Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Life of Gia-fu Feng

Gia-fu Feng, teacher, translator and Taoist rogue
In 1970, I was working at Memorex and driving every day "over the hill" from Boulder Creek to Santa Clara. Some evenings I would stop at the very top of Bear Creek Road at Stillpoint, a Taoist community founded by Gia-fu Feng. Sipping tea, enjoying the hot tub and conversing with Gia-fu and his companions was a pleasant contrast to my role as a physicist overseeing research into the technical details of making better magnetic tape.

On one of my many trips to Esalen Institute in Big Sur in the '60s, I had heard that if you got up early (not easy for me), you could learn Tai Chi from a crazy-wisdom master from China. As long as I was there I showed up for Gia-fu's classes which seemed to be an original recipe of classic Chinese forms plus Esalen-inspired sensory awareness techniques. Outside of Esalen our paths would sometimes cross due to Gia-fu's friendship with Elizabeth Kent Gay, "the lady from Vermont" who introduced me to SF dancer Betsy who eventually became my wife. I liked Gia-fu. He was cheerful, smart and unpredictable.

I recently discovered that Carol Ann Wilson, the sister of the woman to whom Gia-fu left his estate (including a stream-of-consciousness story of his life) has written a biography called Still Point of the Turning World.

published by Amber Lotus, Portland, Oregon
Since Carol had never met Gia-fu and was merely carrying out her sister's legacy, I expected a fact-filled book without much spirit. I was pleasantly surprised by Carol Ann Wilson's ability to capture the essence of this unusual man. Reading her book (it is written in the present tense) feels like following Gia-fu himself (and his thoughts) through the daily adventures of his extraordinary life.

Born in 1919 as the third son of a successful Shanghai banker, Gia-fu and his eight siblings were well-educated in both modern and classical Chinese subjects. Near the end of his career, the father's greatest pride was a wall in his house displaying his children's many academic degrees.

The Feng family's life is soon disrupted by the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. With her ability to put the reader into the thick of things, Carol Wilson brings to life (thru Gia-fu's eyes) the chaos in China caused by the strife between three warring factions, the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt but US-backed Free China army plus the growing Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Shortly after the war ends Gia-fu and his younger brother Chao-hua board a ship for America, the first intending to study international finance, the other engineering. Thirty years pass before Gia-fu is able to return home. Meanwhile Carol Wilson relates the fate of the formerly wealthy Feng family under the new Communist government -- an intimate look at modern history through its effect on people whom you have come to care for.

Gia-fu enrolls at the Wharton school in Philadelphia but, becoming increasingly disoriented by American culture, he "hops in an old jalopy" and wanders across the United States, a trek which eventually leads him to San Francisco where he finds a position with Alan Watts at the American Academy of Asian Studies both as student and translator. Arriving in the midst of the San Francisco Renaissance, Gai-fu becomes friends with writers Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, poets Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other talents, among them fellow student at the Academy and future cofounder of Esalen Institute, Dick Price.

When Mike Murphy and Dick Price tentatively began their "human potential center" in Big Sur, Gia-fu showed up as Esalen's accountant (using an abacus), Tai Chi teacher, and "keeper of the baths".

Gia-fu eventually finds Esalen too hectic for his tastes and starts his own center called Stillpoint on Bear Creek Road high above Silicon Valley. There he meets Jane English, a physicist from Berkeley, and they begin a life together and collaborate on two books: Gia-fu's translations of the Tao Te Ching -- the most translated book outside the Bible -- and Chuang Tzu's Inner Chapters. Jane produces stark black-and-white photographs reminiscent of Chinese paintings which Gia-fu decorates with calligraphy. Their Tao Te Ching is an immediate success and has gone through innumerable printings.

Gia-fu's Bear Creek neighbors however are not happy living next to a Taoist tea house and Gia-fu is pressured to leave, eventually settling in Colorado where Stillpoint finds a more congenial home. His Tai Chi lessons become popular in Europe where he and Jane travel to give workshops. Eventually they separate, Jane moving to Mt. Shasta and Gia-fu remaining in Colorado. As a physicist I find their union fascinating -- the energetic meeting of yin and yang. Also notable from the science and mysticism perspective is the fact that Gia-fu and Jane helped Fritjof Capra find a publisher for his ground-breaking Tao of Physics. And that Gia-fu and Jane were also able to meet with Joseph Needham, author of the multivolume work Science and Civilization in China.

Nearing the conclusion of this engaging and well-researched biography, I am reminded of my last meeting with Gia-fu. My wife and I had just birthed a son in Boulder Creek, whom we called Khola (a short form of Nicholas) and Betsy felt that he should be christened and given a middle name. Neither of us belonged to a conventional religion so we decided that the "most sacred person" we knew was Gia-fu Feng up at Stillpont. (I can hear Gia-fu laughing in his grave at being called "most sacred person"). So we hard-boiled a bunch of eggs, decorated them in Ukrainian pysanky style and the three of us drove the few miles up winding Bear Creek Road to Gia-fu's community in the hills.

Gia-fu was pleased by our visit and improvised an appropriate christening ceremony. We had not yet chosen a name so Gia-fu opened a drawer and pulled out a Chinese character carved from wood. "This is the character 'shou'," he said, "which means 'long life'. And it's also the name of my brother who is a banker in Hong Kong." So that's how Khola got his middle name. How Khola himself came to become a San Diego banker is another story.

Thank you, Gia-fu Feng, for being such an unforgettable part of my life. And thank you, Carol Ann Wilson, for the immense care you took in producing this remarkable book about a most remarkable man. 

Nature is my teacher: Gia-fu Feng: Photo by Jane English



5 comments:

Robert Grant said...

Hi Nick,

I enjoyed reading your post about Gia Fu. Did you ever run into Kevin Akers during your time at Stillpoint?

Thanks for posting,
Robert Grant

Anonymous said...

There's a name I haven't seen in a while. Remember that from my copy of the Tao De King

Unknown said...

Great read as always. Thanks

Bernd Pross said...

Hi Nick,

I really enjoyed your post. As a some time visitor in Stilpoint, Wetmore in 1978 - 1982 I have a great remembering to Gia-Fu. I'm still working with his translation of the I Ging, which is published short after his death in 1985 by some of the people, who worked with him on it.

Thank you for posting,

Bernd Pross

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the biography of Gia Fu.
I spent a couple of years with him on and off at Stillpoint Foundation in Co.
Those were really good years. He was a real 师傅.
I miss him very much and will always remember him.

Sincerely
Claes Tarras Ericsson
claes(a)tarras.se
Sweden