This article is an amalgamation of three separate interviews recorded with Gia-fu Feng before his death in 1985. The BDA would like to thank Pippa Bondy for the time she spent transcribing material from the original tapes.
A Brief Background on Gia-fu Feng
Gia-fu Feng was born in Shanghai in 1919, into a fairly wealthy family of some influence. He was privately educated at home in the classics of the Chinese tradition, learning such things as the teachings of Taoism and Confucianism, art, calligraphy, poetry and Tai Chi.
His family were followers of Taoism and in the springtime, would travel to a temple in the mountains of Hang-Chou for the spring festivals. Gia-fu would stay at the temple for longer periods, and during this time he was trained in Taoist practices.
He continued with his education at Beijing University where he gained a BA and it was shortly after this that the communists took over China.
In response to this, Gia-fu left the country in 1947, taking, in his own words, “The last boat out of China” and traveled to America. After a further period of study at the University of Pennsylvania where he received a MA, he got involved in teaching Taoism.
Initially, this was at the American Academy of Asian Studies and later at the Esalen Institute. Gia-fu then moved to Colorado and started his own center, in Manitou Springs.
This was called the Stillpoint Foundation, and it was here that he worked on his well known translation of the Tao Te Ching. He also started teaching in Europe, and it was on one of these trips in 1978, that Shi Jing met him and became his student.
Gia-fu was a real ‘Man of Tao’, unpredictable and wild. Shijing once said that he was like a character who had jumped straight out of the pages of a Chuang Tzu story!
How did you get involved in teaching Taoism in America?
Gia-fu: By 1950 I was forced to be a drop out, at the age of 31 shall we say, so I started wandering all over the country and by the early fifties I was on the west coast and by chance met Alan Watts, Jack Kerouack and the North beach San Francisco crowd. Later on of course I joined the Esalen Institute whereby I met Fritz Pearls, Abraham Maslow and Bishop Pike.
What sort of things were you doing at Esalen?
Gia-fu: I was doing my own things from the Taoist tradition, like acupressure, the ancient way of moving the chi in the meridians, the relationship between the muscle and emotion and well being. I did some movement on Tai Chi to help their sessions in family therapy and so on. The important thing in the sixties, was that I found there was a great deal of interest in the integration of body, mind and spirit. This is exactly what Taoists try to do. So by 1966 I started my own center called Stillpoint which is a Taoist retreat with Taoist philosophy put into practice – mainly centering on the flowing of the chi.
So do you see this as the central aspect of lot of the Taoist practices and arts, such as meditation or calligraphy?
Gia-fu: Yes, and this especially is a very true manifestation of the chi. “Chi” maybe we can translate as emanation or energy or breath, which is physical. So in order to be a good painter you must have a good flow of chi, which is what Tai Chi is all about – making your chi flow. Your chi is centered in the belly, in the Tan Tien which is a couple of inches below your naval, and which is the center. So during meditation we always try to put our mind in the belly, so to speak. To get out of your mind and come back to your body. A bodily center. A physical manifestation of the Tao.
Meditation in Taoism is when you hit the rock bottom. We call it the great stillness or sometimes I translate it as the great certainty. The Taoist meditation is to reach the stage of a great physical certainty. Taoist meditation is very physical. A lady asked me “What is Taoist meditation?” I said “Holding on to the center. Literally holding on to your Tan Tien and clinging to the chi. Clinging to your breath, your chi, your life energy.” Your breath is from the cosmic energy and you literally transform yourself, not by your own breath, but the breath that comes from the cosmos, which brings a sense of being reborn.
I was telling Alan (Shijing) just a minute ago, the Tao is everywhere and it’s manifested in your fetus and therefore I am the Tao. I am the microscopic version of the Tao. It’s physical. You actually can feel the Tao rest in your belly. Your whole body is settling in stillness. You reach the rock bottom like a rock in the ocean. You really are a rock because you don’t have to use mind. No interference with the mind.
Where do the basic teachings of the Tao originate from?
Gia-fu: I think all of Taoism is a formation of the old verbal tradition and I think it’s real Chinese stuff. There is no foreign influence at all in the Tao Te Ching or the I Ching of course.
I Ching is also a formation of old wisdoms that came along by word of mouth, and Duke Chou is the founder or the one who really put it into words in a book.
So I tend to think that Duke Chou, together with Lao Tzu, are the formation of the ancient teachings of China, of the North Western part especially, where civilisation was born thousands of years ago.
Could you talk about the Tao Te Ching and some of the main teachings that it is expressing?
Gia-fu: Now if we look at the Tao Te Ching it seems to me that the basis of these verses is a thread of respect for the primal nature:
Give up learning and put an end to your troubles.
Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a new born babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone without a place to go.
Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Others are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Others are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.
Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.
Now the last sentence really means in Chinese “I prefer to eat mother”. Now my first version is “I suck off my mother” and then of course I am told they cannot print this, so it says “I am nourished by the great mother”. It’s just as good. Now here we touch this emphasis of giving up the conditioning, the cultural conditioning and preconceptions, and returning to the primal, returning to the little babe, returning to the mothers’ breast.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
So there’s a great deal of emphasis on the nameless, on the darkness, on the primal chaos so to speak and there’s a great deal of emphasis that the Tao cannot be told. A kind of non duality which is beyond the opposites and the unknowable and we have to see that our conscious mind is not the ultimate. In this chapter we also see the relativity in Taoism:
Ever desire-less, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestation.
This is the only translation that has that flavour. In Chinese it literally says “Constantly no desire to see the mystery or constantly have desire to see the obvious.” But I said, ever desire-less, ever desiring. It is two in one, meaning the Tao is beyond desire-less or desiring. Ever desiring and ever desire-less is one and the same thing. You can’t really be desire-less without desire. Put it right on the line. This is the crux of Taoism – very paradoxical. What do you mean I have no desire? Of course you have!
Then it continues with this theme of relativity in the second chapter and this brings in the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang. The Taoists usually talked about Yin and Yang, weak and strong. When you have Yin you must have Yang, when you have Yang you must have Yin, they mutually kind of compliment each other. For instance you cannot succeed without failure. If you always succeed you can’t succeed any more. You’ve got to have some failure in order to succeed, it’s all relative. So then perhaps a good way to relieve anxiety. Today for instance, we are so much troubled with anxiety. Perhaps this is the way.
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonise each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease.
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working yet not taking credit.
The work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
So you almost come to a state of mind which is non judging, kind of a state of suchness. Nothing is set, you notice, it’s all in a flux and you can stay with your experience without rejecting or accepting. If you’re angry, be angry. If you feel shitty, be shitty. If you’re depressed, be depressed. You really see the pure light is beyond accepting and rejecting. The Taoist mantra would be “There’s nothing lacking. Nothing in excess. It is only because we accept and reject that we know not the suchness of things.”
Now Alan Watts mentions this one all the time. If you’re long bamboo, you’re long bamboo. If you’re short bamboo, you’re short bamboo. Everything compliments each other. Don’t get fucked up about anything.
So it’s absolutely basic when you see everything from the Tao. No matter what you do there’s no right or wrong. At the moment all that counts is here and now, you and I, what works, what doesn’t work. So this is a beautiful chapter.
Now “Teaching no talking.” I heard Mitsui, our internationally famous yogi teacher from Japan, and she was talking to me yesterday. She spent ten years with master Oki in Japan.
She says “Master Oki never taught me. The Americans, who were also there, went crazy! ‘What do you mean. We spend all this money here and you don’t teach us!’
But everybody there in the dojo knows how to put in an acupuncture needle with absolutely no teaching. They know how to therapise – they’re a healing center.”
Mitsui herself had a breast disease which was completely healed without ever being told by master Oki “I’m gonna heal you” Nothing was said and it just healed by itself. So this is teaching by not teaching. If you don’t teach them, that’s a teaching also! Refusing to teach is a teaching.
So this is traditional of many Japanese and Taoists, even more now in Tokyo than in Peking or Shanghai, absolutely, I vouch for it. Japan has a great simplicity. There is the little tea house where you have to stoop to get inside. The beautiful gardens – the Zen gardens. You know I was in Japan and they gave me a block of ink in an ink stone. It was so narrow and I have to prepare the ink in this. But in China they are big! I have one. A big, huge rock, and there you grind with a big huge ink! But in Japan everything is small and simple. In absolutely every house you go to there’s a Tokonoma. This is an alcove in the wall of the room, with a statue or painting of some kind. So this is the only furniture in the whole room of empty tatami mats.
The beauty, the art is Japanese – pure ascetics, you know. So I have such good liking for all Japanese teaching in this country. Especially for Sabro Hasegawa. He actually was Taoist, and a great artist, from Japan. He died in 1958, in San Francisco, which Alan Watts mentioned in his book “Tao – The Water Course Way”. He was a great Taoist. He asked me once “What’s the most delicious food you ever have?” I said “Well – chop suey.” He said “Yeah…. Just plain rice.” – (Gia Fu: Laughs like mad!) – That’s the most delicious food you could ever have! Just plain rice! Pure, blank, but it must be cooked grain by grain.
Mitsui was telling me about Shintoism, which she studied in Japan. And she told me yesterday, on a walk, that in Shinto you have to soak in water in the sea every day. Literally even if the water is cold you have to go in there. You must soak and purify and then another thing they do is to look in the mirror every day and see yourself as God. You have to face the mirror and see yourself as a God. And these two things she told me were very, very significant. You literally have to go down to the ocean of cold water to purify yourself, not just to think about it. The trouble with western man is that everything is intellectualized, so called mind fuck!
So now we talk about wu wei which means non-action – really better translated as non interference. Wu wei is wei. Meaning non-action is action. When you’re totally quiet your organ really manifests itself into action without you even knowing it. And that’s the real action.
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
The action of non-action is a true action without any anxiety and without any competitive ideas, without wanting to conquer anything, so you become a total action of your organs. Now I always want to bring it down to the physical level. What your organ really feels.
Do not seek fame.
Do not make plans.
Do not be absorbed by activities.
Do not think that you know.
Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite.
Wander where there is no path,
Be all that heaven gave you,
But act as though you had received nothing.
Be empty, that is all.
The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror.
It grasps nothing.
It expects nothing.
It reflects but does not hold.
Therefore the perfect man can act without effort.
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few.
Now in English we have lost the real punchline. “Teaching without words and work without doing are understood by very few.”
There is no punch to it, but in Chinese it says “Wordless teaching, actionless benefit – the benefit of no action, the teaching of no words. All under heaven seldom get into it.” That’s the real translation. Not “Understood by very few.”
So I want to do a new edition. “Teaching of no words, the benefit of no action, all under heaven is seldom into it.”
The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.
Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.
Now observers, observe actually would be the best. The one who has, who carry out, who guard against the Tao, do not seek to be full. If you’re not full then you cannot be worn out and you have no desire for change. Then you can be renewed. So fulfillment is not really the right word, not to seek to be full, to succeed actually is better. “Who can wait till the mud settles?” Let dust settle before you act. Yeah! It’s too bad, it’s very poetic in Chinese. Here we said “Alert, like men aware of danger. Courteous, like visiting guests. Yielding, like ice about to melt. Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood. Hollow, like caves. Opaque, like muddy pools.” All this charm is lost in English. But still, it’s better than nothing. And then “Who can remain still until the moment of action?”
Again there is some kind of divine accident meaning here also. You really be very open and still until the moment that you’re moved to act. Again, back to the emptiness, total openness. To totally listen to your own center with no preconceived idea. Now I think that emptiness is the essence of Taoism. There are many chapters that start with “Be empty”. The empty vessel is used but never filled. Chapter 11 is very potent about emptiness:
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Now this is again the basis for non-action. It is the holes that make it useful. So leave something undone, you know, do not try to do everything, and don’t interfere. It is only when you do not interfere that a divine essence will take over. So no interference and be empty.
You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?
Gia-fu: You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. If he was in a class, you know, at night time, he was always drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said “I’m an entertainer. I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”
Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?
Gia-fu: Oh yeah. At that time he drunk whisky by the bottle.
But how could that tie in with the Tao?
Gia-fu: That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drunk is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. His utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts drinking is quite Taoistic.
Have you experienced that people come into Tai Chi as physical exercise and through the practice of it have come to understand and be interested in the philosophy?
Gia-fu: Yes. Oh yes. There is definitely a great demand today. The young people want to learn kung fu or want to fight, they want to achieve a certain technique and power. This is always the preoccupation of the young people today. “How can I have power?” like such and such guru or whatever. So people use physical exercise as an expression for their own aggression and then finally after they empty their aggression they come to the philosophy of the Tao, and they really find peace. There is a place for something that is violent, that is physical, that uses greatly of strength, and so on, but this is only a step towards the ultimate integration of body and mind.
If you only follow the forms you lose the essence and essence can only be experienced by yourself and through yourself. But now of course the gurus are here to demonstrate that they have reached a certain stage, like a master. A Tai Chi master so to speak. But actually there is not an outside master, but you can see some essence of the practice of Taoism in some people who are fully on their path. There is a saying in China that of every three men that are walking, there is always one who is my teacher. I would say every man is my teacher.
And in this way nature is also your teacher.
Gia-fu: Nature especially. You become so empty that you find all experiences are a learning opportunity. I live by the Rocky mountains where there is a trail to one of the peaks and I spend hours there every day, in the afternoon usually. I walk maybe as much as seven hours and I’ll disappear into nature and just experience my own Tao. You know I can’t do it with many people around. I have to be alone and I have to be into nature. You walk down the street it’s a different affair all together. You see everybody can experience that. There’s nothing like being with nature. So the great experience is interwoven with nature. It really proves that we are a part of the nature. Taoism has always believed that we are a part of the cosmic organ or the organism and that the human being is a microscopic version of nature.
We see that a waterfall is pretty, but we see a garbage dump is not pretty. Why? Because the waterfall is in me. There is a waterfall in every human being. That’s why we see that nature is beautiful.
It sometimes feels as though we have a garbage dump within us too.
Gia-fu: But that’s in me too! Yes. Oh yes. Now another thing is that Taoists would never deny anything human, including our bad parts. So I was sometimes called a rogue. Why? Because I indulge my instincts perhaps. I don’t deny my instincts.
So it is important to become comfortable with yourself, comfortable with others and comfortable with nature. Taoists are very much interested in the coming and going of the seasons, in the process of nature, and that really reminds me of a NBC show I did just yesterday. It was a one hour talk show and we played it this morning after they all finished and, although I have been in the United States for thirty years, all I see is my father in my own expression. My way of talking, my gesture is totally Chinese. I have not Americanized at all, even though I can pronounce words better than I could thirty years ago. All the essence is so Chinese and so I almost gave myself a revelation, but I cannot change, meaning the nature takes over.
Now we can’t speed up a plant – the seasons just come. Nature cannot be hurried. It takes it’s course and it is the same with human beings. The same with our growth even.
So we can certainly learn something from the East to reach the simple, the comfortable, the natural, the real living so to speak. We don’t want to be zombies! We want to live our lives to suit our human needs, our organic needs at that. To listen to our own organs, listen to our own flow, listen to our own chi.
Now this is very true if your an artist, or a writer or, a painter. Just like Picasso says. “I can’t help painting. I don’t want to be a big huge name, but I can’t help doing it.” Once he listens to his own organs he has to paint. So his painting is organic, it’s from his true nature. Love, in the Chinese language is a true expression of the organs, meaning you are totally naked, your organ is perfectly functioning, and this expression we say is love. So this is a totally organic concept of the universe. Beneath all that we know there is a Tao that’s working silently, working without words, that really runs the whole universe or manifests in ourselves.
I think one of the contributions of Taoism is to put the spiritual level into our pragmatic everyday life, which is chi. You can get in touch with your center by physically feeling the flow.