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Bumping into my t’ai chi ch’uan teacher at the right time

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Recently, I bumped into two people on the street, leaving two very different impressions on me.

The first bumping was something to expect particularly in Manhattan. I was with my family in Manhattan, the city where I lived and played for the 1985-86 year before beginning law school, where the newstand man always greeted me by name each business morning with "Howyadoin’ champ?" People were still leaving work near the World Trade Center to get home, in a hurry to get to the subway and PATH train. One man walking very fast bumped into me particularly hard going in the opposite direction from me; he said not a peep about what he had done, and seemed oblivious to what had happened. I told myself this is one of the reasons I prefer living in the Washington, D.C., area, even though Manhattan is a more exciting place in many ways for the arts, for encountering the likes of Lou Jacobi and Geoffrey Holder, and for the diverse energy I feel when waiting for and on the subway in New York City.

I could have reacted to this bumping man. I could have asked myself whether the man saw me as the cause of the bumping. I could have gotten angry. I could have shouted. I could have considered whether such bumping is so common in Manhattan that I had perhaps not even noticed its rampantness in New York until moving far from there for so many years. Instead, I filed the experience away for later thought.

Two days later, I experienced my second bumping, bumping into my amazing t’ai chi ch’uan teacher Julian Chu around three blocks from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown during lunchtime. This t’ai chi giant Juian Chu took the time to stop to speak with me, showing interest in me and my move a few months ago to Virginia. I consider this a expression of his true humanity than anything having to do with me individually.

At first, Julian comes across as a kind, mild-mannered man around sixty who holds his youth (which influences my not being sure of his age) very well from his daily t’ai chi practice and from his long distance running. Then experience his t’ai chi teaching and performance (see him in the center here) and be metamorphosized. What leads Julian, who already has a full-time non-martial arts job during the week, to devote two hours each Sunday morning in Rockville, Maryland, and another two hours in the afternoon in Northern Virginia (except for scaling back to Sunday mornings only in the summer, and for free at that) to teaching t’ai chi to students paying for not much more than the cost of the practice space? It must be a combination of love of t’ai chi ch’uan, a feeling of the need to pass on the precious t’ai chi gift that he has learned from others, the ability to learn while teaching, and a devotion for people to learn first-rate t’ai chi, and not any watered-down version taught by those not yet achieved enough to teach t’ai chi. The same can be said of my second t’ai chi teacher — my first teacher having been his wife, Ellen — Len Kennedy, who has for years taught t’ai chi weekly while maintaining a full work schedule as a partner at the Dow Lohnes law firm, followed by being general counsel at Nextel and then Sprint/Nextel, serving at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and now as general counsel at Neustar. Julian and Len are extraordinary for their devotion to teaching t’ai chi.

Julian has no ego, nor does his amazing teacher Ben Lo, nor does Len Kennedy, whose main teachers have been the late Robert Smith and Ben Lo. Julian speaks of Ben, and Ben speaks of his teacher Cheng Man Ch’ing, in deservedly reverential terms without detracting from their own excellence. Non-ego is a key part of advancing in t’ai chi, because doing the opposite is like wearing a "kick me" target symbol on the seat of one’s pants. I endeavor to apply t’ai chi principles every moment of the day in everything I do.

I have not been to Julian’s classes for awhile. Here is a rare gift of Julian’s teachings staring me in the eye within a few miles of my home, and I have not seized upon this gift enough. I work long hours during the week, and focus as much of my free time as possible on my family. I know I will be a better t’ai chi practitioner and person by attending his classes more often and joining in regular push hand/sensing hands practice. Then again, a slew of great teachers make their teachings available in Washington, D.C. I miss most of their sessions.

The flip side to my not currently going to many classes and other sessions for t’ai chi, meditation and other disciplines is that it forces me to internalize and apply my teachers’ teachings with self-motivation and self-discipline, rather than going to them again and again to remind me what they already have taught me. The lesson is well borne out in the Kung Fu television pilot (starting at minute 4:40), as with Bhagavan Das, who spent years in India becoming a holy man only later to realize that he could have stayed in America and still learned the essential lessons he learned in India, but when, and in which incarnation?

Our best teachers help us present a polished mirror to ourselves to find our path. If we are all interconnected, then our teachers are here most of all to help us teach ourselves, to propel our learning forward because more than a lifetime or lifetimes would otherwise be needed to learn essential life lessons, and to reduce the number of incarnations we must go through (if we indeed do reincarnate) before we attain enlightenment. We must not attach to our teachers in duality, but instead we need to internalize what we learn from them as we continue as our own best teacher, and we need to be willing to share those gifts wih others who wish to learn from them.

How does today’s blog entry — about bumping into the man in Manhattan and into my t’ai chi teacher — tie in with my criminal defense practice? Regularly in my criminal defense practice, I encounter people who want to bump into me figuratively if not literally as well, to push my buttons, and sometimes even to decry my work on the side of the angels. I weaken myself if I get angry or distracted at anyone, even those seeking to harm me, my clients or both. Had I gotten angry at the man who bumped into me in Manhattan, what beneficial purpose would that have served? My bumping into my t’ai chi teacher Julian Chu two days later reminded me of the t’ai chi principles of non-anger, non-tension, and powerful softness on the road to harmonizing potentially and actually imbalanced situations.

My bumping into Julian also reminded me of the two cardinal teaching of his teacher Ben Lo, which is "Relax and practice. Relax and practice." I must not let one day pass — and better yet not even one morning nor evening pass — without practicing the t’ai chi form. Practicing the t’ai chi form daily keeps me battle ready always, in court and beyond.

Thank you deeply to Julian Chu, Len Kennedy, Ellen Kennedy, David Walls Kaufman, and all my other teachers along the path.