The Wudang Swimming Hole

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SL371660It’s almost summertime weather here. Blessedly, we’re not there yet. In July and August it can get pretty unbearable – intense, humid heat that doesn’t even abate at night when you lie sweating under your mosquito net, the warm sluggish air from your fan the only thing moving, and moving more like flowing honey than wind at that. We adjust our training schedule so that we rest more in the middle of the day and train early in the morning and late after the sun goes down, but the weather is a real trial to the spirit nonetheless.

But summer has its perks. The mountains behind the school become almost jungle-like, lush and tropical where they were dry and brown all autumn and winter. And the little river valley (in places a canyon, really) becomes a breathtakingly beautiful place to go for a walk or, when its too hot to stand it any more, a swim. On either side of the river pool where Wudang residents most often go to swim, the hills on either side rise in rocky cliffs patched with tufts of brilliant green. For the adventurer, one can climb up rocks and rapids and find several smaller pools further up the valley, and one really wonderful place where the river flows narrow and deep and dark and cold between overarching rocks and trees high overhead. It’s beautiful in a way that makes one stop and appreciate it, even if your mind was on other things.

I suppose any popular swimming spot in the world has its share of litterers – people who selfishly use a beautiful place but mar it for later visitors. That is certainly the case at the swimming hole. As the summer wears on and more and more people go to swim, the rocks and water are littered with food and drink packaging. There is no restroom easily accessible from the swimming hole, so human waste further soils the rocks on either side of the pool. All year round people take baskets of laundry to the river to wash, and so there always seems to be some soap bubbles or an odd sock floating in the eddies among the rocks. But all of that can be left behind if you make your way upriver a little ways, and serenity returns.

I am always writing about my thoughts regarding my training, but today I offer this little picture of the natural setting of my master’s school. Shifu has made it plain that as we study Daoism and try to follow nature, we are meant to be learning about and following our own natures and not to confuse the idea with a bunch of trees and rocks. But who does not feel somehow calmer and purer when surrounded by natural beauty?

Expectations and Uncertainty

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P1090012Hoping to be able to post more often again, as it seems things are calming down a little. I’ve spent much of this month running back and forth to Beijing filming TV segments, but that might be over now.

We advanced through two rounds of 我要上春晚 (I want to perform New Years Eve) and filmed a third, but we did not advance through the third and final round. My immediate reaction was disappointment, followed by optimism. “Hey!” I thought, “at least I will get to go home for Christmas!”

However, that silver lining remains in question, even doubtful. As I have mentioned, the TV producers in Beijing have changed dates on us again and again, and time and again we were on the verge of just dropping the whole thing because keeping going was so costly and uncertain. But each time they assured us that we would certainly advance to the Spring Festival Gala, these second and third rounds were just necessary formalities, so if we could just accommodate them a little more, everything would be fine. Now, one is left wondering if those assurances had any truth or if they were just manipulations designed to keep us on the hook.

What it comes down to is that neither my master nor I feel entirely certain, after the situation has already altered so shockingly so many times, that it won’t do so once again. We are not deluding ourselves as to the nature of the TV people, nor as to the probability that we will be able to be on the spring festival show. Like Aesop’s scorpion and frog, we know the nature of our companions in this venture. And we know that we are almost certainly not going to be in the gala. But I have decided to wait patiently for the last flicker of hope to die before I hop on a plane. And I don’t know if that spark will be snuffed before Christmas.

I am sure some people will read this and think I am being naive, clinging to illusory hopes. On the contrary, I feel I am just doing what I should as a disciple. I personally think that the best thing for our Wudang culture and lineage is to carry on training good students to be good masters. But my master feels that it is the Dao that we take advantage of this high-profile opportunity if we can. Though it has been hard to do, if we can do it we will do more for Wudang kungfu’s visibility than we could do with hundreds of thousands of dollars by another means. If you think about it that way, the annoyances I am going through are very small relative to what might be achieved. And I have a good life here, training and improving myself — I am not really losing anything by being patient.

Except maybe Christmas. So here’s hoping I see you all at home for the holidays, and if not, I’ll be back in February.

Oh, and here is the link to our second round. If you look closely, you can see me miss a cue because the speakers were right in my ears 🙂 Our part starts at about 32 minutes.

http://tv.cntv.cn/video/C21299/5875d1fc495049888018cc086e21e3f9

Usefully Useless

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DSC_0003Years ago, Shifu sat my class down for a lecture on Daoism and culture, and in the true Daoist tradition of illuminating paradoxes, began by writing these words on the blackboard:

 有用无用

无用有用

Which means, “Useful is useless and useless is useful.” He explained thus. Imagine a can of paint. It is useful because you can paint a wall with it, but just sitting there in the can it’s not really serving any purpose, so it’s useless. Take the paint out of the can and spread it on a wall, it is now useful because it is serving its role as cover and color, but now that it is on the wall it can never do anything else, and is really kind of useless to you — you can’t take it off again and spread it anywhere else.

A few years ago, I came to realize that I was not being very welcoming toward short-term students passing through our school. I empathized with them, knowing that if I was a newcomer in a strange place, I would want the people already established there to be friendly and open to me. But my time was all so useful already — I trained many hours a day, and when I wasn’t training I was studying or resting up for the next training session. Every minute of the day was accounted for this way. All my time was useful to me, which made it useless for camaraderie and human generosity.

On the other hand, think of a stereotypical working family man. His time is useful to his boss, to his company, to his family, to his children — but kind of useless to him. When can he spend time on his own health and well-being? He can’t — useless

But sometimes I take some time out of my day and set it aside to be useless. After training sometimes I sit on the stoop of our dormitory and see if anyone comes and talks to me. I don’t always do this, and when I do it doesn’t always amount to much. But that time never fails to be precious in my mind. I have nice leisurely conversations, meet new people, deepen existing friendships, or have a few minutes to reflect on my day, or sometimes I just realize the weather is much nicer than I had previously noticed. My useless time ever proves useful.

There are certainly limits to this, and I think they are frequently defined by the boundaries of moderation and good sense. A useless half-hour watching TV might prove useful, provoking, and stimulating, but a useless 5 hours on the sofa thumbing the remote seems unlikely to yield any rich bounty.

We must strive to be constructive, to be helpful to others, to take care of ourselves, to cultivate our character and our connection with the people around us. But this axiom reminds us that we benefit by making room in our lives for potential that can be realized into new and real concrete good, and by accepting that when that solid usefulness fails, new possibilities are opened.

Reconciling Health Practice and Real Life

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DaoistHealth
Link to Article on www.wudanggongfu.com

I am back! I have been back in Maryland enjoying the comforts of home for about a week and a half. As with every time I come home, I have been dealing with the challenge of balancing two conflicting urges. One urge is the desire to maintain the healthy lifestyle I have in Wudang. The other impulse it to abandon myself to the rhythm of life here at home.

It is always amazing to me just how difficult this balance is to achieve. Life at home generally means eating too much of the wrong foods, drinking too much, and staying up too late at night. But it is REALLY hard to relax and enjoy friends and family while remaining aloof from the unhealthy behaviors.

In this way, I think I am much in the same boat we all are in during the holidays: we want to indulge because that is the tradition of celebration, but we know that at some point soon we will have to do something to correct the holiday excess.

This is the frame of mind I was in when I read an article my Master wrote last month. He explained to my class his thoughts when writing it. Shifu believes strongly in Daoist methods and their ability to improve people’s lives. But he was concerned because only a few people, like myself, were able or willing to come to Wudang for a long time and learn the techniques. So he wanted to distill the most fundamental part of our health practice and provide it in a more accessible curriculum.

That is how this article and the associated course came to be. Reading it myself, a lot of the “why” information was new to me, but the benefits and methods themselves were familiar: this is how Shifu has taught us to live while we are training. I have been learning this by living it for the last few years. But this article is meant to reach out from traditional Daoist methods and appeal to the more analytical western mind. As a bridge, it may seem a little strange to those standing on either shore, but take a look.

I hope people will consider Shifu’s ideas carefully. Even if you can’t picture yourself hopping on an airplane bound for China in April, I think the article contains insights into healthy living that people in our crazy world need to have.

Link to Shifu’s Article: http://www.wudanggongfu.com/kungfu/2013.html