Review: New York Zen

by Tak Wah Eng & co.

bk_efj94mAt one point in his new book Tak Wah Eng’s New York Zen, it is written: “Most people don’t realize the amount of discipline it takes to understand the art of Kung Fu.” This is a nobel understatement like saying, “The ocean is somewhat wet.”

This book, a pastiche really, records the attitudes, assumptions, even obsessions, and most certainly passions required to catch the ghost of that elusive understanding people call Kung Fu. It’s like the hopeful, innocent student who will meet a master like Tak Wah Eng and, head bobbing, say, “Kung Fu is really a way of life, isn’t it?” without realizing the chasm between them. What is Kung Fu? What is a way of life really—before you’ve spent the decades of practice?

So, since it’s so hard to describe, what better way than a story here, a remembrance of a great master there, a treasured wisdom passed on from hand to hand? This book has everything from translated sutras to stories of monks. It’s a performance. Just about every section is too short. There are Ben Franklinesque adages on martial virtue, notes on learning stances, biographical examples.

There’s more. Tak’s origin is entirely Chinese and at the same time New York. He is in this the symbol of the fact that Chinese Kung Fu is no longer the exclusive property of any group. I have a friend and student who used to work out in a black group in Chicago. He was the only white in the group. They practiced hard and passionately. One of my favorite stories is that every Wednesday some of them would get together to watch the Kung Fu theater, with Jackie Chan and David Chiang movies, then the next day, Thursday, they would practice the moves they saw on TV replicating them as best they could. once a group of “Farakan clones” approached the teacher. “You should only have brothers working out here,” they said. Knowing who and what he was, the Sifu said, “People who practice Kung Fu are my brothers.”

The Chinese often give plants to people who are leaving the village. The idea is that when the fire in the foreign land blooms it will bloom at the same moment back home and the traveller, seeing this from his window, will remember his home. More than any other Sifu I know, and I know some great ones, Tak Wah Eng seems that flower, successfully transplanted, so that Kung Fu lives in the burroughs!

New York Zen on Plum

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