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An Interview with Allen Pittman, author of Walking the I Ching

April 24, 2008

I recently asked Blue Snake Books Author Allen Pittman about his recent title, Walking the I Ching, where he details the history, philosophy, and techniques of a rare form of Linear Ba Gua Zhang. Read on to see what he had to say about Ba Gua’s connection to Taoism and Chinese philosophy, its cross-cultural connections, and how martial arts can keep us sane in an ever-changing world. Learn more about the book and buy it here: Walking the I Ching

Walking the I Ching

What is Linear Ba Gua Zhang? How does it compare with other martial arts?

Linear Ba Gua, also known as Gao Style, is one of about Five Major styles of Ba Gua. Most Ba Gua is characterized by walking in a circle. The Gao style has an intermediate series of movements, which move in lines and zigzags; hence these are called “linear Ba Gua.” Ba Gua is distinct from other martial arts styles in its emphasis on stand-up grappling, pulling, and hitting. Also, bodyguards of various types apparently used it, and this seems to be an explanation for much of its rather extensive movement repertoire. Many of the movements of Ba Gua are not lethal-unlike more direct War Arts, such as Hsing-I, which was taught to infantry and emphasizes direct attacks against lethal targets.

How is Ba Gua connected to and informed by Taoist philosophy and the I Ching?

The Gao Ba Gua has 64 strings of movements, which are designed to directly correspond to the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. So outside the tactical application lies the esoteric or inner meaning of the movements, which are defined by the I Ching. The I Ching is regarded as a Taoist work. So it is safe to say the esoteric meaning of Gao Ba Gua is completely tied to the I Ching and its antecedents in Taoism, which is actually ancient Chinese shamanism.

What values does Taoism bring to this martial arts practice?

There is much in Taoism that can be found in Egypt as well as in many forms of Central Asian shamanism or Amerindian shamanism. In fact, we could say shamanism is the worldwide root of all religions. It still survives in pockets around the world in various forms-and yes, it does inform values in Gao Ba Gua. It does this in two ways.

First, the movements are designed to directly imbue the physical body with the meanings of the I Ching. Second, these “I Ching” meanings can be studied intellectually and also used to inform various meditation and psychological practices. So together, these two aspects allow the practitioner of Gao Ba Gua to do a sort of combined Shaman’s Dance and martial art.

Gao Ba Gua is probably unique in that these influences are explicated and not just intrinsic, as in other martial arts patterned on elements, animals, geometries, or deities. The values themselves find as their axis the central concept that a human being lives not just in three dimensions, but in three worlds-what the Ancients called, “Heaven, Human, and Earth.” The implication is that astrological energies descend into the human from the crown, while earth energies rise up through the feet. The combination of the two creates a unique consciousness in the middle of the human body, which the Chinese saw as the lower abdomen. They called it the Tan-Tien, or Sea of Chi. This area of the body was used to begin an integration of these energies. This is and was a main trait of Taoism.

I would also say that the Taoist attitude toward nurturing the body gave them a very different approach to athletic conditioning and physical performance in general. The Taoists were very interested in long life and long-term gradual transformation, so the idea of gradual nurturing and a slow and attentive witness to self-transformation are particularly unique to the Taoist “attitude,” as it were. Their overriding concept of the interconnectedness of all life fully permeates Ba Gua, which of course, is also the core of Feng-shui.

What other Eastern philosophies are connected to Ba Gua?

The history of the Silk Road indicates flows of ideas from Kashmir Shaivism, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen and other pre-Buddhist paths, as well as from Buddhism proper. My impression is that much is traceable to the ancient Scythian migrations. There are some strong streams from Sufism, particularly the streams coming from Iran, as found in Najm Kobra and others. Elements of Zoroaster, and of course Mani, are sprinkled throughout.

Even though Ba Gua originally came out of Chinese culture, you have called it trans-cultural. How does Ba Gua cross cultures and how does it benefit from this?

Its concepts are fairly represented through the various interpretations of the medicine wheel, or mandala, worldwide. It benefits from this as it stands as a kind of Rosetta Stone in which all ancient religions can be interpreted and cross-referenced with the minimum of dilution of meaning. I am a big believer in integration but remain wholly skeptical of homogenization-I really like Joseph Campbell’s work, but am conscious some of his fans have created “Joseph Campbell’s Soup!” You know, the watch only runs when the pieces are assembled!

What inspired you to write Walking the I Ching?

Well, I think this is a big time of change on the planet, and if we can feel this in the human body we can understand how to do the dance of change in the outer world, “out there,” with more understanding-and I believe in the preservation of ancient ways and traditions.

What kinds of readers do you think can benefit from it?

Strangely, I think any reader interested in yoga and comparative religion and philosophy will get some “sparks” (to make their own fires) from the brief commentaries in each chapter. The martial arts folks will appreciate the actual “moves,” of course!

You say that during this time of big change on our planet, feeling change in our bodies can help us understand and deal with change in the outer world. How else are martial arts useful today?

They keep you in your body. They assist psychological integration-you have to feel to heal, and it’s better for everybody if you feel good in your skin. Plus, if you train you look a bit better!

Why are they relevant for everyone?

Because we all have a body and need to understand ourselves in relation to our body and its response mechanisms-just so we know how we can actually feel good inside and out. But I really think martial arts specifically addresses about 25 percent of the population. Another 25 percent would be happy with pure yoga. The other 50 percent are artisans and poets that do their physical thing on stage, or are doing various kinds of performing arts-musicians, sculptors, etc.-and then there are various combinations of these too.

Your book is divided into eight chapters corresponding to elemental forces such as Water, Thunder, Wind, and Fire. How do these forces as expressed in traditional martial arts philosophy relate to the same elements, as we understand them in the physical sciences?

Well, this is a very glandular, DNA, psychological shamanism, power-of-association kind of thing. These elements connote our responses to these phenomena, responses that largely ruled “primitive man” (who may not have been as primitive as is often thought!).

So these phenomena were noted early in history by beings who were looking at how they felt, and these folks connected feelings and facts as a continuity. When you are at sea on a ship and you look into the ocean it can be incredibly dark, fathomless, even menacing-especially when you fish a shark out of it-so to think of the Sea or Water as representing “danger” in the ancient Chinese mind is not so difficult. In some ways this is the mind of the Poet, or Bard or, Shaman-a kind of mind that apprehends phenomena as a totality, which grips the soul like a Rose.

Each of the book’s eight main chapters also corresponds to a philosophical house of Ba Gua theory and presents a variety of symbols, including a foundational trigram of the I Ching. How does the presentation of a diversity of symbols amplify the meaning of each house for students of Ba Gua?

We overlay symbols to increase psychological impact. From Shamanism, to Remote Viewing, to NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), to Wall Street advertising, it’s all the same. It’s about how to control your own mind, or how to control another’s mind. Of course, in Ba Gua we use this methodology to create a template of associations to catch our own thoughts. Once this is done we can figure out if we really want the thoughts or not!

In addition to the traditional Ba Gua system you describe, your book includes references to a variety of philosophical disciplines from different cultures. How does your understanding of these inform your practice of martial arts?

Martial arts are the final condensation-in a highly existential form-of beliefs. So if I can bring a variety of belief structures to my evaluation of a martial art, I can then begin to detect possible sources of ideas. My understanding of these other disciplines allows me to get a handle on how the arts were birthed and developed and crafted over time. Invariably there is inspiration and vision due to need, and then the effect of time and training. Much of this comes out of a single idea, which often resembles a person more than a word. So I am, in this particular sense, a Platonist. I perceive ideas as living entities.

What is the relationship between teacher and student in Ba Gua practice?

No different than any other teacher-student relationship. It is wholly posited on the altruistic agreement between the two parties to pass the craft from one to the other in exchange for service, money, barter, etc. If we look at the Chinese aspect it can become dreadfully patriarchal due to Confucianism, but it does not have to be that way. If we look at the Ancient Shamanistic idea of “teacher-student relation,” there is something much less stodgy and much more esoteric and far reaching-the bond of friendship between the generations which allows the continuity and development of culture through time, culture meaning the ways which evolve humanity to higher consciousness.

What first drew you to the practice of martial arts, and Ba Gua in particular?

I read an article in Black Belt Magazine in 1973 and fell in love with it. Ba Gua has been one tough mistress. But god, she is beautiful.

What about Ba Gua practice do you find most illuminating and inspiring?

It is those times when I review everything I’ve ever done and see if it still makes sense. And my body feels good when I do it. It’s been about 30 years now. I’ll be 50 next year.

What are you working on now?

A lot of stuff-mainly Wisdom of the Body, which is my movement encyclopedia for psychological integration, and editing DVDs with all the martial forms I’ve ever learned.

Sounds exciting. Can we expect more writing on martial arts from you in the future?

It’s hard to say. Right now, I think DVDs are better for learning movements, but I have a lot to say on the conceptual and meditative stuff that could be put in print. Much will depend on the response to this present book and the recent article on Hoplite Warfare in a text called The Cutting Edge that just came out.

What are some further resources for those interested in learning more about Ba Gua or beginning to train in the art?

There’s loads of stuff on the web and quite a few books in print. I would say, learn some of the movements and practice them both with and without a partner. The teacher and the system don’t matter as much as simply doing it and experimenting with it yourself. If it does not taste right to you, then go and do something else. Follow Tsongkhapa, the old Tibetan commentator:

“Don’t take my word for it-if it’s supposed to be gold, then cut it, melt it, taste it, and weight it-then you will know for sure.”

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