It’s still 2 hours till dawn, as I shuffle into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Yes shuffle, or that's how my wife describes what she hears while lying in bed trying to sleep, the noise of my slippers against the wood floor. I always thought I was as quiet as a church mouse, using a sliding step taught to me one summer long ago in a ninjitsu seminar.
I turn the Keurig on and hear the water starting to boil. Standing there looking out the kitchen window, I can see the neighbors' side light casting shadows across the snow. Outlining the trees and a bamboo plant I transplanted there this year. The gracefully bend of it, the unmistakable outline of it leaves: Master Jou bamboo, I call it.
Thinking back to the mid 80’s, Master Jou, he was my Taichi teacher. A rogue in the Taichi world and outsider to most of those whose tai chi lineage went back hundreds of years.
I hear the fan on my wood stove come on. That’ll take the chill off in the house. Years ago, on a morning similar to this. Mid-January and winter had its hold.
I had been studying at the Tai Chi farm for about 3 years. Each Saturday and Sunday morning at 7:30am. Rain, shine, snow, nor cold of winter, yes I know it sounds vaguely similar to the postal creed for mail delivery, we would meet and practice out in the elements to learn this ancient art. Silk reeling, Chi-kung and Tai-chi. The keys to a long healthy life, internal power and skill. Or so we hoped.
Thinking back to one particular January morning, I had gotten to class way too early. It was still dark, dawn a half an hour away. I could see a light, more of a glow through the door of the building where we would meet for class. I can remember hearing the crunching of the snow beneath my boots as I walked up and opened the door, and there sitting in front of a little wood stove, the glow lighting up his face was, Master Jou.
He looks up at me and waves me in to keep warm. Not wanting to intrude on his time and the solitude I stood just inside the door. Without even turning to look at me, he pats the chair next to him signaling for me to sit down.
See I wasn’t one of his inner circle of students: the type that crowded around him. Almost guarding him from others. I felt to keep others away was to keep them from the knowledge they hoped would get imparted to them first. Like the passing of some secret ancient wisdom and knowledge.
As I sat there warming my hands in front of the open wood stove door, Master Jou started talking about Tai-Chi and his theory of the master key. Slowly his lecture, or maybe a bit of self-reflection. I sometimes could see the frustration in him when the words he used didn’t resonate with us.
He often used the branches of a pine tree and how they would bend under the weight of snow. This time though he talked about bamboo. How it would bend to the weather, never breaking. The roots spread out and continued to grow. This is how he hoped his teachings would spread, like bamboo.
He turned to see two of his inner circle students walk through the door. As he got up to greet them, I realized this was the only time I ever had one on one time with my teacher.
I often think about that morning. Here, it’s 38 years later. I still practice Tai-chi and the lessons he taught me. I look out at the bamboo I planted. It's from the same bamboo he had planted 40 years before. I had gotten this from one of his later students who studied with him in the 1990’s and transplanted it to his property. He gave some of it to me as a connection to my old teacher.
Bamboo is a symbol of strength, flexibility and growth. All of these I learned from practicing the things he taught me. Maybe I didn’t see the wisdom he wanted to pass onto me that morning. But now I see it.
"Be like Bamboo."