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Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.

Sunday
Sep072014

Physique

My father took his motorcycle to a local mechanic with a good reputation.  The mechanic, Bill, looked at his motorcycle and said, "Your bike is dirty and grimy. If you don't care about your bike, why should I?  Take it home and clean it first, and then I'll consider working on it."  My father, the guru of hippy business, was delighted by the brilliance of Bill's novel marketing technique.  He did as he was instructed and of course Bill was happy to become his mechanic.  

What does this story tell us about martial arts?

Part of the beauty of getting into Chinese martial arts has always been that it was a counter to the dominant Western* notions of fitness. Think: sculpted muscular bodies, big smiles with lots of shiny teeth. Some of the critiques that have developed to counter Western notions of the beautiful physique have come from within Western cultures.  For instance, the notion that there are many different body types which can be healthy, strong, agile, and dynamic. This view is probably a natural out growth of the popularity of  diverse types of sports training. 

There are other types of beauty, like tall, dark and brooding, which have little to offer a conversation about physique.  That's because physique is all about what you do with what you have.  

Back in my twenties, when I got in a lot of discussions about social change, some of us radically minded dancers hit on the idea of offering to society the cultivated image of a holy body.  This was appealing partly because all I had to do in order to effect social change was simply keep doing what I was doing.  People would see my body and be consciously or unconsciously motivated to make society more humane, more body centric, more about things that mattered! (to us). 

There is a name for that view in scholarly circles, it is called romanticism, and it is a dead-end intellectually.

As I dropped the romantic ideal, my ideas about movement became far more concerned with functionality, expressivity, and the inner-workings of secret (hidden) techniques.  The types of embodiment I was cultivating tended to ignore notions of physique.  But anything one does effects physique so this was a mistake.  Examining the physique one is developing is a powerful feedback tool.  

Endemic to martial arts schools are instructions like, "Sink the shoulders, sink the elbows, relax the chest." This is a particularly bad set of instructions but there are long lists of these types of physique altering protocols.  If a logical explanation for sinking the shoulders and the elbows is offered, it is perhaps that they should be relaxed, or perhaps that they should connect to the large muscles on the back.  That's good logic, it might even have limited functionality.  But it is wrong.  What one wants functionally is maximum mobility combined with complete unity of movement.

Complete unity of movement means that if one part of the body moves all other parts move in a unified integrated way; however, there is more than one way to do this.  The results measured by the resulting physique can be a powerful mechanism for distinguishing between them.  

The instruction to "sink the chest" is a whole additional package of bad.  Again, what one wants is maximum mobility of the ribs, sternum and upper spine combined with complete unity of movement.  

The ability to see and evaluate precise refinements of practice by looking at one's physique is a master level skill.  But bad physique is pretty darn obvious.  If a person's stomach is pooching out, or their head and shoulders are hunched over, or they are walking around on legs that look like rigid sticks, there is something wrong.  If a person spends hours everyday staring at a smart-phone, it shows in their physique.  

I've walked into martial arts schools where not one person has a good physique.  It is especially shocking how many martial arts teachers get away with having crumby physiques.  Why do students bother with teachers who have bad physiques?  Well, the answer is probably complicated but I think it should stop.  

Like Bill the motorcycle mechanic, if the teacher doesn't care about her body how is she going to inspire you to care?  And speaking as a teacher now, how can a student expect me to care about their body development if they themselves don't care?

I like the idea of the Old Kungfu Shifu who says to the new prospective student who is begging to be taught, "Go home and do this exercise 1000 times a day for one month and then come back. If you come back and you haven't done it, Shifu will know, and Shifu will kill you."

____________

*Modern? Scientific? Heroic? Whatever...

Thursday
Aug282014

Mindfulness

I teach movement and stillness.  I want my students to gain access to increasing amounts of perceptual and spatial awareness so that they also have access to the profound tools of improvisation and whole body expression.

I've been following the development of mindfulness curricula over the past ten years with rather tepid interest. Growing up Zen, I've met a lot of gentle mindless Buddhists, in a word: boring. I've also met a lot of people who practice non-reactiveness which creates an illusion of calm. That seems fine at first glance, but a facade of calm based on not-reacting is not very robust. When the calm breaks under spontaneous pressures it tends to either become wimpy and impotent, or extremely aggressive.  The bumper-sticker version: Beware of nice people.

But what if the limited goal of mindfulness training is the creation of available awareness as a conditioned habit?  Now that is a much more interesting goal.

To get at the questions of, what is available awareness? and how does one condition it? We first have to deal with the twin stress responses:  Distraction and disassociation.

Distraction and disassociation are opposite sides of the same coin. Distraction in an educational environment is often called difficulty focusing (meiyou jingshen, in Mandarin). But more generally it is the mind's tendency to be sucked into one input after another.  Think of it as lots of little focuses. Distraction is clearly not available awareness.

Disassociation on the other hand is highly valued in most educational environments. Disassociation is a powerful focusing tool. Disassociation is the ability to put one's mind to a task and disregard all other needs, interests, or inputs. People with strong tendencies for disassociation can learn languages without visiting a country where that language is spoken, can learn to play a musical instrument with minimal guidance, they can read and assimilate vast swaths of knowledge. We as a society may value it, but it isn't available awareness. It might better be called mind training (samatha in Sanskrit) or skillful trance.

I'm not confident that I have a convincing definition of available awareness.  It is sort of like enlightenment, I know it when I see it.  More importantly, I notice when it isn't there in other people.  It is the fashion these days to talk about how cool it is to think outside the box, but frankly I'm delighted when I meet someone who can think inside the box.  That ability is rare enough.  

The most powerful teaching tool I know of is called taking responsibility. Giving someone responsibility and supporting them in making decisions and taking actions might be a good strategy for conditioning the habit of creating available awareness.

I would think that anyone trying to teach mindfulness would want to create a list of all the intermediate steps one might utilize in attempting to create a nourishing environment for getting others to take responsibility.  I would like to see that list.

This may or may not be funny, but people with available awareness tend to love criticism.  "What the #@$% is wrong with you SCOTT?"  "Wow, yeah? cool. WHAT THE #@$% IS WRONG WITH ME???"  

Perhaps available awareness is knowing that one has blind-spots and wanting other people to point them out.  Perhaps available awareness is simply a recognition of the human tendency to firmly assign the causes of failures (and successes) or obstacles (and opportunities) to discrete actions.  There is obvious utilitarian value in making these firm assignments of causation, but the unconscious habit creates blind-spots.

There may be some relationship between available awareness and what is called in the commercial world multi-area competence, being good a many things. 

There are almost certainly a wide array of sensory-motor and perception-action stimuli that help establish available awareness. And perhaps even more key, a person needs enough time and an appropriate environment to process those experiences. People need rest, safety, alone time, nutrition, to be listened to, group bonding, and most profoundly: opportunities to fail and enjoy it.  Without all of those things humans tend to be highly reactive, or over-reactive.  Stressed out people may be distracted, or they may be focussed, but they are unlikely to have available awareness.  

People often find comfort and safety in established hierarchies, we are social animals after all.  Architecture can help with this.  Knowing one's place, having a role and fulfilling that role, may be an important first step to establishing available awareness.   

Available awareness is the potential to respond to multiple inputs with full access to one's emotions, intellect, and physicality. It sometimes manifests as comfort with ambiguity, and a dynamic relationships to chaotic forces or complex influences.

I'm all for including meditation tools in schools, businesses, government, hospitals, any institutions which might benefit. I do worry a bit that we might be applying a band-aid to a gaping wound, but a serious meditation practice can produce real insight.  Yet I think it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate fruition is not to make people less reactive, nor it is not to make them better at focusing. It is to give them the option of creating available awareness. Without it we will have a hard time ever having political discussions of any consequence, developing any real freedom in movement traditions, or experiencing intimacy.

Trying to teach movement, experience intimacy, or have a political discussion of any consequence, without having first fostered or discovered some available awareness is like trying to start a fire by hoping lightning will strike at one's feet.  

"How long has it been since normal seemed normal?"  

-Laozi

Thursday
Aug282014

Unarmed

This is just a quick post for all the news media people who might find themselves reading my blog.

The term "unarmed" gets used a lot by news organizations.  There may be some contexts when it is useful and meaningful.  For instance if the primary consideration is military, such as the expression "unarmed soldiers." But even here there are potential problems because to report on the interactions between soldiers and other soldiers or soldiers and civilians it is important to give a complete legal framework for readers to understand specifically what relevance those terms have to the given context.  Because without the legal framework those terms are at best irrelevant, and at worse misleading.  

Another context when "unarmed" might be relevant is in the context of Second Amendment Constitutional rights.  For instance when pointing out that someone has the right to be armed, but happens to be unarmed by choice.

But in the vast majority of cases when news reporters and organizations use the term "unarmed" they are referring to a person in conflict with another civilian or with an authority figure like a police officer.  This term is completely inappropriate for these situations.  It is also profoundly misleading.  The relevant terms are well established by statute and case law in the United States.  Those terms are "intent," "means," and "opportunity."  Those are the key terms we as readers need to know about and consider.  

Why? because whether a person is unarmed is only relevant after having considered those three terms.  If a threat has the intent to harm, but no means, and no opportunity to harm, then obviously there is no basis for a police officer or a civilian to use force to neutralize that threat.  And again, if a threat has intent and opportunity, but no means; or intent and means but no opportunity, then there is no basis for using force to neutralize the threat.

Which brings us to a third term which probably should be used in news reports more often so that people become familiar with it, that term is preclusion.  Preclusion is the discussion about what a reasonable person would have done having had similar training under similar circumstances.  It is also the discussion about what other alternative actions were available to the parties in question and why they weren't taken.  

Please update your vocabulary accordingly. 

And thank you for your service!

Tuesday
Aug262014

Curriculum Vitae 2014

In case my readers want to check out my entire work history and education, my Curriculum Vitae 2014 is now available for download here on my website and also for viewing at academia.edu.

It is a brave new world (again). 

Friday
Aug222014

On Boxing: Joyce Carol Oats

I just finished reading On Boxing , by Joyce Carol Oats.  It is a fun read.  She normally writes fiction, but this is a tribute to her life long love of boxing.  Her love of boxing is in a sense a tribute to her bond with her father, who initiated her into its beauty.  

The book jumps right into philosophy and has great stuff like this:

The old boxing adage--a truism surely untrue-- that you cannot be knocked out if you see the blow coming, and if you will yourself not to be knocked out, has its subtler, more daunting significance: nothing that happens to the boxer in the ring, including death--"his" death--is not of his own will or failure of will.  The suggestion is of a world-model in which we are humanly responsible not only for our own acts but for those performed against us.

And here, after pointing out how often boxing fights were illegal in times passed, and thus happened in-between states, in outlaw territory, or on islands with performers and spectators both risking arrest:

And boxers have frequently displayed themselves, inside the ring and out, as characters in the literary sense of the word.  Extravagant fictions without a structure to contain them.

She has much to say about notions of "primitive" and the intensity of emotions:

Those whose aggression is masked, or oblique or unsuccessful, will always condemn it in others.

After putting both feet forward into philosophy she wanders around into the lives of boxers, and major events in boxing history.  Some of the essays in this book are informative, in depth reportage, but they are also languid, timeless; as a reader one gets the sense that she deeply savors hanging out in the world of boxing.  

I couldn't help thinking of Elaine Scary's comment in On Beauty and Being Just  that one of the errors about beauty she made in her youth was thinking that boxing was not beautiful.  I wonder if Joyce Carol Oats helped change her mind?  

On Boxing includes a number of enticing and complex book reviews (more books added to my reading list) and she is not at all shy about discussing racism and, in the final essay, fascism.  Check it out.

Tuesday
Aug192014

What is the Kua?

I first heard the term kua 胯 explained by Kumar Franzis in the early 1990's.  He said something to the effect of, it is the functional space in and around the hip socket that continues up into the torso to just below the ribs.

Chen Zhonghua has a detailed explanation of the kua here.  One thing I like about it is that he explains that the definition of what the kua is, will keep changing as your skill and understanding improve.  The implication is that we are making a categorical error if we are satisfied with a definition of the kua as either anatomy or physiology.  

Sam Masich also has a detailed explanation of the kua, it focuses on understanding the ways we misunderstand culture and language.

Here is my take on it.

The kua is really a list of different exercises and types of awareness.  But I would caution the reader, this isn't the sort of list that one can go straight down from one thing to the next.  Each of these exercises is a link in a much larger chain of exercises, ideas, concepts, and forms of awareness.  I have collected here all the ideas about the kua in one place so that we might have a global or comprehensive discussion about the larger subject.

First off, there are a whole bunch of mobility exercises that need to be learned.  The hip region needs to be differentiated from the legs and the torso through various types of folding and spiraling.  There are probably ten essential exercises here, which can be expressed with infinite variety since the kua is involved with all movement.

These exercises are important for two primary reasons. First, the differentiation of the kua allows the student to make small physical adjustments that dramatically improve ones position relative to a threat or an opponent.  That has an enormous effect on the range of physical strategies one can employ.  Second, without the differentiation of the kua the student has movement vulnerabilities that manifest because certain weaker parts of the body are taking strain (like knees or lower back). At the same time stronger parts of the body move in blocks, the intrinsic power of which can not be accessed without differentiation.

After mobility and differentiation are established.  The next stage would be transferring force through the kua, from the legs to the torso, and from the torso to the legs.

That can be followed by generating force from the kua. I count seven ways to do this.  They are all fairly simple, but they need to be taught because they tend to be counter intuitive.

Next is liquid movement.  There are two parts to it.  The first is practicing moving fluid from one part of the body to another until it is easy to generate whole body liquid movement.  The second is working with a partner to test ones ability to stay liquid under all sorts of pressure.  This is actually true for every part of the body, not just the kua, but it is essential for discovering the higher order functioning of the kua.

The next concept on our list is very important to martial artists but it is better known by its theatrical name, "monkey doesn't want to go to school."  It is a way of sinking in response to another person pulling on ones arms, such that, one cannot be pulled forward off of ones feet or base.  It does not involve leaning backwards.    It is also characterized by complete relaxation of the legs, there is no tightening of the thighs nor of the feet muscles.  It is most certainly not a form of "rooting."  This skill is often kept secret by martial arts teachers, and children often do it naturally without being taught.  

Building on "monkey doesn't want to go to school," we finally come to opening the kua.  I charge $10,000 dollars for this teaching.  But I guarantee you will learn it in ten years or you get your money back.  

I'm tempted to say that the ability to open ones kua is rare.  But it isn't that rare, lots of ballet dancers do it.  And there are all kinds of situations where people open their kua without naming it, perhaps you do this when you stick your toe into the river to test the temperature before making a full plunge.  But what is rare is the ability to keep the kua opening in response to complex forces.  

To accomplish this last step requires a cascade of discrete skills, executed in the right order, and practiced, not just until they are natural and spontaneous, but to the point where they re-form and re-shape ones body.

This is unequivocally a daoist art form, and requires direct daoist transmission.  Scholars are still uncomfortable with the idea that there is a form of authentic daoism that doesn't have a textual lineage, they generally refer to people like me as a "practitioner." That's okay, but there is a categorical problem with this term; namely that people who receive daoist transmissions prioritize view and fruition over methods.  Methods tend to be disheveled, flexible, expressive and spontaneous.  In that sense, I'm not a "practitioner," it is a mistake to point to what I practice. I'm actually a daoist because of my view of the human relationship to nature, and the experience and expression of the fruition of that view.

Anyway back to methods, sort of.  The non-conceptual experience of sitting and forgetting (zuowang 坐忘), by definition can not be expressed in words.  This same view is foundational for practicing zhanzhuang  站桩 (standing still), daoyin 導引 (pulling and guiding), jindan 金丹 (golden elixir).  If I had to name it, I'd say it is an experience of limitless space, a stage if you will, wuwei 無為, an agenda-less openness of not knowing. Once that is irreversibly established, then these methods can dance around on the stage as: emptiness, stillness, movement, bubbling, flowing, fire and water, mercury and gold, or the magical and the mundane.  

Opening the kua is a form of emptiness.  This type of emptiness arises spontaneously when we drop all intention within the body--also giving rise to a visualized qi body out in the space around us.  But that isn't enough.  Because simply having qi and emptiness is not stable under the pressure of complex movement and outside forces.  This 'event' must take place in a larger experience of limitless space.  The space can then be moved using the imagination.  But that only works if the qi body is simultaneously felt and imagined.  

So the whole thing is actually pretty easy.  Like I said, for $10,000... guaranteed.  Opening the kua can also be awesome for ones health, but since that idea is associated with Tai Chi and is so cliché and problematic, I will deal with it in a future post.  

Warning:  The information in this post has previously been top secret, anyone attempting to practice it without the proper initiations will surely shorten their lives.  

 

 

 

Monday
Aug042014

Rigor Mortis

A review of the film Rigor Mortis (2013) "Geung si" (original title), Director: Juno Mak Writers: Lai-yin Leung (script), Philip Yung (script) Stars: Anthony Chan, Siu-Ho Chin, Fat Chung

I watched Rigor Mortis on the airplane on the way back from Boston last month. This film was dropped in my lap by a scholar I met at the conference named Sean Allen (His abstract is write at the top of this link).  He gave a wonderful presentation on Daoism in horror films.  Talking afterwards we had lots of ideas to share and I left with a list of films to see!  The next day he dropped Rigor Mortis in my lap, extracting a promise that I would review it.   

I think we can understand Rigor Mortis as an assertion of cultural archeology. My sense of traditional theater/opera going back 200 years or more, is that the horror-ghost-supernatural genre was very widespread, it may have even been the dominant genre. But like horror today, it isn't the art form that inspires a lot of literary intelligence. To the contrary, if it is written about at all it is often to say, "that was a scary waste of time." But some of us consider it the most creative genre in terms of costumes, props, music and sets, not to mention the most forgiving of bad acting.  The horror genre is the most willing to utilize improvisation and ultimately the most willing to risk offending concerned mothers, government officials, and just about everyone else. I suspect this was true in historic China as well.  

The makers of Rigor Mortis obviously had a broad knowledge of popular religion, as there are 100's of cultural artifacts in there, actually it would be fun to watch it again and count them. The whole thing can be framed as and example of the land of Millet dreams. The notion of a millet dream world is key to the cosmology of Chinese religion, it comes from a story first written down about 1500 years ago about a scholar who is struggling to start his career, he happens to meet an old Daoist in a café and falls asleep over his millet.  He dreams his whole life, apparently in real time, and then wakes up with his millet still warm.  You can read about it in this wonderful new complete and concise history of Chinese Literature  by Sabina Knight.

In the film, an old apartment building becomes the location of the millet dream, which doesn't actually involve any millet, they use stir-fry instead, and begins at the end of a career not the beginning.  It works well because the notion of another reality as a metaphor for where we are living our lives is ultimately and traditionally conceptualize spatially. That is, the unseen-world of ghosts, spirits, ancestors, gods, and demons is ever present, all around us, below us, above us, inside us, beside us, manoeuvring around in chaotic time tunnels. Like and old apartment building.

The basic tentative working hypotheses of Chinese exorcists when dealing with ghostly and demonic forces is that upright conduct has the capacity to lead to the complete resolution of chaotic forces.  On the other hand, sex, blood, pain, and other yin substances and actions tend to draw out chaotic forces and even feed them. Thus, in this film an exorcist has to walk this line between drawing out chaotic evil and resolving it.  He does this while managing another not-so-well-behaved exorcist who would like to harness some of that slimy red yin power.  There are some scary monsters and basically the whole thing is about the undead, conceptualized as conflicting emotions which live on fear, lust and pain, endless loops of suffering.  You know, a real family film.  

Rigor Mortis doesn't actually let us know for sure whether it is a dream world imposing itself on reality or whether reality is just an illusory aspect of a dream world. Thus it posits the basic traditional-- Zhuangzi is dreaming he is a butterfly, and the butterfly is dreaming he is  Zhuangzi-- Operatic framework of illusion vs. disillusion (See Sophie Volpp ).

At this moment in history this sort of illusion vs. disillusion art work strikes me as a comic attack on modernity and rationality.  Truth isn't knowable so it isn't that important, lighten up already, it's just fake blood and special effects!  When it is all over we can get back to the important work of friending and unfriending people on Facebook.   

At the Daoist Conference in Boston the issue was raised that in popular film there is often label confusion between tangki or other ritual experts and Daoshi (literally: Officails of the Dao).  I would suggest that this may actually reflect real anxiety about the difficulty lay people have in knowing which types of ritual experts to trust.  Popular culture, documented in written plays and more recently by anthropologists of village level ritual, sometimes portrays Daoshi as wild warriors and liminal exorcists with amoral magical powers.  As we learned at the conference, some groups of elite literati were comfortable using spirit writing to create new forms of Daoism.  I think we are headed toward more expansive definitions of Daoism which may include illiterate but theatrically intelligent forms of Daoism.

Still there is good reason for caution about changing our definitions of Daosim.  I hope the discussion continues to be framed by Clifford Gertz's ideas that we try to be a form of literature which is expert at relating what people say about themselves, and each other.

Anyway, it is a fun movie, plenty of crows blood, creepy rituals and powerful talisman--check it out!

__________________

The Natan Sharansky  definition of democracy is that you can go into a public square and say what ever you want without fear of violent retribution. He specifically pointed out that an election does not signify democracy if this basic right is not being met. That perspective led to the Phillips measure of democracy (that's me), namely that one can make a horror movie. Horror movies require the freedom to express ones greatest fears and the social networks capable of bringing together economic resources and expert skills. If it hasn't made a horror movie, it isn't a democracy. For great swaths of the world it is a decent measure. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule, in the early days of film technology, governments hadn't yet figured out that horror movies could be a threat so there are a few horror movies that got under the wire in the 20's and 30's. Then there is India which simply does not make horror movies (perhaps this is because images of horror are sacred in India?). The other big exception to the Phillips rule has been Hong Kong, which has made a lot of horror movies over the years.

Hong Kong was not a democracy, but under British rule the rights of self-defense, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a lawyer, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances were pretty much intact. But now Hong Kong has been handed over to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). So naturally I asked Sean Allen (who later gave me my copy of Rigor Mortis and who is an expert on Hyper Masculinity in Asian Horror), "Has Hong Kong made a horror movie since the PRC took over?" He answered that there was indeed a lull, for a few years the masters of horror were holding their breath, but in the last 3 years a number of very serious horror movies have been produced.

This is a real source of optimism for me. I am an American, I believe strongly in Democracy, but societies that protect basic contract rights, rights like self-defense, and freedom of speech can exist alongside democracies. I don't know what the future holds, but the PRC is allowing Hong Kong to make horror films and that is a reason to be optimistic. I now have a list of new horror films to see and review for my readers, as well as some older horror films that deal with Daoist priests.  There is no way of knowing whether or not we are in some sort of millet dream, but as long as the horror movies keep coming, I'll pretend that we are.

 

Monday
Aug042014

Northampton, MA

I'm going to be in Northampton teaching some private lessons and working on a paper for a week starting tomorrow.  If anyone lives around there and wants to get together, or you know someone in the area you think I'd like to meet, drop me a line.  

 

Wednesday
Jul302014

Beer as a Path to Enlightenment

This a very funny read, about an important part of Tibetan History.  The commentary is already excellent so I'm not going to add anything, but if you think all those famous enlightened Masters of the past were well behaved you probably haven't read the Beer Sutra.  

Saturday
Jul262014

Shanghai 1903 or 1933?

 

Thursday
Jul242014

22/52 a Guessing Game

This is a silly post about being in Boulder, Colorado.  I'm sitting in a fancy café watching the end of the Tour De France, incidentally.  This café has marble tables and black leather seats.  Everyone here is in incredibly good shape, it is on a major bicycle route.  But Boulder is like this in general, people are in great physical condition.  

Anyway, there is a game people play in Boulder called 22/52.  Incidentally, I was pretending not to be listening into a conversation in another café when I learned about this game.  The rules are simple, you are hanging out with a friend and you see someone in the distance, you then say "22/52" and you both guess whether the person is closer in age to 22 or to 52.  If you guess differently the game is on.  As the chosen target gets closer it usually becomes obvious who won. You can play for push-ups, or beer, or just bragging rights.  

I'm not sure this game would work anywhere but in Boulder but if you have nothing better to do, you can play it all day here.  There really are that many "fit" people here.  

This makes me think about a concept my father invented called "Social Sorting" back in the late '80's or early '90's.  The idea is now popular with economists, especially when thinking about where people choose to live.  The idea is that people sort themselves out into different groups by looking first at a "flag" or a signal that tells a person they may want to join, second experiencing a "screen", which is some kind of measuring-up, assessment, or perhaps a necessary barrier, and third the "overflow,"  which weeds people out who for whatever reason don't fit in.

Anyway this all gave me a really cool idea for a Tai Chi video commercial.  Instead of 22/52 it would be called 42/72.  The camera would start way off in the distance (perhaps a few shots from a helicopter) watching someone doing Tai Chi (or Baguazhang or some other type of gongfu).  "42? or 72?" flashes on the screen, then the camera zooms in on this really old woman jumping around like a grasshopper.  It should repeat three times with different people in different location for variety.  At the end it can have some tag-line like, "Aging with power and grace:  The art of Tai Chi."

 

Tuesday
Jul152014

A Junk in New York and London 1851

Check out the latest article by Ben Judkins about a Junk that was sailed to New York and then London in 1851.

The most exciting thing about it is that a group of 20 Southern Chinese sailors, hired to sail the boat, just happened to have enough martial arts and opera training to put on shows in New York and then in London for 2 years.  That is strong evidence for two things:  

One, that martial arts and opera training were wide spread at least among sailors.  Actually opera might not be the right word here but they had some kind of theatrical performance training, most likely amateur.  

Two, they conceptualized martial arts as a performing art that could easily be incorporated into a larger performance.  

There is a lot of other fascinating stuff in there too, a ground breaking law suit, a visit by Charles Dickens, and Westerners playing Chinese opera instruments.  There is also some suggestion that the religious rituals they performed for themselves were accessible as performance.   Now I want to know more.

Monday
Jun302014

"Don't Talk" Rightly Won the Nobel Prize for Literature

I try to write reviews of books I think my readers will find stimulating.  These don't always fall in the Daoist or Martial arts categories.  At the recent conference on Daoism I attended in Boston, I met Sabina Knight who was interviewed widely after Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her review of Mo Yan's work is a must read, The National Interest.  If that link doesn't work here is a link to the PDF.

Here is another link to an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she was also interviewed by NPR if you prefer pod casts.  

After reading Knight's review I had to go out and read Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out .  I'm not going to write my own review because this one is so good, but I will add some comments.

If you know a bit about post 1949 Chinese history, it is increadibly entertaining to hear a first person account of the various eras from the point of view of a donkey or a pig.  The layers of irony get so deep you really can't crawl out of the well.  It is as if Mo Yan is doing an exorcism and you, the reader, are the demonic force being ensnared by irony and then entrapped in a deep well of meaning.  

The layers of irony are not just historical, there are just as many layers of irony from literature both Chinese and International, the pig with human attributes for instance is clearly a bit of slop thrown in Orwell's direction.  The Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a pig is so infused with theatricality that in 500 years it could perhaps be included as an 'outer chapter' of Sun Wukong's Journey to the West.  Outlaws of the Marsh makes an appearance too.  The characters faces often have color as if they were painted for a performance.  And I found this great description of the kind of music I use when teaching Northern Shaolin to kids:  "It penetrates clouds and pulverizes stones."

Sabina Knight points out that the title is a reference to Buddhism and that throughout the novel he is using phrases which are taken straight out of Buddhist scripture.  There is also an enormous amout of popular religion floating around the book, again layered in as irony with new meanings and absurd contexts.  For instance there is a chapter title (52) "...turn fake into real."  I read this as a reference to the Daoist elixir practice (jindan).  

It is not an easy book to read.  But is has magical qualities that make it worthwile.  It seemed that each time as I neared the end of the book a new section mysterously appeared.  The novel follows a landlord executed in 1950 sir-named "Ximen" or Western Gate, which is cosmologically the gate we pass through when we die.  He is then re-incarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and finally a big headed boy.  

This is an amazingly rich work, the Nobel Prize folks got this one right.  May they escape torture in Lord Yama's Court.  Mo Yan's name means: "Don't Talk," he is one of the most iteresting political writers of our time. 

Some Fun at King Yama's Court

 

Sunday
Jun222014

The View From Manywheres

This Blog Post at The Last Masters about Kungfu Women is a great read.  (hat tip to Ben Judkins).

I've been reading Why Do Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology   By Richard A. Shweder.  I read his Thinking Through Culture when I was like 20 years old or something.  It was great, it probably goes on the list of the first 10 books that really made me think.  The sad thing, for me, the sad thing about who I am, is that the only person I could talk to about the book was my father. (My father had a radio show called Social Thought and was the one who gave me the book.) For whatever reason, I just wasn't around people who had both the interest and the ability to read and think about complex and challenging ideas.  
That is one of the things I love about going to a conference on Daoism, there are a lot of people with whom I can have deep and far ranging conversations.  HOLY SMOKE!  I met two people in two days who had read Elaine Scary's The Body in Pain.  In my mid-twenties I was desperate to find someone who had the capacity to read that book, to no avail.  And yet at the Daoist Conference in Boston I met two people in two days!

Here are two great quotes from Richard A. Shweder...more to come:

The knowable world is incomplete if seen from any one point of view, incoherent if seen from all points of view at once, and empty if seen from nowhere in particular. 

There is no single best place to be raised, whether you are a girl or a boy.  But one of the really good places to be raised is any place where you learn that there is no single best place to be raised, whether you are a boy or a girl. 

 

Saturday
Jun212014

Article on the Boxer Rebellion

The Economist has an article on the Boxer Rebellion that is interesting.  The comments are interesting too.  One of the things I like about the Boxer Rebellion is that the deeper one goes, the more ambiguity one finds.  In the article and in the comments we can see the struggle to claim that one side, or one view, is righteous.  In order to achieve this, one has to use powerful tools of reduction.  So that is an interesting exercise, while I was reading it I was trying to identify the reduction.  What is being conflated?  What is being left out?