This article was written by Ed Maranan, and first appeared in his column ‘Passage’ in The Philippine Star.
In Rene Navarro’s website, there is a description of where his journey began:
“Rene was raised in the shadow of the western mountain ranges of Luzon. His grandfather, Ingkong Poli, a raconteur and farmer and artisan, was the greatest influence in his early life. Ingkong Poli told him stories of powerful beings, warriors, monsters, fairies, from legends and corridos. It was in this idyllic world that Rene was first exposed to nature, storytelling, native herbs, craftsmanship, martial arts, poetry, and the mystical.”
Rene was a law student, prominent Alpha Phi Betan, campus writer, and an impromptu speech gold medalist in UP when I was still an undergraduate. The next time I would hear about him, I was living in London and I would be reading about his achievements in the US as a martial arts expert and a published writer. When he and another Fil-Am writer Patrick Rosal visited the UK, we arranged for a poetry reading for them at the Center for Filipinos in Hammersmith. After impressing the audience with a moving poem about the final days of his father, Rene proceeded to give a demonstration of the Yang Family Sword Form, annotating as he went through the graceful but powerful movements.
He invited me to his friend’s house in Richmond, south London, where he cooked a gourmet meal for the three of us, and later on the roof deck which had a magnificent view of the meandering Thames, gave another demonstration of his skill in Chinese martial arts and Filipino arnis.
A couple of years later, I wrote to him in Boston, inviting him to contribute an essay to a book I was editing with my daughter Len, A Taste of Home: Pinoy Expats and Food Memories. He came up with a terrific essay that did justice to the whimsical title: “Reflections on the Diaspora, Burung Babi, a Favorite Uncle, Malayan Fish Head Curry and a Trip to the Mountains.”
He visits the Philippines from time to time. Last year, he was here briefly to give a two-day seminar. The first day was on Zhan Zhuang (stationary postures and breathing exercises), while the second day, which I attended, was devoted to Tai Chi Chuan Dao Ren, the eight core movements based on the traditional Yang Family solo fist form. Only eight movements, but we sweated gallons through a full day of slow, deliberate motions done repeatedly.
As I write this, the boy from Tarlac who would turn into a Renaissance Man forever voyaging in the Filipino diaspora is in the mystical village of Ubud on the island of Bali for intensive training in Lei Shan Dao (lightning and thunder path).
It is just one customary way station in a life-long journey of self-discovery, in search of the ancient secrets and methods of meditation and healing, the Taoist philosophy of going with the flow, as much as the cultivation of character and physical strength via the martial arts. For more than 50 years, Rene has trained under the best gurus, sifus, magi, teachers of the ancient arts. After obtaining a third degree black belt from the Karate Federation of the Philippines in 1968, he became absorbed with Chinese martial arts and apprenticed under legendary teachers in Manila’s Chinatown. He learned Shaolin kung fu from “the most complete master” Johnny Chiuten and grandmaster Lao Kim, and obtained mastery of the Chinese staff, spear and sword under the tutelage of Lao Sigong. His first teacher of tai chi chuan was Chan Bun Te at the Hua Eng Athletic Association which was then in a Buddhist temple in Binondo.
Immigrating to the United States after finishing his law studies at UP, he worked as a lawyer for indigent clients, but never let up in his pursuit of more arcane knowledge, obtaining a degree in acupuncture and a certificate in classical Chinese herbs, seeking out the masters of Chinese martial arts in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York, gaining more expertise in martial arts, finally discovering the method of the Healing Tao under Mantak Chia in New York’s Chinatown. It was also in New York where he reconnected with his Filipino roots, meeting up again with his former teacher in arnis de mano, Mat Mariñas. He resumed his training in Filipino stick-fighting with enthusiasm, even coming home briefly after the EDSA revolution to renew his ties with old buddy and karate/kung fu teacher Johnny Chiuten who was by that time living in Bantayan, Cebu, perfecting his eclectic methods of Chinese, Japanese and Philippine martial arts.
Rene has gone to the source of the ancient knowledge several times. He traveled to Chengdu in Sichuan in 1983 to study various forms of Wu Shu, such as northern spear, sword, monkey fist and cudgel. He was in China again a few years ago to teach English as a means of livelihood, but the main purpose was to explore further the ancient traditions of Shaolin kung fu in places where it is still being taught by venerable masters.
His knowledge of the ancient arts of healing, meditation, and fighting with bare hands or weapons is vast and prodigious, and this knowledge he imparts to students in workshops and seminars from the Catskill Mountains in New York to the shadow of the pyramids in Egypt, from a sun-washed island in Cyprus to an executive suite in a Makati building, from a village green in England to a tranquil village in Thailand.
The fields Rene Navarro is considered an expert in and therefore qualified to teach include acupuncture, dragon-well qigong, Xing shen Zhuang rehabilitative therapy, tai chi chuan Dao Ren and related forms, internal alchemy and spiritual practice, Chi Nei Tsang internal organ massage, Taoist philosophy, Shaolin kung fu or wushu, and arnis de mano. A metal/gold dragon, the master turns 72 in October.
An excellent chef, Rene loves to serve up his two favorite dishes. One is congee with black chicken, herbs (ginseng, astragalus, He Shou Wu or Mr. Wu’s black hair), red berries, and lurong or deer horn. The other one is pheasant or Cornish game hen with garlic, cloves, capers, olives, bay leaf, salted cod fish (bacalao), and chorizo de Bilbao.
I have hinted that he is an accomplished essayist. Rene is also a lyrical poet, with some of his poems appearing in various anthologies, and with three poetry collections reflecting his deep connection to the Chinese tradition: Du-Fu’s Cottage and Other Poems, Ascension and Return: Poetry of a Village Taoist, and The Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy.
Here are some lines from his poem “Dream in Baopu Temple”:
As I pass the rock where we sat, / I catch a glimpse of you doing / the Immortal Sword Dance / in the moonlight. / There is a spark of lightning in the sky. / I hear the Golden Rooster / crowing among the pines / ready to fly. / I offer three joss sticks for you / and the Taoist priest / rings a gong that resonates / in the distance. Where / is Ge Hong, the alchemist, / can he do his magic / to bring you back / here among the willow / trees?