From Chapter 2 — “Tradition and Prosperity”
From Chapter 4 — “War, Freedom and Growing Up”
From Chapter 7 — “East Meets West”
From Chapter 8 — “Encountering Esalen”
From Chapter 9 — “The Settled Heart”
From Chapter 10 — “Happy Wandering”
From Chapter 13 — “Trickster at Work”
From the Epilogue – “Susan”
Father Feng, a highly successful banker and financier, provides well for the family and, as evidenced by this scene, commands great respect. In the family he is primarily responsible for decisions about moral growth and education: hence his morning instructions and admonitions to the children. A strict man and in the Confucian fashion, he takes his family responsibilities seriously. Also a nervous, high-strung man; in Gia-fu’s eyes, he has “a colossal temper, typical of a stern patriarch.”
Other dimensions of Feng Chong-ching directly affect his children. He writes accomplished calligraphy, much of which he taught himself, reflecting his love of learning. That he respects and values education ensures his children will be thoroughly and well taught. He sends his children to the best schools, boarding school awaits most of them, and he hires scholarly tutors to teach them English and the Chinese classics during summer months. This is an uncommon effort, beyond the bounds of duty, or perhaps reason, in the eyes of Feng Chong-ching’s friends. But the children benefit from this extra effort, and even enjoy some aspects of it. Gia-fu is keen on Chinese classics. . . (p.18-19)
While far from the fighting, but not immune to bombs from Japanese aircraft, two of Kunming’s distinguishing characteristics keep residents aware of the war. One, it is removed from the main military action and hosts Free China’s main airbase; flights over the extremely dangerous Hump—the Himalayas—land and take off from here. The other is the Chinese terminus of the Burma Road; a rough, treacherous stretch of about 715 miles of dirt and cobbles, built in 1937-38, with 600 miles in China and 115 in Burma. Historian Barbara Tuchman will later describe it as having been “scratched out of the mountainsides by the hand labor of 200,000 men, women and children.” Gia-fu sees the dirt road, winding through “incredible variations of landscape, from high plateaus to the lush jungles of rain forest.” Hairpin turns and slippery conditions contribute to the high number of trucks that go off the cliffs, making the road a veritable death trap. China’s only conduit for supplies now that the Japanese have cut off shipping and railroad transport, this road also makes smuggling and other corruption possible. It is China’s “back door” in many senses and serves a critical purpose during this time of war.
Gia-fu and the thousands of other refugees feel the Yunnanese’s ambivalence and resentment toward them as newcomers, invaders themselves, with their different dialects and customs. Almost six decades later, writer Wilma Fairbank will capture the Yunnan natives’ feelings in the simple question: “What concern of theirs was Japanese aggression in the remote eastern provinces?” They feel neither humiliation nor pride in this country, which not only amazes those from occupied China, but also angers them. They, the refugees, hadn’t conspired with the Japanese, and they therefore feel they deserve better treatment.
But Gia-fu has come here to study, to be in Free China, to be free of family obligations and his family’s watchful eyes. Free China means free Gia-fu. He also finds himself free of family conveniences, the servants’ care and solicitude, but at nineteen his flexibility and sense of adventure help him adjust. Soon he writes to his family to tell them he is safe, and also to ask for money. He may be seeking freedom, but not financial independence. Apparently, Feng Chong-ching accepts the reality of his third son’s flight, and he begins sending Gia-fu an annual allowance. Because of the war, communication in general and the funds in particular arrive sporadically. (pp. 46-47)
So captivated is Gia-fu by his study of comparative religion that it’s no wonder he later tells people the reason he came to the U.S. was to study just that—comparative religion. Despite his master’s degree from the Wharton School and his original intention of returning to China, here in San Francisco in 1954 he cannot believe anything else could be possible right now. He’s discovered a way to develop his potential, to mine his talents. Through Alan Watts, he has found the perfect place for himself, translating his beloved Chinese classics and studying the religions and arts of China and other cultures at the American Academy of Asian Studies.
The classes he’s enrolled in, one of which is taught by Alan Watts, prove a gold mine for this seeker, as do Watts and the Academy itself. Gia-fu can hardly believe the wealth of riches arrayed here, the brilliance of the international stars that have been part of the Academy and those here now: Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri, former head of the Philosophy Department at Krishnagar College in Bengal, associate of Sri Aurobindo—and future mentor of Susan Wilson; Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, formerly Diwan (head official) of India’s State of Travancore and then Chancellor at the University of Banaras; Judith Tyberg, teaching Sanskrit and yoga; Polish-born Rom Landau, head of the Islamic program and author of books on Morocco and Arab mentality; Sabro Hasegawa, father of the Japanese School of Modern Painting; Dr. Malalasekhara, president of the World Buddhist Association and former Ceylon ambassador to the Soviet Union; and of course, Frederic Spiegelberg, recently returned to Stanford University as professor of Indic and Slavic Studies, but who served as the Academy’s director of studies from its inception in 1951, creating much of the breadth and depth of the Academy’s program.
At present, Watts serves as the Academy’s administrator, continuing his teaching, radio broadcasts, and writing, as well. He finds Gia-fu fascinating, too, and the two men learn they have much to contribute to each other’s pursuits. Watts, with his wide-ranging knowledge of wisdom traditions from Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and his ability to help others see how such teachings can enrich life, is intrigued by Gia-fu’s classical Chinese education. He immediately sees that Gia-fu’s knowledge of significant Chinese works and language skills in Chinese and English can be put to use translating important texts, and he engages Gia-fu in these efforts. Gia-fu finds great joy applying his talents as he immerses himself in translating the classics he loves—Chuang Tsu, Lao Tsu, the I Ching—many of which his father ensured that he study as a child and those he reveled in at Southwestern Associated University in Kunming. (pp. 94-95)
Around the end of 1961, Gia-fu joins Dick, Michael and others at Big Sur Hot Springs. Armed with his own abacus, Gia-fu fills the role of accountant, in addition to keeper of the baths, as well as what some describe as resident Oriental mystic.
Gia-fu’s use of an abacus to keep the accounts is not the only thing that’s different at this place, as the first IRS audit will illustrate. The IRS accountant arrives on the appointed morning, turns in at the Big Sur Hot Springs entrance, drives down the long, narrow, curving lane, through the towering evergreens, and parks in a place designated for visitors. As he walks away from the car, he looks around and notices a group standing near the swimming pool, chatting. They’re not wearing clothes. He pauses for a moment, seemingly considering the scenery. Then he moves toward the office door and passes a couple of men in loincloths. As he looks around, he sees other people wearing feathers. Some are playing volleyball.
The Bohemian, wild appearance of the people somehow seems to mirror the wildness of Big Sur, the cliffs, the ocean, this particular property. The accountant suspects that life here is conducted with considerable abandon. Continuing toward the office, he opens the door and enters. A slight, smiling Chinese man greets him, bowing repeatedly. It is Gia-fu serving in his role as accountant.
As for the accounting, during his brief stay, the IRS representative observes Gia-fu’s system of bookkeeping using his treasured abacus. He examines the numerous small, varying-sized pieces of paper on which Gia-fu records information. And after vigilantly auditing “the books,” with deliberation and great care, he pronounces to the assembled Gia-fu, Michael, and Dick, “Gentlemen, your situation is not only unusual. It’s unique.” But they pass the audit. More than 35 years later, Michael will laughingly recount this incident, cherishing the times, the people, the place.
Uniqueness. The auditor’s word defines this Institute: not only its bookkeeping system and the way its programs unfold, but also in the seemingly serendipitous way people and place come together. Serendipity, synchronicity, divine accidents? Gia-fu’s life seems filled with these, however termed—a life populated by auspicious times and illustrious people. (pp. 118-119)
The year is 1966, and high in the hills above Los Gatos, California, Gia-fu finds the place. Here his dream can unfold; here he can start his own community.
Stillpoint. This is the name he chooses. The point in meditation between the in-breath and the out-breath; the point that is still—and empty. It’s also an old Chinese expression, translated in English as ‘settled heart.’ “We may wander, but we take our settled heart with us.” Gia-fu has wandered, and his heart has now become settled enough to find and name this place. And those who live in this community will be called “Stillpointers.” Even after they leave they will still be referred to in this way.
In one form or another Stillpoint will be part of Gia-fu’s life for almost two decades, in California, briefly in Vermont, and then Colorado, until the very end. Now, his first Stillpoint, which he calls Stillpoint Foundation, becomes a reality on this leased mountain property at 20300 Bear Creek Road. Steep terrain, close enough to the ocean to be engulfed in the morning fog, several buildings for group meetings, meditation, cooking, sleeping, a sauna, hot tub, and lots of trees. A beautiful place, and its beauty will work on those who live here.
Gia-fu wants to put to use what the ancient Taoists learned: that healthy human life flourishes in nature, in simplicity, therein letting one’s own true nature come forth. For many, this reflects the idyllic; for some, it’s a way to help heal their deepest wounds. Taoists understand that no successful approach to life can go against nature, and therefore a central Taoist premise is that of wu wei, meaning “no action contrary to Nature,” or authentic action. Sometimes interpreted as simply “nonaction,” it gets misunderstood as not doing anything, or even worse, as the simplistic “go with the flow” idea so popular these days.
The importance of nature to Gia-fu can’t be summed up in that Western notion of pantheism—pan meaning all, and theism meaning god, so that God and the universe are the same. For pantheism names God, which Taoists do not. Nor does pantheism take into account the Taoist view of emptiness, the lack of preconceptions about emptiness, and the usefulness of it. Six years later, in their translation of the Tao Te Ching, Gia-fu and Jane English will provide this insight about emptiness:
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
And finally it’s time for publication. The jacket copy has to be written. Toinette puts off writing it, until the deadline is only 20 minutes away. She’s perplexed by the task, later putting her dilemma this way. “How could I possibly reduce this sixth century B.C. classic to a single paragraph?” But she does. Sitting down at the typewriter, her mind goes blank, and she begins to type:
Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistance. . .We serve whatever or whoever stands before us, without any thought for ourselves. Te—which may be translated as ‘virtue’ or strength’—lies always in Tao or ‘natural law.’ In other words: Simply be.
It’s perfect. The book is a hit. People from all walks of life read it, people for whom it will be the defining book of that period. Even Time magazine reviews it, although describing it as “the Tao Te Ching gussied up with photographs.” Yes, Toinette, will say. “. . .but until it was gussied up with photographs, the Tao Te Ching had been around for 2,500 years and Time magazine hadn’t bothered to review it.”
During the publication process for the Tao Te Ching, Gia-fu and Jane begin working on a second book, another translation of an ancient Chinese classic. This one, Chuang Tsu’s Inner Chapters, will be a companion volume to the Tao Te Ching. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes not, the photos Jane now takes are destined for this next book. Some special photos she takes at a nearby spectacular anomaly of nature, the Great Sand Dunes. These photos are special not only because of the place, but also because she shoots only one roll of film there, and ten or twelve of the photos wind up in the Chuang Tsu book.
The Great Sand Dunes, destined some thirty-five years later in 2004, to become Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, rise almost 750 feet above the high-mountain San Luis Valley floor and are the tallest sand dunes in North America. Nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they cover about thirty-nine square miles. Breathtaking in their beauty and strangeness, they attract many visitors, but not so many in November, when the Stillpointers hike around them, and Jane shoots her one role of film. (pp. 162-163)
But what Gia-fu seems to be responding to now is a need to find someplace more remote than 616 Ruxton Avenue. He likes to be in nature. He likes solitude, an increasingly rare commodity in Manitou Springs. Even on his long walks, he sees too many people, and sometimes they even try to talk to him. It’s intrusive, disruptive. No, he wants some place farther away from town, more removed from all the constant, bustling activity. Having limited cash flow, he obtains commitment of the necessary financial support from Lorriane Kirk and Michael Burton, former Stillpointers who return in the summers. Then he engages a realtor and, in the early fall of 1977, he begins the search.
One day the realtor calls asking Gia-fu to go check out a place four miles south of the tiny village of Wetmore—seventy or so miles southwest of Manitou Springs. Gia-fu, Lorraine, Richard Bertschinger—here from England, and a couple of others head out, driving toward Wetmore. From the base of snow-covered Pikes Peak, they pass through high, red-clay foothills, out across the sage-dotted plateaus, dropping down into the Arkansas Valley, heading into the antediluvian Wet Mountains. Some fifteen miles from the site, Gia-fu suddenly shouts, “Yes, Yes! This is it! I can feel it in my belly. Yes! This is it!”
And arriving at the site, seeing it with his own eyes only confirms what his belly has already told him. This is it.
One hundred sixty-six acres of meadows, forest, and mountains with small, gurgling Middle Hardscrabble Creek running through it. Transitioning from ponderosa pine, gamble oak, sagebrush at seven thousand feet altitude to spruce and aspen forests at eight thousand feet. Signs of deer, an occasional elk, mountain lions, bears, wild turkeys, fox. In the geologically ancient Wet Mountain range, this property abuts San Isabel National Forest on the west and south, unpaved County Road 387 on the east. To the north, Pike’s Peak rises in the distance. Cattle graze in adjoining fields. This is ranching country, not a tourist destination, and it’s in Custer County, the second least populated county in Colorado. Twenty miles east are the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the west side of which lies Mineral Hot Springs where Jane, Gia-fu, and the rest of the Stillpointers stayed when they first came to Colorado five years ago—forty-some miles as the crow flies to the southwest. Now, here on the eastern side of Hardscrabble Pass just east of the spectacular Wet Mountain Valley, Gia-fu finds what he’s looking for.
How can I describe her, my sister, whose complexity continues to baffle me? Images come to mind. Her fury as a four -year-old, when she saw our brother’s ten-year-old friend kill a bird.
“Damn you, Henry Harper! Damn you! You killed that bird!” she screamed at a startled Henry Harper. She was articulate even as a small child, especially when she perceived a wrongdoing. She was also physical—our mother had to park the car in which we all were riding and stop Susan’s ferocious pummeling of poor Henry Harper.
At ten, she asked for and got a BB gun, which she learned to shoot well, usually wearing her Annie Oakley fringe jacket, and aiming only at paper targets. While at Pensacola Junior College in Florida, Susan became captivated by Eastern thought, and especially by philosopher Sri Aurobindo. I recall her trying to explain his intricate writings to me. She could be very patient.
Variously called Susan, Suzi, Margaret, or Sue Margaret, she inhabited a slight frame of five feet, four inches. Long, dark hair, sky-blue eyes, and a finely sculpted face reflecting her Native American ancestry belied an iron will and unstoppable curiosity. Her incisive intellect, kind heart, and formidable temper would take aim at any injustice, as the unfortunate Henry Harper and later many others learned. A person of many facets and interests, her encounter with Gia-fu Feng, accentuated these qualities. Their meeting spawned a chain of events none of us could ever have imagined.
Gia-fu and Stillpoint entered Susan’s life in 1978. Susan and Gia-fu’s meeting grew out of a web of relationships related to the San Francisco-based Institute for Asian Studies where Gia-fu had first worked as translator for Alan Watts in the 1950s, and Susan had completed a Master’s Degree in 1976. The connecting thread was Lloyd Alexander, himself a fiery person and intimate friend of Susan. Lloyd had been friends with Gia-fu for some time and also had many links to the Institute.
The meeting occurred in a serendipitous fashion during a road trip from San Francisco to Denver, when Susan and Lloyd stopped by Stillpoint to say hello to Gia-fu. The rapport was instant, between Susan and Gia-fu, and Susan and the land. Gia-fu immediately showed Susan around the place, hardly suspecting that some day this attractive law student would hold responsibility for it.
Susan had attended the Institute after completing a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies in 1974 at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Never following a predictable path, and ever managing to surprise family and friends, upon completing her degree at the Institute, Susan then entered Hastings Law School in San Francisco, where she earned a degree specializing in civil rights law. Further astonishing us all, in 1980 she joined the United States Army as a commissioned officer, with the rank of captain, where she served a distinguished stint in the Adjutant General’s office. In this role, Susan directly and solidly pursued justice for those whom she felt to be innocent and those who had been harmed, especially women soldiers who were rape victims. Here she gained valuable trial experience, which later would serve her clients well. Stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, for the three-year duty tour Susan lived within an hour’s drive of Stillpoint.
By the mid-eighties, out of the military, Susan had established a private law practice in Gallup, New Mexico, and her visits to Stillpoint became less and less frequent. But some irrevocable bond had developed between Susan and Gia-fu, some missing link in a mysterious chain reconnected, for when Gia-fu died in June, 1985, he left Susan his share of the Wetmore property, royalties from his publications, and his publication copyrights. Susan was as surprised as anyone. But despite her bewilderment at this turn of events, she immediately knuckled down to the arduous work of sorting out the unruly affairs Gia-fu left in her hands. (pp. 240-241)