After being on the road for three months and returning to San Francisco for just over a week, I headed up to Leggett California to join my wife Sarah at a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center called Rangjung Yeshe Gomde, or just Gomde for short.

Since I’ve gotten here I’ve had some time to work on my book everyday.  The retreats here taper off with the end of the September and we are staying around to help run the place for the next three months.  Hopefully this will give me a lot of time to write.  Lots of people have asked me what I’m writing about so I’ve conjured a proto-title: Obscuring the Martial Arts; how and why the arts have been cut off from their roots and what finding those roots reveals about contemporary practice.  It’s a start.

Anyway, Gomde is on the Eel River which is great for swimming this time of year and we have a canoe to paddle about in too.  We are sleeping outside in a big tent until things quiet down for the fall.  Hopefully by the time the rains start some private indoor space will open up.

 In this part of the country you have to really look where you are walking because you might step on a hippy, there are a lot of them up here.  I have deep respect for those highly evolved individuals who have developed the ability to manage incompetent people.  Blessings.

Besides my usual gongfu practice, writing and helping with whatever needs to get done around here, I’ve been playing my tabla drum and chatting with the Tibetan language experts and various Doctoral candidates in Buddhist studies.  Gomde is at the center of a project which is working on translating 84,000 Buddhist texts.  

I do plan to write about Tibetan Buddhism a bit.  I’m working up to it.  

Wondering Where the Wealth is Coming From?

My wife and I are coming to the end of a three month road trip.  The future still looks uncertain, as I suspected it would.

I'm in Bend at the moment.  There is more ballet here than martial arts.  I don't know how to interpret that information.  

For those following our trip spatially, after leaving Hamilton Montana we travelled up to Glacier National Park, which is very cool.  We could have spent a month there I think, perhaps on a future trip.  On the way out we visited the Miracle of America Museum on my sister's recommendation (she is a museum-ologist).  It is an amazingly weird place, there is a whole room dedicated to old chain saws, there are old fighter jets and missile carriers and farm equipment.  There is a fantastic history of the snow mobile.  Lot's of stuff on war.  Old toys.  Part junk yard, part tribute to white supremacy, part 'wow, that's some cool old sh-t' and part 'I've always wanted to see one of those up close and swing it around my head' kind of a place.  

We spent a night on the ...... river in Idaho and landed at my sister's place in Seattle the next day.  I've always liked Seattle, I spent a lot of time there with my grandmother as a kid.  Strangely, they have a dog poo problem like San Francisco had in the '70's before personal responsibility became a 'thing.'  Seattle seems to be a little more beer oriented than San Francisco but compared to Boulder, Bozeman, or Missoula, it is more on the wine side of the fence.  It is also a lot bigger.  I had great meetings with martial artists and my friend Josh Leeger. 

We then went down to Portland and spent a wonderful night with Rory Miller and his wife Kami.  Then ate and drank our way through Portland with my wife Sarah's brother who is a chef.  Portland has changed a lot since I was there last.  It has a huge food, coffee, bicycles and beer scene.  

As a general rule in America, there is more Homeless Pride the closer one comes to the coast.

Here is the list of insanely energetic Martial Arts folk I've met with a few quick comments:

Susan Mathews (Durango: Great use of centerline and wide qi base, fun and insightful about working with parkinsons)

Mike Sigman (Durango:  Strong opinion about what the beginning instructions and method need to be in any internal martial arts training.  Basically, the body is a spiderman suit (a fine web-like net) controlled by the dantain.  Excellent discussion and rough play, people should be lining up to test their theories with him!)

Ken Cohen (Boulder:  Fantastic discussion, very supportive and insightful.  He way exceeded my expectation in terms of knowledge and experience and openness!)

Steven Smith (Missoula:  Great time playing by the rivers, insightful about the importance of putting improvisation at the front end of martial arts training.)

Chris from the old blog Martial Development (Seattle: runs a wonderful push hands group!  Great night of play with him and also Steve, as former student of New York's "The Black Taoist.")

Josh Leeger (Seattle:  As usually, had no trouble keeping my interest over 4.5 hours of rapid fire ideas exchange.)

Xie Bingcan (Seattle:  Could not feel any physcial action at all in his arms or shoulders while he tossed students around.)

Rory Miller (Portland:  He openned his safe for me.  Great insights about culture flowing at a mile a minute while fighting in the kitchen, whiskey, nagila, and swords.)

More to come.


By the way, I know that all wealth comes from creativity (unless you happen to trip on a giant gold nugget).  I'm seeing a lot of wealth in places that are not obviously producing it, playgrounds for early retirement I think.  I would like to see a map of every credit card purchase over the last ten years in the US.  There are more ballet studios in Bend than martial arts studios.  We toured the breweries last night and felt under dressed.


Quick Update

(I wrote this two weeks ago but it didn't post because my internet connection got cut off.)

 Went to the Bozeman farmers market just after writing the last post.  There were about 8 farmers and 100 small business stalls.  It was really a networking spot that happens twice a week this time of year.  We had some pulled pork and some brisket with southern berry spices, some aspin-wood fired pizza, lemon-ginger-mint iced tea, bought cibata and salad greens for the road.  There were about 30 picnic tables and we just sat there and talked to people about place and lifestyle and business.  

We met some Christians with an adventure mission; you know God meets rock-climbing, mountain biking and kayaking.  Fun.  And an older couple who were born in Bozeman, very warm but a bit like deer in the headlights...the town used to stop at 7th street and all we had to eat in the winter was elk and deer.  We heard that 40% of folks here don't work, because they don't need too.  A great number of homes are second homes.  I have not yet met anyone with a job-job.  It's self-employment or odd jobs, or part time service.  

The place we camped was so beautiful we had to spend an extra day just sitting there staring.  

And then we found a great coffee shop, the floor was made out of 8x10 railroad ties, hightech, clean, elegant.

We drove to Missoula, and stopped at the Lewis and Clark Caverns on the way...spectacular!

Missoula passed the food test too, okay, pizza and beer, but really good pizza and beer and another martial artist meeting (I've still got to report on all the people I've met!).

I'm in Hamilton Montana at the moment.  Wow.  So beautiful.  The street is closed off and someone set up a skateboard ramp which kids are riding right now.... Is Montana a giant playground where nobody works?  I spent 15 minutes talking to a nine year old who makes and was selling his own knives, well he helps his father make them, they were very cool knives and I don't say that lightly.  After feeling how perfectly balanced they were I asked him about throwing knives.  Yeah, he makes them but they always go quickly...sold out.

Rent is so cheap out here 


It's Tuesday, What Religion Are You?

Travel Update: I’m in a cafe in Bozeman Montana.  There are more older people here than I expected, having been told in Boulder that Boulder, Bozeman and Bend are the three towns in America with good food and lots of very physically active people in their twenties.  After a few beers at a bar called Bacchus, I learned that the older people leave as soon as the summer is over.  Rents here are very cheap, so it is full of young people who went to college in order to get into debt.  The slacker ethic is strong, in the sense that all the people I have met work odd jobs with low pay so they have tons of time to ski, climb, mountain bike, sit in hot springs and party.  I think some guys we crossed after leaving the bar last night were trying to see if I would fight them, “Hey, look at his Captain America t-shirt, is he going to kick all of our asses?”  Sarah wisely retorted, “Only if you want him too.”  But that was the end of it.  Martial arts classes here are dirt cheap, $7 for a drop in, $40 for a month.  It is a beautiful town, the houses all have new paint jobs and maintained gardens.  Lot’s of dogs, good food, whiskey and wilderness.  I want to find people who have the time to dedicate to learning martial arts for hours everyday.  This might be the place.  But I also want some intellectual stimulation and a jumping off place for a Daoist inspired milieu to arise.  It would be nice to see a few people with thick glasses carrying around doorstop sized books.  Ah, what I would sacrifice for a land full of 20 year old librarians with an insatiable appetite for dancing and fighting.  


In the historic Chinese past, the question “what religion are you?” was not a question about ones beliefs.  It was likely to be phrased more like this, “to whom do you make sacrifice?”  Or, “what rituals are you committed to performing?”

Statements about origins of Martial Arts should perhaps begin the question, “why don’t we know the exact origins of Chinese martial arts?”  “What forces in society have made the past difficult to see? especially in a culture like China has recorded so much about the past and has so many rituals designed to create common dreams and common memories?”

It seems that historically there were many systems of Martial Arts named after people.  To the extent that these people or historic figures are too distantly in the past to have direct lineages or historic connections to present day arts, I think it is safe to posit that they were characters of the theater.  After all, that was how the vast majority  of people learned about history.  They learned it from watching history plays, usually called wu (martial) plays.

Let me pose it another way.  From what source could a man in 17th Century China have gotten an inkling about how a man from the 15th Century moved, other than through watching him in a historical performance or ritual?

The actors would have made sacrifice to specific deities like this one described by Daoist priest Jave Wu (hat tip to Julianne Zhou).  This is an example of the integration of theater and Daoism in the Hokkien speaking Southern parts of China, but also remember that the most prominent deity that actors made sacrifice to was one of the Eight Immortals, the theatrical mythic founders of Quan Zhen (Complete Reality) Daoism! Actors were obligated to sacrifice to Immortal Cao Guojiu

In the previous post I discussed martial arts as a social institutions for the transmission of values.  In the case of ritual "Chinese Opera" theater, we have values being transmitted through both fictional storytelling and the teaching of history on the stage, as well as the direct representation of gods, and ancestors.  In some contexts the actual gods and ancestors were channelled directly onto the stage through the actors as empty vessels.

Amateur martial theater arts embodying both theatrical and real fighting skills, and combining emotional, intellectual, historical and physical elements, may be the most comprehensive institution created for the transmission of cultural values anywhere.  I haven’t compiled a list, but the other top contenders have their origins in Africa and Polynesia.  In Europe the closest thing I can come up with is Italian Folk dance used as training for knife fighting.  

To properly follow this line of reasoning we should ask the question, what constituted an amateur martial artist?  Simply, anyone who wasn’t born into or adopted into an actor family.  I suspect that many people who performed forms (taolu) at public markets as a way to sell medicines would be considered amateur, as would anyone in the military who practiced forms, and anyone considered a local or family expert.  Professional ritual theater was the model for a vast array of martial arts training as a method for transmitting values within families, villages, regions, and language groups.

Significant parts of the Chinese theater tradition were improvisational, but since the 20th Century trend has been away from this sort of freedom of expression, and because actor training was a form of ritual transmission without any written manuals, the extent of improvisation is hard to prove.  But I will hazard that-- where there is improvisation, there is a rebellious spirit.  (see Improvisation in A Ritual Context : The Music of Cantonese Opera, By Shouren Chen)

What were the values being transmitted to a kid learning Monkey Kungfu?  Or other comic roles?  There are so many martial heros and anti-heros in the theater traditions!  The walls of temples in Taiwan are covered in them literally floor to ceiling!  It is as if value systems were modular!  Pick a role, learn that body art (shenfa), and then be it, model it, profess it.  

Avrom Boretz deserves credit for much of this idea.  He explores the transmission of prowess and other martial values through martial rituals in his book Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society .

 Again, if you follow this logic, we have to explain what happened to the martial arts in the early part of the 20th Century that obscured these origins even while they were being preserved in a new form in Hong Kong action film.

Andrew Morris, in Marrow of the Nation explains how martial arts were used to promote nationalism (it used to be called fascism) and to some extent how the arts were changed by that process.   Karate in Japan and Taekwondo in Korea also need to be understood in this context.

If we think about martial arts not just as the transmission of values and character and skills, but as the transmission of specific character types we get some shocking results.  The character types promoted by the Chinese Nationalists are mostly angry generals and cruel judges, along with some self-sacrificing young passionate heros.  That's it.  The survival of the mystical Tai Chi Daoist character role, the world transcending Buddhist monk character role, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King role, are testaments to the strength and pervasiveness of these roles as institutions for the transmission of cultural values!  They survived dispite the movement to suppress them.  (Note: more serious work needs to be done on female and gender bender roles in the history of martial arts! I still have too many unanswered questions to discuss them here.)

Since the revolution the Chinese government has been promoting “Wushu,” a from of competitive martial dance largely devoid of martial skill or character training.  Serious martial artists have been laughing at Wushu for 60 years and yet the Communist Party is still trying to get it into the Olympics.  If seen as a character type Wushu is like a lingering ghost possessed by conflicting emotions, too weak to resolve itself through a complete death!

Karate in Imperialist Nationalist Fascist Japan took on a single character type, that of a disciplined angry kamikaze!   Okay, maybe that is too harsh.  But clearly it is a character type of limited theatrical depth.  It has some of the rigid qualities of a death mask. Nationalist Korea developed Taekwondo mostly from karate and kept the same character type.  I suspect there was a reformation process after the war which changed elements of Karate.  Certainly the spread of Karate in countries all over the world has had profound effects on the values being transmitted through this particular body art.  The Karate character has proven very dynamic.  But I think that if an understanding of its origins were more widespread we would see an explosion of new styles, and cooperation between styles.  We would see an opening to character types outside the box!  Comic, crazy, loving, tricky, motherly, vixen, Mormon, etc, etc... Stoner Karate anyone?

One of the reasons I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that I think Buffy was the spontaneous arising of a new American martial arts character role.  Did you know that I teach Buffy Style Kungfu?


Transmitting Values

 (I’m in Boulder right now in case anyone wants to hook up with me here).

I’ve been working on a book, and while we were in Leadville Colorado last week my wife initiated a live reading in front of her folks of an introductory chapter. It was well received considering how shocking the material from my childhood is, but after fielding questions and comments I realized that I hadn’t even touched on one of the defining aspects of martial arts; the use of physical training to transmit values.  

On further reflection I realized that I have probably neglected the topic on my blog more than I should have. I have previously discussed precepts in the context of Daoism and the use of precepts and movement practices by lay people as a form of personal exorcism and for the rectification of the bad behaviors one might inherit from an ancestor or a teacher.

But among the most common reasons an American parent is likely to give for putting their son or daughter in martial arts classes is the assumed capacity of physical training to transmit positive social values.  

As I age, I have come to realize that I am a fierce moralist.  I believe in the necessity of grappling with difficult moral questions and taking strong stands.  Most moralists believe it is their duty to put pressure on society to continuously strive for a more virtuous world through modeling and professing upright conduct.  I believe that the only effective way to change the way people think is through institutions.  I generally believed that moral outrage can be leveraged to force people to confront the consequences of their unconscious behavior, beliefs and values, but without institutions to support those values they will not take root.  So the moral imperative I feel is to create, define, challenge and re-make the institutions that define how we live and adapt to change.  

As teaching martial arts is my trade, I want to influence the way the institution of martial arts is taught, and the ways people think about and define martial arts.  

But when we are talking about martial arts, we are talking about embodying values.  One of the most fascistic values of my generation is the notion that everyone should be fit.  My use the the word fascistic is intentional.  Fitness has been associated with nationalistic movements throughout the 20th Century.  Fitness has often been used in an attempt to create conformity of thought and attitude, to shape peoples‘ values in accordance with the interests of the state.  My early dance carrier was in open rebellion of this notion.  The more wild and weird, the more culturally international, the more chaotic and spontaneous the dance, the better. 

Fine dancers, find answers.  Break the rules.  Write your own script.  Dare to be different.  Sublime beauty.  Rituals of death.  Insanity is the appropriate response to an insane society (at least theatrically speaking, I think that is a quote from R.D. Lang).  Be a holy body.  Be a model of freedom.

A friend recently pointed out that yoga classes are probably the dominant mechanism by which the notion of mindfulness has spread, not just in America, but among an international group of urban elites.  That notion of mindfulness often becomes a platform for the transmission of Buddhist inspired Insight Meditation.  Probably more often, yoga is a platform for the transmission of Quaker values.  As a Facebook friend of mine recently commented, “I took my first yoga class in New York and no one came up to hug me afterwards, that would never happen in California.”  I suspect also that both yoga and tai chi are a major force in the spread of leftwing cultural values.

If all this is true, I’m still not sure I understand what the mechanism is by which body and values link up.

The widespread notion that martial arts training will instill discipline has always seemed somewhat suspect to me.  Is it possible that people, like me, who naturally have extraordinary discipline are simply attracted to martial arts?  And perhaps those few people modeling discipline brings out latent qualities of discipline in new students?  Being surrounded by a group of people with a particular value may indeed transmit that value.  Exercising as a group tends to have a hypnotic effect, it probably conditions our behavior in unconscious ways.

Taking hikes in nature appears to be the major force in the transmission of pro-environment and ecology values.  

What are the most important values that I hope to transmit in my classes?

Self-reliance in health issues is one.  Being your own change.  Self-defense is the most basic right, the one all others stem from.

Also, the value that wildness and aggression are part of human nature, our nature, and that true self-possession involves exploring, discovering and pushing their limits.  Non-aggression is less a value as it is the fruition of seeing how aggression occludes awareness and optionality.  

I like to model clean living and openness.  The thing about transmitting values, and I believe I got this from Zhuangzi, is that you have to meet people where they are.  Be a mirror for people, but also be a companion on the journey. People are often turned off if they even sense they are being judged.  They also tend to flee from styles of communication which are aggressive or invasive beyond their comfort level.  

When I’m just hanging out with people interacting socially it is far too easy for me to feel like I’m surrounded by idiots.  One of the reasons I simply love teaching is that feeling never comes up, I am morally bound to enjoy my students and meet them wherever they happen to be.

Does tai chi transmit specific values?  Does the quality of its movement do that?  Or is it a process of conversation, feeling and modeling?  

I like to think that what I’m teaching is beyond values.  Freedom and spontaneity in body and mind is a value, but it is also simply a way of interacting with the world.  

Probably the deepest thing I teach, the thing closest to Dao, is to recognize and cultivate the experience of emptiness.  It is hard to call that a value.  But the process of getting there involves consciously making intensions clear so that they can be discarded.  That isn’t a value either but in rubs against a lot of values, particularly the ideals, hopes and wishes people carry around with them.

What are the limits to what can be transmitted through the practice of martial arts?  Are there values in martial arts training and practice that are inherent, ones which are transmitted even when the teacher doesn’t talk and the students didn’t socialize together?

It seems to me that a big part of transmitting values is creating, setting and controlling the environment, the mood and the space where teaching takes place.  But calm and chaotic can both work wonders.  Intimacy, mentoring and honesty can not be overlooked either.  Thoughts?  Am I missing something?

Masters of Out of Body Mis-Perception

I'm in Taos, fires on all four sides.  The roads are open at the moment, but the forest locations are mostly closed.  I guess I'll spend a few days here on the Rio Grande.  I spent yesterday rafting and kayaking down the river.  I seem to have come to a point where I have committed to not spending more than a few minutes thinking about where I might go next.  Why spend the time if it is going to be on fire anyway?  Perhaps there are other reasons.  Anyhow, this article is stimulating:


I am fast changing my views about all martial arts.  Well, fast isn't the correct word, but I'm beginning to see martial arts in an even more theatrical way than I have in the past.  I'm beginning to see it as magic.  Yes, the woo woo type.  Why? because the best skills rely on mis-perception and mis-direction.  In my mind it is still high art, high skill, beauty, athletic, real fighting mastery.  Know your opponent better than he knows himself.  

New Mexico

I'm in Angle Fire, New Mexico, headed toward Santa Fe.  If you are anywhere near by and you want to meet up or you just want to talk to me for any reason you can call or email.  (gongfuguy@gmail.com  415.200.8201) I will keep checking email but my hopes of having a mobile hotspot were highly optimistic.  I ended up cancelling the service because it only worked in places where I had internet access anyway, like my house in Oakland.  Like everything tech, it will work eventually I'm sure.  The phone works pretty well for text and calls, if I'm near a town or a grand vista.

I also had a ton of stuff to do before I left Oakland, so I didn't have the mind for writing.  But I'm sure my mind will come back.  At least I'm optimistic.

Here is a quick update.  We, my wife Sarah and I, left on the 15th of May and promptly had to deal with lingering problems...the world just doesn't want to let go of us!  But we saw a lot of rabbits and an amazing jumping coyote stopping overnight on the way to LA.  A few days later we were in St. George UT.  We went backpacking in Bryce Canyon.  It was great, but I hurt my knee.  Old injury coming back to haunt me 8 years later.  There were some dry camps on our 6 day hike so I was carrying water for two days, plus most of Sarah's, and that was probably too much.

From there we rocked all over the Utah desert for a few days, wow.  Then we went to Durango, CO, where we stayed with a friend of Sarah's in a big Styrofoam house he built himself out on an open plateau.  Chill time.  But the first day in Durango I met up with Susan Mathews in the morning and Mike Sigman in the afternoon.  Blog posts on that to follow soon.

Then we went straight to Angle Fire where Sarah is doing a one month Tibetan Buddhist retreat in a cabin in the mountains all by herself!  After I said good-bye, I headed up to The Valle Vidal for about a week, but honestly I lost track of time.  So much wildlife.  60 Buffalo, 10 of them babies.  I watched them drinking milk, and splashing it all around...that's what I would probably do too.  The elk were having babies too, I saw about 40.  A bear, coyotes, rabbits, antelope... and lots of just hanging around.  I read Fire Season , which is excellent (thanks Tom!).  I also read Blood Meridian , it is nature writing as imagined in 1849 by folks at war with the Indians.  Dark stuff, very entertaining.

Anyway, I'm headed to some hot springs, my knee is getting better but it still ain't right.