Greg Casey is a genius of movement and a very humble teacher. We worked together at the Daoist Traditions student gardens and both completed a 4 year program in Chinese Medicine in Asheville, North Carolina. After graduating, I continue to practice internal martial arts with Greg such as meditation, qi gong, and sword form practice. He has been a great inspiration to me in understanding how energy moves within the body and the world around us. His grasp of self cultivation techniques that speaks about in this interview is quite interesting. I hope you have a chance to talk with Greg someday, please visit him at https://www.mysticdao.com to find out more.
Interview with Greg Casey
On Daoist Traditions Campus
Asheville, North Carolina
February 5th, 2017
Mary Burke-Pitts (MBP): How did you discover Daoism?
Greg: So as far as I can remember, the first awareness I had of Daoism really came through my interest in tai chi which I’m not really even sure how I became interested in that it just popped into my head one day I guess through popular culture that there was this martial art called tai chi and I’d always been interested in martial arts since I was a kid, I guess I was about 17 when I first started researching tai chi and then researching yin and yang and they’re related to Daoism and that’s what got me interested and in particular my second tai chi teacher taught us the story about Zhang Shanfeng who’s the Daoist priest who supposedly created tai chi and that sparked my interest even more hearing stories about him and the legend and mythos that goes along with that in Daoism.
MBP: What does Daoism mean to you?
Greg: So I guess in many ways it means everything and nothing it’s kind of a really Daoism answer I guess. In a large sense it means being natural, I think is a large part of why I was attracted to learn more about Daoism and study its teachings because I’ve always had a very deep love and respect for nature and animal kingdom, plant kingdom, all of nature and just that emphasis of living life in harmony and balance with nature and the idea that Daoism sees people as being part of nature not separate from nature in any way and that really resonated with me. It’s kind of grown over the years too, having different meanings and different ways.
MBP: And how do you see Daoism fitting into the world we live in today?
Greg: I definitely see it as being relevant in the modern world and I think that a lot of other people that I meet you see on social media and all over the place are living in this kind of reality where they feel really separated from nature and I think it’s something that has been kind of engendered in our culture and especially in Western society in general especially for the last two or three hundred years or so but a lot of people are looking for a way to reconnect with nature and to reconnect with themselves being a part of nature that’s not separate. Finding a way to live more in harmony and in balance with themselves and with the external world so I definitely think that that’s one way, it could be fitting more into modern times. And also I think that there’s a lot of interesting parallels I see in the most cutting edge advances and discoveries in science we’re talking about quantum theory and the ideas all around subatomic particles and this sort of true nature of reality that those sort of theories and ideas start to paint a picture of a world that seems very similar in a way to a lot of the old traditional ideas coming from Daoism that there’s this type of energy that connect us to the world and that you know you have seemingly impossible types of energy transfer and creation and transformation so that’s an interesting area.
MBP: Who are you teachers of Daoism or how have you learned more about Daoism?
Greg: Ya so definitely I guess in a way I would have to acknowledge my first tai chi teachers, especially my second tai chi teacher who taught us about the story of Daoism his name was professor Xiaojun, Li, at SUNY: Adirondack (State University of New York) and he’s also the coach of some of their teams up there and he taught tai chi as part of their PE curriculum and I took his class there and then once I started practicing tai chi and I became more interested in Daoism, I picked up from the bookshop the Dao de Jing and that was the first Daoist classic that I would read and so in that way I would consider Lao Zi once of my teachers through the writings that have been passed down over the ages. That was the first primary source kind of textbook that I reference and read and also the Hua Hu Ching is the unknown teachings to the Lao Zi it’s the subtitle to the translation I have of that and then as far as coming into more kind of personal relationships with people I was definitely attracted to come to Daoist traditions because of the first two words in the name of the school, Daoist Traditions, and the connection with Jeffrey Yuen here and really being drawn to study with him and to learn more about Daoism with him. And then I’ve continued to have other tai chi and martial arts teachers through the years and in particular I’ve been drawn to study the Wudang Mountain traditions of martial arts in particular the San Feng Pai being named after Zhang Shanfeng the creator of tai chi and from that tradition I’ve studied with two different lineage holders, lineage masters and the 14th generation Master Chen who lives in Colorado and I’ve studied with him in Atlanta and here in Asheville and then Master Bing who’s the 15th generation lineage holder and I’ve studied with him in Boston and here in Asheville when he travels to the states so those would be the personal connections I have with Daoist priests being my teacher and also there’s a lot of other Daoists here in the community especially here around Daoist traditions that I’ve met especially Joe Hollis and other fellow students and colleagues who are also Daoist who I’ve had the fortune to exchange ideas with and practice qi gong with and all of that.
MBP: And which of the Wudang forms have we practiced together?
Greg: Ya so I think together we’ve practiced the 5 animal qi gong coming from Wudang mountain with the tortoise, the crane, the tiger, the snake and the dragon in that system and I think we’ve practiced another set of 5 animals from Wudang also slightly different animal set. And then I think potentially did we do the 8 brocades together at any point?
Greg: We did the Wudang 8 brocade. Which other ones, did we do the tai chi?
Okay, we haven’t done the taiji yet but that’s another of their forms I’ve studied, the Sanfeng 28 style, the 13 style taiji and then I’ve learned and since let pass from memory the 108 style taiji, which I’ll relearn again. And then there’s other forms I’ve learned there’s the Tai He Quan (Supreme Harmony Fist) and then Tai Yi Wu Xing Quan (Supreme Unity Five Elements Fist), Tai Yi Xuan Men Jian (Supreme Unity Dark Gate Sword), and then I think we’ve done some of the Sanfeng Taiji sword together. Are there others we’ve done together?
MBP: Is the staff form?
Greg: The staff form we were just practicing is one Jeffrey taught us actually coming from Shaolin.
MBP: And are there any other Daoist practices that you’ve integrated into your everyday life?
Greg: Ya, definitely, especially since moving back to Asheville about half a month ago I’ve been more faithfully practicing meditation everyday either in the morning or always before going to sleep at night and there’s different meditation practices I do there. And then also practicing qi gong everyday, some type of qigong and then usually practicing at least a tai chi form or some other type of internal form and I also practice some of the Wudang Xingyiquan (Xing yi) and Wudang Baguazhang (Ba gua) so I don’t have a very strict, kind of set routine that I do everyday I kind of have the same sort of qigong and meditation that I’ll do every day but then different days I’ll be more spontaneous like I want to practice this tai chi form or practice the Ba gua or Xing yi just kind of by what comes up or what I feel like I need to work on. And then along with that I’ll also take herbs as a type of cultivation and as a way to help me with meditation practice and to help me with the martial arts and qigong practice.
MBP: What are some examples of those types of herbs?
Greg: So a formula that I took this morning is actually the Zhen Wu Tang. It’s the True Warrior Decoction. For those who know Wudang is named after Zhen Wu who used to be called Xuanwu- the dark/mysterious warrior. He is the God of the dark mysterious northern heaven (Xuan Tian Shang Di) in Daoism and he’s regarded as one deity who is a benevolent deity and can help to drive away demons and evil spirits and he’s also often called along to aid with fertility blessings and he’s particularly important in Daoism and in Wudang Daoism where Wudang is named after Zhen Wu cause it’s said that when he ascended to heaven he said, the Chinese phrase “Fei Zhen Wu Bu Zu Yi Dang Zhi” and it means “only the perfected warrior will suffice” and so Wudang Shan means the martial sufficiency mountain like, it’s where you go to become trained up in the martial arts to a very proficient and sufficient level to become that kind of perfected and mysterious warrior. And they have martial arts forms named after him so I take that formula which tonifies the Kidney yang energy and it helps to move and to purge out stagnated fluids and to kind of take control of the waterways in the body being a metaphor for like the acupuncture channels so it helps to kind of dredge and move out any stagnant energy while tonifying your pure yang energy which is important for martial arts and for qi gong where you need that kind of heat and that yang to keep you going and to fuel your practices. And then I also like to take as a training formula the Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang which is a formula that nourishes Liver and Kidney yin and drives out wind damp cold from the body. So nourishing the yin especially of the Liver and Kidney’s is important in particular if you’re going to be doing a lot of stretching or strenuous exercises to the legs in particular and footwork is super important for martial arts. And that helps to moisten all of the tissues and to expel out any stagnating energy of the channels especially of the legs so those are 2 of my favorite sort of training formulas that I utilize. And then there’s some others especially like some tonic herbs like of course ginseng, ren shen, ling zhi is one of my favorite herbs, it’s another tonic is the ganoderma mushroom, reishi mushroom. Some of the others are like Bai Zhu is an herb that’s a qi tonic that strengthens the Spleen qi and helps to transform dampness from the body so that you don’t become stagnated internally things can transform and move. I like that herb also it’s name translates actually as the White Magic or the White Magician so I like to kind of cultivate that idea of becoming like the white wizard kind of like Gandalf is one of my favorite pop culture characters to help with transforming the heaviness of the world and to become a more light type of being so to speak.
MBP: In terms of some of these traditions being very ancient or coming from another part of the world, you referenced the Wudang mountains and with this location that we live in the US, particularly Asheville, North Carolina do you imagine yourself studying here in the US in your lifetime or do you think that in terms of tradition or what you are drawn towards that you would ever have to travel far to learn what you hope to learn?
Greg: So far I’ve never been to China, I would love some day in particular to go to Wudang Mountain as somewhat of a pilgrimage, it’s definitely a tradition in Daoism, there’s many sacred mountains and Wudang would be considered as one of them, some call it the most sacred mountain in China, it’s not one of the 5 sacred mountains, but apart from those some people call it the greatest mountain under heaven. So I would like to go there someday if that’s possible. When I was younger before I came to Daoist Traditions to study Chinese medicine I was considering going there for a five year program to study in a traditional Daoist kung fu academy but I decided not to do that and instead to come to Daoist Traditions and I’m very grateful for that choice and I’ve found that through the opportunities of teachers coming to teach nearby like I’ve said Master Chen coming to teach in Atlanta which is just three hours away and here in Asheville and Master Bing going to teach in Boston which is close to where I grew up in Rhode Island and then I had him come here to Asheville, I feel like I’ve really made the most of it in terms of traveling just a little bit closeby to study with these teachers and then really practicing a lot on my own is where I’ve put a lot of the cultivation and training time, especially in the last 5 or 6 years I haven’t had a school that I’ve been going to and taking classes from for martial arts or qigong. I’ll go and do a long weekend of study and then I’ll go home and I’ll practice those things that I’ve learned. Sometimes those teachers will have a DVD that you can get and then bring home as well so that’s been a big part of my cultivation. I don’t think you have to go to China, there’s many great teachers here in the United States that we can make the most from and really learn a lot from but then I think there is also something special about going to these mountains where for hundreds of years, thousands of years there have been temples there. There’s been the tradition of people going there and paying respect to the different gods and the landscape features. But on a similar page, like I’ve said I’ve said I’ve some of these priests and teachers coming from Wudang to this area in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville and multiple of them have remarked to me that it’s like Wudang when they’re here being in the mountains and they almost feel like their home when they come here and so that’s another big reason that I resonate with this area and live here.
MBP: There are the 9 palaces or themes in our lives according to some Daoist philosophies including: career, relationship, health, abundance/wealth, travel, creativity/children, wisdom, knowledge and home (peace). Are there any of these ones that I just listed that you feel drawn to in your lifetime?
Greg: Ya, so I definitely feel I’ve experienced each of these 9 palaces at different times but the ones that I’ve spent the most time around cultivating and seem to come back to the most, I would say would be to some degree the abundance palace which some people also call the wealth palace. I don’t come from a very wealthy family, it’s you know a middle class family and you know it’s no kind of inheritance I’ve had I’ve got tons of student loan debt so it’s definitely you know an area of my life that I need to make money to get by and make a living but kind of you know have been making peace with that more and more and you just do what you do and get what you get and you make the most of it so I’m kind of making peace with that palace working with that. But then I have barely traveled very much at all, like I said I would like to travel more at some point. I definitely have put, I don’t have any children but, a fair bit into creativity palace, I’ve been somewhat artistic person since I was a child, I’ve always been drawing and painting and working with clay, I make bamboo flutes, I love to do different types of crafts I like to do calligraphy and also I feel there’s a degree of creativity in the martial arts whereas you learn and then you can start to knit different techniques and styles together, I feel creativity in there. The relationship palace I feel blessed with many beautiful, wonderful relationships in my life. Health palace, I don’t have any major health issues that I’ve had to deal with in my life so I feel very blessed there. Of course I’m in the health palace in regards to practicing Chinese Medicine which coming to Chinese Medicine school it was never my really major interest to become a clinician and to work a lot with patients and with people suffering from illness and disease and injuries but it seems that that’s an area that I’ve been drawn into. My interest coming into school was really to discover more about the full workings of the internal energy system that we utilize in Chinese medicine and figure out how that is being utilized and applied to the practice of qigong and tai chi and martial arts so that I could get a better appreciation and depth of understanding of those exercises and how they’re working based on the energetics and all those details. And then definitely through that I’ve spent a fair amount of time engaged in the knowledge palace and moving into the wisdom palace hopefully as I make use of that knowledge but just trying like I said to understand more kind of the completeness in a way of reality, it’s been a major driving factor I feel in my life overall since I was a child is to in a way is to understand and reconcile all of the apparent disparities that there are in the world. All the contradicting ideas and notions that people have about reality and to come to some comprehension of how reality is comprehensive in nature and complete in nature and that there is certain kinds of principles and laws of nature that bind us all together with a set of rules that we get to play by and so a big interest of mine through school and through my cultivation has been trying to figure out how this all works and how we can make the most of it and so I definitely feel that has a big part to do with the knowledge palace which also by my feng shui, but my birth year is the palace that that correlates to in the gua number 2 for those who know what that means. And then the peace for the home palace is center and I definitely feel that I’ve been a spiritual person for my whole life and that’s kind of what it’s all about for me ultimately is how can we make use of all these palaces and all this knowledge to give us a greater sense of peace and fulfillment with whatever we’re doing, coming to a state of completion within ourselves to have a sense of completion in the world ultimately.
MBP: Is there anything else that you want to add that we haven’t talked about?
Greg: I don’t know, I have a joke that like a Daoist and a Zen Buddhist got together and said what do you want to talk about the other one said nothing. So it’s like what is there to talk about, is there anything to talk about?
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Greg: Well I came to the realization or to the acceptance of being Daoist and what does that even mean because in some ways it seems like based on the philosophies that are present in Daoism that just to call yourself a Daoist would be a very un-Daoist thing to do. It’s kind of like in the first chapter of the Dao de Jing where they the Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao, the word that can be said is not the eternal word so it’s kind of like by calling yourself a Daoist then you limit yourself from all these other possibilities so it’s like a contradiction it seems like to call yourself a Daoist are you really a Daoist if you’re limiting yourself by that definition but internally I kind of came to the realization that for it’s like I didn’t feel like I had to force that onto myself as a definition but it was just like something that I’ve already felt I was and that this was just kind of the most accurate way that I could describe it and the tradition that kind of I felt the greatest resonance with in terms of understanding and having this vocabulary and this philosophy it just seemed to perfectly match and outline and express how I already felt and give me a greater sense of connection to the world through it. So that would be kind of how I realized I was Daoist, it’s like it wasn’t even a choice, it was just like by definition I was, that’s how I felt.