"Moon above water. Sit in solitude."
~ DENG MING-DAO
The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things. In this case, I am going to come clean about my personal belief system. I identify myself as a Taoist to myself and to anyone who asks, though someone who has spent time in a temple under the tutelage of masters might consider me a poor substitute. I began my journey in about 1970. I can't fix an exact date because it was gradually being assimilated. You see, my young adulthood coincided with the Bruce Lee era, and that of all the martial arts movies that imitated him, and I found myself led to dojos of varying qualities to join the ranks of the legendary badasses.
That was my intention from the beginning. I was small and shy as a kid, and was bullied probably more than most, though not as bad as some I witnessed. but from my first encounter with judo back before my navy days, I set out to become someone you'd be very sorry for messing with.
Having no money, and no caregivers who ever let me do anything from Cub Scouts to Little League, my first martial arts instructors were professional wrestlers, especially the bad guys, gents like Freddie Blassie, Mr. Moto, and the Iron Sheik. They may have been putting on a show, but when you jump off the top of a parked car and land with your knees in a bully's guts, their view of you as a target begins to change. That was all I ever wanted.
Then came my naval service, from 1965-69, and being stationed at a couple of shore installations, I had money and time, and began to get some training from local gyms. I got out in late 1969 and moved back home, initially until I could find a job and get on my feet. But great-grandma broke her hip and became an invalid, and for the next four years of my life I became one of her caregivers. Her daughter moved back in and we shared the duties. I walked the neighbors' dogs and did light maintenance on the local Little League field for pocket change, and spent that pocket change on training at the All-Japan Karate Federation learning the arts from a 35th generation samurai.
This guy was the real deal, and incorporated into the training were helpful concepts like Do without doing, The value of the cup lies in its emptiness, and similar concepts that helped my mind realize that it was a valuable part of the process. It wasn't enough to be able to kick, punch, or throw, your mind needed to be philosophically involved in order for you to be truly effective.
I had at last found an instructor who wasn't teaching his students just for the money. These concepts were my first introduction to Oriental mysticism, and I was fascinated! All this time, I had been concentrating on becoming the most dangerous S.O.B. in the valley, and he was opening my eyes to the much greater world behind it. Of course, he wasn't a religious teacher, I had had a more or less typical Western upbringing, and in any case, he was teaching me how to fight, nothing more. I probably would have just caught the edge of it and never gotten deep into the religious parts, but by the most incredible stroke of serendipity, ABC Television added to its fall lineup an Eastern Western called Kung Fu. Yes, the series starring David Carradine.
The series came under much ridicule in later years, and was featured in derogatory memes and other forms of artistic dismissal, and a good portion of this may be that Carradine himself spoke of it in very derogatory terms, but without that show to bring fullness to those lessons I was getting in my combat training, I would be very much less a man than I am today. Carradine described the series concept as "You have this huge problem that is threatening to ruin your life. You have no idea how to solve it, but then this bum wanders down out of hills and takes care of it for you." That's a paraphrase of a statement he made on the DVD commentaries, and I'm sad for him that he wasn't in a position to "get" what he was doing, but I was.
I have heard throughout my life that Carradine was trained as a dancer, and as such, the fight scenes in Kung Fu were just so much choreography for him. Many of his contemporary actors could have produced better fight scenes, and it's well known that Bruce Lee was considered for the role, but the thing that Carrdine nailed perfectly was the incredible serenity of this peaceful warrior who was complete within himself. The flashbacks to his life of training in the temple were always the meat of the show to me, and I later learned that most of them were designed directly around passages from the Tao teh Ching, the original and most sacred text of Taoism. It was fascinating to me to see how this man who could kill you with barely a move came to be the way he was, and seriously, can anyone imagine Bruce Lee being calm enough to play even one of those temple scenes? By the way, did you know that David Carradine's real name was John, that he changed it to avoid confusion with his actor father, and that throughout his youth, he was known as Jack? I like that. In a very real sense, I have been striving to "be" Kwai Chang Caine my entire adult life.
That amounts to about 45 years of my life, and I flatter myself that I have a pretty good handle on it. I read extensively, and meditate when I feel the need. I have a wide collection of the literature, but as an American, the only film media I have access to is Kung Fu. Christians have a thousand movies to watch, I have this, and I watch it regularly. Even though I can quote entire passages of dialogue, that isn't the point; most Christians I know can quote vast portions of the Bible, but they still read it.
Regular readers will have noted that I quote frequently from the works of Deng Ming-Dao. He is a contemporary Taoist who has written a number of texts on the religion, including two of my favorites, Everyday Tao, and 365 Tao, from which the above quote is taken. It speaks of the perfection of stillness, and the futility of actively trying to achieve it; the act of trying destroys it. To reach those moments of sublime peace, one must empty the mind and relax the body completely. They are rare, but oh so beautiful.
This seems a worthy offering for a Sunday. Most religions seek to achieve peace, and this is one way to do it. Most religions also set aside days for contemplation, and my largely Christian audience recognizes Sunday as that day, so here is my gift to you, my Christian friends, peace and a means to seek it. I hope you find it useful.