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Hobbies and Interests: Laughing, telling jokes, hugging
Sports Teams: Shaolin soccer
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This edited transcript is less than 25% of the interview. You can listen to the full interview, above
Adrian Bye: I’m here today with David who is in Oakland in California. He is from the Wudang West Cultural Heritage Centre. I’m in Wudang, in Central China. David spent a number of years living out here in Wudang training, and now is continuing his work back in the US. David, thanks for joining us.
David Wei: It’s my joy. Thank you for having me.
Adrian Bye: Do you want to tell us about who you are and your background?
David Wei: Sure. As you stated, my name is David Wei, I’m a 16th generation lineage holder of Zhang San Feng Pai of Wudang. I trained under Master Yuan for five years, over 11,000 hours of class time. After I left the temple I was fortunate enough to travel through the world for a couple of years and train. Then, shortly after that, I settled in California, in my hometown on the East Bay, where I met my wife. Now we have settled and created a space for the community to practice.
Adrian Bye: What motivated you to come to Wudang?
David Wei: I had already ten years of practice under my belt before I even thought about Wudang. I was into the music, and by music I mean the Wu-Tang Clan. That’s what initially got me into martial arts. I would watch the movies and listen to the samples that they used in the music. There was one movie in particular, “Master Killer, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, that inspired me to actually start training. So my first five years I did all fighting styles, very martial, militant, mercenary; most efficient kill. After I had learned how to kill people I realized that it wasn’t a functional skill. And so I learned how to heal people. I got into bodywork, bone setting, Tui-na, acupressure, herbs, diet and nutrition. I tried to complement my practice; five years of fighting, five years of healing. I knew there was something more. I choose Wudang so I could explore the spiritual aspects of the art.
Adrian Bye: So you trained a lot. When you were describing what you are doing you essentially did a lot of yang work. You learned how to kill and how to be strong. And then you did a lot of yin work by trying to be soft.
David Wei: Yeah, yang in the sense of very external, very application-based. I was really motivated by function and application of the martial arts, so external in that sense. I shifted towards the healing arts, which you described as yin, when I went to watch a Shaolin performance called The Wheel of Life, a really popular show. They had an opening act of that Taekwondo troop. When I was watching it, it clicked in my head because I see all these people breaking things, but nobody was putting anything back together. I made this distinction in my head: now I can break an arm in twenty different ways, but once that arm is broken, I don’t know what to do with it. So I left the martial side of things and went more towards the healing side. I like how you called it yin and yang, because I came to realize that it was the exact same thing. Tui na, for example, the massage, is the exact same thing as Chin na, which is the locking and seizing art. A lot of pressure points and striking points are the exact same points that we would use in acupressure and acupuncture for healing. I began to realize that the fighting and the healing is the exact same system. It’s the exact same application, it’s the exact same points, it’s the exact same everything. The only distinction is the participant’s intention. If I do an arm bar on you for example, and I’m really angry at you, really upset, really hell-bent on winning, I can twist your arm and really hurt you. However, when we are in a good space and I want to heal you, say you have a shoulder pain, I can twist your arm in the exact same way but with less aggressive intent. The same movement is now healing, nourishing, therapeutic. At the end of the day it’s just what intention you bring to the process.
Adrian Bye: One idea that your master and our mutual friend, Master Yuan, has said that a big emphasis for him is to be soft like a baby. Is that something that you talk a lot about in your school?
David Wei: Yeah, being soft like a baby – there is a couple of ways to explore that. He talks about being soft in the sense of being flexible or malleable, you know, flowing with the resistance. This comes out when we stretch. For example, if someone is reaching for their toes and grabbing their foot and really gritting their teeth, that is certainly not like a baby. A baby would just plop on the ground, roll around, put his foot in his mouth; no effort, no strain, just really relaxed and free. In the same way, when we stretch, instead of reaching and forcing for that foot to try and stretch your hamstring, just plop down on the ground and rest; roll and be loose and free. And in time, the looseness you seek, the flexibility we seek, will come. It’s when we are motivated and driven, and when we are really reaching and really forcing for that stretch that we can end up hurting ourselves or pushing it too hard, whereas a baby just rolls around on the ground and is soft. If you do that you can still explore flexibility, you can still explore mobility and you can still develop skill through being soft like a baby.
Adrian Bye: I hadn’t understood it in that way, that’s really interesting.
David Wei: Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, especially for people trying to attain flexibility. We want to reach, we want to stretch, we push it, and my teacher reminds us to be soft like a baby. In that softness we can relax. And in that relaxation we develop flexibility and more capacity to move.
Adrian Bye: After your time in China you decided to travel around the world a bit and then you ended up in California.
David Wei: Yes.
Adrian Bye: What do you do in California?
David Wei: In 2007 I was accepted as a disciple. And in 2012, I went back for the official ceremony. At the end of the ceremony my teacher pulls me aside and says I should open a temple. At that point I was kind of drawn back because I had intentions of opening a school, but I never really thought about a temple.
Adrian Bye: You mean like a Daoist temple?
David Wei: Yes, in line with the tradition that I had learned from him. The full name of the program is Wudang West Cultural Heritage Centre. My shifu always told me that Wudang is more than just Kung Fu. Wudang is a cultural hub and he would always speak to how Chinese medicine is inherent to the culture and so by observing the culture by default you observe the medicine as well. So the idea was to create a space, a temple, where people can celebrate the culture and as such experience the medicine and have the benefits of a strong, healthy practice. Does that make sense?
Adrian Bye: Yes. Do you have a lot of experience with Chinese medicine as well?
David Wei: I’m familiar with Chinese medicine; my wife is a certified practitioner. She is an acupuncturist and herbalist. We look at Chinese medicine in a different way here. In the west, when we think Chinese medicine, we think acupuncture, we think herbs. Quite frankly, in the scope of Chinese medicine, that is actually pretty low-level medicine because you need someone to diagnose; you need someone to treat, you need someone to administer.
Adrian Bye: You need someone to look at your tongue.
David Wei: Exactly. You need someone else. That’s considered very low-level medicine. A little bit higher up you get into self-care, Feng Shui, astrology, Qi Gong and Yang Sheng. These are higher levels of Chinese medicine because you do them yourself. We talk about Feng Shui in medicine because we are creating space for health to flourish. We talk about astrology in Chinese medicine because we live in accordance with the seasons and the cycles and the flow of nature. We talk about Yang Sheng practice, Dao Yin, Qi Gong because the way we hold our bodies and interact with our bodies within space is also Chinese medicine. These are aspects of the Chinese medicine that you do yourself. You don’t need someone else to do it for you. So, when you ask do I do Chinese medicine, yes and no because I don’t do acupuncture and I don’t do herbs. But I teach movement; I teach Feng Shui and awareness, and appropriate response to circumstances. And that is also Chinese medicine.
Adrian Bye: You said you became a disciple and you are now a graduate, or a lineage holder? How was the ceremony like, how does this work? At what point did you do that and are you now Master David, or Master Wei?
David Wei: I will tell you what it meant for me to be a disciple. In 2007, I was accepted as a disciple by my teacher. It wasn’t fancy at all. Me and my teacher went to a dinner with some government officials and they are just talking business. As a good student I just sat there, ate my food and shut up. It came up like, who is this guy who is just sitting here, eating food and not talking? So my teacher introduced me, and he says, ah, this is Dao Wei, David my disciple; very distinct from my student. He introduced me as disciple, and that was my ceremony. And I swear to you, I was eating and halfway through my bite I just literally started crying because that’s very affectionate. In the scope of Chinese introducing someone, that’s affection. That’s love, that’s endearment. That’s an intimacy that I couldn’t get from my teacher any other way, because in the class he is yelling at me. Right? If I make a mistake I’m getting hit. If I’m not doing I’m getting yelled at. And so intimacy, when you can get it, oh my god, you relish it, even something as simple as being introduced to someone else. It really touched my spirit. So that was my disciple ceremony. That was when I went from student out to the world recognized as my teacher’s disciple.
Adrian Bye: Does that mean that you are a lineage holder at that point?
David Wei: Yes and no. What that did for me was now that I’m the disciple it meant that I got less instruction; it meant that I got less attention and it meant that I had to work twice as hard. I had twice as many responsibilities. I don’t know what people think when they hear he is the disciple. It’s not candy land, it’s not chutes and ladders; it’s hard work. You get less instruction, less attention, less time from the teacher. I remember I went six months after being accepted as a disciple and only got five minutes of teaching from my teacher. Everyone else is getting all the attention of the world, and it’s me in the corner all by myself.
Adrian Bye: That’s recognition that you are pretty good.
David Wei: It’s recognition that I don’t need my hand held. It’s recognition that I don’t need to be spoon-fed as a student. It’s recognition that I can take my own initiative, that I have my own drive, that I have my own will, my own determination and I can put myself to practice. I don’t need my teacher to crack the whip on me and to say it’s time to practice now. I’m already there doing it. And that’s what it means to be a disciple, that you are independent in your practice.
That was very informal, very casual, very loose. Later in the week he put my hair up in a topknot with dental floss and ink pen. And he wrote my Daoist disciple name on a post-it note. That was my ceremony. And it was the best experience, the best way it could have happened. Just like that.
So, to be a lineage holder, do I know all the forms? No. Do I know all the weapons? No. Do I know everything about our lineage inside out? No. What makes me a lineage holder is that I have discovered the principles and have applied them to my life effectively. Now I can express Tai Chi in going to work. I can express Qi Gong in getting on a bus. Life has now become the practice. Expressing the principles of Daoism in life, that’s where I can do it. Have you embodied the principles? Have you found the way that is authentic to you individually, and uniquely you? Can you express that? And can you help others to find their way, their free expression? That speaks to being a lineage holder. The forms are whatever; the weapons are whatever. It is can you apply this to life and share it?
Adrian Bye: And to help people to live in alignment with nature.
David Wei: Yes, absolutely. You get it.
Adrian Bye: One of the things I heard a lot about guys like you who train a lot is issues with burnout. Have you run into any problems like that?
David Wei: One hundred percent. I’m still recovering.
Adrian Bye: Was this the burnout from your time in Wudang? Or just in general in training?
David Wei: Definitely my time in Wudang. I think it just speaks to me being cursed with the work ethic. You go to China to work hard, and then you get there and work hard. Then you see that everyone else is working hard and you start to work harder. And now you are a disciple and you work even harder. Whatever time we have off, now as a disciple I have to be in a liaison and for the school I have to interview with the government, I have to be on TV, to be on the radio, I have to translate something for my teacher. It was just go-time. And with no rest and everything on the fly, I absolutely got burnt out. I burnt out physically, emotionally, socially, it really took a toll. And then, after five years living in a temple, I come back to civilization. I don’t know how to balance my books, how to pay rent, how to do taxes. I already came burnt out and threw myself into a situation. It’s really, really difficult to make the transition from being burnt out to coming back to suburban life and making it work.
Adrian Bye: How long did it take you to readjust?
David Wei: The question implies that I’m adjusted. I still have issues, and if it were not for the support of my wife I’d probably be a hermit somewhere.
Adrian Bye: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about you would like to?
David Wei: I miss Wudang. I miss my Master.
Adrian Bye: Well, you’re welcome back anytime! David, thanks so much for doing this interview. This was really fascinating.