I used to practice Traditional Yang Family Tai chi chuan early in the morning in a park along the Delaware River where I lived just a block away. It was a practice I started cultivating decades before in the Luneta, a park in the Philippines, when I began studying Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo, part of Manila’s Chinatown, in 1968.
In the course of my life in the US, I studied with other Tai chi chuan masters – Leung Shum who propagated the Wu Family form (derived from the Yang Family small frame) and GM Mantak Chia who taught a short form he called Tai chi chi kung. Both taught in New York City. When I moved to Massachusetts to study acupuncture at the New England School of Acupuncture in 1989, I studied intensively for almost a decade with GM Gin Soon Chu in Boston’s Chinatown. The curriculum included, among others, the 108 movement solo fist, Tai Chi Chuan Chang Chuan (probably the original form of Yang Lushan, the first ancestor), two forms of the Dao/Knife, two forms of the Jian/Sword and gan/staff-spear and the Sansou/2-Person sparring set.
Practicing Tai Chi Chuan in the park became a part of my life wherever I lived. Sometimes my students joined me. Often I was alone.
That morning in Easton, I was doing the Tai chi jian at the tail-end of my long routine at the park when I noticed a passing police car make a u-turn around the corner. The car entered the park, the cop opened the car door, got out, drew his gun and ordered me to drop my sword. I promptly complied.
The stories I read and heard about cops killing civilians in New York City and elsewhere flashed before me. I was 20 perhaps even 30 feet away from him. He walked to the sword, picked it up and when he looked at it, he noted that it was not sharp. “It is a practice sword,” I said. He told me not to practice in the park, that I should find a place where nobody would see me. I told him that I live just a block away, that I’ve practiced in the park many times before without any problems. He told me to pick up my swords and leave. As I was walking away, I told him that he drew his gun. He replied that I had a sword. I said cops in other cities have killed innocent civilians. My remark upset him, and he asked me for my name and social security number. I said that in parks in other cities around the world people practiced martial arts and the cops did not bother them. It is part of Asian culture, I remarked.
When I think of that episode, I think of why the cops’ first response seems to be to reach for the gun. Officer Darren Wilson, the cop involved in Ferguson, was asked if he could have done something short of shooting Michael Brown. He said, No.
As far as I know, many cops are required to learn self-defense and martial arts, sometimes including arnis de mano/Philippine stick-fighting. They not only carry a regulation gun, but a night stick as well. The stick or baton, sometimes a tonfa, in martial arts circles is presumably used to defend against a suspect who does not carry a weapon. I believe police officers are trained in the effective techniques of the night stick: how to use it in different ways so that the cop does not have to use a gun as a weapon of first choice.
I do not know if cops learn about cultural, national and ethnic differences and diversity. I believe they should. The cultural practices and profound spiritual practices of eastern countries could be misinterpreted by the cops if they are ignorant of other traditions. Come to think of it, the general population itself is not really that conversant with the deeper aspects of Asian culture. Whenever asked, I take the time to explain that the dances are really methods of self-cultivation, nurturing deep relaxation, quietism and peace, that the sword forms are actually a part of the Tai Chi Chuan curriculum.
For instance, the sword form I was doing in the park was actually a Daoist dance choreographing the search for spiritual immortality. Its slow, meditative movements help develop stillness, tranquility, qi and peace of mind. The sword itself is considered a dragon, the tassel at the handle is the tail. The sword dance of Traditional Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan (spelled Taijiquan in pinyin) that I have called “The Sword of the Immortal Lu Dongbin” (he’s the guy carrying a sword among the 8 Daoist Immortals) includes movements with poetic and mystical names like “Immortal Points the Way,” the first step that sets the theme of the shamanic ritual dance; “Seven Stars of the Big Dipper” suggests our soul connection to the heavens; “Carp Jumps Over the Dragon Gate” and“Stallion Jumps over the Mountain Torrent” allude to the alchemy of transformation to a higher level; “Falling Flowers,” the sequence toward the culmination of the journey, is an expression describing the attainment of Nirvana; and “Offering the Tablet to the Jade Emperor,” the closing sequence and prayer, shows the immortal presenting his life work at the gate of heaven.
That was the last time I practiced in the riverside park in the city of Easton. It made no sense to me to practice my ritual art under a cloud of anxiety or to risk my life because of an ignorant cop. Many years have passed since then, but that encounter and cases like Ferguson’s and many others make me afraid of practicing my weapons forms in parks again, except in New York City’s Chinatown where a big, mainly Asian population do their martial (fist and weapons forms) and qigong practices. Many police departments have a long way to go to develop a real connection with the community and a protocol of tolerance for minority culture. More often now, it seems, there are civilians dying at the hands of the police and there seems to be no end to the senseless loss of lives. Sometimes I feel that I would have been dead if I made a move that the cop did not approve because he did not understand what I was doing.
I wonder if there are other Asians or practitioners of Asian martial arts who have had the same experience like mine.
First published in www.Tambuli.com November 2015.
Rene J. Navarro is a licensed acupuncturist, teacher of Classical Yang Family Tai chi chuan fist and weapons forms, Chi Nei Tsang organ massage, neidan/internal alchemy, and Daoist Yang-Sheng (Nourishing Life) regimen. He is a published poet and essayist.
More articles from Rene J. Navarro