I first met Greg Tullock a few years back in Asheville, North Carolina. Since meeting, we have been practicing qigong, tai chi, meditation and a wudang sword form together. We also share an interest in beekeeping and Daoism. For this interview, I met Greg at the Botanical Gardens in Asheville, a place where Greg and I have practiced together on and off and shared with him a small bowl of peaches and reishi [ganoderma] mushroom which are both fruits for longevity. Greg describes what it feels like to be supported by the Dao and shares some of his scholarly ways of discovering Daoism, including his favorite books and martial art forms. The highlight of the interview was talking to Greg about fatherhood and Daoism.

Interview with Gregory Tullock
Asheville, North Carolina
August 29th, 2017

Mary Burke-Pitts (MBP): What does Daoism mean to you?

Gregory Tullock (GT): To me, Daoism means simplicity, contentment, balance, and harmony with nature. And I guess by extension of nature, harmony with all that is around you.

MBP: How have you learned about Daoism?

GT: How I first discovered Daoism was in kind of a back door way. I was a philosophy and history major in college. And where I went to college they had a place called the Thomas Merton Study Center. Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk and he spent most of his life in the Abbey of Gethsemani which is in central Kentucky about an hour south of Louisville where I grew up. So when I was in college I got an internship at the study center, helping to transcribe his journals and learning more about him as a theologian and philosopher and writer. But the parts of Merton that I really connected with were not his Catholic theological parts but his interest in other religious traditions. So it was ironically through this Catholic monk that I discovered Buddhism. So then I spent the next two years or so reading everything that I could find on Buddhism, which at that time meant going to the used bookstore and whatever they happened to have is what I would pick up and read. I found that valuable and I related to some extent to the Buddhist philosophy that I was reading. But in reading Buddhism, occasionally I would come across this concept of the Dao, or mentions of Daoists, and I had no idea what that was. But over time I started to realize, every time that the subject of Daoism would be broached kind of in a peripheral way, it always really spoke to me because it always had to do with harmony with nature, and I sensed that it was this more indigenous [Chinese], almost shamanic philosophy or way of being and that every time I encountered those passages they really drew me in. And then I guess it was my junior year in college, for a sociology class I had to write an autobiography, and my professor completely surprised me when he gave my paper back, he said – you’re a natural Daoist, you must read the Dao de Jing. And I had never read the Dao de Jing. But that was a little reaffirmation of my inclination that this is something that I need to check out. And finally I picked up the Dao de Jing and read it and it felt like home. It felt right and I just began reading everything that I could find on Daoism and kind of still am doing that.

MBP And is that monk who you mentioned at first still alive? Was he alive at the time that you did that internship?

GT: No, Thomas Merton died, I believe in 1968.

MBP: Have you heard of those other Catholic monk retreat centers in the US like Mepkin Abbey?

GT: Yeah, I’m familiar with several of them. I like to visit Gethsemani. I’ve never done a retreat there but I would like to at some point because it has just a very quiet, simple, natural feel and I think that I would find that valuable.

MBP: I had gone to the place [Mepkin Abbey] in Charleston and it’s on a beautiful piece of land up against the waters of the coast. But mostly I was surprised because I had never realized that there was a tradition of monks within Catholicism and that was only two years ago that I went.

GT: I think that is a daughter abbey of Gethsemani. I believe they’re both Trappist [monks].

MBP: And are there any Daoist practices that you’ve made a part of your life?

GT: I read a lot of Daoist books, which is not something that is a part of my daily life in the sense that I read every day, but I like to think that’s something that I carry with me everyday in whatever situation I’m in; whether that be working or parenting or mowing the grass. And I practice tai chi and qigong as much as time permits. I feel like there’s not really a division in my life between what is Daoism and what is not. I deliver mail for a living, so walking outside delivering the mail and interacting with old people and children and dogs is part of my Daoism, and keeping bees is part of my Daoism.

MBP: There was a book I gave to you [Aiden’s Way] did you ever read that? Can you talk about Daoism and being a dad?

GT: I haven’t. I’ve delved into it a little bit, enough to know that it’s interesting to me but I still haven’t really gotten into it.

MBP: I confess I’ve never read it, but I heard the interview [with the author] and thought it was interesting too somehow related to your path, or your role as a father, so if you feel like sharing anything about that . . .

GT: Well, first in a general sense, I was thinking recently about how parenting is this great self checking mechanism, because I find that if I’m walking quietly by myself in pristine woods or I’m sitting at my desk sipping tea and reading, or looking out my window calmly, it’s easy to think that I’m totally balanced or calm, and that I’m compassionate and my heart is open. But then when two children are screaming and chasing each other around, and dinner has to be made, and the dog is barking and your children are pushing your buttons and challenging you in ways that only your children can do; it’s a wonderful reminder that you maybe have not advanced as far along as you would like to think. So it’s a great lesson-giver, parenting is. In that you learn things about yourself under fire. And then you have to learn how to implement all those ideas of compassion and balance and harmony into the inherent chaos of family life and parenting. And then specific to my children, especially to my son who has a lot of complex health issues that he was born with, I think Daoism has been really indispensable for me in so far as just allowing me to accept whatever comes in his journey and to not judge it as good or bad, and simply to value it for the unique path that it is for him. And then through him it is a unique path for our whole family.

MBP: And how do you find time in your life for the type of regular practices [tai chi and qigong] that you mentioned between fatherhood and a full time job, how do you find the time to stay interested?

GT: I’m never lacking in motivation and I think that’s because Daoism has never felt like something that I’m bringing in from the outside. I feel like when I discovered Daoism, and started reading about Daoism and attending classes and so forth, it was clarifying things that were already in my nature. So, I feel like even before I even knew what Daoism was, a lot of those core principles were kind of already in my core demeanor, so it’s not something that I have to go outside of myself to try to focus on so much, it’s just . . . I feel like it’s kind of integrated into my life. But finding the time to specifically focus on various aspects or various practices, that is definitely my challenge. So very early in the morning, right when I get up, or late at night right before I go to bed, those are kind of the times that as a parent I can find a little niche to do a little qigong practice and kind of anchor the day, even if it’s just something very simple that takes just 5 to 10 minutes. And then I guess another strategy around that is just that when I can’t find the time to practice specific Daoist exercises then just to make whatever I’m doing a Daoist exercise, such as I mentioned before walking, carrying the mail, just trying to be aware of the nature around me and to be aware of my own breathing and my own walking rhythm and kind of make that a form of meditation.

MBP:   And before you go to bed or when you first wake up in the morning what are some of those actual forms or practices can you mention?

GT: Well, what I do at night before I go to bed, and I don’t do this every night but I would like to get to that point, is Wuji gong, or primordial qigong is another name for it. I like doing that before I go to bed. It has a very centering, grounding, calming energy to it so I just go off to sleep. It’s often referred to as tai chi for enlightenment. It’s not really a form of tai chi but it is taichi-esq in it’s movement. It’s kind of like doing a miniature tai chi form that’s devoid of martial applications and is more about energetics and spiritual centering.

MBP: How about the other things we’ve practiced like . . . Yang sheng [qigong]?

GT: Yeah, when I have the time to really practice what I want to practice, I really love the 5 animal qi gong. I’ve also practiced a lot of other things over the years that I will occasionally practice, but 5 animals and the Yang 37 form of tai chi are the two things that I practice pretty consistently.

MBP: And where did you learn those various forms that you mentioned . . . the primordial, or the animal or the other taichi? Who were your teachers or what types of classes have you picked those up at?

GT: The 5 animals qi gong I learned from Greg Casey. The Wuji gong I learned from Michael Winn, and the taichi form I’ve learned from several teachers. I’ve dabbled in different forms of martial arts and tai chi and qigong for probably twenty years and some of those things, such as the Yang 37 form, I’ve learned from various teachers and my style is kind of a synthesis of different approaches which I kind of like. So my form probably wouldn’t look or feel just like someone else’s form, especially if they had dedicated to studying just from one particular teacher, because I feel like I have gotten different elements from different teachers.  

MBP: Can you tell me about some of the other forms that we’ve been practicing [together], like it be the sword forms or the Yang sheng gong?

GT: The Yang sheng gong (Life Nourishing Exercise) that we learned from Greg Casey and that you and I have practiced together for awhile is a really nice little form from the Wudang tradition. I find it very relaxing yet also energizing at the same time. Another form, actually one of the first forms of qigong that I ever learned, was from Brian Moran here in Asheville, and this was quite a long time ago, but some of those exercises have really stayed with me. He was teaching at least at that time a type of qigong called Yi Quan and the exercises seem so slow and so simple. There’s almost no footwork with them. They’re quite stationary but I found and still find them pretty profound in their simplicity and sometimes, especially if I haven’t been practicing for awhile, I’ll kind of start over from the beginning with those just to allow myself to really feel qi again and start to get things flowing and then I can go on to some of the more dynamic forms.

MBP Was that like the walking Bagua [zhang] in a circle?

GT: No, These are very stationary, simple exercises for the most part that focus primarily on Yi, which is intent or mind or will and so it’s almost as though the body is secondary to what you’re doing and the real impetus for the movement is your intent and that can be a pretty powerful thing. I’ve also studied Bagua zhang and Xing yi quan. And those are really enjoyable in a totally different way. They’re much more dynamic. Xing yi quan is much more explosive. The bagua is just plain fun. It’s just fun to play with and to use the spiraling movements and spin around. So everything just has it’s own feel and there are times in my life when I’m drawn more to one type of movement than another based on who knows what.

MBP: I found that practicing the sword form was particularly challenging just because it was so long and it has a lot of new and challenging moves, but you seem to kind of have a kind of gift or ease with memorizing and learning new forms, and in that case [of the Wudang san feng tai chi sword form] you had mostly from a video recording from that sword form, so where does that gift come from learning a new form?

GT: I think it just comes from learning lots of forms. It’s hard for me to think back to when I first learned my first martial arts form, but I’ve definitely noticed over the years that I can pick up forms faster especially if they’re from the same traditions. I’ve learned over the years probably four different empty hand tai chi forms and I have learned another tai chi sword form before this one and they weren’t particularly similar forms, but the principles are all kind of the same and I think you get clued in on the kind of things to look for . . . things like your footwork and the direction that your hips are facing and so forth. I think you just over time start to find little clues within the form that enable you to remember simple things like which direction you should be facing at what time, which can all be very befuddling and overwhelming initially.

MBP: And for forms that you learned a long time ago, do you tend to remember those easy or do you have to practice alot?

GT: Yeah, unfortunately there only seems to be so much room in my head and so often the old things get supplanted by new things. So 1) I have to very consciously remind myself to practice a form that I haven’t practiced in a long time before it’s gone and 2) I also consciously limit how many new forms I learn, because I know that there’s a very real risk of replacing something else that I’ve learned in the past. And so I actually minimize what else new I try to learn because I feel like in the old forms that I know there’s still so much that I can learn just through practicing them, that I haven’t gotten everything that I can out of any of those forms. I can still get new things out of those forms. But then there are instances like when I saw that Greg Casey was teaching the 5 animals qi gong, I knew I really wanted to learn that and especially when I met Greg I knew that he was someone who I wanted to study with. So I just try and make a conscious decision about that.

MBP: And so you said that you are interested in philosophy and other things that you studied and there are these concepts of wind or change and things that move elusively or unexpectedly. Basically everyone goes through change in their life and they’re on these cycles or themes [the 9 palaces]. So when it does come to big changes in your life, how you tend to handle change and do you have a lot of ease with change or difficulty with transition?

GT: I think I accept change pretty easily because by nature I just tend to accept whatever is occurring. And just to kind of psychoanalyze myself, I wonder if some of that in terms of accepting change has to do with the fact that I have lost several loved ones throughout my youth, like from a fairly early age, and I always kind of wondered if I would be the same way if my life had played out differently or if that’s a lesson I had learned from losing friends. I’ve just always had an awareness of impermanence and that’s not meant to sound dark or morose in any way, it doesn’t feel that way to me at all. I’ve just, as long as I can remember, just kind of always been aware that impermanence is part of the nature of life, and change is just a part of that impermanence. So I think I adapt fairly well to it.

MBP: So with that type of change you mentioned the topic of death or loss, you don’t necessarily struggle much with that topic?

GT: No, like I said, I’ve had some loved ones die and I just perceived it as being a natural part of the process.

MBP: So in terms of your son’s health, because I don’t know if it’s considered a congenital illness, but how do you face some of those particular challenges around his lifespan or his health and wellness . . . as a father with that type of close connection, how does that show up for you?

GT: So from the moment that his cardiological condition was diagnosed, which was in utero, I’ve refused to define it as good or bad. I think a lot of people automatically label that as this horrible thing to find out about your soon to be newborn child . . . and I would agree that it is an incredibly hard thing, but I don’t know that hard and difficult equate with bad or negative, so I’ve always just accepted it as his path from the beginning. I think it’s already hard enough having a child with special needs or complex medical issues without piling on questions about why is this happening or feeling somehow singled out or persecuted by it like, “oh this horrible thing has befallen our family.” There’s enough to do and enough to worry about without adding any layers onto it. And I’ve always liked the Daoist concept of being supported by the Dao. And so that’s something that’s been big for me throughout his journey and my journey with my son, is that I don’t have to feel like this is all on me or all on my family. That we are key participants in this but there’s something underneath us that’s really holding it all up and acting through us. I don’t know if that makes sense but it alleviates pressure from me of feeling like I have to save him, I have to do all of these things for this . . . I was going to say fragile person, but he really doesn’t come across as a fragile person because he has such a strong spirit and he’s actually really robust in his way. But I just like the concept of allowing things to happen through you versus feeling like you are required to actively be  . . .

MBP:  . . . like intermediating in someone’s life or something?

GT: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to explain isn’t it? I will do whatever needs to be done because, as with anyone, you love your child or whatever loved one that needs your assistance, but I find it much easier to do when I feel like I’m supported by Dao or the absolute or the universe or God or whatever term you choose to use and that force is acting through me, rather than me being the originator of that.

MBP: And so how has it been to navigate the medical care and the medical system that provides the type of special needs and cardiac care that your son needs?

GT: I feel like we’ve been really blessed with his whole team of health professionals and I’m just constantly reminded as we deal with doctors and nurses and specialists that these are all human beings as well and that if you’re open to discussions with them, they’re open to discussions with you. So I feel like we have a very open relationship with most or all of his health care providers and we get into very interesting conversations with them and when we come into the room, they know we’re going to have some off the wall questions and I think they kind of like the challenge of it and the novelty of it because we’re not afraid to just throw out all sorts of theories and ideas that may not come from Western medicine. And sometimes it really befuddles them, and sometimes I think they really value that because we try to have a very holistic approach to his health and it can be really difficult in this country. You get into the hospital system and everything’s approached in this very objective, scientific western manner and it has done wonders for him, so I don’t begrudge that at all, but that’s only half of the picture, so we definitely try to bring to the table other aspects that may have been overlooked and for that reason we take him to an acupuncturist as well so that issues aren’t  falling through the cracks. Because it’s easy for the western world to just look at his kind of glaring anatomical issues or surgical issues and not see him as an overall being, see his energy and so forth.

MBP: And I remember that you said he has a very fiery spirit, and this element relates to the heart. I remember some interesting stories that you said about his nature if you want to share?

GT: Well fiery pretty much sums it up. And it is very interesting that that corresponds to the heart because he definitely is very fiery. And the positive aspect of that is that when he has challenges, which he frequently does with surgeries or hospitalizations, in a sense it doesn’t phase him, like he is just so determined that he’s just going to burn his way through whatever is in front of him, and he does it in a really impressive manner. And it’s not in an angry manner, it’s determined, yet also playful. He’s going to go through it because he wants to do what he wants to do. So he has to go through whatever experience so that he can start playing cars again or do whatever game he wants to do so he’s just going to do it. The flip side of that is when he doesn’t have an obstacle in front of him that needs to be overcome, he will find one. So that may mean his mom, or his dad, or his sister, or his teacher. So it seems to be so ingrained in him to just overcome whatever he doesn’t want to deal with and just get through to the other side that that’s kind of his approach to school, or other aspects of life where it would be nice to balance that, tone it down some so that he can slow down and get what he needs to get out of other parts of life without just always erupting, because he can be like a volcano that can seem very calm and sweet and dormant and then just in an instant the volcano is spewing out hot lava.

MBP: And so are you aware of the other elements or do you have a sense of what your personality is as far as the five elements go?   

GT: Hmm, that’s a really good question. I wonder if my temperament is more water? If nothing else then based on the fact that when I perform the 5 animals the turtle, which is the water animal, is always the one that resonates with me. It’s always what I am drawn to do first.

MBP: How do you think those elements match up if your son’s the fire and you’re the water do you think you compliment one another?

GT: Hopefully that’s the case in any relationship, right? Hopefully you compliment one another and even if you have opposite attributes that you help find a balance and that you can kind of revolve around each other like the yin and the yang, rather than meeting each other head on with force. So I hope that we compliment each other in that way and I think there are definitely times that we do. But then there are other times that I probably yield to his fire and I probably find the fire attributes within myself and those would be some of the less positive times that occur in the parent child relationship.

MBP: Anything else that you wanted to mention?

GT: I was going to mention some Daoist books that I particularly like or ones that have been important to me. So when I first finally picked up the Dao de Jing, I think it was the Witter Bynner version , that’s the translator. I don’t know if it’s really more accurate or enlightening than other editions, or if  it’s just the one that I picked up first so it’s the one that I kind of go back to even though I’ve read probably a dozen translations of it now. But that one and then the other one that I really like is a translation by Herrymon Maurer who was a Quaker, and his is called Tao: The Way of the Ways. That’s probably my favorite translation of the Dao de Jing. And then the Zhuangzi, I like Burton Watson’s translation of Zhuangzi. And then there’s also what I think is a very nice . . . but simple  . . . but meaningful translation by Thomas Merton which is kind of funny because when I first got into Merton and started learning about Buddhism through him, I didn’t even know that Thomas Merton had even written a book on Daoism. He had written his own translation of Zhuangzi, but I discovered that later and I actually really like that. And then two more books that I would mention, there’s a really “fun” is not the right term . . . but it’s not like a dense philosophical read  . . . it’s kind of a lighter, but enlightening read. It’s called the Road to Heaven, Bill Porter is the author. Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, and it’s about him and his photographer friend traveling throughout the Zhongnan Mountains in China and tracking down all these hermits, and everyone tells them that they don’t exist anymore but they end up finding all sorts of Daoist and Buddhist hermits in the mountains and then interviewing them. And I love the simplicity of many of the hermits. They don’t have elaborate and grandiose rituals and intricate practices. It’s just like being for the most part, just very simple being in a cave or in a very simple temple in the mountains and that kind of speaks to me. And then the last book is one of the books that’s been probably the most meaningful to me in my life. It’s by Toshihiko Izutsu. He’s a Japanese scholar and he wrote a book called Sufism and Daoism in which he compares the two philosophically, Sufi Islam and Daoism. And I found that very enlightening and meaningful. I had to read it two or three times to kind of, you know, suck all the marrow out of it and I’ll probably end up reading it more. But that’s been really meaningful to me. So those are some of my “go to” Daoism books.

MBP: And have you found a good community to practice Daoism now that you’re here in Asheville, you’ve been here for awhile so have you found a good community to continue that interest of yours?

GT: I guess primarily through tai chi classes and Daoist martial arts classes is kind of the most direct way to meet other people who have an interest in Daoism. And then there’s a large disparity there. There are some tai chi classes where they never even mention Daoism. It’s just taught as this relaxing exercise without referring to any of the Daoist history or the Daoist principles and then there are other places where it’s, you know, Daoist principles are at the very core of it. And then sometimes you just have random encounters with people and things come out and you realize that you have some similar interest. But I’m also fairly solitary so, it’s not like I’m going out of my way to look for groups to sit and discuss some of these things. I kind of just approach it maybe in more of a personal manner than a communal manner.

MBP: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed bouncing ideas off of you, with new meditations or other things, like one winter when we couldn’t practice outdoors . . .

GT: The inner landscape? Yeah, I liked that. Yeah, I feel like we just scratched the surface of it, but I really liked the concept of it.

MBP: Yeah, maybe we’ll have to share some of the more scholarly, nerdy or academic stuff. Just because, I think having studied Chinese medicine, I got really into depth about those types of theory and philosophy and then gradually less interested in the academia and now more interested in the martial arts and qigong and tai chi, just because it’s almost like applied theory or applied knowledge and I really like those practices, so it’s been fun to bounce ideas and share things with you and then maybe one day maybe we can talk about the Dao de Jing or Zhuangzi.

GT: We could nerd out.

MBP: Yeah, totally. Yeah, Zhuangzi has showed up in at least two or three of the [other] interviews so far and the Dao de Jing in almost everyone, so . . .

GT: The Leizi would be the third of that kind of trilogy of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi.

MBP: Have you read that one too?

GT: Yeah, but Zhuangzi always is my favorite read of the three because he has a very kind of like casual storytelling approach to his lessons and then he uses humor too.  

MBP: And then what’s the shirt that you have on? It says 1979 to 2009 with some Chinese characters?

GT: So for probably five consecutive summers, I met with a teacher named Frank Allen who would come down from New York. He would come down to Boone in the summers to teach, and he had this school called Wu Tang Physical Culture Association and he started teaching in 1979. He’s in his I guess late sixties now, so I guess this was the thirtieth anniversary shirt, but I’ve studied Bagua zhang and Xing yi quan with him.

MBP: Cool, well I guess we’ll get some pictures now unless there’s anything else you want to share?

GT: I think I talked myself out.

MBP: Alright! Thanks for sharing.