Weakness With A Twist
A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.
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.
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."
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.
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 is 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.
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.
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?
My executive assistant tells me that this sort of blog post I've just written below is very obtuse. She says it is unreasonable to assume that my readers are going to try to connect all these seemingly disparate ideas. Normally the writer does that work. But perhaps readers will be inspired if I say that this type of obtuse post is a new type of puzzle, like one you might find in a daily newspaper, whereby readers have to stop and think about how it is possible that all these things are connected.
I've written a number of blog posts, and sketched out a few others in the last week, but could someone please explain to me how people finish things when the weather is so nice?
The weather in Boulder, Colorado, keeps trying to suck me away from my work. Fortunately I have my early morning practice/teaching otherwise my guilt level about not getting work done would be off the charts. I am considering becoming a night person and sleeping through the day. I don't want to become a victim of good fortune.
Speaking of being a victim, I found some pants that I really like. I can't even find the exact name (sorry) but they are made by Kuhl and are made out of stretchy material. They are strong and comfortable and you can kick over your head and do the splits in them if you can do those things!
I also wanted to comment on shoes. I'm hard on shoes they tend to get torn up form all sides if I'm doing a full range of training in them. The barefoot shoe movement has been fantastic. I have for years and years been pulling all the junk out of my shoes and trying to find the flattest, toughest, lightest shoes I can. I was very happy with Saucony-Hattori. They are the lightest and most comfortable shoes ever.
But I have also been wearing Merrell's, they aren't quite as comfortable, and they don't fit my feet quite as well as the Sauconys, but they are tougher. They really hold up to a beating. So I have to give it to the Merrell's trail runners. They are a better shoe, if I consider the big three; tough, flat, and light.
The sad part of this story is huge numbers of people have been getting horrid cases of plantar fasciitis. This actually has nothing at all to do with shoes, and everything to do with bad habits and overly enthusiastic marketing. I went into REI about a year ago and the shoe guy was trying to sell me 'barefoot' shoes and was explaining how I need to run on my toes or something. It was obvious he didn't know what he was talking about. It is simply a failure of personal responsibility all around. This is how the fashion goes.
Improvements in society, be they artifice, culture or freedom, can get taken away because people won't take personal responsibility. Usually it is a bit complex, like it is in this case, it is partly the fault of individuals, part marketing, part distributors, partly just problems seeing how changes in artifice, culture or freedom will change behavior.
It looks like the barefoot movement is on the way out because people are getting sued. I'm considering buying a ten year supply because I've been waiting for these shoes for 30 years, and there is a chance they will disappear.
If you missed the controversy about Miss USA Nia Sanchez, you can catch up here. Can I use the word retarded on my blog without offending people? There is actually a movement falsely calling itself feminist that is trying to promote less responsibly for women. It will fail, but it has the support of a lot of government agencies at the moment and a lot of universities too. It can do a lot of damage before it goes down in flames. Let me be clear, if you want personal agency, personal responsibility is non-negotiable. If taking a set of actions has consequences that would be different if you took a different set of actions, you are responsible for that. I mean, you can't have an anvil fall on your head unless you walk under it. Someone might be trying to kill you, that doesn't make you somehow not responsible.
That is the basic philosophy of self-defense. You are the agent of your own freedom. This is a new idea and I am grateful to Miss USA for helping to spread it.
I'm teaching in North Boulder Park, Monday thru Friday 6:30-9:00 AM for the Summer. In the Fall I may move indoors. The reason we start early is that makes it much easier to do standing meditation. In the language of Daoism, morning is the time of life, it is simply eaisier to do transformitive training because the available Qi is changing from dawn to day. Of course I'm planning to have evening classes too but they have a different character. Morning is the time to establish daily discipline.
I'm also teaching a kids class, ages 7 to 13 in the same location from 10 AM to Noon. These are week long sessions Monday to Friday, with the usual gongs, drums and total theater integration.
Pass the word!
Tribute & Vassalage was a major part of state craft around the world in centuries past. In attempting to address the origins of Chinese martial arts and its relationship to the arts of other North Asian societies, as well as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and even Africa, we really can't get very far if we think of martial arts as purely about fighting. Great individual fighters are found everywhere and yet great armies do not require them. We can perhaps imagine martial arts spreading around border regions, where inter-cultural-marriage happens, or where a talented individual might take refuge. We can also imagine the casual trading of martial skills amongst well armed merchants and in secret pirate lairs.
I will not dismiss these possibilities, they seem likely to have happened. But these kinds of border interactions don't explain the intensive and wide spread nature of martial arts very well. That is one of the reasons I started thinking about the role of theater and dance in the spread of martial arts.
Unlike the marginal agency of border crossing cultures, the performing entourages that were sent as tribute and vassalage went from the seats of high culture in one society to the seats of high culture in another. They were often quasi-slaves, or perhaps servants but usually of very low social status. Imagine you are an emperor and a king, in far away India, sends you 20 fantastic performers as a gift. What do you do? If you can find them, you send him back a gift of 25 even better performers. Frankly, it was cheap and effective diplomacy. It was the creation of long distance conviviality.
But conviviality was also immediate. Performers speak the languages of music and dance. Put great performers from disparate traditions in the same castle and they are likely to start working and playing together, they may even exchange children as disciples. Physical storytelling is a potent way to transcend language barriers.
I've never seen a study focussed on the extent of performing entourages being sent back and forth across the world but I would bet it was extensive. I've come across accounts of African performers being sent to Beijing in the 1400's at the time of Admiral Zhenghe and similar entourages being sent from Indonesia, and Tibet. One can still challenge the notion that these dancers, musicians and actors were also adept at fighting skills. But I've dealt with the integration of fighting skills and performing skills in countless other blog posts so I'll put that one aside for the moment.
This came up at the Daoist conference because after demonstrating some North Indian Classical Dance (Kathak) and showing how it uses mime and abstract storytelling in ways that are remarkably similar to Chen Style Taijiquan, I was asked about the theories that Chinese martial arts have some origins in India. But this is only half of the answer I gave.
I'm returning to Boulder today after a week in Boston. I have been attending an International conference at Boston University about Daoism.
I owe my readers a full report, but there are two obstacles. One, I'm tired. Very. Two, in general I'm not supposed to talk too much about papers that haven't been published yet.
Here is the abstract of my paper: Cracking the Code: Taijiquan as Enlightenment Theater
This paper presents three interrelated ideas using historic, experiential and visual contextualization: 1) Image mime within the Chen Style Taijiquan Form (taolu) can be understood as a form of theater presenting the story of Zhang Sanfeng becoming an immortal (xian). 2) Taijiquan as the integration of embodied theatricality with deity visualization as daily ritual and alchemy. 3) Framing violence as a transgressive path to becoming an immortal.
The paper was too long for me to deliver in the 20 minutes they allow for such things, so I danced and performed it instead. It was a huge success. Lots of interest and excitement, good questions too, which I knocked out of the park. In a way it isn't fair to 'perform' a paper because it tends to be much more interesting than even the really good papers, so I apologize for that.
The next project, as soon as I finish up the footnotes and stuff, is to perform the paper on Youtube, 20 minutes with five minutes of questions.
I also taught a class: Conditioning Emptiness: Where Martial Arts Meet Spontaneous Luminosity
The presumption of this workshop is that freedom can not be learned but the habits of freedom can be conditioned through play. Daoyin in martial arts, theater, and hermit yogas, all posit that emptiness can be discovered and verified in the “pull” between wildness and stillness. In this workshop we will deploy daoyin as twelve animals each with five elements in continuous expression and transition. This form of Operatic Daoyin comes from the animal stage roles of southern China, it is interactive and involves lots of rolling around and movement on all fours. This workshop is open to all levels of experience, loose clothing and a sense of humor will be helpful.
Several very experienced people told me this was the funnest Daoyin/Qigong class they had ever taken. It was a good hour and a half with 15 minutes for questions. I had them on the ground rolling around like dogs and pigs. I've got to video that class too.
Mostly I just loved meeting everyone there. This is the third conference I've been to in 12 years and this one was incredibly optimistic. 12 years ago we worried that we were dealing with the survival of a frayed and fragmented tradition, or darker, that there were only a few threads left of this fine fabric. In Los Angels five years ago there were a few anthropologists who brought a lot of hope by explaining that they were finding people who had been Daoists all their lives and had managed to find ways to sneak around the horrors if the 20th Century. At this conference it was evident that religious creativity is thriving in China and Daoism in general. There is interest, and excitement, the texts survived, the impulse for theatricality survived, the rituals that didn't make it are being re-invented from the ones that did survive. There is sharing. There is rebuilding and pilgrims have never been so rich or so free.
I owe my readers a lot more, but for the moment, the cat that is now out of the bag is that Daoism is a living creative force that is packed with martial arts and theater and fiction and all kinds of other cool stuff. I think there was another level of excitement too. A lot of us who started studying Daoism 20 years ago stepped into an unknown dark realm and now suddenly it is exploding with curiosity and invention. It is the excitement of having wandered into something that was small and is about to get much bigger--effortlessly.
Laozi said: Beautiful music and delicious food, cause the traveler to stop; Words about the Dao are insipid and bland.
What I realized at this conference is that line can be very funny if delivered with the proper vocalizations and dancing.
I recently got a graphic novel called Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It is a wonderful introduction to the history of the conflict. If I were going to teach a course that included the Boxer Rebellion I would included this book because it is a quick enjoyable read and it covers most of the main issues of the time. It is a fictional account that follows one of the peasant leaders of the rebellion through his hallucinatory experiences of violent righteousness. While there are a number of other important books one should read like, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising and History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth the advantage of Boxers & Saints is that it is so much fun everyone will have read it by the first day of class so we could get right into discussing the interesting details. Check it out!
I went to an Acro-Yoga class the other day. It was fun, lots of young people excited about learning movement. The funny thing is everything we did in the class was actually the same as the acrobatics I learned in my 20's. They have just tacked the word yoga on the end. Cool?
So that got me thinking about Paulie Zink's comment to Paul Grilley that ended up inventing Yin Yoga. Zink basically said something to the effect that yoga is too yang and it needs to be balanced by yin. Practically speaking from the five element theory that frames Daoyin, most yoga is heavy on the wood element (naturally extending and growing) and also on the metal element (strength and holding poses or shapes). He suggested adding the earth element which is very relaxed stillness for extended periods of time. Earth practice is good for meditation and goes deep into the ligaments. It is a very individual practice because at that level of relaxation we are all structurally diverse. That is what modern Yin Yoga adds to the practice.
So I was looking at the Yoga calenders for various local studios in Boulder and I noticed that some of them were having like one or two days of Yin Yoga a week. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Then I noticed that they had Kundalini Yoga one or two days a week too. (My wife went to a Kundalini class and loved it so I think we are going to be a mixed household for the near future.) Kundalini is the fire element that the standard Yoga class is missing. Smart.
I know that there is Yoga and then there is Yoga! Like people are doing all sorts of experiments and I think that is great.
But that still leaves out the element of water. Modern Yoga is still weak on the water element.
The basic partner acrobatics we were doing has one person being the "base" supporting the other person being the "flyer." Learning the role of "base" involves strenght and range of power exercises while weighted. That is the metal element again. Being the "flyer" means having a very relaxed fluid body so that one can balance in the air on the "base." That is the water element.
But as the "flyer" gets better he/she actually becomes very strong and able to hold powerful shapes in the air, while the "base" becomes more fluid and able to do the balancing for the "flyer," dynamically moving the "flyer" around to different positions. They switch back and forth between metal and water, metal and water--or in Daoist alchemical terms between cinnabar, mercury and gold. This type of theater is, after all, an enlightenment teaching tradition.
So anyway, I'm thinking about trying to teach straight Daoyin to the Yoga world and perhaps I can explain it via the metaphor of adding more of the water element to practice. As I'm fond of saying, "Your downward dog needs to wiggle its tail and scamper around the room!"
I got excited today because I met a samisen player who was interested in playing for my fighting class in Boulder, Colorado, where I am now teaching. I got this idea that I should teach drumming and fighting together because there are so many things that tie the two together. But samisen would be really good too. I want it to be live music because that interaction between tempo and rhythm is key to working with mood and timing and letting go. I want to foster the kinesthetic conversation between freedom and chaos, order and spontaneity.
There are three basic approaches to teaching that match the basic approaches to enlightenment.
I use the term enlightenment loosely, because I think people ought to lighten up about it. (That is a joke, sort of.)
These approaches to enlightenment could also be understood as the orthodox daoist framing of religious expression. This framing has a universal quality to it because it is easily re-discoverable, not because it is an absolute truth. It is not religion specific but refers more generally to three views of what the human relationship to nature is. None of these three views are exclusive either, in fact there is an experientially based/tested assumption that humans inherently have access to all three.
1) Wuwei. A non conceptual experience of being/emptiness. Without preference, progress, hierarchy, equality, individuality or community. It can not be framed or limited by words, images, names, or descriptions.
2) Perfection. Tantric enlightenment. Becoming a god. Perfect body mechanics. Superior anything. Sudden enlightenment. Games. Glowing health. Accumulating qi. Perfect circulation. The achievement of effortless skill and technique.
3) Subordination. Making alliances with any form or embodiment of power. Shamanism. Survival strategies. Devotion. Discipline. The gradual approach. Contracts.
This formula is in many of the chapters of the Daodejing. Laozi the author of the Daodejing, keeps coming back to the first one as a natural process of return, like water returning to the sea.
I don't know anyone who has gotten good at martial arts without taking the third view. But I also don't know anyone who has gotten good by exclusive fidelity to the third view. In that sense, I understand practice as a conversation between these three views. They have a way of refreshing each other.
With regard to teaching children I start with the third view because it creates a container for experiencing the first view. Children find it deeply relaxing and satisfying to be given tightly channelled directions, to be surrounded by percussive order and explosive command, to be welcomed into a safe guided challenging total environment. That relaxation leads directly to self-respect and self-acceptance. From that base, they then have the option of choosing the second view, self-directed, self-gratifying, self-disciplined self-improvement.
Adults present a different challenge. My preference is to initiate adults into the first view via a year of standing still practice supplemented by hanging out time. But everyone is different. And more importantly everyone has a unique way of relating to me. So it is my goal as a teacher to re-invent a kind of theatrical temple culture. I want to offer an environment or milieu that students can enter where all three views are available. An environment where dance, games, techniques, solo discipline, learning through doing, immediate feed back, edge experiences, identity challenges, deeply comforting personal retreat technologies, awareness expanding experiences, chaotic containers, and ordered experiments are all simultaneously available. A space where failure is fun. Where performance is a direct way to access the capaciousness of beauty. A space emotionally big enough for both gentle healing and the serious experiential examination of human violence and aggression.
One of the problems I face is the culturally static model of a class and a teacher that we are all accustomed to. For the theatrical temple model to work, individuals have to feel free to experiment and get support for changes in their entire lives.
The hobbiest model is actually fine. It is just that my challenge is to get students to understand that the subject we are working with is the alchemy of all their appetites: sleep, work, play, nutrition, intimacy, social life, risk taking, heroism, reclusiveness, etc. etc. etc....
Here is my attempt at one of the Daodejing Chapters that presents the three views, Chapter 23:
To seldom speak is to follow the Dao.
A gust of wind can not last all morning,
A downpour can not last all day.
What causes these? Heaven and Earth.
If the actions of Heaven and Earth do not last long, how much less the actions of human beings.
One who cultivates Dao, will experience Dao.
One who cultivates perfection, will experience perfection.
One who cultivates need, will experience need.
Dao, Perfection, and need all have their own fruition.
Trust without a basis is simply faith.