The Friendly Ocean

ted_tc3aGrowing up the child of an Irish-American mother and an Italian-American father it was a safe bet I’d be raised Catholic. San Jose was still considered a “cow town” in those days and the Cherry Orchard Luxury Apartments was actually a cherry orchard at the time. Silicon Valley was still sand and I went to a Catholic institution called St. Joseph’s where the school colors were green, brown and white.

When you are small your connection with the infinite can be pretty tight. The high-vaulted church I attended was impressive but the moment of the most physical sensation of spirituality was always, for me, right after confession.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” We were the old school of marble steps, dark wood, thrusting ceilings. The confessional was very dark wood indeed soaked with the smell of candle smoke. The screen obscured the priest. The sins were almost whispered. Then of course the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s leading up to what was an almost perfect moment for me.

Leaving the church, exiting through the great tall doors into the bright blue afternoon I always felt a shift. It was not just the change from musty sanctity transferred to rollicking day. I will never forget approaching that luminous passage from the dark of the church. That blue rectangle, standing tall enough to capture clouds, framed a moment when I felt the presence of God touching me, wrapping me like a warm and friendly ocean.

How can I compare this epiphanious experience to the practice of Kung Fu? Ah, you see you’ve already made a mistake if you think that I can’t, because the expansive is the expansive wherever you find it and the sacred is another word for indwelling consciousness; the heart and the beat of this ocean’s invisible water lapping an unseen shoreline.

Kung Fu gives this feeling of a vast ocean if you are only open to it. Think about it. 5000 years of practice shared by a world of people. The same names and the same moves whispered and retold like legends with accompanying dance steps. There is something physical and yet intangible about sharing long lasting experience. I was reminded of this recently in a Chinese antique store, a good one, with a dear friend. I asked to see a Song dynasty wine pot behind the glass. I held the 1000 year old ceramic piece between both hands as the pair of us talked to the owner. Then I offered it to my friend who didn’t want to touch it. But I forced it into her hands and her expression changed and she felt the millennium, rolling it over and over, the joy in her eyes. She nodded.

The movements of Kung Fu, true Kung Fu, are extremely subtle and very elusive. This makes it less accessible to some. After all, why should it be popular in a world that cannot stand to leave the face of God un-rendered, that needs to cling to extraordinary miracles because each dawn is not miracle enough? Who will notice that in Kung Fu the slightest twist of a hand is a treasure. My students regularly report discoveries about this art which I have already experienced but could not transmit to them without their essentially replicating the discovery themselves. Could anything be more like the hints of infinity we feel in the belly of the night and share in the meeting hall full of fellow witnesses?

I get the same feeling you are describing for baseball or bowling, you say. Perhaps. If so, more power to you. But I think not. Ancient art, endless variation, meta-rational logic, immediate feedback, intrepid tasks: Kung Fu is essentially a time machine, but not to travel through as to neutralize time entirely, much like Zen practice of faithful prayer. The fact that you are not told exactly the relationship to movements which leave almost no trace to follow, no easy access to their secrets, is itself proof of the core of the practice, the agenda of discovery.

When I exited the church each Sunday I ran, literally, the six blocks arriving just in time to buy admission to the local movie house where I would enter a world of triple-featured horror or science fiction films. When the first started, knowing it would be dark outside before I left the thrice-blessed transport to other worlds, I felt the movie magic wrapping around me as, later, would the evening, and beyond that my coming lifetime of practice, and beyond that..


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