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Tai Chi with Liping at Tassajara Zen Center

After such a wonderful initial trip, I decided to return to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center the first chance I got, which was the beginning of the Guest Season in May. I signed up for a week long retreat, studying Tai Chi with lay monk and Tai Chi Master Liping. A week at Tassajara is an ambitious feat: no electricity, no cell service, no contact with the outside world at all. When you are at Tassajara, your are AT Tassajara. But, after all, that is the point…

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Although I was eager to get back in touch with the world by the end of the week, I throughly enjoyed my week long stay there, and made many personal discoveries. It truly is a wonderful place for contemplation and self exploration. As far as I can tell, that’s what Zen Buddhism is about. Abbot Myogen told me once, “Just sit, and see what happens. See where your mind takes you…”. So even though I was there to learn Tai Chi and study Zen, ultimately I was there to “inquire within”.

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Tucked away throughout the grounds are numerous alcoves and nooks for people to sit down, relax, contemplate, read or just simply observe.

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I had numerous spots that I frequented while I was here, but my favorite was a flat stone down by the creek that meanders it’s way along the Monastery’s grounds.

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Many of the guest quarters are built along the creek as well, which has been a home for humans since prehistory.

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These hollowed out holes in the stone were used by Native Americans to grind acorns into mush that they would eat as their main staple.

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The love and care that has been put into making Tassajara what it is today is palpable. This handmade walk way leading to the Zendo from the Monks quarters is a piece of art in itself. Observe how each piece of wood was independently measured and cut to make a smooth a sinuous path that leads to the Zendo.

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All over the grounds there are small pieces of art that act as functional pieces of the Monastery: A dead Sycamore tree turned into bench seating, tiny shrines tucked away in obscure places, everywhere are small details some Zen monk took the time to create with care.

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The entrance to the Monastery.

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One of the several gardens on the Monastery grounds.

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Another great reading nook to take a book, or to just sit and observe.

The Tai Chi retreat was an amazing experience. Liping is a Chinese national who immigrated to the US almost 20 years ago. She lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, studying Buddhism, for over ten years. During her time in the US, she has been a practicing Zen Monk, as well as a practitioner of holistic Chinese medicine. Liping is a very unique individual indeed: a native practitioner of Chinese medicine and arts, but also a devotee of Japanese Buddhism.

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Liping demonstrates a Tai Chi sword form.

She has taught numerous Tai Chi retreats at Tassajara. The style of Tai Chi that she teaches is very rare, dating back all the way to the last royal family of China. Her style is known as Swimming Dragon Tai Chi, and it is known for it’s fluidity, grace, and athleticism.

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Liping, mid form, with students looking on.

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Liping performs while Phillip, her husband and also a Tai Chi Master, watches on and names the techniques Liping is demonstrating.

Tai Chi was a challenge for me because of how slow we were required to move. Tai Chi is very much an Internal art, but I saw numerous correlations to self defense, or “External Arts”. Swimming Dragon Tai Chi was developed by an Imperial General while he was held prisoner during the cultural revolution. It was designed to enhance and maintain physical attributes such as grace, strength, flexibility, and stamina. From some of the photos posted, you can easily see that this is the case.

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Liping getting grounded with Swimming Dragon Tai Chi.

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Effortless grace.

By the end of the week I became close friends with many of the participants at the Swimming Dragon Tai Chi Retreat. Everyone at the retreat, and at the Monastery in general, are extremely warm and inviting people. It is easy to make friends, but I was surprised at how many GOOD friends I made.

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The Swimming Dragon Tai Chi Class, Spring 2014.

As if learning the ancient art of Swimming Dragon Tai Chi with amazing people in an inspiring environment wasn’t enough, Master Liping asked me to teach a small workshop the last day of her retreat. I was, and still am, extremely honored to be asked to share my knowledge by such an esteemed master as Liping. It truly is an honor beyond words. I demonstrated various southeastern martial arts: Kali, Silat, and Muay Thai. All of these arts have a history of music, dance, meditation and ritual connected to them, similar to Tai Chi and it’s relationship to Kung Fu. So instead of showing the lethal our fanciful techniques of these arts, I decided to do a “Tai Chi Speed” demonstration of Kali, Silat, and Muay Thai.

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Urban Warrior_1 giving a short lecture on the Southeast Asian Martial Arts and their various elements, which includes meditation and restoration.

In the Indonesian art of Silat, they have what is called the Bua and the Bunga, or the fruit and the flower. The Bua, or the fruit, is the actual application of a technique, but the Bunga is the flowery presentation of the art. Just like the fruit and the flower can’t exist without each other, the external application and the internal practice of the art cannot be separated from each other. The Bunga will often be performed very slow and gracefully, with music accompaniment. This concept is very akin to Tai Chi and how it relates to the External Martial Arts of China.

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Yours truly, Urban Warrior_1, demonstrating a Hari Mau Silat technique.

In the Filipino art of Kali, there is something called Karenza, or “Dancing with the Wind.” In this practice, the Kali practitioner will often ask a question or seek guidance from God. Than the practitioner will practice Kali in the air, visualizing opponents and attacks, but also entering a meditative state through motion. Often they will dance with their shadow from candlelight or the moon. After a certain amount of time of moving meditation, the practitioner will find a solution to the problem that they face. This practice, although Filipino, bares striking resemblance to Tai Chi and the other Internal Arts of Asia.

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Karenza at Tassajara, an honor beyond words.

In Thailand, Muay Thai has been the warrior art for centuries, if not millennia. All warrior arts have an internal element, a time for the warrior to turn inwards, refelct and be introspective, heal and recuperate, and Muay Thai is no different. In Thailand they have what is call “Wai Kru”. It is a ritualistic dance that today is practiced by combatants before a Muay Thai fight. It symbolizes what camp you are from, part of your history, your connection with God, and your confidence and ability as a Warrior. Essentially it is a war dance. Again, it is practiced very slowly, much like Karenza or the Bua.

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Demonstrating “Wai Kru”

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