Jul 20, 2011 As the Vietnam war raged, Robert W. Smith taught t’ai chi in a YMCA parking lot
Except for the brutality of China’s Cultural Revolution, t’ai chi has transcended brutal regimes (but also taught some of them) and differences in people’s politics and lifestyles, to unite them on the never-ending path of boosting one’s power, harmony, calm, and health, even when in the eye of the storm.
In 1988 as I neared the law school finish line, Robert W. Smith’s many years of teaching t’ai chi and inspiring so many local students in the Washington, D.C. area came to a closing chapter. He moved to North Carolina.
Six years later, I began studying with Mr. Smith’s students Ellen and Len Kennedy, who met through t’ai chi. Mr. Smith helped write and translate such key martial arts texts as Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods (a fascinating read that inspires to practice one’s internal martial art daily with full dedication), T’ai Chi: The "Supreme Ultimate" Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense (with Cheng Man Ch’ing), and T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen (translating with Ben Lo).
Last night, Mr. Smith’s indelible imprint on the Washington, D.C., area’s t’ai chi scene, alone — he was tremendously influential in promoting martial arts in the United States and probably beyond — became all the more clear, as around forty or fifty of his friends and students (and I, who never met the man, but have met his essence) gathered for a most fittingly unusual memorial gathering to him in Arlington, Virginia, starting with the attendees doing the first third of the 37-posture t’ai chi form that Mr. Smith learned and taught as the first Western student of t’ai chi legend Cheng Man Ch’ing.
People spoke last night of meeting Mr. Smith as long ago as 1966, and learning t’ai chi from him in the parking lot of the Bethesda YMCA. They spoke of the generosity of him and his wife, and of his selflessness.
As the Vietnam War raged and became a unifying rallying cry against militarism and power politics as usual, and a central theme of the counterculture, Mr. Smith’s t’ai chi teaching was a constant, as well as into the Watergate turmoil and Reaganism. When Mr. Smith moved to North Carolina in 1988, I felt far from harmonious and balanced, which the t’ai chi he taught would have helped me harness, and which I have harnessed in large part through t’ai chi, and the power of non-duality and the now. For too many years, I too immediately judged people with social justice views seemingly sharply different than mine. For too many years I cursed injustices in the legal and political systems too many more times than I lit candles on the path to reversing those injustices. For too many years, I wondered about the meaning of life.
As I heard numerous of Mr. Smith’s friends and students speak, I heard the yearning of several of them that was met through their studying with Bob Smith. One woman, now a t’ai chi teacher, talked of the essential path that t’ai chi takes us on, regardless of how others view us on that path. A man spoke of being an American-born Chinese (he calls himself an ABC) wanting to understand his Chinese roots better, and getting closer to that goal when he started studying with Mr. Smith in 1966, the same year that the Cultural Revolution drove t’ai chi underground in China. Another spoke of learning about Mr. Smith from a fellow high school friend in the early 1970’s, when Kung Fu was a major television hit; he is now a great teacher and practitioner of t’ai chi in his own right.
In 1994, as I tried making sense of the often chaotic storm of a criminal justice system that overcriminalizes, over-incarcerates, over-supervises, and over-cages pretrial, I gave fellow trial lawyer Victor Crawford a call, inspired by his stories about t’ai chi that I eagerly listened to during the cocktail part of some Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association meetings. I asked him to recommend a t’ai chi teacher. Vic sent me pamphlets about several area teachers, and attached a note about the amazing doors that were about to open for me. The paths that those doors opened for me are beyond amazing, and by now are an essential part of who I am as a person and as a lawyer.
I never met Bob Smith in person, nor over the phone. Last night, I got a better feeling for his essence.