Thursday, January 14, 2016

Essential Reading in Daoism and Martial Arts, Part II

I love reading biographies, and those related to tai ji and Daoism (Taoism) are some of my favorites. When I started tai ji my teacher handed me a book written by Wolf Lowenthal entitled There Are No Secrets. Lowenthal studied with famed teacher Chen Man Ch'ing in the 60's and early 70's, and this book details his experience discovering tai ji, as well his interactions with his teacher. Beautifully written, we gain some insight into what it must have been like to work with Chen Man Ch'ing, and embedded in the story are many excellent tai ji practice tips. Lowenthal's the followup, Gateway to the Miraculous, is an equally worthy read though I tend to lean towards the first book.

The next biography I read about internal arts and Daoism was Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard, which details the story of Wang Li Ping and the training he went through with three Daoist teachers. The story has some incredible training notes, and together with Master Wang's Ling Bao Tong Zhi Neng Nei Gong Shu, the would be student will find many helpful practices. The first time I read it I was actually in China with my qigong teacher Michael Winn visiting the very same mountains that Li Ping visited during his own training. Wang Li Ping holds seminars every year teaching Daoist nei gong, and his is considered a national treasure by the Chinese.

I discovered the autobiography of Lindsey Wei, The Valley Spirit, through a posting by her publisher on a popular martial arts forum. Knowing nothing about her, I picked up the book simply to support a fellow martial artist. What I found was an incredibly honest journal detailing Lindsey's search for a teacher in China. Many of her experiences and stories mirrored my own, and though I haven't had the chance to study with her yet or visit with her teachers in the Wudang mountains, those trips are definitely in my future.

Fourth Uncle in the Mountain by Marjorie Pivar was given to me as a gift by a fellow tai ji student and acupuncturist. The story details the training of Quang Van Nyugen, an orphan who is adopted by a spiritual teacher and barefoot doctor in Vietnam during the 1950's. Nyugen learns about herbalism, and acupuncture as well as martial arts during a tumultuous time in Vietnam's history. A moving story, and a great read.

Adam Hsu is a very well respected martial artist, teacher, and author. His work entitled The Sword Polisher's Record is a collection of articles he originally wrote for Kung Fu and Blackbelt magazine. Hsu discusses many principles of kung fu, training, and even concepts of how the training fits into our modern lives. Though a bit negative at times, I think its difficult for him to watch what has become of the arts in modern times, it is a worthy reference in any martial artist's library. The Sword Polishers Record is a book I refer to again and again.

Robert Smith's Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods is a classic, a must have. Smith also studied with Chen Man Ch'ing, and spent ten years traveling throughout southeast Asia studying martial arts. He provides details on his encounters with various teachers, and relates some incredible stories. I especially like the book because it shreds the myth of mystical monks training in the mountains, and presents some very normal men who live in cities, smoking and drinking, but who have amazing gong fu.

And finally, Alex Kozma's Beyond the Mysterious Gate is a quiet legend in the martial arts world. Like the Blofeld works I mentioned in last week's blog, if you meet someone who's read Kozma you know are standing with someone who's probably put in the work, and broken through the superficial layers of martial arts research. Kozma details his early years in the UK getting beat up by the neighborhood toughs, and finding his first teacher Serge Augier. He then strikes out on his own and studies with teachers around the world. His second book is more widely available, Warrior Guards the Mountain, and includes great history and details about a variety of martial arts...

There are so many more, Iron and Silk, American Shaolin: An Odyssey in the New China, Warrior Odyssey, but the list has to end somewhere

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Essential Reading in Daoism and Martial Arts, Part I

Reading and studying can never replace a great teacher or the practice. But there is an incredible body of literature related to Daoism (Taoism), martial arts and Chinese medicine. These works can provide theory, alternate points of view, and sign posts along the way. Scholarship has often been an essential part of the practice, these are some of my favorites….

Anything by Michael Sasso, and John Blofeld. These two paved the way for foreigners in 20th century China, before communism attempted to erase essential parts of Chinese culture. Their works give us insight into what China has to offer if one is willing to take the time to learn the language and culture. Blofeld's My Journey In Mystic China is probably the quintessential tale of discovery filled with memories of China that have long since vanished. Michael Sasso is a scholar and initiated Daoist priest, as well as an ordained Buddhist priest. His book, The Teachings of Daoist Master Zhuang, may be one of the most important text for anyone interested in learning about true Daoist traditions from the perspective of an apprentice.

For some historical perspective on qigong, and its emergence in communist China, David Palmer's Qigong Fever is a wonderfully written book that details the transformation of nei gong, and esoteric Daoist practices into modern qigong forms throughout the rise of Mao's communist China.

A modern translator and practitioner, Livia Kohn seems to be translating around the clock. I have no idea how she maintains such quality and quantity. She has translated many pieces of Daoist literature, and is a true modern treasure. It's difficult to pick a book to start with, but her book Sitting in Oblivion: The Heart of Daoist Meditation details the practice of zuowang, an essential form of Daoist meditation. She has also edited several compilations with great articles from respected translators and practitioners.

Any overview of Daoist literature would be incomplete without mention of both Jerry Alan Johnson and Bruce Frantzis. Shifu Johnson's list of accomplishments is vast, as is his literary output. I don't think a single practitioner has done more to expose the esoteric practices of Daoism than he has. Mostly retired from teaching, his daughter and senior students now carry on his tradition. Again, it would be difficult to provide a starting point, but his 5 book series on Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy and/or the Comprehensive Medical Qigong Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide would be fine additions to anyone's library. Bruce Frantzis also has an incredible output. Relaxing Into Your Being: The Taoist Meditation of Lao Tse, and The Great Stillness: The Water Method of Taoist Meditation would be great places to start. Frantzis teaches seminars around the world, and also offers several at home study courses that are full of useful information.

The Healing Promise of Qi by Roger Jahnke is a tremendous overview of qigong practices with simple, clear examples of exercises that most anyone can do. Advanced practitioners will find some interesting insight into qi cultivation, and beginners will find a beautiful introduction into the vast array of practices available to them. Similarly, The Way of Qigong by Ken Cohen is another great introduction, and overview of qigong, and it's many theories. I always recommend this book to beginning tai ji and qigong students.

Louis Komjathy is a leading scholar in the Daoist world specializing in contemplative and mystic studies. He also studied under Livia Kohn mentioned above. Two of his works live on my nightstand, The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction, and The Way of Complete Perfection: A Quanzhen Anthology

And finally, the The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk along with The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity by Dan Reid were the first two books I read when I got into the internal arts and discovered Chinese medicine. I still regularly reread The Web That Has No Weaver, even with a large number of Chinese medicine textbooks on my shelves.

Stay tuned for Part II next week….