“Taoist masters wear beautiful robe. I don’t have, so I wear bathrobe.”
Master Fu-Yuan Ni was born in Ningbo, China (south of Shanghai) in 1915. We, his tai chi students, have been given only sparse details about his background by Master Ni, who is not overly talkative. In 1950, immediately after the communist take-over of mainland China, he moved to Taiwan. In 1974, at the age of 60, he moved to Santa Barbara, California where he taught tai chi for many years. In June 2002, one month before turning 89, he retired. Today, Master Ni is a healthy and vigorous 101-year-old again living in Taiwan after an absence of 35 years. This web page will be under construction as more bits and pieces of his life surface from private conversations with his students. I have published one such conversation in my book on Art and Tao called Crazy Devil Sweeping:
I practiced tai chi chuan regularly with Master Ni and his pupils, with meditation in Montecito on Sundays. The difficulty is in the simplicity of his teachings. One need not search for their essence – they are near at hand from birth. The taoist adept Ch'en Hsu-pai said this of his teacher: ”Just settle spirit and breath, letting them be natural. This is my teacher's clear explanation. Night and day, through difficulty and darkness, emulate nature.”(29) This is Master Ni's teaching as well – be natural. Many years later I wrote from Sweden to one of his advanced tai chi students, saying that I was writing a book on Art and Tao dedicated to Master Ni, and that I would like to know more about his background. My friend wrote back and said he would pose some discreet questions, for we both know that Master Ni is not talkative. This is the dialogue as best as my friend could remember:
- Theo is writing a book and would be interested in the names of your teachers.
- They’re all gone.
- Should I tell him they’re all gone?
- Tell him not to get off on a side track.
- What do you mean?
- Focus on nose tip, toes tip and sword tip and not necessarily in the form.
- So I’ll tell him your teachers are gone?
- You’ve heard of show, like carnival? I prefer not to show. It’s bad for meditation. Time for class.
Both my friend and I were charmed by his response. We both learned something from it, even though I proceed on this side-track, this carnival, which is Crazy Devil Sweeping. My friend wrote that Master Ni sometimes calls himself a taoist, but one time he said: ”While I teach taoist meditation, I not taoist. I free.”
29. Vitality Energy Spirit, A Taoist Sourcebook, tr. and edited by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, Boston, 1991.
Master Fu-Yuan Ni with students in Santa Barbara
Not long after this conversation, Master Ni surprised the above friend, Don Lehman, Jr., and unasked gave him the name of perhaps his first teacher, Chen Shaio Peng. (This information and more is to be found under ”Ni Transmissions” on Don's website Master Ni's Santa Barbara Tai Chi.) Chen Shaio Peng was a well-known colleague of Yang Lu Chan's grandson, Yang Cheng Fu. Don asked Master Ni if the 132-movement Wudang Sword Dance that we practice – his favorite – was learned from Peng. Master Ni laughingly replied: ”Oh no, he only taught me the beginning forms when I was a child.” The very long and entrancing Wudang Sword Dance comes, not from the Yang family tradition, but from the tradition of Wudang Mountain. One of Master Ni's students, Gary Kukuk, wrote to me concerning our teacher's teacher: “Recently Master Ni confirmed to me that he learned Wudang sword directly from General Li Jing-lin (left), the greatest swordsman of his era, not from Meng Xiao-Feng [as we previously thought] but from Meng's teacher. Master Ni's connection to Li is direct & not thru Meng.“
Note: In May, 2012 Master Fu-Yuan Ni returned
to Ningbo for the first time in 63 years. He stayed one week.
When he was in his 20s Master Ni trained with a teacher who also taught self-defence to the Shanghai police. His next teacher belonged to the taoist tradition of Wu Tang mountain, although he didn't mention his name. From what Don was told, Master Ni belonged to the Kuomintang on the Chinese mainland at the time of the communist take-over. With the nationalist army he retreated to Taiwan in 1950, and is still today virulently anti-communist, hoping that they will fall from power as they did in Russia. He may have held a high postion in the nationalist bureaucracy on Taiwan, since he was given the job of organizing banquets in the department of energy, which included water and electricity. (Master Ni knows much about energy.) His income enabled him to send all of his seven children to prestigious universities, as well as buying a house in a coveted neighborhood of Santa Barbara.
Master Fu-Yuan Ni ”Parting Wild Horse's Mane”
He moved to the USA partly because he disliked Taiwan. With his family he drove across the continent looking for a place to settle. California's south central coast was always in the back of his mind. It is one of the loveliest regions on the entire Pacific coast, which also attracted my wife and myself, when I first became his student. Master Ni grew up in the coastal town named Ningbo, south of the big port of Shanghai. After many years in Taiwan, he ended up on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, in a coastal town to the north of the big port of Los Angeles. He now watches the sun set over the same ocean where he for his whole life had watched it rise. (NOTE: In November 2010 Master Ni returned to Taiwan with his wife. There was a farewell gathering with his students in Santa Barbara before his departure. He was 60 when he arrived in the US and 96 when he departed.)
It's confirmed. Master Ni's final meditation class will be held at the First Congregational Church – 1st class February 13 at 8 AM. Master Ni said everyone is welcome – beginners, advanced, different schools, different styles. There is plenty of room. After picking Master Ni up for some grocery shopping he quoted me a Chinese saying. Noticing my confused look, he said, ”This means that everyone should continue learning throughout their life. I have continued learning about meditation. This is why I want to teach class – to share what I've learned. This will be my last class.” Master Ni's final appearance on the stage of life - after which he will disappear... After etching the psychic surface of the Earth the Glacier finally retreats.
Email from Don Lehman February 4, 2010:
Don Lehman now leads the tai chi classes in Santa Barbara. He is also a skilled writer who has done thorough research into Taoism, as well as Chinese and Southeast Asian history. Here he presents Master Ni's credentials in the first person:Oh by the way, one last message before I pass through the safe and secure City Walls into the unknown Chaos beyond. You might want to listen. My credentials are impeccable. Am 95 years old. Have had a long and healthy life. Fathered and raised 7 successful children with my wife of over 60 years. Taught Tai Chi for nearly 30 years in Santa Barbara – until I was almost 90 years old. When most were thinking retirement or retired I was teaching some complicated and strenuous movements performed with single sword, double sword, saber, and just empty hands – individually or interactively. To cement these subtle and refined forms in the bodies of my multitude of students I taught up to 8 classes weekly – no interrupt. Could count the number of weeks I took off on one hand. Each hour to an hour and half session started on time or early – stopped on time or late. Never wasted any minutes on mindless chatter or endless discussion. Worked my students hard. Taught all levels, beginner to advanced – sometimes up to seven levels in the same class – especially on Saturday – all the way through my 80s. During these three decades of instruction I also taught meditation classes from time to time – to balance the art of physical movement with the art of mental quietude – the balance of yin and yang. As such I have been instrumental in the cleansing of the channels of the bodies and minds of myriad students. This is the Way – what it is to practice the Tao. Since retiring from teaching the movements (just before reaching the age of 89) I have been focusing exclusively on meditation. Would like to share what I’ve learned. Am fulfilling my promise that I would teach a meditation class once I passed through the second gate. This is it.
Master Ni's Final Meditation Class
Master Ni in Taiwan, August, 2011
courtesy Caitlyn Mclelland Master Ni passed away on March 24, 2016
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