Silk Road: Modern China

My first trip to China was in the summer of 1983. I was part of a small group of martial practitioners from North America who were going to Cheng-du, Sichuan. We landed in Shanghai, took the train for the long 2 and ½ days’ journey to Chengdu and trained in wu-shu, the contemporary martial arts choreographed in Communist China. Much has changed in the landscape since then.

Here, in thess galleries, you’ll see photos from that time on one hand and photos from 2010 – 2015 on the other: Old China, Urumqi, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Xian, Shaolin Temple. Perhaps the most obvious was the prevalence of bicycles in the earlier period. It’s something that has been pointed out by many tourists. A prominent feature of the New China is the train.

Traveling on the train westward from Beijing gave a different experience this time around (2015). The train wasn’t one of those high-speed vehicles but an ordinary public conveyance. Just the same, it was very comfortable and gave a view of what has happened in China in recent years – the development of cities, bridges and roads, subways, buildings and hotels and the infra-structures of modernization. Even in the desert, there were windmills, industry and electrical towers, new developments. When David, Gonca and I took a taxi in October 2007 from Huangshan/Yellow Mountain to Hangzhou, a travel of 4 hours total, we passed first-class 3 – 4 lane highways and tunnels through mountains. Even the remote cities of Turpan, Dunhuang and Urumqi – part of the Silk Road – were quite impressive for their modern buildings and hotels. I took photos of Urumqi one morning when I went to the park to do Taijiquan. In Urumqi, I heard that the Han Chinese were now 70% of the population and that the Uyghur, the Muslim majority, had become the minority and that many of the jobs were taken by the Han Chinese. It is a common strategy of the government: populating areas with Han Chinese as in Tibet.

We attended a Tang Dynasty show in Xian that I saw back 5 years ago. It was a combination performance of music and dance and Tang dynasty cuisine. The show was excellent, as usual, with different traditional instruments in the orchestra. The food, however, was not satisfactory. The dressing on the salad was mayonnaise. Perhaps mayonnaise was invented by the Chinese, too? Whatever my complaints, I was happy with the tour on the China Orient Express. The guides were very thoughtful and prompt and knew their stuff. But the guide in Urumqi, an Uyghur, could not answer my question about when the Han Chinese began to dominate the city. She was probably cautious about divulging information that would be offensive to the government. There was a strong military presence with tanks and soldiers with assault rifles in Urumqi. Nothing much about protests is reported in the media because of tight censorship. It’s like the June 4 massacre at Tianamen Square in Beijing ; nobody talks about it partly because of fear, partly because it has been erased from the books.

A surprising stop was at Jiayuguan, part of the “original” Great Wall. It was almost entirely new, as if it was built just yesterday, with restaurants, stores, toilets, walks and other amenities one would not have found in ancient China of the Qin Dynasty.
There were even Segways, for people to ride around the area.

The physical changes are only one of the many different aspects of the new China. The contacts with the West – economic, technological, educational, political, ideological, cultural, spiritual – have resulted in a legion of developments. (Somebody more qualified has to write about it.) Already, one can see that there is an evolutionary shift in the cultural landscape: there is the freedom movement, the proliferation of the internet in different aspects of life, the increase and openness of spiritual activities, the accommodation of groups that were banned earlier, access to different traditional schools, and more. I can see that the “liberalization process” – I cannot think of a better phrase right now – has already impacted the people and culture. Who knows what will happen in the next 10 years? The present China is significantly different from the China I saw in the summer of 1983.

What is very interesting to me is that, unlike the US, France, Russia, and UK, China does not usually involve itself in foreign wars. It spends its money on infrastructures – roads, bridges, buildings, dams, tunnels, windmills, museums, hotels. I guess it learned its lesson from the Korean War of the 50s. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like if China participates in the affairs of other countries, it is through business, economic development and culture. Well, Tibet is an exception. China has a lot of explaining to do to rationalize its anomalous and repressive presence – both military and civilian – in Tibet.

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Ricardo Y. Navarro: Father
Jan 15, 1916 – Dec 31, 2001:

By Rene J. Navarro

I was in London when I received a phone call from a relative telling me that Father had died. The message was brief. There was no information about how he died or where. I took the first available flight from Heathrow to JFK Airport.

When I left him the day before Christmas, a week before, he was in the hospital sleeping. For many years, he had been ill. He had two strokes, a heart attack, prostate surgery, and suffered from what we heard was Alzheimer. One time, when he was still living in an apartment with Mother, I took him for a drive in the area of Bear Mountain. We walked around the lake, he was holding a rattan staff I gave him, while I was supporting him by the other hand. He paused and, looking across the water, he said in our native dialect, “Makuyad ne yng bie ko.” Translation: I don’t have too long to live. I realized he was learning how to die.

He was no longer driving at the time. He had a few accidents on the road – going through a red light or a stop sign, a minor collision. One or two times he was lost. We decided to take away his license and the car to save him from any serious accident. He was also getting forgetful – he would turn on the stove to boil water and then forget about it.

For a long time thereafter, he stayed in a nursing home in Rockland County, New York. Mother would stay with him every day, the whole day, from 8 or 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. I would drive two hours from my home to see him. Very often, he would be asleep when I arrived. The sign at the nurses’ station would say what he had done that morning, perhaps a speech therapy or a routine exercise. When I played the tapes I gave him – he loved arias from the opera – he would open his eyes, whisper my name, and he would go back to sleep. I would take out the massage oil from my bag and rub his hands and feet.

Family photo taken in 1955 or 1956. From the front, counterclockwise: Amelia Joven Navarro, Roland J. Navarro, Ricardo Y. Navarro, Danilo J. Navarro, Florante J. Navarro, and Rene J. Navarro.
Family photo taken in 1955 or 1956. From the front, counterclockwise: Amelia Joven Navarro, Roland J. Navarro, Ricardo Y. Navarro, Danilo J. Navarro, Florante J. Navarro, and Rene J. Navarro.

What do I remember of my father? Many things actually, although during the first 4 or 5 years of my life, or during the period of the war (1941-45), I do not have any recollection of him being around. He told me that he was always away on the family business buying and selling pigs or rice. Although a lawyer, he could not practice law to earn a living during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.The most significant memories are the times he and I shared. The trips to the mountains to visit his clients – aetas or aboriginals of Luzon — who were fighting to acquire their ancestral lands. He and I slept on hay on the flatbed of a truck under the night sky. I remember the times he took me out to lunch or dinner when he visited Manila during my college days. The movies we saw: “I Accuse” with Jose Ferrer and “Count of Monte Cristo” with Robert Donat. Both actors had great speaking voices and accents. One time he treated me to an expensive birthday dinner by ordering steak and apple pie just for me at a hotel in our hometown. I remember the long letters he wrote giving me the benefit of his wisdom. I remember his advice, in particular, telling me to learn to forgive, telling me that I should not carry anger because it poisons the heart. He often quoted a passage from the Bible.

I remember the times he trained me in public speaking when I was young high school kid. Later in college, I participated and represented my school in oratorical contests and impromptu speaking.

I remember two of his favorite words. “Meretricious” isn’t in the New Lexicon — Webster’s Dictionary — of the English Language. The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition: “Attracting attention in a vulgar manner. From the Latin meretrix, prostitute.” The New Illustrated Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus: “adj. 1. Deceitfully or artificially attractive; vulgar; tawdry. 2. Pertaining to a harlot; wanton.” Dad used this word frequently to describe many distractions and temptations that seduce a person. He thought that modern culture offers different experiences, events and things that are actually hollow and empty. He included in this category certain singers, photographs, movies, adverts, rides or possibly many things that are meaningless, and a waste of time. I was young then, a freshman in high school, 12, and I do not think I understood what he meant. In retrospect, he wanted me to learn how to discriminate, to be choosy. To perceive what is real in life, to see what is enduring. To not be swayed by frills and trappings. He was after things that had substance and essence.

The other favorite word of my Dad was “vicarious.” The AHD defines it as, “Felt or undergone as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of another. Endured or done by one person substituting for another. Acting for another. From the Latin vicarious.” Dad used it more in the first sense of the word — as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of another. I believe that later in his life Dad actually experienced or felt somebody else’s experience or feelings.

What this recollection tells me is the continuum of human life and connection. How knowledge is handed down from father to son, from generation to generation, how we learn from our elders who have lived life fully and deeply. Ultimately, the story shows how fragile life is, that we cannot really hold on to the physical, that what we get from somebody is their lineage of wisdom, the teachings that we can embody in ourselves as we get on with our own lives, and so we must learn to listen to our sage elders, the people who carry life transmissions that may vanish if we don’t cherish and perpetuate them through practice and action.

Ricardo Y. Navarro in 1938 during his graduation from law school.
Ricardo Y. Navarro in 1938 during his graduation from law school.

The relationship between father and eldest son could be difficult. He wanted me to be a lawyer like him and I did. It took me 8 years of college education – four years for my bachelor of arts in political science and another four years in law school. When I settled in NY, I became a member of the bar and worked with a legal services office focused on poverty law representing indigent clients. In New Jersey, I became the manager of a poverty law agency. After years doing legal work, I decided to follow my own calling and go my own way, to become a healer and teacher. Since the early 1960s I had been training in martial arts. In 1983 I studied with Healing Tao master Mantak Chia and got certified as an instructor in 1986. In 1989 I went to Boston to study Classical Yang Family Tai chi chuan, herbology and acupuncture. I was leaving the comfortable career of a lawyer and taking on the uncertain life of an acupuncturist. It was a time of crisis for both my father and me and me and my family. When he had his first stroke, I went to see him in the hospital and treated him with needles. There was at first a puzzled look on his face, and then gratitude. Somehow I felt that, after the estrangement, we had come to a quiet acceptance of the direction the other’s life had taken.

For many years, I wanted to show him what I had learned — Tai chi chuan fist and sword forms, regimen that represented for me a great achievement in my journey through life, a departure from the common norm of people. He had glimpses of what I did but he had never seen me perform a whole set. I wanted to remedy that lack. One day, I sat him down on his wheelchair and pushed him to the day room of the nursing home, and said, Dad, I want to show you something. I had my swords and did a few forms. When I was finished, he said, How did you memorize all of that? There was a glimmer in his eyes. I felt his love and his acceptance and his appreciation. For me, it was a wonderful experience to show him what I had been practicing most of my life.

On that last visit in the hospital, before I left for London in December 2001, I placed my hand on his back and listened to his breathing. It was regular, even and quiet. There was the murmur of congestion but he breathed peacefully like a child. I knew he had reached the state of stillness that is the characteristic of those who have achieved grace in passing. As I touched his hands or his head, as I massaged his feet, I knew from his eyes that he had calmly accepted that his present life on earth was going to end for him.

What a gift it was to have such a father. A man who was compassionate, accepting, alive, a man of great love and wisdom and humor. I am lucky to have known him and to have been raised by him and to have benefited from his counsel.

PS: He was a judge in District Court (Court of First Instance) in the Marcos Hall of Justice in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, Philippines for more than 20 years. A relative of Ferdinand Marcos tried to influence him to decide court cases her way, but he consistently refused. It was a long struggle he had to confront. Finally, probably exhausted by the interference in his court by a powerful politician and the corruption of the judicial system, my father resigned and, selling his properties, he and mother joined us in the US in the 70s.

At the Nursing Home with Dad

— for Ricardo Y. Navarro, 1916-2001

I was visiting alone. Eighth floor, in his room
overlooking the valley. On the bulletin board
a note: Navarro/Speech Therapy. Daddy,

Daddy, I said, you had speech therapy
today, what did you do? They did all
the talking, he stuttered. They did

all the talking, he giggled, and kept mumbling
this line of mantra that seemed to echo
in the distant autumn hills of Rockland

while my mind raced back to my first year
in high school, 13 years old, and even now
I can still taste the slice of raw ginger

he told me to suck on while he and I
are at the grandstand and he is teaching me
public speaking, he is telling me

to raise my voice, but not to shout, to keep it
deep and low, to let it come from the belly,
as I recited a passage from Clarence

Darrow’s speech defending a union
leader, my father saying louder,
louder, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you

in the half-dark from 30 feet below.

* published in “Father Poems” edited by Alfred Yuson and Gimeno Abad (Anvil Publications, Manila, Philippines)

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A Dragon At 75: Reflections on Growing Old-er

By Rene J. Navarro

I heard Ana, a 72-year-old woman of Italian origin, groaning after finishing a routine at a machine at the gym one morning. I said to her, “The things we have to do to keep the body healthy.” She replied, “Just to keep it alive.”

When I started going to the gym, I thought I was the oldest at 69. It turned out I was one of the youngest in the group that met in the morning. The others on that day were older, some a lot older. A couple were in their late 70s, one or two in their 80s. They were there pumping iron, pushing the pedals of the stationary bike or riding the treadmill. All of them had been doing it for months or years.

When I went to my primary physician a few years ago, I was surprised to see myself in the waiting room in the company of disabled people, one or two in crutches or quad, usually accompanied by somebody younger. I did not realize then – or in the subsequent visits – that I was already a “senior citizen.” I was on Social Security retirement pension, a “retiree” –- I did not like the word, I preferred “pensioner.” Despite my membership in AARP, I did not think I had actually retired since I was still busy – teaching, studying, writing, traveling and practicing Daoist arts. I had not gone to pasture yet or started playing shuffleboard or attending senior citizens’ gatherings at the local church or community center.

Here are random reflections about different subjects written over a period of 3 years at this juncture in my life.


One realizes inevitably that the years are creeping up/have crept in and the body isn’t the same any longer. There are the pills accumulating on the counter – fiber, fish oils, vitamins A, D and E, Glucosamine and Chondroitin, Cholest-Off, saw palmetto … and the bottles of Cod Liver Oil the doctor recommended one has to take two tablespoons twice a day. And of course, the postures and movements in Tai Ji Quan one did easily before have become a little difficult now. It was one of the reasons I had started going to the gym: I wanted to recover my flexibility and stamina. I do not know if it will happen, but I am slowly regaining strength in my knees, the old pains are diminished, if not gone. I have also been able to do my usual Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan practice … solo fist form (108), dao/knife, gan/staff and jian/sword and more … and some of the Shaolin forms.

What do you do as you get older? When you are in your 40s, 50s, 60s? At a given point in your 40s, perhaps you begin to get bored with what you are doing. Unanticipated when you were in your 20s, the challenge of your job is no longer fascinating or interesting. As a lawyer or financial adviser, the glamour and excitement of the profession is no longer that attractive. And you begin to look into other things that you could do. You have the money and the time: now what do you like to do that would be satisfying and meaningful?

Change happens all the time, at any age. One usually becomes more aware of it when one retires or at the point of retirement. But I have also seen it happen in people in their 20s.

Perhaps we do not know that we have changed. But even if we did, often we do not acknowledge it. As a consequence, we deny it and we continue to do the things that we can no longer do well or even dislike. The body has changed, so has the mind, so has the perspective. The changes one goes through are many and some of them are not even noticeable. If I were to itemize some of them, I will probably neglect or forget to include quite a few. It is said that the body changes every so often, in an inevitable process of metamorphosis: every second, there is a transformation, the body we have now isn’t the same as the body we had a few minutes ago. Through a whole lifetime, we must have undergone millions of changes in a gradual intellectual and physical evolution. Where does it lead? We do not notice the profundity of it; we see only the surface: the wrinkles, the scars, the withering and osteoporosis as we look at the mirror.

There are deeper changes … the injuries and the wear-and-tear, the effects of gravity and the sun and the years … the psychic and physical damage and trauma… and of course there are the refinements of our consciousness, values and the mind.

As one learns from life, studies, and teachers, there are certain ideas and beliefs and practices that become passé, obsolete, absurd. One can no longer hold on to them for one reason or another. Even likes and dislikes change. Desires and priorities get transformed. Sometimes, it is an inspiration – from a teacher, a speaker, a book, a TV show, almost anything – that triggers the change. Who knows?

We undergo indescribable changes in life – physical, material, energetic, vocational, spiritual – that are sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental, sometimes unnoticeable, slow and gradual, sometimes sudden and radical. Sometimes they happen early in life, sometimes late. The transformation happens especially among searchers who at one time or another begin to look for something truly enduring and meaningful and fulfilling.

It is not very often that we come upon an epiphany in life, an experience that brings us to a new path, a sudden realization that something is no longer the same, or that we have crossed a bridge we haven’t been to before, or we are having a transformation that is life-changing. Perhaps the novelty of it was obviously there but we did not see it. If we realize that something has indeed happened, it is possible that we will take a different direction in life. In a real sense, it is similar in many ways to a divorce after decades of marriage. It is a break from the familiar and starting a new life.

I know a student, an engineer, who in her early 30s decided to become a healer, an acupuncturist and herbalist. The shift or jump seems to come quickly but is often the result of years of slow evolution. It has happened to a lot of people, I am sure. In my class at acupuncture school, there was a chemist who was my age. She was making a new beginning in life. There were actually a bunch who switched professions … some were nurses or doctors. There was somebody who had a bachelor’s degree, who could not find a meaningful job: she waited on tables to raise funds for acupuncture school. She is now one of the leading lights of Japanese acupuncture. I myself started acupuncture school at 50. The theme is generally about people who switch from one profession to another, but it is also about people who were floundering and wanted something they could do for the rest of their lives.

I am not saying that people change careers only to make themselves happy and satisfied. Some acquaintances changed jobs not necessarily for psychic rewards but for security and stability. Perhaps they are getting older and want to have a good pension or a nest egg. You cannot entirely blame them; after all, in these uncertain times, you have to prepare for old age.

There are of course people, many of them talented, who do not seem to change. They dwell on the surface, whatever it is they do, and they do not respond to the deeper aspects of life. They may be reading but their books or magazines are really just on the level of the physical and material. They would spend hours watching sports on television. They cannot find a way to go inward. They do not question or examine their values or their occupation.

But change could often be a painful process. It is reinventing oneself. The bigger the change, the more difficult and painful it is. To shift from one path, like a career for instance, to another requires decisions on several levels. It involves not only breaking into another path and training for it, but also confronting family and clan and one’s own self-image, ego and aspirations. There is a price to pay in terms of psychic, emotional, financial, social, and physical cost.

My Personal Choices

I was a member of the bar for many years in the Philippines and later in NY. My job in Long Island from 1978 to 1982 was with legal services, an agency that served the disadvantaged population. When the family moved to New Jersey in 1983, I became the manager of another legal service office. Towards 1984 or 85, a kind of disillusion set in. I began to ask myself if I was really helping to change society. I saw clients trapped in a cycle from which many of them could not get out.

The job was an opportunity to help. But working that way was often like a Sisyphean labor: when one got the rock up the hill, it rolled back down, and one had to start all over again. It was frustrating. It was not the way I wanted to help society. I wanted something much more significant than helping somebody fight the bureaucracy and get her on welfare or social security or secure a protective
order to get that violent boyfriend who beats her or her children out of the house … nothing bad about the work, but I wanted something much, much more, a real transformation of people and the culture, a process of healing that would go deep.

In the summer of 1983, I spent a couple of months in China training in contemporary Wu-Shu/martial arts. (See “Martial Arts in Sichuan” in the Writings section.) It was doubtless an exciting time for me, not only because it was my first time in China, but also because I loved the training although it was indescribably painful and difficult. I was with a group of martial artists. From Cheng-Du, Sichuan, where we trained for a month, a few of us traveled to Shanghai and then to Beijing. I realized that contemporary martial arts (called Wu-Shu) were not for me. Choreographed under a communist regime, they were fancy and stylized, intended for competition, without much internal substance.

Back in the US, while walking around NY’s Chinatown, I chanced upon the work of Healing Tao’s Mantak Chia – “Awaken Healing Energy Through the Tao” and “Secrets of Taoist Love and Sex” — in a bookstore and began studying with him until, five years later, I became a senior instructor. It was almost a totally different world, the Taoist one, in which even the vocabulary was built on words like “love,” “healing,” “gentleness,” “kindness,” “compassion” and the ultimate achievement seemed to be Stillness. It was right out of the Tao Te Ching where water is the predominant symbol and peace and harmony constitute the ideal life. Of course, there was a gap between the theory and the reality but with sincere and serious practice, the possibility of contentment, transformation, healing and happiness was there. GM Chia showed different methods of attainment – Qigong/Taoyin, Tai chi chuan/Taijiquan, sexology, massage, and internal alchemy/neidan. In retrospect, it was the most profound and various discipline I had ever studied at that point in my life.

In 1986, at 45 years old, I resigned my job in legal services. I decided that I was not going to do lawyering any longer. I realized that part of my disillusion was due to having followed a cultural script in my country: the eldest son followed the profession or career of the father. I concluded I had done my duty to my ancestors and it was time to break away and follow my heart. I did not anticipate that it was a decision that would have far-ranging repercussions in the near future.

Coincidentally perhaps just at that moment, the Marcos dictatorship was on the stage of collapse. I decided that I’ve had enough of lawyering and advocacy. I returned to the Philippines and spent several months there for the next two years giving myself the time to decide what to do for the rest of my life. I traveled the country, met friends from college, got interviewed for newspaper articles, had an essay published, lectured on martial arts, taught Philippine stick-fighting in my alma mater, visited my martial arts teachers. I had kept my Philippine passport and citizenship after 16 years in the US. I wanted to live in the Philippines but nothing was attractive enough for me to do. I returned to the US. (For a related essay, go to “February 1986” in the Writings section).

A Changing View of Martial Arts

When I started learning martial arts back in the 60s, I was fascinated by the grace and beauty of the forms. A roommate invited me to watch a demonstration of Chinese martial arts in Manila’s Chinatown and I was hooked. Later, martial arts master Johnny Chiuten initiated me into the art in the traditional way: making me stand in the horse/ma bo for almost 3 hours and basically doing what the masters were supposed to do to novices who were aspiring to join an exclusive priesthood. It was indescribable torture. (For a related essay, see “Johnny F. Chiuten: Fighter” and “Lao Kim: Mysterious Master of Kung-Fu” in the Writings section.) Every time I saw Johnny, he taught me Shaolin forms, but we spent most hours sparring. He held back, but he was still a deadly machine. He pushed me to the limits.

The forms were beautiful and challenging. I learned several forms starting with a beginner’s set called “Supdi Kun,” or Cross Form. Then it was what he called “Kata 200” because it had a lot of movements (later I learned that it was actually called “Ching Hua Kun” perhaps translated as “young blossom or flower fist”). The ultimate form in the system was “Dragon-Tiger Combination Fist,” a very demanding and long form. I studied more forms with him, more prominently the rare yin form he called “Buddha Fist.” Later after Johnny recommended me to his master Lao Kim, I learned that it was actually named “Fairy Child Praying to the Goddess of Mercy Kuanyin.” The grandmaster taught me different forms – fist forms like “Kang Li,” “Wat Let,” “Ut Kit,” and others. He taught me the original versions of “Kuanyin,” “Cross Fist,” “Dragon Fist,” and “Tiger Dragon” and weapons forms – Broadsword, Sword, Spear and several staff forms. (I believe the spear form he taught me was actually a southern Kwandao/halberd set because when I studied the Kwandao with Shifu John Loupos of Cohasset, MA in 1991, I saw that many of the movements were the same.) When Dr. Jopet Laraya, one of the most accomplished martial artists in the Philippines, joined the training on recommendation of Johnny, Lao Sigong taught us a hoe form. For this purpose, Jopet had a special wooden hoe made. We practiced sometimes at Hua Eng Athletic Club in old Binondo, sometimes on the roof of a hotel in Ongpin, sometimes in a warehouse in Caloocan City.

For a long while, in the 60s up to 70s, I followed a regimen of toughening the forearms, palms and digits, hitting bags filled with sand and later with beebees and iron filings and washing my hands with dit da jow, a 24-herb liniment bath given to me by GM Lao Kim. (IHe gave me a 36-herb recipe when I saw him in Hongkong.) The so-called iron fist was a technique I learned from Johnny Chiuten. It was training the digits, basically to disable an opponent by hitting certain spots on his body. I had reached a decent level of expertise after almost 20 years of serious practice. I’ll refrain from describing what I could do, but I felt that I could have done the techniques in an actual fight.

All of a sudden, in the mid-80s, it dawned on me: what was I training for? What did it all mean in the long run? I had two young sons whom I might unintentionally hit in a burst of distemper and it scared me. Or, suppose I got into a fight, Was I going to the extreme of killing my opponent? There was as well a sense that my consciousness was being molded in an uncomfortable matrix – I was spending more and more time with martial arts practitioners and martial arts practice. I realized that although I had met wonderful people in martial arts, the culture of fighting itself as interpreted in contemporary times was often characterized by machismo and egotism and inhabited by practitioners many of whom did not have much interest beyond combat.

At that juncture, there was a convergence of different and varied factors in my life. I had to make important choices under conditions that involved moral, legal, ethical, physical, spiritual values. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life.

I began serious training in energetics/qigong, healing and internal alchemy… I asked myself, Why dedicate my life to learning how to fight and injuring people when I could actually help them get well? Not only get well but also become better persons. In July 1986, returning from the Philippines, I accepted Mantak Chia’s invitation to undergo training to become a Healing Tao instructor and passed the demanding tests. I began teaching.

In 1988 or thereabout, I decided to study acupuncture and herbology. I won’t go into the background of the story and the agonizing decisions I had to make, but I left home and family and moved to Boston and started studying acupuncture and herbology and pursued healing as an important attainment. It was flipping the other side of the coin.

I had studied – and taught – Tai chi chuan, but I felt that my knowledge was sorely incomplete. I had observed different styles and masters both in San Francisco and New York. I saw the famous master Cheng Man-Ching in New York in the early 70s and, despite his writings and following, I was not impressed. (See the essay about him “The ‘Mystery’ of Master Cheng Man-Cheng” in the Writings section.) I studied the Wu Family small-frame form with master Leung Shum but dropped out before the year was over because I thought it was just another version of the Yang Family form I had learned in the Philippines. (I learned later that the form was itself drawn from the Yang Family Tai chi chuan curriculum.) When I saw GM Gin Soon Chu in June of 1986, I found the most authentic and complete Tai chi chuan system of the Yang Family. Under the guidance of Master Gin Soon Chu, second disciple of Grandmaster Yang Sau-Chaung, first-born and heir of the legendary Yang Cheng-Fu, I covered the curriculum of fist (108 solo set, Tai Chi Chang chuan and Sansou/Sparring) and weapons (Knife, Staff-Spear and Sword) forms. Chu shifu was the only teacher I saw who demonstrated the different techniques from the 34 fajing (discharge of jing). It was a martial art of a different order entirely, with its emphasis on “investing in loss,” yielding and softness, where your partner was your teacher and not an enemy, and where yin was the most important value and qi was the goal. (For related essays, read “Looking for Yang Cheng-Fu,” ”The Curriculum of Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan,” “Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan: the Mysterious Traditional Yang Famiy Tai chi chuan Fist Form” and “The Sword of the Immortal” in the Writings section.)

That was 24 years ago. I graduated from acupuncture and herbology school, passed the national boards, got licensed, taught healing and meditation in different countries.

Building Priorities

As I write these reflections, the narrative seems a bit simplistic and easy and clean. But it was not so in reality. There was plenty of bloody struggle. It was messy sometimes. There were distractions along the way. Sometimes it was difficult to stay focused on my goals.

True, acupuncture was not a glamorous profession; it was a new phenomenon in the US. Alternative healing was not yet an accepted modality. It was just making a start in the West. But I had faith that it would make a breakthrough. What was important was that learning it gave me a fulfilling vocation. It was exciting to me, like having a door opened to a new world.

As important, I wanted to “complete” my education. I had studied martial arts, massage, meditation, qigong, internal alchemy, nutrition/dietetics, feng-shui. Acupuncture and herbs were part of the package of integrated courses and healing modalities that fascinated me no end.

When acupuncture was introduced to the US back in 1972, after Nixon’s pingpong diplomacy, it was taught almost in isolation, divorced from the other related healing modalities like qigong, meditation, nutrition and others.

Qigong and Tai chi chuan were not a part of its curriculum when I entered the New England School of Acupuncture. I pioneered a qigong course that included Mantak Chia’s Microcosmic Orbit Meditation, 6 Healing Sounds, Buddha Palm Qigong and Tai chi chi kung 13 movement form. I taught it for several years until I decided to leave Boston in the late 1990s and move to Lake Harmony in the Appalachian mountains where I owned a house and live a quiet life of semi-rustication. I spent my days in meditation and Tai chi chuan practice. I wrote poetry. (For a sample, please see “Renga” in the poetry section; it was done with my friend Nadine Sarreal who was in Singapore at the time.) A few of my students came to take lessons with me. Friends visited occasionally. I was close to nature: mist descended in the valleys and peaks, deer were close by, even bears came down to open the trash bin!


I have written about my own experiences with teachers who have taught me many things — healing, poetry, martial arts, qigong and, as important, love, acceptance and generosity. No, I did not get to learn things by myself. I had the help and support of friends who were there for me when I needed them. To travel the road I had taken is difficult; it is impossible to do it alone. There are people who have encouraged, inspired, influenced and taught me. They often stay in the background. In my website, you’ll read about these people — Johnny Chiuten, Len Roberts, Uncle Rudy (Vidad), David Verdesi, Mantak Chia, for instance. I would not have reached this place without them.

Johnny was my first Shaolin Kung-Fu master. I trained with him early in the 1960s. He introduced me to the old Grandmaster Lao Kim, the patriarch of martial arts in Manila’s Chinatown. Lao Shigong accepted me as a private disciple because of Johnny.

Uncle Rudy taught me about music back in the late 1960s. I was introduced to him by Miel, a friend from college. He introduced me to the classical, romantic, baroque and modern music repertoire. He played different operas, symphonies, concertos, even plays and songs. I became familiar with composers, performers and compositions. (For the story, please go to “Thinking of Uncle Rudy” in the Writings section.)

Len Roberts mentored me in poetry starting in 1985 at Lafayette College until his death a few years ago. We used to spend time together at his house in Pennsylvania. His wife Nancy would cook dinner in Winter or we would sit by the pool in Summer and talk poetry. He would critique the poems I would send him. I delivered a eulogy and read one of his poems at his funeral service. (For the story, please go to “Len Roberts: Poet” in the Writings section.)

David Verdesi was my student back in 1992 when he was just 15 or 16. He has studied with many masters and over the years he has invited me to join him in his seminars or to meet his masters in Thailand, Indonesia and China. I took seminars with him in January 2013 and 2014 in Bali. (For a related essay, please read “Thunder Path in Huangshan” in the Writings section.)

Mantak Chia was my first Daoist master. I met him sometime in 1983 or 1984 in New York’s Chinatown when I started to study with him. When I became an instructor, I assisted him during the summer retreats in the Catskills, NY. I have also written and/or edited 6 books for him, 4 of them on internal alchemy.

There are other masters. You can read about them in my website. It is important to know that friendship — characterized by acceptance, loyalty, generosity, sharing, patience and love — is an essential ingredient in our search and our life. In a real sense, we are often not alone in our journey.

While we are pursuing certain goals and dreams, we may be confronted with fears and doubts, the very first obstacles in transformation that we ourselves create. We may also be faced by social pressures and criticisms and cultural taboos: society sending us its message, obvert or subtle, that we cannot or should not do certain things, that we have to follow the mainstream route of conformity. How many of these frustrating scripts are there staring at us or playing in our minds! If we seek approval from or listen to others — friends, relatives, authority figures — or if we succumb to our fears we may even abort our dreams.

In our search, we may be aided by music or literature or even locales and practices. We may have companions in our journey, but basically a quest is done alone; most of our time is spent in solitary study, whether it is a class or a practice. To me, there’s music especially from Japan and Tibet and the Yang-Sheng regimens of self-cultivation I have done for 50 years now. Nature has also been a great refuge, companion and healer to me – the sea and the sky, mountains and lakes, and the stillness and isolation they provide for free.


There are a lot of coincidences in my life. Some people would say they are not coincidences but synchronicities because nothing happens by chance. I’ve heard that special people appear at certain times and open doors to certain opportunities for learning and growth as a part of one’s destiny. Johnny Chiuten I had known for a couple of years while studying in the university for my law degree. He actually invited me to study with him when we bumped into each other in the college cafeteria. It was Johnny who introduced me to the legendary Shaolin master Lao Kim who became my private teacher in Manila’s Chinatown until I departed for the US in late 1970. My Chinese godfather told me to study Yang Family Tai chi chuan with his cousin Chan Bun Te in 1968 in Hua Eng Athletic Club. (I also learned Ps-Kua Chuan there.) Master Chan introduced me to Lao Yun Hsiao, the famous Taiwanese master, who was teaching in Manila at the time. I studied another Yang Family Tai chi chuan 108 form with him, too. Mantak Chia entered the picture back in 1983 when I was looking for a teacher to guide me. I met David Verdesi in 1993 at Mantak Chia’s retreat where I was one of his assistant instructors. David and I developed a close father and son relationship since then, or a period of more than 2 decades. Through David, I met many masters, among them, John Chang, called the Magus of Java, and Xuan Kong, the incredible hermit of Huangshan. GM Gin Soon Chu I met in 1986 when I visited Boston and friends from the Healing Tao took me to watch their Tai chi chuan practice with him. Chu shifu’s son Vincent, also a master of Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan, introduced me to my next teacher Master Ou Wen Wei, the founder of Pangu Mystical Qigong.

I have often wondered about the strange coincidences in my life. There were many things that happened to me … as if I was made to walk a path although I did not seek it.

There were other cases of “coincidences.” Through David, I met Karma Lhatrul Rinpoche, the Bhutanese guru, in Bali last August. Who knows what or who else is going to materialize in my life of searching.

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Opening the Body to Nature

By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)

I have often done qigong and Tai chi chuan in power vortices – in the pyramids at Gisa and the temples in Upper Egypt (Karnak, Dendera, Abydos), in the Tor on Glastonbury and the Stonehenge in England, in the peaks of Huangshan in China, in the stone circles of Scotland, Iao Valley in Maui, Hawaii, and Mount Banahaw in the Philippines. I have even done qigong in enclosed spaces like the Egyptian section at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in NY City.

It is essential – even critical – to harmonize our lives, culture and lifestyle with the world around us. We are at risk of losing the earth to deadly pollution, severe exploitation and extreme climate changes. The situation is dangerous for the world, humanity and the diverse animal and plant species, an issue we’ll have to address sooner than later. But there is, in the meantime, a very simple way of connecting and harmonizing with nature and translating the language of ecology in our daily lives. Since the body itself is naturally constructed with energy points like the earth in feng-shui, it is really quite easy to align to the world around us. It is just a matter of:

Rene in Huangshan/Yellow Mountain, Anhui, China

Keeping quiet and still and listening
Avoiding distractions from the senses or the mind
Allowing the body to settle down
If you need to breathe, make it soft and gentle like a tiny ripple on a lake.

If you are standing, plant your feet shoulder-width apart and straighten your back
and relax. You can do the same thing if you are sitting on the edge of a chair. Remember to slightly bring your chin down toward, but not touching, the manubrium. You may not be aware of it in the beginning, but this act stretches the cervical vertebrae and opens Governor Vessel 16/Fengfu and Governor Vessel 20/Baihui and Yintang/Esoteric Hall (3rd eye). Bring your hands down, palms either facing the outer thighs (to align the Laogong/Pericardium 8 to the Gallbladder/Wood meridian running down from the head to the feet) or the palms facing to the back (to feel what’s behind you). Put your tongue up to the hard upper palate or just behind the teeth to create what is indicated in the Neijing Tu as the Sacred Ground.

Many people ask, “Are there any techniques?” Yes, there are techniques. You can
do Tai chi chuan or 8 Precious Brocades or a series of Qigong or Daoyin movements. But you can reduce them to the most basic level like what is listed above. Just quiet down, close your eyes, and it helps if you feel grateful for who you are. There is always something special or even magical that happens when one feels a sense of gratitude for the blessings of life.

In the stone circle of Mull, Hebrides, Scotland

When one is positioned for standing or sitting meditation as described, one does not have to do anything else. Just keep to the bullet points above. It is that simple. You do not need to travel to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid, or in Haleakala Volcano on Maui. You can just do it in your backyard or in your own living room. You do not need any extra equipment or any elaborate clothes. If it is necessary to focus, you can light incense or a candle or play a soft meditative music or breathe softly. But these can be distracting for some people. So find what you are most comfortable with.

You will possibly realize, as you practice more, there is a subtle activation of the Bai Hui/GV 20 at the top of the head, the Qi Hai/CV 6 and Shenque/CV 8 in the area of the belly, and the Yongquan/Kidney 1 at the bottom of the feet. These are 3 of the most prominent points in the body that are the easiest to activate. There is also the Laogong/PC 8, the power point of the palms. Often, the vibration of qi starts at the fingertips or Jing/Well points, collects at PC 8/Laogong and travels up the arms.

Among the rice terraces in Bali, Indonesia

Stay in position for 30 minutes to an hour. It is usually difficult in the beginning to be still for more than 5 to 10 minutes. But with regular practice, you will start to feel comfortable doing it for longer and longer periods of time. You will also start to feel different experiences. The energy of the feet sinking into the ground, for instance. Or the Jing/Well points of the fingers feeling vibration or some meridians opening. The optimal experience is when the body itself seems to become transparent or porous as if its boundaries have dissolved. The whole body would seem to be “breathing” after a while. There is a sense of opening to the outside world. The body and the earth in incredible alignment and harmony: It is the path of stillness that is suggested in Chapter 16 of the Dao De Jing. At the end of your work – call it meditation, call it qigong, whatever name you may use – be sure to make a gesture of closing. Put your palms over and breathe into your navel. Imagine the energy collecting in your lower belly (often associated with the dantian/field of pills, qihai/sea of qi, navel center) and resting there in a sturdy container. A closure is necessary in a ritual so that you can connect again to the mundane, and return to the everyday world and time.

Blessings to you!

This essay was originally published as the feature article in Yang-Sheng Magazine, Vol. 3 #4, August – September 2013 issue.

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The “Mystery” of Master Cheng Man-Ch’ing

By Rene J. Navarro

There are many mysteries in martial arts history that may never be settled because they are so remote, there is no record or reliable witness to a fact or simply that nobody who knows has come forward. Where did Tai Chi Chuan actually originate? Who invented Shaolin Temple boxing?

In the 5 to 6 decades that I have read about and observed martial arts, I have noticed a certain indifference to facts in some quarters. Practitioners sometimes don’t seek evidence of claims, not from the writers, not from their teachers. They don’t question credentials, they take legends as history, and sometimes even perpetuate myths. They don’t raise the simple question: Where is the evidence for a lineage or the documentation for the truth/facts?

One of the strange mysteries in contemporary martial arts involves the famous Cheng Man Ch’ing (Zheng Manqing), and the origin of his legendary Push Hands prowess and his Yang Family Tai chi chuan training. Strange because Cheng is arguably the most famous Tai Chi Chuan master of the 20th Century. A multi-faceted man, Cheng is one of the most quoted and influential Tai Chi Chuan masters of all time. Much has been written about him by his students and disciples and researchers. There should be nothing or practically nothing important unknown about the master.
(1) Asked about the source of his powerful Push Hands, he attributed it to Yang Cheng-fu, one of his teachers. Robert Smith found it difficult to believe that Yang Cheng-fu taught him Push Hands because Cheng himself said that the two times he did Push Hands, Yang knocked him out cold. * Mr. Smith himself, who has written about the master and probably knows more about him than anybody else alive, says : “It remains a mystery.” ( Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods, p. 38).

If Cheng did not learn his Push Hands from Yang Cheng-fu, then from whom? Robert Smith himself raised this question and has apparently been chasing after a credible answer for many years now. In articles, Mr. Smith has posited the hypothesis that Cheng studied Push Hands with a few masters.

I would like to offer some light on this issue and narrate how I got interested in the matter.

When I was looking for a Tai Chi Chuan teacher in the early 70’s, I observed the classes of several masters. One of them was Cheng Man Ch’ing, a master whom I had admired since the 60’s. I first read about Cheng Man Ch’ing in a martial arts magazine, probably Black Belt, in the 60’s in an article about his famous student William Chen of New York. And then I read Robert Smith’s writings about him. When I moved to Brooklyn, New York, I took the time to see Cheng’s classes. He had apparently a large following and was very much loved by his patients and students alike. He had a great reputation, made partly from his fine books, partly from reports of actual fighting with other masters and partly from Push Hands with his students.

I saw students practicing Push Hands from a stationary position, doing the short 37-Movement Tai Chi Chuan form, and Sword sparring with Cheng. Cheng went around giving pointers or sat at a table taking pulses and prescribing herbal formulas. I did not see him do Push Hands, so I have no direct knowledge of the quality of his Push Hands techniques.

But he had a reputation for powerful Push Hands techniques. Robert Smith, Wolfe Lowenthal, and Bataan Faigao, among others, even those who have never seen him, have spoken or written glowingly of Cheng’s Push Hands prowess. From what they reported, Cheng had an incredible softness, a trait he probably had even before he studied with Yang Cheng-Fu. It was the consensus, among the articles I had read, that he had the ability to bounce his students “off the wall” without showing any sweat or exertion. Mr. Smith has described Cheng’s Push Hands as being “mystical.”

One of Robert Smith’s books (“Masters and Methods”) and Cheng Man-Ching’s book on Tai Chi co-authored with Robert Smith both show him bouncing somebody. It was one of the things that impressed me early on. Recently, I also saw a film strip of Cheng Man-Ch’ing doing Push Hands and propelling his partner a distance backward. (This subject requires a whole article in itself, so I’ll let it pass.)
From what I have read, early on Cheng discounted the ability of Tai Chi Chuan masters to propel an opponent backwards without touching. He believed “the trick will not work against an equal or a superior.” (Robert Smith, Chinese Boxing Masters and Methods, p. 35.) Wolfe Lowenthal however says, “At its highest level, receiving energy enters an ineffable realm, where as a result of what Professor (Cheng) calls the practitioner’s spiritual enlightenment, he is able to repulse an attacker ‘with a look.’ The old man stressed that this level of attainment is not magic; it is real and something we can achieve.” (There are No Secrets, p. 65 )

He is reported (by Robert Smith) to have the ability to do tian xue, or meridian point striking to injure or kill, but apparently he did not learn it from Yang Cheng-Fu. As an acupuncturist, masseur and martial artist, I am inclined to believe that this technique exists, although I have not seen any proof that Cheng had used it on anybody. Robert Smith reports that Cheng admitted to not learning the healing part of the art.

When I first read about Cheng Man-Ch’ing in the early 60’s, there was no information on how long or what forms he studied with Yang Cheng-fu. I don’t think it occurred to me to ask. Later on in the late 60’s I read in the book “T’ai-Chi” by Cheng Man-Ch’ing and Robert Smith, that Cheng “learned personally from Yang for nearly a decade….” (p. 4). I did not think much about this matter until mid-1996 when I read an article in Journal of Martial Arts (Vol. 5, Number 2, 1996) entitled “In Search of a Unified Dao: Zheng Manqing’s Life and Contributions to Taijiquan” by Barbara Davis. She said in a footnote that “there is some confusion about the precise dates of Zheng’s study with Yang Cheng-fu…Zheng himself wrote in his preface to Yang’s 1934 book, Taijiquan tiyong quan shu, that he was introduced to Yang in renshan zhengyue (February 1932) by a Mr. Po Qiucheng. That would place Zheng’s period of study with Yang from 1932 until 1936, when Yang passed away. Cheng Weiming’s calligraphed preface (dated 1947) to Zheng’s Thirteen Treatises p. 1 states that Zheng studied with Yang for six years.”

Intrigued by the subject raised by Ms Davis, I pulled out the other books I had on Tai Chi Chuan to see what they said about this issue. Here are the relevant parts:
“…friends had introduced him (Cheng) to the great T’ai Chi Ch’uan master Yang Cheng-fu and he became the last disciple of Master Yang. For six years he studied with Master Yang everyday and his body became healthy and strong. “ Madame Cheng in her introduction to the book “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan.” The same book says: “I (Cheng) followed Professor Yang for seven years…” (p. 204)

Mr. Smith, an avid Tai Chi Chuan practitioner and researcher and admirer and student of Cheng Man Ching, seems to have revised “nearly a decade” by saying, about thirty years later, “When Zheng Manqing began learning taiji from Master Yang Chengfu in Shanghai during the early 1930’s….” (Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 6, Number 1, p. 51) It was obviously strange that the commentators and writers did not get this item in the story straight.

In an interview in Tai Chi International (London), vol. 1 # 3, Master Dong Zheng Chen said, “…my grandfather (Dong Ying Jieh) told me that Cheng Man Ch’ing only trained with Yang Cheng Fu for six months.” In an e-mail to me, Alex Dong said that period may have been more like 2 years. (When In interviewed the Dong (Tung) masters in Hawaii, they also stated that Cheng practiced a “tofu” Tai Chi. Since this isn’t the subject of the present essay, I will move on.)

Reading the available materials this time around (1990’s when this article was first written), Mr. Smith’s “mystery” statement came up again. I asked myself, If Mr. Smith himself doubts that Cheng studied Push Hands with Yang Cheng-Fu, then who did he actually study with in the Yang Family? As every martial artist knows, a student does not always study with the head teacher; there are assistants who take over the teaching. Did Cheng learn his Push Hands from Yang’s assistants? It is not a remote possibility, for Yang reportedly had a number of assistant instructors and disciples — among them, Chen Wei-Ming, Tung Ying-Chieh and Fu Xiaowen, who unfortunately are all dead. I used the word “reportedly” since I do not know the positions of these famous practitioners, who appeared in photographs with Yang Cheng-Fu, in the Yang Family lineage. (Note: I have not seen Cheng in any photos with Yang.)

There was of course the reclusive Yang Sau-Chung, firstborn and heir of Yang Cheng-Fu who was in his 20’s at the time. A quiet, private man, not much is known about him. He is often ignored or overlooked by people writing about Tai Chi Chuan, although from his background, he should have been quite a celebrity. He started his Tai Chi Chuan studies when he was 7 or 8 and finished the curriculum — empty hands and weapons forms and apparently including the old Tai Chi Chuan solo form and secret family techniques — when he was 12 and began assisting his father. When he was 18 he began teaching on his own. Yang Sau-Chung was the primary assistant of his father, and it was he who actually taught a number of famous masters. He was about 29, already a recognized master, when his father died.

Vincent F. Chu, chief instructor at the Gin Soon Tai Chi Club in Boston and son of Gin Soon Chu, who gave me the foregoing details, has perhaps provided a possible clue or perhaps an answer when he quotes Yang Sau-Chung as saying that (1) it was an influential person, probably the mayor of Shanghai, Po Qui-Cheng, who asked Yang Cheng-Fu to teach Cheng; (2) actually Yang Cheng-Fu refused to teach Cheng; (3) The mayor of Shanghai said that Yang could assign somebody to teach Cheng; (4) whenever Cheng approached the older Yang for a lesson, Yang would say, “Song ”; (5) it was he, Yang Sau-Chung, who was assigned to and taught Cheng.

I believe Yang Sau-Chung actually made these statements. And I have no reason to doubt that he was telling the truth. It is easier to believe that Cheng Man-Ch’ing studied with Yang Sau-Chung instead of Yang Cheng-Fu because from the reports Yang Cheng-Fu appeared to have disliked Cheng Man-Ch’ing. (Else why did Yang knock him out not once but twice?) Besides, from the contradictory statements of the people who knew him, Cheng did not seem to have had a long time to study with Yang Cheng-Fu who died sometime in 1936. Was it between three to four years? That’s admittedly a relatively short period of time in an art where training is not in terms of years but decades. (If Cheng did study with Yang Sau-Chung, the training could have continued after Yang Cheng-Fu’s death.) And it appears from the reports that during the last years of his life, Yang Cheng-Fu had gained much weight and did not like to teach.

However, from the above statements of Yang Sau-Chung, there is nothing that specifically says that Cheng Man-Ch’ing got his Push Hands prowess from him.

Both Cheng and Yang Sau-Chung are dead. Was there a communication or contact between the two after Yang Cheng-Fu died? Did Cheng ever mention anything about Yang Sau-Chung? If Yang Sau-Chung was actually Cheng’s teacher, has there been any public acknowledgment of this relationship either by the student or the teacher?

Whether or not these statements attributed to Yang Sau-Chung are credible, the fact is that they are worth looking into since the issue of where Cheng studied his legendary Push Hands technique, raised by his students themselves, is unsettled. Is there anybody out there who can shed further light on this issue? If somebody thinks that this issue is important and s/he has information to share, please step forward and help clarify this matter in the interest of establishing the truth.

Like his father, Vincent F. Chu himself studied with Yang Sau-Chung in Hongkong. I understand from Vincent F. Chu that Yang Sau-Chung did not come out with these pieces of information because he was secretive.

Where Cheng Man-Ch’ing learned his powerful Push Hands is an interesting historical issue worthy of a treatment in a detective novel. It’s an issue that should not diminish the reputation of Cheng Man-Ch’ing whose contributions to Tai Chi Chuan are enormous. But certainly the man who taught him the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan should be given credit, too, for helping produce one of the giants of Tai Chi Chuan.

Did Cheng Man-Ch’ing get his Push Hands prowess from Yang Sau-Chung?
As Mr. Smith says, It remains a mystery.

(2) What forms did Cheng actually study with Yang or any of his assistants?
Said Yang Cheng-Fu: “The T’ai-chi ch’uan curriculum consists of hand forms first (i.e., empty hand), such as T’ai-chi ch‘uan and T’ai-chi Long Boxing. Next comes One Hand Push-Hands, Fixed Position Push-Hands, Push-Hands With Active Steps, Ta Lu, and Free Sparring. Last comes weapons, such as T’ai-chi Doubled-Edged Sword, T’ai-chi Broadsword, T’ai-chi Spear (Thirteen Spear). And so forth.” (Wile, T’ai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Transmissions, p. 7) I have written a long article about this subject.

As noted in the flyer of the Gin Soon Tai chi club in Boston, the curriculum specifically includes, among others:

  1. The solo fist form (108)
  2. The staff-spear solo form
  3. Dao/Knife forms (there are three)
  4. Jian/Sword forms (there are 2)
  5. Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan
  6. Sansou/2 person sparring set
  7. Push Hands and Paired exercises with the staff-spear

So much is known about Cheng, yet nobody has written about what he actually studied. Did anybody ever ask him? If so, what was his answer? I have asked a couple of Cheng’s followers, but nobody has an answer. One authority on Cheng’s life told me that Cheng studied “everything” with Yang Cheng-Fu. Robert Smith unequivocably states, “Cheng absorbed the lessons like a sponge.”(Journal of Asian Martial Arts, p.51). What these lessons were, nobody has explained.

It is an interesting conundrum for researchers. What did the famous Cheng, considered by his students as the greatest Tai Chi Chuan master of the century, actually study with Yang Cheng-Fu? The question can be raised about a number of Yang Cheng-Fu’s students – Chen Weiming, Fu Xiaowen and Tung Yingchieh, among others. As far as I can make out, Chen and Tung studied the Solo Form, Push Hands, and Sword forms. Tung also studied the Broadsword/Knife (I saw his grandson Alex’s class doing the form in Hawaii) and according to Alex, the spear. The Tung family also have their own version of the T’ai Chi Fast Form which they themselves choreographed.

During his last years, Yang Cheng-Fu practically stopped teaching. He had apparently gained weight and was not active at all. Descriptions of his classes at the time say that he would give instructions from a bench. The photographs of him show a man who had a big girth.

What did Master Cheng study with Yang Cheng-Fu? There is no reliable
information about it. Cheng taught a 37-movement Tai chi chuan form and a sword form that have similarities to the Yang Family forms but where did he study them? Cheng’s students have not come up with proof of what he studied. What is clear is that Cheng studied with Ye Da Mi in 1928. I haven’t found any information about where the 37-movement came from. It is definitely not a part of the Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan system. Perhaps Cheng, a creative artist, choreographed it himself. Smith says that with Chen Wei-ming, a student of Yang Cheng-Fu and a scholar, Cheng wrote Yang’s book, that Cheng also wrote its preface.** But he does not mention what forms Cheng studied.

And so we are forced to make the conclusion of Robert Smith: It is a mystery.

*In the book “Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century” published in 1999, Robert Smith retracted this statement by saying: “In Masters and Methods (p. 38), I wrote of this and implied that these were the only two times Zheng pushed hands with Yang. I was wrong. They pushed often. Rather, these were the only two times that Master Yang displayed his sansou (free-fighting) ability.” p. 200. Sadly, Mr. Smith passed away a few years ago. He did not cite any authority for his change of mind. I wrote this article back in the 90s and revised it a few times since then. I have chosen not to change the tenses.
** There is no evidence that Yang Cheng-Fu’s book was written by Chen Wei-ming and/or Cheng. Since the question of authorship is not an issue in an article, I won’t enter into the discussion.
Addendum: I showed this article to Master Vincent F. Chu, lineage instructor of Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan and one of the most knowledgeable scholars of Tai chi chuan I know, based in Boston, Massachusetts. He corrected a few sentences. I have incorporated his comments. Still, I would like to quote his letter to me for the richness of information. Among other things, he said:
1. On page five, you quoted me as saying, “Cheng’s father said that Yang could assign somebody to teach Cheng.” It should be the mayor not Cheng’s father. Cheng Man Ching was raised by his mother, his father died when he was very young.
2. On page eight, you wrote Sun Lutang was one of Yang Cheng Fu’s students. This is not correct. Yang Cheng Fu and Sun Lutang were good friends.
3. On page eight, you wrote Ye Da Mi (1888-1973) was Yang Cheng Fu’s student. Although Ye studied from Yang Cheng Fu and Yang Shaohou when they moved to Nanking City in 1928, Ye was known as Tian Zhaolin’s (1891-1960) student. Ye studied from Tian in 1917 and bloodbrother with Sun Lutang’s second son in 1919 so he studied from Sun Lutang as well. Ye opened the “Wu Dang Tai Chi Chuan Club” in Shanghai in November 1926 and Chen Wei Ming opened his Tai Chi Chuan school in Shanghai in May 1925. Ye’s students and students’ students in Shanghai called it the Ye Style Tai Chi Chuan today.
You mentioned the name “Po (Pu) Qiucheng on page three. Po was the mayor of Shanghai in the Qing Dynasty. Po’s daughter Po Bing Ru (1907-1997) and Cheng Man Ching studied painting together at Shanghai Fine Art College. After graduation, Cheng Man Ching remained at the college to teach. Po Bing Ru studied Tai Chi Chuan from Ye Da Mi in 1924. Po was one of four of Ye’s best students. The three other best students studied from Ye in 1953. Among them, one of them is called Jian Yin Lin who said that Cheng Man Ching studied from Ye in 1928.

Here are some photos showing Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan forms.

They are transmissions from GM Gin Soon Chu, second disciple of GM Yang Sau-Chung, the first born and heir of the legendary Yang Cheng-Fu.

There are other forms not illustrated here. The 37-movement form of Master Cheng Man-Ch’ing is not a part of the Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chusan Curriculum.

Single Whip, a posture that usually appears close to the beginning of a sequence in Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan fist forms, both in the solo 108 form and in the Tai chi chuan Chuang Chuan. In one sequence, the beak hand is open and is called Fish-Tail Single Whip.
7 Stars of the Small Dipper. This posture appears in this version in both the first and second Sword/jian forms. The second jian form has the same names for the movements but the movements are slightly different. It was Yang Cheng-Fu’s favorite weapons form.
Tai-chi-chuan-Chang-chuan Golden Rooster
Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg. This appears in both the solo 108 form and the Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan, but in the latter you’ll see the fist, not the palm.
Sansou/2-man sparring set with Kim shifu, the second disciple of GM Gin Soon Chu, and Rene. Shifu Kim and Rene have videotaped their performance of the form.
Shifu Gim in the Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan version of Fist Under the Elbow. He has a school in New York City. For more information, visit his website: www.nytaichi.com He teaches the full curriculum.
Retreat to Ride the Tiger. The movement appears in the solo 108 fist form, Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan and the Dao/Knife. There are 3 forms of the Dao/Knife. One of them is GM Yang Cheng-Fu’s favorite weapons form.

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Why Tai Chi Chuan?

By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)

As far as I know, no single book or website has fully explained the many wonders of Tai chi chuan/Taijiquan. Many haven’t even come close.  There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it is because the masters approach the art from one (or two) limited perspective, do not know (or did not learn) the art in its entirety or, because of the prevailing secrecy in the culture, have chosen to explain only one or two aspects of it.  Perhaps also the public asks for lessons in Tai chi chuan only to learn the movements or as an exercise.

One problem is that “body and mind” are actually very limited and vague concepts. Moreover, the western body and mind are different from the eastern body and the eastern mind. “Xin” showing a heart in Chinese, is translated poorly as “body-mind”. There are many scholarly commentaries about this subject written by academicians.  (Harold Oshima, “A Metaphorical Analysis of the Concept of Mind in the Zhuangzi,” Deborah Sommer, “Concepts of the Body in the Zhuangzi” in Experimental Essays on Zhuangzi edited by Victor Mair.)

One possible drawback is that Tai chi chuan has a different paradigm. If you are studying western medicine, you have the kind of body you are working on, there are the methods to address that body, you have the tools. Basically, the western approach to medicine is like the approach to a machine (the body). The eastern approach is more holistic: the eastern body is not just physical, it is energetic, spiritual and there are principles that govern its functions (qi, YinYang, Wu-Xing, meridian and organ system, the concepts of shen, prenatal and postnatal energetics, San Bao, polarities, neidan/internal alchemy, etc). These are two different paradigms, although western science is now beginning to adopt eastern premises and methods and vice versa. There are books explaining this difference (Ted Kaptchuk’s “The Web Without a Weaver” and  Liu Yanchi’s “The Essential Book of Traditional Chinese Medicine”). Many people who practice Tai chi chuan do not even have half a comprehension of the profound and multi-faceted art they are dealing with. The public especially see it sometimes only as a slow exercise for old people in the park or for people with certain disabilities.

To work with an art, like acupuncture, herbalism, qigong and internal alchemy, or painting and sculpture, you have to understand what you are working with: your materials and instruments. If you areplaying the cello or the piano, you have to know the vocabularyof your instrument, its possibilities and techniques. If you were a poet, you would have words and rhythms and images, allusionsand conventions of the art.

The same is true of Tai chi chuan. In Tai chi chuan, you have as an instrument your body. It is your means of expression.

So what is the nature of your instrument? What are its potentials and possibilities? What can you do with it? What “music” can you play?

Let me list a few things that are the components of the body:
bones and of course, the bone marrow
fluids and the blood
mind and the heart

There are principles and concepts that govern it, among them:
yin and yang
5 elements
prenatal and postnatal energies
meridians and pathways.
3 Treasures – Jing, Qi and Shen
3 Cauldrons and 3 Burners
dantian or the hara, the Moving Qi Between the Kidneys (MQBK)

Tai chi chuan isn’t just movement, it isn’t just the physical body, it is your relationship to Tian/heaven, Di/Kun/Earth, the Dantian/Field of Pills, how you move the qi, how you make the bones and marrow “breathe.” You have to know the relationship of the different energy centers and points so that you can connect them in a pattern called Sacred Geometry, so that there is Gan Ying/Resonance. There are “points” in the body that connect to the external and internal world. The Bai Hui/GV 20 connects to Heaven, Hui Yin/CV 1 connects to the Earth, Stomach 25/Tian shu connects to the Big Dipper, etc.

You have to know what the Tai chi body is all about. That will show you the possibilities of the art. I started studying Yang Family Tai chi chuan in 1968 in the Philippines focusing on a form taught by Master Han Ching Tang of Taiwan but perhaps I began to see the other aspects about 20 years ago when I was in acupuncture school and was writing the books on the Enlightenment of Kan and Li/Water and Fire for Mantak Chia, grandmaster of the Universal Healing Tao. The paradigm is an essential step to understanding. This makes an important ingredient in our progress in Tai chi chuan.

One thing too that we have to remember is that the legendary founder of Tai chi chuan was Zang Sanfeng (Zang of the 3 Peaks). He was a monk in the Shaolin Temple in Loyang for 10 years, apparently studied Damo’s Yi Jin Jing/Tendon qigong and Bone marrow washing, part of the Lei Shan Dao/Thunder Path lineage. Zang wandered China studying with masters and finally settled on a peak on Wudangshan, the Daoist sacred mountain retreat. There he choreographed Tai chi chuan after seeing (or dreaming about) the fight between a Snake and a Crane (incorporating the dialectic of yin and yang). Some of the transmissions of Damo have survived and are being taught. But I suspect that there are valuable pieces that have been kept secret by the masters, some of them the hermits I met in Huangshan and the Magus of Java and others.

Tai chi chuan is therefore not just the slow dance the old Chinese do in the parks in the morning. It has many aspects. There are also other forms — Knife/Dao, Spear/Mao, Staff/bang/gan, Sword/Jian, Chang chuan, etc. — that many masters do not even know. I studied them with GM Gin Soon Chu, second disciple of GM Yang SauCheung, in Boston for at least 10 years. I am still studying them.

All of what I have mentioned will come into play later, if you have the passion for the art. The question that comes to mind is, How do you activate or trigger some of these body parts? For instance, the meridian jing-well points or the yin-yang in its many aspects? How do you work with the bones and the bone marrow? How do you build the dantian, the elixir field? How do you develop fa jing/discharge of jing in its 34 or 35 transmutation?

Finally, we have to understand that what we are doing is not just an exercise, although it is good as an exercise. What we are doing is not just martial arts, although martial arts is good. What we are doing is not just movement, meditation, qigong, dance, alchemy, although Taichi is all that. We have to see the perspective of its mythology, its archetypical aspect, and our place in the history of the art. Tai chi chuan came from different legendary sources – shamanism: our connection to heaven and God or the gods and goddesses; eschatological: our relationship to ultimate issues; our body asa part of the universe, as a link in the continuum of energy/qi. Asbelow, so above; as above, so below. There is no separation or disconnect between us and the environment. In the modern world,we seem to have lost this key. We treat nature and the earth as alien or, at best, something to be dominated and exploited. We treat our bodies only in the physical and material level.

We have to take Tai chi as a form of worship, a ritual of reconnection to our origins and to the divine. We need something like it to bring back the sacred in our lives. The name has been translated into English as “Grand Ultimate Fist” which indicates its depth, magnitude and power. The pinyin transliteration is Tai which means great, Ji which means the extreme (different from chi/qi or lifeforce) and Quan or fist. If you look at the characters, especially of the first two, you’ll see that the English translation is inadequate.

There is really nothing like the actual practice of Tai chi chuan to feel its effects. No explanation can capture the bliss and the power generated in the course of a long workout. Words, as the eastern expression puts it, are just the finger pointing at the moon.

Some books give a suggestion of the wonders of Tai chi, its effects on body and mind. Vincent Chu, my teacher and the son of my master GM Gin Soon Chu, has written a couple of books (I edited both and wrote the introduction to the first) and issued a few DVDs on Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan. My website www.renenavarro.org has essays about Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan curriculum, Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan and the Sword. You can also go to these websites: www.gstaichi.org and www.nytaichi.com

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The Lesson of Mang Elio, Island Shaman [A short story.]

Part 1.

The day was hot in the island that morning in June. At 5 in the room above the bakery I was awakened by a Sousa march, as young boys and girls got ready to receive and pack the assortment of bread that was coming out of the huge brick oven in back of the house. Across the plazuela, the old church shimmered in the sun: it was the oldest and tallest building in the island and served as alook-out for the pirates who occasionally sacked the town three centuries ago.

Unconcerned with the heat, he was walking in front of the bakery dragging his rubber sandals in the dust when I first saw him, a wiry dark man, sunburned, short, with stringy gray hair, eyes glinting in the hot sun. He carried a small dirty bag on his shoulder. He wore faded jeans that hugged his scrawny legs and a T shirt with a barely visible commercial logo on it, San Miguel or Eagle beer. You can consider him emaciated but he looked strong, healthy from the way he walked and held his body but especially from his eyes that were unblinking and focused and seemed to see beyond the immediate space. He passed and in a few seconds he was gone. I knew he was a shaman, and in the ancient island, that meant healer, warrior, occultist, sorcerer, magician, priest. In the past, he was the patriarch of the tribe, he who saw the future, told fortunes, presided over native rituals of marriage, birth, initiations and death. He healed the sick through herbs, passing his hands over the body, and through magical incantations learned from another shaman of the tribe that scared or propitiated evil spirits. On him depended the fortunes of the tribe: he sought the mercy of the rain gods when there was a drought and the vegetables withered on the parched lime stone gardens, or when there was a flood and the angry sea seemed vengeful enough to swallow the island for the sins of its people. He was the father of all: he blessed the delivery of babies, the coupling of the young, the journeys to the other islands, and the passage into the afterlife. Today, in that brief moment I saw him, he was just another man in the island, although there was something in him that told me he was a shaman.

I saw him pass in front of the bakery a couple of other times after that when I was with the kids sorting and packing bread. One time I saw him when I was walking to the church to take some photographs. I followed him from a distance and learned where he lived.

He was called Elio, Mang Elio, by everybody. I figured his real name was Virgilio.
Guinto was his last name.

I asked around the village about him. The few who understood me laughed. I felt being mocked at, as if this man was a laughing stock. I thought otherwise. The magi and the shamans, the babaylans, the ancient priests and priestesses, had lost their titles, and had become an anachronism in the modern world. In my travels around the country, I saw the tribal villages had almost disappeared. It was frustrating to see how the west had encroached on our culture in the most incongruous way. And I had come home to find my way through our heritage, the lineage of history and dance and ritual that I thought I would find far from the cacophony and pollution and commerce of Manila. In the north, the ancient dances were performed in mountain inns and hotels before tourists and travelers. The warriors and hunters had nothing to do with their spears, except pose for photographs in front of model copies of ancient huts at 5 pesos a shot or guide the tourists up and down the terraces. A band of young kids playing at the Mountain Breeze Bar sang Donna and Okie from Muskogee along with Simon and Garfunkel, Bayan Ko and Sinisinta Kita. The voices drifted down from the Mountain Breeze Bar: This is now the music of the terraces, layer on layer of rice field reaching to the empty sky, except it is not sung by warriors but by tourist guides wearing dungarees and sweatshirts. There is the sweetness of rice, but there is also a bitterness in the aftertaste.

I had gone around Luzon, the main island, circling around clockwise from Tarlac, my hometown, along the thin spine of Pangasinan, up to the Ilocos, past Paoay to Cagayan, down to Cauayan, where my brother and I visited a shaman, a bishop of the Aglipayan Church, and up to Banawe and the rice terraces. After a few days along precipitous mountain Roads, we drove down Halsema Highwayt o Baguio and finally to Manila.

There was actually no night life on the island. The electricity was turned off at 9 or 10 and turned on again at 5 in the morning. I would go to the noisy bamboo bar around the corner and nurse a beer and nibble on grilled squid or octopus. It had a few light bulbs that ran on electricity from a small generator in the back. The place smelled of barbecued seafood, including clams and fishhead, and chicken. One night somebody brought in an iguana, another night, it was a snake. Whatever was brought in was shared, and whoever partook of the food donated some money. I shared a bottle or two of Eagle beer with a young guy whose name could have been Ondo or Bay who was the boyfriend of one of the girls. He was an occasional fisherman who joined his cousins on forays into adjoining islands to poach on the seahorse farms. I would invite the girls to drink but nobody acceptred my offer. Filipino women just don’t like beer, unless they were westernized and then they would drink it from the bottle. The men often cursed, but the women did not. Not one of them smoked either. Even if these women worked in a bar or a whorehouse, they were not rough or tough. They believed that the work was transitory; that they will move on to a better place or job; that somebody will take them away from here. Many of them were in search of a husband and they asked if I was married. They giggled and blushed and called me “kuya,” elder brother, or “tito,” uncle. Having a relationship with any of them after that would have verged on the

At night I sat in the dark bars, talking to the young hostesses some of whom were no older than 15. They flirted with me, I flirted with them. There was a joy in our conversations but also sadness, a yearning for a lost innocence. Like the many Filipino women who left for other countries, these young girls had left their families to find work and earn some money to support their siblings and parents, one perhaps to go to school, or go abroad to the States. I’ve guessed at a suggestion of an offer. A room in the back for intimacies. I refused as much for fear of infection as for the moral scruple of taking advantage of somebody’s economic needs. Nights, I would dream about one in particular. I called her Inday because that was what women were called in the islands. I saw her with a necklace of shells and a brass cross around her neck sleeping on a bamboo platform with other girls as the boats came in with their catch of fish, squids, a rare mantay ray, octopus, crabs and lobsters at sunrise.

In the morning, I would eat at a turo-turo in the market. You entered a smoky labyrinth of stalls made of bamboo, corrugated iron, and plywood, and tiptoed around the often muddy ground. You’ll find vegetables that are a little too small, probably raised without insecticide or fertilizer on barren soil. But they tasted good when boiled. There was also danggit, a tiny dried fish that took an elaborate technique to prepare: it was cut down the middle and spread, the spine was extracted with a small paring knife and dumped in one basin, the entrails in another. The soft spine was fed to chickens and the entrails were salted to emerge in another incarnation as a dipping sauce like bagoong. The danggit were exported as a delicacy much sought for by city folk. Dipped in vinegar and garlic and a little siling labuyo, danggit is known as a pulutan that goes with beer or cuatro cuantos in corner tiendas.

A few times during my visit I w as invited to try a gold-colored local wine or beer that got me drunk, and it was only 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. Every time I passed by the market, a regular group called me to join in the fun but after 3 times I took another path to avoid them. During the day I took a tricycle to Santa Fe and for 10 pesos drank the coconut wine fresh from the trees of a man who had 3 children, each one born one after the other.

It was called lambanog, the coconut wine harvested in the morning. The liquid was filtered through a fine net and you drank it from a bottle. It had a sweetish flavor, hardly any scent, and it seduced you into drinking it like water, and you felt great but an hour later you began to lose your sense of balance. I usually had half-a-bottle of it when I was in Santa Fe whereI picked shells and driftwood from the shore.

And then I discovered another beach about a few miles from Bantayan town. I can’t remember the name now, but it had a fresh underground lake, not big but big enough to wade in, with several dark caverns leading in different directions.

Don’t go in there, the owner of the resort told me. There are elementals, he said. I knew, or thought I knew, what he was talking about. I grew up in a small town in Tarlac and was raised by my grandfather who told stories about them. They will haunt you, give you nightmares, enter your body, replace your soul. Or give you visions and powers, healing and magic.

Every time I passed by the cave I said the mantra my lolo gave me and bowed three times, as if I were making an offering to the Buddha or Kuanyin.

One time walking into a grove of trees away from a vendor from whom I bought a fresh coconut, I saw the shaman walking towards me. I kept on looking at him, and when we were just a few feet away from each other I said “Magandang umaga po, Mang Elio” and offered him drink from the coconut. I did not expect himto answer for this wasn’t the language of the island. But he answered, “Magandang umaga din po sa inyo,” in impeccable Tagalog. He was looking for some herbs for a skin problem, he told me.

For one reason or another, we came to talking. I recognized the synchronicity, of course, I had known it in my life — how when a student is ready to be taught, the teacher will appear. I told him I was visiting for a few days, I was a balikbayan from the US and was on vacation traveling around the country. It was after the fall of Marcos, my first time to come home after 15 years, and I was wandering around, no destination in mind, although I was looking for somebody to study with, a Pinoy in the diaspora in search of his homeland and perhaps his Self. I learned that he was born and grew up in the area of Mount Banahaw and on one of his travels decided to settle down on this island. He worked as a fisherman for a while then taught escrima to kids in the neighborhood whose parents paid him a sack of rice or a chicken. He acquired a reputation as a healer when he cured the hacking cough of a child. It was a surprise to everybody but not to him because he grew up in a family who were spiritual healers in the foothills of the sacred mountain. From that time on, his name spread.

I did not realize that we were on our way to one of his patients,a woman who was bedridden from some kind of paralysis. The hut was low, there were chickens in the yard, and pigs, and an assortment of vegetables. The sick woman was lying on the bamboo floor. Mang Elio knelt down beside her, produced a small bottle of potion, opened the stopper and dipped his thumb and index finger into it, muttered some strange words and began to rub her swollen belly. There spread the odor of camphor, something pungent and sharp, and a hushed sibilant like the sound of a deadly palaspas, the poisonous green snake of my town. I did not notice how long it took but I stood there transfixed by the ritual, or whatever it was he did. And before I knew it, Mang Elio had gotten up and was saying goodbye in Visayan. I caught up with him.

When I asked him to be my teacher, he was all of a sudden silent. I felt that he became quiet, an energy like a cocoon descended on him, separating him from me. For a few days, he was totally inaccessible. When I went to see him at his house, I was told that he was not home. I decided to surprise him by coming early in the morning at 5 o’clock. I crept behind a pandakaki bush and saw him in a half-crouch under a banyan tree, his arms extended in front of him in a kind of supplication. He was talking, although I could not hear what he was saying from my vantage point. I do not know how long I watched from the distance. I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes, I was kneeling on the ground and he was gone and the sun was shining on me. I went to his house. “Tao po,” I said. His wife appeared at the door. I asked for the master. I could not understand what she said. But I thought from her gesture that he was not home. For the next few days I dropped by to talk to him, but every time, I was told he was somewhere, and he won’t be home for the next two weeks. I was told by those who knew him that he spent a couple of weeks up in the mountain before the Holy Week. He was in meditation, I heard, he was in communion with the spirits.

When he came down at Easter, he appeared at the bakery asking for me. He said he was going to teach me. I did not understand how he came to that decision. I just presumed he consulted the spirits of the mountain in the next island.

For the next few days, I studied escrima with him – sometimes he called it garrote, sometimes arnis, sometimes pananandata (the word for weaponry) — and observed him treating children, women, men who came from all over for the celebration of Easter. I learned to do some exercises, mostly stationary positions that required me to stand for an hour or more without moving. That was it. Standing in one position quietly with my arms raised at shoulder level, just like the position he took when I went to see him at 5 am.

Within a few minutes, my legs started to shake and I sweated profusely. I thought I would die because my heart began to beat frantically and I felt this excruciating pain on my back.

Part 2.

When I got back to the bakery, my body all sore from the position. I did the posture for another hour at night before I slept and again when I woke up in the morning. For several weeks, he did not teach me anything else, just that posture, except that he changed the position of my arms when I was just beginning to feel comfortable. I noticed that my breath began to change. It became deeper. My legs stopped shaking and a coolness seemed to envelop me. It was like I was standing on a mountaintop and seeing a different reality.

One time, for a whole week, just before the Summer Solstice, young boys came to him for circumcision. I helped him pick branches of the guava tree for the batakan used for the rite. He had a few razor blades sharpened for this purpose. We all gathered on the beach at dawn, the kids jumping in the cold water while Ka Elio and I prepared the guava leaves that were going to be chewed and spat on the fresh wound as an herbal disinfectant.

When everybody was done, Ka Elio thrust the bloody end of the batacan into the sand to signal the boys’ passage into manhood.

One night I woke up from a nightmare. I was feverish and chilly at the same time. I was cold but I was sweating. It was I thought a summer wind that entered through the base of my occiput because it was sore in that muscle, and the whole back of my neck was hot, down to my shoulders and deltoids and biceps. My palms were clammy, and I felt an emptiness in my belly. I asked one of the boys to call Mang Elio. When he came, he asked for a glass of water and a knife. He asked me to stand up. In my condition, it was difficult to do it, but shaking I managed to push myself up. He held the glass between the fingers of his left hand, and with his right he formed a strange mudra, recited a mantra, and directed the tip of the sword hand on the water three times. He made me drink and then he left. In an hour or so, I felt better, as if something left my body. I slept soundly the rest of the night.

For the rest of my visit I worked several hours a day with Mang Elio. He told me to get rid of the pills I was taking, vitamins of all kinds and drugs for cholesterol and high blood pressure.

In the beginning, he taught me how to breathe. Deep and abdominal, sucking in the belly as I exhaled and keeping it contracted, I inhaled and pushed the air down towards my perineum. It was very uncomfortable at first, but later, it gave me a sense of something happening, a coagulation of energy in what he called the Center. Mornings, I woke up every day with a hard-on.

He showed me a few movements with an anahaw stick that involved bowing to the four directions, shouting certain words to the sky and to the ground, and then closing one’s eyes to receive a benediction from the spirits. He did it with a kris that had a few inscriptions– animals and words and stars — etched on the blade. One hand holding the sword — he called it kali, a word I had not heard before — and the other hand holding the elaborate scabbard he demonstrated the ritual at noontime, when the sun was at its zenith. He told me that it can also be done at night on a full moon.

Invoke Bathala with these magic words, your orasyon, your palms together infront of your heart in supplication. Repeat the gesture. I remember that’s one of the lessons.

If you rub a slice of betel on the tongue of the crow every day, he will talk to you and tell you secrets.

When you pass by a mound or a sacred place, always ask permission from the spirits.

I stayed a couple more weeks beyond what I had expected.

Just before I left the island, he told me about kalis, the sword he kept in a wooden box in front of the altar in his healing room. He said that kali was in reality an original art, the mother of all the disciplines in ancient Philippines. It has been lost, he said, or suppressed, and only a few strands of knowledge remain. Some teachers know bits and pieces, and it is essential for us, the heirs, to put it all together, both healing and warrior regimen of our ancestors, he said.

The days were getting longer and hotter in June as we approached Summer Solstice and Mang Elio was pushing me harder. We were doing more sitting and standing meditation and quiet breathing, and visualization of images. Gods and goddesses copulating, reaching the horizon through our eyes, choreographing movements in our minds, aligning different points in our body to create the Sacred Geometry of energy. It was getting more and more occult. I did not know that the knowledge was still available in our country, not especially on this island. But I was ready for anything. I had seen much in my country that nobody talked about and I was prepared to receive the hidden transmissions from a shaman. He said it was good to use the male energy of the sun and to absorb it in the body. That was his only explanation, but I knew that on June 21, the days will begin to wane and darkenergy will start the rest of the year — time to conserve and nourish — until December 21 Winter Solstice, when the cycle of the sun returns. It is the mystical route of the I Ching, the Book of Changes, which I had read about. One early dawn on the longest day, on the beach, before the rising of the sun and the full moon was still in the sky, he asked me to take off all my clothes and descend into the sea, bring my head under water three times, utter the mantras he taught me, and he gave me an anting-anting, an amulet. It was a crucifix, with a Christ on each side. To protect your front and back, he said. As the sun rose above the horizon, he told me to pick out the different colors — red first, then gold, white, then blue, and green and to reverse the colors starting with green — and to bathe myself with this spectrum of light. It was my initiation into the ancient mystery and fellowship of the homeland.

That night, eve of my departure, I decided to enter the cave. It was still a full moon, it was in a clear sky, and the waves were crashing on the beach. Somehow, as I stood outside, I felt a cauldron, a red pearl glowing inside it, in my body. I saw a small lake at the base of my lower torso, mist rising slowly from the surface. I looked up and saw the cup and handle of the Big Dipper and beyond, the Polestar, and as I did the special breathing that Mang Elio taught me, I felt a connection to the universe, and my body seemed to become porous, and hum.

As I walked down the steps to the mouth of the cave I felt the cold water, and going deeper the temperature turned warm. I found a flat rock on the farther, darker side, and as I sat in a lotus position, heard the flapping of wings just a few inches from my ears. Bats. My eyes closed, I made a few circles with my right hand, offered my respect to the spirits, bowed my head, and when I felt a tingling in my fingers, I stopped my breath.

Images came, of gods and spirits, and Mariang Makiling, the mountain goddess, through lifetimes in different countries, Egypt and China, and Peru, Banawe, and I could not tell what came first or last or the middle, they were all just flashing through me.

I did not notice the time or the place, I was carried away to a future or a past that became the present, and the sound of wings became the vibration of a different dimension, another plane of being, the humming of the universe was a part of breathing, except it was not the lungs, it was the whole being that was inhaling. The body dissolved in mist, the gods and goddesses merged and fused, the senses opened and closed, and I was aware of unspeakable bliss, my whole consciousness was all joy and without boundaries. I took on everything, I was everything, a frequency so subtle I could not say where my body ended and began.

A moment of illumination came: sitting there on that island rock surrounded by the water from a spring, it was late at night, I was floating somewhere in the mountain passes, going back through ages, gongs still ringing and dancers and warriors coming in from everywhere, I felt like a native shaman and my heart was pulsing softly and I experienced hope for our country, but also a grief and a sense of loss, and I was sure we will make it through the journey.

By Rene J. Navarro
© RN 2006

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Book Review: Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment by Richard Bernstein
New York: Knopf, 2001
Hardcover, 352 pages
$26.00 US; $40.00 Canada

By Rene J. Navarro

When we reach a certain age, there sometimes comes a desire to do something special and challenging. Perhaps, study a language, settle down and have children, build a center, go on a long retreat in the mountains. In the case of Richard Bernstein, New York Times book critic, it was to build Shaker furniture and to take a trip duplicating the journey of the famous Chinese monk Xuan Zang/Hsuan Tsang (603-664 CE) who was the patriarch in the famous epic “Journey to the West.”

It is a pagoda tree that curls like a green dragon. Located in front of the Giant Wild Goose
Pagoda in Xian. Green is Spring and Dragon.

He says, “My yearning to get away derived from the banal conviction that I had crossed the bourn of fifty, and that some of the things I had promised myself I would do would remain undone if I didn’t do them quickly. Along with that conviction came the dread thought that this was it, my life, this and nothing more, until the end, which suddenly seemed less hypothetical than it did when I was less than fifty.”

Hsuan Tsang’s journey, traced across the maps of China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, took a daunting route. In search of the Truth — or Bliss or Happiness or Immortality, whatever we may call it — that would free humanity from cycle of life and death, the monk set out to find it in India. Against the Emperor’s orders that sealed the borders of China, he took a 17-year journey across dangerous passes and mountains. He did not know the route but went in a general direction and, to hide from the authorities, he assumed disguises and took labyrinthine passages, often at night.

Monk Hsuan speaks of his goals in the third person and then in the first: “Hsuan Tsang owing to his former deserts was privileged at an early date to adopt the religious life, and till he had completed about twenty years, received instruction from his masters…. His hand never ceased to examine the different Sacred Books, but notwithstanding all his pains he was never free from doubts, until, wearied with his perplexities, he longed to go wend his way to the monastery of the Jetavana (the garden in India where monarchs presented gifts to the Buddha) and to bend his steps to the Vulture Peak (the hill where the first Buddhist congress was held) that he might there pay his adoration and be satisfied as to his difficulties….No anxiety will afflict me lest I should be too late to pay my reverence at the spots where stand the heavenly ladder and the tree of wisdom…. And after questioning the different masters and receiving from their mouths the explanation of the true doctrine, I shall return to my own country and there translate the books I have obtained. Thus shall be spread abroad a knowledge of unknown doctrines; I shall unravel the tangle of error and destroy the misleading influences of false teaching. I shall repair the deficiencies of the bequeathed doctrine of Buddha, and fix the aim of the mysterious teachings of the schools.”

The terra cotta warriors of Qin Shihuang Di, the First Emperor of China, in Xian (formerly
Chang’an, the ancient capital of China). Maurice Cotterell, an author famous for his books
on the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, wrote an interesting book about them explaining the
meaning of the different armors, weapons, postures and hand positions.

For those who have read the book “Journey to the West” and seen the movie “Monkey,” Hsuan’s Road of Great Events became the “Ultimate Journey.”

For Richard Bernstein, NY Times book critic, and former bureau chief of Time magazine in Beijing, learning the story first as a student at Harvard and then as correspondent in China, the idea for this difficult travel must have crystallized over the years, finally becoming an obsession when he reached 50.

I can sympathize with him, since in my early 40s, I had fantasies about studying Chinese culture fulltime — Tai chi chuan, acupuncture, herbology and the language. Indeed it was in 1989 I made that leap by moving from Pennsylvania to Boston to study at the New England School of Acupuncture and Yang Family tai chi chuan at the Gin Soon Tai Chi Club.

Bernstein says, ” What appealed to me about woodworking was what I imagined to be the tranquility
of it, the concentration on the physical object — very different from the sedentary mental work that now occupied my professional days. But I knew that what I really wanted was another experience of foreign climes and distant shores, perhaps my last such experience. To reproduce Hsuan Tsang’s journey, and to write my own version of his Chronicles, represented an opportunity for me to turn the clock back on myself, to recapture some of the freshness of my earlier years when, anxious and ambitious, I was just starting out. There was nostalgia in this, but there was also a test, a kind of dare that I could fulfill a promise I made to myself, that I would never, even when I got older, get so settled that unusual adventure would become impossible. Not believing in reincarnation, believing that this is the only time I will exist on the planet, I wanted to go.”

Bernstein had the time and the money to fulfill his fantasy journey. But he was anathema to the Chinese government for writing about US-China relations. Predictably, his application for a visa was denied. Like many travelers to China, he knew other creative ways of circumventing red tape — by applying through a Hongkong travel agency.

The brass urn is for pilgrims who offer red candles at the door of the temple in the
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Note that there are no white candles because white represents
grief and death and Autumn in the repertoire of colors. Red stands for royalty and empire
and celebration in the system of Chinese correspondences.

The story picks up from there. His narration follows his itinerary superimposed on Hsuan Tsang’s 629 CE travel.

It is an exciting book to read as much for the adventures, sometimes reaching seeming dead-ends, sometimes verging on dangerous side routes, as for the explication of Buddhist scriptures. Bernstein thoughtfully highlights philosophical discussions on the scriptures, draws wonderful cameos of people he meets, reflects on historic events and details, and shares relevant poetry, such as this one from the Tang dynasty:

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green,
When willow fluff scatters, falling petals will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering–
In a lifetime, how many springs do we see?

There is likewise, like a continuing and soft leitmotif, a romance with Zhong mei Li, a classical Chinese dancer he met at a film society event in New York city, who joined him at certain points in the journey and whom he later married.

Bernstein writes quite well. He is not as felicitous as James Hamilton Paterson (“Playing with Water”), the poet and fictionist, or Pico Iyer (“Video Nights in Kathmandu”), the novelist and journalist, but he succeeds in telling his experiences with candor and insight. There are maps of the different places he visited, indications of where he took a plane or a bus, preceding each chapter.

The book is an education in itself, about contemporary politics, ancient history, human nature, philosophical arguments, geography, and literature. It is a satisfying reading.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. It was built in honor of Xuan Zang, the 7th century monk,who traveled to India to secure copies of the Buddhist scriptures from India. It was a16-year journey that Richard Bernstein tried to duplicate om his 50th birthday. Thepagoda houses the Buddhist scriptures. It is yellow, the color that suggests Earth, theCenter, and Balance. I took a few other photos, one of them the statue of Zuan Zang,

but I cannot find them.


But there’s one disappointment I have. It is ultimately his failure to grasp the essence of the Eastern contemplative discipline and healing practice. One attempt to practice meditation ended in failure. It was quite a simple technique really, just focusing on the breath (and of course the dan-tian, the elixir field), the inhalation and exhalation, and counting. He could not make a go of it, and got distracted by images of the sanitary conditions in the community. Needless to say, it was a ridiculous effort, predictably half-hearted, and from what I have often observed, a very western phenomenon.

I wrote him a letter c/o the NY Times, in May 2001. He has not answered it. I think this e-mail letter captures the central theme of the book, the heart of what he was searching for but did not find because he was looking in the wrong places.


Richard Bernstein
NY Times Book Review

Dear Mr. Bernstein:

I have just read your wonderful book, The Ultimate Journey. It is one of the best travel books I have read in a long time. You’ve skillfully brought together the travelogue, philosophical discourse, romance, adventure, and mystical quest in one volume. Thank you for giving me many hours of joy as I followed the trajectory of your journey and the monk’s.

May I call your attention to just two passages that, I think, point to a common misunderstanding of the East:

….Hsuan Tsang “wanted to reach a level of consciousness so high that it transcended the normal categories of human understanding — and at the same time, having achieved it, no longer to experience the desire that propelled him on his long and arduous journey in the first place. Is it possible? Did he do it? I doubt it. But then again, since I didn’t attempt to replicate that part of Hsuan Tsang’s journey — the part involving disciplined meditation and study — how could I know? Maybe he did realize his purpose and detach himself from it at the same time. As for me, I continue to read here and there in the Buddhist texts looking for the Truth that cannot be expressed in words…. p. 244

… I also believe… that there is a limit to the extent to which you can mold the specifics of your life, that there is no escape, not into the manufacture of Shaker furniture nor into the excitement of travel. The Truth, the Enlightenment, that Hsuan Tsang searched for in his seventeen years on the road was a philosophical one. I had pondered it, and though the Truth that I arrived at in my journey of several months was more pedestrian than his, yet to me it was just as valuable. It was that you do have to go home, home in all senses of that word — to a job, to the dross of routine, to time-consuming responsibilities and obligations, to aches and pains, to the hell that other people make for you sometimes. The truth is the existential one that therein, confronting the mortal realities, is where meaning and wisdom lie…. p. 335

No offense meant, but I have often wondered how somebody without any experience in “disciplined meditation and study” can ever understand the “Truth that cannot be expressed in words,” when they, especially the intellectuals, academicians, and philosophers, look for the unutterably profound experience of the east in passages from the scriptures. Aren’t the words the proverbial finger pointing at the moon? They are the yin of philosophy. We still need the yang of practice, the years or decades of “sitting quietly, doing nothing,” the mondos or dialogs, or the chanting of sutras and mantras to attain satori or enlightenment. Somebody can look and look at the sacred texts and he’ll probably not find what he is looking for. The “bliss” that searchers look for comes from within, from the stillness that a combination of the breath, alignment of the body, earth and heaven, concentrated focus, and sound may bring about, if you are lucky to be blessed with that magical moment. Often, as the sages tell us, enlightenment comes without effort, after years of patient waiting, when we are not looking.

I am not a Buddhist but I have done some of the meditative practices of the east (I consider myself a Taoist). From my experience, in deep meditation, qigong, martial arts, internal alchemy, or Tao-Yin, the expression “From words to images to silence” holds true.

I humbly submit that there must indeed be something beyond a humdrum job and routine, the cynicism of the rational mind, the hellish garbage that we encounter in daily life, the Sisyphean struggle of modern man. Many people who practice eastern healing and contemplative arts have seen that “something” even while they live in cities, even while they keep that 9 to 5 job, even while they live in the West. But it is essential to sit down, get the technique right, attain stillness of the self, achieve detachment from the chaotic world, and wait.

Again, thank you for your wonderful book. I wish I had taken the journey with you and Zhongmei Li.


Rene J. Navarro


Ironically, the epigraph (from poet Constantine Cavafy, Nobel laureate in literature) of the book says: No ship will ever take you away from yourself.

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By Rene J. Navarro

It was New Mexico, Southwestern United States. From Albuquerque, we were en route to Santa Fe, past pueblos, reservations, towns and deserts on our way to Taos. Beyond was Tres Piedras, just south of Colorado and the green mountains up north. My traveling companion, who loved to try the fruits of the different regions we’ve seen, decided to buy some fresh apricots at a roadside stall. She had seen the trees growing and wondered how the fruits tasted in that part of the world. I can’t remember now how much they cost or how they tasted.

There was really nothing much in that area, just mountains and desert with hardly any habitation. No place to get food or drink.

A few feet from the sagging tables filled with fruits and vegetables were dried gourds (more popularly known as squash or calabash) of different shapes and sizes on the ground. Duck shape mostly, some with bent necks, others just standing up long and straight. But there was one that looked like the classic Chinese bottle gourd that I have seen so often in Taoist art — thick and round body, thin waist and short neck. It was exactly the image of the gourd carried by one of the 8 Immortals.

Carrying the gourd in my travels made me feel like a Wandering Daoist.
When the original gourd broke, after many travels, I got this one from
Hefang, a famous street in Hangzhou, just a stone’s throw from
Xihu/West Lake. It hangs from the rear-view mirror of my car. Difficult
to take her with me now because of the strict security measures in
airports around the world. I can’t allow my gourd to be x-rayed every
time I go through Customs.

I bought it for $1. A gourd, light brown, as small as they come. Now armed with the metaphorical paraphernalia, I was ready to travel as a Wandering Daoist.

That was June 2000, just a day or two after the Summer Solstice. Four months before my 60th birthday, Year of the Dragon.

Myth and Meaning

Flashback to 1989: I bought a book by Norman Girardot entitled “Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism.” I was then studying with the redoubtable Steve Birch, a famous acupuncturist and co-author of acupuncture books with Kiiko Matsumoto, also a famous acupuncturist and my teacher at the New England School of Acupuncture just outside Boston, and I was gathering materials for a paper I was writing for his class in “Concepts of Chinese Medicine.”

Professor Girardot, a faculty at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, wrote one of the best books I have read about Taoism. I did not know him at the time, but I thoroughly admired his work. Everybody who is interested in Taoism should read the book. It is, to me, a lifework, one of those rare masterpieces that combine fine writing with scholarly analyses, and interesting facts and anecdotes. Like a good travelogue, it takes one to the distant places of the imagination.

I read almost every page of “Myth and Meaning,” even the footnotes and cross-references and bibliography (well, not the index, sorry). I was quite mesmerized by the book.

An interesting detail in this informal narration is that the professor has not written — or published — another book since then. I suspect that this is his life-work, one of those masterpieces that are hard to equal or surpass, and the author is drained and emptied, and gets stuck for years, if not decades, trying to write a second one. “Myth and Meaning” was copyrighted 1983. It was I think Girardot’s doctoral dissertation at the University of California – Berkeley.

What I learned (one of many, in fact) from reading it is that the gourd is an ancient symbol of genesis in many cultures. It is like the bamboo or the egg in Philippine myth.

From the appendix of “Myth and Meaning,” there are many myths from different countries about ancestors coming from gourds/squash or something like the egg.

An example from the Ilocos region of northern Philippines:

A couple prayed for a child for a long time. They grew a squash. When it bore a fruit, they decided to eat it. As they were cutting the fruit, they heard a voice saying please do not hurt me. There inside was a child.

Pan-Gu/P’an-Ku: The Egg and the Gourd

Painting of the Gourd by Xia Jie Zi who studied Chinese painting at the China
Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

It does not take much explanation to see how these two images are related. They both suggest the myths of creation and genesis.

Pan-Gu is a later (post 3rd century CE) myth in China. How it came about is not clear. (There is an Indian myth of genesis with the gourd in it, too.) But the story is that before everything — before time and space, before the before — there was Pan-Gu sleeping soundly in an egg (it could just as well have been a gourd or calabash for they are interchangeable). In my mind Pan-Gu has no gender; “it” is neither male nor female but androgynous. A “S/HE.” As Pan-Gu grew (how can that be when there was no time or space? But myths always contain a contradiction in them), the space inside the egg became too small (space — another contradiction; anyway let us proceed). When Pan-Gu stretched, the shell broke. The contents of the egg spilled. The refined elements went up to form Heaven/yang and the gross elements went down to form Earth/yin. Being that opposites attract, Earth and Heaven began to come closer and closer to each other. Between them was Pan-Gu, who had to push up and down to separate the two. Until they were 30,000 miles apart. (Believe it or not, one version of the story is that specific.) Pan-Gu kept stretching until S/HE broke apart into the proverbial 10,000 pieces. (That number isn’t in the original story, but in other literature of the Taoist canon. In other versions, Pan-Gu simply died.) The hair became the forests and vegetation. The teeth and bones became the diamonds and the metals while the marrow became gold and other precious stones. The sweat became the rain. The breath became the wind and the clouds, the voice the thunder. The blood and veins became the rivers and oceans. The left eye became the sun, the right eye the moon. The four limbs turned into the four directions and the five fingers became the five sacred mountains. And the parasites and bacteria became the human race. (This myth of creation does not speak too well of the human race, does it?)

Here is what Dr. Girardot says about Pan-Gu or P’an-Ku:

….P’an-Ku is identified with the cosmic egg of hun-tun and, in this sense, is related to the primal condition of chaos … there is no consensus as to the derivation of the name P’an-Ku. One suggestion in keeping with the mythic overtones is that it means something like “coiled up (like a snake or embryo) antiquity.” In a literal sense p’an signifies a “bowl, dish, or tub,” which relates to the idea of the curved eggshell or gourd that embraces the universe in the Hun-t’ien system or, also, “to examine,” “to coil up, wriggle”; and ku means “old, ancient” or “firm, solid.” Perhaps the most intriguing of these philosophical speculations, and one supportive of the interlocking network of mythological images, is that offered by Wen I-to. He shows “that the name P’an Ku may have been originally rendered with the characters p’an-hu” signifying the gourd symbolism of the dog ancestor of Man.” p. 193.

We can put another spin to this cosmogonical story. The separation/division of the elements explains the belief in: (1) yin and yang; (2) Three forces — Heaven, Earth and Humanity; and (3) Five Phases/elements — Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth. (4) 10,000 Things. If we pursue the Taoist perspective on it, we can draw the belief in Reversal and Return, Primordial Consciousness/Huntun, Fusion of the 5 Elements, Kan and Li meditation, Tantric Sex, and the Dantian. Which can be the subject of another essay or a book.

There is much more to the story, of course, but let’s leave it at that for a while.

Hafiz (Shams-ud-din Muhammad), the Persian poet of the 13th century, mentions the gourd in the poem “Forgive the Dream”:

We can drink wine
From a gourd I hollowed
And dried on the roof of my house.

There’s mention of a gourd in the novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden:

… (Memeha) gave me a little ornament in the shape of a gourd and showed me how to wear it dangling on my obi. The gourd, being hollow and light, is thought to offset the heaviness of the body… and many a clumsy young apprentice has relied upon one to help keep her from falling down. p. 168.

Livia Kohn:

“The gourd is among a number of popular symbols that represent the microcosm in Chinese thought. The immortal most closely associated with the gourd is Hougong, the Gourd Master, who thereby carries his very own palace around him.” p. 183, “Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in theTaoist Tradition.”

The Gourd

The Wandering Daoist in Amsterdam with Annette Derksen in 1999. She is a seniorinstructor of the Healing Tao. She sponsored my seminars there. I taught aShaolin/Buddhist form called “Fairy Child Praying to the Goddess of Mercy Kuanyin,”Chi Nei Tsang internal organs massage and “Kan and Li internal alchemy,” among others.Annette is a Metal Dragon, born in 1940 like me. She is 72 now and still active

teaching in Amsterdam.


When there is a healer in a traditional Chinese shop, usually there’s a signboard with a gourd.

“The gourd-shell, or a painting of the gourd on wood or paper, or a small wooden gourd, or a paper cut in shape like a perpendicular section of the gourd, or apaper lantern made in the shape of a gourd, is in frequent use as a charm to dissipate or ward off pernicious influences.” (Quoted by Williams, p. 217)

The God of Longevity, Shou Hsing, with a large forehead, white hair and eyebrows, is usually featured riding a stag. He holds on one hand a peach, also a sign of longevity (and immortality), and on the other hand, a staff at the end of which hangs a scroll (probably containing some secret formula) and a gourd. In some illustrations, a mist is rising from the gourd symbolizing the god’s ability to de-materialize and escape into the gourd. In other illustrations, he is shown with the longevity mushroom, ling chi (available in your local Chinese herbal pharmacy under the same name), and a bat (because of its similarity in pronunciation is associated with happiness).

Of the 8 Immortals, Li T’ieh-kuai is the one associated with the gourd. He is portrayed as a beggar with a staff or a cane. The story is that Immortal Li was often summoned to heaven by Lao-Tzu/Laozi. For this purpose, he would leave his body behind and only his spirit/shen would soar up to the sky. His servant kept watch over the physical body. One time, when Li was gone for a long time, his servant decided that he was dead and burned the body. Upon Li’s return, he found out that his body was gone. He looked around for a fresh body but the only
body he could find was that of a lame beggar.

My Gourd

Since I got the gourd from New Mexico, I’ve traveled to a few places. To Thailand a couple of times, to the Philippines at least 4 times, to Amsterdam, UK, Greece and Turkey, and all over the Northeast United States.

My constant companion has been the gourd.

A funny thing is that people usually notice it, especially children. Sometimes in the subway in NY city, a kid would look at the gourd and smile at me. One time, a boy asked to touch it. He was prevented by his mother.

When I flew from Amsterdam into JFK Airport in NY, I was stopped for one of those usual drug checks that Customs inflicts on travelers from the Netherlands, Turkey and Thailand, countries where drugs (cocaine, heroin,opium, mushroom, marijuana, hashish) are smuggled.

“Do you have fresh vegetables?” The man asked me.
“Do you have fresh meat?”
“No.” That one is entirely new, believe me. Nobody at Customs anywhere has asked me that before.
One of my bags was passed through an x-ray machine. Visible were a few pieces of Holland goat cheese (fromage de chevre) and Belgian chocolate.
“Queso, senor,” the man said. A hispanic Customs officer in NY city.
“Si,” I said,” regalos para mi familia.”

He pointed at my shoulder bag: “Es calabasa, senor?”
I looked at the gourd: “Si, senor. Es simbolo de Taoistas.” And I went out of there fast more worried about my Spanish than about being detained for non-existent drugs.

The Wandering Daoist outside the Shaolin store in London’s Chinatown. Note theflyer posted on the window. I taught in Cambridge, London and Leeds, visitedGlastonbury, Stonehenge and Avebury and some of the cathedrals.

That was the only time, honest, that Customs has noticed the gourd. In Hawaii, flying in from Thailand, I was stopped by Customs also.

“Random check,” I was assured.
“I don’t smoke, I don’t deal, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs,” I said.
Nonetheless, the man went through two of my luggage like the proverbial fine-toothed comb.
He saw an unopened envelop from the Acupuncture Therapeutics and Acupuncture Center in Diliman, Quezon City.
“May I open it?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
He found a letter addressing me as “Master Navarro” and thanking me for teaching Qigong and Chi Nei Tsang internal organs massage.
“You teach?”
“Yes,” I said, “meditation, Tai chi, qigong. A few things.”
He let me go with some token apologies.

A friend said that the gourd gives me an appearance of informality. A blatant euphemism, if ever there was one. I think he meant that it gave me the hippie look. Or perhaps, that I looked like a wanderer? At 60 I am not concerned about my image or dignity.

When I came back from my journey to New Mexico, I showed the gourd to my 2-year old granddaughter Isabel. She liked it and wanted to have it as a toy. But I told her that it was for her lolo/grandpa. She was obviously disappointed.


What does it really mean? I’ve been asked this question many times by friends and strangers. I am never able give a complete answer. I suppose I should tell them to buy Professor Girardot’s book and read about huntun and chaos and Foucault and Octavio Paz to deconstruct the meaning from the long and elaborate poetic explanation.

But often, I simply say, it is a symbol of healing in China. Or, it’s just a gourd.

A friend said, no doubt mockingly, “It is a symbol of emptiness. See, there’s nothing in it.” One time she said, “It contains your dreams.”

I like the idea that the gourd represents emptiness, the Void. Wu-Chi, perhaps.
Nothingness. Or a container waiting to be filled.

The Cauldron/Dan Tian/Elixir Field is sometimes represented in the shape of a gourd. There’s the lid, the pot, and the furnace arranged in the center of the body just behind the Navel and in front of the Ming-Men/Gate of Vitality.

It stands in stillness like an empty cup. Or like the crystal bell hanging on West Mountain, empty but with a form/shape and transparent: this is the image of the body in meditation as enunciated by the Tai chi chuan classics.

I taught Chi Nei Tsang vital organs massage, Taoyin/Qigong, Tai chi and MicrocosmicOrbit Meditation at ATRC (Acupuncture Therapeutics Research Center) in Diliman, QuezonCity, Philippines, off and on for about 10 years since 1998. The photo shows a part ofthe class in CNT vital organs massage that focuses on the abdomen. There were 7 nuns inthe group. When I have the time, I will tell their story.


When people hold my gourd, they are invariably surprised how light it is.
Everything inside, including the seeds, is dry, shrivelled up into a few fragments of desiccated pits. The hot New Mexico desert sun had dried up all its contents.
Perhaps, it was thrown to the ground along with others that were not bought on that lonely roadside produce stand. Who knows?

Instead of ending up in somebody’s casserole or in the trash, it is tied with a leather thong to my shoulder bag.

Anybody can draw meaning from my gourd. Anybody can hazard an interpretation from it. Is it a gimmick like a tattoo or a nose ring or one of those Indian clothes or ethnic shawls that fashionable westerners sometimes wear to appear New Age chic?

Norman Girardot

Mantak Chia asked me to attend the conference on Taoism and Ecology at Harvard University in 1998. It was a gathering of scholars from around the world.
Just to give you an idea of the cast of characters:

Kristofer Schipper, author of the book “Taoist Body” and famous Sinologist, was the keynote speaker. He read a paper on the Taiping Jing (“Scripture of the Great Peace”) and the first Taoist community in ancient China. He was also a kind of consultant, a prestigious role, and indicated the respect the academic community had for him, considering that it was gathering of experts. His address concluded that the body is a landscape and that the Taoist practitioner has to cultivate the inner garden. (Perhaps, he had in mind raising gourds?) Livia Kohn, translator and commentator of Taoist scriptures and classics, was one of the co-chairs (along with Norman Girardot). She has translated several classics of the Taoist canons, aside from editing a couple of anthologies on Taoism. Since this article was first written, she has come out with several collections on healing, Chinese medicine, internal alchemy and meditation through Three Pines Press. She has also organized several international conferences on Daoism.

Roger Ames, Taoist and Buddhist scholar and academic, read a paper on “The Local and Focal in Realizing a Daoist World.” When I visited him in Hawaii, he gave me a copy of his book “Yuan Dao,” a translation and commentary on the origins of the Tao Te Ching. With David Hall, he wrote “Tao Te Ching: a Philosophical Translation.” It has an excellent introduction and glossary.

Ursula LeGuin, novelist and translator (with J. P. Seaton) of the Tao Te Ching, spoke too. Her translation has a CD.

Aside from me, there were a few other practitioners who spoke about their practices. Lin Dao, formerly Charles Belyea , founder of an organization called Orthodox Daoism in America, came with an assistant. He looked exactly like a Taoist monk, from his topknot down to his habit and slippers. Vincent F. Chu, Yang Family Tai chi chuan teacher and writer. Lu Weidong, professor and practitioner of herbalism and acupuncture at the New England School of Acupuncture. Linda Varone, a Feng-Shui consultant, who studied with several teachers, among them Lin Yun, the foremost instructor of Black Sect Tantric Buddhist Feng-shui in America. Daniel Seitz, at the time president of the New England School of Acupuncture. I read a paper on Taoist practice in Mantak Chia’s system, including inner cultivation and alchemical work. Livia Kohn wrote a comprehensive summary to our presentations that is featured in the book “Daoism and Ecology.”

In Lanai, Hawaii, one of the least developed islands in the chain. Two hotels, agold course, a general store called, if I remember, Blue Ginger, and nothing muchin-between at the time. The Manele Bay Hotel was new. It had a cheap weekend offer.You flew in on Friday and checked out on Sunday. There was much opportunity to saunter.I had a bamboo staff (Daoist), walking trainers, and shorts. I covered the coast.

I heard that a billionaire bought the island, or much of it, recently.


On the table in front of the conference hall was a fresh … gourd. A perfectly shaped and proportioned calabash with streaks of yellow in a background of green. It was brought by Norman Girardot. He said during the introductions that he had raised it himself but I doubted it. A scholar like Dr. Girardot raising gourds in his garden?

I traveled many more times with that empty and light bottle gourd from New Mexico. One day it broke. A stream of powder flowed slowly out of it. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but it was like its soul escaping its narrow confines and dissolving in the air.


The proceedings, including papers read and discussions, are in the book “Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape” edited by Norman Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan and published by the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions. The book is one of a series on ecology and religion. I have the proceedings on Buddhism and Ecology,
Hinduism and Ecology and Christianity and Ecology. For more information, go to: www.hup.harvard.edu

Looking at his book “Myth and Meaning,” I can see Girardot’s inscription on the title page. A brief story about how we met: During a break in the conference proceedings at the Harvard University Center for the Study of Religions, I repaired to a patio outside and practiced Yang Family Tai chi chuan. I remember that I was doing the second sword form when I noticed a man smoking under the trees. He was apparently watching me. When I was finished with the form, we had a short conversation. Did he do any Tai chi? Yes, he did, sometime back. When I told him where I lived, he said we’re practically neighbors and he must have heard about me before in Bethlehem or Allentown, Pennsylvania. We promised to keep in touch.

Later on, two years later in fact, Norman invited me to lecture to his class at Lehigh University. I spoke on Taoist energetics in the morning. In the afternoon, I did a one-hour demo of different Yang Family Tai chi chuan forms — solo form (excerpts), Knife form (first set), Chang chuan (excerpt), Sword form (second set), and Staff-spear form.

There are other meanings attached to the gourd. The symbol appears in many iconographics. The gourd (or the calabash) is also related to the egg.

F. R. Demetrio, S.J., in his wonderful book, “Myths and Symbols Philippines,”

“(However,) it is not only the coming to birth of man that is patterned after the cosmogony from an egg. The symbols of the renovation of nature and of vegetation (Spring and New Year) as well as the feasts and cults of the dead are also patterned after the symbolism of the world egg. And we know that this symbolism is not to be seen in any kind of birth, but rather rebirth. In other words, in all these myths and rituals connected with the tree, with the coming of spring and new year as well as the feasts of the dead, the theory of eternal return to the beginning is exemplified. The beginning is the mythic time of creation.” p. 60.

Aside from Father Demetrio, Dr. Kohn and Dr. Girardot, I have likewise consulted Werner’s “Myths and Legends of China,” Williams’ “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives,” an d Whitaker’s “An Introduction to Oriental Mythology.” There are other books available, I am sure.

This essay was first published in “Rapid Journal” (“The Gourd.” Rapid Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1 (2002): 29-31) and Our Own Voice (The Gourd,” Our Own Voice/www.oovrag. 12/2009).

If anybody has a contribution to this article, I’ll appreciate hearing from them.

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Letter from Cyprus

By Rene J. Navarro

Dear Nadine,

It must have been the slow passage of tiny Venus across the face of the Sun. The usually sedate waves of the Mediterranean crashed heavily on the shore. A blustery wind, unexpected at this time of the year, whistled through the date palms, eucalyptus and fig trees. The sea raised white horses on the waves as I followed the transit of the planet across the sky on the internet.

Outside the flat the pomegranates are flowering, red petals staying on the vine pod as the green fruit grows. The lemon trees are bearing green fruits even as the mature fruits ripen: these trees seem unaware of the changes in the seasons. The jacarandas are on their last bloom: you wonder how such beauty is possible on earth, and if we deserve it.

I’ve been waiting for May, a young Filipina who works in a health spa doing massage in Lemesos, to call. She was supposed to provide information about a group of kabayans who are interested in learning Kali/arnis de mano from me. She thought some Philippine stickfighting would add flavor to their usual off-day of volleyball and basketball. The Filipinos meet at St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church on Sunday or at Boracay, a disco-cum-restaurant run by a Greek Cypriot and his Filipino wife, but nothing has apparently been decided. (The latest from the grapevine is that the kainan building literally collapsed because a neighbor removed a retaining wall, so the Pinoys had to look for another meeting place.) Like immigrants from Sri Lanka, many Filipinos are in Cyprus as “domestics” but they also do extra work as nannies or in their employers’ restaurants, cafes, hotels, waiting on tables, cooking or housekeeping. There are four Filipino men hired as chefs in a Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons. A Tagala from Quezon often works long hours in a bakery in Omodos, a village famous for its excellent wine. Her friend and room-mate, also a Filipina, runs the cafe next door serving coffee to silver-haired card-playing patrons; another woman just arrived from the Philippines is being trained as a waitress at another cafe across the street. V. from the Visayas takes care of a 90-year old Greek Cypriot around the corner in Potamos Germasogeia.

The stories they tell. Just today, I heard about a Pinay who collapsed in tears in a telephone booth when she heard that her husband, whom she was supporting, had taken a lover back home.

I’m new and only intermittently visiting here but wherever I’ve traveled I’ve met many of them, women who left their homeland, families and often husbands and children to face a difficult and uncertain future.

You ask a Pinay, “Kumusta ang buhay?”
She invariably answers, “Okey lang.”

Somebody should archive the stories of courageous and determined Pinays here in Cyprus and across the water in Greece. I heard there are Filipino men too, but I haven’t seen them.

There are Russians here, too, but they have quite a different reputation. From what I read in the newspapers, many young women from the former Soviet republics—all of them seem to be blonde—are in Cyprus as “artistes” working in “cabarets.” There have been frequent reports of “indecent acts” and “compromising positions” whenever the police raid these places. In one block on the other side of the Rialto, a reputable theatre here, there are at least four such places of “entertainment.”

My 12-day trip to Egypt was surprisingly hectic. I heard that there was a bad desert sandstorm with the temperature at higher than 110 F. But when I arrived the storm had dissipated and the temperatures had gone down to a comfortable level. I had anticipated a quiet time, teaching a short Chi Nei Tsang (CNT) internal organs massage and qigong workshop in Cairo and then spending a few days at Sharm el Sheik in Sinai, perhaps a day at the pyramids in Giza, a few hours to view the archaeological digs at Saqqara. But it turned out that many patients had signed up for treatments and consequently the trip to the desert and the Red Sea had to be cancelled. A few of the women I treated were veiled, indicating a conservative Muslim background; one wore black, but they were willing to receive acupuncture and CNT, some of which was focused on the area of the dan-tian in the abdomen.

I did not usually sleep until after midnight because of dinners on the town almost every night. The expat community and the rich Egyptians in Cairo seem to gather either at the Nile Hilton or the Marriott Gardens to meet friends, develop a network or negotiate deals. It’s like Manila, where the rich and famous and the almost-there go to the Intercon or Manila Hotel for their night out, to see and be seen.

My guide and host, an Egyptian homeopath and western doctor from the outskirts of Cairo, took me to the famous Mena House for breakfast. You can see the pyramids from the Khan el Khalili restaurant, named after the shopping district in Cairo, similar to Divisoria in Manila, where you can haggle endlessly in hopes of a good bargain. You can take your time over pita bread with humuus, or the varied cheeses and olives while chatting over coffee. The waiters in their immaculate uniforms hover around you unctuously. Very few people in the restaurant— and most of the few probably tourists—are poring over the English newspapers for the latest casualty report from Iraq. Through curtains made of onion-shaped wooden beads, one can see the three pyramids sitting in the sun, tourists being disgorged from buses, and camels for hire.

The pyramids at Giza were not crowded. Japanese tourists, with their ubiquitous cameras, were not in sight. I posed for a photo riding a camel for my grandchildren in the States. We wandered around the sand dunes outside the second pyramid, supposedly Khafre’s, which was closed, looking for a place to sit. The pyramids have been fenced off with barbed wire for the last two years or so. When I visited in Winter of 2003 I asked an Egyptian colleague who also teaches Taoist Yoga to get me a taxi-driver who could take me to the pyramids early in the morning. David, an Italian who spoke Arabic and sported the Egyptian name Daud, meandered around the city at dawn to a poor village on the edge of the fence. We clambered up the rocks through a gap in the fence to a promontory where we could view the sunrise over Cairo. A uniformed guard threatened to put me under arrest. A companion cautioned me not to make sudden moves. Were it not for the timely intervention of David, perhaps I would have landed in jail for trespassing.

Last year I had been inside the first pyramid—Khufu’s reputedly —including the King’s and Queen’s chambers. In the King’s Chamber, it was for at least an hour, although tourists were herded out every 5 or 10 minutes. The so-called sarcophagus, believed to be the King’s burial coffin, I believe is probably part of initiation ritual paraphernalia. It is cut so precisely, one wonders how the ancient Egyptians could have invented a saw or a drill that could achieve that degree of exactness. If you hit the side firmly with your fist, you’ll hear a vibration of stunning frequency that resonates in the hall. There are several huge 20- to 30-foot long granite rocks of rectangular shape sitting above the chamber that seem to serve as a tuning fork. How and why they were installed there and with what instrument are things I can’t imagine. Was the chamber an acoustical device? What was its purpose? I did Chinese qigong in several places to test the energy in the place. When the tourists were gone, a chant astonishingly went up, filling the premises with a mystical sound. It gave one goose bumps because it seemed to penetrate into the bones and the marrow and lift one to a level of unbelievable exhilaration. It seemed to have been made by a choir, but actually by a couple from Rome—Roberto and Andrea—who had been unobtrusively meditating in one corner undisturbed by the guards and came up with a soaring OM. They introduced themselves to me later outside because they wanted to know what I was doing with all those qigong postures.

The Queen’s Chamber accessible at the bottom end of the stairway from the King’s Chamber was closed to the public. But Egyptian guards are not immune to gratuities—bakshish in Arabic—so through the intervention of a friend, I was able to go in for 30 minutes of meditation. There is an air shaft aligned to a constellation like the shaft in the King’s Chamber, giving rise to the belief that the pyramids, like similar constructions in Mexico, Cambodia and Peru, were actually part of a religious cult that worshipped—perhaps journeyed—to the stars! From my readings of the literature, I tend to agree with this interpretation. There’s a cove, a niche, on one of the walls which looks like an altar of some sort.

There are many unanswered questions—who built the pyramids, what for, how and when did they do it? How were the multi-tonned stones carved into precise proportions? How were they adjusted in place? How were they aligned? There are, of course, many speculations. What was the purpose of aligning the Sphinx to the solstices? Were the pyramids arranged in a pattern that mimics the stars? I have read many of the books offering answers. The research materials are not your “Chariot of the Gods” genre but scientific explorations substantiated by educated studies from scientists and savants. I am filled with continuing wonder. The calculations and measurements that I’ve read are so incredible that I believe there’s something in these speculations.

Where did those constructions come from? They seem to have been put in the desert and then abandoned. What advanced civilization built them?

As I sat on a large crystalline stone that probably fell from the facade of the second pyramid, I went into a deep contemplation and surrendered myself to the palpable silence and energy. But hardly five minutes had passed when a man in burnoose (headgear) and galabeya (gown) materialized with a camel and touted rides. Nobody leaves you alone here. Always, as in many tourist destinations around the world, there’s somebody selling something—chilled bottled water and soda pop, film for cameras, mementos of ancient pharaohnic times. And they are persistent. You can never say no. Badin, badin, you would say. Later, later. Knowing certain Arabic expressions indicate you are not a tourist. English will not do.

Last year, at Luxor in Upper Egypt (strange geography here because upper is down south on the map) I also felt a strange, powerful energy in certain spots in the Court of Ramses, the Colonnade of Amun and especially the Peristyle Court, which, according to R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, was supposed to be the navel of the Temple. More mystical experiences in the temples of Karnak, Dendera and Abydos!

The figures on the massive walls and pillars show pharaohnic postures. Were these positions similar to Chinese qigong? Was their purpose to heal? Were there secret messages behind the postures? I mimicked them, and it might just be me, but I felt a strong energy! A kind of heaviness, a reverberation in my body, a gravitational magnetic pull. Two of my friends in the Healing Tao Center also saw in the carvings parallels to the acupuncture points of Chinese medicine!

I should not fail to mention the felucca (sailboat) rides on the Nile at sunset under the able guidance of Captain Ahab (his real name, I heard from the hangers-on in the dock) or the caleche rides of driver Makmoud on the Corniche. The Sunset on the Nile is arguably the most beautiful in the world; it’s not just from one direction but a 360-degree bowl of colors (as Juan Ramon Jimenez described in Moguer, Spain, in a poem in Platero and I). If you are a nostalgia buff or have a weakness for romance, the felucca and the caleche are the vehicles you should not miss for they represent the old Egypt. But be prepared to haggle, and pay the exact fare because Akmal will surprise you by keeping the change with a nod to the boat or horse, that it needs bakshish! You’d like to get upset of course but he does it with such charm and humor, you let him get away with it.

Egypt holds a powerful and continuing fascination for me and many other people. I’ll probably return again and again to those ancient monuments. There is an invitation to teach T’ai chi chuan and meditation in the White Desert and Siwa Oasis this year. The awesome silence and emptiness make for an ideal place for going inward. The pyramids have been there for thousands of years—several studies reckon 10,000 BCE—appearing defaced, plundered, incongruous now. Perhaps someday, the Department of Antiquities will find the Hall of Records among the sand dunes near the Sphinx, which will reveal the secrets of the pyramids. Meantime, the mysteries defy reason and analysis.

An Egyptian woman whom I treated in Cairo came to Cyprus to get a week’s worth of treatments. Her father was the ambassador to the Philippines when she was a teenager. Yesterday she sent me a long effusive e-mail with a poem about her experience of acupuncture and moxa, a Japanese style influenced by Kiiko Matsumoto, my teacher in Boston, and lessons in Heaven and Earth qigong.

Over tea, we talked about the culture and civilization of Egypt. The pyramids and temples, mathematical principles, mythology, astronomy and astrology, medicine, internal alchemy (the word came from the ancient name of the country), etc., and how they influenced western civilization, from Greece to Italy to North America. This influence is not usually acknowledged, of course. You look at the architecture of the old buildings and churches, especially the Gothic like Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals, and the geomancy of cities like Washington and Paris and Philadelphia, and you’ll find heavy Egyptian influences. How about the search for the Philosopher’s Stone? You read the mythology of Italy and Greece, much of it Egyptian. Even Dante’s Divine Comedy clearly bears the footprints of ancient Egypt.

The other night I read my love and war poems at the Curiosity House in Larnaca, a city in Southeast Cyprus. Joseph Blessingson (that’s the English version of his name), a Muslim healer and poet from the North, and I shared the stage. It was meant as a bi-communal event to make a statement about reconciliation, acceptance and unity in this divided country. I was surprised at the enthusiastic reception. Aphrodite’s pervasive myth notwithstanding, Cyprus is very conservative, influenced strongly by the Greek Orthodox Church. I read poems on Hiroshima, my childhood during the war, also some confessional love poems and Su-Mi, a near-erotic prose poem. The small intimate audience asked for more, and I ended up reading two love poems from Pablo Neruda (whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year) and “Turn the Page,” one of my works-in-progress.

Larnaca is the town where Lazarus was supposed to have been buried in the temple where he served as a priest for 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Thousands come for a pilgrimage to the church and his sepulcher under the impressive altar. The apostle, Mark, went to Cyprus, later on to Egypt, where he apparently founded the Coptic Church. Their cross is the ankh—meaning life—in the shape of a sandal strap. John the Apostle left Israel and was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the Revelations. Subsequently, he went to a neighboring island with Mary and started a church there, too. There’s a basilica named after him that’s in ruins. Oral tradition says Mary went into seclusion on a mountain. A small, solid stone chapel was built in her honor—a place of pilgrimage for worshippers around the world. Paul evangelized in the Mediterranean —Cyprus, Corinth, and Ephesus—and died or was killed in Rome. Cyprus is mentioned in the Bible, probably the earliest outpost of Christianity.

Next week I intend to go to the Turkish North for a couple of days. I’ve been there a few times, once with a colleague to demonstrate Chinese qigong and T’ai Chi Chuan swordplay to an audience of 60. (How I transported the weapons back and forth across the border is another nerve-wracking story for later.) It’s not yet known how long travelers are allowed to stay across the Green Line, the border of Greek and Turkish Cyprus, guarded by United Nations troops. As a Filipino, a holder of a Philippine passport, I am always wary of visa requirements. For one reason or another, many countries in Europe and Africa grant visas at the border to almost all nationals except for Filipinos, so I typically have to apply for visas well in advance.

I’ve wanted to walk again around Kyrenia/Girne Harbor and the Venetian Walls, revisit the castle ruins of the Knight Templars, see the Kyrenian Mountain Range up close, and journey to the legendary Karpaz region in the northeastern tip of the island. Of course I’d like to see Lawrence Durrell’s house in Bela Pais and have the muddy Turkish coffee in the cafe by the Tree of Idleness, things I missed the last two times I was at the ruins of the legendary Abbey. His travelogue The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus is a poignant portrait of the country in the ’50s.

I’ve been reading the Mediterranean writers. I’ll probably go through the Greek poets and the Egyptian novelists. I finished Kazantzakis’ biographical Report to Greco just a few weeks ago.

I’m leaving for London on the 15th to teach a couple of private students, then fly to Istanbul to visit a Taoist colleague on the 19th. I am supposed to meet the indefatigable and multifaceted Ed Maranan, who’s trying to organize a poetry reading in London. Patrick Rosal, an extraordinarily gifted poet, and I read there last June. I’ll be back in the US to teach in Boston and New York in July.

From the Lost Continent of Atlantis (what some people call Cyprus now),


P.S. Just got back from the North: At the Green Line the guard said that tourists could stay in the North for up to 3 months without further documentation. I stayed from Wednesday to Friday, mostly up in the Karpaz peninsula in the Northeast territory. The area has wonderful terrain, empty beaches, unpolluted air, the Kyrenian mountain range and clear jade water of the Mediterranean. There’s little industry, no radar and mobile phone towers. The cuisine was simple but excellent—olives marinated in olive oil with garlic, lemon and coriander seeds, goat cheese/halloumi, grilled meat (chicken, lamb and beef), squid, octopus and fish (chipura, sea bream, is the favorite). I stayed at two hotels, both on the coast. One of them was run for three generations by a Turkish Cypriot family who raise their own sheep and vegetables. It was comforting to see the cook take a stroll to the nearby farm to harvest green beans, steak tomatoes and spring onions for dinner. The other is owned and run by new immigrants from Anatolia, who probably took over the property formerly owned by Greek Cypriots after the country was invaded by Turkey in 1974.

The Karpaz is still generally unspoiled, although the few developments are an eyesore. A sandy beach on Famagusta Bay was undergoing the hasty construction of several hotels plus a casino: in a year or two, it will look like a miniature Reno. The old couple that owns a ramshackle tienda-cum-bar at the end of the only road will probably not know what hit them when the multi-nationals descend upon this hitherto tranquil retreat. There are infrequent tourist buses; most transport is by rental car, for now. You’ll see miles and miles of virgin land along the Mediterranean Sea and every so often you would encounter a herd of wild donkeys. In the summer and fall, there are sea turtles laying eggs on the shore. My guide told me that the Greek South was like this 10 years ago, but has since then gone insanely commercial, with developments rising up most everywhere, especially on the coast, mountains are being gouged to make way for hotels, roads, houses and golf courses.

In the Karpaz, there are abandoned Greek Orthodox churches from the war of 1974. The Monastery of San Andreas, probably one of the best Greek Orthodox Churches in Cyprus, is in a sad state of disrepair, looking forlorn and pathetic against a breathtaking landscape. I saw an old church that was actually being used as a mosque, reminiscent of some churches in Toledo and Avila in Spain that carried both Christian and Muslim designs and motifs.

In the South there are numerous abandoned mosques. I did not see any still in operation, although I heard that the Al-Kebir Mosque in Larnaca is still in use by Muslims.
Both sides speak of ugly deeds done by the other—massacres and disappearances. I met the owner of a coffee shop in the Karpass who narrated the story of his own journey as a child from a small village in the South, how he and 30,000 to 40,000 other Muslims had to take refuge in the British compound, airlifted to Turkey and eventually re-settled in the North. Almost similar stories were told by Greek Cypriots who were driven at gunpoint to the South from their homes in the North. After the opening of the borders last year, a Greek Cypriot couple found Turks from Turkey in possession of their farm home, and their wedding photos were still sitting in the bedroom undisturbed. I wrote poems about these stories, but it seems all so futile. How does a writer capture the anguish and the frustration and pain of both sides in this endless war?

In villages on both sides of the Green Line men were rounded up in the night … There are still bodies that are not accounted for 30 years after the war… I walk in the country roads and see these abandoned stone houses, doors and shutters falling on their hinges, and wonder if under the floor or in the ancient olive grove nearby there are skeletons. And those old men stooped over their coffee in the village square, what do they know about what happened during those raids that nobody on either side admits?

Called the island of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Cyprus has probably never experienced real peace at any time perhaps for the last 1000 years or more. You read its long history of colonization and from the names you encounter, you see the oscillations of conquest and colonization—Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Cato, Anthony, Cleopatra, Constantine, Alexander, Ottoman, Byzantine, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, UK. Each generation seems to have suffered war, invasion, strife. After 1974, the Green Line was drawn east-west; in many places it is actually a barbed wire fence running the length of this picturesque country of about 800,000 people. In a real, sanguinary way, this little island country mirrors the larger struggle of the world, the religious and political wars, the physical, psychic and emotional wounds that people all over inflict on each other, the failure to forgive and the limits of human love.

There have been calls for reunification but where do they begin? Last May at a referendum the North voted Yes while the South voted No to the Annan Plan. Indeed how do they start all over again?

Please note: This essay was written in 2004 – some of the information contained within it may have changed since then.
Originally written for and published by “Our Own Voice” (www.oovrag.com), the literary ezine for Filipino writers in the diaspora.

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Journey to Sichuan: Wu-Shu in China (1983)

By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)

Settling nervously into my seat in the China Airlines 747, I looked through the window. The heat shimmered on the tarmac below. It was the high 90’s in Shanghai.

As the huge plane ascended slowly, banking at a steep angle, I glimpsed the geometric patterns of farmlands and felt a sinking sensation in my guts. I gripped the seat and closed my eyes. I discovered I had a fear of flying. I momentarily glanced at the wing. It was vibrating quite visibly.

Almost two months before, the tour landed in Shanghai. Due perhaps to the excitement, I did not notice my nervousness although on the same flight from San Francisco, a young woman, famous for her Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial, was in panic. She had a blanket over her head, Walkman earphones plugged into her ears and a rosary dangling from her hands. Beside her was a young Buddhist convert from Berkeley, California, quietly chanting. I was however too preoccupied to share their fright. Indeed I was too excited to bother with anything.

I was flying to China, birthplace of oriental martial arts, to train in contemporary Wu-Shu and traditional kung-fu. I was leaving family, home and employment to undertake a predictably painful and expensive adventure. At 42, I was not young anymore; I learned later, I was the oldest in a delegation of 18 martial artists.

Why did I do it?

Quixotic and foolish it was no doubt. Crazy, too, I was emphatically and repeatedly told by friends and strangers alike (it didn’t occur to me to check what my foes thought of it). No matter what everybody said, I felt no regret. In fact, I was shamelessly, unabashedly euphoric.

One of my earliest and last photos of the Monkey Staff form after I returned from
Sichuan. I can’t believe that that was almost 30 years ago.

For me, it was a landmark experience and the consummation of a childhood dream, both. Although I had devoted nearly 20 years of my life to the theory and practice of martial arts, I had not studied in China before. I had not even traveled to China. As an adolescent in a small Philippine town, I nurtured dreams of walking the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. As a college student in Manila, I was intrigued and tantalized by tales of acquaintances and friends who had returned from a China visit (prohibited at the time). And as a kung-fu disciple in the 60s, I studied in Ongpin, the heart of Manila’s Chinatown.

With my experience, I was not exactly a Johnny-come-lately in the world of martial arts. At the same time, at 42, I felt too old to start all over again to learn a new development called wu-shu, contemporary choreography of an ancient art.
Whatever the arguments and complications, China became an idee fixe. I had to do it then or I would not have done it at all.

For three or four months before the scheduled departure, I trained hard to condition my body for the spartan discipline. Like a professional boxer, I woke up early for my daily work-out. I walked/jogged a few miles with a weight on my shoulder (often a 20-pound steel bar) or in my hands (two rusty disc brakes from my old Volkswagen Dasher). I performed chi kung, Taoist and Buddhist breathing exercises which are supposed to transform sexual energy into psychic power and generate it from the dantian, the triangular area between the pubis and the navel. I stood in the horse posture for long periods of time until my legs felt like screaming.

My health habits went through a natural metamorphosis. I quit smoking without withdrawal symptoms. I started a water diet, culled from an apocryphal eastern manual, which required 5 glasses of spring water in the morning before I went to work. My diet tended towards the vegetarian.

To prepare for the dance-forms I wanted to study in China, I regularly performed special exercises. I learned to bend backward, sideward and forward, and to fall on the ground four or five different ways for the Drunken Form. I learned to walk on my toes and mimic simian expressions for the Monkey Dance. (Drunkard and Monkey are two of the more famous pictographic arts styles in China.)

Although my family was quite supportive, they did not find my antics amusing, especially when I began to sign off my letters with, “May the Force be with you.” Shades of Obi Wan Kanobi! Other people thought it was a joke; they could not believe a man my age would do it.

I could not believe it either, even when I landed in Shanghai.

I took this photo from the train enroute
on a trajectory from Shanghai through the western
mountains to Sichuan.

At the airport, as we waited to go through immigration and customs, I felt the familiar tropics in my skin, the humidity and the scent I had grown used to in the Philippines. I peered into the darkness and tried to soak images of the city as the van took us to a hotel. It was difficult to make out the scenery but I noticed bicycles pedaling down the quiet streets. The chief mode of transportation within the city, it is to the Chinese what the car is to the Americans, except the bicycle leaves no toxic fumes in its wake and wastes no fuel to move itself.

My roommate in Shanghai (and later in Chengdu) turned out to be the Buddhist convert on the plane. As we got ready to sleep, he requested permission to do his sutras — chants in Sanskrit which resemble the Tibetan rituals in my record collection. Bowed and on bended knees, he clutched onyx prayer beads while he mumbled in front of a sacred text. His voice sounded eerie and strange but relaxing and sometimes seemed to emerge from the depths.

There was certainly some irony in the encounter between a childlike American Buddhist and a middle-aged Filipino Methodist somewhere in Shanghai as they both pursued martial arts in the land of its birth.

Shanghai wasn’t much of a tourist attraction. There wasn’t much to explore beyond the Bund. I did the obligatory Tai Chi Chuan in the park early in the morning and explored the hamlets (hutong) and open markets in the old Chinese section. I bumped into another Berkeley resident, a certain Richard who had a thin pigtail and an earring. Needless to say, he was stared at everywhere we went.

From urban Shanghai, a train brought us into the interior, past some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Postcard-gorgeous scenery surprised us at every turn of our journey. There were caves built into the hills and mountains terraced with farms, and in the distance, towering blue peaks. Despite the harsh land, practically every inch of earth was planted. Like a Chinese scroll painting, the landscape unfolded, revealing new vistas as the train hammered along through tunnels and hills. At high noon, a tropical haze hung over the far horizon, as profound as a morning mist, feverish and gleaming in the hot sun.

We arrived in the capital city of Cheng-Du, province of Sichuan (also spelled Szechwan), after 2 days and 2 and 1/2 nights of travel. It was past midnight, too dark and too late to figure our location. An air-conditioned mini-bus took us to our sleeping quarters.

Cyndi Rothrock became famous after Sichuan. She appeared in action movies.
I took this photo (and several more) outside the Jin Jiang hotel.

The next day we were treated to a 15-course dinner by the Sichuan Wu-Shu Association at the city’s largest restaurant. There was a generous supply of spirits to complement the generous supply of food. Toasts of gan bei were thrown left and right for every conceivable excuse. Towards the tail-end of the banquet, most everybody was sloshed. Well, most everybody, except the hosts who, most visitors to China have discovered, knew how to hold their drink.

Late that night and early the next morning, some delegation members spent time getting re-acquainted in the hotel. I do not know what happened in the bonhomie, I was then too inebriated to join. I noted in my diary however that, the morning after, nobody was too tired to attend the first of the rigorous training lessons at the local sports college.

Immediately I realized I was not in shape for the kind of training that was in store for the next few weeks. The pace was fast, the regimen demanding. Our first teacher, a 44-year old woman, one of China’s top experts, went through the routines with dispatch and gusto. It was all basic wu-shu drills for the first few days. Limbering, stances, hand maneuvers, fundamental kicks. Later, the training became more difficult and included aerials and floor work.

Every day, except Sunday, we practiced. At night I nursed pulled muscles and depleted energies for next day’s punishing rituals. Other trainees, much younger than I, I was happy to note, were not spared the exhaustion and soreness which seemed to be my unique fate.

Night life? There was really none. No bowling alleys, Broadway plays, singles bars, strip joints, bingo sessions, discos. No x-rated flicks, porno magazines, head shops, soap opera. There were in the area, Tai chi classes in the park, kung-fu schools (run by families), acrobatic shows, painting lessons, Chinese movies, temples, parks, swimming pools.

I had also seen couples cozying up to each other in the park, but there was no evidence of heated clinches or osculatory probings. They were invariably positioned side by side, eyes staring into the darkness, the man’s arm usually circling the woman’s waist.

Pretty innocent stuff. The Chinese do not kiss or hug in public. In any case, I did not see any display of erotica.

Cotton Boxing Master. She was in her 60s, this very flexible and limber
Sichuanese woman. We saw her practicing every day while we were training.

It was the perfect atmosphere for boot camp or sainthood. Nothing to divert one’s attention from the gruelling drills. Nothing to reduce one’s energies. At night we were too exhausted and too sore to notice the stirrings of the flesh.

I would be derelict in my duty of honest reportage if I fail to mention an incident of East-West contradiction. A few members of the delegation protested the living conditions in the hotel. They made a big production about the “greasy food” (to me, it was excellent Szechwan cuisine), dirty toilets (they were clean by Third World standards) and the heat (it could not be helped, it was summer). The Chinese sports service company decided to move us to the Jing Jiang, an “American hotel” nearby, at their own expense, “for the sake of friendship.”

Jing Jiang Hotel, which became our home for the rest of the tour, offered quite a few creature comforts. Bathtub in every room, a view of the gardens and the city, massage for a small fee, a penthouse and bar, gift shops in the lobby, Coca-Cola and Budweiser at 1.60 yuan (about $.80US), American and Chinese meals, a telephone in every room and air-conditioning (for a few dollars more).

Jing Jiang was a kind of way station for travelers en route somewhere — Tibet, Himalayas, Lhasa, Yangtze River, Kunming. There was a daily influx of tourists. The hotel would have tickled a novelist’s creative fancy. Colorful characters, Greenwich Village types, Buddhist pilgrims, name the specification and into the proverbial revolving door the person walked, arrayed in the proper costume.

Tourists met, conversed over Tsingtao beer, parted ways. I thought the hotel was a Kafkaesque metaphor for a place where people said hello and goodbye, people condemned to casual conversation and meeting. Note this interesting postcard left at the lobby simply addressed: “To Room # 666, Jing Jiang Hotel, Chengdu.” It went on to say: “I am sorry not to have gotten your name and address last night. When I left your room, you were still asleep. But thank you for a very enjoyable evening.” It was sent from Kunming Lake by a woman who should remain nameless here.

Not one of us in the delegation was part of it, as far as I know. Kung-Fu Wu-shu was our constant preoccupation. However, a small caveat on this impression. At night, we would all gather in the penthouse, practice what we learned during the day, and eat the spicy Szechuan noodles and drink a tall bottle of beer. One time a bunch of Americans from our delegation held a Toga Party a la Animal House in the hotel penthouse. To date I have not sorted out my reactions to the spectacle of bored juveniles cavorting in bedsheets and towels secured with safety pins.

As our training progressed, our classes broke up into smaller groups to study individual forms such as Praying Mantis, Monkey, Eagle, Snake, Pa-Kua, Hsing-I, Tai chi chuan, Chang-chuan and Nan-chuan. Weapon sets were also taught (spear, broadsword, straight sword, cudgel, 3-sectional, 9 section steel whip, double hooked sword, double daggers). Each of us managed to study at least 5 forms.

Xiao Yingpeng, the most famous Monkey King in China at the time.
He was 68 years old but he was still active and a prize-winner in the highly
competitive tournament circuit.

Among the forms I studied were Monkey Fist and Cudgel. The most famous Monkey King of China, a 68-year old master, was our teacher.

On July 23, 1983, I wrote a letter to a friend, a Filipino writer based in New York City:

“We’re almost at the end of our Wu-Shu Tour in Cheng-Du. Next week we pack up and leave this capital city. Some of us would go to Omeishan, the sacred peaks of the monkeys. Others to the Shaolin Temple at Loyang, and still others would proceed
somewhere, destination unknown. I have chosen Shaolin, birthplace of classical kung-fu
wu-shu. From there, I plan to proceed to Shanghai and, if money and wanderlust hold,
to Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

“It makes me sad to mention my departure. I have fallen in love with Cheng-Du. Now it’s like an old friend. I have explored its side streets, the small stores and open markets, the temples and gardens. I feel safe here. I’m not afraid of mugging, or meeting strange characters. I could leave by the stairway at dawn for a walk in the park or go to the penthouse at night for a drink. I’m almost sure no criminal lurks behind the next entryway.

“I have studied several forms, although the injuries are so painful. My ankle is swollen. There’s a throbbing pinched nerve in my hip. I stubbed my toes doing a series of scissor maneuvers on the floor. I pulled a groin muscle while leaping with a spear. So why am I doing it?

“Whenever I study a form, I feel a surge of energy and inspiration, an almost sensuous high. It’s this flirtation with grace and beauty makes me forget the pain, even the isolation. Perhaps it’s this glimpse of beauty that keeps us going, despite the meaninglessness of it all?
“The drills are mechanical and repetitious when we begin. Later, very much later, if we are dedicated and talented enough, these drills become elegant, things of beauty, forms without effort, ‘artless art,’ in the language of Zen.”

Finally, we had to take our exams. I did only one short form, a soft internal style set called Hsing-I Chuan (translated as “Mind-Body Fist”). It was all my body could do after all the injuries. I was the first to perform before three of the most knowledgeable martial arts teachers in China. I was quite nervous but I finished the form. Later, my teacher told me that I had no energy, no power. I became more nervous and anxious.

As we gathered to listen to the final verdict, I felt drained and nauseous. Our performances, it turned out, did not really matter. We all passed. While we were worried about making a good impression, the Chinese were looking for something else. To them, the examination was just part of a long process. We were told that what we do with the forms was our responsibility, that we should take the knowledge home with us and practice. It was probably the most important lesson of the whole trip.

When we received our graduation certificates later in the day, we had a better understanding of our martial arts experience in China.

As the huge 747 ascended slowly, leaving Shanghai behind, I reviewed the journal of my travel. My companions (“fellow travelers” I called them), befriended on the tour, had taken seats somewhere to be alone. We did not talk. A few hours into the flight back to San Francisco, it was night again and, soon, we saw the dawn for the second time on the same day. It was a brief, brief dawn, the sun lingered in the horizon and then almost exploded in our eyes. We had crossed the international dateline.

In the San Francisco Airport, my friends and I said goodbye. I confirmed my flight back to Allentown, PA. I heard yelling in the distance. There was a game show on TV in the airport lounge. I was back in America.

September 1983, Easton, Pennsylvania

Pagoda and pond
It was a quiet afternoon. Iya and I biked to Diu-Fu’s
Cottage, empty at that time, on the outskirts of
town. Du-Fu must have been taking a nap. But
Li Bai’s ghost still hovered among the lotus
flowers and the pagoda. The two poets were close
friends. They used to walk to the village
arm in arm.

Post Scriptum: I am sharing this short essay in nostalgia. For brevity, I skipped my visit to Du Fu’s Cottage in Sichuan and my journey to Beijing (Summer Palace, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven) with 3 new friends. That requires another essay entirely. I have travelled to China several times — to Beijing and Shanghai repeatedly, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Xian, Chongching, the 3 Gorges Dam (on a 5-day cruise), Fengdu, Dalian, Huangshan and Hongcun (featured in the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and several small towns. But I haven’t returned to Chengdu since then. I heard that the city had become totally modernized. Chairman Mao’s giant statue still stands where it dominated the main street. The hutongs I used to watch from the hotel window have been razed to make room for the concrete buildings on People’s Road South. The Chengdu I remember is forever gone. If I visit again, it will be like meeting the new reincarnation of an old friend. We will not recognize each other in the present moment. His memories of the past will probably be erased while I still retain them however vaguely in the now. I hardly recall the forms I studied, even from the photos, but I still remember the afternoon bike ride to Du-Fu’s Cottage, the friends I made, the wu-shu masters who taught us, the generosity and fresh faces of the Chinese. Last time I was in China, teaching in Zhejiang, much had changed. Between 1983 and 2009, China Inc. had practically exploded into arguably the top economic power in the world. In 1983, 3 of my friends and I hired a taxi in Beijing for a 4 -5 am trip to the Great Wall at Badaling. There was nobody there, not even the guards. We walked up the zenith and watched the sunrise in almost total solitude. Returning to Badaling in 2007 I could hardly find any place to rest: Five to 10 tourists were walking abreast all the way to the top. As for the streets of Beijing, they were polluted and the thousands of bicycles I saw in 1983 were almost gone, replaced by cars and trucks. I decided you can not, in a manner of speaking, go home again.

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The Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Sword

By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)


Its ideal length is the distance between ground and the navel or alternatively the tip of the middle finger and the earlobes. Indeed a manageable short weapon, but the Tai chi chuan sword is the most difficult weapon I have ever tried to study. It is more difficult than the spear, which is the King of Long Weapons, or the 9-Sectional, the King of Flexible Weapons, or the Kwan-Dao of the legendary Three Kingdoms.

Contemplating the Kwan Dao
Contemplating the Kwan Dao, the legendary weapon of the epic Romance of the
Three Kingdoms. I learned the form from Master John Loupos of Cohasset, MA.
The Kwan Dao I used was “combat steel.” John shifu changed the wooden handle
with a steel pipe which made the Kwan Dao considerably heavier.

Oddly enough, from its appearance, the sword is a deceptively simple weapon. It has a handle and a blade. The handle has a pommel at one end topped with a pair of red or golden tassels, on the other end there’s a flat guard. The straight blade has a sharp tip, a ridge in the middle running down most of the shaft, and two sharp edges toward the tip. At its thickest, it is only about 6 millimeters, tapering down to a point of about 3 millimeters at the tip. The more elaborate versions of it, usually for ritual and exorcism, are designed like works of art, the blade etched with ancient scripts and patterns such as the dragon and phoenix and the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, the handle and scabbard embossed with raised dragon designs.

The Classical Yang Family Tai chi chuan sword set is simple. Like the sword itself, the form has nothing complicated about it. Even when stylized by contemporary practitioners, there’s no difficult posture. There is nothing flamboyant or intricate about it. From the list of movements, there are only 54 postures, a short form compared to the 108 solo fist form.

The Yang Family Sword

When I first saw the Yang Family sword form in the 60’s, I was impressed by its economy of movements. There was nothing dramatic, nothing theatrical about it. I did not know at the time what the postures were called and did not ask. I was impressed by its simple grace and beauty.

The man who did the form was one of the top practitioners at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo, in the heart of Manila’s Chinatown, where I was studying Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan at the time. A serious man but open and friendly, a smile seemed permanently etched on his face. I did not know how old he was, just that he looked youthful like one of those Taoist sages in plain clothes. He practiced Yang style Tai chi chuan solo fist form regularly, and we followed him, mimicking his movements in class. Later on, I learned that he also practiced Chen Tai Chi, Pa-Kua Chang and Northern Shaolin. Not a mean feat for anyone, I am sure.

Of his forms, however, it was the sword, probably learned from Master Han Ching Tang, who taught at Hua Eng Athletic Club in the early 60s, that I recall most vividly. He was the strongest presence in the school at the time and I think the most talented, except for my teacher Chan Bun Te, whose advice on Tai Chi he sought often.

Johnny Chiuten, my Shaolin master, later gave me a video of the same form being done by the man whose name, if I recall, was Mr. Sy.

I learned Grandmaster Lao Kim’s wonderful southern Shaolin sword form in the late 60s but it did not impress me as strongly as the T’ai chi sword of Mr Sy. I also studied a beautiful Wu-Shu sword routine, northern style, in Cheng-Du, Sichuan Province in China in 1983 but I did not get interested in it either. It was the Tai chi chuan sword form that fascinated and obsessed me for many years. I decided I was going to look for somebody who could teach it to me.

It was, I guess, one of my idiosyncracies that if I wanted to study something, I made a commitment to look for a qualified teacher and study with him. For instance, after reading the epic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Kwan-Dao became one of the weapons I wanted to learn. I saw an exciting version done by a student of Master Chan Poi of the Wah Lum Praying Mantis school at a tournament in Long Island, NY where I was a kata judge. Through a series of synchronicities, which spanned many years, I met and befriended John Loupos, a fellow Healing Tao instructor and an encyclopedia of martial knowledge, who learned it from Master Chan. When I moved to Massachusetts in 1990 for my acupuncture and Tai chi chuan studies, I learned the form — called Black Dragon — in Cohasset, Massachusets in 1990 in exchange for lessons in arnis de mano.

I had the same but stronger commitment to the Tai chi chuan Sword. I studied it in the early 90s with Master Gin Soon Chu, second disciple of Grandmaster Yang Sau-Chaung. He had two sets of the sword, a basic form and an advanced form sometimes called Yang Cheng-Fu’s sword form. I studied both forms with GM Chu and his son Master Vincent F. Chu. The two sets are actually very similar but there are distinctive differences. The two sets have the same names for the different postures and the same sequence, but some postures are different. There are also movements and gestures that are added in the second set.

Tai Ji Quan Shoot the Goose (1998)Shoot the Goose. There is a movement in Tai chi chuan Chang
Chuan that has the same name. In it, the punch is directed
upward. The goose is a symbol of “yang” and faithfulness.
The goose is believed by the Chinese
to mate only once.

I conjecture that it was the first set that the famous master Chen Wei-Ming learned from the Yang Family, probably from Yang Sau-Chaung, Number 1 son and heir of Yang Cheng-Fu, who was teaching in his father’s behalf at the time. The second set was probably not taught in public, but I could be wrong. In his book, Chen Wei Ming gave a description and illustration of the first set, along with the solo form and the names of the Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan movements. (This book was translated into English by Barbara David without the Chang Chuan movement names.) Other authors have likewise basically presented the first set. I have seen the sword form on DVD by Cheng Man Ching’s students. Where Cheng Man Ching learned it is probably impossible to verify. But I do not think he learned it from Yang Cheng-Fu because, although he claims to have studied “everything” from him, there is really no evidence that Cheng learned the sword (or the other fist and weapons forms) from Yang or any Yang Family masters. I will of course be happy to receive any information otherwise. The 37-movement Tai chi form that Cheng taught was not a part of the Traditional Yang Family curriculum. The curriculum does not include a short form.


It is often said that Yang Family Tai chi chuan is derived from the Chen Family style. For rather vague reasons, this seems to be the prevailing opinion. I am skeptical of this claim, along with the other that the Chen Family invented Tai chi chuan, since I haven’t seen any credible evidence for it. From Yang Family oral tradition, Yang Lu Shan, the Yang Family first patriarch, studied with Chen Chanxing, it is true, but what Yang studied with Chen was not the Chen Family style (a Shaolin style, I believe) but an internal Taoist style, the predecessor of the Yang Family system. (This I submit may account for the many differences between the Chen and Yang Family styles fist and weapons forms, including Push Hands.)

Several masters are mentioned in this lineage, although there does not seem to be a continuity in the chain. Before Chen Chanxing (1771-1853) there were Chiang Fah and Wang Tsung Yueh (both 16th century). The lineage is apparently and understandably vague and murky but eventually (so the tradition goes) it is traced back to Wudangshan Temple and the Taoist Immortal Chang San-Feng (“Chang of the Three Peaks”) who was supposed to have lived in the 12th and 13th century.

There were movements or styles similar to or almost identical with Tai Chi Chuan before Chang San-Feng but he is credited with choreographing the original Tai chi chuan form after seeing — or dreaming about — the fight between a snake and a crane. How many movements were there in the form? I cannot say because the history of Tai chi chuan, like many martial arts, is sometimes fanciful, mythic, without credible documentary evidence; the masters are often portrayed as superhuman; and the students themselves accept the traditions as gospel. However, we can make the conclusion that Tai chi chuan started with relatively fewer movements that, in the course of hundreds of years, progressively increased. Most probably, one system grew as the masters learned new techniques and forms, adding to the original curriculum.

Chang is also credited with being the author of Tai chi chuan, longevity, sexual and immortality texts in the Taoist canon. I don’t know if he actually existed (although many famous authorities like Eva Wong, Thomas Cleary, Douglas Wile, Livia Kohn, and others have mentioned him in their writings) or whether he founded Tai chi chuan or authored all those transmissions. However all I can say at this moment is that different Taoist temples in China, including White Cloud in Beijing, developed their own versions of Tai Chi Chuan — or what we may consider versions of the art — probably many centuries ago. I believe that the temple styles of Tai Chi Chuan preceded the family forms. (The issue here may revolve around the question, Who used the name Tai Chi Chuan first?)

Heaven, Humanity and Earth

One of the important concepts in Chinese culture, expressed in many books but especially marked in Tao Te Ching is the principle of One splitting into Two, Two becoming Three, and Three multiplying into the Ten Thousand Things. This has been translated to mean, among others, that Wu Chi became Yin and Yang, Yin and Yang became Heaven, Humanity and Earth, and these Three became the Myriad Objects.

As applied to many disciplines, the rule of 3 can refer to the human microcosm. In this case, the rule of 3 refers to Jing/Ching, Chi/Qi and Shen, the Three Treasures. In martial arts, it refers to the levels of practice, mastery, competence or refinement. On the macrocosmic, there are also three levels — Heaven, Humanity, Earth. These could be construed in different ways.

On the human level, there’s the physical. On the earth level, there’s the energetic. On the heaven level, there’s the spirit — or spiritual and mystical. This is one interpretation.

In his book “The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan”, Jou Tsung Hwa has listed these three levels also and has his own definition of each.

For now, it’s all that I can offer without going into the extended explanation. It is really difficult to separate these three into boxes. What we should remember is that there are different levels of achievement in Tai chi chuan.

Tai chi chuan Curriculum

I have not seen any information as to when the sword form became a part of the Yang Family curriculum. Has it been there during the life of or since Yang Lu Shan? Or was it adopted later? From where? I don’t know if we have a way of knowing. To me, the origin of the Yang Family Sword is as mysterious as the Yang Family Dragon halberd form or the genesis of Shaolin Temple Boxing.

“Yaksha Searches the Sea.” Yaksha is mentioned
in the Buddhist canon as “beings … who are
divine in nature and possess supernatural
powers.” In the sword form, is he searching for
evil spirits?

In the public mind, Tai Chi Chuan is justifiably associated with the slow, effortless and gentle movement form that old people do in the parks. Its circular and meditative movements that mimic the slow cycles of nature are so different from the ordinary martial art systems that are vigorous and powerful … and executed in a linear direction. In Yang Family Tai chi chuan fist form, the choreography seems endless, one movement blends into the next, like the gradual unraveling of a silk cocoon, one of the images the practitioner remembers when doing the form. In the 108 movement form (sometimes called the long form), the execution of the movements can last from 20 minutes to an hour.

If we analyze the movements of the sword, we will see that they are different from the movements of the solo fist form. On the other hand, there are movements of the knife that are similar to the movements of the solo form. Obviously, the fist form and the knife form are related and came from the same school.

Whoever made the claim that their family invented Tai chi chuan is, I think, merely boasting and should not be believed. The Yang Family learned Tai Chi Chuan from Chen Chanxing, Cheng Chanxing learned his style from Chiang Fah — or was it Wong/Wang Tsung Yueh? The Wu Family developed their system to a great extent from the Yang. So did the Sun. One style built from another, and so on.

In my view, it is almost inconceivable for an ordinary individual, no matter how brilliant, to invent such an art from scratch. It would take a sage, an adept, over a long period of studies. For a Tai Chi Chuan system like the Yang Family’s is not developed overnight but over decades of intensive contemplation and work. It is a series of extended choreography by somebody who probably knew elements of dance, meditation, centering, internal alchemy, astrology, warriorship, shamanism, the I Ching, Feng-Shui, and meridian energetics, among other things — elements that are apparently parts of it. And he or she, or they, put it all together.


The dan-tian (Field of Pills/Elixir Field) plays a crucial role in many martial arts, but more especially so in Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan. There are many ideas and practices relating to the dan-tian. It is often said that the dan-tian is 2 inches below the navel. Often it is also said that the navel is the dan-tian. Other commentators say that the ming-men is the dan-tian, that the ming-men is the moving qi between the kidneys (MQBK in the Nan-Ching: Classic of Difficulties). There doesn’t seem to be an agreement as to where it is located. And how do you grow it?

For now, all I can say is that the sword is often aligned to the Navel Center/CV 8/Shenque in the form … and the Navel Center is aligned to the Ming Men/Gate of Life/GV 4 in the lumbar. Alignment of different energy centers is a subject that requires a longer essay. Meantime, it is tantalizing to note that Chang San-Feng, the legendary creator of Tai chi chuan and a monk in the Shaolin Temple, must have studied Damo’s Yi Jin Jing. Did he incorporate Yi Jin Jing

into the Tai chi chuan system? It is an intriguing subject. See the essay “Thunder Path in Huangshan.” If he was indeed a master of Lei Shan Dao/Thunder and Lightning Path, as reported, was Yin-Yang Gong a part of the Tai chi chuan system? If it was, what happened to it?

The Sword Hand Mudra

The Sword Hand made with the straight index and middle fingers and the thumb folded over or rolled towards the ring and small fingers is another subject altogether. It is usually done with the left hand while the right holds the sword/jian.

The Sword Hand is probably derived from the mudras of Buddhism and Daoism, part of the lexicon of hand gestures for empowerment, protection and exorcism. The Sword Hand has a meaning beyond just being symbolic of the sword or its obvious use as a supplementary weapon for thrusting and attacking. Indeed it is a significant sword — along with the thunder – mudra. The index and middle fingers represent metal and fire elements respectively in the 5 Phase/Wu Xing system. The thumb is metal curled over the ring finger (fire/Triple Warmer) and pinky (Fire/Heart ad Small Intestine). There is an energetic alignment here, part of the meridian and energetic relationships of the body.

The hand signs or mudras, along with incantations/mantras/spells or sounds, were made to assume powers, bring down the thunder, move heaven and earth, exorcise evil. The Sword Hand mudra – or Seal of the Dipper Bowl — is the very first hand gesture in one of the classical texts.

The Sword Hand is often used for healing. It projects the Qi of the healer to “burn” bad influences or to create and move good qi. I have seen it in a demonstration by a hermit in Huangshan/Yellow Mountain, Anhui, China to propel an object from a distance or to emit heat to burn paper. (“Thunder Path in Huangshan”)

Sword and Knife

Wherever the sword form came from, or whatever date the Yang Family included it in their curriculum, it is intriguing that the names of the postures suggest a provenance that seems to be a mixture of high Buddhist and Taoist concepts and ideas.

What is it that makes the Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan sword form so demanding?

The weapon used to compare with the sword is the Dao (knife/broadsword), the willow-leaf sword. We may agree or not, but the knife is said to be the weapon of the foot soldier while the sword is called the weapon of the general. The implication is that one is for the common practitioners while the other is for the nobility or the adept, people of the higher status or rank.

The sword has been described as a dragon or a phoenix in flight or a graceful woman. That is, it is not for ruffians or ordinary warriors, but for higher ranking dignitaries or enlightened individuals. Its techniques are supposed to be refined and subtle.

The sword works on 13 different techniques — slicing, piercing, thrusting, cutting, intercepting, among others — that’s why it is also called 13 Sword. Like the numbers 8 and 9, 13 is magical in Taoist numerology. The Tai chi chuan sword, like the fist form, does not meet force with force but neutralizes, re-directs, listens, uses the force of the opponent, and like the proverbial water, seeks the weakest spots of the opponent. The 8 different positions of the hand holding the sword correspond to the 8 Trigrams just like the 8 different core techniques of Tai chi chuan.

When a red tassel is attached to the sword, the techniques take on a different emphasis. The tassel, like the tail of the dragon, has to move in circles. It has to whip back and forth, clockwise and counterclockwise, upward and downward. A special training from an expert teacher is necessary to learn the tassel movements. Very often, if the practitioner does not know how to use it, the tassel can get entangled on the sword or on the wrist. But if he’s good, the tassel can be a graceful and impressive addition to the sword. Ancient warriors used a special tassel that had sharp edges in it, making for an effective weapon complementing the sword. Nowadays, there are not many practitioners who use the tassel; in fact, many schools have removed the tassel from the sword.

Starting the Sword

The very first stages of learning the Tai chi chuan sword cover fundamentals — how to wield the sword, postures, the different combinations, etc. that make for the proper handling of the weapon. Next may be the form itself. Possibly next is the application and use of the sword in an actual combat situation.

In Yang Family Tai chi chuan, Master Gin Soon Chu of Boston will teach the sword usually only after at least 5 years of consistent training in the solo form (which takes about 1 year or more, including the 2 or more corrections of the whole form from the beginning to the end), Staff-Spear (which may take a few months), and Knife/Broadsword (also a few months, depending on the talent of the student). After the 2 or more corrections of the Solo form, the student is introduced to Push-Hands and Da-Lu (Great Pulling). The first Sword form usually comes after the Knife/Broadsword form. The second Knife form, the second Sword and the 2-Person Sparring set (San-Sou) come later.

“Light an Incense to Heaven.” This posture
happens towards the end of the Sword form
before the posture “Offering the Tablet (of Life)
to the Jade Emperor.” The photo was the cover
of Rapid Journal.

Just to show the kind of training I received from Grandmaster Chu, I would like to mention that I had to start from the very beginning, even if I had studied Tai chi chuan with several teachers starting in 1968 at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Manila’s Chinatown. It was quite difficult to forget what I had learned because the other forms were too ingrained in my body to ignore them. Since I had studied Shaolin, too, I had to literally switch from a hard to a soft style, external to internal, fast to slow movement. Instead of two corrections, I asked for 4 corrections (one of them taken in a private lesson), instead of two, before I did any Push Hands. For the first 2 years, it was basically emptying the cup. I received training in the forms with Chu shifu as my main teacher. Master Vincent F. Chu also put me through the pace starting with the 108 Solo Fist Form through to the Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan and the two Sword sets. Thus, I received the direct transmissions of both generations of Yang Family masters.

As we can see, training in martial arts isn’t just memorizing the form(s). There are many refinements that have to be learned – or can only be learned – by learning with a teacher over a long period of time because, if the teacher is worth his salt, there are many levels of training and knowledge. The beginning is usually a regimen of emptying. From that point on, there is a gradual accretion of information and integration, each level coming at different stages of development and gong/expertise. The Sword, having facets of fighting, dance/choreography, philosophy, energetics and acupuncture, qigong, internal alchemy, feng-shui, demands great dedication and long-term cultivation. Indeed this is an important lesson to remember for those who think they can learn, much less teach, a form in one weekend seminar or after they’ve memorized the movements.

Chi Work

As a general rule, in the Yang Family tradition, a form whether fist or weapon form essentially grows the chi within and then to extend it beyond the hand/body or weapon. This part is the energetic aspect of expertise. Since Tai chi chuan is an internal, not an external art, the chi aspect of the training is important, otherwise how can we call what the practitioner is doing Tai chi chuan? The aim of sword chi work is not just to build the chi within, a difficult attainment in itself, but as well to be able to project it the length of and past the weapon itself. It is a magical, mystical process. At a certain stage, the sword begins to have a vibration and takes a life of its own.

Note, however, that the word chi in Tai Chi Chuan is not the same word and does not have the same meaning as the chi in chi-kung that refers to vapor rising from rice. (Weiger 98) The Chi/Ji in Tai Chi or Taijiquan refers to something bigger, the breath that animates the universe as the characters indicate or the Tao. The Chi in Tai Chi Chuan is not just the lifeforce we develop in practice or from nutrition; it is the immanent divine authority that powers everything. You’ll see a mouth (breath), a tree, etc. between heaven and earth. Tai chi is symbolized by the yin-yang pattern. The radical for Tai includes big, large or great (Da) and perhaps its rendition into “Grand” is not farfetched (Weiger Rad. 37), but at the same time, the dot in the pictograph for man suggests a center or a precious object. (Al Huang in his book “Embrace Tiger Carry to the Mountain” explains the calligraphy.)

Spiritual Sword

What’s truly amazing is that the sword is not just a weapon for fighting or an equipment for exercise and chi development. It is extremely effective for fighting, to be sure, and it is highly conducive to energy building and projection but what sets it above other weapons is its association with spiritual ideas and practices. From the names of the postures, it is a qigong/meditation routine that is as well a shamanic, spiritual and immortality dance or choreography. No offense meant when I use “dance” because many of the rituals in Buddhism, Taoism and Shamanism are actually dances. There are dances of immortality focused on the 7 Stars of the Big Dipper or the Magic Square and the martial arts are actually dances, too.

Consider a few of the postures such as “Immortal Points the Way,” “Three Rings Around the Moon,” “Stallion Jumps Over the Mountain Torrent,” “Carp Jumps over the Dragon Gate,” “Light an Incense to Heaven,” “The Big Dipper,” “Falling Flowers,” “Presenting the Tablet to the Jade Emperor.” These images are actually allusions to a quest as the practitioner searches for enlightenment and immortality. “Immortal Points the Way” initiates and closes the search, “Falling Flowers” indicates an experience of nirvana while “Holding the Tablet,” showing the act of presenting the scriptures, culminates the journey of the spirit. Note likewise that many of the techniques have the sword aligned to the Navel/CV 8/Shen Que, which is the Gate of the Shen or Spirit.

Here we move into the ethereal, metaphysical, spiritual realm of Taoist martial arts. It is this aspect of the sword that prompts me to call the Tai chi chuan sword the Sword of the Immortal, after Lu Dong Bin, nicknamed Ancestor Lu, considered the Sword Immortal and the Man Who Returned to the Tao.

The Knife

Take a look at the nomenclature of some T’ai chi chuan knife postures:

1. Beginning

2. Handover the Knife

a. Step Up to form seven stars

b. Retreat to ride the tiger

c. Step forward the handover knife

3. step aside and cut

4. Push Knife horizontally L&R

5. Underhand cut L&R

6. Jade Maiden flying to the moon

a. Circle the Knife around the body

b. Let go the shuttle

7. Conceal the Knife and push

8. Jade maiden thread the shuttle

9. Embrace the Knife

10. Stand up and Thrust

11. Conceal the Knife

12. Stab to the Upper left corner

13. Conceal the Knife and push

14. Step sideways and hand over the knife

15. Hitting the Tiger (Left)

[singlepic id=2 w=320 h=240 float=none]”Stand Up and Thrust” from the Dao/Knife form.
Photo was taken on the beach in Oahu, Hawaii.

Except for “Jade Maiden Flying to the Moon,” an allusion to the legend of the Jade Rabbit mixing the elixir of immortality, there is really nothing to associate the Knife with spiritual practice. Like many weapons of the same design, it is essentially for fighting, health, occasionally for ceremonies and not much else besides.

The Solo form has such allusions, too, but most of them refer to the original concept of Tai Chi Chuan — i.e., the primordial yin-yang struggle between Snake and the Crane (Earth and Heaven?). Here and there, you’ll have the monkey in a gesture of repelling something or offering the peach of immortality. There is a series of diagonal movements called “Jade Maiden Works the Shuttle,” a reference to the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy “. ”Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg” suggests ascension to heaven and gold means purity and incorruptibility.

It is a staggeringly demanding task to learn to wield a sword that has all of these varied qualities and attributes and transcendental aims. You may be able to whip through the Tai Chi Chuan sword form itself or use it for fighting, you may feel the vibration of chi, but how do you learn its spiritual side? How do you, like Lu Dong Bin, Ancestor Lu, the Sword Immortal, or the monk practitioners on Wudang Shan, use it to cut through the illusions and darkness? How do you use its postures and choreography to reach enlightenment?

It is the challenge of a lifetime.


Chu, Vincent F., “Tai Chi Chuan: A Comparative Study”

Danaos, Kostas, “The Magus of Java”

_____________, “Nei Kung: Secret Teachings of the Warrior Sages”

Eberhard, Wolfram, “A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols”

Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, et al, “A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen”

Fu, Zhongwen, “Mastering Yang Family Taijiquan”

Herne, Richard, “Magick, Shamanism and Taoism: The I Ching in Ritual and Meditation”

Hong-Yuan, Luo, and Jennifer Gu, “The Ji Hong Taiji System”

Huang, Al, “Embrace Tiger, Carry to the Mountain”

Jou, Tsung Hwa, “The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan”

Kohn, Livia, et al, editors, “Daoist Identity: History , Lineage and Ritual”

__________, (editor), “Daoist Body Cultivation”

Saunders, E, Dale, “Mudra: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture”

Mitamura, Keiko, “Daoist Hand Signs and Buddhist Mudras” in the book “Daoist Identity: History, Lineage and Ritual” (edited by Livia Kohn and Harold D. Roth)

Unschuld, Paul, “Nan Ching: Classic of Difficulties”

Wen-shan, Huang, “Fundamentals of Tai Chi Chuan”

Werner, ETC, “Myths and Legends of China”

Williams, CAS, “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives”

Wu, Baolin, “The Eight Immortals’ Revolving Sword of Pure Yang” Wile, Douglas, “Lost Tai-Chi Classics from the Late Ching Dynasty”

____________, “Tai-Chi’s Ancestors”

Yang, Cheng-Fu, “The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan” (Louis Swain, translator)

Yun, Zhang, “The Complete Taiji Dao”

___________, “The Art of Chinese Swordsmanship”

There are other books on Tai chi chuan fist forms, among them by Cheng Man-Ching, Yang Jwing Ming, Stuart Olson, Yenching Chen, and Mantak Chia. Olson has a book entirely devoted to the sword, including its “spiritual aspect.” Cheng’s books are all about the fist form and push hands. Yang Sau-Chaung’s book is on the application of the Solo form. Vincent Chu’s book “Tai chi chuan: A Comparative Study” is probably the most comprehensive material on Tai chi chuan fist forms of the Yang Family. I had these books but I gave them away to friends and students.

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Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan: The Mysterious Traditional Yang Family Fist Form

By Rene J. Navarro

In the presence of several knowledgeable martial artists, I recently mentioned the Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan form. Nobody recognized it. Not even the master who had studied many systems.

Yang Jwing Ming, the famous martial arts author and teacher in Boston, does not appear to have studied or heard about it himself. In his book “Tai Chi Theory and Martial Power” published in 1996, he does not mention it. He does say, however, that:

“Chang Chuan (Changquan): … Long Fist or Long Sequence. When it means Long Fist, it is northern Shaolin Chinese martial style which specializes in kicking techniques. When it means Long Sequence, it refers to Taijiquan and implies that the Taiji sequence is long and flowing like a river.” (p. 255)

In his list of Tai Chi Chuan forms in the same book, nothing is mentioned about Long Boxing/Chang Chuan.Which seems to show that he did not know of the existence of the Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan form when he wrote the book in 1996.

Jou, Chung Hua, author of the book “The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan,” one of the most comprehensive books on Tai chi Chuan, did not mention it either. (1)

Neither did Zheng Man Zhing, the legendary Tai chi chuan master and “Master of the 5 Excellences,” nor martial art authority Robert Smith.

Nor did Wayson Liao, author of “Tai Chi Classics,” which is probably one of the best books on Tai Chi Chuan. It is only one of two books I know of that list the 34 or so types of jing (the other is Yang, Jwing Ming’s cited above). More than any other book I have read, it lays a program for the development of fa jing (transfer or discharge of energy). Sadly, it does not mention Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan, although it suggests auxiliary training like the weapons and especially the sword.

What he also said significantly is, “… the modified form of Tai chi became today’s Tai Chi Chuan, or the so-called Tai Chi Exercise. This is the Tai Chi practiced publicly in China today; it is the Tai chi Dance, also called the Chinese Ballet by some Westerners. In these modern times, a person may receive instruction in and practice the art of Tai Chi for years, and, regardless of which style is being taught, still stands a very good chance of learning only ‘public Tai Chi.’ In other words, most of the Tai Chi practiced today is not the original Tai Chi, and it is devoid of meaning… It is when a person becomes serious in the study of Tai Chi that the search for the authentic art, the temple style, begins. One can only then appreciate the courage and dedication of the masters who have preserved the line of temple Tai Chi down through the centuries. This is our heritage.” (pp. 14-15). I wonder what he would have said about Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan.

That many Tai chi chuan practitioners do not know — or at least do not mention — Chang Chuan is a mystery, isn’t it?

Chen Weiming, who studied with the legendary Yang Cheng Fu, mentioned the form in his book on the Tai Chi Chuan sword and gave the names of the postures, but he did not explain or illustrate them.

The Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan (2) curriculum is composed of many varied forms — standing postures (Zhan Zhuang), fist sets (for solo and partner training), Push Hands (one-hand, 2 hands, single step, double step, Broken Flowers, etc.) and weapons (3 Knife forms, 2 Sword forms, 2 Spear forms), halberd and qigong forms. There are also varied ways of doing the forms depending on the frame (Small, Medium and Large) and levels (Snake, Tiger and Crane). What became popular was the slow Solo form in different versions, especially the Large Frame, Crane level, which Yang Cheng Fu taught publicly. In the public perception, this slow form became identified as the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan.

In the book “Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Transmissions” translated by Douglas Wile, Yang Cheng-Fu is quoted as saying that there are fist and weapons forms. Among the fist forms, he mentioned the Tai chi chuan solo form and Long Boxing. I claimed in an earlier article entitled “Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Curriculum” (written originally for and published in Rapid Journal) that the solo form is the 108 movement set while Long Boxing is Chang Chuan. Depending on the lineage, different schools call the Chang Chuan form differently. Sometimes it is called Small Frame Form or Fast Form.

In an interview Master Ip Tai Tak, the first disciple of Grandmaster Yang Sau-chung, referred to Chang chuan as Long Boxing —

ITT: Tai Chi is like a tree. If you nurture it, it will grow. But it is only a potted tree without zhan zhong. It can be knocked over. If you plant the tree in the ground, it will take root and cannot be pushed over.

That is what qigong training does for your Tai chi. Zhan zhong training brings your qi down to your feet. Tai chi brings the qi up and circulates it around. Push hands teaches you how to release it through your hands.

RB: And that is the combination that brings Tai chi from health exercises to martial art?

ITT: It will allow the tiger practitioner to apply some of the moves. But it is not the true Tai chi combat way unless you also practice the Long Boxing form.

RB: The Long Boxing form you speak of is different from the Tai chi form?

ITT: Yes, the Yang Family Long Boxing form is a martial form different from Tai chi chuan. It can be done at varying speeds and can be modified to meet a master’s individual martial standards.

My form differs somewhat from Grandmaster Yang’s form. You can be creative with Long Boxing form, but not with the classical form.

RB: So the four components of martial yang style Tai chi are…?

ITT: Tai chi, Long boxing, zhan zhong and push hands. Without this combination you cannot master Tai chi for self-defense.***

This was probably the last interview just before Master Ip Tai Tak died in April of 2004. It was published in Tai chi Magazine. Robert Boyd is the second disciple of Master Ip. (The first disciple is John Ding of England. Both Boyd and Ding also studied with Master Chu or Master Chu’s students.)

Among the children of Yang Cheng Fu, it was the oldest son, Yang Sau-Chaung, who mastered the curriculum of the family. He was only 18 or 19 when he was regarded as a master of the art and taught in his father’s behalf. The other children learned but not as extensively since they were still small when their father died and they learned from each other and from older relatives. Yang Zhendo, the third child, and the most popular, promotes not the traditional Yang Family forms, but the Wu-shu style competition forms. It is probable that the two older surviving children may have learned the Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan form, but we have no way of verifying at this point. According to Vincent F. Chu, son of Grandmaster Chu, Gin Soon of Boston said that there are a couple of books on the Chang Chuan form in Chinese.

Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu of Boston, Massachusetts, second disciple of Grandmaster Yang Sau-Chaung, teaches the Chang Chuan form in his school. It was directly from him that I learned Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Chang-Chuan in the early 90s. Of the different versions I have seen among the students of Chu sifu the best I believe are H. Won Kim’s and Tony Zhu’s. The former runs a Traditional Tai Chi Chuan school in New York City with a complete fist and weapons curriculum. Tony Zhu, a cousin of Vincent, is a computer programmer.

Chu sifu teaches Chang Chuan when the student is ready for it. When it is taught at all, it often comes after at least 5 years of training, i.e., after the Solo form, Push Hands, staff-spear, knife and sword and sometimes the 2-man sparring set (san-sou).

Tung family patriarch Tung Ying Jieh choreographed a dynamic form known as the Tung Fast Set. which is now a part of the Tung Family Tai chi chuan curriculum. According to the Tung family in Hawaii, Yang Cheng Fu and Tung Ying Jieh were planning to choreograph a fast Tai chi chuan form but it did not materialize. The Tung Fast Set is not the same as the Traditional Yang Family Chang Chuan set. From what I have seen and heard, the Tung Family does not have the Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan form.

Here is the list of Tai Chi Chuan postures that Master Vincent F. Chu gave me:


1. Beginning Tai Chuan Chung Chuan
2. Diagonal Left Hand Warding Off
3. Diagonal Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
4. Left Hand Warding Off
5. Brush Knee, Twist Step And Push Right Hand Forward
6. Play Guitar
7. Shoot the Goose
8. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept Punch
9. Seal Tightly
10. Cross Hands
11. Embrace Tiger Return To The Mountain
12. Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
13. Diagonal Single Whip
14. Diagonal Lift Hand
15. Fist Under Elbow
16. Step Backward Drive Away Monkey (3 times)
17. Brush Knee Punch Down
18. Right Foot Kick
19. Brush Knee Punch Down
20. Step Forward Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
21. Fish Tail Single Whip
22. Back Fist Punch
23. Fair Lady Work on Shuttle/4 corners
25. Grasp Sparrow’s Tail/Ward off, Rollback, Press, Push
26. Part Wild Horse’s Mane ( 3 times)
27. Lower The Snake Body
28. Golden Rooster Standing on One Leg (l and r)
29. Step Backward Drive Away Monkey (3 times)
30. Diagonal Flying
31. Lift Hands
32. White Crane Spread Its Wings
33. Brush Knee, Twist Step And Push Right Hand Forward
34. Pick Up Pearl From Sea Bottom
35. Fan Back
36. Back Fist Punch
37. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept Punch
38. Step Forward Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
39. Single Whip
40 Waving Hands Like Cloud (7 times)
41. Single Whip
42. High Pat Horse
43. Separation Kicks
44. Turn Around Light Foot Kick
45. Left Brush Knee, Twist Step And Push Right Hand Forward
46. Right Foot Kick
47. Hitting Tiger
48. Hit Ears With Fists
49. Left Foot Kick
50. Turn Around Right Foot Kick
51. Brush Knee and Punch Downward
52. Step Forward Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
53. Single Whip
54. Waving Hands Like Cloud (5 times)
55. Single Whip
56. High Pat Horse
57. High Pat Horse Palm
58. Single Lotus Kick
59. Brush Knee Punch Downward
60. Step Forward Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
61. Single Whip
62. Lower Snake Body
63. Step Forward Forming Seven Star Stance
64. Retreat To Ride The Tiger
65. Lotus Kick
66. Shoot the Tiger
67. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept Punch
68. Seal Tightly
69. Closing Tai Chi Chuan

Note some of the names like “Shoot the Goose” and “Fishtail Single Whip.”
The postures are actually similar to “Shoot the Tiger” and “Single Whip” respectively but with some variation in the speed and the trajectory and form of the hand.

Although the names of the Chang Chuan postures are the same as in the solo form, they are different in the execution. So much so that the two sets appear to be from different schools. In the Chang Chuan set, one version of the Single Whip has the right hand open, that’s why it is called a “fishtail”; in the “Shoot the Goose” posture, the strike is upwards. There are other differences.

It is true that the Chang chuan form is shorter than the 108 solo form, but because of the fast movements alternating with slow movements, the Chang Chuan is more difficult and tiring.

What is it in the Chang Chuan form that makes it an essential training for martial art?

The Chang Chuan form is not the solo form done slow and fast. It is an entirely different set. I have no information as to when it became part of the Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan curriculum. But unlike the solo form, it seems to have undergone the least change through its history.

The form is unpredictable. One time the practitioner is moving slowly and then suddenly, without warning, goes fast and back to slow. Unlike the solo form that’s done slowly throughout, you can actually change the speed of the Chang Chuan form as you wish. Sometimes the person doing it begins to look like a cartoon character or a clock that’s been wound up.

There are many explosive martial techniques in the form. You can picture the slow movements gathering chi and the fast movement discharging it. There are also kicks and jumping movements in Chang Chuan that are not in the solo form. Some people call it Tai chi Fast Form,” because some of its movements are fast; others call it “Fa Jing Form” because of its explosive movements. But to Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan practitioners, it is “Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan.”

Master Ip said, You can be creative with the Chang Chuan form. What he meant by that is subject to different interpretations. He probably referred to the changes in speed, but in my experience you can also adjust the frame and the level. Since the practitioner who does Chang Chuan has already passed different stages of training, s/he can actually begin to improvise.

It is always a pleasure to watch a good performance of the Traditional Yang Family Chang Chuan set. This unique set is a real heirloom. No wonder the Yang Family taught it only to their close relatives and trusted students.

We are fortunate that the faithful practitioners of Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan like Sifu Gin Soon Chu of Boston and Ip Tai Tak of Hongkong have rescued the Chang Chuan form from obscurity and shared it with their students. Now, like the classical solo form, Chang Chuan can be a gift to the Tai chi chuan world.

(1) I am not sure either if he verified his information about the Yang Family, but he said that Yang Cheng Fu “had four sons. They are teaching Tai chi in either Hong Kong or Hawaii.” (p. 47). He must have had in mind the descendants of Tung Ying Chieh who lived in Hongkong and Hawaii.The children of Yang Cheng Fu lived in China and Hongkong. Only Yang Sau-Chaung lived in Hongkong. The rest of the children lived in China. The Tung family re-settled in Hawaii. The most famous was Tung Ying-Jieh’s son, Tung Hu-ling, who died many years ago in Hawaii. I interviewed his son Tung (now spelled Dong) Sheng Chen and grandson Alex Dong and observed their classes doing Fist and Knife and Sword forms at the Chinese school in Oahu’s Chinatown. One of the senior students, a disciple of Tung Hu-Ling, privately demonstrated some of the forms to me.

(2) Grand Master Gin Soon Chu prefers to describe the lineage system he teaches as Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan as distinguished from other derivatives of the style (like Cheng Man-Ching’s and Wu-Shu competition forms).

*** I was surprised to read that Mr. Ip, an incredible teacher from what I have heard and read, did not include the 2-Person Fighting Set (San-sou) in the list of forms to learn for martial application. Without disrespecting him, I believe this form is the traditional way of learning the martial application of Tai chi chuan. Is it possible that he did not study it? It is common in martial arts that some students, no matter how advanced they are, do not learn all the forms. The famous disciple of Yang Cheng-Fu, Tung Ying Chieh, for instance, probably studied the Yang Family Solo form, Spear form, one Broadsword form, one Sword form and Push Hands. Zheng Man Zhing claims to have studied “everything” that the Yang Family had to teach, but like Masters Ip and Tung, he probably did not learn the whole curriculum. From what I was told by the Tung Family , he studied with Yang Cheng Fu for at most 2 years. As I said earlier, this is not to disrespect or to undermine the talents and training of these masters; to me, one of the realities in martial arts is that for whatever reason, the master does not always teach everything to the student. There is likewise the possibility that even if a student has studied the form, he may have forgotten it or he does not like to admit having learned it. The world of the martial arts can be very strange sometimes.

Copyright © 2004 by Rene Navarro

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Rizal: Zen Life, Zen Death

By Rene J. Navarro

Celebrating a Hero’s Sesquicentennial Birth Anniversary

This year is the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, who was born on June 19, 1861. I thought it would be appropriate to post this essay in the website to shed light on an aspect of the hero’s life and genius.

This essay was first published in the Philippine News in San Francisco some 30 years ago. When Dr. Alejandro Roces, a famous journalist in the Philippines,read it at LaMama ETC, NY in 1980, he thought it should be published in the Philippines. He was giving lectures on Philippine culture and I was teaching arnis/Philippine stickfighting and appearing in director Cecille Guidote Alvarez’s Philippine Educational Theatre Arts League productions. We were part of the anti-Marcos campaign. I was told that the essay was published in “Malaya” (“Free” or “Freedom”) magazine, in Manila, but reportedly copies of the magazine that carried it did not reach the readers in the Philippines because the publication’s office was raided and closed by the Marcos government for alleged subversive activities.When the author went home for the celebrations of the February Revolution in1986 (see “February 1986” in the Writings section), Dr. Alejandro Roces read the article again and decided to publish it in the Manila Times Sunday magazine onthe anniversary of Jose Rizal’s death on December 30, 1986. This essay was also published in the Rapid Journal edited by Daniel Go of Manila and in the book “Arnis: Reflections on the History and Development of Philippine Martial Arts” edited by Mark Wiley under the Tuttle imprint (2001).

When I googled different Philippine martial arts websites, I noticed that my essay has been published by them without my permission.

There are many translations of Jose Rizal’s valedictory poem. The translation by Nick Joaquin, National Artist of the Philippines, is arguably the best in English. The National Historical Commission, Department of Education, Culture and Sports, Republic of the Philippines, has collected at least 100 of them in 2 volumes, some in Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Japanese, Behasa Indonesia, Greek, Romanian, Turkish, Russian, Latin, Korean, Sanskrit, Dutch, Maori, Bengali, Vietnamese, and many other languages.

Jose Rizal was a painter, sculptor, novelist, poet, patriot, musician and composer, anthropologist, polyglot, medical doctor, martial artist, martyr and genius. His novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” both written in Spanish, and described as anti-clerical and revolutionary, portrayed the conditions in thePhilippines during the Spanish era, but they are as relevant today as they were when they were written. He paid the highest price: he was tried and executed for them.

I do not know of anybody anywhere in the world like Jose Rizal.

Brief Note:

Jose P. Rizal was born in 1861 when the Philippines was a colony of Spain. He studied at the Ateneo de Manila and University of Santo Tomas. Due to his desire to further his education and the apprehension of his relatives that he would go to jail if he remained in the Philippines, he left for Europe and studied in Spain at the Universidad Central de Madrid. He spent some time in Germany (Heidelberg and Berlin), England, and France. He wrote 2 gothic novels — Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo — which were considered subversive by the Spanish authorities. He was also a doctor, a poet, painter, m.usician, a polyglot (he spoke or understood about 24 languages, including Greek, French, German, Latin and English), essayist, and martial artist. Because of his novels, he was banished to Dapitan in Southern Philippines. When the Philippine Revolution exploded in 1896, he was accused of being its instigator, subsequently tried unjustly by a biased tribunal and died a martyr’s death by musketry in Bagumbayan (now the Luneta). Before he died, he wrote his immortal valedictory poem which is now a classic in Spanish literature. He is one of the national heroes of the Philippines.

“My hands are shaking because I have just had a fencing bout; you know I want to be a swordsman.” Jose Rizal, age 18, to Enrique Lete, 27 November 1879.

EMERGING FROM THE DOJO where he had been studying jujitsu, Jose Rizal found the crisp air scented with flowers. It was the Spring of 1888 in Meiji era Japan. The landscape had suddenly been transformed from dead winter to a lively panorama of flowers everywhere. Beyond was Mount Fuji, snow-capped and majestic.

Dr. Rizal's business card in Hong Kong.
Dr. Rizal’s business card in Hong Kong.

He wandered all over Tokyo, seeing Kabuki and Noh plays, journeying past a Ginza starting to burgeon with emporiums and bazaars, past squat houses “walls made of paper,” to the temples and shrines of Kyoto and Nara and the Daibutsu at Kamakura, hiking through parks and gardens, listening to street bands, visiting museums and libraries, sometimes alone and sometimes with his dear friend, O-Sei-San, and always, his heart was agitated when he saw something new and exotic, and in Springtime, Japan was a tourist’s haven, with its rituals out of ancient lore.

The cherry blossoms had burst into white and pink amid the bright colors of Spring. As the storks keened overhead, the blooms touched with raindrops radiated with limpid softness in the sun. Immortalized in painting, music and poetry, brooded over by samurai and zen monks, who saw in the flower the symbol of life’s fragility, the sakura dominated the Spring festivals.

To the mountain village, this spring eve,

I come and listen to the monastery bell,

Watching the cherries in bloom,

And petals softly falling.

–Noin (10th century)

Rizal felt his body stirring as he walked the strange streets.

He had read the haiku and waka, in original Japanese, had admired the sumiye paintings (those spontaneous, unplanned and thoroughly intuitive sketches), heard the strains of the koto and samisen lamenting the fate of the sakura, and in the jujitsu academy he had heard of the meaning of the Spring rites. Like the sakura, the warrior’s death must be as glorious as his life. The samurai must live every moment intensely because death hovers perpetually over his head. Death and life both must be faced with stoic indifference.

Rizal sketched scenery and flowers and common folk in the zen way of sumiye, which he had started to learn from O-Sei-San.

Sculpture by Rizal, a student: "The Power of Science over Death"
Sculpture by Rizal, a student:
“The Power of Science over Death”

With his background, Rizal must have reminded O-Sei-San of the ideal of bunburyudo, the combination of artistic and martial virtues a samurai aspired to, as exemplified by Miyamoto Musashi, famous swordsman, painter and poet of feudal Japan, and author of the military classic, The Book of Five Rings.

Indeed Rizal had the characteristics of a true warrior: he had a lifetime commitment to martial arts, an obsession with death, a contemplative mind, an intense involvement with life and nature, a spartan character and a great sense of loyalty and justice.

Icarus by Oillight

He had a difficult birth. His mother vowed to take him on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Safe Voyage in Antipolo as a gesture of gratitude. It was thought by the family that Rizal would die.

Death was to haunt him all his life. From childhood he had anxious premonitions and dreams of disaster. He recalled the story of the moth: “I looked toward the light and fixed my gaze on the moths which were circling it…The flame rolled its golden tongue to one side and a moth which this movement singed fell into the oil, fluttered for a time and then became silent…All my attention was fixed on the fate of the insect. I watched it with my whole soul…It had died a martyr to its illusions.”

In Madrid, Spain, he wrote a passage which prefigured his end. “Night. I don’t know what vague melancholy, an indefinable loneliness, smothers my soul…Two nights ago, that is 30 December, I had a frightful nightmare when I almost died. I dreamed that, imitating an actor dying on the stage, I felt vividly that my breath was failing and I was rapidly losing my strength. Then my vision became dim and dense darkness enveloped me — they were pangs of death.”

Separation, celebrations, ruins, even the landscape evoked death. Again from Madrid: “The trees are shedding their pompous dresses and converted into dry skeletons, complete the sadness of foggy days. A fine rain, an even finer wind, horrible, freezing, comes from the Guaderrama… a thick mist that wraps all objects with its whitish veil giving them a particular aspect and expression are the tones and lines of this penultimate month of the year, the simple notes of its funeral song intoned to the death of nature.” Madrid in 1985, when I visited, was exactly as Rizal described it.

Lifetime of Discipline

Like Yukio Mishima, Rizal was born a frail, sickly child. To compensate for his small size, he devoted himself to a regimen of exercise and body-building. He had a private pastime he called “higante” (giant), in which he would stand on tiptoe and stretch his body, legs and arms. He studied arnis de mano (stickfighting), dumog (wrestling), suntukan (boxing) and fencing (foil and rapier), which became lifelong disciplines to him.

Jose Rizal in the middle with Juan Luna and Valentin Ventura.
Jose Rizal in the middle with Juan Luna and Valentin Ventura.

Even in Europe, he pursued his martial arts interests with almost fanatical zeal, despite illness and near-starvation. In Spain he continued his study of fencing at the famous school of Sala de Armas y Carbonell. He spent afternoons fencing with Nelly Boustead, Juan Luna and Valentin Ventura.

Believe it or not, Rizal also pumped iron a la Arnold Swarzenegger. Dr. Maximo Viola remembered Rizal had boasted to the members of a gym in Berlin, Germany, that he would beat their strongest man within two weeks. At this time he had been forced to turn vegetarian due to persistent lack of funds. Said Dr. Viola: “to triumph in his desire he tried lifting great weights under an unaccustomed diet.” Although the smallest in the gym, Rizal did succeed in vindicating himself.

A contemporary in Madrid described Rizal: “He was then in his thirty-first year. The first impression one hade of him was of wholesome vigor and physical well-being. He was rather slender of build, but all muscle and sinew, compact, for he never remitted in his exercise.”

De Cadena

There is no record of the style of arnis Rizal studied. However, from his uncle he may have learned the prevailing system of stickfighting in the Tagalog region called pananandata or escrima.

Arnis de mano figured prominently in his college life, when he was called upon to use it against Spaniards who called his countrymen “chonggo” or monkey. (Filipinos paid in kind by calling the Spaniards “bangus” or milkfish.) Indeed there were frequent encounters between the two groups. Rizal became something of a street lord of a campus gang, ready to face a whole pack, one at a time.

Unfortunately, at one such encounter, he was deserted by the members of his gang called “Companerisimo” (Comradeship) and was pounced upon by a contingent of about twelve and was left bleeding and nearly unconscious in the street. Taken home, his wounds — and pride — were nursed by his beloved Leonor Rivera. Needless to say, he must have had some mushy entries in his diary that day.

The whole scene could have been a page from West Side Story, with the Jets on one side and the Sharks on the other, and a radiant Maria nervously waiting to minister to her favorite warrior.

Rizal was, however, not a hot-headed ringleader whose temper exceeded his prowess but a real expert. On one occasion, he and the best excrimador in Calamba, Laguna, his hometown, had a bout. Rizal was hit on the forehead. Requesting a return match two weeks later, he underwent a thorough preparation and won.

To reach that stage where he could defeat the town’s master practitioner, Rizal must have had tremendous speed, technique and calculation. He must have learned to link his techniques fluidly, without interruption, so that they became in the jargon of the art, de cadena, an unbroken concatenation of attacks, parries, feints and defenses, which left the opponent no breathing space. It is difficult for a lay person or an intellectual to understand this stage of mastery that is often described as mystical. The intense focus, countless repetitions, and the total concentration of body, mind and spirit bring the practitioner to a superhuman level of performance that is beyond words.

Mister Cool

Rizal became master of the foil, saber and duelling sword, and acquired a legendary reputation for grace and technique.

Rizal, a Master Mason on November 15, 1890 at Logia Solidaridad 53 in Madrid, Spain.
Rizal, a Master Mason on November 15,
1890 at Logia Solidaridad 53 in Madrid, Spain.

He also became an expert marksman. Witnesses from the period say that Rizal could shoot through the mouth of a bottle and put a hole through the bottom without breaking the bottle itself. From twenty-five yards, “he could pick the circles (‘oros’) of a gambling card.” Like many of today’s martial artists, Rizal could not resist showing off. He mailed a target board full of holes to Valentin Ventura, himself an expert shooter and fencer, who predictably wrote that he was impressed. Writing to Antonio Luna, Rizal said, “I am sending you a target containing ten bullet holes, it was seven and a half meters from me.” Then, he added in mock humility it seems to me, “I shoot slowly, but with perseverance I shall become a fair shot.”

Ironically, sometime later, the tipsy Luna made some reportedly unsavory remarks about Nelly Boustead. Something like “baka ang Noli mo maging Nelly.” (Perhaps, your Noli will become Nelly.)  It was a cutting pun and Rizal took umbrage and challenged Luna to a duel. Nothing came of it though because Luna, now sober, apologized. I wonder if he was somehow intimidated by the reputation of Rizal.

Biographer Pedro A. Gagelonia surmised, “had the duel prospered, Rizal’s fate would have been jeopardized. It was a fact that he was probably better in the use of pistols than Luna but the latter was a better swordsman. In duels, the challenged party had the option of weapons, hence, Luna, logically, would have chosen the sword.” This was the consensus of the Filipino exiles in Europe, too, but Rizal had a different view:”Luna is a nervous and impulsive temperament. I am cool and composed. The chances are he would not have hit me, while I could have hit him at will, but certainly would not have killed him.”

Here, Rizal pointed a finger at three bushido (samurai) principles. First, know your enemy and exploit his weaknesses (Sun-Tzu). Second, avoid unneccesary killing. And three, strive for serenity. Rizal’s suggestion was, swordplay demands not just technical proficiency but also psychological balance. He used the words “cool and composed” which in martial arts mean a mind in repose. Like Sekiun and Takuan, Japanese masters of swordsmanship, Rizal emphasized the psychological against the merely technical.

Rizal: Warrior

Rizal, a student at the University of Santo Tomas, 1879.
Rizal, a student at the
University of Santo Tomas, 1879.

Rizal’s martial qualities have understandably been eclipsed by his other accomplishments. Yet when he died, he had behind him at least 25 years of experience in the native regimen of arnis de mano, suntukan and dumog; 20 years in fencing and weightlifting; about 15 years in marksmanship.

It is hard for the general population to understand the kind of physical, mental and emotional peak a martial artist like Rizal achieves. When an escrima master goes through a pattern, his whole being is behind every movement, every stroke. Totally centered, he focuses all his faculties  into that single strike. A master marksman reaches the same intensity. He blots out everything, including himself and his ego, and becomes one with the target.

Fighting with a master is a different plateau altogether. How to respond to an attack, which may be real or feigned, demands tremendous coordination of eye and body. When a stick is whipped, it travels about 150 miles per hour. At close range, this acceleration takes only a split second from inception to impact. A defender has to react instantaneously to avoid, divert or stop the blow. There isn’t much time to decide what specific technique the defender must employ — only his instinct, sharpened by training, can help him with a precise and, hopefully, appropriate answer — or else. Within that almost infinitesimal span of time, the martial artist determines different coordinates — the distance, position, direction not only of his body, legs and arms but also his opponent’s, and moves accordingly. How much more complicated it becomes when one considers that the forces constantly shift. And then again, what does one do in the face of a synchronized multiple attack?

The expert acquires a skill so spontaneous it’s like second-nature. S/He moves without hesitation. Neither fear of death or injury nor extraneous thought must intrude into his mind. He becomes, after years of discipline, a person who’s centered, one who has broken through the dualism of nature and the contradiction of body and mind.

It is not an easy passage to that level of expertise often described as mystical. A student has to endure pain and loneliness until body, mind and reflexes respond mechanically, until the weapon becomes a mere extension of the hand, until finally the discipline becomes “artless art.”

Back to Bothoan

Rizal lamented the loss of the ancient martial heritage. Said Rizal: “The ancient Filipinos had army and navy with artillery and other implements of warfare. Their prized krises and kampilans for their magnificent temper are worthy of admiration and some of them are richly damascened. Their coats of mail and helmets, of which there are specimens in various European museums, attest to their great achievement in this industry.”

Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and Mariano Ponce.
Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and
Mariano Ponce.

The ancient barangays had a martial arts culture. With the coming of the Spaniards and Roman Catholicism, it was slowly decimated. When weaponry was banned by the Spaniards, the Filipinos gradually forgot their ancient martial prowess and discipline. They began to adopt the new western culture and religion of the foreigners. Their values changed, too. A different tradition of piety, submission, class and status  became incorporated into the native consciousness and behavior.  By the time of Rizal, Filipinos in the colonized areas had been reduced to using sticks instead of the deadly kali weapons and the schools sometimes called bothoan, where the art of war, the techniques of weaponry, herbal medicine and assorted expertise were taught, had become a mere footnote in Morga’s Sucesos.

As if to remedy the situation, Rizal organized martial arts groups for Filipinos. Rizal’s public gym in Calamba (circa 1887) combined classes in wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, marksmanship and arnis de mano. It was probably the first integrated martial arts club in the country. He also proposed the inclusion of martial arts in school curricula. When he was exiled to Dapitan in Mindanao, he taught arnis de mano to his students as well.

Of course it is difficult to visualize Rizal, the intellectual giant, the renaissance man, as the resident sensei of a local dojo or even as an oriental guru but he did teach martial arts to Filipinos of his time, and not for divertissement and sublimation it seems. I suspect he also dreamed of resurrecting an ancient tradition — that of the Filipino as a warrior.

War in Miniature

No doubt his martial arts training taught Rizal the principles of war. As it is understood by martial arts teachers, sparring — with fists or weapons — is actually war in miniature. As on a battlefield, two adversaries size up eath other, using spies to study each other’s weaknesses, making strategies for victory, considering variables of combat such as speed, strength, size, technique, terrain, distance and timing. Like it or not, a practitioner who goes through the routine daily, as Rizal must have done, would develop certain reflexes and as important, an awareness of principles of combat which negate mere size.

The popular belief that a martial artist rushes into battle, without thought or preparation, certainly has no foundation in fact. An escrima student learns how and when to attack, to ascertain and exploit the vulnerabilities of his opponent, to create a beat (“kumpas”) by which he hypnotizes his foe, to distance himself through footwork and body weaving (“indayog ng katawan”), to create illusions of speed and height, to set traps and ambushes, to wait for his adversary to make a mistake and to initiate the action. He is taught not to be foolhardy or impulsive or temperamental. He must consider all elements, including his own resources and his opponent’s strategy, to win.

Requisites of Revolution

Like Sun-Tzu before him, Rizal believed that, “prudence and not valor is the first necessary quality of a general.”

Photograph of the original of Jose Rizal's incendiary novel 'Noli Me Tangere."
Photograph of the original of Jose Rizal’s
incendiary novel ‘Noli Me Tangere.”

Preparation, allies, timing, discipline — these were, to him , the prerequisites of a successful revolution. It bothered him no end that the Filipinos had inadequate weapons. He considered how long the logistics would last. Making contact with a Japanese minister who offered three merchant ships to ferry arms and ammunitions, he tried to borrow money for the venture but was rejected by a prominent Filipino.

Not the least of his concerns was, who would lead the rebels on the battlefield? He had met but did not know Andres Bonifacio. He dreamed that the noble Elias, the model hero in his novel, would lead the Revolution. He settled for Antonio Luna — yes, the hot-headed Luna — to “direct the campaigns in case hostilities broke out.” Rizal himself had sketched plans for fortifications in his travels; in fact he had written notes on military parapets with diagrams.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if a man like Rzal, trained in weaponry, a martial artist par excellence, had led the Revolution of 1896. He had rightly perceived the configuration of Asia, with Japan as the ascendant power and America lurking in the wings; had understood the weakened position of Spain in the face of the Cuban revolution and had correctly analyzed the role of the rich and the military in the struggle. Moreover, he appreciated the role of the masses, of materiel and of strategy in revolution, not to mention the need for unity and discipline.

A tantalizing speculation it is to cast Rizal into the role of a field marshal. However.

Strategy of Revolution

In his famous dialogue with Dr. Pio Valenzuela, Andres Bonifacio’s personal emissary from the Katipunan, the revolutionary society of the 1890s, Rizal expressed his desire to secure more weapons for the Filipinos before the Spaniards got wind of the revolutionary underground, was willing to lead the revolution and, apparently to augment his military knowledge, was intending to go to Cuba to observe military tactics, “to study war in a practical way, to go through the Cuban soldiery if I find something that would help remedy the bad situation in our country.”

Said Rizal,”I will never lead a disorderly revolution and one which has no probability of success because I do not want to burden my conscience with an imprudent and useless spilling of blood; but whoever leads a revolution in the Philippines will have me at his side.” In short, Rizal wanted a strategic approach, a revolution by maneuver and tactic, a position that is consistent with his lifetime training as a martial artist.

Zen Death

Photograph Of "Adios Patria, Adorada," Jose Rizal's Valedictory Poem.
Photograph Of “Adios Patria, Adorada,”
Jose Rizal’s Valedictory Poem.

There are many explanations for why Rizal died cool and composed. It is said he had a clear conscience, he was at peace with God, or he was a patriot who was eager to die for his people.

I agree, but I like to believe also that it was his lifelong practice of the martial arts that gave him that feral nerve. Wielding a sword against an adversary or aiming a pistol at a taget, he had to steel himself, empty his mind, achieve egolessness and surmount the merely physical aspect of survival. He had spent years to attain what the Japanese call mushin no shin (“mind of no-mind”), that pinpoint concentration where intuition and reflex both responded instantly, without hesitation, where body and mind and spirit became one in the sword or the gun.

While the world tumbled about him, the gentle warrior went about his business of writing notes, saying goodbye, leaving legacies to his heirs, putting his affairs in order. As if nothing affected him. Even his request that he be shot infront or his incredible gesture of twisting around so that he would fall facing the Philippine sky evoked the grandeur or that idee fixe which, perhaps, only the warriors and samurai could have mustered.

Rizal wrote his immortal poem just before he died. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that before their death, the samurai of Japan wrote poetry, jisei, a kind of “parting-with-life-verse” in the words of D.T. Suzuki characterized by what is known as furyu, an appreciation of nature amid tragedy and annihilation.

It was perhaps no coincidence either that Rizal died the eternal stoic, pulse normal, eyes alive to the beauty of the dawn, mind lucid and rational. It was a beautiful death, an exit without regrets, a samurai would have been proud of it.

Here was a man. A genius who, at 35, had accomplished bunburyudo, the martial artist’s ideal exemplified by Musashi Miyamoto. Now, he faced martyrdom, the unconditional endorsement through death of his beliefs.

Rizal's Execution

As shots rent the morning at Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896, he twisted his body and fell facing the sky.

For the samurai to learn

There’s one thing only,

One last thing —

To face death unflinchingly.

— Tsukara Bokudan (1490-1572)



To avoid the clutter of excessive footnotes, I have worked certain explanations into the article itself. After all, this was written for a popular audience, not for academics and scholars.

*However, grateful acknowledgment is due the following which provided useful insights and data: D.T. Suzuki, “Zen and Japanese Culture”; Yukio Mishima, “Sun and Steel” and “Hagakure” (Hidden Leaves); Sun-Tzu, “The Art of War”; Yambao and Mirafuente, “Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis” (the first book on arnis de mano); Teodoro Agoncillo, “Revolt of the Masses”; Pedro Gagelonia, “Rizal’s Life, Works and Writings”; other materials published by the Jose Rizal Centennial Commission. These were the main authorities I consulted when I researched the article in late 1970s in the United States. Many materials have come out since then. Among them: Mark Wiley, “Filipino Martial Culture”and William Henry Scott’s work on the ancient barangays/pre-Hispanic Filipino.

*His physical training also made his death more poignant and beautiful since he developed a strong and muscular body. It is a traditional belief among warriors that if they are going to die for a cause, they should be young and strong. As Yukio Mishima said, “A powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles (were) indispensable in a romantically noble death. Any confrontation between weak, flabby flesh and death seemed to me absurdly inappropriate.” The cult of the romantic death — dying for a noble cause at the height of one’s powers — has many followers among the samurai and warriors. It is enshrined as one of the cardinal rules of Bushido or the warrior’s code. There is perhaps in certain cases the inarticulate death-wish.

Dr. Rizal was also obsessed with Elias, the Noble Hero. I suspect that this obsession had its origin in the Siegfried legend, in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. In fact, a close reading of the Noli and Fili would reveal many German influences. But this requires another essay.

Copyright (C) 2001 Rene J. Navarro

{English translation by Nick Joaquin}

Land that l love —- farewell! O Land the Sun loves!
Pearl in the sea of the Orient: Eden lost to your brood!
Gaily go l to present you this hapless hopeless life;
were it more britliant, had it more freshness, more bloom:
still for you would l give it — would give it for your good.

ln barricades embattled, fighting with delirium,
others offer you their lives without doubts, without gloom,
The site doesn‘t matter: cypress, laurel or lily;
gibbet or open field, oombat or cruel martyrdom,
are equal if demanded by country and home.

l am to die when I see the heavens go vivid,
announcing the day at last behind the dead night.
If you need colour, colour to stain that dawn with
let spill my blood, scatter it in good hour,
and drench in its gold one beam of the newborn light.

My dreams when a lad, when scarcely adolescent:
my dreams when a young man, now with vigour inflamed;
were to behold you one day — Jewel of eastern waters! —
griefless the dusky eyes: lofty the upright brow:
unclouded, unfurrowed, unblemished, and unashamed!

Enchantment of my lite, my ardent avid obsession:
To your health! cries the soul, so soon to take the last leap;
To your health! O lovely: how lovely: to iall that you may rise!
To perish that you may live! to die beneath your skies!
And upon your enchanted ground the eternities to sleep!

Should you find someday, somewhere on my gravemound, fluttering
among tall grasses, a flower of simple frame:
caress it with your lips and you kiss my soul.
l shall feel on my face across the cold tombstone,
of your tenderness: the breath — of your breath: the flame.

Suffer the moon to keep watch, tranquil and suave, over me;
suffer the dawn its flying lights to release:
suffer the wind to lament in murmurous and grave manner:
and should a bird drift down and alight on my cross,
suffer the bird to intone its canticle of peace.

Suffer the rains to dissolve in the fiery sunlight,
and purified reascending heavenward bear my cause:
suffer a friend to grieve l perished so soon:
and on fine evenings, when someone prays in my memory,
pray also: O my Land, that in God I repose.

Pray for all who have fallen befriended by no fate:
for all who braved the bearing of torments all bearing past:
for our pitiful mothers, piteously breathing forth bitterness:
for orphans and widows: for those in tortured captivity
and yourself —- pray to behold your redemption at last.

And when in dark night shrouded the graveyard lies
and only, only the dead keep vigil the night through:
keep holy the peace: keep holy the mystery.
Strains, perhaps, you will hear — of zither, or of psalter:
it is I: O Land l love: it is I who sing to you!

And when my grave stands wholly unremembered
and unlocated (no cross upon it, no stone there plain):
let the site be wrecked by the plow and cracked by the spade:
and let my ashes, before they vanish to nothing,
as dust be formed a part of your carpet again.

Nothing then will it matter to place me in oblivion —
across your air, your space, your valleys shall pass my wraith,
A pure chord, strong and resonant, shall I be in your ears:
fragrance, light, and colour — whisper, lyric, and sigh:
constantly repeating the essence of my faith.

Land that Idolize: prime sorrow among my sorrows:
beloved Filipinas: hear me the parting word.
I bequeath you everything — my family, my affections:
I go where flourish no slaves, no butchers, no oppressors:
where faith doesn’t kill: where God’s the sovereign Lord.

Farewell, my parents, my brothers — fragments of my soul:
friends of old and playmates in childhood’s ravished house;
offer thanks that I rest from the restless day!
Farewell, sweet foreigner, my friend, my delight!
Creatures I love — farewell! To die is to repose.

Mi último adiós

¡Adiós,Patria adorada, región del sol querida,
Perla del mar de oriente, nuestro perdido Edén!
A darte voy alegre la triste mustia vida,
Y fuera más brillante, más fresca, más florida,
También por ti la diera, la diera por tu bien.

En campos de batalla, luchando con delirio,
Otros te dan sus vidas sin dudas, sin pesar;
El sitio nada importa, ciprés, laurel o lirio,
Cadalso o campo abierto, combate o cruel martirio,
Lo mismo es si lo piden la patria y el hogar.

Yo muero cuando veo que el cielo se colora
Y al fin anuncia el día tras lóbrego capuz;
si grana necesitas para teñir tu aurora,
Vierte la sangre mía, derrámala en buen hora
Y dórela un reflejo de su naciente luz.

Mis sueños cuando apenas muchacho adolescente,
Mis sueños cuando joven ya lleno de vigor,
Fueron el verte un día, joya del mar de oriente,
Secos los negros ojos, alta la tersa frente,
Sin ceño, sin arrugas, sin manchas de rubor

Ensueño de mi vida, mi ardiente vivo anhelo,
¡Salud te grita el alma que pronto va a partir!
¡Salud! Ah, que es hermoso caer por darte vuelo,
Morir por darte vida, morir bajo tu cielo,
Y en tu encantada tierra la eternidad dormir.

Si sobre mi sepulcro vieres brotar un día
Entre la espesa yerba sencilla, humilde flor,
Acércala a tus labios y besa al alma mía,
Y sienta yo en mi frente bajo la tumba fría,
De tu ternura el soplo, de tu hálito el calor.

Deja a la luna verme con luz tranquila y suave,
Deja que el alba envíe su resplandor fugaz,
Deja gemir al viento con su murmullo grave,
Y si desciende y posa sobre mi cruz un ave,
Deja que el ave entone su cántico de paz.

Deja que el sol, ardiendo, las lluvias evapore
Y al cielo tornen puras, con mi clamor en pos;
Deja que un ser amigo mi fin temprano llore
Y en las serenas tardes cuando por mí alguien ore,
¡Ora también, oh Patria, por mi descanso a Dios!

Ora por todos cuantos murieron sin ventura,
Por cuantos padecieron tormentos sin igual,
Por nuestras pobres madres que gimen su amargura;
Por huérfanos y viudas, por presos en tortura
Y ora por ti que veas tu redención final.

Y cuando en noche oscura se envuelva el cementerio
Y solos sólo muertos queden velando allí,
No turbes su reposo, no turbes el misterio,
Tal vez acordes oigas de cítara o salterio,
Soy yo, querida Patria, yo que te canto a ti.

Y cuando ya mi tumba de todos olvidada
No tenga cruz ni piedra que marquen su lugar,
Deja que la are el hombre, la esparza con la azada,
Y mis cenizas, antes que vuelvan a la nada,
El polvo de tu alfombra que vayan a formar.

Entonces nada importa me pongas en olvido.
Tu atmósfera, tu espacio, tus valles cruzaré.
Vibrante y limpia nota seré para tu oído,
Aroma, luz, colores, rumor, canto, gemido,
Constante repitiendo la esencia de mi fe.

Mi patria idolatrada, dolor de mis dolores,
Querida Filipinas, oye el postrer adiós.
Ahí te dejo todo, mis padres, mis amores.
Voy donde no hay esclavos, verdugos ni opresores,
Donde la fe no mata, donde el que reina es Dios.

Adiós, padres y hermanos, trozos del alma mía,
Amigos de la infancia en el perdido hogar,
Dad gracias que descanso del fatigoso día;
Adiós, dulce extranjera, mi amiga, mi alegría,
Adiós, queridos seres, morir es descansar.

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Early Childhood

By Rene J. Navarro

Excerpt from my essay “Reflections on the diaspora, burung babi, a favorite uncle, Malayan fish head curry, and a trip to the mountains” in the anthology “A Taste of Home: Pinoy Expats and Food Memories” edited by Ed Maranan and Len Maranan Goldstein published by Anvil Publications, Manila, Philippines (2008).

I was born in Bamban, Tarlac, a small town across the northern border of Pampanga. There was a river flowing steadily beside a range of mountains. A tribe of Negritos was to be resettled near the highway later on, but after 1945, with the war just ended, we had run of the place. We kids would cut classes and go for a swim in the Bamban River or in the dam at the family farm. We would wait for the train that passed a few times during the day with a heavy cargo of sugar cane for the mill in town. Some older kids would apply a coat of heavy grease on the rails, the train would skid to a screaming halt and as it trembled helplessly in pain like a huge metal dragon we would steal from its caboose stalks of sugar cane to chew on. Many times we would flatten soda lids under the train wheels and make them into sharp buzz saws that we called garlit. Just once in a fit of audacity, I attempted to cross the railroad bridge and made it to the other side before the train came.

In town was an old, smelly warehouse in the Feliciano compound which doubled occasionally as a moviehouse. Phantom, Flash Gordon and Tarzan became a big part of the fare in this small town entertainment. Kids who could not afford to get in would find a sponsor so that they could sneak in for free, which was what I did often successfully. On the rare occasion that I could not get in, I would peek through a hole in the mildly electrified metal wall for the duration of the movie.

My grandfather, Ingkong Poli to us little kids, was a farmer, patriarch, raconteur. He made me buy old books during the town fiestas—an assortment of corridos and legends that he promised to read to me. As we sat at his feet in the living room of the clan house, he regaled us with stories about Juan Tamad, Matuang Tomas a Bingot (literally, Old Infant Tomas), Siete Infantes de Lara, Bernardo Carpio, and assorted powerful and miraculous beings who could jump from the ground to the roof of a house. I could swear from the distance of 60 years that we actually believed that they existed, not just in our imagination.

With a scout knife, Apung Poli carved slingshots and spinning tops from guava or mango branches that were models of the woodworking craft. He also presided over the circumcision of the adolescents of the clan at the Bamban River after we had undergone a period of initiation. Before the Big Event, we were taught the use of pandakaki sap for freeing the foreskin and assorted other “tricks” for our journey into manhood. Cousins and other distant relatives would gather periodically in odd places to compare notes about each other’s progress. The actual ritual was performed with an ordinary razor blade: a piece of guava branch served as a batakan or chopping board; another piece of wood was used to tap the razor and the job was done—unless Ingkong Poli for reasons of aesthetics or practicality thought that more of the prepuce had to be cut. Cousins Dan and Ray and I had survived a rite of passage together in a mystical brotherhood that nothing else in our young lives can compare to. Afterwards, the batakan shaped like a primitive phallus was thrust into the ground repeatedly, presumably as a symbol of coitus, and it was over. No anesthesia was used. None of that sterile hospital stuff for us either. We stuck to spit and guava leaves in the face of infection and swelling.

Ingkong Poli was firm, and had an unpredictable melange of rules which resulted in a memorable lesson or two for us children. One time he caught us in different stages of nudity as we exhibited our paraphernalia to each other inside the huge rice basket (buslo) under the house and gave our ears a painful twist. (Another punishment he inflicted was hitting you on top of the head with one single knuckle called “sintok”.) He loved to have one of us pulling his gray hair with two rice grain husks as he awaited the customers at the bigasan, the rice mill. Imagine how difficult that was for us; it was an undeserved cruel and unusual punishment for little kids. To relieve the tedium he told me stories about the Philippine-American War, the bravery of the ill-equipped Filipino soldiers and the quixotic General Francisco Makabulos, the hero of Tarlac. When he was in good humor, Ingkong talked about his exploits with women. When he began to nod and snore, I would invariably find a way to escape into the woods at the back of the house or to the market.

Ingkong was also a patient guide. He knew the different plants and herbs. We children picked up some of this knowledge—what leaves, fruits, barks and roots were good for cuts and wounds, what worked for diarrhea, fever, postpartum depression, bladder problems, what was edible, whatever. He even knew how to train a martin to sing and talk. Apung Poli taught me the method when I was seven—rub the bird’s tongue daily with a slice of betel nut—but just as my pet began to say the first word, he was unceremoniously seized from his bamboo cage by a hungry house cat and dragged into the darkness before I could recover from my shock at having witnessed the scene up close.

Sometimes Apung Poli would take me fishing using a net weighted at the outer edges with lead. When he cast it, the net would gradually flare wide from the center and spread out and for a moment one caught a glimpse of a beautiful spider web in midair. He did not catch any big fish, only the swordfish-like balulungi. Often Apung Poli would take one or two of us with him to his farm in Panaisan at the foot of the mountain where he cultivated rice, mangoes and vegetables (prominently eggplants, bitter melon, okra). We learned to look for wild roots— the fibrous singkamas, especially—and set different bamboo traps for birds and fish. We gathered pako, a wild fern, and aya, a Philippine spinach, susô and kamaru. It was important to have this working knowledge as a tool to survive when you have no food and are stranded in the jungle. Sometimes armed with a bolo, we would climb the mountain and cut lagundi for firewood and bring it down to town.

We pictured the mountains and fields as teeming with creatures and spirits and elementals who came down occasionally to haunt the streams or the trees. There were ghosts and tikbalang and tiyanak and duwende, some of them malevolent, lurking around the punso (the ant hill where dwelt the dwarf), or near the giant tree. We believed in encanto, and to protect ourselves, we would chant “bari, bari Apu.” I can upon my oath say that once on a hunt for spiders early at dawn, I had seen a few of them at the boundary where the town proper ended and the rice paddies began. Needless to say, I ran as fast as I could the moment they emerged from the mist with their thick fur, monstrous heads and huge claws.

I spent my childhood in that environment of innocence where myth and reality were intertwining threads of a dream life, nature was a habitat for spirits who knew—and rewarded or punished—our every move, and Ingkong Poli was a huge presence in our world.

Navarro family - Christmas, Bamba 1948
The photo taken 12-25-48 shows the family in the old house.
Seated from the left: Ricardo Y. Navarro, my father; Danilo Navarro,
my brother; Amelia J. Navarro, my mother. Standing are me and my
brother Florante. That forlorn-looking “thing” in the back
was actually our Christmas Tree.

We lived in a compound, with assorted relatives sharing space in a big house. There was a giant caimito, the star-apple tree—it yielded the biggest fruits I have seen of its kind anywhere—in the back, its branches overwhelming the house of Tatang Odon, my father’s older brother, and one of Ingkong Poli’s children. A patch of wilderness sat dangerously close in the backyard. At times a colorful gekko or a salamander would find its way into the tree or a poisonous snake would wander nearby. One time while my cousin Ray and I were up a tamarind tree, hundreds of snakes arrived and began working themselves into an agitated sexual frenzy on the ground below.

Not infrequently we would be taken to the local herbolario or hilot whenever we had a twisted ankle or wrist, and he would apply a magical oil, often on the opposite side of the injury (later in life, I learned about the principles of contralateral treatment in Chinese acupuncture) as he mumbled an incomprehensible mantra. We in the clan reverenced these healers as belonging to a higher species altogether, heirs of an ancient knowledge that was slowly getting lost and forgotten.

There were several colorful uncles in this extended clan. A couple of them had a secret life, which the family only talked about in whispers. Tatang Mulong, the kindest and quietest of them and as far as I know, the only one not cursed or blessed with the Navarro weakness for beautiful women, ran a rice mill called a kiskisan. It was he who let me in his workshop whenever I needed to load a seashell with splinters of lead, sharpen a scout knife, a buzz saw or an arrow or whatever it was that I fancied making. Tatang Sergio, who often made you feel you were never good enough whatever you accomplished, was the brilliant child prodigy and renaissance man of the family. At one time or another he became a guerrilla, choir conductor, a Sunday school teacher, a science teacher, a composer, family historian, dramaturgo, a singing coach, and a high school principal. He was at home with Handel’s The Messiah as he was with Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. In another culture, he would have been a national icon, his achievements written up in magazines and textbooks, but he preferred to live in obscurity in our small town all his life. Tatang Crising (we called him Tatang Gara when he wasn’t around) was the youngest. A high school teacher, a perennial youth and a Narciso Bernardo—the legendary basketball star—wanna-be, he memorized long lines of inspirational poetry from Tennyson’s Ulysses to Wordsworth’s Ode to Intimations of Immortality. Tatang Dandong was the politician of the family, determinedly obsessed until his death to become mayor of the town. An Errol Flynn look-alike, he possessed the most beautiful voice among the brothers and with it, he used to serenade the young Japanese waitresses in Ermita with Japanese love songs he picked up during the war.

Tatang Odon was my favorite. He was a school teacher and a poet. To me, he appeared to live in an entirely different world and time. A romantic, he was intense, joyous and sad at the same time. During the war, he owned a set of horses and carretelas. He was a master chef and a butcher. Like my father, he could tell how much a pig weighed to the last ounce just by looking at it. He was also a barber who had the unique ability of cutting his own hair. Setting one mirror in front and another in the back, he would awe us kids with the precision of his scissors. What was remarkable was he also loved a different cuisine from the wilds. We did not know where he got the knowledge (probably from Ingkong Poli), but he knew how to trap birds, snakes and monitor lizards, of which there were many in the woods beyond the house. (This passion earned him the name “Barag,” the Pampango word for bayawak or monitor lizard.) I should not forget to include bats. Come to this, he had installed a net at the end of a long bamboo pole which he used to snare the bats flying out of the church belfry when the bell was rung at angelus. During the postwar, it was a convenient way not only to stave off hunger but to taste an unusual dish (and adventure) as well.

I was not aware if the snakes, bats and lizards had any nutritional value at the time. But my brother Flor still recalls that they made a good, tasty dish. It was only later on, in my middle age, when I was studying traditional Chinese herbology at the acupuncture school outside Boston that it occurred to me that Tatang Odon may have been into something nobody in the family suspected, i.e., the wild animals had an effect on the body that was healthy and erotic. After all, of all his siblings, he was the one who had the biggest family.

When Tatang Odon Navarro and his wife Indang Chayong moved to California upon the petition of their son Ray, excellent longganisa, tapa and burong babi found their way occasionally to our table although we lived across the mainland in New Jersey. When he died in his early 90s he left a poetry manuscript. Unfortunately, Tatang Odon’s recipes are lost to the clan. They would have been a rare legacy. Ingkong Poli’s stories and songs are probably lost, too. But that’s often the fate of our heritage: it is not considered important and valuable enough to preserve and to continue, and usually dies with the person who carried it.

The clan children were into kurang-kurangan, patintero, timbang preso, coyut and hide-and-seek. Spiders as well, which we collected in matchboxes and made to fight on a short baton of thin stick. We made kites from bamboo, string, glue and manila paper, some of them the giant gurion, and conducted aerial dogfights in the open field. I was also into gambling with sigay (shells) which I adroitly loaded in my favor with lead so that when tossed onto the ground they would always make me win. I was unbeatable in town. I won a lot of colorful rubber bands that way. I could have gotten rich when I was 8 but I did not appreciate the value of money at that age.

Perhaps there wasn’t much to eat—after all, it was after the devastation of the war and one or two times early on we had to fall in line outside the US camp for C-rations—but there was in my memory a list of food that we enjoyed. Aside from the supply of tin cans of corned beef, salmon, spam, and pork and beans which my resourceful parents brought from the black market through Clark Air Base and Fort Stotsenberg, we had goat ribs cooked with kalibangang; the pork dish called bulanglang which was flavored with ripe guavas and either kangkong or kamote tops; bringhi, a derivative of paella, with chicken, prawn and sticky rice; pakbet with slivers of pititsan, crispy pork skin; pakó (fern) salad; lelot balatong (toasted mung beans with rice congee); kamote tops and kalabasa flowers cooked with fermented fish or shrimp; monggo soup with ebi (dried shrimps), slices of ginger, garlic and bitter melon leaves; tender bamboo shoots (available from the surrounding areas) quickly sauteed in a wok with garlic and patis; and last but not least there was frog soup with pepper or malunggay leaves and ginger. For dessert we had tibok-tibok, suman bulagta and suman sa ibus, bobotu, duman, ginataan/sampelut, etc. Frequently, we kids would go to the pineapple field of Apung Pitong, who had come home after working in the Hawaiian plantations. When he wasn’t around, we treated ourselves freely to his manzanitas, avocados, green mangos (dipped in vinegar and siling labuyo), and cashew nuts.

When I was about 7 or 8, I picked up Tatang Odon’s fondness for game and learned to use a sling shot to hunt birds. On occasion, I would bring a kingfisher or two back from my solitary escapade in the marsh. I also learned how to dress bats and cook these into adobo. I caught the bats in our attic with the use of a pole. Bats are dressed like snakes; you pressed a knife on the neck and stripped down the skin from top down. With a bamboo trap which I wove myself, I learned to catch birds in their nests. In retrospect, it was a cruel procedure because sometimes the birdlings died along with the mother.

Wild ducks, manok labuyo and hogs and deer were brought down occasionally from the mountain. It may have been this exposure to an exotic, rare cuisine that brought back memories when I saw that frozen piece of expensive deer meat at this butcher’s shop in Manhattan.

No, I did not progress to catching reptiles because by the time I was 11 my father decided to move the family to the capital for his law practice. The world of my childhood was lost to me afterwards because it was no longer there in our new home.

Only on two occasions did I again experience returning to that environment. Both trips were taken with my father to the remote mountains somewhere between Tarlac and Batangas. He was seeing a tribe of Negritos who had retained him to represent them in their fight to take title to their ancestral land. We had traveled for a day across rivers and mountains, into forests, on precipitous terrain. As night fell, we arrived at a clearing between a mountain and a river, past what I imagined were crocodile-infested lakes. There were huts lighted by paritan. A deer had just been shot and it was being dressed over a camp fire. A piece of the liver was grilled and its blood still dripping, the chief gave it for me to eat. That night my Dad and I slept on a bed of hay on the flatbed of the 6×6 truck under a clear cold night sky and the stars.

I returned to Bamban a couple of times and visited Panaisan, Ingkong Poli’s farm, but the enchantment was gone. The mountain that had loomed large in my memory was reduced in size, the dam where we learned to swim was now but a small stream. The mango trees had been cut down. The old house where I spent my early childhood was gone, too. Even the concrete stairs that sheltered us from the bombing during the war was razed. Nothing was left of the landscape I remembered so well. The spell of the past was lost.

It is puzzling how events happen that way. Sometimes we cherish a memory and we keep it alive for a long time; and then somehow for no discernible reason it evaporates like mist. Suddenly our world changes. A familiar place is different now. We wake up in the morning and things are not the same. But I wonder if we realize that we must have changed, too. Perhaps we have grown up and matured and now see with different eyes. Or perhaps we have become skeptical of other dimensions, or earlier beliefs and values. Who knows what we have gone through, what we have become, what the world has done to us. Who knows where the spirits of the earth we communicated with have disappeared to.

I discussed some of these points with Obin Siswandi of Bin House, Bali in late February of 2006. We concluded that the nature spirits are still there but we have to create the environment for them to appear again.

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February 1986

By Rene J. Navarro

My old files were stored rather haphazardly in boxes in the basement. They smelled of mildew and humidity after years of neglect. Photographs stuck together, staples and paper clips were rusted, magazines were frayed and crumpled.
They were thrown at random in boxes in the course of moving from one residence to another and they were not classified. Indeed they had grown so bulky through the years, things I kept that I couldn’t throw away for one reason or another like old clothes one had outgrown.
I decided to sort them out a few weeks ago and bought a drawer for this purpose. For a while the boxes just sat in the living room, smelling musty. When I finally plunged in I noticed that some of these “things” were records of the past 20 years: letters, flyers, articles (published and unpublished, under various pen-names),photographs, programs, Marcos Era documents.

Mementos of Exile

There were a couple of letters from Nelson Navarro and Loida Nicolas Lewis, several PETAL/TWITAS flyers, photographs of Cecille Guidote and Dr. Alejandro Roces as they waited for free Shakespeare Festival tickets to the “Pirates of Penzance” at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
There was a flyer for a Philippine Festival including a summer workshop for Filipino children, lectures in Philippine culture by Mang Anding, a demonstration/lecture on Jose Rizal and arnis de mano by me and a Lino Brocka movie (“Bayan Ko”).
There was another flyer for a production honoring Macli-Ing Dulag, the slain native chieftain of ountain Province, at LaMama ETC, home to many Filipino programs, on the lower East Side of Manhattan. I choreographed the fight scenes and appeared in them.
There was the original narration for “Kasaysayan”, a theatre/dance number, one of the first acts of defiance against martial law performed sometime in November 1972 at the Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village. The typescript was somewhat blurred but readable and it showed handwritten corrections. Aside from the Filipino group, there were Barbara Dane and Suni Paz who contributed working class, ethnic and protest songs to the program.
There were a few back issues of the defunct “Ningas-Cogon” magazine and the Philippine news, some reports (on Human Rights violations in the Philippines, the Narvasa findings on the assassination of Benigno Aquino) and manifestos.
And there were articles and manuscripts, a few on martial arts but mostly political satires and philippics written by Reynato Yuson, Michael Santos, Alejandro Reyes, Antonio Puno (all my pen-names ) during the period of Exile, the aptly named Second Propaganda Movement; also poetry and translations from Tagalog into English. I read through the 4-part series “God Looks Down from Heaven”, a satire after Dr. Jose Rizal, and “All This and Imelda Too,” journal entries from the 70’s, published in the Philippine News.

Organizing in America

I looked at all those keepsakes of a past thinking of times and people. The demos in Washington, DC and Fifth Avenue, New York, the community work, and the long discussions. The untiring dedication and creativity of the countless people who politicized and organized the Filipino communities from coast to coast. The different organizations who put their differences aside and presented a united front against the dictator. The long, tiring rehearsals to mount a show under the inexhaustible and moody Cecille. The problems surrounding the raising of Filipino children in America. The Marcos regime.

Never Again

I was taken by surprise, startled by the memories they evoked. I felt contradictory emotions, a little sadness but also a great joy. My anger at the dictatorship reverberated strongly still, I realized, but I felt a great relief again that that era had ended: it must not happen again. Never ever again.
The regime of President Ferdinand Marcos lasted about two decades — long enough for a whole generation to grow up. The whole corpus has not been exhumed, but what we have seen is a shocking and unbelievable picture of deception, corruption, terrorism, greed and callousness. When his regime ended, there was widespread jubilation.
I remember that in late December of 1985 I filed my resignation with legal services to take effect at the end of February 1986. I did not exactly know what I was going to do, I was thinking of something, but I was not sure. It was a sad decision for it was the work I had done since 1978, first in Long Island, New York and then in Northwest New Jersey, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and lawyering was what I was trained for. Working with the poor, handling Welfare, Unemployment, Landlord and Tenant and Social Security cases–it was something that fulfilled my dreams as a lawyer.
But when President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, he recommended a zero budget for legal services. Other social programs were adversely affected. What followed was a demoralization in the staff. Many suffered from what we in poverty law called legal services burn-out, an emotional dead-end where the job had lost its initial excitement and one felt a sense of futility and meaninglessness.

Going Home

In the heady days of February 1986, like many Filipinos, I closely followed the developments in the Philippines. Every night on the late news I switched channels to see what each station was showing. I also bought several newspapers. Even as I worked my final weeks in legal services, my mind was miles away. It was time to be back home again after sixteen years. Many Filipinos refused to go home until democracy was restored and they were waiting excitedly for that day. Nestor Gener, an artist, classmate and close friend, died in America waiting for it (I delivered a eulogy at his funeral). A cousin had been planning his eventual homecoming for at least ten years. Finally it appeared that the Philippines was on the brink of liberation and the day of return was near.
As the crisis deepened in the Philippines, our attention was riveted to the television programs showing Filipinos taking tothe streets, guarding ballot boxes, protecting what was gained with their bodies and their lives. Those were intensely emotional times.
We knew something totally significant was happening, was building up but the end was difficult to predict. Thousands of Filipinos formed barricades along Epifanio de los Santos Highway outside of Camp Crame and Camp Bonifacio, stopping tanks with their bodies and praying, persuading the soldiers to turn their back on the dictator. The memories now come in halting slow-motion, courageous images that captured the imagination of peoples everywhere and doubtless influenced the freedom movement around the world.

Marcos Falls

Scary, fearful, uncertain moments but before we knew it, Ferdinand Marcos was reeling from the blows, he was down, swollen face and all and then he was escaping the Palace. Meantime, Corazon Aquino was being sworn in. The Fight was won.
All the emotions, all the fearful and angry years under the terror were let loose in a mixture of tears and exultation.
The day we had all waited for had arrived after all the repressions, the violations of human rights, imprisonments, the tortures, the disappearances, the salvaging, the fears, the terrors, deceptions, the rapacity and greed of the Marcos regime.
It was of course an ironic joke that many of the people who grabbed he limelight and the credit during those days were the very people who implemented the Marcos program. But apparently not too many cared…the Filipinos were in a forgiving mood…differences could be settled later on.
Many of us hastily booked flights. Friends who were prominent in the anti-Marcos coalition in the New York area were flying home. We were calling each other. What are your plans? When are you going home?
I cancelled a few engagements, an arnis de mano workshop in New England, and begged off from a poetry festival. I said goodbye to a few friends. A Pennsylvania newspaper wanted to do a feature article about my return home and asked me to send in my impressions for their op-ed page (I understand that my field reports triggered a boycott of the newspaper by a local VFW because of my position on the US conduct in the Philippines but the editor published them anyway).
All I needed was a few more bucks for pocket-money to travel around the islands and buy the traditional pasalubong (homecoming gifts) for relatives.

Another Miracle

A few days before my departure, a martial arts school quickly scheduled a 4-hour arnis workshop for me to teach; with 50 students attending, the income wasn’t bad. The day before my departure I won a few hundred dollars in the lottery. I was willing to believe in miracles, God was intervening in my behalf. I was really flying high.
For the two months I had scheduled to be in the Philippines I made plans to see the old hometown in Tarlac, relatives in Luzon, my martial arts teacher in Cebu, friends and classmates in the University of the Philippines and visit familiar places, perhaps, Baguio, Pagsanjan, Banawe.
There was a lot of territory to cover, news to catch up on,a land that was deeply missed, and a big occasion to celebrate.

Touring Manila

When I arrived in Manila, it was quite muggy and warm. I ventured into the streets of the city. Much had changed. MetroManila itself looked different. Luneta seemed forlorn and shrivelled up; the Tai Chi Chuan groups I used to play with at dawn had dwindled or disappeared; in their place was a kind of aerobic class dancing to loud music. Chinatown looked stripped: its cobbled streets dug up and replaced with concrete.
There was an elevated train running the length of Avenida Rizal, the main street of the city. Young children, male and female alike, some as young as ten, were escorting foreigners in the streets of Ermita or begging. It seemed that there were more bars and cocktail lounges every block than I remembered. New buildings had sprouted in erstwhile farmlands. The air was unbearably polluted.
The old Rizal Theatre and its old neighbor Sulo Restaurant in Makati were now surrounded by hotels, department stores, restaurants, bookstores, and multiplex cinemas.
It may have been my imagination, but there was an atmosphere of camaraderie and celebration all around. Old political allies and comrades were meeting in the open again. Enemies were getting reconciled. Exiles were flying in from different parts of the world– Europe, China, the United States.

Rendezvous in Manila

The Psinakises and Esclamados, prominent anti-Marcos stalwarts who lived in California, I had heard so much about but never met, were in town, Rodel Rodis from San Francisco was arriving, some of the old hands in the PETAL were already in Manila. Two Filipinos who were marooned in China when Marcos suspended the writer of habeas corpus in 1972 had returned and were already doing the rounds of the reunion and party circuit– Ericson Baculinao was going to make an appearance at our fraternity gathering, Chito Sta Romana another China expert was speaking at a college gathering somewhere.
Nelson Navarro, an exile in the US, was in town too.
Alejandro Roces was writing again, editing the family newspaper, The Manila Times, with my oldtime Philippine Collegian adviser, Hernan Abaya. Maximo Soliven was back in harness after being blackballed by the Marcos press boys. Luis Beltran, who reportedly raised fighting cocks to survive during the Marcos era, raised his voice again.
The political prisoners were not only getting their release papers and regrouping, they were also being honored in the upper reaches of the elitist society. There were plenty of speeches.
Nick Joaquin, the premiere writer of the country, had just written a commemorative on the February Revolution. Longtime London resident Chit Navarro, who Wrote the “Untold Story of Imelda Marcos,” was doing the rounds of interviews — for another book? Ninotska Rosca and Belinda Aquino, former faculty at the University of Hawaii, were reportedly coming too. Heherson Alvarez and Cecille, exiles for more than ten years in the United States, with their two children in tow were looking for a house and planning to resume a life that had been cruelly interrupted.

Spring in Manila

It was like, well, coming up for air after a long time underwater. Manila was quite festive. It was Spring. Numerous newspapers, many of which were barred from publishing during the Marcos era, sprung to life again overnight. Famous names were being interviewed on TV. The mass media, the “freest in the world”, were back in full force, still loud, vigorous and long-winded.
College friends and classmates from 25 years before were now up there in public service (they were either coming in or going out), many were in the judiciary or in legal practice. Some I saw delivering commentaries on TV or writing newspaper articles. Some were college professors. Many were rich, very rich, balding, with gray hair and paunches, invariably married, with children now grown-up.
Cafes were standing room only. The Peninsula Hotel lobby in Makati was swarming with people who were there to see and be seen. The Calesa Bar and Restaurant at the Intercontinental was also packed. The air was resounding with songs of victory and promise but also with loud arguments on the country’s future.
The Cultural Center was scouting around for a more proletarian fare. Van Cliburn, Imelda’s favorite cultural icon was too arty-arty; bring in the heirs of Bertolt Brecht and Amado Hernandez.
Many of the Marcos diehards, especially those reported to have made millions beyond their demonstrated legal income, went in hiding, well, they lay low in the meantime.


In retrospect, the last days seemed karmic. There was an almost clockwork precision in the events, a kind of inevitability. History was being made to happen and somebody (or something) up there was choreographing it. There were Roman Catholics who believed it was the Virgin Mary. Manila’s astrologers, charting the course of the planets, asserted that the fall of Marcos was inevitable from the convergence of astral energy. Marcos must have thought the fault was not in his stars; it was Cardinal Sin who intervened.
Afterwards, looking back, we wondered: Suppose Marcos did not leave? Suppose he ordered his soldiers to attack earlier in the proceedings? Suppose Cardinal Sin did not ask the people to go to EDSA? Suppose…. There were a legion variables any one of which could have changed the course of history.
We knew the jubilation wasn’t going to last forever. Nobody ever claimed it was going to be a lifetime picnic. We knew reality was staring us right in the streets where we danced to celebrate the occasion. Imelda’s 20-foot fences and Potemkin Villages couldn’t hide the ugly deceptions of the Marcos government, and there was urgent work to be done. But the courage, patience, determination and selflessness that brought about the triumph of the February Revolution deserved every toast, every party, every congratulation we could muster. And so we sang and partied and drank a toast to the living and the dead, to the courageous nun who prayed on her knees, the anonymous woman who offered a flower of peace to the heavily armed soldier, the mother who brought a basket of food and the thousands from different sectors of society who joined hands at EDSA; we saluted the soldiers and Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos (despite suspicions they turned on the dictator just to save their skins); we paid homage to the countless workers who laid the foundation for the February Revolution; we remembered those who perished in battles and those who disappeared; we gave our heartfelt thanks to the TV crew that broadcast the messages from the barricades; not to mention the scoundrels, the Johnnys-Come-Lately, the opportunists, the “higups” and the “sipsips,” and the operators for we knew they were there too.

Cebu and Bantayan

From Manila I went to Cebu to see an old college friend and further my training in arnis de mano (Philippine stickfighting). While I studied arnis I lived with a family in the outskirts of the city, in the Labangon, Punta and Tisa area. I was told that a couple of years back an activist priest, a certain Brother Hermano, while doing grassroots work was taken by military men and was not heard from again. Everybody in the house I stayed in was out of work because the unions, suppressed during the long Marcos era, decided it was time to go on strike. Many in the neighborhood were unemployed, including the arnis master who was a security guard in a warehouse.
It wasn’t much different in the island of Bantayan, off the northwest tip of Cebu, where I spent a week or so with my friend and teacher, Johnny Chiuten, wrapping bread at his bakery and studying more arnis de mano with an old master. There were 7 or 8 young workers, most of them female, tending to the store, sorting and packing bread, sometimes doing housework. They considered themselves lucky to be employed and have a place to stay and food to eat. A few people I talked with wanted to go to Manila — to “do anything.” Many people were not working, just hanging around in the marketplace, sometimes drinking tuba or beer, or shooting basketballs in the town plaza. A few couples I talked to had 8-10 children.

Lecturing on Martial arts

Back again in Manila, I gave a lecture on martial arts at the lovely home of interior decorator Edith Oliveros; Anding Roces took the time from his busy schedule to introduce me to the invited audience of journalists, educators and students. All of a sudden I found my picture splashed in a few publications, lionized as a martial arts master to my endless embarrassment.
I visited with some more relatives who, it turned out, were themselves unemployed. They had the obligatory college education and work experience but there just wasn’t any job available. Even the restaurants were not hiring any more waiters and dishwashers, department stores were not taking any more salesclerks and stockboys.

Dismantling the Old

It was time for the country to dismantle the remnants of the cruel regime, establish (or re-establish) a democracy, create a more just society and strengthen the constitution against dictatorial tendencies and machinations. At the moment it seemed the democratic impulse was predominant because of the fear of another dictatorship; but it was also clear that the country needed a political and economic restructuring in the face of the unbelievable poverty and hopelessness, the gap between rich and poor, the rampant corruption, and the bulging government machinery that became a dumping ground for political proteges, friends and relatives.
When I left MetroManila was still buzzing with excitement. I returned to Manila in December 1986 with my family to show the children the old country they had not seen since they were small. When they came back to Pennsylvania, I stayed behind. I travelled to my old hometown to see relatives. I taught an instructor’s workshop in arnis de mano in the University and a few Taoist meditation courses and went back to Cebu and Bantayan to take further lessons in a style of stickfighting called Lapunti Arnis de Abanico. I took the bus to Baguio City and then across Pangasinan to Mt. Banawe and saw the appalling denudation of the mountains. The Manila Times reprinted my essay “RIZAL: Zen Life, Zen Death,” which was originally published in the Philippine News.

Diminished Crowd

At the celebration of the first anniversary of the February Revolution, thousands attended but it was a very much diminished crowd. We wore our yellow shirts, carried Laban banners and placards, sang “Bayan Ko,” marched at Edsa and the Luneta. The euphoria was not gone but it was not the same. The RAMBoys were giving President Aquino a lot of headaches. It was the season of the coups. Demonstrations were getting to be a regular fare on TV. The coalition that toppled Marcos was splitting in several places. The Cory charisma was fading.
In mid-1987, before I came back to the United States, people were already talking about lost opportunities. The intelligentsia was debating whether the constitutional convention in its implicit fear of another dictatorship had hamstrung the president. Marcos followers were back, political alignments were being adjusted. Commentators were talking about the clannish nature of Philippine society (actually somebody called the Filipinos tribal) and predicting a gory denouement to the ongoing power struggle.
I wonder now, seven years after the fall of Marcos, if something could have been done– by the government and the people who played a big role in the February Revolution– to channel that great outpouring of emotion into a mass movement of reconstruction.

Days of Heroism

Those were days of heroism: in an inspiring period the Philippines seemed united in a momentous undertaking, a grand and eloquent statement of a people’s fight for freedom and triumph, despite the odds. The February Revolution was one of the numerous heroic moments in Philippine history, a milestone attained through its ideals of sacrifice, courage, selflessness, unity and determination.
I think of February 1986 and notwithstanding today’s pessimistic picture, I can see from that shining hour what the Filipinos are capable of doing.
Here’s yet another toast to those times and those brave people!

February 1993, Weston, Massachusetts.

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The Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Curriculum

By Rene J. Navarro

“The Tai Chi Chuan curriculum consists of hand forms first (i.e., empty hand), such as Tai Chi Chuan and Tai Chi Long Boxing. Next comes One Hand Push Hands, Fixed Position Push Hands, Push Hands with Active Steps, Ta Lu, and Free Sparring. Last comes weapons, such as Tai Chi Double-Edged Sword, Tai Chi Broadsword, Tai Chi Spear (Thirteen Spear). And so forth.” –Yang Cheng-Fu

Douglas Wile, Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Transmissions, p. 7

When I was studying Tai Chi Chuan Yang Family Style in Manila’s Chinatown in the late 1960’s I saw only three “forms” – Solo Form which we later called the Long Form to distinguish it from the Short version; Sword Form; Push Hands (if we can call it a form). The master who taught Tai Chi Chuan at the school where I studied, Hua Eng Athletic Club, in Manila, was Han Ching-Tang, the famous teacher from Taiwan. Master Han wasn’t around when I started studying, but Chan Bun Te, an impeccable stylist, who studied the form with him, was.

Rene 1969
The photo was taken in 1969 or 1970 sometime just
outside the old apartment in Kamuning, Quezon City
Philippines. I had been studying Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan
with Master Chan Bun Te, the cousin of my Chinese
godfather Chan Tek Lao, at Hua Eng in Binondo, Manila’s
Chinatown. I was in my late 20s, I loved low stances. I
was flexible and truly gloried indoing the form. I was
gifted with an heirloom. It was my first encounter with
internal arts. At the time, I also studied Pa-Kua Quan
with an old Chinese whose name was Chan shifu.
Another old Chinese who did Tai chi with
me under Master Lao Yun Hsiao offered to teach me
calligraphy. He gave me paper, brushes and ink and
showed me how to write yong (eternity) but when I left
for the US, the lessons ended.

Master Han apparently taught only these three Tai chi chuan forms — the Solo Form and Push Hands ( both of which I studied) and the Sword Form (which I did not). There were students who were practicing the Sword form when I was at Hua-Eng. I learned a few movements but the man whose name I can’t remember now and was probably called Mr. Sy who was teaching it left and nobody took his place. My Shaolin master Johnny Chiuten gave me a video of this talented man performing several forms — Solo tai chi form, Sword form (Han’s also), a type of Chen style Solo form, and Pa-Kua Chuan — apparently most of them, if not all, learned from Han Ching-Tang.

I understand that Master Han studied the Solo form from the Sports College or Chin Wu in Nanjing where Yang Chengfu taught in the early 30s. But Han had revised it in many ways. The opening, for instance, looked like the beginning of 5 Element Fist of Hsing-I. In other places, he had changed the movements too, but fortunately not the names.

I learned another version of the Yang Family Solo Form from Grandmaster Lieu/Lao Yun Hsiao (also from Taiwan) later on, when the master was visiting the Philippines in 1970. He did not teach us any other Tai Chi Chuan form.

At the time, like many people, I thought these three forms were what constituted the whole Tai chi chuan curriculum of the Yang Family.

When I moved to the United States in August 1970, I saw a few teachers. Their curriculum covered the Solo Form plus Push Hands. Sometimes they taught a Sword form; often not. I observed Tai chi chuan masters on both the East and West Coast.

From what I had seen at his school in New York City, the legendary Cheng Man-Ching taught his abbreviated 37-movement Solo form, Push hands/Sensing hands, and Sword. I haven’t found any other evidence that he taught any other form. It is possible that he also taught Ta-Lu (translated at the Gin Soon Tai chi club as “great pulling”), which is really a small part of San-sou (the 2-Man Sparring form), to a few students.

In 1986, I was taken by Gunter Weil and Rylin Malone, two friends from the Healing Tao, to the Gin Soon Tai chi Club in Boston’s Chinatown district.
For the first time, I saw a more varied curriculum that included not only Push Hands, Solo form, and Sword but also Staff-Spear and Broadsword. It was quite a pleasant surprise not only to see a genuine master in Gin Soon Chu, the second disciple of Yang Sau-Chung, but also to come upon forms I had not seen before, and he was teaching them openly.

There are two possible reasons why only one or two Tai chi chuan forms of the Yang Family became widely disseminated. One reason might be that the Yang family did not teach the other forms — or taught them to only a few people, mostly their close disciples or children. Another reason is that a majority of students are inclined — for lack of time or motivation or opportunity — to study only one or two forms. I have seen many teachers and practitioners who have studied only one form, invariabily the solo fist form, often an abbreviated one.

This was the group photo taken of the Tai chi class under
Grandmaster Lao Yun Hsiao, a famous teacher from
Taiwan, who taught Tai chi solo form (108) and Ba Ji Quan
in Manila in 1970. The tuition was only 10 pesos for the
whole course, the equivalent of about 25 cents at the
current exchange. I am somewhere on the second row.

When Yang Cheng-Fu was alive, it appeared that only two or three forms were taught in public — the Solo form; Push Hands; and the first Sword form.

The other forms — like the Chang-chuan (Long Fist), 2-man sparring set (San-sou),staff-spear set, Knife/Broadsword, second Sword and perhaps others — were usually not taught.

Which makes me wonder: What did the famous masters like Dong Ying Jie, Chen Weiming, Fu Xiaowen, Cheng Man-Ching learn from Yang Cheng-Fu? Cheng Man-Ching claims to have been taught “everything” by Yang Cheng-Fu but I have not seen evidence for it. From the curriculum that he taught, Chen Weiming learned the Solo form, Sword, Spear, Push Hands, and Chang-chuan. What these famous masters actually learned I won’t even bother to guess at. A sensitive subject this, and I don’t like to step on anybody’s toes. If anybody reads this article, s/he can tell me if they are privy to reliable information about what the masters learned.

It is possible that these masters learned some or all of their forms from Yang Cheng-fu’s son, Yang Sau-Chung, who it is known in the family and the circle of his students became his father’s assistant and often took over the teaching chores.
Who of the masters will admit that he studied with the young son (a teenager at that) instead of the famous father? The incredible story of Yang Sau-Chung, the first-born and heir of the legendary Yang Cheng-Fu, is yet to be told to the public.

In the Yang Family tradition, except for the times when Grandmaster Yang Cheng-fu taught in Chin Wu groups, usually he taught only one, perhaps two students at a time. As a result, a student may not know what other students were studying unless s/he talked to them. Moreover, one student can claim to have learned a form or everything from Yang Cheng-Fu himself and only Yang Cheng-Fu would know the truth, and he is dead.

Rene with Gin Soon Chu
Shigong Gin Soon Chu, second disciple of GM Yang
Sau-Chung, teaching me Push Hands at the school in
Boston’s Chinatown. He is the most knowledgeable Tai chi
master I have ever seen in my exploration. He does not
have to say anything, but if you are perceptive, you will
know exactly what he is doing. As the Dao De Jing says,
“He who knows does not speak” and “The Dao that can be
said is not the real Dao.” His lessons are beyond words.

With Grandmaster Yang Sau-Chung (1909-1985), many of the lessons were taught in a small apartment in Hongkong. There was really no room for a big class. Each student took private lessons. As far as I know, there were no public announcements of workshops or classes, just private lessons.

What Yang Cheng-Fu was talking about in the epigraph above is that there is indeed an extended curriculum of fist and weapons forms. It is not just one or two forms, there are several; apparently, some of them were secret forms taught only to a few disciples.

In the list, Yang Cheng-Fu mentioned the Tai chi chuan form. This probably refers to the Solo Form, the revised form — a large-frame, long, simplified form — that was popularized in China in an attempt to help the people improve their health. I said “probably” because there are really different versions of it and I won’t presume to know what the great Yang was referring to.

Master Yang also referred to Tai chi Long Boxing. Was he being redundant here, since Tai Chi Chuan also refers to Long Boxing, or was he referring to another entirely different form? I conjecture that he was referring to another form, specifically the Chang Chuan form, which is often considered the Long form in the Yang Family. “Chang” means long and alludes to a river like the Yang-Tze. Chang chuan is also sometimes referred to, rightly or wrongly, as the Fast Tai chi chuan form (because of its fast movements) or the Fa-jing form (because of its explosive techniques).

Rene with Kim in NY
Master H Won Kim, second disciple of Chu Shigong, and I
trained in the school in Boston. He is one of the few
teachers who knows the curriculum taught by Chu shigong.
His Push Hands is incredible. He has a school in Manhattan.
For more info about him, go to: www.nytaichi.com

I have not seen the Chang Chuan form mentioned in the literature. But, according to Vincent F. Chu, there are books in China about it written by students of Chen Wei-ming. Chen Weiming himself listed the moves of Chang-Chuan in his book on the firstTai chi Sword form published in the 30s. A translation of this book into English by Barbara Davis omits the list.

Chang Chuan is a beautiful and rare form characterized by alternately slow and sudden, dynamic and explosive movements. The movements are actually similar in name to the Solo Form but there are variations in the sequence and in the technique and execution.

There is also a complete form called 2-Man Sparring Set (San-Sou). It is a form that enables the practitioner to learn the deeper application of the different movements in the Solo and Chang Chuan forms. The student has to study both sides (A and B) to learn the form.

Push Hands in the Yang Family tradition as transmitted by Yang Sau-Chung is a complicated discipline. There are at least 7 different facets of it, some involving stationary postures with hand movements and positions that are intended to develop internal structure, sensitivity, receiving and explosive energy, softness and dynamism; others involving manipulations of the chi; still others involving movement of the hands and feet (like Ta-Lu). Basically, it was a training that incorporated the 36 or so techniques of fa-jing.

From the curriculum offered by Master Gin Soon Chu, I learned there are indeed these fist and weapons forms handed down in the Yang Family. There are even three versions of the Knife/Broadsword form (one of them, a vigorous and fast version known as Yang Sau-Chung’s favorite, another with a flying inside crescent kick like Shaolin) and two versions of the Sword form (one of them called Yang Cheng-fu’s form).

Yang Cheng-Fu’s “And so forth” in the quotation above leaves much to the imagination. He was obviously referring to other forms, but he did not elaborate.

It is possible he was referring to the halberd, advance spear form and others, which Master Gin Soon Chu knows, but I can only guess what these forms are.

Copyright (c) 2001 Rene J. Navarro

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Taoist Self-Cultivation

By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)

Qi Bo to the Yellow Emperor/Huang Di:

In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance, of yin and yang, as represented by the transformation of the energies of the universe. Thus they formulated practices such as Dao-in (qigong), an exercise combining stretching, massaging, and breathing to promote energy flow, and meditation to help maintain and harmonize themselves with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years.

These days, people have changed their way Fof life. They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their jing — the body’s essence that is stored in the kidneys — and deplete their qi. They do not know the secret of conserving their energy and vitality. Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm and order of the universe. They fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet, and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after.

— The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (translated by Maoshing Ni, Ph.D.)/Huang Di Neijing Suwen

It is Autumn, just a little chilly now, with a soft breeze and occasionally a shower descending down the Appalachian mountains of northern Pennsylvania. Mornings I would wake up early, boil some tea, put on my black pants, sneakers, sweatshirt and a vest, and carry a broadsword, sword and sometimes a spear, to the park in Easton where I would practice. It is part of the regimen I try to observe every day when I am home.

When it is a little warm, a thick mist covers the Delaware River and much of the old bridge across it. It’s not Wudang Temple, where Tai chi chuan was supposed to have been developed, or Huangshan, arguably the most beautiful mountain in all China and the legendary retreat of Qin Shi Huang Di, but it is a lovely setting for an aspiring Taoist.

I would face East in the direction of New Jersey where the sun would rise in a couple of hours. There are certain preliminaries I observe: quieting myself, clearing my mind, feeling the earth qi beneath my feet, activating certain energy points, breathing deeply, being aware of the environment. I would spend time just getting ready. And then I would do several rounds of the Classical Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan 108 movements solo form, Broadsword form and the Sword form.

Perhaps, I would conclude this part of my exercise with one or two of the Shaolin forms, Dragon and Tiger set or Plum Blossom Fist. When inspired and energetic, I would also walk through the complete sets other Tai chi chuan forms of the system, and fragments of certain exercises like Zhan Zhuang and Ba Xian qigong.

Group photo of class in Istanbul 2004
Group photo of class in Istanbul 2004 showing, among
others, David Verdesi, Ana Vladimirova, Gonca Denizmen
and me. During the David’s seminar, I taught Plum
Blossom Qigong and Ling Cong Jing.

There was a time in my early training in Boston in the 90s when I would do a form at least 5 times straight through, nonstop.

After my routine, I would sit on a bench facing the sun and spend time in meditation. It’s just another practice in the large repertoire of Chinese qigong: absorbing the qi of the sun (or the moon) into the body through different points.

It’s not always the same every time; I would actually include certain exercises that I feel are necessary or that inspire me at the moment. If it is raining or the weather is too harsh, I stay inside and do other routines. When I am able to follow my program of practices, I usually sleep early, say, at 8 or 9 pm and wake up at 4 or 5. In between, I can wake up at 1 am and do a qigong set, sleep and wake up again at 2:30 to continue the practice, sleep and wake up again at 4 or 5. At 7 or 8, I would usually have a breakfast of oatmeal, banana and hot tea and a toast with peanut butter. Well, it is not exactly a Taoist meal but because it’s easy to prepare, that’s what I usually have. In this area on Eastern Pennsylvania, that’s the best I could do. When conditions allow it, I would usually have soup or congee with herbs.

There are many reasons why the Taoist practitioner would go to bed early and wake up at certain hours of the night. It has something to do with concepts like the Hour of Tzu and the Circadian cycles of the body, the organs and the qi. There is also a reason why the Tai chi chuan practitioner would face a certain direction – the Jade Emperor, the Green Dragon, the Sun play a role in the matter — and why he would activate certain points in his body before he starts his form and breathe from the dantian/navel center. There is also a reason – or reasons — why he assumes certain postures and movements in qigong and why he eats certain food at a particular time.

It is all part of self-cultivation, a category of practices and disciplines that focus on the transformation of the body: physical, mental, psychological, energetic, and spiritual. It was mentioned in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine/Huang Di Nei Jing more than 2500 years ago.

China is unique in that no other culture or country in history has such a complete repertoire of self-cultivation practices.

Over the years, possibly at least 8 thousand years of evolution, self-cultivation practices were developed by the Chinese, primarily by the Taoists and secondarily by the Buddhists and Confucians, in pursuit of longevity, peace, tranquility, happiness, health, victory in warfare, and immortality.

There is no specific, doctrinaire rule that says what these arts or regimens are, I don’t think. But from tradition and the definition of self-cultivation techniques, it is possible to draw certain conclusions.

What it includes


To me, self-cultivation would include: meditation, qigong, martial arts (Tai chi chuan, Pa-Kua Chang, Hsing-I, Liu He Bafa, Shaolin, etc.), movement, feng-hsui, astrology, sex (“The Art of the Clouds and the Rains”), massage (tuina, anmo), internal alchemy (neidan), qigong/taoyin and the healing arts of acupuncture, herbology. These are arts that are directed towards the development of the human being. These are activities that the Chinese would often do or have somebody do to them to develop themselves, They are arguably the earliest self-help methods of keeping healthy, being attuned with nature, losing weight, finding relaxation, having good sex; generally, living the good life.

What strikes me is the fact that these different arts, philosophies and regimens are so intricate that they cannot possibly be mastered in a short period of time. It is usually used as a text for divination and not often as a guide to self-development, but the I Ching (Book of Change) alone would take a lifetime, perhaps more, to understand. Confucius himself said that if he had another 50 years, he would devote them to its study. My teacher in Classical Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Sifu Gin Soon Chu told me that a lifetime is not enough to master it, so why should one study other styles of martial arts?

It is puzzling therefore that there are practitioners who would claim the honorific “master” although they have not penetrated the deeper secrets of an art. Master of what, is a matter that would require a long, long explanation.

Pursuit of Perfection


Self-cultivation developed mainly due to the Chinese desire for improvement and perfection. In China, since ancient times, there has been awareness of the divine and eternal life and of the relationship between Heaven and Earth. A dominant concept is that the human being should pursue his destiny – the role he has to play on earth – that Heaven has set out for him in this lifetime. Another concept is that although he is far from being a celestial being, he is touched by the divine and has the potential to become an immortal, a sage or a “righteous being” (or any class of enlightened person) through the development of virtues and the practice of internal alchemy.

In the Heart is the residence of the Shen, the Spirit that carries the purpose of life, the Spirit that keeps bringing us back to the course we are supposed to follow in this incarnation so that we will achieve our goal.

To be able to achieve that goal or goals, we have to learn different ways of prolonging life. This was basically a Taoist goal, but it has become widespread in China throughout most of its history.

Fund-raising Seminar for the detox center in Manila.
Fund-raising Seminar for the detox center in Manila.
Among the students are: Janet Paredes (detox
acupuncture expert) to my right and Stella Unson and Ric
Caminade to my left. They have studied Chi Nei Tsang
Internal Organs Massage, Tai chi chuan, and Taoyin/
qigong with me for between 5 to 12 years in Manila.

Self-cultivation exercises are very often linked with principles and ideas like yin and yang (true and false types), 5 Elements theory, qi, the Trinity (Heaven, Humanity, and Earth is one its interpretations), the Three Spirits and Seven Souls, Kan/Fire and Li/Water, traditional anatomy and physiology, Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, Pa-Kua (8 Trigrams), Magic Square, Magic Circle, Reversal and Return, and stillness and “emptiness.” Many of the exercises are connected to longevity, immortality, our relationship to nature, the Universe and the Tao, and our destiny and identity.

These principles are often hidden behind metaphorical language and numerology so abstruse that even experts can take a long time to decipher them. Especially for somebody who does not read the characters, ancient and modern, the search gets infinitely more daunting. It is as if the masters did not want the succeeding generation to know their secrets, which may as well be true.

More and more knowledge is getting lost because teachers are keeping it to themselves perhaps out of fear, greed, or distrust. In the course of time, practitioners get to learn less and less of the hidden transmissions and only the outer teachings are handed down. To the average students, what they learn may be enough. But for gifted and serious students, who are to be part of the lineage, it can be terribly frustrating.

There is indeed an Inner Tradition in much of Chinese culture, whether it is martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, qigong, meditation, sexology, internal alchemy. Different levels of knowledge – usually classified into the Trinity – have developed over the thousands of years of Chinese tradition. Frequently, what is popular is only the surface knowledge. In Tai Chi Chuan, for instance, the physical form is accessible and is practiced by millions of people. It is of course a good practice, especially if it is done correctly. But there are other levels too – esoteric and arcane – that are known only by a select few.

Practice and Theory


As I review my practices, I realize how certain principles – religious, mystical, philosophical, energetic, cosmological, astrological – underpin the activities of my daily life. I don’t even think about it now. After more than 40 years studying and practicing different aspects of Chinese culture, I have to some extent integrated these principles. At the same time, I feel humbled not only by the plethora of self-cultivation methods there are in existence, but also by the ideas and concepts that were developed by the sages, doctors, priests and priestesses, emperors, philosophers, and shamans in the course of Chinese history. These principles have permeated different facets of Chinese life.

Often, these principles are not obvious and clear to a non-Chinese. To mention just a few simple things: You bow 3 times, you face north, south or east or you see different colors and flavors at a meal and of course there is a reason behind it. Through the millennia, certain ideas and philosophies and mythologies have informed the culture in different ways. Almost all areas of human endeavor in China have principles — or reasons, at least — behind them: from architecture to rituals, from relationships and hierarchies (both earthly and divine) to clothes, from ancestor worship to meditation, and much, much more.

Whether it is cooking or movement, fighting or meditation, funerals and births, weddings and initiations, geomancy or healing, there are principles that underlie them. With dietetics, you have to know different correspondences: flavors, colors, balancing and proportion, seasons (as in Winter or Summer), scents, yin and yang; you need to know herbs, as well, because they are very much a part Chinese cuisine. In martial arts, possibly one of the most accessible of the Chinese disciplines, there are principles (or philosophy, if you wish) that one has to learn if one is to achieve expertise in the field: strategy and tactics, breathing, qigong, point striking, yin-yang, meridians and 5 Elements, etc. Martial arts, to the Chinese, are not just hitting, striking and fighting. There are different levels of development which include different forms and principles, including at the higher ranks, circadian rhythm of the meridians.

So elaborate are the principles that it overwhelms me to think about them. In acupuncture, for instance, as alluded to earlier, there are basic concepts about the human body and energetics that one has to know. In the more advanced treatments, you have to learn not just yin and yang, the names and uses of the 360 or so points, the different pulses and tongues, the relationships of the organs and meridians, and the manner of insertion and manipulation, but what to needle at certain times of the day or year as well. There are countless other considerations such as what the astrological chart of the patient shows. In certain cases, the acupuncturist may have to mediate the destiny of the patient or facilitate his demise when there is a struggle with death. It can of course be a mind-boggling labyrinth.

In feng-shui (literally wind and water, or geomancy, the art of placement) different systems have been developed that involve the natal chart of the owner, the time the house was built, and the different directions of the Pa-Kua (8 Trigrams). It seems to be a simple straightforward approach, but it can be quite complicated. Black Hat and Flying Star are two of the more traditional styles of the art.

It’s Your Body


One of the major premises of self-cultivation is that you are blessed with a body – and its different manifestations — and you should be responsible for it. I believe there is an emphasis here on self-empowerment and human application: the ability of the individual to rise through his own effort. Plainly speaking, self-cultivation encourages people to engage in preventative regimen, i.e., do not wait for the body to break down. This is likewise the advice to healers from the Huangdi Neijing Suwen: waiting for disease to set in before they do a treatment is like digging for water only when one is thirsty or preparing for war when the enemy is already at the gate.

Another premise of self-cultivation is that you preserve and nourish the 3 Treasures, the trinity in the microcosm of the body: Jing, Qi and Shen. These three form a hierarchy, Jing being the lowest (though not necessarily the least important) and grossest, and Shen, the highest and most refined. Each one of them likewise has levels of refinement and subtlety. In the macrocosm of the external world, the trinity corresponds to Earth, Humanity and Heaven. The trinity concept is likewise used in other fields: in architecture, in the arrangement of temples, and the hierarchy of deities.

A common precept in self-cultivation is the “sealing of the senses” or some such version of protection from draining your energy or allowing the external world to enter your body:

The five colors blind the eye

The five tones deafen the ear

The five flavors dull the palate

Racing,hunting, and galloping about

Only disturb the mind

Wasting energy to obtain rare objects

Only impede one’s growth

So the Sage is led by his inner truth

And not his outer eye

He holds to what is deep

And not what lies on the surface

Chapter 12, Dao De Jing (translated by Jonathan Star)

Block up the openings,

Shut the gateways,

Soften the glare,

Bring things together on the same track,

Blunt the sharp edges,

Untangle the knots.

This is the profoundest resonance.

Chapter 56, Dao De Jing (translated by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall)

Other authorities from the Daoist Canon/Dao Zang corroborate this concept.

The physical is important of course but it is on a low-scale of development. That’s why the martial, physical and health aspects of training are on a lower level than energetic/qi development and the spiritual. The martial aspect trains the body for fighting, the health regimen improve the body’s functions. Mental and spiritual are not their focus: these are cultivated in a different way and through different practices. As well, war is something to be avoided anyway, according to a long line of Chinese classics especially the Laozi (Dao De Jing) and Sunzi (Art of Warfare).

The 3 Treasures nourish each other and get transformed into each other through the techniques of self-cultivation. Roughly, Jing may be identified as sexual and creative energy and vitality, Qi as lifeforce and nutritional energy, and Shen as spirit or soul. At certain points, these three interface with each other and with the immanent Mind.

A truly valuable practice is the preservation of sexual energy. Seminal retention in men is required in many cases. Indeed before a student is taught anything, he (or she) may be required to observe celibacy for a certain period, often for at least 2 years. It is in a way the energetic equivalent of standing in the low horse for a several hours a day over a period of 6 months to a year. There is the famous quotation from Lu Tung-pin, the sword immortal: “The door through which I was born is also the Gate of Death.” If the student cannot abstain from sex, he has to learn the rules of engagement, basically a combination of breathing, muscular contraction, timing, and non-ejaculation.

What one eats, drinks and breathes is also important. It is the foundation of nutritional energy and Post-Natal Qi. There are, of course, different nutritional regimens in China, what with regional, family, and temple cuisines. Vegetarianism is sometimes not mandated, except during heavy meditational practices and by certain sects. There are recipes required by Taoists and Buddhist groups for special occasions. For certain sects and practices, spirits and liquor are prohibited because they result in over-stimulation of the energy and the senses. Fasting may likewise be included in the regimen. As for this, there is a belief in the “avoidance of grains and cereals” that has something to do with eliminating worms from the body. “Bigu” is another related regimen: basically giving up food and relying on water, mist and the absorption of qi from the environment.

Breathing fresh air – especially in the mountain – may be advised for those with serious physical problems or those who have dedicated themselves to serious spiritual work. Different breathing techniques – divided roughly into “warrior” and “scholar” (or yang and yin) — are practiced for certain disciplines and at certain times.

There are also times when disciples will have to undergo a period of meditation in a dark cave. Doing the practices in complete darkness has been found to produce startling results in energy and psychic clarity. A person who has lived in isolation in darkness can experience a connection to past lives, recall childhood memories, encounter certain energies and spirits or develop powers. It can of course possibly result in painful traumas as well.

Genome and Yuan Qi


There is a belief in China that you inherit certain qualities at birth from your ancestors, Earth and Heaven (to a great extent, through the alignment of the natal stars). These are the so-called prenatal qualities. Perhaps we can call them genetic predispositions today. Like the DNA, these are imprinted in your life. They may determine your destiny. They are often compared to capital in the bank, your original deposit that can earn interest if you mange it well. In Chinese thought, they are yuan qi. Yuan qi is difficult to translate but it relates to the pre-natal or original energy, something you have at birth: We are born with different amounts of yuan qi. One school of thought argues that, if you spend it, you can’t replace it any more. Another school of thought that is gaining currency nowadays believes that you can replenish it through food and herbs and certain practices associated with self-cultivation.

Yuan qi can determine your strengths and weaknesses, how much you have as part of your inheritance. Some people have strong lungs and weak digestion. Others have strong Kidneys and weak Lung.*

Ana Vladimirova (Russian) and Gonca Denizmen (Turkish), my students, during practice in the backyard along the Bosphorus, Istanbul.
Ana Vladimirova (Russian) and Gonca Denizmen (Turkish),
my students, during practice in the backyard along the
Bosphorus, Istanbul. I first studied Xing Shen Zhuang Fa
with David Verdesi (Italian) in Chiangmai in 2001, with
Gonca Denizmen in Huangshan in 2007 and then Ana
Vladimirova in Rome in 2009, and haven’t stopped
learning the wonderful art.

In a simple way, the suggested approach in self-cultivation is that you should preserve and nurture what you were born with, develop and nurture what you have little of, and give birth if possible to what you don’t have. If for instance, you have strong Kidney Qi, then you should not drain it; instead, you should nourish it. On the other hand, if you have weak Lung Qi, you should train not to make it weak by smoking; instead you should try to make it strong by doing qigong exercises. If you feel your jing is failing or is absent to the point that you can’t get it up, then you should use a combination of treatments – qigong, herbs and acupuncture – to let your sexual energy grow.

Self-Cultivation Methods


What makes a practice a method of self-cultivation?

  1. It is composed of a regimen that cultivates the physical, mental, energetic and spiritual aspects of the human being separately or together.
  2. The method is often directed or focused on: energy, emotions, parts of the body (tendon, bone, organs, etc.), spirit, sexual energy, etc.
  3. It can be stationary or with movement (sitting, lying down, or standing).
  4. It can be linked to breathing or breath and with the dantian.**
  5. It can be synchronized with the time of the day or month or year and with the astrological and natal chart of the person.
  6. It can be associated with the age or gender of the practitioner. Certain practices are age-relevant. For instance, there are geriatric qigong exercises for old people. There are exercises for women and men.
  7. The techniques are used for healing but the emphasis is on the prevention of illness and the maintenance of health. The advice is, Do not wait until you get sick.

Internal and External


There are generally two categories often used to classify self-cultivation techniques: internal and external or outer and inner. While these two interface in certain areas, they are different in their methods, emphasis and goals. “Internal” techniques of self-cultivation usually employ visualization, meditative movements, breathing or postures, using the mind to go through “formulas” and procedures, or simply achieving stillness and “emptiness.” “External” techniques refer to more or less hard, vigorous techniques using the physical body, dynamic breathing, and in certain cases equipments. ***

Each of the two has its own different levels, too, some more internal or external than others.

We can say that arts like painting, calligraphy, poetry (the “3 Perfections”), pottery, sculpture, dance, and music are self-cultivation practices, too, because they can have an effect on the body, spirit and mind of the practitioner and the audience but strictly speaking they are not the self-cultivation practices that the Chinese talk about. There is in self-cultivation an emphasis on the “self,” i.e., the practice is directed at yourself—as if

you are cultivating a garden inside your body, seeding it, watering it, and making it grow.

You can have a hobby or a vocation like photography, fishing, car racing, collecting, and surfing but they are not self-cultivation practices per se. They are fine occupations but you do not do them to transform yourself in the way that Tai chi chuan, for instance, does. Tai chi chuan has – or should have – the effect of internalizing the concepts of yin and yang, developing the yielding and emptying quality of the art, and bringing the mystical experience of the Tao on different levels, physical, energetic, spiritual.

Self-Healing: Self-Help


Self-cultivation is associated with self-healing. If you have emotional problems, you use self-cultivation techniques (anger, worry and fear are the usual emotions dealt with) that transform your psyche. If you have physical problems, you use certain specific self-cultivation techniques. (Many martial arts masters had physical problems before they started their training.) If you have spiritual aspirations, you use self-cultivation techniques that primarily work on the Spirit/Shen. (There are many meditative formulas for developing your spiritual body.)

Self-cultivation is also associated with transformation and self-improvement as stated earlier. You can transform your emotions of anger and fear through qigong and martial arts. You can strengthen your tendons, too. Very often, a self-cultivation technique may be combined with another or with healing arts like acupuncture, nutrition and herbology. A child who is hyperactive is taught qigong. If a child has excess, uncontrolled energy, he can take martial arts to channel and transform it; he can be given an herbal decoction to support the treatment. In fact, that is the traditional solution to over-activity in children.

For a traditional healer, according to the medical classics, there are different levels of diagnostic skills: those who can see the problem by just looking, those who can see the problem by listening and asking and those who can see the problem by palpation. A very good healer should be able to do an assessment by looking at a photograph of the patient. There are for instance people who are prematurely bald or are overweight and bloated, with sagging jaws and triceps and bags under their eyes, and sunken cheeks. There are others whose voices are weak or who are breathless on climbing stairs or walking. Abuse of the body through overwork, sexual indulgence, overeating (or eating the wrong food), or emotions like worry, anger and anxiety can manifest in different ways. From certain symptoms, an excellent healer should be able to do at least a tentative analysis and a treatment protocol including qigong exercises, herbal remedies and acupuncture treatment.

An elderly woman who has depleted energy can be given qigong exercises to do every day and herbal recipe to cook (“food cures”). A cancer or diabetic patient can be treated with acupuncture and herbs but he has to do qigong exercises as well. A habitual cigarette smoker may be treated with acupuncture to detoxify himself and qigong exercises to strengthen the lungs and kidneys. Sometimes, treating the symptoms – like dizziness, craving and restlessness — may not be enough; it may be necessary to get the commitment of the patient to give up his addiction and change his self-image and self-respect, and perhaps his “destiny.” For a smoker willing and honestly committed to overcome his attachment to nicotine, acupuncture can help tremendously; if he is not willing, not even the gods can deliver him. Often, along with the acupuncture treatment, he is taught meditation techniques to boost or nurture respect for his organs, especially the lungs and improve his will. Needling the points along the Extraordinary Vessels (master and couple points, especially, which were first mentioned in the Ming Dynasty) can affect the emotional and constitutional make-up of the patient.

In general, this approach may be prescribed for a patient who has some other forms of addiction, like alcoholism.



Self-cultivation is basically an ascetic approach. The student’s goal is to live a healthy and productive life. To achieve it, he has to give up a few things and transform his lifestyle. Smoking is, of course, a no-no; so is drinking alcohol (unless it is in moderation). You have to give up the rich and greasy food, sleep earlier, avoid bad habits like unregulated sex. (The Chinese are big on preserving the jing.)

You simply have to make room for the different regimens in your life. You cannot stay up all night and do Tai chi chuan at dawn. You have to learn to simplify so that you follow a schedule for your practices.

Simple self-cultivation exercises include 6 Healing Sounds, Embracing the Tree, Frolic of the 5 Animals (Bear, Monkey, Crane, Tiger and Dragon) and Pa Tuan Chin (8 Pieces of Brocade). These deal with developing a healthy qi in the body and in the organs. Ou Wen Wei’s Pangu Mystical Qigong, with has only 3 sets representing the energies of the sun and moon, is fast gaining popularity. There are more intricate exercises like Muscle and Tendon and Bone Marrow qigong, Wild Goose qigong and 8 Immortals Qigong. As we move to the spiritual aspects of self-cultivation, we encounter regimens like the Enlightenment of Fire and Water and Fusion of the 5 Elements, and other methods of internal alchemy (neidan qigong).

Different self-cultivation techniques aim to achieve different therapeutic results. There are techniques that focus on the growth of the qi, tendons, bones and bone marrow; others the nourishment of sexual energy or the improvement of the organs or the clearing and transformation of emotions. Still other techniques develop one’s ability to channel energies, or develop powers.



Sometimes special equipments are used: a bamboo or steel broom, crystal eggs, weights, a shot put, a steel bar, or weapons like the sword or spear. More and more of these devices are seeing the light of day. Masters from Taiwan and Thailand are teaching the use of crystal eggs for women and genital weight hanging, along with external qigong like hitting the meridians and tendons with the bamboo or steel broom.

Perhaps, with the separation of the martial from the healing and spiritual practices, it is difficult to see the connectedness of the different disciplines. It may be that we see the sword, for instance, only as a weapon for fighting, but it is as well an instrument for maximizing and nourishing the healer’s qi or the alchemist’s spiritual transformation.

Without the inner teachings, the practitioners will only see the outer application of their training: A martial artist will only be a martial artist and will not evolve into a healer or a realized being. That is why martial arts nowadays is basically stuck in that low level of evolution.

Jeffrey Yuen, an ordained Taoist priest of the Jade Purity Tradition (88th generation lineage), talks about how different arts of China – artistic, martial, healing, alchemical —

are intertwined in such a way that they are actually one system of self-cultivation:

“… that’s why calligraphy … is a very good adjunct if you really want to develop your technique of acupuncture …. The unskilled clinician just use the needle based on its form. A skilled clinician uses the needle based on its Spirit, so it is the Spirit of the needle that you are trying to capture, just like … in the Chinese martial arts, they say that’s how you handle the sword. It is not just the physical thing you are hacking away at, it is the Spirit of the sword. That is what you are trying to capture. It is the Spirit of the sword. That means your Soul channels energy into it. That’s what does the healing. That is why a lot of the qigong masters in China say that instead of touching you, they touch you with an instrument. Because their instrument, like a needle, is channeling Qi….” “Light on the Essence of Chinese Medicine: Huangdi Neijing Lingshu/Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine Spiritual Pivot,” p. 16.

Different disciplines – calligraphy, swordsmanship, acupuncture, Tai chi chuan, among many – share certain practices aside from the philosophy: focus on and movement of the axis/center, stillness and quietism, balance, harmony, and the dantian (of which more later).

Mundane to the Spiritual


The goals of self-cultivation can range from the most mundane to the most spiritual. The practitioner can seek to achieve peace of mind, control over one’s temper and emotions, long life, happiness, relaxation, enlightenment, increased energy and stamina, ability to heal others and himself, channel, transform and project qi, give birth to and nurture the immortal fetus, and attain immortality.

Countless schools and styles and “paths” have developed over the years. Some of these lineages can be traced back to countless generations in the past. The Complete Reality School (North and South), Dragon Gate/Long Men Sect, The Thunder Path/Lei Shan Dao and others have been in existence in different manifestations since the time possibly of the legendary Fu-Xi.

Many forms of qigong and martial arts mimic the movements of animals, adhere to philosophical principles (like yin and yang) or name themselves after temples and mountains (Shaolin, Wudangshan), sages and immortals (Chang San-Feng, Lu Dong Bin, Lao Tzu and Huang Di), or animals (Dragon-Tiger, White Crane).

Cinnabar Field


The dantian/cinnabar field is an important area to cultivate. Focusing on and breathing into the dantian is an indispensable part of many disciplines. It is believed that there are 3 dantians: lower, middle and upper. Usually these are located in the abdomen, solar plexus and the third eye.

How important is it? “The Cinnabar Field is the root of the human being. This is the place where the vital power is kept. The five energies (of the Five Phases) have their origin here. It is the embryo’s home. Here men keep their semen and women, their menstrual blood. Meant for the procreation of children, it houses the gate of harmonious union of yin and yang. Three inches under the navel, adjacent to the spine, the Cinnabar Field lies at the base of the kidneys. It is scarlet inside, green on the left, yellow on the right, white on top, and black at the bottom. It is four inches around. Its location three inches below the navel symbolizes the trinity of Heaven, Earth, and Humans. One is Heaven; two, the Earth; three, the Human Being; four, Time. That is why the Cinnabar Field has a circumference of four inches. It is modeled on the Five Phases, which is why it has five colors. The Cinnabar Field is located in the region of clear water, in the village of the High Hill: it is called the Palace-that-keeps-the-Essence.” The Book of the Center (quoted inKristofer Schipper’s Taoist Body, pp. 106-107)

What it is and where it is has been a bone of contention through the centuries. Some people believe that the main dantian is located behind the navel area (CV 6 to 8 ) and in front of the ming-men (L2-L3). Others believe that it is somewhere but nowhere at the same time. Says, Kristofer Schipper:

“… Sometimes it is said to be the spot between the eyebrows, sometimes the mouth, or the heart, or a place under the navel, or the kidneys, and so on. Having spent time with the adepts of the practices to nourish the vital principle, I can say that according to them, the Cinnabar Field does not correspond to any exact place in the body, but ‘must be found by each for himself during the meditation.’ According to them, nothing more precise can be said about it.”

There are practitioners who nurture the dan tian (elixir field) to be able to perform feats of strength and powers: eventually they may be able to propel their opponent across the room, break rocks or paralyze somebody from a distance, be able to generate some kind of electricity in their body, perform levitation, set paper on fire, or project their spirit across time and space. These are not just folk tales, but phenomena that have been observed and documented by educated people. Development of the dantian is one of the most important practices in self-cultivation. There are teachers who consider the work so important that they will not teach you anything further unless your dantian is full.**

How do you study?


For a variety of reasons, some of the techniques have been kept secret and have been shared only with relatives, close friends and disciples. If a man or woman is ready, a teacher will appear, it is said. But it is admittedly not that simple.

You would rarely find – and recognize — a master while you are walking down Avenida Rizal in Manila, Madison Avenue in Manhattan or Leicester Square in London. No doubt the search for longevity is or can be difficult and expensive. You need to look for competent teachers in magazines, newspapers, in the internet and of course by word of mouth. Even when you find a teacher, you may not be accepted as a student much less a disciple. Perhaps, the teacher does not like you, you are not prepared enough or there is no gan ying/resonance between the two of you. You may have to fly long distances, get tested in the most painful and embarrassing way, spend money on hotels, food and gifts. And after all of that, you are not even sure you’ll be accepted.

And you have to watch out for fakes. A legendary teacher in the US who was supposed to have been trained since he was a child in one of the sacred mountains of China was born in Brooklyn somewhere, according to one report. A man who sported a Taoist regalia complete with a topknot — we appeared at the same discussion panel at the same international conference at Harvard University a few years ago – and who claimed to be a Taoist priest could not produce his certificate of ordination from a temple in Taiwan, so it was reported.

The public can also easily be taken in by demonstrations of “powers.” You can verify if there is a trick involved. Some of these may involve magic or illusions. Whatever, exercise a skeptical attitude whenever somebody claims to be able to move an object from a distance or levitate. These abilities take time to develop and are not acquired by just about anybody.

In any event, you have to ask yourself: Why am I interested in being able to perform these feats? Is it just an ego trip?

There are regular classes taught by teachers but you have to check their credentials because there is no certification system in China. Since there is a great interest in qigong and martial arts in the West, there seems to be coincidentally, a proliferation of “coaches” and “masters” in different styles. Tours are now common, you’ll find many of them on the internet. For the really serious practitioner in search of high level training, it is necessary to take time to find a master with genuine credentials.

Masters from the high sacred mountains of China do not usually descend from their hermitages, except for a good reason. Before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, three Taoist hermits came down and appeared at a small village in China and trained a boy of 8 or 9 until he grew up to be a young man. He was Wang Li Ping. His life story is the stuff of legends. The saga is narrated in his biography “Opening the Dragon Gate” written by two of his students Another such rare happening has been documented in Indonesia where a young waif, a street kid, was adopted by a Taoist master of the Thunder Path Sect about 55 years ago. Identified as John Wang in the literature, he developed incredible powers after training in complete isolation in the mountains of Borneo for 3 years. His story is told in the book “The Magus of Java: Teachings of A Taoist Immortal.”

Perhaps such stories do not happen any longer? Well, take heart. On a different level, I understand, it is happening more and more. Jeffrey Yuen, who grew up in Harlem, NY, was trained by his adopted grandfather, a Taoist priest. Kristofer Schiffer, one of the most knowledgeable Taoist scholars, was ordained a priest in Taiwan. So was Michael Saso, another famous western scholar, I believe. David Verdesi who has been looking for a master in China for years now has been initiated into one of the lineages of the Lei Shabn Dao/Thunder and Lightning Path, complete with rituals and ceremonies recently. He is a lucky one.

For those who do not belong to a school or lineage, there are masters in China who are now opening their classes to foreigners. A number of Americans and Australians have been accepted as disciples in martial arts — Shaolin and Wudang — by famous masters. A Taoist from northern Scotland is a lineage instructor in medical qigong.

Tai Chi Chuan Single Whip on Huangshan/Yellow Mountain
in 2007. It is a very powerful spot for Tai chi chuan and
Qigong, but you won’t find many temples there. However,
there are bamboo huts and ladders on the cliffs —
apparently installed by hermits — of the most beautiful
mountain in Anhui Province in China. The hermits I met in
2007 live in caves on the mountain. At the foot of
Huangshan, you will find the bamboo forest and Hongcun
Village, two of the images made popular in the movie
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

For very good reasons, Shaolin Temple and Wudang Temple are two of the most sought-after destinations. There are classes being held all the time somewhere in their “campuses.” Just recently, two of my friends – one from UK and the other from Texas – had spent a few weeks in Beijing and Wudangshan studying the I Ching (Book of Change), Tai chi chuan and internal alchemy. I have another friend who organizes tours every year to the sacred mountains of China, especially Huashan. When I joined a Wu-Shu tour to Chengdu, Sichuan in 1983, it was one of the early ones; I haven’t taken any since then.

In the 60s, it was relatively difficult to get a Chinese master. I was one of the lucky few, I am sure. Sifu Johnny Chiuten was quite approachable and friendly, and even if I belonged to a different fraternity in UP, he accepted me readily. His brods were very friendly and accommodating, too, when I was practicing at their turf behind Johnny’s house. His master, the famous and legendary teacher Lao Kim, accepted me as a private student without asking for remuneration. With Tai chi chuan, I was recommended by my Chinese godfather to his cousin, Chan Bun Te, a master at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo. Dr. Jopet Laraya, Johnny Chiuten’s fraternity brod, had almost a parallel experience with Lao Kim in the Philippines and James Lore in Canada more than three decades ago and with KK Chan in Hongkong recently.

But then martial arts, whether internal or external, are just one of the areas of self-cultivation. Nowadays, it is not generally difficult to get tuition from a teacher. With acupuncture, herbology, massage, nutrition, feng-shui, sexology, and astrology, there are many schools and centers offering them in the United States. You basically need only eligibility and money to be accepted. It is in the other arts, especially authentic internal alchemy, and certain internal martial arts schools, that one can bump against a wall. Still, there are doors that have been opened, so all you have to do to know where they are is to do a research.

In the final analysis, what self-cultivation practice is really worth devoting your life to?

Are you going to spend all that time and money on something that won’t mean anything much in the course of 2 or 3 decades? Can you actually maintain the discipline over a lifetime? Are you willing to sustain injuries and invest your energies on something you won’t be able to do in middle age? That’s the dilemma that many practitioners face, believe it or not. That’s why to the Chinese, the internal arts are generally more important and valuable than the external arts.

Summing Up


Self-cultivation is an important and essential part of Chinese life. It is a preventative discipline for people who are healthy but can also be used by those who suffer from an illness or deficiency. At the same time, it includes quests that can take you to amazing mystical and spiritual studies and experiences. It is one of the most exhilarating journeys you can take anywhere, anytime.

The older civilizations developed different self-cultivation techniques. India and Egypt, possibly Greece, developed medicine, internal alchemy, martial arts, meditation, forms of yoga, and others. But it is China alone, I believe, that has cultivated its arts longer, continuously over thousands of years and with great variety and completeness.

Every day, the Chinese do their exercises at certain times of the day or night, but especially early in the morning. You’ll find them in the parks, in rooftops, in their own living rooms, even in the streets and sidewalks. Some of them would be facing a tree or a lake. Many would be doing Tai chi chuan, the soft, slowly form or qigong. Some would be sitting quietly in meditation at home, on a chair or on the floor, or up on a mountaintop. It is all part of the ancient art of self-cultivation.


* Lung and Kidney are not supposed to be pluralized because they stand not only for the physical organs but also for their functions.

* * Dan tian means literally the field of pills or elixir field. Dan is a medicine or elixir, tian refers to a field. It therefore refers to an area that is often the focus of self-cultivation.

I have written about this in an essay entitled “The Source and Taoist Root Energetics” originally published in Rapid Journal.

*** Apologies if I am repetitious. The different disciplines and arts of self-cultivation are related, if not in the execution, at least in principles. I am also making general statements here qualified by “usually” because there are exceptions. External techniques may likewise use soft techniques in combination with more hard techniques. Internal techniques may use hard techniques in combination with more soft techniques. Generally speaking, external techniques work on the level of the physical body and to some extent the qi/energy; internal techniques work more on the level of the energetic and spiritual. In alchemy, external refers to the consumption of minerals and herbs (wai dan or external alchemy) while internal refers to the use of meditation/qiqong and/or sexual practices (nei dan or internal alchemy). There are practitioners and schools that combine both internal and external techniques, depending on what they are trying to achieve. To have a better understanding of these different concepts, you have to study the classics and find a qualified teacher.


Qigong, literally the cultivation of qi, can include many meditative practices and martial arts. Tai chi chuan is qigong, so are Pa-Kua and Hsing-I. Qigong is actually of a recent coinage. The ancient term is taoyin, which connotes much more than stretching. Unfortunately, there is no space here to explain its many different meanings. The word qigong was popularized in the late 40s and early 50s when a member of the Communist Party got healed of a digestive problem by doing taoyin. Since then, qigong was adopted as the modern version of taoyin. In a strict sense, therefore, you can use taoyin to refer to pre-Communist qigong. The Communists have their own versions of arts like Tai chi, wu-shu, acupuncture, qigong, etc. which are different from traditional arts.

I must emphasize that many of the goals of self-cultivation take time to achieve. They require patience and regular practice. In certain cases, some practitioners leave their families for the forest or mountain to focus their attention on their regimen.

It is invariably necessary, as mentioned earlier, to change your lifestyle if you are going to transform your life or go on a quest. Staying up late, indulging the senses through food, alcohol, tobacco and sex, having wild parties, are not be compatible with an essentially ascetic discipline. Loud music, strong flavors and scents, stressful situations may have to be avoided, too.

It is important to remember the adage that it is not the goal, but the journey that counts. Which is one way of saying that the practitioner needs to observe patience and determination and she must truly enjoy what she is doing.

There are times when you have to wait for the lesson to come. Chan Bun Te, my early teacher in Yang Tai chi chuan, decided to tell me about the Microcosmic Orbit and sexual practice only in 1987, about 20 years after I began studying with him at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo. By that time, I had already been taking courses with Mantak Chia for a few years in New York City.

Suggested Reading:

Ames, Roger (co-translator), Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation

Chia, Mantak and Maneewan, Iron Shirt Chi-Kung

_________. Bone Marrow Neikung

_________. Awaken Healing Energy Through the Tao

Cleary, Thomas (translation). Opening the Dragon Gate (biography of Taoist master Wang Li Ping)

Danaos, Kosta. The Magus of Java: Authentic Taoist Immortal

Jarrett, Lonny. Nourishing Destiny: The Inner Tradition in Chinese Medicine

Kohn, Livia (editor). Daoist Body Cultivation

________.Health and Long Life The Chinese Way

________. (co-author)Women in Daoism

Ou, Wen Wei, Pan-Gu Mystical Qigong

Schiffer.Kristofer. Taoist Body

Saso, Michael. Blue Dragon, White Tiger: Taoist Rites of Passage

Yang, Jwing Ming. Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Chi-Kung: The Secret of Youth

Yuen, Jeffrey, Self-Cultivation and Healing (an outline of his lecture at the New England School of Acupuncture)

____________. Three Spirits and Seven Souls. Transcript of his workshop at New England of Acupuncture.

____________. Manifestations of Shen. Lectures / CD of his workshop in Baltimore, Maryland.

These are only a few of the thousands of books on self-cultivation and the culture of Taoism. Eva Wong and David Twicken have written excellent books on feng-shui. Thomas Cleary, Eva Wong, Isabelle Robinet and Livia Kohn have done countless translations and commentaries of the Taoist Canon. Livia Kohn and Eva Wong wrote excellent introductions to Taoism. Eva Wong’s work on the materials on internal alchemy are probably the best and most understandable because she is a practitioner. There are many translations of the I Ching. Arguably the best is Alfred Huang’s of Maui, Hawaii. He has also written a companion volume on the numerology of the I Ching and a book on the Wu Style of Tai chi chuan. Kiiko Matsumoto’s books and classes on acupuncture bring a lot of information on the Chinese medical classics combined with contemporary techniques from masters in Japan. I trained with her in acupuncture school. Jeffrey Yuen is considered by many acupuncturists and herbalists the foremost authority on the Chinese medical classics, but as an heir to oral transmissions, he does not write books. His lectures on healing, essential oils, alchemical acupuncture and alchemical qigong are transcribed or recorded on CDs and DVDs. Michael Winn who runs the Healing Tao University in the Catskills, NY, has writings, CDs and DVDs on Taoist self-cultivation practices. I teach advanced Chi Nei Tsang and Oriental healing therapies at his summer retreats. His materials are available through his website www.HealingTaoUSA.com. If you can get access to David Verdesi Shen’s retreats (www.davidverdesi.com; www.zhengzongdadao.com), you’ll get the teachings of different authentic lineages. Ana Vladimirova’s website is at www.wudao.ru

I have written about different Chinese masters and self-cultivation practices for the Rapid Journal. To mention a few: “The Source and Taoist Root Energetics,” “Discovering the Immortal Tao: Taoist Internal Alchemy,” “Traditional Yang Family Sword form: Sword of the Immortal,” “Chang-Chuan: the Mysterious Yang Family Tai chi chuan form,” “Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Curriculum,” “Lao Kim: Mysterious Kung-Fu Master,” “Gin Soon Chu: Looking for Yang Chengfu” and “Worship of the Goddess: Healing Love Yin and Yang Relationships.”

Bio: Rene J. Navarro, Diplomate in Acupuncture. (NCCAOM), has been studying different facets of Chinese culture, including martial arts (Classical Yang Family Tai chuan and Shaolin Kung-Fu), acupuncture, herbology, massage/tuina, meditation, qigong, internal alchemy, dietetics, sexology, feng shui, and Taoyin/qigong, and the I Ching and different medical, philosophical and martial classics. He has studied with: Johnny Chiuten, Lao Kim (both in the Philippines), Kiiko Matsumoto (a Japanese acupuncture master and a translator of Chinese medical classics), Jeffrey Yuen (an ordained Taoist priest of the Jade Purity and Complete Reality Sect), Gin Soon Chu (second disciple of Grandmaster Yang Sau-Chaung of Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan) and Mantak Chia (the modern Taoist master from Thailand). Rene wrote Mantak and Maneewan Chia’s manuals on the Greater and Greatest Enlightenment of Kan/Water and Li/Fire and edited their manual on Sealing of the 5 Senses, part of the 7 secret formulas of internal alchemy. He also edited their books on Taoyin and Chi Nei Tsang Internal Organs Massage, He has taught different Chinese arts on four continents. He can be reached at: renejoven@yahoo.com.

Essay and photos © 2006 by Rene J. Navarro

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Honoring the Sacred

By Rene J. Navarro

“Literally, our bodies are made of stardust, from stars that died billions of years ago.” Michio Kaku* in his book “Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos” (Anchor Books: NY 2005)

A research in Japan revealed that water reflects the energy and emotions around it. Photos taken of water under varied conditions showed different configurations and shapes. The conclusion seems to be that if you have a good or bad spirit, the water will show it.

Master Lao Cang Wan, a Chinese qigong master who used to teach at the Tao Garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand, did a ritual with mantras and his sword hand over a glass of water or plate of food to invest it with qi or transform its nature. It is a Taoist and Buddhist method of saying grace.

The point is that, we — our energies, our thoughts and movements — have an effect not only on ourselves but possibly on our environment.

In our own everyday life, whatever our religion or faith, we can use varied ways of honoring the sacred or transforming the environment. One way is to create an altar in one corner of the house and make it a point of pilgrimage and worship. We can install images, icons, crystals, rocks or whatever we believe can be our focus or a center of our energies, mantras or mudras. We can light a candle or incense there at certain times of the day and then assume a quiet attitude for, say, 30 minutes to an hour. Doing qigong and meditation is another method.

But it is not enough just to do the process mechanically. We should focus our full attention, calm our spirit, slow down our pulse, feel the sacred in ourselves and spread this around the room. We can make an offering to the spirits. We can send a message of appreciation to God/Universe/Tao, whatever it is we believe in, that mysterious world that is often beyond our understanding. We can also send positive wishes and blessings to people and places.

We can do a short (sometimes it can go on for an hour or so) ritual every day in the week. If you are traveling you can do it in any place when you have the luxury of time. It is indeed something we can observe in everything we do, isn’t it? You can just pause for a few moments before you do anything and contemplate the value and sanctity of life or whatever it is you do.

In Tibet, artists meditate before they start painting. They consider each work as sacred, as a continuum of the divine. It is understandable when we consider that we are not just material/physical bodies, but spirits as well. How wonderful it would be if writers, composers, poets, craftsmen followed the Tibetan practice.

It is too much to expect everybody, including ourselves, to honor each moment and place as sacred, but there are no doubt certain special occasions that call for it. Aside from the birth of a child or death of a loved one, there are times when we can observe a “prayerful” stance or attitude. Different cultures and societies call for different responses to events and experiences.

In the practice of martial arts, when you do Tai chi chuan, whatever the style or form may be, you can take time to go inward into the deepest self. You can become aware of the different directions and certain energy points. You can focus on your breathing, body, or what you are thinking or feeling. And then when you reach stillness, you can do the form very, very slowly, like a sacred ritual, sensitive to the flow of qi, the energy, in your extremities at first or the dantian and then around yourself. Each technique and posture has a different energy field, and you can try to be aware of that as you go through the form. When you finish, you can stay in a stationary position for a while and focus on what has happened to you, enjoying the moment.

Whatever form you do, Shaolin, Wudang, or karate, try to replicate this procetss. In reality, no specific movement is required, just a posture of quiet and stillness and soft breathing.

You can also do a modified version of it outside when you are in the woods or by a lake or the sea or mountain/top. You can face a body of water or a tall tree.

In certain power spots like Banahaw in the Philipines, you can find a place where the energy is strong and do your practice. In Egypt, qigong exercises in the Temple of Karnak and Luxor and inside the pyramids bring out extraordinary vibrations. You can experience some startling results there. In the Iao Valley in Maui, you too can have an extraordinary experience of the sacred. Likewise in other places like Glastonbury and Stonehenge and the Stone Circles of Scotland. Many different energy vortices can provide tremendous memories and bring you to a different space. Find a special spot for yourself anywhere you are.

The sacred in ancient times referred to most everything. The trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, stars, weapons and jewelry even. Humans had their own spirits, so did animals. Many ancient practices and beliefs — agriculture, hunting, relationships, hierarchies, constructions — were influenced by and connected to the heavens and the mystical. The belief in the other world, in something that animated the universe, whether it was a god or a planet, diminished in the course of history, for one reason or another. Perhaps it was rationalism, individualism and science. Reverence for nature and belief in the after- or other-life slowly gave way to the idea of conquest, of human dominance/humanism, possession and reliance on the physical/material.

While science and rationalism gave us the blessings of knowledge and research and prosperity, there were likewise drawbacks like, for instance, the plunder of natural resources, the conquest of Third World peoples and countries, the exploitation of labor, pollution of the earth, to name a few.

How we rectify the inequities and balance the different choices and priorities we have is, probably, one of the most critical human dilemmas in modern times.

A first step to restore and reclaim our human values and respect for nature is to develop our concept of the sacred. We have to learn how to slow down, breathe slowly, close our eyes and go inward, embrace the circle of our awareness, and keep still, and open ourselves to something new and something ancient and eternal.

In this frantic and competitive world, we rarely stop to think how lucky we are to be alive, to be here on this earth in this present incarnation. How we are gifted with the blessings of the planet. How bounteous the resources are. How joyous it is to be with friends and relatives. Often we don’t realize that along with the blessings, we have responsibilities. We desecrate and profane even the most important events in life with our thoughtlessness and greed. We skip from one moment to the next without being mindful of what we are doing.

Remembering that the world is a sacred place, the body is sacred (a temple it is called in the scriptures of different religions), what we feel and project is sacred, can make a difference in the world. Whatever we are made of — water, stardust, clay — we can make each gesture, each activity, a sacred moment in our life. In Thailand, even the simplest wai, a Buddhist bow of the head with both palms together done by both monks and laypeople, signifies an acknowledgment of the divine spirit in others.

To be sure, we cannot always expect others to behave as we would like them to. There is infinite diversity in the world; there are members of the species who live with unrefined energies and work under a heavy karma of past and present lives. There are people who will apparently do harm to others and to the environment, who will selfishly impose their own values on others and grab more than their share of wealth while the rest of the world is starving.

In martial arts, specially, there will be practitioners who will not represent the best in our humanity; in fact, they will pursue activities that may be the worst that the disciplines can offer and we cannot do much about it… and you begin to wonder if “martial” art is just that, nothing but martial, and of the worst kind at that. Nothing really but learning to beat or bully somebody.

On the other hand, even now, many masters both men and women are coming out — from China, Indonesia, the US, India, the Philippines, to name a few — to share their authentic secrets with serious students and searchers. They are presenting disciplines that cover many different areas that were hitherto considered esoteric. There are more opportunities for learning true arts nowadays. Masters who in the past kept their teachings to close relatives and trusted disciples are now making their lineages accessible to larger audiences. They are just now showing the hidden facets of knowledge that their ancestors cultivated, many of which indicate that martial arts are not just physical but energetic/healing and spiritual as well.

We can learn to observe and encourage discernment and discrimination in the choice of our teachers and guides. We can help show whose teachings have the higher level of sophistication and subtlety. Ultimately, we can raise our consciousness beyond the physical and material by pursuing disciplines that touch different aspects and dimensions of reality.

Over time, perhaps not in the present or immediate future, there can be positive change when the circumstances are right.

If the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can affect the weather on the other side of the planet, we too can influence the earth, no matter what it is we do.

* Dr. Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at CUNY and is cofounder of string field theory.

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Thunder Path in Huangshan
At West Lake, Hangzhou after training in Huangshan.
At West Lake, Hangzhou after training in Huangshan.

By Rene J. Navarro




— after a Japanese haiku

There’s more in the rabbit hole!

-– David Shen Verdesi

October 31, 2007, Hangzhou:

We’ve come down from the Autumnal climate of Huangshan/Yellow Mountain, Anhui Province, China, where for 2 weeks we trained in the foundations of the Thunder Path under David Shen Verdesi and his Xing Shen Zhuang Fa assistant Gonca.

We came here to celebrate with other students from Singapore, Russia, and US. They had just arrived in the ancient city of Hangzhou from Tienmu Mountain, celebrated by Li Bai’s refuge in his farewell poem. In the intermittent rain of a Chinese Indian Summer, almost like an incipient fog in its softness, we made a pilgrimage to the temple dedicated to Gou/Ge Hong, the Taoist alchemist, military strategist and author of Pau Po Tzu (“The One Who Embraces Simplicity”), and in dreamlike euphoria, we just had a great time, despite the damp, in the restaurants and cafes on legendary West Lake.

Hangzhou was the retreat of emperors, poets, artists, officials and generals because of its landscapes and quiet, but it is now like a beehive, buzzing with cars and tourists, and commerce, with daunting constructions all over town. The only time to see the famous lake is late at night or at dawn when you’ll see a solitary man doing his Tai chi chuan routine in the dark.

November 11, 2007, USA:

Now, after a week at David’s pied-a-terre in China, I am back in the US and it’s Winter and I am looking in retrospect at that mystical period on Huangshan. I told David I will write about him, but he said he’s still young, wait until something more happens, and so I decided to write about the journey itself.

An astonishing, surprise was that two hermits (they’ll remain nameless here to preserve their privacy and anonymity), Buddhist masters, descended their cave and joined us for a few days in our hotel. One the Grandmaster/Shigong was 118 years old and the other — “Uncle Master” we called him — was 100. The GM, we heard, had been living in caves for the last 80 years. His teacher died two years ago at 180.

Cave Candles in Huangshan, 2007.
Cave Candles in Huangshan, 2007.

We visited them in their summer mountain sanctuary about an hour by car from our hotel. From paved highway we entered a stony road negotiating a long ascent to the top and parked in front of a solitary house. We walked to a waterfall up to the entrance on which was carved the Chinese characters for “Cave of the Immortals” I believe. I recognized the character for “hsien” -– a man and a mountain -– which is translated usually into “immortal” in English. The long dark passage was lighted with hundreds of candles like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Immediately, even without the theatrical effect, you knew this was a power vortex. At the rear of the cave, we saw the GM and Uncle Master meditating on a ledge in front of a wall with Chinese inscriptions.

“An astonishing, surprise was that two hermits …. descended their cave and joined us for a few days in our hotel. One the Grandmaster/Shigong was 118 years old and the other — “Uncle Master” we called him — was 100. The GM, we heard, had been living in caves for the last 80 years. His teacher died two years ago at 180.”

After the amenities, everyone gathered in front of the house. We were given a sample of the root the hermits ate: it was like a yam but inside it had the consistency of a rope, all dry pulp and fibers. The GM and Uncle Master posed for pictures with the group and a solo one with David. It was the fourth time David had met the GM.

A couple of years ago, the GM told Jiang shifu (age 43) that a westerner will come and should be accepted as a disciple in the lineage. David wrote to me a long e-mail about his acceptance into the fold, about the different masters who came down from the mountains and temples to attend his initiation led by the Grandmaster, and the different feats that were exhibited at the ceremony.

It was also the Grandmaster who predicted a month before our training in Huangshan that David would succeed this year in achieving Yin Yang Gong, the ability to emit “electricity” in his body like John Chang, the legendary Magus of Java.*

I am ahead of myself in the chronology of events. Actually, on our arrival in Huangshan, tired from our long journey, we were welcomed by Jiang shifu, disciple of the Grandmaster and David’s immediate teacher. It was the first time most of us had met him. He had himself just come from Malaysia and had driven 4 hours from the airport. He wanted to perform an empowerment and blessing ceremony for us. He asked us to sit on the floor, with our palms facing up. He cracked his fingers, grunted a few times and made some movements that looked like a sequence from a Shaolin form. Nothing much seemed to happen, but in an instant, we tasted a honey-like secretion (ambrosia) in our mouths and throats. The ordinary bottled water turned into a sweet drink (speaking of holy water!). Our fingers were coated with the same sweet substance. It was all done from a distance with Jiang shifu’s powerful qi. Believe it or not, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, we licked somebody’s finger to his embarrassment. My urine tasted sweet too. Even the next day, after we showered and washed our hands, the sweet taste remained. Jiang shifu did the ceremony a few times during our visit and even sent us off with a few bottles each.**

To see to it that everybody was fit to undertake the training, Shifu also gave us regular treatments with qigong, Chinese acupuncture and herbs. It was the most sophisticated and well-rounded Chinese medicine practice I had ever seen anywhere in my years of Oriental medical studies. The skills that we had found awesome were being used for healing: Shifu was drawing blood without lancets, just with his qi, diagnosing illness and deficiencies with his Third Eye and his “electricity” and moving qi with his palm. He would hold your hand and send his qi into your body. If you have a stagnation or blockage, he would tell you and suggest a treatment. He prescribed herbs and dan/pills/elixir and herbal tonics to students who needed them. I had 5 special dan/pills in one session. That night and the following day, I had the runs, I kept waking up to go to the bathroom. Jiang shifu said it was good because I had detoxified.

At the hotel, on the second or third day of our training, the two ancients did some awesome demos — pyrokinesis, telekinesis, etc.– moving objects, projecting heat, burning paper, withering a plant, among others — from a distance of 10 to 20 feet. I can’t believe that these Immortals/hsien — perhaps that is what they are called in China — exist.

Like other skeptics in the group, I tried to see if there were any tricks. It was as close to laboratory conditions as one could make out. Other skills were shown, and I can see their healing and spiritual purpose, but I do not think I should spend any more time describing them here because they were so mind-boggling, they can distract from their real goal.

As the Grandmaster predicted, David passed his test for Yin Yang Gong by demonstrating his ability on 12 of us. Yin Yang Gong is considered in the tradition as a significant step towards mastery and immortality.

It was a very touching, and dramatic, moment for David, perhaps the crowning achievement at this point in his more than 15 -year search that started when he was a young teenager looking for masters among the waiters and chefs in the Chinese restaurants in Rome, Milan and Perugia. Seeing David succeed in passing Yin Yang Gong, the past flashed in front of me: I recalled times he and I spent together over the years, his search for the authentic masters, the focus he committed to his journey, the obstacles he had to encounter and overcome, the heartbreak of rejection, the cruelty of skeptics, the loyal support he received from his friends and students.

I had known David since he was 16 in early 90s when he used to join me at dawn for martial arts practice at Healing Tao retreats in upstate NY, and later, at the Tao Garden in Chiangmai, when I knocked on his door at 4 or 5 am to wake him up to work out on a Shaolin form called “Fairy Child Praying to the Goddess of Mercy Kuanyin.” It wasn’t the form he really wanted to learn; he asked for “Dragon Tiger” but I told him “10 years.” Over the years we met in New York or in Chiangmai, always training together with materials we had learned from different masters. He shared techniques he had learned such as Drunken Qigong, Empty Force, Ba Shien Qigong, Jin Shui, and Xing Shen Zhuang Fa, among others. I showed him Shaolin forms from Shigong Lao Kim and Shifu Johnny Chiuten (from my training in the 60s) and Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan forms and ling cong jing I studied with Master Gin Soon Chu of Boston (in the 90s). David and I shared some parallels in our search for authentic teachings, and we did not even realize that we were both dragons.

Rene, David, Wang Ting Jun, and Ana Vladimirova in Chiangmai, 2004.
Rene, David, Wang Ting Jun,
and Ana Vladimirova in Chiangmai, 2004.

I had attended David’s seminars and retreats as his guest in Chiangmai (several times, once with one of his teachers Professor Wang Ting Jun, covering the subject Xing Shen Zhuang Fa) and Istanbul (once). I had seen photographs of his masters on his altar in his home along the Bosphorus in Turkey, and was impressed. I was invited to attend his seminars in Yunnan, Bangkok, Denmark and Koi Samui. I wanted to go, but for one reason or another, mostly financial (retired pensioner in 2002), I could not make it. Come to China and stay with me, he said, be my guest, I have a room for you, he e-mailed from Shanghai.

When he mentioned Huangshan, I perked up: I toured the mountain two years ago in late summer or early autumn, explored the peaks and panoramas during the day and night, at dawn I watched the magnificent sunrise, and practiced qigong and Tai chi chuan in isolated spots and fell madly in love with it. There weren’t any visible temples but there were caves and huts for hermits. It was another power vortex with the high, but different, vibration I had felt in the pyramids and temples of Egypt, Stonehenge, Mount Banahaw south of Manila, and the Iao Valley in Maui, among others. You enter the frequency of the spot and you are swept into something powerful and mystical and unforgettable. There are contradictory stories but the legendary Yellow Emperor/Huangdi was supposed to have ascended in broad daylight on one of the peaks. Huangshan was the most exhilarating journey I had taken in my years of traveling in China … which included a 3 -day train ride down to Cheng-Du in 1983, a cruise down the Yangtze through the 3 Gorges in 2005 … Great Wall … and Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Chengdu, Xian … are mythic cities of my imagination.

So, when the invitation came, I said yes without any hesitation.

It turned out when we arrived in the city that Huangshan wasn’t the same mountain that mesmerized me before in an earlier incarnation. It was in Anhui Province, true, and close enough to the Bamboo Forest and Hongcun Village, places I had been to and scenes featured in kungfu movies, but it was on one of those foothills that ringed the mountain range. The small city had one hotel, a post office, a hospital, an internet café and the usual outlets for goods –- clothes, sneakers, jewelry, arts and crafts –- and a park in the process of renovation. There was even a huge Mao statue. There was little traffic (mostly motorcycles) and pollution, dogs roamed looking for food. We often went to a restaurant where they served venison, rabbit and lamb, good protein for our intensive training program. There was the occasional saffron-robed Buddhist monk wandering the streets. There was noticeably the absence of western tourists because there was really nothing much to see. It wasn’t the place we all had expected, it wasn’t even close.

David with the Grandmaster during the intensive training
in Huangshan in 2007. This photo was taken after our
arrival in the mountain. We drove to the outskirts of the
small city, up on a rough road, walked to a waterfall and
entered a cave lighted with candles. Jiang shifu, David’s
direct teacher, took the photo.

We were all puzzled to be in that Huangshan because we had expected high, cloud-covered peaks, dangerous cliffs and gnarled pine trees … and isolation from the known world. There was a reason however why Jiang shifu chose the place: its close proximity to the mountain cave of the Grandmaster. It was just slightly more than an hour away by car.

Under the guidance of David we practiced Sheng Zheng Gong every day together as a group (there were 13 of us from different parts of the world). He guided us through different aspects of the meditation for several hours each day … David covered many subjects, regaling us with stories of the masters he had met and studied with, and introduced us to the foundations of the Thunder Path/Lei Shan Dao. Gonca led us in the contortions of Xing Shen Zhuang Fa, a series of isolation movements that were meant to open energy centers on the Microcosmic Orbit/Ren and Du Mai, the ancestral channels, create the condition for the development of the dantian/elixir field and combined with the internal Sheng Zheng Gong, lead to the experience of the Golden Flower and with grace, to the Cultivation of the Heart. The training covered a very simple procedure on the surface, but to me it actually was a surprising way to, among others, a deep song … a word invariably translated as relaxation, but means much, much more, a combination of letting go, surrender, and faith.

Early in the morning or late at night, I practiced alone or with David and Gonca on the rooftop of the hotel or in a park. David and Gonca practiced routines of their own. We were planning to work together on some forms. We brought our Tai chi swords from Shanghai but I was able to teach them only the introductory movements of the Yang Family Tai chi chuan sword because so many exciting things were happening at the same time. I did the personal Tai chi chuan sword form of Yang Cheng Fu that choreographs the search for immortality — shades of Taoist Immortal Lu Dong Bin!

David reminded me, “Dragon Tiger … it’s 10 years now.” I remembered the promise I made in Chiangmai, and we started the form, but so much was happening … And I felt he had so much on his plate ….

Gonca, a professional model in her early 20s, is from Turkey. First time I met her was on my second visit to Istanbul. I taught her movements called Plum Blossom 8, Twin Dragons Chasing the Pearl and White Crane Stretches its Wings at the time. It was gratifying to see her practicing them in Huangshan every day, years later.

David was given several dan/pills, the size of a da zhao, a red date, and herbal tonic every day during our training. His qi was locked by Jiang shifu in a procedure that snapped the tendons and looked painful. At the end of our training, his dantian was locked too: he was warned not to do anything that would use his gong for a period of 6 months at which time he will be tested again for the next, higher stage of his training. It was all a very elaborate grooming for a young disciple of the Thunder Path.

The Grandmaster seen through the hole on the paper
after his demonstration of pyrokinesis. The GM pointed
his sword hand at the paper from 10 feet away, emitted
qi and a pinhole appeared … and it grew bigger and
bigger. The GM’s posture was like the “Immortal Points the
Way” in the sword form of the Yang Family Tai chi chuan
I learned from GM Gin Soon Chu. Which makes me wonder
about the connection between Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan
and Lei Shan Dao. After all, one of the acknowledge
masters of Lei Shan Dao, according to the Magus of Java,
was Damo, the legendary Indian, who transmitted
Yi Jin Jing in Shaolin … where the founder of Tai chi
Chuan, Zhang Sanfeng, studied and became a monk.

I do not think much is known about the obscure, mysterious and secretive tradition of the Thunder Path, sometimes called Lei (Thunder) Shan (Lightning) Dao (Path). The Chinese god of Thunder is called Lei Kung … half-man and half-bird … perhaps derived from an Indian avian god. Oral tradition reveals different threads running through much of Thunder Path’s unverifiable history. We hear about Mo-Tzu as the founder and Damo of Shaolin, Chang Chun, author of the monkey epic Journey to the West, or Chang San Feng, the legendary creator of Tai chi chuan, being associated with the Thunder Path.

The lineage (or lineages for there are several different schools) seems to disappear and go underground, and then reappear as the transmission is revealed through a mysterious manual, a strange master, an epiphany or a mystical experience.

One of the last public manifestations I think is John Chang of Java, who studied as a child with Liao shigong, an old, mysterious and superhuman Chinese master who was supposed to have given him a book of the 72 levels of expertise! This tradition calls its lineage the Mo-Pai, after Mo-Tzu, who lived about 2500 years ago, a contemporary of Confucius and Lao-Tzu.

In the early 90s or late 80s, a couple of documentarians traveling through Indonesia chanced upon John Chang (not his real name), filmed his demonstrations, Kostas Danaos wrote a book about him entitled “The Magus of Java: The Teachings of a Taoist Immortal” and the rest is, well, history.***

There are other masters of the tradition, I discovered, but they are anonymous, preferring to stay in the background. According to David, Lei Shan Dao is one of at least 6 paths to immortality which include, among others, Jin Dan Dao, Yang Shen Dao and Tong Ling Dao. Jiang shifu’s lineage is traced back to Damo, the legendary Indian monk-priest who was supposed to have settled in the Shaolin Temple, faced a wall for 10 years, received the a manual of the teachings from an ancestor and left the transmissions of the Muscle and Tendon Changing and Washing the Bone Marrow neigong and the Golden Bell.

It’s a mythical tradition what Damo did for the Shaolin monks. Nothing is really documented, there are no written records or witnesses. Damo is credited with being the catalyst/midwife for the birth of Chinese martial arts. For a long while, I was doubtful of Damo’s story. My own personal response to different claims by martial arts historian is to view their stories with healthy skepticism, including supposed feats of power and magic. Possibly something truly memorable happened during his sojourn in Shaolin … or else why are his name and his achievement mentioned in the oral tradition? There are even stories that he had achieved level 72, the highest in Lei Shan Dao, but for some reason, just as he quickly he appeared on the scene, as quickly he disappeared, which deepens the mystery about him.

I had read the book “Magus of Java,” an admirable pioneering work in the field, several times and recommended it to friends. It is as much a book about John Chang as it is about Kostas Danaos, the author had interjected himself into the story so much, it was close to being tedious. I was not exactly dismissive of the story, but like many people I was skeptical. I thought, how can anybody set a ball of newspaper on fire with his qi … stop a bullet from an airgun with his palm … thrust a chopstick into a 2-inch board or talk to the spirits of the ancestors, among other unbelievable things? It defied rationalization and science.

Last year (2006), David invited me to Java to meet John Chang, the Magus and Thunder Path master himself. I prepared to visit the whole month of February. I thought it was a chance to verify the truth for myself. The day before my departure, my granddaughters and I got caught in the Winter rain during the Chinese New Year celebration in New York City. I fell sick with the flu the next day as I left for Indonesia via Frankfurt and Singapore.

I was terribly depleted and feverish when David picked me up at the airport. For several days, I tried to recover with doses of Yin Qiao but it was futile against the bug that had penetrated the exterior. David introduced me to the Magus. The Magus suggested I should see a western physician. A friend took me to his uncle, a doctor, who prescribed a regimen of antibiotics.

Almost every day we went to see the Magus. There were always people waiting … some just to be there, others to get a treatment, a few stayed for lunch. I was astonished to meet a thoroughly unassuming man my height, perhaps even with my looks, who was wearing rubber slippers/flipflops, a white t-shirt and shorts. It was as if another man materialized in front of me. He was not what I had expected. I had fantasized somebody else for almost 10 years, somebody with extraordinary energy and presence. Now, for the first time I looked into the deep, gentle and imperturbable eyes of this master, who like me was also born in 1940, the year of the dragon. He was not different from you and me. He smoked, had a large family, attended a Christian church, ran a prawn farm, got sick like any of us (but recovered fast).

Huangshan Hermit. XuanKong.
The Grandmaster in Huangshan 2007. I heard that
he was 118 at the time, but later I was told by a
friend in Anhui Province that he was actually in his
90s. Age is difficult to establish in China, especially
in the rural areas; also there seems to be a
tendency among the Daoist and Buddhists to add
more years to their actual age. Just the same,
whatever the truth, Shigong was an extraordinary
master. I am that mug peeking from behind on the
left side. No exaggeration but I was 67 at the time.
The GM looks a lot younger than me, I admit.
But then he was a celibate monk who lived in caves
most of his life and did not have to raise a family,
and live in our polluted cities and our bankrupt
and narcissistic society.

Upon David’s request, the master demonstrated his gong/expertise to me. He asked me to touch his forearm and I was shocked … electrocuted is probably the most accurate way to describe it. I had never seen -– or felt -– anything like it in my more than 40 years of searching. An electricity-like vibration shook me to my core.

I was instantly convinced. I did not seek any other proof. He said it was only 5% of his power. He told me to touch his Chi Hai/Sea of Chi/CV 6 and I felt the same electrical jolt. He put his forefinger on my Chi-Hai and I felt waves of electricity going through my whole body. When he tested my dantian, he said it was 20% full. I did not know if I should be happy or embarrassed.

The Magus’ powerful skill, as far as I know, has never been used by him to harm or injure anybody (although I have like others thought of the possibilities and consequences in a fight) but to heal. (Well, there are stories about his exploits when he was very young.) Many patients from around the world have entered his clinic. During my visit, the next few weeks, he treated me -– successfully — with acupuncture for a serious rotator cuff injury and a painful ankle. When Chang shifu manipulated the needles, the pain was so excruciating, it was like somebody stuck my finger into an electrical socket, despite the fact that somebody was standing barefoot holding my arm to ground me. I have honestly never seen anything like it in my life as an acupuncturist. I asked about payment; I was told the master never did charge for his acupuncture services or his teachings.

During my stay in Java, the friends of David — students of the Magus — showed me their martial art called Pa Lei Chuan/8 Thunder Fist, a part of Lei Shan Dao, and I found it very economical and effective. I was a dinner guest at their home, I did not expect such hospitality, and I was even more surprised to witness this secretive style.

Meantime, David continued teaching me the basic foundations of Thunder Path — the different strains of the lineage, the vocabulary of the practice, trajectory/pathways of the work, the essentials of establishing the Dantian and stillness, timetable for the different techniques, among others — lessons which started when I attended his seminar in Istanbul 3 years earlier. I took notes, practiced the pieces he gave me, and promised to pursue the art into the rabbit hole in the years to come!

Before we left Indonesia, David and I went to the Magus to say goodbye. We sat at his clinic, a small one-room affair, with a treatment table on each side, acupuncture diagrams on the wall, and a wooden bench with holes –- purportedly bored with chopsticks by the master. There was something I had wanted to ask him, a question that had been playing on my mind since I read about him in Amsterdam about 10 years ago. I begged permission and asked: How do I start? His answer was quick and final: Sit down and meditate. That’s it? I said to myself. I was disheartened. No technique, just sit down and meditate. Here I was at the threshold of probably the most powerful and promising transmission I had ever seen in my decades through many masters , systems and countries and the Magus told me to sit down and meditate. What did I have to do? What did I have to meditate on? I thought I was grasping at straws …

David had seen many of the Magus’ powers and concluded it was not just “magic” or illusion. The man was real. I trusted David because I knew he was like me, willing to go out of the way to find true knowledge. Sometimes, when he heard about a “master,” he would check their reputation and verify what it was they actually had. He would pay tuition and seriously study. He would test if they had “gong” or if they had the spiritual development or whatever their skills were. Needless to say, he was disappointed often … and it cost him money and time. He went to see a famous master in Indonesia, paid his tuition, took the lessons and later asked for a demonstration. “There was nothing there,” David sadly said about it. But there were other astounding experiences … of masters who could walk through walls, leave the imprint of their palm on concrete or manifest their yang shen/spirit in the real world. “There seems to be no boundaries for these masters,” David commented.

I am not surprised that through his persistence, he found the authentic master teachers — like Jiang shifu, the Grandmaster and his younger companion, and Wang Liping, the subject of the biography “Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard” and others.

After the 2-week intensive in Huangshan, everybody dispersed, some went to Beijing, others to Tienmu Mountain. David, Gonca and I took a taxi to Hangzhou, a 5-hour ride, to fly back home. Jiang shifu was with his assistants in the other car and we followed them. When we said goodbye, it was a moment of mixed emotions. Jiang shifu and David embraced, one seeker from the East, the other from the West, two links in a continuum of tradition, brothers belonging to this mystical lineage that goes back perhaps a thousand years or more but is only beginning to attract disciples from outside of China. Through the rest of the route, we fell into a profound quiet as we dwelled on what had happened, what perhaps was a milestone in the history of East-West relationship.

Just as we arrived at our destination, David broke the silence and said, “Rene, why don’t we spend the night in Hangzhou to celebrate?”

December 21, 2007/Winter Solstice:

It was an incredible journey for me. I learned many new things, met a bunch of wonderful people –- searchers all — from different parts of the world, and of course saw those awesome masters.

It is clear from what I have seen and read that the secrets of China are still around, kept in hidden spots, perhaps in caves by hermits, that what we see in the parks, temples and training halls is only the tip of the iceberg, that there are masters out there who carry the real transmissions. Maybe one day, perhaps in the next incarnation, we will be lucky enough to have a glimpse of and understand and learn the awesome powers and spiritual achievements of these exceptional beings.

At the same time, it is important for me, as well as for others, to take those astounding demos not so much in terms of power but in the context of healing, spiritual development and transformation, and the potential of the human being. As David said, we should see beyond the obvious impact of the demonstrations: they are meant partly to satisfy the need for concrete proof of human possibilities and partly as a basis for scientific verification of a person’s attainment. I do not know if I am quoting David correctly but he did say that we need something more substantial than claims of mastery and achievement.

“It is clear from what I have seen and read that the secrets of China are still around, kept in hidden spots, perhaps in caves by hermits, that what we see in the parks, temples and training halls is only the tip of the iceberg, that there are masters out there who carry the real transmissions. Maybe one day, perhaps in the next incarnation, we will be lucky enough to have a glimpse of and understand and learn the awesome powers and spiritual achievements of these exceptional beings.”

In passing, it should be mentioned that, during the course of the 2 weeks, we witnessed only about two hours of demonstrations. One healing session up in the mountain took the old masters about 3 hours (including interruptions) transferring Qi from 14 bulls to 3 of us. It was the most unusual and most-talked about and controversial healing technique I have ever seen, and I was one of its lucky
beneficiaries.**** The healing sessions with Jiang shifu must have taken at least 10 hours at different intervals while the training took at least 6 to 7 hours a day.

Demonstrations usually bore me. Still, I cannot deny I was impressed with the exhibitions. Who wouldn’t? These after all were not your break-a-bottle-with-the fist or lift- 200-pounds-from-your-genitals type. They are not your everyday feats of strength done in circus atmosphere. For me, at my age, what I want to pursue is training in … stillness and clarity … perhaps, in the cultivation of the heart. I don’t know what it may entail, I do not know its consequences, I am still at that stage when I am exploring the different paths. Searching for peace and quiet within is probably the most difficult quest in the world because the senses and the mind are always picking up something, always being ambushed by desires and thoughts. The way to emptiness is full of obstacles because the world is teeming with temptations and the inner self is itself a constant battlefield.

Of course, power is important — imagine what a person with a pure heart can do with it — but it can also fall into the wrong hands. Love — and healing — should be the foundation of life. There is too much meanness and cruelty and egotism, even in everyday life, not much patience, acceptance, forgiveness and accommodation. Like success, fame and fortune, power can distract us from our intended and true goals -– our destiny — on earth. We have seen masters who have been derailed from their intended mission because they were blinded by the blandishments of the world or misled by their own greed; and those who seek power often get bogged down in showing off and blatant exhibitionism. Either way, the route of power, unless guided by a pure intention, is invariably vain and corrupting.

David emphasized the need for “prayers” … or an attitude of reverence and wonderment for the sacred in our lives. Whatever it is we believe in, he said in Huangshan, we have to honor the divine. We are indeed just like the shamans in the Chinese character for“ling” or spirit — we can only mediate between heaven and earth to bring down the blessings and grace from above.

I don’t know if I can describe the journey completely. The amazing talents of the masters, the hospitality of the people, the camaraderie of the students, the incomparable training .… All I can say is that it was much, much more than I expected. It was both humbling and enlightening, a great gift to this writer on his 67th (68th in China) birthday!

*****End *****

Thanks to David for inviting me as his guest in the seminar and at his wonderful home in China and for giving me the opportunity to meet his friends, students and teachers. And thanks to Jiang shifu for his unique and wonderful birthday gift to me, for leading me by the hand into and out of the Immortal’s cave on our visit to the mountain to see the Grandmaster and for providing personal attention during our training. I owe my friends some of the details of our journey … You’ll find their observations integrated into this work.

*Yin Yang Gong, the mating of Yin and Yang in the Dantian, is considered 4th level achievement in the Mo-Pai tradition. Some people believe that this is the real Tai chi, the marriage of yin and yang in the dantian. Generating “electricity” can also happen in other cases but Yin Yang Gong – one of many gongs in Lei Shan Dao — is the more potent type.

** The first time I saw what has been called “Holy Water” technique, it was done by Lao Cang Wen at the Tao Garden. Others have copied the technique since then. Lao Shifu was a Buddhist and Taoist master who had been teaching different methods, including “Chi Knife,” using a knife to project Qi onto a patient. The water did not acquire any flavor (I drank it for an allergy but it did not have any obvious effect), I don’t think, only healing properties and probably a rearrangement of the molecules. Jiang shifu’s water was actually transformed in different ways. Laboratory tests, I heard, confirmed that there was an unknown element in it which wasn’t present in ordinary water. Other students who attended the seminar in Shangrila last August witnessed other demos -–setting a bush on fire with nothing but qi, draining the lifeforce out of a rabbit, etc.

***The documentarians returned to Java sometime last year and filmed another -– longer –- demonstration which is shown on youtube.com. While you are on youtube.com you can type in the name of Lao Kim, my teacher in Shaolin in the 60s, to see his Long Quan form. He was in his 70s at the time. You can also take a look at Vincent F. Chu, the son of Gin Soon Chu, my shifu in Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan in Boston and second disciple of GM Yang Sau-Chaung.

**** The ancient master took his position similar to Brush Knee and Push in Tai chi chuan, aimed the right palm at the bull 20 feet away and in a few seconds, the bull bellowed and groaned and collapsed in indescribable agony. I heard that the master could have killed the bull right then and there, but it is against the principles of his religion (he is
a Buddhist). It would die in a week to a month, we were told. Fourteen bulls were sacrificed that afternoon. There is a considerable debate about the ethics of this procedure similar to the slaughter of animals for food. I understand that the transfer of qi from the bulls is necessary for people who have depleted qi, or who need to make quick progress in the work. It is also a sacred ritual from an ancient tradition
of animal sacrifice to honor the ancestors and seek the intercession of heaven.

© RN 2007

Links for David Verdesi:

Ana Vladimirova’s website:

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By Rene J. Navarro


The legendary Shaolin Temple in Loyang, Honan Province in South China, is the locale of many stories, some apocryphal to be sure, about warrior-priests who were trained not only in Buddhist sacred rituals and scriptures, healing and meditation but also in Kung-Fu, combat forms mimicking animal movements. There were a few of these temples in China although the one in Loyang is the most famous.


Lao Kim with Guan Dao
Lao Kim with Guan Dao.

It was in the Philippines in 1962 that I heard about a mysterious Shaolin master in Manila’s Chinatown. He was discussed in reverential terms, a figure out of the mists of China’s past, a master’s master if ever there was one in Ongpin’s competitive and shadowy Kung-Fu underworld. Lao Kim was his name. He was the private teacher of Johnny Chiuten, who was himself a master of great reputation and talent.

The first time I met Lao Kim was at a demonstration of Chinese martial arts in Chinatown. He looked deceptively frail, slightly stooped, almost completely bald, with a fair complexion and skin that looked like translucent rice paper. His face was often impassive, like a meditating Buddha. There was a tattoo on his arm, a woman and a coconut tree, if I recall, reportedly made while he was doing time in prison. He had disproportionately big hands, surprisingly large for his slender body, without any calluses or blemishes from his deadly profession. He was the resident master of a Kung-Fu club in one of the side streets off Ongpin Street.

I was Johnny’s student when I met Lao Kim again. He was out of a job, dismissed I heard for being too strict with his students. Johnny followed him as a disciple and studied with him in private. For a while, Lao Kim worked as a bouncer in a gambling den. Then he spent a couple of years teaching in Baguio City, the Philippine summer capital up north, where the Chinese had built a temple.

A Legendary Figure

I heard different, unverifiable stories about him. He was a master of Dim Mak, the secret art of maiming and killing with the thrust of a finger. He did light Kung-Fu, the ability to climb on vertical walls or somersault over the head of his opponent from a stationary position or deliver three flying kicks as he jumped from a sitting position. He was also an herbalist, an expert in “die da” or traumatology, the art of healing internal injuries, with massage and herbs.

He was already in his 70s when I met him but he was such a strong man — not in a muscular way but in the steeliness of his bones and tendons. He was like a crane — all sinew and bone.

Lao Kim came to the house a couple of times. In the
photo you will see Ching See San. He passed away about
15 years ago. He assisted Lao Kim.

It was said by those who knew him that he grew up in a small village in south China. I admit that this story seems apocryphal and could have been lifted out of a kung-fu movie, but anyway I heard that government soldiers raided the village and killed some of Lao Kim’s relatives. Lao Kim and a few of the young men escaped and entered a temple where they trained in the martial arts. After about 10 years, Lao Kim and his group went back to the village and killed the soldiers in revenge. Now hunted, he escaped to Hongkong and eventually to the Philippines.

At the pier, his luggage was snatched by a thief. He ran after this man and Killed him with a finger thrust to the heart. The story as narrated by my classmate Jopet Laraya shows Lao Kim in jail. Fortunately there were no witnesses to the crime, so Lao Kim was discharged to the Chinese community and he became the resident master in a martial arts school.

From Johnny, I heard about secret training sessions with Lao Kim, of which the focus was no holds-barred fighting. They met late at night at a deserted place to spar. A participant in this realistic combat had to be on guard all the time — else he got hit with anything while in a friendly conversation during a break in the training. Foreign combat masters came around to challenge Lao Kim but they had to go through his disciple Johnny first.

Sifu Lao was a formidable fighter with a repertoire of lethal techniques. Johnny demonstrated some of these occasionally: deadly and sneaky thrusts of the digits or holds and kicks that came from nowhere, footwork of great subtlety, movements that were shadowless. In sparring sessions with me, Johnny was quite agile, moving in apparently without protection, but always in an area where he seemed to be beyond my range although he was so close he could have disabled me anytime he wished.

Lao Kim 1970
Lao Kim at Hua Eng. Note the Buddhist altar in the

There were ground techniques, maneuvers from a lying down position, legs moving in unlikely kicks and scissors, which made Johnny’s posture impregnable. There were also bursts of simultaneous hand and leg attacks, 3 or 4 coming at the same time, without let-up until I was left feeling like an incompetent fool.

One time in 1966, during a furious exchange, Johnny even gave me a sample of a Dim Mak strike to the leg which created a bubble of blood which, I am sure, would have killed me if he had not administered a painful massage and awful tasting herbal wine. It was the scariest moment in my more than 40 years of martial experience.

That fearful episode gave me an insight into another aspect of the deadly Kung-Fu. It was for combat, but it was for healing as well. The practitioner learned both sides of the coin. The best warriors were also healers — they knew the strengths of the human body, but also its vulnerabilities, and studied the ways to exploit and develop them both. This arcane knowledge was an index to China’s ancient culture and the varied arts that developed and flourished, including acupuncture, herbology, martial arts, meditation, dietetics/nutrition, internal alchemy, painting, poetry, massage and others. Those who aspired to culture and refinement among the Chinese were expected to learn these arts.

5 Animal System

I consider it a confirmation of Lao Kim’s mettle that during training with Johnny, I was never able to hit him with a solid strike. Still, while Johnny proved a formidable opponent, he never claimed that he beat Lao Kim in sparring. Lao Kim was always on top, although Johnny was not far behind.

Johnny called the style “Hong Cha,” or “Angka,” the system based on the 5 Animal pattern of external style boxing supposedly devised by a survivor of the Shaolin Temple in Loyang. Chinese history, including martial arts, is replete with unverifiable legends and stories, perpetuated as unquestionable facts, so it is difficult to establish the truth about lineages and traditions. Much of so-called “facts” are actually just guesswork and oral tradition, without credible evidence or documentation, embroidered by different families. Who invented Tai Chi Chuan – Zang Sanfeng or the Chen Family or a wandering Taoist? Where did Shaolin Kung-Fu come from – was it taught by the legendary Bodhidharma to the monks in Loyang? You can go down many of the different styles. My humble view is that we will never really know for sure.

A number of styles in China and Hongkong were supposed to have come out of this system and Lao Kim’s version, I believe (although I am not sure), was of an older provenance. They had strong footwork, basically a low (very low) horse and bow and arrow stance, with powerful fist techniques imitative of the 5 animals — Crane, Leopard, Tiger, Dragon and Snake. Lao Kim’s had all of these ingredients plus sophisticated bridges, transitional postures that shifted the body out of harm’s way. To me, the forms that stand out in his system are the Tiger-Dragon, Plum Blossom and the Goddess of Mercy sets. The first is a long, yang, complicated, powerful choreography that takes the practitioner in all sorts of directions and demands tremendous stamina, the second is well, like a flower, with footwork and hands in intricate patterns, while the third is a deceptively soft and simpler set with predominantly yin, open palm strikes.

Lao Kim taught me his style of Shaolin at the Hua Eng
Athletic Club. I have searched for his system but have not
seen anything like it anywhere. It is probably an ancient
Shaolin Chinese martial arts.

When Johnny left for Cebu to manage his family’s business in the mid-60s, I was without a teacher for a while. Things have changed since then, but Kung-Fu, as the Chinese martial arts were called, was very much the preserve of the Chinese community in Manila and presumably in other parts of the world at the time. Filipinos managed to break into the school only because they assumed Chinese names or claimed Chinese ancestry. Through the intercession of my Chinese godfather, I was able to study Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan at Hua Eng Athletic Club.

Learning kung-fu wu-shu was a tricky business. There were a few Filipinos who were studying in Chinatown, at Hong Sing Sporting Club, Beng Kiam and at Kong Han. Even if you got a teacher, it was possible you were not getting the authentic forms. There were instructors who put together a mishmash of movements and passed them off as true Shaolin. I studied a couple of authentic forms – Dragon and Snake-Crane Combination –with one of my colleagues in the Karate Federation of the Philippines, Nel Maulit, who had managed to train at Hong Sing Sporting Club .

In one of his visits to Manila, Johnny recommended me to Lao Kim for private instructions. I studied with Master Lao and learned several empty hand and weapons form. On our first meeting I asked him through an interpreter how much I was going to pay. He replied that he took me as a student because of Johnny. I thought he did not like me very much but I was not offended by his remark since it was really quite unusual for a Chinese master to accept a student and a private one at that.

I was quite happy and proud to have had the chance to become Lao Kim’s student. Later, another Filipino Jopet Laraya, an exceptional martial artist and a fellow student at the university and Johnny’s fraternity brod in the Beta Sigma, joined us.

I used to see Lao Kim at a carpenter’s shop on T. Alonzo Street. On several occasions some young masters would come to ask him to teach them, but he consistently refused. Often there was an assistant, a cheerful and serious teenager named Ching See-san. Sometimes we practiced at Hua-Eng Athletic Club, where I was studying Tai Chi Chuan, or at a warehouse somewhere in Caloocan, or on the rooftop of a hotel, and occasionally in the Luneta Park by the Bay. Unlike work-outs with Johnny which were generally continuous skirmishes, Lao Kim’s had mercifully no sparring. But there were times when I foolishly showed Lao Kim a few fighting techniques and he always surprised me with his responses. He moved in such a way that I couldn’t hit him; worse, he came at me from an angle where I was most vulnerable.

Lao Kim with Leony and Johnny Chiuten up north in
Baguio City in the late 60s. Johnny passed away last
September 10, 2010. I have been trying to write an article
about him. But when a very, very important teacher in
your life dies, it is unspeakably difficult to sit down
and write.

Lao Kim was quite awesome for his age (he must have been in his 70’s at the time). His stances were solid and grounded, his maneuvers were decisive, his hands vibrated like tempered steel. Whenever he demonstrated a movement and its fighting application, I seemed to suck in my breath because the technique was so lean, fluid, clear and deadly.

Lao Kim had a style that was aesthetically pleasing but also effective. And the footwork was simple yet profound, it was not just a straight, linear progression but multi-directional. It offered various deceptive alternatives in combat. (Later in 1986 on Bantayan Island, where I traveled from the United States, Johnny showed me an incredible variation of a technique he called positional sparring drawn from Lao Kim.)

One story illustrates Lao Kim’s repertoire of techniques. It was in the late 60’s, at a karate tournament sponsored by the Karate Federation of the Philippines of which Johnny Chiuten was the president. Lao Kim, See San and I had demonstrated Shaolin forms. Sifu Lao stayed a while to watch the forms and the fighting. At our next training session, he taught me a form called Wat Let which he said was excellent against a karate fighter. The form was linear with alternating attack and retreat patterns and diagonal footwork. I had already studied several forms — Dragon-Tiger, Plum Blossom, Goddess of Mercy, Kang Li, Sword, Broadsword, Spear, and Hoe, among others – and Wat Let was a welcome addition.

Quintessential warrior

Like Johnny Chiuten, Lao Kim was the quintessential warrior, a combat specialist in his craft. Although he enjoyed teaching a lot of complicated forms, he was at heart a fighter. To him, the final, ultimate test of martial arts was their effectiveness in combat. One time, he, his assistant See San and I paid a visit to Hong Sing to observe the class of one of the masters. Lao Kim was quiet all the time the master was teaching (a form I recognized as Snake-Crane because I studied it) and was explaining the applications to his students. Afterwards, walking home, Lao Kim said through See San that the form was “flowery” and “won’t work” in actual combat.

He was, like Johnny, contemptuous of dabblers, people who had no focus or dedication, and so-called masters who couldn’t fight, dilettantes who collected forms and information. As Johnny often said, You can have many forms but if you cannot fight, what’s the use of all that learning. I never did agree with that idea since I believe in the health, aesthetic and meditative aspects of martial arts but when you are face to face with Johnny it is difficult to argue with him.

Lao Kim (seated), Johnny F. Chiuten, Ching See San, and Rene Navarro.
Lao Kim (seated), Johnny F. Chiuten,
Ching See San, and Rene Navarro.

When I left for the United States in late 1970, I kept an intermittent correspondence with Lao Kim. He was hired to teach again in Manila (at the Sampaguita Athletic Club, if I remember) and had apparently drawn a lot of students to his school. He was busy, he said, through a translator, he had a lot of students, he had to maintain the standards, the tradition. And then he was invited to Hongkong to choreograph fight scenes in movies. He was back in the frenetic world of Hongkong, where he taught a number of famous students and actors, and choreographed fighting scenes for the movies.

In the meantime, I had been observing masters. I saw quite a number from both sides of the United States. There were other 5-Animal systems, but none like Lao Kim’s.

I travelled to China in 1983 to further my studies in martial arts. While the forms impressed me, I did not see anything quite like Lao Kim’s Shaolin style there either. The forms I saw were beautiful, featuring graceful poses and acrobatic jumps, but they were not martial.

Lao Kim in Hongkong

It wasn’t until 1987 that I saw Lao Kim again, in Hongkong this time. Johnny had given me an address on the Kowloon side and a different name. I had a clerk in the hotel call him and make arrangement for a visit. When I went up to his place, a high rise apartment in a project, I was surprised at how familiar it looked; it was like a development in any big city in the United States: impersonal, crowded. His room was up on the 17th floor. There was an elevator marred by graffiti in English and Chinese. It was the kind of development that you entered with your reflexes on guard.

Lao Kim’s apartment had a steel gate. When I called “Sifu”, he came to the door and said “Navarro” to my surprise. He let me in and I was saddened to see him wearing extraordinarily thick eyeglasses. I realized that even with those eyeglasses, he couldn’t see very much. He showed me a diagnosis from an oculist. It showed something like degenerative retinitis, inoperable.

We had snatches of conversation.

The woman who was there, whom I had never met before, was extremely crotchety. She had broken a hip from a fall years earlier.

He showed me an album, which I gave to him in the 60’s, now full of photos — Johnny and his new wife Leonie,with Lao Kim in Baguio City; Lao Kim and his female students;. Lao Kim with Johnny and Lao Que Tong, a Hung Gar master in Hongkong; Lao Kim doing a tiger posture; Lao Kim with a Kwando; Lao Kim and me in Binondo; Ching See San, Johnny and me behind Lao Kim smiling for the camera.

He told me that I could have the photo album but the woman made a lot of noise, apparently objecting.

For a long while we kept quiet. I recalled the times we shared, his expertise, the training sessions. I felt the continuum of life, of knowledge, of respect and affection.

He complained of pains in his back. I lifted his shirt and discovered he had scoliosis. I massaged him for a while. I passed Chi/energy to him and he acknowledged it with a smile and comment.

Then it was time to go.

As I stepped out of the apartment, he slipped the album to me.

I took a few steps in the empty hallway and stopped. The steel gate was locked behind me. I felt quite sad to leave him. The old man had given me more than an album of photographs, more than memories. He gave me a discipline which to this day is a source of joy and meaning to me.

1988 was the last time I went to Hongkong to see him. He gave me a Shaolin herbal formula with 36 ingredients (he gave me one in the 60’s which had 24). It was the same recipe that was used for the awful herbal drink Johnny Chiuten gave me) I had the prescription filled by an herbal shop on Nathan Road in Hongkong. I mixed the formula; it is sitting in a jar in my bedroom, still unopened.

Weston, Massachusetts. 1993.


November 2009. There are reports that the legendary Lao Kim passed away 5 years ago, possibly at the age of over 110.

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By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)

Studying Tai Chi Chuan in the Philippines in the late 60’s, I saw a form, slow,  smooth, flowing, hypnotic, elegant. It did not look like it had any power but I saw and felt in the movement an energy that seemed to vibrate into the bones.  A strange sensation to me who, at that point, had been steeped in the hard, vigorous and physical Southern Shaolin Temple Wu-Shu style.

For several years, I had been taking private lessons with Johnny Chiuten, a Shaolin Kung-Fu master who was a student in the university like me. But when he left for Cebu, southern Philippines, to manage his family’s bakery on a tiny, dusty island called Bantayan, he became almost inaccessible. Before he left he recommended me to his master Lao Kim, a legend in the Philippine Kung-fu underworld who at the time was in semi-retirement from public teaching. They were both famous as fighters, tough and powerful practitioners of the hard Shaolin style. They taught me fist forms that emphasized toughening the muscles and bones, hitting the forearms and digits on hard bags.

The leap from hard Shaolin to soft Tai Chi was difficult for me to understand, so was the idea of deriving power from gentleness and the mystical Chi.

Multifaceted system

Tai Chi Chuan is an ancient Chinese discipline, one of the priceless treasures of Chinese civilization, along with calligraphy, painting, and acupuncture. It is an internal system of healing and energy work, a dance, a philosophy, a meditation, a spiritual quest, a way of centering and therapy.

But Tai Chi, as the art is sometimes called, is actually a martial art as well. It is therefore not an ordinary dance, or a relaxation exercise. It is indeed, despite its deceptively harmless movements, a sophisticated fighting system. It can be used and was designed to immobilize, maim or to kill.

The basic movements must have been invented at least two thousand years ago but the system itself was developed sometime in the 13th century by Chang San-Feng, a legendary Taoist monk in Wu Dang Mountain in China. Chang was a Shaolin monk who lived in the monastery in Loyang for 10 years. He probably studied Damo’s Yi Jin Jing, the secretive system of neigong that is sometimes associated with the mystical powers.

It was said that he learned the dance in a dream (shades of Tartini!); another story showed him devising the movements from the fight between a crane and a snake that he had seen in his backyard.

Different systems grew, some in temples (Wu Dang Mountain and the White Cloud Temple in Beijing are the most prominent) and others in families (Chen, Wu, Sun  and Yang especially) around China.

Yang Family style

Yang Family style Tai Chi Chuan is the most widespread system. Its origin, like ancient Tai Chi, is shrouded in mystery and legend. One story (considered apocryphal by authorities but perpetuated in the popular literature) says that Yang Lu Chan studied it by disguising himself as a servant in the Chen family household and spying on the practitioners at midnight (this version has a couple of variations, one of which has him as a servant who could not speak and the other that he joined the Chen family as a servant when he was a child).

Another story has it that he was already an accomplished Shaolin Long Fist martial arts master who joined the Chen family to learn their system. Still another story (not necessarily the most reliable) has him studying, not the Chen family style, a southern Shaolin style (“Cannon Fist Boxing”) that later became known as Tai Chi Chuan but another style taught by a mysterious boxing master who was visiting the Chen’s. A story that crops up occasionally in the literature is that he also studied with a Taoist monk.**

Whatever the truth behind the confusing claims, the Yang Family style as it is known today was developed by Yang Lu Shan’s grandson, Yang Cheng Fu, who revised the family style to make it more simple and accessible to the public. In the 20’s and 30’s up to his death in 1936 he propagated it as he traveled around China. Among the masters who learned the style from him were his oldest son Yang Sau-Chung (now deceased who was 28 years old when his father died), Tung Ying-Chieh (deceased), Chen Wei Ming (deceased), Tin Shao Lin (Shanghai) and Cui Yi Shi (Beijing).

I studied a version of the Yang style Tai Chi Chuan solo form at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Manila’s Chinatown in 1968.  It was Yang style handed down through the famous master Han Chi Tang who was visiting from Taiwan in the early 60’s. (I learned later that his daughter Han Linlin teaches martial arts in Cambridge, Ma.)  Han, who taught Tai Chi Chuan and northern Shaolin Boxing at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo, Manila, reportedly studied the art with Yang Cheng Fu in Shanghai, possibly in one of those workshops in the 20’s and 30’s. There was no formal teacher when I joined the school in 1968, but there were veterans who helped. A few advanced students studied the sword form with Han Chi Tang.  I don’t remembering seeing Han or any of his students doing any other form of Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan aside from the Solo form and the Sword.

Han’s interpretation of the Solo form modified the original in a few places — the opening (his is similar to the Hsing-I), the Wave Hands like Cloud and Needle at Sea Bottom, among others.

You went to the morning class and followed the movements. If you had a problem with the sequence, you asked one of the other students. There was pushing, stationary one hand and two hands and moving two hands. Chan Bun Te, who managed the school, made occasional but excellent corrections. After a couple of years, the class thinned out as many of us took Tai Chi lessons with Liu Yun Hsiao, the grandmaster from Taiwan, who was in town for a year or so teaching internal systems.

I also went to the Luneta Park by the Manila Bay and joined a group of practitioners who met at dawn almost everyday. A few times I led the group, perhaps the only Filipino who ever did.

Like many practitioners, I learned only the long empty-hand form, basic Push Hands and read the Classics of the art.  At the time, there wasn’t much information about Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan.  Johnny Chiuten who studied the Solo form with me became a serious practitioner of the art when he realized the possibilities of the style. What I learned and read was enough to give me an idea of the depth of the internal style. I was tantalized beyond belief. I fantasized about studying with Yang Cheng-Fu, who was said to be able to emit power from his body without the slightest movement. I thought if I learned with a real master for a few years…. The idea of receiving the secret Transmissions from an heir of Yang Cheng-fu, of learning what the art is all about…. From that time I tried to keep an eye open for such a master.

Newly arrived in the United States, in late 1970, I had no teacher. But I did the Tai Chi Chuan long form on a regular basis along with my Shaolin fist and weapons forms.  After learning Tai Chi, I began to understand its possibilities — for health, longevity, relaxation and combat.

I observed the famous Cheng Man Ching who had a school at the foot of Manhattan Bridge on the Bowery in New York. He had a reputation as a formidable fighter. His short form of 37 movements was derived from the Yang Family classical fist form of 108 movements.  It was said that he studied with Yang Cheng-Fu but I did not know what forms or for how long. His students did the short fist form, stationary push hands and the sword form. I would stand on one side and watch the players do the form or push hands. I did not talk to anybody, I just watched.  Later, Cheng wasn’t around when I went to watch.

Leung Shum, the Eagle Claw master, impressed me. I studied Wu Style with him for several months. He was an excellent teacher but I never did finish the form possibly because I thought it was the same as the Yang form. I dropped by to see a few Tai Chi masters in New York. In San Francisco I observed a couple of instructors doing their forms.

I went to China in 1983 to take intensive training in contemporary Wu-Shu. I saw a number of Tai Chi Chuan masters but nobody who made a strong impression on me.

Taoist Arts

I started studying with Mantak Chia of the Healing Tao in late 1983 and learned his Tai Chi Chi Kung form, a still more abbreviated version of the short Tai Chi form. It was a version of the original 13 movements. Chia put a lot of emphasis on analyzing the internal mechanism of the Tai Chi movement. His was a compact form but very difficult to master. I also learned a short fast form from him.

In the summer of 1986 I visited Boston. I called up Gunther Weil and Rylin  Malone,  friends from the Healing Tao who were teaching at Harvard,  for dinner. I had not seen them since the last Healing Tao Retreat in North Andover, Massachusetts, in 1985.

We agreed to see each other outside the Copley Square Hotel. They took me a short distance in their car to a building near the Chinatown exit of the Mass Pike to a Tai Chi school. Another Tai Chi Chuan school, I said to myself.

There were students practicing earnestly in the courtyard behind the school on the first floor of the Mass Pike Towers. Sword and Saber, Two-Person Set, Staff, Long Form, Fast Form and a type of stationary two-hand maneuver that included grasping, pushing and trapping, much of which I had not seen before anywhere.

A Karmic Encounter

I was introduced to the teacher, Gin Soon Chu, who smiled a lot but did not speak much. At the time I had read widely about Tai Chi Chuan, but I did not see anything about him. He was, as far as I was concerned, just one of the many teachers that I had to include in my list. I sat down to watch the proceedings. Although the sequence of movements was similar to the Solo Form I had studied at Hua-Eng in Manila, theirs looked stilted, awkward. I was wrong; I realized that they were doing the postures differently. It was the first time I had seen Tai Chi postures done that way anywhere I had been — in the Philippines, Hongkong, China, California, and New York.

Afterwards there was a kind of Push Hands, using a maneuver that was basically stationary, from a Press position until somebody was uprooted. It was called Dynamic Push Hands to distinguish it from its soft, yin counterpart. The teacher pushed, too, showing an incredible strength that belied his age and size. He was bouncing people back to the opposite wall, 20 feet away, or up in the air with no visible effort. I was impressed. It was a power I had not seen before. I wondered if it had something to do with the postures of Tai Chi Chuan that I had found awkward.

I knew instantly that he was the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan master I was looking for, as good a manifestation as any of the spirit and abilities of Yang Cheng-Fu, the father of modern Tai Chi Chuan. Later, I learned that Gin Soon Chu studied with Yang Sau-Chung, the first-born and heir of Yang Cheng- Fu, in Hongkong. A lineage instructor, he knew the curriculum of authentic forms handed down by the Yang family and had been authorized to teach. I decided I was going to study with him. But it was a long drive from Pennsylvania to Boston, some 5-6 hours one way. Gunther offered his house for me to sleep in while I was in town. Nothing came of it though because I had too many things to do at the time.

Studying with a master

It was 3 years later that I finally had the chance to study with Gin Soon Chu. When I decided to pursue acupuncture, he was the reason I chose to relocate in the Greater Boston area. He was even more impressive when I saw him again in 1989. He was not only bouncing people, he was tying them in knots or stopping them cold WITHOUT TOUCHING them. I asked the advance students how this felt and they really could not explain, except to say that it was like something erupts inside or the muscles get stiff or a wall seems to have materialized in front. Just like that. You’ll never know unless you experienced it, they said. I was told it was pushing on the level of Jing, beyond Qi.  It was a release of vital energy.  The alchemical change from raw Chi to primal Jing.

It is 1998 now.  I’ve been through 4 corrections of the Solo Form and finished several other forms, including the Chang Chuan, Staff/spear, 2 sets of the Knife/Broadsword, the Sword and have been working on the 2-Man Set. I am still receiving corrections to my forms, especially the Solo form and the Sword Form, there doesn’t seem to be an end. These forms are like heirlooms to me, received from a teacher who received them from his master, and on through the ancestral line. It has been a productive and happy education for me.

During the 6 years that I was studying acupuncture and herbology, the lessons with Gin Soon helped give me a center, a sense of wholeness and focus. I have likewise felt a great improvement in my energy.

The different forms emphasize and reveal different aspects of the art. Each form also sheds light on the form before it so that as one progresses, the different techniques acquire a deeper and larger dimension. While it is true that the Solo Fist Form is a self-sufficient form for some people, it is also true for me and many practitioners that the other forms complement it and bring it a step or two further.

Gin Soon Chu has been a joy to study with. He is completely childlike, cery gentle and serene. And unbelievably awesome. When he does a form, most everybody stops to watch.

His school, founded in 1969 is observing its 29th anniversary, the oldest Tai Chi Chuan school in Chinatown and in the Greater Boston area.

Some of his students have been around for 10-20 years and they still come to study. A number of them, like Linda Sugiyama, Sarah Freed, Hwon Kim (who has opened his own school in Manhattan), and John Conroy (who has been teaching for sometime in Providence, Rhode Island) have developed powerful techniques too, one could see it in the way they do their forms and in the impact of their techniques.  To me, they represent the potential power of Tai chi chuan of which many so-called masters are embarrassingly clueless.

I am still a child learning the rudiments of an art.  Pushing 60, I don’t know how much time I have to learn all the forms Sifu Gin Soon teaches and how deeply I can go into the forms. There are still Yang Cheng-Fu’s personal Sword and the Spear forms, among other forms.  And there are, I heard, the secret Yang Family forms – reportedly the basis of the modified Solo form that Yang Cheng-Fu introduced in the 20’s to make Tai Chi Chuan popular and easier to learn.

Master Vincent F. Chu
Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane: Master Vincent F. Chu,
son of Chu shigong and heir to the Yang Family
transmissions. Fong shifu, as he is often called by his
many students, has been studying with many Yang Family
Tai chi chuan masters as he collates the different versions
and forms, including the different frames (small, medium,
large), speeds (slow, fast and mixed), styles (Snake, Tiger
and Crane) and the internal facets of the art (like the
influence of Damo on the system). He has a very profound
knowledge of Tai chi chuan.

I see the other students, especially the veterans, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to develop their abilities. A couple of them would often give me advice on my movements or general Tai Chi Chuan development. The training is quite tough and demanding, the Push Hands routines especially so. With Vincent Chu, Sifu’s son, or Fong as we fondly call him, who is a master in his own right, Push Hands is a serious business; it is the crucible for developing high level techniques. Fong subjects most everybody to an unforgettable treatment that goes right to the bones.

The Push Hands training is no doubt the most difficult of all with the 34 or 35 Fa Jing techniques. The Yang Family  techniques as transmitted by Sifu, are the most varied and most  challenging I have seen in my long search. A combination of yielding and power, softness and hardness, the techniques  include a wide repertoire of energy discharge. It is a perfect example of what the classics call “steel wrapped in cotton” because it is so effortless but so explosive, so soft and yet so hard.

Sifu has an obvious mastery of Push Hands. On a few occasions, he would demonstrate different aspects of it, including maneuvers with the elbow, shoulders, hands, fingers and chi manipulation from a distance. I’ve seen him do Push Hands many times and I am always fascinated by it all.

Often Sifu ties me up in knots too. While Pushing, he would reach one or other part of my body and something happens, a burst of energy it seems, and my breathing pattern changes. Something inside moves me to assume a posture or do a movement. I twitch, I feel like choking, a rush of energy moves through me.

When I am asked how it feels, all I could say is, It is difficult to explain; you have to experience it to know it.

Both father and son have incredible Jing power and the legendary “empty force” that we often associate with the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan masters.

Gin Soon Chu is Sifu to his students. I never heard anybody call him a master and he never demanded it, although he is definitely that.

You’ll find him at his school, eyes shining brightly. He is childlike and playful and gentle. A genuine master of the art, he is  the fulfillment of a personal quest that began 30 years earlier 10,000 miles away in another continent.

*Revised 5/23/10.

**The contradictions in the narrative are possibly not typical of Chinese history.  It is difficult to determine what actually happened through the centuries:  myths are often mixed with facts and oral tradition. Especially in martial arts, families and adherents embroider the story until it becomes fanciful and incredible and simplistic. Even in political history, many things are swept under the rug or expunged from the records. Consider the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square Massacre!

Gin Soon Chu Federation school is at 33 Harrison Street (2nd floor), Boston, MA 02116. Tel (617) 893-3451.

For information on Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu: www.gstaichi.org

For information on Master H Won Kim:www.nytaichi.com

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By Rene J. Navarro, Dipl.Ac. (NCCAOM)

Part 1.

What is Miao Tong Dao?

Scene: A quiet evening in a hotel in Huangshan in October of 2007. David and I were smoking  cigars. It was after dinner and we had just finished the class for the day. We were talking about why certain masters, despite their achievements, are so patently … well, it was the word we used: a … holes.

Well, I am ahead of myself. David is David Verdesi, lineage disciple of the Lei Shan Dao/Thunder Path Damo lineage (through Jiang shifu) and the Long Men Pai (through Wang Liping). I wrote about him in the article “Journal of a China Journey: Thunder Path in Huangshan.” For more information about David, go to www.zhengzongdadao.com

I have known David since he was 15 or 16 back in the Healing Tao retreats in the Catskills, NY in 1993.  He used to join me for practice in the morning. We have spent time together in Chiang mai, Thailand; Java, Indonesia; New York City; Istanbul, Turkey; and different cities in China teaching each other. I have attended his seminars in some of these places.

Like me, he has seen a lot of masters in the East and the West. Some of them have extraordinary abilities, many of them have tremendous knowledge and experience. They practiced martial arts, qigong, internal alchemy or whatever. We had seen demonstrations of rare power and talent. But David and I wondered why so many of  the masters  (definitely not the ones we met in Huangshan) lack human qualities, refinement and virtues, why they lie and cheat and exploit people …  and why they are so egotistic and selfish and why, especially the martial arts teachers, are they so brutish and sadistic?

I wrote in the article “Thunder Path in Huangshan”:

…For me, at my age, what I want to pursue is training in … stillness and clarity … perhaps, in the cultivation of the heart. I don’t know what it may entail, I do not know its consequences, I am still at that stage when I am exploring the different paths. Searching for peace and quiet within is probably the most difficult quest in the world because the senses and the mind are always picking up something, always being ambushed by desires and thoughts. The way to emptiness is full of obstacles because the world is teeming with temptations and the inner self is itself a constant battlefield. Of course, power is important — imagine what a person with a pure heart can do with it — but it can also fall into the wrong hands. Love — and healing — should be the foundation of life. There is too much meanness and cruelty and egotism, even in everyday life, not much patience, acceptance, forgiveness and accommodation. Like success, fame and fortune, power can distract us from our intended and true goals -– our destiny — on earth. We have seen masters who have been derailed from their intended mission because they were blinded by the blandishments of the world or misled by their own greed; and those who seek power often get bogged down in showing off and blatant exhibitionism. Either way, the route of power, unless guided by a pure intention, is invariably vain and corrupting.

David emphasized the need for “prayers” … or an attitude of reverence and wonderment for the sacred in our lives. Whatever it is we believe in, he said in Huangshan, we have to honor the divine.  We are indeed just like the shamans in the Chinese character for“ling” or spirit — we can only mediate between heaven and earth to bring down the blessings and grace from above.

David and I talked about finding an alternative route for human transformation … was it the Miao Tong Dao? A path that will lead us to the spiritual, the divine, the authentic road to real possibilities … whatever you call it is not important … but something –- a method, a technique, a tradition – that will bring enlightenment and illumination … and evolution to a higher level of living.

David and I went our separate ways after Huangshan. He went back to Rome and I returned to the US.  In one of my letters, I asked him: What is Miao Tong Dao? He did not answer. I returned to China in August of 2008 and spent almost 6 months in Hangzhou teaching English and waiting for David to start the group that planned to congregate in West Lake, Hangzhou for real instruction and training with the masters. But he was unable to come to China. He went to see his master in Korea, one of the many he was studying with, and it seemed like he had fallen on the other side of the world or at least off the internet.

Meantime, back in the US, I kept myself quite  busy (and happy) with my Daoist practices, pursuing a path (lower case) that is less traveled, and for sometime, intrigued by David’s mention of and our discussion of the Miao Tong Dao,   undertaking a research into what is probably one of the most arcane subjects in Sinology:  What was the meditative practice of Chuang Tzu/Laozi? Did it have anything to do with Miao Tong Dao? I have been pursuing an answer that may never be found in the extant literature. Perhaps the answer has been lost forever due to the burning of books in the reign of Qin Shihuangdi (the First Emperor of China) or the Manchu expungement of the sacred Daoist texts and scriptures.  Where will I find the answer?  Sometimes I feel that I may never find it. But there is joy in the seeking. I have the 3-volume Daoist Canon (a  friend gifted it to me on my 67TH birthday), and volumes and documents that I have collected over the years. I have just started reading the general introduction to the Daozang written by Kristofer Schipper, arguably the leading scholar on Daoism in the world and I am now into the 3rd chapter of “Blue Dragon, White Tiger: The Rite of Passage in Daoism” by Michael Saso. Here and there I find a clue, but nothing specific, yet. Saso, professor emeritus at  the University of Hawaii – Manoa and a Daoist priest,  wrote an essay on “Chuang Tzu Nei Pien” (included in “Experimental Essays on Chuang Tzu” edited by Victor Mair) about his field  trip to Taiwan and it suggests credible interpretation of  Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Reading the Laozi, we can also find many verses that point the way.  Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6 and 16 and of course 40 and 42 are among the more promising guides.

Many studies have been written about the Dao De Jing. There are anthologies about it, among them one edited by the scholars Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue.   Roger Ames and David Hall have written a great translation (Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation)with a long introduction and an illuminating  section on the meaning and varieties of “wu.” Jonathan Star has presented a bilingual appendix and a glossary of words. DC Lau has given us Wang Pi’s version and his own interpretation of the Mawangdui A and B. So somewhere perhaps there is an answer. The texts speak of “wu,” “ziran,” quietism and emptiness, “fasting of the heart and mind,” compassion, “sealing of the senses.” Laozi’s meditative practices may lie hidden behind the Dao De Jing, the words he left behind before he disappeared into the western mountains, or the Zhuanzi; they just have to be read very closely with an open mind and heart … meaning, in the language of hermeneutics, with vision and a willingness to listen to all possibilities. I have not found in the books an answer to the original question : What is Miao Tong Dao? Perhaps it is just a name. Perhaps it is just another label for an ancient Taoist meditation. Perhaps, when David has the time, he will give me the answer.

Part 2.

What is Miao Tong Dao?

I posed this question in a previous issue of Rapid Journal but did not give an answer.

I have just arrived from a month of serious and hard training in Lei Shan Dao/Thunder Path (www.zhengzongdadao.com) in Rome. Six hours of daily training broken into 3 hours each: from 11 am to 2 pm and then 6 to 9 pm (or sometimes 10).  Often we did 2 hours of sitting practice. Lei Shan Dao belongs to the lineage of The Magus of Java and Jiang shifu of Huangshan, China.

David Verdesi conducted the classes. While I was in Rome, I also worked on the transcripts of his seminar on Miao Tong Dao. He studied with Shifu Ji, a mysterious Taoist master in Korea, who counts as disciples famous personages around the world like the Dalai Lama.

I believe I got an answer to the question that is the subject of this article which refers essentially to the meditation/qigong practice of Lao-Tzu/Laozi some 2500 years ago. For lack of space, I can only provide a partial answer.

There are basically two ancient texts involved in this matter. One is the Dao De Jing and the other is Zhuangzi. The former has several chapters that are relevant to the question. One of them is Chapter 15:

The masters of this ancient path
Are mysterious and profound
Their inner state baffles all inquiry
Their depths go beyond all knowing
Thus, despite every effort,
We can only tell of their outer signs –
Deliberate, as if treading over the stones of a winter brook
Watchful, as if meeting danger on all sides
Reverent, as if receiving an honored guest
Selfless, like a melting block of ice
Pure, like an uncarved block of wood
Accepting, like an open valley.

— Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, translation and commentary by Jonathan Star.

In this verse, we have a list of  six “virtues” or moral attainments that are the earmarks of the True Man/Zhen Re in Miao Tong Dao: deliberate, watchful, reverent, selfless, pure and accepting. Wing –Tsit Chan, another famous commentator and translator, has a list of seven which are phrased differently:

Cautious, like crossing a frozen stream in the winter,
Being at a loss, like one fearing danger on all sides,
Reserved, like one visiting.
Supple and pliant, like ice about to melt.
Genuine, like a piece of uncarved wood,
Open and broad, like a valley,
Merged and undifferentiated, like muddy water.

How do you achieve these virtues? Chapter 16 (in Jonathan Star’s translation) may provide an answer:

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
Unfolding from emptiness
See all things flourish and dance
In endless variation
And once again merge back into perfect emptiness –
Their true purpose
Their true nature
Emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again
This is the eternal process of return

To know this process brings enlightenment
To miss this process brings disaster

Be still
Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity
Eternity embraces the all-possible
The all-possible leads to a vision of oneness
A vision of oneness brings about universal love
Universal love supports the great truth of Nature
The great path of Nature is Tao.

Whoever knows this truth lives forever
The body may perish, deeds may be forgotten
But he who has Tao has all eternity

Many ancient traditions in Asia follow different but often intersecting paths: the path of the spirit, the path of power, the path of enlightenment, the path of longevity, the path of knowledge, the path of immortality, and the path of combat.

Miao Tong Dao follows basically the path of enlightenment. It seems “emptiness” is a crucial prerequisite for this path. There are many passages in Daoist literature that emphasize emptiness. Zhuangzi picks it up when he talks about “fasting of the heart (xin translated into English as heart-mind):”

“Fast, and I will tell you (the secret),” said Confucius. “Doing something thought out in the heart, isn’t that too easy? Whoever does things too easily is unfit for the lucid light of Heaven.”

“I am of a poor family. I have not drunk wine or eaten a seasoned dish for months. Would that count as fasting?”

“That kind of fasting one does before a sacrifice, it is not the fasting of the heart.”

“I venture to inquire about the fasting of the heart.”

“Unify your attention. Rather than listen with the ear, listen with the heart. Rather than listen with the heart, listen with the energies (qi). Listening stops at the ear, the heart at what tallies with the thought. As for ‘energy’, it is the tenuous which waits to be roused by other things. Only the Way accommodates the tenuous. The attenuating is the fasting of the heart.’ “

Translation by A.C. Graham.

To me, there is a whole repertoire of practices (not described here) associated with Miao Tong Dao, among them, cultivating stillness, spontaneity, naturalness, selflessness, love, compassion and of course emptiness.

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