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.

Gary-Snyder

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.

 

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.