Wither Goest I?

7 10 2009
Why don't you do right...

Why don't you do right...

I had a long talk with my doctor today about taking responsibility for myself and for my health, kind of the medical version of the song “Why Don’t You Do Right?” And so I have given this some thought.
Now usually when I pound out a blog it’s like “…the kid that handles the music box…” I’m hitting a jag-time tune. Typing to hear my head rattle. But this time I would appreciate some feedback.
The first “modern” television show ever to enrapture me was “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” based on stories by Max Schulman and starring Dwayne Hickman and Bob Denver. In this case I am going to assume that memory serves me correctly and if it doesn’t, well, it’s close enough to make my point.

Mr. Pomfritt

Mr. Pomfritt

I seem to recall some 50 years ago or so, an episode of Dobie Gillis wherein the quintessential teacher, Mr. Leander Pomfritt played by William Schallert, assigns a paper to his students, giving them the title “Wither Goest I?”
And the plot of that episode revolved around Dobie Gillis and his good buddy Maynard G. Krebs (the “G” stood for “Walter”) and perhaps the brainy Zelda Gilroy, (she scrunches up her nose, Dobie responds reflexively, he can’t help himself, and then he shouts at Zelda “Now cut that out!”) trying to figure out where they were going in life. Only for Maynard was it easy. He would listen to Thelonius Monk and keep going back to the movie theatre to see, again and again, “The Monster Who Devoured Cleveland.”
It seems a bit of a stretch to be asking the same question at age 60, but so be it. And the real question is plural. Wither goest I? Wither goest thou? I guess it comes back around to raison d’etre. Why am I here and what am I supposed to do? How do I know when to applaud and when to get up and go home?
These questions or perhaps reiterations of the same basic question, scare me. But just a little. I also find it difficult taking it too seriously.
antzIf a colony of ants were to produce an animated film about homo sapiens, called, maybe, “Humanz” the voice over would still have to be Woody Allen.
Humanz are inherently ridiculous. We carry on in the most asinine way, killing each other and putting up buildings, flying through the air in big tin cans, and eating stuff called Twinkies and Gogurt. Well, how can one take any of this seriously? That grain of salt better be pretty damned big.
So I ask you, what is my purpose here on this little bit of god-forsaken dirt? For that matter, what is yours? Let us leave out the “god” part though. It will just make you crazy.

Han Shan Hermit

Han Shan Hermit

Well then, procreation comes to mind. No matter what else we do, the urge to procreate is up there near the top. Huh, I have no children and will have no children. I guess the closest I ever got was either the Chinese orphans I send money to, or my various tai chi students over the years. Ha, I suppose the very, very closest would be my retired lady students. So all of my children are at least twenty years older than me. Oy, technically, I have failed to procreate.
Then how about the old saw, “Leave something to posterity?” Naw, that doesn’t work so good. One hundred years from now anything I left would be gone. Besides, I’ll be gone, so what do I care?
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.” Okay, I kind of like that as a rationale. I certainly like to eat, I definitely love to drink, and the two together makes me kind of merry. Only problem is, go back to sentence one, nu? I was talking to my DOCTOR! Already I am eating and drinking and making merry enough to kill me sooner than later. So that’s-a-no-good.
There is a certain appeal to asceticism, the lean old monk makes his way down the street, begging bowl in hand, hoping for a handful of rice…no, wait, he sits on top of the mountain communing with nature or you-know-who whilst thinking monkly thoughts or even better, not thinking at all, just being, one with the universe. Ai-ya, methinks this would get old pretty quick.
All right, let us assume that yours truly will live at least to the age of 80. If I find some golden mean between eating and drinking and that making merry stuff, and sitting on a mountain contemplating my navel, what else do I do? Why am I here?
TangoArgentinaHa, I told my doctor I would like to take up ballroom dancing, but I didn’t have the fifty bucks for a pair of shoes and I wasn’t sure my car would make it to North Seattle. Is that some great ethereal goal, learning to tango?
A great deal of my cultural background comes from Puritanism. Our ancestors all loaded onto a ship and sailed across the second biggest ocean in the world fleeing religious persecution so they could find a new land and persecute each other for not being ascetic enough and while they were at it, do their best to wipe out a bunch of natives who had been happily killing one another until we came along and gave them new diseases to worry about.
And guilt, the Puritans brought along enough guilt to choke a dozen Jewish grandmothers and all that pent up everything built like winding an enormous clock which produced so much guilty energy we unwound our way across the face of the earth spreading our beliefs like mayonnaise on white bread and doing our best to make everyone else feel as guilty and miserable as us. Ha! No wonder we drink. And right, sex is just for procreation. If it didn’t feel good we wouldn’t do it and there would be no new generations for us to nudge.
I remember from English History class, I had a wonderful professor, Wendell Knox. He told us a little story about an English saint, I think he was another St. Augustine, who was a hermit and he kept having visions of naked women, so he would throw himself into thorn bushes. Well, it kept him busy, and idle hands ARE the devil’s playground.

Maynard, Dobie, Zelda

Maynard, Dobie, Zelda

So, back to the original question. Wither goest I? Do I eat drink and make merry like crazy until I die? Do I sit up on a mountain thinking of nothing and being eaten by ferocious little bugs and maybe big brown bears? Do I exercise and restrict my diet and get all healthy so I can be fit as a fiddle when I drop over dead at the age of 88 or 130?
I truly want to know what you think and I cannot answer Mr. Pomfritt’s question all by myself. Why are we here and what do we do until bedtime?


Letting Go

5 09 2009

濘道 Muddy Road

Zen Monks on pilgrimage - art by Sato Zenchu

Zen Monks on pilgrimage – art by Sato Zenchu

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones complied by Paul Reps

I recently began studying tai chi with a new teacher after 12 years at the previous school. My former teacher is world class in forms competition, and was very precise in correcting us.

My new teacher is…different. His postures are not the same even if the form is one I have studied for years. I spent a long time making my postures and movements as precise as my old 60-years-plus body would allow me.

Now things are not the same. The sword may be held at a different level or the footwork is slightly changed. In the most difficult instances, the transition from one movement to the next is different.

No, the hardest thing is letting go. I firmly believe that what goes around comes around. Over the years, every sin I have ever committed against someone else has, in turn, been committed against me.

When teaching taijiquan, some of the most difficult students are those who have studied a different martial art. You show them a movement and their brain relates it to something they have learned in this other art and makes an often incorrect connection. Brains are funny that way.

“No,” I say, “that move looks the same but it is not, and the intent is different as well.”

So, here I am trying to equate what I have learned with what I am trying to learn. Fortunately, I am old enough to keep my mouth shut…well, at least some of the time. I am also lucky to have read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones umpty-gazillion times, and I give thanks that “Muddy Road” is one of my very favorites from that excellent book.

Actually, letting go of the old tai chi chuan forms is good practice for life. As we progress from birth to death we must let go of many things, more, I suspect, than all of the newer things we grasp.

To paraphrase a Harlan Ellison story, “Sometimes you have to let-be, a little.”

On top of all the good I get out of playing tai chi I am also playing at letting go. But, ai-ya, it is not easy.

Note: the Chinese characters for Muddy Road at the beginning of this are not the same as those used in the Tuttle edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. If my grammar creates some enormous faux pas, blame me.

Zhang San Feng

Zhang San Feng

意 Yi–Intent

22 08 2009
Pushing Hands tow.com

Pushing Hands tow.com

This was originally going to be called “moving” or “movement.” After a long period of sloth, continuing to play the tai chi chuan forms but lazily, not pushing myself, I have entered a new era of physical activity. It gets harder as one ages but easier, at the same time because the muscles are there, they just need to be reminded of their purpose.

This morning I arrived at tai chi class and my teacher, Dr. Wang, was standing by himself. He lifted his right hand in invitation and we began to play at pushing hands. Very quickly, my legs started to burn and my shoulder ached. He is a doctor, and he sensed this and we changed sides. Then we began the two handed pushing hands and I was clumsy and somewhat confused, but good old memory came through again and soon we were playing pretty smoothly, considering my under-used muscles.
Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Then into the class itself with the 42 Standard International Competition Form with shaking legs, I had to rest, often, and finally the 42 Standard International Competition Sword Form. Trying to stand on one leg with the other knee raised, pointing a sword, well I was pretty pathetic. But in the end I felt really good, more lively. I knew that more oxygen was entering my muscles and my qi was flowing better.

Driving home in the mid-morning coolness, enjoying the late-summer blue skies, I almost glowed with happiness. It feels so good to move and with purpose, and to accomplish goals–we take the glory of our bodies for granted far too often.

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

功夫 Gongfu (Kungfu), to achieve, to acquire skill through hard work, what a splendid concept. So, I was moving again and it felt good. Then why Yi, intent? In Chinese martial arts Yi is a primary concept. Simply put, without intent nothing can be accomplished. If you want a drink of water, your intention to pick up a glass must come first before your hand reaches for it. Before we acquire skill at tai chi chuan, we must begin with intent. I have a friend who “intended” on taking this class, but he said he was afraid, it had been so long and now new students and a new teacher…he did not come today. Did he have Yi? Probably not.

Driving home today I passed a young woman. She was clad in comfortable but very nice clothing and she was walking on the sidewalk. The way she carried herself, her stride her posture, her Yi and its culmination told me she was comfortable with physical activity and with her body.

Shortly thereafter, several blocks behind, along came another woman. She was decked out in what I assume is the latest jogging gear, headband, iPod strapped to her bicep, and her shoulders were lifted and tense and her elbows were thrust out and up and her body parts did not work in unison. Each section of her body was singing its own song and it was not harmonious when played together. This woman was obviously not comfortable with her body.

So we have to have the intent and then we must follow through. Just thinking about that drink of water is not enough. Intent and then the appropriate action. Two sayings come to mind: Yi 意, Chi 氣, Li 力. Intent then Internal Energy then strength or power. It all starts with intent.
Dr. John Painter, my Grand Shifu–teacher–says “The mind commands, the body moves, qi (chi) flows.” This makes the most sense to me. Intent then movement and movement produces energy. Of course this means proper movement like the young woman walking.
When I began studying the Yijing (I Ching) many, many years ago, it spoke often of the “Superior Man.” For modern times I change that, and my favorite passage is “The Superior Person stakes the force of life on following the force of will.” Ha! I tried to follow this and was knocked on my ass so many times…I did not understand the most important part, “Superior.” This didn’t work if one was not superior meaning upstanding, honest, gentle, strong…following the four virtues–Honesty, Humility, Patience, Sincerity. So equate “proper” movement with the “superior” person.
This was going to be about the glory of movement, and it still is, but first we must have Yi. Then go forward with the four virtues and celebrate your body and movement. Taijiquan is sometimes called “The Dance of Life.” Regardless of how you move, make it a dance, relax and enjoy yourself.

Dr. Painter on Yi: http://seattlesilverdragon.wordpress.com/2009/02/01/yi-intention-a-key-to-chinese-internal-martial-arts/

A Happy Day

27 08 2008



 This was originally posted  March 14, 2008 at my old blog. I liked it well enough, I decide to repost with a few graphics.

The house has some age on it. It is well-kept but old enough to have learned a thing or two. It’s been around the block. The front yard has green grass and newly planted trees. The walkway winds past several bushes toward the front door where two clay chimera (qilin) wait. A tea plant grows in a bed by the walk, camellia sinensis.

Cha Shifu's Tea House

A small metal sign hangs to the right of the front door, proclaiming “TeaMaster” with a drawing of a Yixing clay teapot, a Gongfu (Kungfu) pot. To the left of the front door is the long rectangular kitchen window. There is a large, beautiful bush in front of the window. I should learn its name. Two Stellar’s jays live there. They greet visitors and watch the goings-on inside.

My Tea Master meets me at the door. “Hi Pierce, come in!” He looks much younger than his age.  He is squarely built and has the broad shoulders of someone who regularly plays at taijijian (tai chi sword). He moves from his center, his dandian. He has balance and grace and is obviously connected to di (earth) and tian (heaven). His smile is genuine and welcoming.

I enter and smell the pleasant, homey smell of wood smoke. It is winter in Seattle, cold and wet. The warming fire is also welcoming. The flooring is compressed bamboo. It is beautiful and sturdy. My Tea Master believes in sustaining the earth. Bamboo does that.

Cha Shifu (Tea Master or Tea Teacher or Honored Tea Father) leads me through the clean and compact kitchen. Several large white cups with metal strainers in them sit on the counter. He has been tasting tea, professionally, judging its quality, comparing it.

Past the kitchen is a small wood paneled room with a long table made of compressed bamboo. Six bamboo chairs surround it. Several of the chairs are the type I think of as “Shifu” chairs. They remind me of my Internal Arts Shifu, my Grand Shifu who told the story of Master Jou, Tsung-Hwa. Master Jou wondered why some martial artists lived longer than others. He, Master Jou, concluded that the healthiest men had perfect posture, which included sitting well. These chairs invite proper posture.

To my right, to the west, is a room all of bamboo and glass and light. There is a long bamboo table for study and calligraphy, and a taller table with two statues of the goddess Kuan Yin. Each statue has a small tea cup in front and each cup contains tea. Cha Shifu has taught me to pour a cup to the goddess each day to honor her. The room feels good, it is a right place to be, like my Grand Shifu’s garden in Texas.

Luyu The Father of Tea

Luyu The Father of Tea

Cha Shifu and I sit. We talk of various things, the weather, friends, health, tai chi, while he prepares tea. Today is a new tea so he hands me the pot with the wet leaves that I might sample their virtue. The aroma is sweet and enticing, fine leaves indeed! I look down. The leaves are full and whole and healthy. They seem happy with the hot water that has brought them back to life. There is qi.

Re-hydrating tea leaves is often called “Awakening the dragon.” And I always feel a certain dragon qi, dragon energy about newly invigorated leaves of the camellia sinensis plant…at least when the tea is a good one.

Cha Shifu pours. I tap the table twice with two fingers thanking him, silently, for the good tea which he is serving. Tasting, I suck the tea back across the palate and along the sides of the tongue then across the back of the tongue and down the throat. This is a good tea, it is sweet and tastes of bamboo and what I used to call vanilla, but have now learned should really be spoken of as “orchid.” Orchid is one sign of a fine tea (and vanilla is a member of the orchid family).

The tail down my throat is smooth, and long, and pleasing. Cha Shifu sometimes uses the English word “lingering” as a noun and I have come to appreciate the concept. A good tea does indeed linger on the palate, sometimes for tens of minutes. And it is a pleasant sensation that one is loathe to relinquish.

I guess at the tea and get it right—Bai Mu Dan—White Peony, one of the few true and authentic Chinese white teas. It is from Fujian province. Cha Shifu is always pleased when I guess correctly—note the use of the word “guess”—and he is never too surprised when I am wrong, as long as I am not too wrong.

We drink the tea and discuss it. This White Peony comes from his own gardens in Fujian and it is made from spring leaves instead of the more usual summer leaves. Spring is sweeter than summer, but more fragile.

The tea is indeed a good one and lasts for many pourings and we talk about our tai chi and he tells me more about Kuan Yin. It is a good day. In the Way of Tea (chadao) it is right to enjoy the now, the present. What could be better than tea friends? What could be better than the focus, a tea meditation really, where the woes and worries of life are forgotten in a place of good company and good tea?

Finally, the tea is drunk and it is time to work. Yang balances yin and work earns the repose and the splendid tea. To quote Cha Shifu “Tea makes a happy day.”