Teaching the Tao for Fun and... (ehm) Fun

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When I posted my introduction, I was invited to tell about my recent teaching experience.

Here goes.


Some background (and money issues!)

The current crisis is hitting Italy pretty bad.

People are cutting expenses, and this means a drastic drop in "cultural expenses", book sales and course subscriptions.

The Turin Italian-Chinese Center used to pay its expenses by hosting high-quality courses in Eastern culture and philosophy, but nobody seems interested in 60+ hours of traditional lessons anymore.

Expensive and time-consuming.

So I was asked - together with other friends of the Center (we used to call ourselves Orientalists Anonimous when we were kids) - to invent something new and viable, to keep the tradition of quality teaching alive while helping keep the lights on in the Center Library and office.


So what I set down to design was the leanest, cheapest, most "portable", yet most in-depth entry-level course in Taoist Philosophy and Culture I could imagine.

Something I would like to take were it available.

As it turned out, events forced me to go all the way down that path.


So, what we set up was a six lessons, twelve hours course.

Once a week, after dinner.


I suggested two basic books (Eva Wong's Big Book of Taoism and Thomas Cleary Vitality, Energy, Spirit), which are readily available in Italian in any good bookstore or used books dealer and are quite cheap, as course support.

All the rest of the material was provided in the form of links to free web resources.


In the first two lessons we covered historical background and key concepts.

We had to learn the lingo to be able to manipulate the concepts.


Having set down the basics and awakened the interest of the participants, I set the following four lessons to cover couples of apparently separated and substantially different aspects of the Taoist practice.

Painting and Medicine

Nature and Music

Competence and Politics

Martial Arts and Literature

Eastern Taois and Western Taoism



The idea was to show how, despite te apparent distance, one subject could flow seamlessly into the other, they all being part of the same system.

This way we were able to actually do two things at the same time - exploring some facet of Taoist culture, while applying Taoist principles to our learning experience.

I also encouraged the participants to provide their own experiences ("My taichi teacher used to say...", "In my Chinese Lit class..."), inorder to eliminate any barrier between "teacher" and "student".

This was somewhat stimulated by the fact that from day one the classroom projector refused to work with my laptop, so we had to do without slides and special effects. We ended up sitting in circle and comparing notes.


All in all it was a great learning experience for me - and for the participants, too, I hope.

So much so that we'll probably do it again in the autumn, maybe together with a second "Advanced" course - as the guys want more!

At that point I hope to have everything fully redesigned to do without any kind of technological support - so that, the weather being good, we'll be able to do our lesson in the nearby park, watching the ducks in the river.


Oh, yes... Did the course bring prosperity and riches to the Italian-Chinese Center?

Well, the lights are still on, so I guess it worked all right ;-)

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Thanks for that! It nice to be reminded there are some dedicated folks like you left out there. Keep up the good work.

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i have a question...


i'm particularly interested in how you tied martial arts and literature from a taoist perspective. you think you could give us a little brief on these two subjects and how you made them relate in your course? maybe i'll start a thread about it. but it just seemed awesome that you would tie the two together. thoughts, anyone?



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Sorry for the belated reply.


Covering martial arts and literature from a taoist standpoint, I worked on two levels.

First, from what I'd call an operational point of view.

I gave the students a quick overview of the basics of tai-chi (which I used to practice), qi gong (which one of my students practices) and kung fu (which we all experienced only through the movies).

I tried to emphasize how, underneath the "character" of each martial art, there lies a set of basic principles which are basically the Taoist concepts of wu wei and qi.

We discussed the point and got deeper into the wu wei question - action without action, but also training so that trained action becomes a second nature.

The idea - there is a set of rules which you have to adapt to yourself, and then explore and practice to the point that you no longer *think* about using them. You do, and that's it.

But the same is true for writing, which in the form of composition is regarded as a Taoist practice, and which requires a deep knowledge of the rules (metrics, themes, grammar) in order to apply them without thinking, or breaking them the right way.

I gave a few examples of writing as meditation - referencing Nathalie Golberg's "Writing Down the Bones" , and quoting a few Chinese poets.


At this point, we took a break (basically, more discussion) and then shifted to literature.

This is what I'd call a thematic point of view.

We went rapidly over the classics of Chinese literature, pointing out how Taoist elements enter such books as the Romance of Three Kingdoms or the Dream of the Red Chamber.

Then we shifted to contemporary entertainment literature, and we gave a look at wuxia novels (one of my students is interested in cinema, and she asked for some input on wuxia), noticing how some elements are stolen and adapted from Taoist practice (the concept of wulin, the master-pupil transmission of knowledge, the often rampant use of magic, etc), with liberal addition of Confucian and Neoconfucian elements.

And of course these are martial arts novels, focusing on the themes of skill and mastery.

So, Taoism as a source of inspiration for fictioneers.


As a final point, I asked the participants to sum up the evening, and (as I hoped) they gave me basically a picture of a physical taoist practice (martial arts) and an intellectual taoist practice (literature).

Which was cool, because it allowed me to point out that martial arts have a strong, inescapable intellectual component (it's all in themind, as they say) and that writing is a physical practice - witness the fact that all my students were taking notes using their favorite pen, on a notebook of their choice, sitting in what they felt was the best possible position, and so on...

Because you can't cheat the Tao, and hope it works only on one level.


End of lesson, off to supper.


I admit it was all pretty basic, but I hope to be able and collect more material and examples for my future courses.

Edited by SteamDave

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