ten Zen” is an eloquent synthesis of knowledge and insight that St. John has gathered over the years, as she has applied Taoist philosophy in advising corporations about leadership and management. Like other “Zen stories,” these each conveys a moral – deep truth about life. St. John extends each story with a discussion about the lessons, which you might apply individually, in your home, or at work.

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As St. John tells it, “Ten Zen” began as a single story, “Learning is Letting Go,” about a man who has gathered all the things he has learned, each another stick in the bundle he laboriously carried through the village. He would not relinquish any of the sticks “that represent a lesson I learned along my path since childhood.” However, through good fortune and design, the man loses his entire bundle of sticks and learns a valuable lesson about letting go of the past.

The 10 stories are easy to digest, helped by the editing and design touches by the “editorial team” at The Fusion Group. But they’re also fun to read, as St. John infuses each chapter with life and character. In “When the Master Calls, Go In,” she introduces her story by setting a colorful scene at the “Temple of the Perennial Wisdom”:

“Zen Temple. Massive Formal Gate. Much traffic, dusty itinerant priests arriving from far away. Muscular warrior monks practicing martial skills in the courtyard, and the “kat, kat, kot” sound of martial practice with wooden staves in furious contact. Nuns in gray shirts and tightly wrapped pant legs carry out the business of the temple, their shaven heads indistinguishable from their brothers, but for the softer, delicate, more fluid grace of their carriage.”

It is easy to be carried along by the fluid grace of the stories, but also a pleasure to return and reread, for the language and for the lessons. I am still trying to get in touch with my “Kitchen Tai Chi,” after reading “In the Great Hall,” the final story. Apparently my Tai Chi should enable me to move “smoothly, silently, gracefully at work – moving from wok to kettle to cauldron in a beautiful demonstration of ‘Moving Meditation and Kitchen Tai Chi.” This may take more meditation and much practice on my part..

This slim volume would be a valuable addition to your Zen/Tao collection. You can order it here. You can also get a sense of how St. John applies Taoist principles to workaday complications of corporate life by checking out her blog, “Cornerstones.”

 

Finding Your Path

“The Dharma can’t be lost, nothing is lost on a well-worn path.”

— Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

Dharma Bums is a relentlessly optimistic book, where enlightenment is there at the top of the mountain, just over the bend. The hard work it would take to get there was an unplanned byproduct of the journey, and Kerouac didn’t linger long over these challenges. Sit and meditate, maybe pass around a cheap bottle of wine, or a joint. It was all good. They were on a mission from god, after all.

Jack Kerouac and his Zen adventurers were looking beyond the dreary world of work, reflecting the disaffection the Beat Generation felt toward the consumer society they were inheriting. Kerouac wrote dismissively of creeping commercialism, and the worship of shiny new things:

“Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume…”

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Dharma Bum poets Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in India in 1962.

Obviously the Beats’ protest didn’t rally a nation, since the consumer society is alive and well. We’ve produced and consumed all those products and more. The same market that underpins this consumer society also is at work in the Tai Chi and Qigong fields, which is why more practices are springing up in communities around the country. Approximately 3 million Americans now practice Tai Chi, according to government surveys.

Still, it’s a lot more difficult to find studios for Tai Chi than for yoga, its energy exercise cousin, which caters to some 10 percent of the U.S. population and has created a $27 billion industry. The search for training has created a new kind of Dharma Bum, Tai Chi enthusiasts who, plugged into social media, are looking for the nearest training program. A recent fellow student in a Qigong workshop in suburban Washington, D.C., had traveled from North Dakota, and previously had moved to Oregon to find a teacher.

Thus, there is a spiritual quest among the New Dharma Bums similar to that experienced by Kerouac and his friends as they rushed up the mountain for certain enlightenment. Where will I find a teacher to guide me to the top of the mountain, to find the inner strength, balance and peace promised in the literature of this Taoist martial art, this moving meditation?

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Tai Chi may have originated on WuDang mountain in the 12th century when, according to legend, Taoist sage Chang San Feng witnessed a deadly fight between a crane and a snake.

In communities across America, Tai Chi teachers are seeking to meet this demand by building practices that straddle the rec centers and the senior centers, balancing the martial art with the exercise and breathing therapy. Some even couple their training with yoga and pilates, or acupuncture and herbal treatments. Tai Chi and Qigong are different things to different people, depending on their goals.

My training was focused on Tai Chi and Qigong for health, and not on the martial qualities of the art. But as my Internet friends remind me repeatedly, the internal strength and vitality that comes from Tai Chi were developed in the context of the martial art. To get the most benefit, you must transform your body through regular and rigorous exercise drawn from centuries of martial arts training.

For those interested in using Tai Chi for self-defense, the simple application from a Tai Chi posture (shown in the video below) gives you an idea of the potential of the “soft” martial art.

My journey in search of the New Dharma Bums will focus on many directions, even as we settle on a path across the country. I hope this blog will serve as a resource and gateway to training no matter what your specific interest. You will learn it all on this trip — Tai Chi and Qigong for health, self-defense or consciousness-raising. Like the original Dharma Bums, we will leave no stone unturned.

Find out how you can get involved here.

 

 

 

Call of the Wild

Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

– “For All,” Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

From the literary tradition of Tai Chi, which goes back many centuries, we take a step forward to the literary tradition of the 1950s Beat Generation, which was celebrated in Jack Kerouac’s novels – and in the books and poetry of his fellow road wayfarers, including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder.

Snyder, the inspiration for the lead character in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder, was a charismatic poet and outdoor adventurer equally drawn to Native American and Zen Buddhist cultures. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for his collection, Turtle Island, which celebrated his beloved Mother Nature and the ecosystem we inhabit.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder is alive and well as a teacher and environmental activist.

As Kerouac’s Dharma Bums ends, Snyder has set sail for Japan and a decade-long odyssey in the Far East, where among other works he translated the Cold Mountain Chen (Zen) poems of Han Shan, a Chinese monk from the Tang Dynasty. At 86, he’s the only one of the “Bums” still alive, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis, and an occasional lecturer.

Years after the Dharma Bums split in California, and after Kerouac’s sad self-destruction, the literary lights of the Beats got together at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg and Snyder were on the faculty for a while, and Ginsberg was instrumental in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, naturally.

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Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in 1955.

In 1975, William Burroughs brought his trippy take on literature and poetry to Naropa in a lecture that has been transcribed and posted in The Ginsberg Project, a fun blog I recommend. In the first installation, Burroughs encourages the students to experiment with language, to conduct exercises that stretch the boundaries of words and images. He invokes a “cut-up” style that might skew Rimbaud’s poetry at random, creating images of a different order.

Being a seminal literary light on the Beats, Naropa Institute is a natural destination on my national search for the New Dharma Bums. My friend Lee Fife is teaching Tai Chi there, and I have a good friend whose son, a student at Naropa, has promised a VIP tour. I’ve talked with other teachers from across the country who are doing innovative work, and I hope to visit many of them.

Much depends on the success of my Kickstarter project. The contributions are trickling in, and I hope to make the trip by the fall, maybe sooner. With $1,430 pledged, the project is now 29 percent funded. Under Kickstarter rules, the project does not receive any funds unless the full $5,000 goal is fulfilled by the deadline – Sunday, July 10. I hope others will want to join me as I answer this call of the wild, and contribute to the project.

Inevitably, my final destination in this saga is California, scene of so much past dharma bumming. Ideally, I will be able to track down Professor Snyder for an interview, to find out more about his lifelong search for dharma. Still reading and writing poetry, Snyder speaks out today as an environmental activist.

With a degree in anthropology, Snyder concedes that, “as a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.”

Here’s Snyder reading his poem, “Riprap,” now 54 years old.

 

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.

 

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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.